A bit of luck in Lucknow

Trip Start May 01, 2010
1
15
23
Trip End Jul 15, 2010


Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines
shadow
Where I stayed
Gompti Hotel

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Posted by Genevieve

First impressions can be deceiving. Our first impression of Lucknow was of a noisy, smelly, irritating city.  Despite rolling into the station at 6 am, the horns were blaring and the touts were in fine form.  Upon discovering that the hotel we planned to sleep at had raised its prices by 200% since our guide book was published earlier this year, we began the tiring task of finding somewhere new to stay.  Within seconds a tout had attached himself to us, promising to take us to a hotel a few blocks away with double AC rooms for RS700 (approximately $17).  At the described establishment, we experienced the first of a number of irritating events that were to take place over the next few days. 

Irritation #1:
Genevieve (to hotel clerk): We would like a double AC room, please
Hotel clerk: Sorry, we don't accept foreigners
Genevieve: Sorry?
Hotel clerk: No foreigners allowed

What?!  In retrospect we realize that this is likely something to do with licensing and having the means to take all the information that is required of a foreign guest, such as passport photocopies, visa information, and travel details, but at 6 am, with our packs on our backs, and after a night on a sleeper train, we didn’t take it in the most positive light available. 

The man that took us there then promised to take us to another place.  We refused to accept his offer of help, but he followed us anyway.  After checking out another dire hotel in the area, we decided to get an autorickshaw into a different neighbourhood to look at another place listed in our guidebook.  Our new friend tried to get into the (definitely single person) driver’s seat with our driver to "take" us there!  After shouting vehemently that we didn’t need and certainly didn’t want him with us, the driver pressed a coin into his hand and forced him out.  Although this sort of thing has happened all over India, it is somehow much more frustrating early in the morning when the smell of the train is still in our hair. 

Once we got to the next hotel, took note of the beer garden, and settled into our comfortable air-cooled room, our opinion of Lucknow began to look up.  For one thing, the streets are wide.  People still drive like maniacs on them, but it doesn’t seem nearly as bad when there is twice the space in which to cut people off.   We hadn’t eaten since some time the previous afternoon, so our first order of business was to get some food in our bellies. Finding the local café closed (despite assurances from people on the way that it opens early for breakfast every day) we decided to try out the street food stall with the crowd of 15 or so hungry customers crowding around it.  We were the hit show of the morning.  We got our fried Indian bread, chickpea curry, spicy potato curry, and chilies, and found ourselves a place to squat and dig in.  I am pretty sure we were the first white people to eat there, and there is a good chance that I am the only woman to ever eat there.  We became regulars though – for 25 cents and the best food in town, you can’t go wrong!  On day one we had a silent but obviously curious audience standing around us during our meal.  On day two a brave man approached us and handed me a raw green chili to go with my meal.  I am not sure what he was expecting me to do, but when I took a bite, the crowd around us tripled.  A couple guys talked to us and asked us questions, but many just stood right in front of us, grinning, staring at us while we ate.  If the food wasn’t so good, it might have been off-putting. 

Later on our first day in the city, we headed off to one of Lucknow’s biggest sights – the Residency.  Situated on more than 30 acres of land once belonging to a Muslim Nawab, the Residency was home to the area’s British governing officers and their families until the mid-19th century.  In 1857 it was the site of a great uprising, described in Indian history as a freedom struggle, one of the most important events in the First War of Independence.  The buildings have been preserved in their ruined state since and include a small museum, all of which made for an interesting day.  As we sauntered towards the edge of the grounds to head back to the reality of the Indian streets outside this peaceful garden landscape, satisfied with our dose of history and sightseeing, we encountered our second irritating incident of the day.

Irritation #2:
Security guard: Tickets please
Genevieve and Kian: ?  But we are leaving?
Security guard: Tickets!
Genevieve: But I want to keep them for my scrapbook…
Security guard: Tickets!!
Genevieve: (Thinking, perhaps he doesn’t understand…) Souvenir?  Please?
Security guard (Grabs the tickets rather viciously and storms away shaking his head)

I seriously considered buying another ticket just to prove a point.  I mean, honestly.  What harm would it be to keep my ticket?  He could have written void on it or something.  It is just the principle of it that irks me. 

A nap in the afternoon prepared us for an event that was to lead to the third irritating event of the day: a drink in the beer garden.

Now, we have learned our lesson (I hope) that we should never, never, never get our hopes up.  When it comes to beer, we will always be disappointed in this country.  There is just no point in raising our expectations.  However, we had seen the bar menu earlier in the day and noticed, to our extreme joy, that they listed a number of beers made by company called Little Devil.  In addition to the usual (almost guaranteed to be watery) lager, the brand also boasted a wheat beer, an Indian pale ale, a golden ale, and a strong beer.  We were jumping at the thought of ale, of any kind. 

When we got to the bar, we pointed to the word ale on the menu.

“Oh no, not available,” our waiter told us.  I think I nearly cried.  “Are any of the Little Devil beers available?”  “No, not available.”

We talked amongst ourselves for a moment, debating what to do.  They had other imported beers, but I was pretty sure they were all similar.  However, I wasn’t completely certain.  Not being able to picture some of the brands, I told Kian that I was going to ask to have a look at the beers to see if any of them looked any better than the usual Kingfisher. 

Irritation #3:
Genevieve (standing up) to waiter: Can I look at the beer selection?
Waiter (approximately 4’11”, looks up in terror at G): No
Genevieve (perplexed, especially as the bar is only a few metres away and the alcohol is by no means hidden): But… I just want to look?  To see which one I like? 
Waiter, looking panicked, urges me to sit down while he calls the bar manager.  I stay standing. 
Bar Manager: Yes? 
Genevieve: (Indicating the bar) I just want to look at the beer options…
Bar Manager: No madam.  Not possible. 
Genevieve: But…
Bar Manager: No madam.  Please sit down. 

We ordered a Kingfisher and some peanuts.  After discussing the matter we decided that a number of things happened when I stood up that led to their such obvious distress.
  1. I am a woman in a hotel bar.  That is extremely unusual.
  2. The waiter was tiny, and I literally towered over him.  And I think I looked pretty upset to be told the ale was unavailable.  I guess you don’t want to mess with me when my beer is unavailable. 
  3. Rules are rules.  For whatever reason, people do not get to see the beer.  It doesn’t make sense, it just is.  And I should not try to change that.  I have been told. 
Despite all that, Lucknow was growing on us.  We had a relaxing evening with some good food and mediocre beer, and all was well. 

Day two was the day of Naved.  Our first impression of Naved was not good, either.  We first met him when we were in the government-run travel agency booking our train ticket to Agra.  He was sitting on the customer side of the bench, but it was obvious he was somehow affiliated with the place.  There were four people working behind the counter.  Between the four people trying to listen to us, all of them trying to help us at once, and Naved giving us contradictory advice about where we should go and what we should do, it is a miracle we ever managed to get a ticket booked at all.  In the midst of all the confusion he told us about the walking tour that he guides and asked if we wanted to do it the next morning.  He wrote down a phone number to call if we decided to try it out.

After leaving the hectic office, we noticed posters for the Heritage Walking Tour posted around town, and despite my trepidation about spending three hours with the boisterous Naved, I decided I would go on the tour.  The next morning at 6:45am I left Kian sleeping and hopped on the back of Naved’s scooter (his car was in the shop) and headed out to see the religious and historical sites of this mostly Muslim city. 

We started at a mosque, and quickly moved on to the Bara Imambarra, a famous complex devoted to the Mourning of Muharram, an important part of the Shia faith.  The complex is made up of a number of beautiful buildings and mosques.  Naved filled me with information about the place, then left me to look around inside while he had a cigarette break.  When I emerged from the building, the sky was black.  He suggested we move on to the next site before the rains came. 

We didn’t make it very far.  Within minutes we hear the first peel of thunder, and quickly took shelter, along with about 35 other people on foot, bicycle, or scooter, under a large archway leading to the old part of the town.  The wind was so strong that everyone had to cover their eyes and mouths with whatever scarves they had available.  My clothes were whipping at me and I was grateful for my Indian shawl.  Then the rain came.  This was not the refreshing pre-monsoon shower of the south: this was a violent, fast-moving, black storm.  Almost instantaneously the road was transformed into a river and despite our shelter we were drenched.  However, as quickly as it came, it passed, and we were soon able to get back on the scooter and go on our way without getting too wet.  In just as much time again, the rain had stopped completely. 

As I was the only one on the tour, and as the old town roads were too small to accommodate cars but big enough for scooters, our “walking tour” ended up being mostly on wheels, which was fine.  We saw another smaller imambarra, more mosques, many 500-year-old houses, an ancient Irani hospital that dispenses medicine for just 1 rupee, flower markets, and chikkan factories, the local type of hand-stitched cloth.  We stopped at a small chai shop about halfway through.  The owner, a young man, was crouching on the ground next to a pan of fresh milk, skimming the cream from the top.  When he had made our tea, he added a generous dollop of cream to each cup.  Naved later bought me a bracelet of fresh jasmine and roses, which proved very handy when we were walking on smaller streets next to open sewers (I have taken to the habit of spraying my handkerchief with perfume to hold to my face whenever necessary).  We ended the tour at a Muslim restaurant serving a tender meat cooked overnight in a rich gravy served with a flaky bread that reminded me of pastry. 

At the end of the tour, Naved told me that the Heritage tour was a fairly new concept, and asked if I would mind giving some feedback to the Minister of Tourism and Culture over the phone.  I agreed and was handed a mobile.  The conversation, after a few questions about who I was and what I thought of the tour, ended with the Minister begging me to take his mobile number from Naved and assuring me that I could call him any time, if I needed anything at all.  He was very friendly. 

Naved ended the tour with an offer to take Kian and I around the old bazaar neighbourhood in the evening when it is its most lively, and to take us to an ancient and very good kebab restaurant for dinner.  After I told Kian about my morning and said that my initial opinion of him had changed, we decided to take Naved up on his offer.

And what an evening it was.  His car was still in the shop, so we balanced all three of us on a cycle rickshaw and headed out.  As soon as we got to our destination, he asked if we would like to stop for a beer or whiskey.  (I should clarify: he asked Kian if he would like to have a drink.  I had to be quite vocal to make it known that I was also interested).  What followed was rather mysterious at the time.  First, he left us standing on the side of the road and ran off somewhere.  Then he came back, had us follow him, then deposited us on chairs outside a tailor shop with the tailors sitting on the ground staring at us.  About ten minutes passed before he finally came back, a bag in his hands, and once again beckoned us to follow him.  He took us to a bar where he assured us we could drink safely, and we did just that – but with alcohol that he brought for us.  We are still not sure why that was the case, but we accepted it. 

Once again, I was the only woman in the bar, and we were the only foreigners.  The stares were merely curious, though, and Naved was entertaining as he told us about the historical town, about his family, and about his job in the tourism industry.  Naved, age 50, is the son of a Zamindar, a sort of Mughal feudal landlord.  The Zamindari system was outlawed after independence and many families lost their lands, but some managed to retain part of all of it, along with much of their wealth.  He told us about going to University, something that he did more because it was what people of his status did than because he thought he would use it to start a career, and his subsequent venture into tourism. 

After two beers we were ready to tackle the bustling streets of the old bazaar.  But before we got very far, we stopped for another treat: paan.  Paan consists of a leaf rolled around a number of possible ingredients, always including betelnut, and sometimes including tobacco.  Ours did not have the latter, but was filled with coconut and breath-freshening herbs.  We stuffed them in our mouths and chewed.  And spat.  And chewed.  And spat.  It was not very ladylike at all.  In fact, it was pretty disgusting.  It left my mouth with a fresh feeling, but otherwise I found it rather uncomfortable – I think my mouth was too small for it!  Another experience in the books…

Heading down the main bazaar, we popped into a chikkan shop to pay our respects to a friend of Naved.  In chikkan shops, as in the silk shop we went to in Varanasi, we took off our shoes and sat cross-legged in a circle on the cushioned floor.  A few minutes after we arrived, another man came in.  Naved was eager to introduce him to us, as he was a former MLA, and therefore a VIP.  (Naved was all about his VIPs).  We were offered cold drinks and treated like royalty.  But then Naved won a real coup, because actual Royalty came into the shop: Nawab Bukkal, a middle-aged man with thick glasses, entered the shop with a young man, possibly a servant.  We all had a nice chat and the Nawab was kind enough to let me take a picture of him.  

At some point during our visit to the shop, it was suggested that we should call the Minister again to tell him that we like the tour so much that we decided to do an evening version, and it was wonderful.  After some persuasion, I agreed, and was put on the phone to the Minister.  Our conversation was as follows:

Minister: (barely audible over the loud thumping of Daft Punk in the background) Hello?
Genevieve: (not sure how to introduce myself) Hello, this is Genni…
M: Ah yes, hello Genni, how are you this evening?
G: Very well… (goes on to tell him about the tour, how wonderful it all is, how wonderful Lucknow is, etc. etc.)
M: That’s wonderful… listen, what hotel are you staying at?
G: Gomti Hotel
M: Gomti, great. Would you like to come to a party?  There is a great party happening, I can send a private car to the hotel for you and your husband…
G: (Really unsure how to respond and trying desperately not to laugh at the situation): Um, well, I think we are just heading out for dinner, actually…
M: Oh very good, well, you have my number so please call me after your dinner and we can arrange a car wherever you are.  You will be my honoured VIP guests. I hope to hear from you later!

When it was time for us to leave the shop, Naved told us that we could not leave before the Nawab.  At this, the Nawab stood up and insisted that he would not be insulted if we left.  We shook hands all around and made our way out. 

Our tour of the busy bazaar took us to a simple and very old kebab shop.  Kebabs in Lucknow are made of small portions of minced meat, usually mutton, very rich, fried, and served with raw onions and the pastry-bread that I had tried at breakfast.  The food was being cooked on open flames at the front of the restaurant, and we sat inside and watched the preparation process.  Before eating, however, I wanted to use the facilities.  This proved to be a problem, as there was nowhere appropriate for women to go.  After making some inquiries, Naved and another man led me down the alley, up a long flight of stairs in what appeared to be someone’s home, to a private bathroom on the top floor.  It was clean and quite nice, if in a slightly strange location.  Like many top floors in India, this one did not have a roof, and when I stood up, I could look over the tops of the walls to see the moonlit rooftops of the ancient adobe town.  Not a bad view at all! 

The food was delicious and we ate until we couldn’t find any more space in our bellies.  Some more walking and window shopping, a taxi ride back to the hotel, and a long and thankful goodbye to our host, and our eventful evening came to a close.  Our lasting impression of Lucknow was definitely a good one: enthusiastic hospitality, delicious food, and a brush with Royalty – you can’t go wrong with that! 
Slideshow Report as Spam

Comments

Sandi on

Wow!! What an experience trying to get a room AND a beer. Keep writing as it is all so interesting.
Love Sandi

Kristi on

Wow, sounds like quite the town and quite the experience! :) Your beer stories make me laugh....I guess it would pay to be a non-drinker in India!

Jan Atkins on

I absolutely love all your stories! You both paint a fantastic picture with words and make me laugh along the way :) Keep the stories coming, sounds like you're both having the adventure of a lifetime! :)

Rob on

I guess I have to add my Wow! to the other wows! Keep it going you guys. We are loving it vicariously. I will drink some extra beers for you.

Angie Percival on

Ok, you sure can describe things very good, well...I am sure something good come out of this place and that you will bump into some kind of beer! I can't believe that there really is one place on this earth where there is no "beer".
Have a great day.

Angie Percival on

I see you managed to get beer, but it sure was in a weird way.

Kathy aka mytimetotravel on

Great post! Sounds like the Gomti hotel didn't have AC - is that right? I plan to be in Lucknow in November - do you have contact info for Naved?

malariamonday
malariamonday on

Hello! Hotel Gompti had rooms with AC available. However, even though we were there in the hottest time of year, we found the rooms with "Air Coolers" to be more than sufficient - in fact, sometimes they were actually better than the AC options. Air Coolers are essentially fans that blow air through a water vent, which cools the air as it blows into the room. Cheap and good choice if you have the option.

Details for Naved: His name is Naved Zia, and you can find out more information about him and his tours through the State Tourism Office that is connected to Hotel Gompti. If you see him, say hello from us!

Good luck! It is a beautiful city, enjoy it!

Add Comment

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: