Monthly Archives: February 2017

THE ANCIENT PROFESSIONS OF OLD DELHI

Modernity is seeping into Old Delhi, a walled district that has long harboured the Indian capital’s traditional ways of life. But what does this mean for long-standing Delhi-wallahs and their archaic practices? Jack Palfrey reports on a city in flux.

The traffic splutters and snarls but remains stationary. The once resplendent Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s famed Moonlight Bazaar, is clogged like one of its litter-filled drains.

I’m sitting in a bicycle rickshaw; a fan seller tugs at my arm (“very much hot today sir”), while a sadhu (holy man), in the distinctive sunset-saffron robe, stretches a hopeful hand towards me. My driver, oblivious, rambles about his cousin, who spent a year studying somewhere in England and disapproved of the bland British cuisine.

This is the Old Delhi of today. The former opulent walled capital of the grand Mughal Empire that has deteriorated into a snubbed suburb of British-built New Delhi.

Hectic and humbling, it’s a microcosm of forgotten India; a rambunctious refuge safeguarding the capital city’s oldest, and most fascinating, ways of life.

Now, after centuries of neglect, change is stirring in the Old Delhi neighbourhood.

A million-dollar project to increase accessibility to the area via three new metro stations – slated for completion in June 2017 – is raising the district’s profile, leading to growing investment in infrastructure and new business ventures.

But what does modernisation mean for long-standing Delhi-wallahs and their alluring ancient traditions? Here, three men plying some of the city’s oldest trades share their stories.

AUSTRALIA RED CENTRE

One of the world’s great railway journeys, the Ghan runs from Darwin in the far north of Australia to Adelaide in the south, a distance of 2979km – further than London to Moscow. Following the route of pioneering nineteenth-century “Afghan” cameleers, Shafik Meghji hopped on board to take in some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes.

There is a distinct pleasure to reading about great tales of exploration while you travel through the same harsh landscape in the comfort of a luxurious railway cabin. Sat on a well-stuffed seat, feet up on an ottoman, and with an icy G&T in hand, I put down my book on the pioneering cameleers who opened-up the Outback and gazed out of the window at a great expanse of ochre-red desert. It felt a bit like taking the Orient Express across Mars.

The Ghan is one of the world’s great railway journeys, but it was only made possible by an intrepid band of camel-wranglers in the nineteenth century. The first cameleers arrived in Australia with their beasts of burden in the 1860s to support the epic Burke and Wills overland expedition from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpenteria in the north. They quickly became known as “Ghans” – short for Afghans – though they actually came from across what is now India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, as well as Afghanistan.

For the next 150 years, camels were the main form of transport in the Outback, with horses and mules ill-suited for the harsh, arid environment. They enabled telegraph and railway lines – including the forerunner of the Ghan – to be laid across the parched “red centre”.

Ironically, trains brought the great age of the “Afghan” cameleer to an end. The redundant camels were set loose in the Outback, where they rapidly multiplied. At one stage there were around a million wild camels in Australia, though numbers have since been reduced by two thirds.

Originally known as the Afghan Express, the train’s maiden journey was on 4 August 1929, when it carried 100 passengers on the two-day journey from Adelaide to the remote town of Stuart (which was later renamed Alice Springs). In those early days it had to contend with searing heat, flash floods, bushfires and ferocious termites who devoured the narrow-gauge track.

A new standard-gauge line – complete with termite-proof concrete sleepers – was constructed in 1980, just to the west of the original route. But it was not until 2004 that the railway finally reached Darwin.

Most interesting ethnic mixes

Despite having turquoise-ringed tropical islands, misty rainforests, cosmopolitan and arty cities, colourful festivals and one of the world’s most interesting ethnic mixes, Malaysia remains Southeast Asia’s most unsung destination.

In 2017, the country turns 60 years old. With a new hi-speed train system, comfortable buses and low-cost air connections to most of Asia and beyond, backpacking in Malaysia today is quicker and easier than ever. Here are our top tips to help you make a trip.

 

1. Don’t rush

Most travellers visit Malaysia too quickly, making a beeline between Penang, the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and exiting to Singapore. But it’s by getting out of the well-worn trail that you’ll experience the best Malaysia has to offer.

Consider going to the east coast for island-hopping, stopping in Kota Bharu to experience a blend of Thai Buddhist and Malay Islamic culture. Or stop at Taman Negara, the world’s oldest rainforest, visiting the quaint little towns that surround it. Cheap flights can get you over the South China Sea to Sarawak and Sabah, in Borneo, where you may see orangutans, meet former headhunting tribes, and experience a side of Malaysia that feels like another country.

 

2. Ever considered hitchhiking?

Back in the 1970s, travellers on the Hippie Trail considered Malaysia the easiest country to hitchhike in Southeast Asia. Today, this adventurous way of travelling is less common, but it’s still very rewarding. Malaysians are very fond of foreigners (Western tourists, especially), and hitchhiking can be a great way to reach off-the-grid places that are poorly served by public transport. And since English is widely spoken, you will also make interesting connections that may end up in invitations to visit local homes.

 

3. Don’t try to speak Malay to everyone

Bahasa Malaysia may be one of the easiest languages to crack in the world. But remember that in this multicultural nation, the predominantly Malay Muslim government is well known for giving preferential rights to the Malay group. As a consequence, ethnic tensions are everyday issues, and addressing non-Malays in Bahasa may trigger unpleasant reactions.

On top of that, to most Malaysian Chinese and Indians, Bahasa Malaysia is a second, or even third language. Stick to English: as a foreigner, everyone will expect you to do so. Practise your Bahasa only in Malay-dominated regions, such as the Peninsula’s east coast, or in Malaysian Borneo, where it really helps befriend locals.