Lucknow to Varanasi?
After reluctantly leaving Varanasi, we would have liked to have stayed another night or so in this special and spiritual place, two nights just wasn’t enough but we needed to be in New Delhi in a few days time to meet our driver to start our tour of Rajasthan.
We had already booked our train tickets for Lucknow when we were in Delhi, at that time we thought it would be nice to break the journey up with an overnight stopover in this city. In retrospect, we would have stayed another night in Varanasi and caught a sleeper back to New Dehli, but with train tickets like gold dust we decided to carry on with our journey as planned.
Looking at Lucknow
Lucknow was the home of the Nawabs, until British occupation, and the area has a strong history of showing hospitality to visitors. As this place is a bit off the main tourist trails, there are only a few touts and there is nothing like the numbers you’ll discover in more popular visitor destinations around India. We received a warm welcome from the locals, many of whom didn’t speak much English, but were eager to help and engage in polite conversation, without a rupee being requested.
The reason Lucknow is not a place many people visit on a tour of India is that there isn’t that much to see and do, which is quite refreshing when you are moving around India. You won’t feel guilty about not visiting another must see mosque or temple. This makes it an interesting place to wander around and just relax.
The area has a large Muslim population so for those who eat meat there are some interesting local dishes to indulge in, including the mutton kebabs, which are cheap and delicious. There are still things to do here for those with the energy, but we were a little overwhelmed after our time in Varanasi, and were happy just to reflect on our experiences, take in a few sights and plan the next part of our journey around India in Rajasthan.
Trains in India
After departing our day train from Varanasi, which was extremely crowded as there were a number of police on the train, who joined our carriage a few hours before we reached Lucknow. They didn’t have tickets and had decided to join the rest of our carriage who were watching intently as we played back gammon on the Ipad. The police then decided to re-assign most of these people who we had been enjoying the journey with, to different areas within the carriage. John has a bit of a downer on the Indian police after he was lied to by a police officer at New Dehli railway station and started to protest about the amount of space available on the train. A young police officer who didn’t realise John was antagonising him started to respond before being reprimanded by a more senior officer. This led to a rather chilly and cramped atmosphere for the remainder of our journey.
We have been surprised at how many tourists and travellers have not yet got to grips with the Indian rail system and the various options for booking tickets. We have helped countless travellers who have not been aware of the options available to them and have been informed by some unscrupulous travel companies that there are no trains available. However, we’ll be writing about the many scams that await unwitting tourists to India in a later blog.
Where are all the Auto Rickshaws?
We arrived at our hotel which was another “Pure Veg” residence; the accommodation was nice and we had great room service all for a budget price. After a good night’s sleep and some travel planning, we decided to take a quick tour of Lucknow. After checking with the hotel travel desk, there wasn’t such a ‘tour’. We consulted a few Iphone apps, travel Wikipedia and spoke with staff at the hotel and it seemed fairly cheap and straightforward to hire a taxi for the day to see what we needed.
The cost was under 600 rupees for both of us, and for ease we decided to go ahead. The only problem was the hotel couldn’t find a driver, this is pretty much unheard of in India, usually there are a swathe of taxis willing to undertake any job. We resorted to option two which was to do the tour ourselves via auto rickshaw, it would take longer but the advantage being you get to see a bit more of what is happening on the streets.
The hotel concierge (security) tried and failed to get us a rickshaw, so we asked to be pointed in the most likely direction of picking one up of the street, after searching for about 20 mins we realised this wasn’t going to happen. We decided to opt for the auto-rickshaw public buses. This was a very interesting experience and cost around 10 rupees per person, although they did ask for 40 each initially until we protested and the local school children intervened saying this was too much, they relented in good humour.
The back of the rickshaw was packed and we were issued into the front with the driver and his two helpers, basically this involved John having his legs manually parted so that one was underneath the driver and the other to the left of the gear stick, meaning all changes in gear took place between his legs. I on the other hand had two guys that take the money sat on my lap. For the novelty of having two tourists on board the “bus” it went crazy with the latest tunes being ramped up on the stereo and driving at full throttle to impress us. It was a 20 minute journey full of laughs with regular stops towards our first destination of the day. A thrilling and enjoyable ride!
Sightseeing in Lucknow
Baba Imambara – This majestic collection of buildings was created in 1784 by Nawab Asaf ud Daula as a famine relief project to employ the locals who had seen hard times due to poor harvests and drought over the preceding years. The complex consists of a number of buildings, all with labyrinth corridors and stairs where it is very easy to get lost, especially if, like us, you forget your torch.
The Asfi Mosque sits next to the labyrinthine buildings ans is an impressive piece of religious architecture.
Before you arrive you will no doubt have passed under the Roomi Gate to enter Baba Imambarra along which you will return to see the other main sights of the Clock Tower. This is a 221ft structure built in 1887 to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, the Raj Governor of the United Province of Avadh, as it was known at the time.
We were walking past the gallery by the clock tower when the local kids who were playing cricket ran towards us asking for us to take our picture, again no money requested. Just as well, as our policy of not giving money to children would have met with sad eyes. Instead the kids were just happy to see themselves in digital form.
La Martiniere is a fine piece of lavish architecture featuring classical Italian style with a soupçon of Hindu and Muslim styles to help it find its place in the city. It was built by one of the richest Europeans in Lucknow, Major General Claude Martin in 1793. He was entombed here in 1800 and his will sated that the building should be turned over to educational use, a function it still serves today.
We completed our mini sightseeing tour with a quick visit to the Chhota Imambarra, a mosque built in the mid 1800’s where the interior is adorned with hundreds of ornate chandeliers, gilt mirrors and colourful stucco.
Where and What to Eat in Lucknow?
After being vegetarian for almost five weeks, we decided to partake in some meat eating activity. Some of the best places to eat out in Lucknow are located around the Chowk from Akbar Gate to Gol Darwaza, where you can indulge in local ‘Nahari’ dishes. Other popular dishes on the menu here include kebabs, kormas, kaliya, nahari-kulchas, zarda, roomali rotis and warqi parathas. If you have a sweety tooth try the Prakash Kulfi – its delicious.
The art of slow cooking over a fire is renowned in Lucknow, as is the ability to blend exotic spices in cookery. If you want a change you can find a McDonalds and Pizza Hut in the city – we so didn’t!
Our first taste of meat in weeks was in the form of a very spicy kebab and it didn’t disappoint, although we don’t have any plans to change from a sensible vegetarian diet in the near future. I think the choice of vegetarian food in India is so complex and varied that we are just enjoying eating these delectable dishes and the fact they are meat free is not an issue for us.
Culture, Dance and Crafts
Lucknow is noted for its tourism festival, Lucknow Mahotsav, which takes place annually around November to December and showcases the culture and heritage of this city, notably Kathak Dance.
Like any India city there are plenty of markets in the form of a ‘chowk’ (a marketplace usually around the main square or centre of the city) selling food, clothes, jewellery and other handicrafts. The intricate embroidery on stunning fabrics and enamel work on boxes was particularly impressive here.
Is Lucknow Worth a stopover?
For us it was a great place to stretch our legs and explore yet another diverse and impressive Indian city, away from tourists and mayhem of other places we’ve experienced on this trip. If you don’t have time on your India travel itinerary, then don’t worry you haven’t missed much. However, if you have time then this place is worth including on your tour as it does show another dimension to the depth of Indian culture and breaks up the journey from Varanasi to New Dehli. Also they’re not joking about people’s manners here, a very hospitable place.