Friday, 27 February 2015

Sanchi, Mandu, Ellora & Ajanta

I think when I last wrote I was in the little village of Orchha.  From there I've had a few exhausting days travel to get where I am.  I've come to the conclusion that regardless of how or where you travel it's likely to be crowded and less than comfortable.  It seems inevitable that there will be more bodies than seats and the whole thing only works because the Indians have a totally different concept of the term 'personal space'.  In fact, let's be quite honest...the term simply doesn't exist here!  What's mine is yours and let's all share together...

My first destination was the village of Sanchi.  Using four different modes of transport and all day I successfully travelled the 250km.  Sanchi is at the foot of a hill that has various Buddhist stupas (shrines) on the top.  It's a remarkable story of history, discovery and restoration.  They date back as far as the third century BC but as Buddhism was absorbed into the Hindu religion the site decayed and was eventually forgotten.  It was only in 1818 that it was rediscovered and it took another 100 years after that for the repair and restoration to be completed.

Buddhist monuments of Sanchi
I also hired a bike there and took a 20km ride out to some Hindu and Jain caves.  It was a fun experience riding one of the big single gear machines they have here.  They are fine along the smooth, level roads but it quickly becomes hard work when it's bumpy or uphill.  I began to wish I had my mountain bike then!

From Sanchi I had an exhausting day to get to Mandu.  I thought perhaps I'd only make it to Indore but after four buses and twelve hours I made it.  The road from Indore was dreadful in some places - pot holes like you wouldn't believe.  So the 93km took the best part of four hours.  If you do the mathematics on some of these journeys you begin to realise how agonisingly slow they are!  I honestly thought that because Mandu is a tourist destination the road would be okay but it was dreadful.

Ship Palace, Mandu
Mandu has a long and varied history and was once the capital of the region.  It's now a small village surrounded by a fort, palaces, mosque, tomb and temples.  It was a fascinating place to visit and I had a big day visiting all the sites.  A highlight was the Jama Masjid mosque built in 1454 which is supposed to be the finest and largest example of Afghan architecture in India.  Immediately adjacent is Hosang's Tomb (1435), which is reputed to be the oldest marble building in India and provided inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  I loved the Jahaz Mahal or Ship Palace so called because its 120m long by only 15m wide and flanked by two lakes.             

I was dreading the return bus trip to Indore and it lived up to all my miserable expectations.  Unfortunately I got on a bus that seemed to go even further off the beaten track and cramming even more people aboard than I've come to expect.  With someone almost sitting on my leg and my face pressed against the window you wonder just why you're doing it...  Finally after almost five hours (yes, five) we arrived and I had to figure out how I would get to my destination of Jalgaon.  The train didn't leave for 3 hours so I caught another bus that got me to Khandwa.  From there I got an 'express' train that arrived at 8.30pm...13 hours of exhausting travel.  

Buddhist rock cut caves, Ajanta

The next couple of days were spent at the Ajanta and Ellora Caves.  From Jalgaon, I had a comfortable day to Ajanta and then on to Aurangabad.  The caves at Ajanta are another extraordinary story of history and rediscovery.  They are all Buddhist temples that date from around 200 BC to 650 AD.  But like Sanchi, as Buddhism declined they were abandoned and gradually forgotten.  It was a British hunting party that stumbled across them in 1819 and their remote beauty was once again unveiled. 

Altogether there are 29 caves cut into the rock at a horseshoe shaped gorge.  Each of them is slightly different but all are characterised by wonderful stone carvings and fresco paintings.  Obviously after so many years the paintings have deteriorated a lot but significant restoration work in the 1920's has meant they have been carefully preserved since then.  Every cave has at least one Buddha sitting serenely with his legs crossed.  You would think he'd have to be a little uncomfortable in that pose after hundreds of years!

The extraordinary Kailasa Temple, Ellora

The caves at Ellora were different in that they contain Buddist, Hindu and Jain temples.  It was interesting to make comparisons between the three groups.  While the Buddhist caves offered a sense of calm and contemplation there was more drama and energy associated with the Hindu carvings.  The Jain caves were different again in that they didn't have the same size but had some very fine and detailed carving work. 

But the jewel in this particular crown is undoubtedly the Kailasa Temple.  This must surely be one of the most amazing architectural feats ever completed.  This huge temple was literally created by cutting three huge trenches into the rock and 'releasing' its shape using hammers and chisels.  7000 labourers worked for 150 years to create what is the world's largest monolithic sculpture.  It covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and entailed removing about 200,000 tonnes of rock!  It basically consists of a huge courtyard from which the main temple arises and is joined to the outer enclosure by a bridge.  All around the structure are finely carved panels that combine to create something that is simply amazing.

Friday, 20 February 2015


Travelling to Satna was a journey that I'll never forget.  I arrived at the Varanasi Railway Station and didn't realise that I couldn't buy a reserved ticket for travel on the same day.  So, I had to buy an unreserved ticket which is cattle class in the true sense of the word.  I don't mean I had to travel with the beasts; I simply mean we were crowded into carriages like cattle.  I honestly felt that it was below a standard that humans should be expected to travel. 

I'll try to give you an idea.  Every seat which comfortably accommodates three people had four or even five in it.  When I first boarded I had no idea where to sit or stand.  Through the kindness of a few people I managed to get my bag onto the luggage rack and about half a seat.  So while I was perched on the end of this seat I wondered how I'd be after eight hours and optimistically hoped that the train may begin to empty a little as we progressed through the various cities. 

The joys of Indian train travel
Empty!  What was I thinking?  I was on a train going to Bombay.  It began to fill even more!  There were people sitting on the floor, lying under the seats, hanging out the doors and even a few up on the luggage rack.  It was undignified and like nothing I've experienced before.  To make it worse the journey was painfully slow.  Several times the train would just grind to a halt and sit there for no apparent reason.  It was late leaving and the delays just added to my frustration.  I should have arrived at 8pm but at that time we still had about three hours to go!

All I wanted to do was get to Satna and find a hotel to sleep.  But instead I was stuck like a sardine in a tin of Indian humanity.  It wasn't fun but a snake charmer getting on at one station and doing his thing did ease the misery a little.  I had admiration for the endurance of the little group I was sitting with.  They boarded the train somewhere near the Nepalese border and were travelling all the way to Bombay.  1800km...seriously folks, I couldn't do it! 

Another reason I couldn't wait to get off the train was I felt like I was in a goldfish bowl.  It's an accepted part of the culture here to stare at someone if you find some fascination with them.  I seemed to be the only tourist on the whole train so for twelve hours this is what people did.  At one station a guy started chatting to me on the platform and within minutes there were about twenty people around us watching and listening to me.  Normally I wouldn't mind but I just wasn't in the mood for all the attention so I asked them all what they wanted.  There were some embarrassed looks and the group dispersed but it quickly grew again as we resumed our conversation.  Sometimes you just can't win…   

The erotic temples of Khajuraho
A pleasant 3 hour bus ride the following day brought me to the town of Khajuraho which is famous for its erotic temples.  It was great to arrive in a smaller place and be among some other tourists.  The temples themselves are the result of a burst of creative genius from 950 to 1050AD.  So, considering their age, most of the stone carving is remarkably well preserved and even today they are extraordinary in their complexity and beauty. 

There are various theories about the sexual themes.  One explanation is that they are tantric images and used to blot out the evils of the world and help in the quest for nirvana.  Rather more convincing though is that the sculptors were simply representing life as it was viewed by their society and the carvings should be seen as a joyous celebration of its many aspects.  Whatever the reason, they are one of India's major attractions and the very detailed, artistic and beautiful stonework makes it easy to see why.  

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Varanasi to Orchha

Greetings from the holiest city in India - Varanasi.  I arrived here early last night after a big couple of days bus travel from Pokhara.  The first day to Sounali took about 8 hours and yesterday was a gruelling twelve-hour endurance test to get here.

I travelled the first leg with a few girls who were doing the whole journey non-stop.  Perhaps I'm getting old or something but I couldn't do it.  I decided that making a break on the border and leaving again in the morning was a better idea.  Sounali is an odd little place which I don't have much fondness for but it makes an ideal place just to stay over.  It's a dusty town literally caught between two worlds and doesn't have anything like the charm of a place like Pokhara.

India-Nepal border crossing at Sounali

Yesterday, after I'd negotiated the two immigration control points I picked up the 7am bus bound for Varanasi.  Any thoughts that an Indian 'government' bus may be more comfortable than the one I'd just travelled on were dispelled immediately.  It was worse!  This was a noisy old boneshaker that I was destined to spend a long time in.  The distance we travelled wasn't huge but it was painfully slow.  We probably averaged about 45kmh as we rattled along toward our destination.  I decided to sit up the front - partly because the view was more interesting but also because it wasn't so bumpy.

The only problem with that was I was much closer to the incredibly loud horn that the driver had no hesitation in using very liberally.  I quickly decided that earplugs would make that aspect of my journey more comfortable but it didn't help my bum which was getting increasingly sore.  Eventually I had to sit on my sweater to create some extra padding because a thin layer of foam rubber over wood doesn't quite do it after a few hours.  Along the way we hit a dog and had a near miss with a baby monkey.  It was a terrible journey and when we arrived I actually felt more sorry for the driver than myself.  That was a very long day in the saddle!

My view for 12 long, uncomfortable hours

This morning I went down early to the River Ganges to experience what this city is about.  It was an extraordinary sight watching the locals bathing in this filthy river but they have no problem with it.  All along the bank of the river are ghats, which are bathing houses.  Several of which are 'burning ghats', which are used for cremation ceremonies.  For the Indians it's considered the best possible place to depart earth and I watched one of these ceremonies as it took place. 

I did a little tour there that included an early morning boat trip on the River Ganges.  Dawn is when most of the local people come down to the river to bathe and pray.  It was also the best way to view the ghats.  So, there was plenty to see both along the banks and also in the dozens of other boats being rowed along the river.  The majority of them were tourists but the locals continued their morning rituals seemingly oblivious to all the attention.

It amazed me that people could use this water to wash themselves and their laundry.  I'm not certain about human bodies being in the river (I was told by another traveller that she saw a corpse while doing her boat trip) but our boat did pass the rotting carcass of a cow.  Either way, the ashes from cremations were all put in the river and it's just disgustingly polluted.  But it was a very interesting city to visit and I enjoyed my few days there.

Sunrise boat ride along the Ganges River, Varanasi

I've discovered that travelling in India your business is very rarely your own.  Indians have an incredible natural curiosity and want to know where you're from, where you're going and how long you are going to take doing it.  This is often combined with a strong desire to sell you something.  So, in Varanasi I bought a t-shirt that is probably the best $1.20 I'll spend here.  It reads:
NO Money Change
NO Hashish
NO Boat
NO Silk
NO Rickshaw
In other words, I don't need any of the above and if I do I can ASK.  I could even add a few more to it….no shave, haircut, massage and no useless souvenirs.

Lakshmi Narayan Temple, Orchha

Onward to the town of Orchha, which is just south of Jhansi.  Once a capital city, it's now a town set among the palaces and temples from its history.  Its golden age was the 17th century so most of the historical sites are from this era.  The most impressive of these is Jehangir Mahal palace which is a complex building with many rooms, hallways and levels.  It looks 400 years old in many ways but the small parts of marble remaining are a glimpse of how glorious it looked when it was first built.

There is another palace and couple of temples which I visited.  While I was happily watching the sunset from the upper level of the Ram Raja Temple I didn't realise that the attendant was happily closing and padlocking the huge wooden doors downstairs.  So, when I came to leave I was trapped inside!  After some searching around I found a place where I had to hang by my fingernails and drop onto a ledge before being able to access some steps.  They led to the bottom of a wall that I had to climb over to eventually get out!  

Friday, 6 February 2015

Annapurna Sanctuary

From Chomrong, it was a two day hike up the Modi Khola to reach ABC.  There is no doubt that this was the highlight of my entire trek and I'm so pleased that I decided to add it on.  At 4100m it was freezing cold but the scenery totally made up for it in a spectacular way.  The best way I can describe it is like being in an alpine amphitheatre.  You are completely surrounded by the Himalayan mountains and it's almost like they are at arms length.  You are so close to them!

I got up just before dawn to watch the sunrise.  It was beautiful and clear (the general weather pattern in the Annapurna area is that the mornings are fine and cloud tends to roll in as the day goes on) but bitterly cold (about -4C).  I had to take my gloves off to use my camera and within minutes my hands were hurting with the cold.  I got some photos and then had to retreat into the lodge and thaw out.  From there I had a big day all the way back to Chomrong (to enjoy what was the best hot shower of the whole trek).

Mount Machhapuchchhre - Fish Tail Mountain
I could have finished a day earlier if I wanted but decided to just relax and have two shorter days.  Enjoy the warmer weather and take time to observe the Nepalese people in their daily lives again.  While I had a wonderful time, I was starting to feel a bit jaded after 19 days walking so it was a nice feeling getting on the bus at Phedi, knowing that I'd just completed my dream of trekking in Nepal.  I'd got through without any injury and aside from a little bout of diahorrea and stomach cramps in Manang, in good health.

As I expected, I encountered the Maoists near a village called Jagat on my second day.  After speaking to a number of people, I didn't have any fear of them when I arrived at their check point.  When they asked me for 2000 rupees I decided that I was going to have a chat with them about their tax.  I explained that I'm from New Zealand and that my country has given the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal a lot of money to establish a number of safe drinking water stations which have virtually eliminated the problem of plastic bottles being left on the trail.  I also mentioned the work that the late Sir Edmund Hilary did in establishing educational and medial facilities in Nepal.  In the end they charged me only 1000 rupees.

Annapurna Base Camp - 4100m
In Australian dollars the difference isn't a lot but there is a principle involved.  I decided that the least amount of money I can leave with them the better.  They are basically using the money to arm themselves and create conflict in a country where people are inherently peaceful and want to live in harmony.  So I felt like I'd won a small moral victory toward that.  I encountered them again on my penultimate day but when I showed my receipt they thanked me very much and wished me a happy day.  Even the Maoists have the Nepalese charm...

In some ways trekking as I have been in Nepal is easy.  What I mean by that is when you have finished walking and chosen a lodge to stay at you don't have to worry about anything else.  You have a comfortable bed and happy in the knowledge that you'll receive a hot meal and don't have to do the dishes.  For the limited facilities some guest houses have they have the ability to produce a wonderful variety of food.  The menus have been designed by a tourism sub-committee with the help of nutritionists.  

My lovely guesthouse host in Chomrong
Most places you can choose between soup, rice, noodles, pasta, potato dishes and even specialty dishes like Mexican or Japanese.  If that's not enough there is a choice of desserts as well.  In the morning you can have porridge, cereals, breads, pancakes and a variety of different teas or coffee.  The teas are great; black, lemon, mint, ginger, herbal...and some local brews.  So, quality food was never a problem and you always set out walking feeling good. 

The local Nepalese dish is called Dal (soup) Bhat (rice).  It is served on a large stainless steel platter and has rice, some curried vegetables and a bowl of lentil soup with a good quantity of garlic.  It probably doesn't sound that tasty but to be honest I really enjoyed it.  I decided that if that's what the porters eat (two or even three times a day) then it's good enough for me!  I also discovered that it's a best thing to order if you are hungry because they have no hesitation in refilling the dal, bhat or vegetables whenever you like.  Like an endless buffet!

Nepalese family thrashing wheat
The lodges themselves varied but were all of a reasonable standard.  The best place I had was in a place called Marpha.  For $1 a night I had a spacious room with carpet and the rare opportunity to recharge my camera batteries.  It also had hot running water in the bathroom and was the only place where I had a shave on the trek.  On the other hand, the worst place was probably in a village called Deorali up in the Sanctuary.  It was cold and my room was like literally like an old gaol cell (stone walls and floor), complete with bars across the windows.  But the people were very friendly so I enjoyed my stay.

So...there you go.  Hopefully that's given you some idea what it's like to trek in the Annapurna area of Nepal.  I've had a great time and would recommend it to anyone who was contemplating it.  Just don't underestimate what is involved.  There were times my fitness and strength were tested, especially at altitude.  It was easier for the many trekkers who had a porter to carry most of their things but it's still a long way to walk over some difficult terrain.  And as I've said, it is very cold in some parts and you need to be prepared.  But with all that in mind it's a wonderful experience and I would do something similar again given the opportunity.