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Tony Robinson Around the World by Train: India and Burma

8 March 2019

After uncovering Parisian café culture, Bavarian beer halls and Hungarian moonshine in Europe last week, this week's episode of 'Around the World by Train' sees Tony Robinson delve into the enthralling culture of India and Burma. From Delhi, the Blackadder star journeys to Darjeeling, then heads across the border to Burma to visit ancient Bagan.

Arriving in India, we are immediately struck by its diversity. Suddenly, the landscapes are a little more unfamiliar, more exotic. This is a culture many of us are unacquainted with and is one unlike anything we saw last week. In contrast to Europe with its familiar, neutral colour palette and sophisticated cities, India showcases the world in dazzling technicolour. Buildings are painted in a mélange of rainbow hues, lively street markets offer up colourful spices, and vibrant steam trains wind through verdant mountain villages - it truly is a rich tapestry of colour and eccentricity.

There is perhaps no city that exemplifies India's explosion of culture and colour more aptly than Delhi, a city "bursting at the seams", Tony tells us, from a packed train. He says the population could double to around 44 million people in the next decade, an astonishing fact as this is already one of the busiest cities in the world. We are shown a collection of dingy commuter trains that are quite literally overflowing with passengers, an image which encapsulates the negative reputation Indian rail travel has. Despite the less than ideal conditions, these commuter trains serve as the lifeblood of those who live and work in the city, though it's perhaps worth noting that they are not necessarily representative of every train in India. Trains such as the Shatabdi Express defy this cliché, and are generally clean, comfortable and air conditioned. But, while it may have been valuable for Tony to touch upon this nuance, it does remain a fact that the commuter trains are a huge part of daily life here.

Delhi has a constant and noisy soundtrack, and Tony is bewildered. "I've never been in a town where there's so much unnecessary beeping" he exclaims from the back of a rickshaw. He's hurtling towards Delhi's oldest and most bustling bazaar, Chandni Chowk, where he learns how to make traditional paratha bread. He highlights the sense of life in the hectic market and praises the positive spirit embodied by locals. Before leaving Delhi, Tony visits the Yamuna River where he feeds birds - a ritual meant to bring good karma, prosperity and health. It's a beautiful sight, with the misty, calm waters and romantic pink sunrise eliciting a sense of tranquillity, despite the frenzy of birds flying overhead.

From Delhi, Tony continues to the Himalayas, where he joins one of our favourite railways - the Darjeeling Mountain Railway. "If you care at all about trains," says Tony, "this is your Xanadu." Affectionately nicknamed the 'toy train', the ancient steam engine is an engineering miracle even by today's standards. Winding its way through the narrow streets, the train regularly gets stuck in traffic jams, something which amuses Tony somewhat - "I love it. It's so daft!" he jokes, as the train waits in traffic. We learn about the history of the line, which was built in order to transport tea and has been vital to the development of the foothills, particularly Darjeeling. Here, at the famous Glenburn Tea Estate, Tony samples some of the world's most coveted tea.

Tony continues to a remote mountain village where he meets the Lepchas tribe. The villagers have been waiting since morning to see him and are delighted when he arrives - a greeting which touches him. "I have never been welcomed so happily, so profoundly, so beautifully in my life", he says. The following morning, Tony expresses concern that the authenticity of this place, an area which "typifies the untouched", is at risk, as locals leave to study and work in the cities. Reflecting upon his time in India, he concludes that while he enjoyed Delhi, "up here is where I lost my heart."

The next stop is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a nation Tony admits to knowing nothing about but is eager to discover. He visits historic Mandalay, the last capital of the old kingdom, where he sees the palace that was the seat of the Burmese royal family before colonisation. One extraordinary thing he discovers here, and which reflects the lack of space in the city, is a railway market in which wares are lined up on the tracks and hurriedly moved when trains approach. Later, Tony continues to a spirit ceremony - an incredible and colourful celebration with traditional dance and exuberant costume. "It's so exciting", he says. "It's real ancient storytelling."

Tony is also excited by the next part of his journey, a visit to the ancient town of Bagan, Myanmar's old religious capital. His arrival coincides with a cultural parade that celebrates local young boys becoming novice monks, a decision that will guarantee them an education they would perhaps otherwise not receive. Tony wants to see the rural life here, far from the tourist trail, so takes an ox cart to a nearby village. The village specialises in pottery, something Tony tries his hand at with somewhat limited success. The pots produced are used to collect water, as well as toddy wine, or 'sky beer', a sweet alcoholic drink that Tony claims will get you "sloshed!".

As the episode draws to a close, we are treated to an incredible panorama of the Burmese landscapes as Tony takes to the skies in a hot air balloon. From the air, we see a myriad of splendid temples, pagodas and stupas which dot the countryside; a spectacular view which truly encapsulates the beauty of this enigmatic nation.