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26.01.2013 - 03.02.2013
After a great few days in Fort Cochin we needed to go north to Delhi so we could catch a train to Khajuraho. To put the distance into perspective, it’s the rough equivalent of travelling from Manchester to North Africa, which means our options were a fifty-six hour train ride or a not much more expensive six hour flight. Not surprisingly, we chose the flight.
Long story short we arrived at Khajuraho to freezing conditions, or at least that’s how it seemed after the 35oC heat of Kerala. We were here for one reason only… sexy temples! ;-)
Known as the ‘Kama Sutra’ temples, the temples of Khajuraho are basically Chandela era porn. The erotic carvings of surasundaris (heavenly nymphs), couples and copulating groups are exquisitely rendered in sandstone and left us marveling at not only the skill required to carve them but the sheer effort involved in piecing them all together. We’ve put some pictures in below which save us the embarrassment of having to write about them…
Graphic. We spent the day admiring the temples and giggling at the Indian men’s reactions to a western girl taking photos of the Chandela blue. We did think about trying to re-create some of the carvings but Louise was still aching from the yoga in Kerala ;-)
The next few days were spent making our way through Madya Pradesh, from Khajuraho in the north down to Tala in the south east. We’d been relatively lucky travelling around south India , but when we got to the north it was a whole different ball game. The accessible transport links that we’d gotten used to in the south were replaced with long waiting lists, huge queues and no easy option for the budget backpacker.
So, after almost being savaged by a wild dog in Khajuraho (this is no exaggeration, it was only because Chris turned round and hurled abuse at it that we didn’t get mauled), our first leg of the journey was a five hour local bus to a town called Satna. It was a long, bone rattling journey over some of the craziest ‘roads’ we’ve been on. Rock filled, pot-holed, crazy cambered dirt tracks with vertical drops at the sides and nothing to stop you falling to your certain death. Once in Satna, we were supposed to change on to a train, but the bus we were on was running late and we missed it, so had to do an overnight stop.
The next day began with a ride to the train station in a rickshaw full of school girls, followed by a train to Katni junction (like Satna, another ‘local town for local people’). The trains have been one of our highlights of India but this was the first and only time we’ve had to risk the unreserved carriage. We would have taken a picture, but we were packed in too tightly and literally the whole carriage was staring. Not too intimidating. About 20mins in, everyone had squeezed in to their space, heads had started lolling on to strangers knees and the people in the luggage rack had made themselves comfy amongst the bags. By the time the novelty of a couple of westerners was wearing off, we were like ‘standing baba’s’, switching legs to keep the circulation going. Things had settled down nicely and we were beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about (everyone, including guide books and forums, specifically says to steer clear of the unreserved class) but, as Karl Pilkington, of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ fame, once said, “You're never too far away from summat mad when you're in India”… cue the snake charmers.
After forcing their way through the crush of passengers, they settled in our berth for a couple of crazy flute tunes, where the King Cobra looked more interested in trying to sleep off the drugs than putting on a show. The guys came round to collect their money and give a Hindu blessing and they were being quite pushy, but it was when the cobra was slapped on Chris’s head things got even more surreal. Whether it was drugged or not, it’s just not fun to have a massive snake put on your head when you’ve got no room to move let alone move away. Some Indian men next to us started shouting “Angreezee”(English) when the snake guys ignored our repeated refusals to pay and after a short exchange between them all in Hindi, they moved on. It’s definitely one of the more memorable experiences of the trip.
Much relieved, we jumped off the train at Katni junction and found our way to an auto-rickshaw. We were winging it now and had to rely on the kindness of the rickshaw drivers to tell us how to get to Tala. They agreed to take us to the bus station, but not before giving the locals (some of whom had clearly never seen a westerner before), an opportunity to take photo’s on their 90’s Nokia’s. One man went as far as to say it was his “most glorious moment”…poor guy! We rounded the two days off with a 4 hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, this turned out to be just a mile outside Tala (the base camp for Bandhavgarh National Park) and we hitched a short ride to the village from a park ranger who took pity on us. And that was it, after this 2 day epic journey, we were in Bandhavgarh National Park, getting excited for tiger safaris.
Bandhavgarh National Park’s claim to fame is having the densest population of wild tigers anywhere in the world and is one of the most likely places anywhere to spot one. We turned up to the park to find it closed, but after our two day journey we were resigned to the fact we’d not be able to be as spontaneous as we’d like in India and so used the time to plan and book trains for the rest of our trip. Tala is simply a main road with guesthouses, restaurants and some supply shops, but it makes for a peaceful place and it’s easy to meet people. However, we didn’t have to try hard to meet Liam, who was staying in the room opposite us and would be our safari partner for the next day or so. We had a good night drinking beer and swapping travel tales.
Our first safari came at 6am on a very chilly Thursday morning, we were feeling a little hungover and weren’t sure what to expect. Our gypsy (jeep) met us from the hotel:
As you can see, it wouldn’t have been difficult for a tiger to maul us and Louise was, it’s safe to say, absolutely petrified! The hotel owner laughed at our reaction and remained confident the jeep was up to it. We rumbled our way along a few kilometers of very bumpy road, before arriving at the gate.
The way the guides locate the tigers is by following tracks and listening out for alarm calls from animals. Nerves were replaced by anticipation as we realised the skilful and serious nature of our guide. He didn’t even seem to care that we were there, for him it was a game of hide and seek and a test of his tracking abilities. We came within a few metres that morning. We sat in silence listening to alarm calls from spotted deer that we couldn’t see, but were only feet away. Tension levels were rocketing and we waited for shouts of ‘TIGER’! Unfortunately, despite our guides best efforts the tiger stayed hidden and we ended up booking on to an afternoon safari. Here we saw a lot more wildlife, but again no tiger.
Nevertheless, here are some pictures of the wildlife we were lucky enough to spot (Jungle Cat, Elephants, Spotted Deer, Gaur, Indian Bluejay)
We left Bandhavgarh at 4am to catch our train, slightly disappointed and with a feeling of unfinished business… The only 2 seats left to book on the train from Katni to Allahabad were in first class! What a shame! In India, this gets you a private, lockable, quiet cabin, a cosy bed, clean towels, a wardrobe, table and someone to tell you when it’s your stop. It was one of our best sleeps in India and a world away from the sleeper class we’d gotten used to.
Feeling slightly refreshed but also slightly run down from the 6am freezing safari, we checked in to our hotel in Allahabad to find it was worth a fraction of the price we’d paid online (we had to ask to get the toilet seat cleaned… ), but as there was nothing we could do about it, we sucked it up and tried to get excited for Kumbh Mela.
For those that don’t know, Kumbh Mela is the destination for Hindu pilgrims wanting to wash away their sins in one of the many sacred rivers in India. It frequently breaks the record for the largest gathering of people in one place and this year promised to reach over 100 million over the 55 day festival. This particular Kumbh Mela is called the Maha Kumbh Mela as it is held every 144 years, to celebrate every 12 Kumbh Mela’s. Complicated! This time it was in Allahabad, where supposedly Vishnu spilt a drop of elixir of life in to the Sangam, the meeting of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers.
Unfortunately, because of transport issues, we’d not been able to make it for the 27th Jan, one of the main bathing dates (though people bathe throughout) and consequently the atmosphere at the mela was not as electric as we’d been imagining. We also had blossoming colds, which were hindering our enthusiasm. We don’t want to do it down, it was obviously very amazing to witness so many people in one place for one reason and we’re glad we made it there. The Indian’s were very welcoming and clearly pleased to see us, but other than a couple of ash covered Sadhu’s the place felt quiet and like it was saving itself for the next bathing date. It was warming to feel a part of it but left us feeling what it must be like when it all goes off.
So with the mela done, we’re off to pay our respects to Mumtaz and Shah Jahan…