Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A TRIP TO CENTRAL INDIA IN A COLDER TIME

Apart from having travelled to Rajasthan, Himachal & Kerala, which I will blog about at a later date, my most recent encounter was with central India. This is one area of India that everyone has heard of and everyone knows, but few actually make an attempt to travel there.... that is unless they have seen every other place. When my boss, decided to send me there, I jumped at the chance. Being the regular oddball that I am, I thought it was just the place for a getaway. What did I know!? It is definitely "a road less travelled". 

I started my journey from Goa to Jaipur by flight. Three glorious days of freezing cold in the Rajasthan capital, Jaipur with lots of work and some entertainment. I had a lovely cozy room in a small hotel called Tordi Haveli. They were kind enough to arrange a tiny heater for me but sadly the only heat I got was if I stood right in front of it. I cant complain though - I loved my time there. And the food was good too. I met up with an  old friend and his family for two dinners. He is truly a guy with a generous heart.

Having been to the Jaipur Palace & Amber Fort before, I didn't attempt it again, but who can leave Jaipur without at least a glimpse of the rust coloured Hawa Mahal in the old shopping district of Jaipur. 
A bit of work and then onto one of my favourite pass times - I went shopping! Jaipur has some excellent kurtas that are 1/2 the price of the ones you get in Goa and while you have to bargain for them, it is so worth it to come back with new clothes to show off the new and improved Indian YOU! Next on the list was LMB... a crowded, slightly overpriced but still tantalizing snack store. I got my Bakharwadis and methis laddoos and set off to a McDonalds for a quick lunch before it was on to more work. 

The following day I said goodbye to my temporary family at Tordi & my good friend in Jaipur and took the evening train to Agra. The train was on time! Woo hoo... and then it was not so woohoo when a rather large man came and invaded my sitting space. Pfft! Not great at all. I kept thinking... just 5 hrs... just 5 hrs! Next mood downer was that the train got delayed just outside Agra.  Oh well, make the most of it... I struck up a few polite conversations, got some ideas on how to make alternate travel for another trip to Agra and even managed to promote Rustic India... all this in a span of a 45 min delay. 

I reached Agra! Chaotic is the word to describe the station. With a backpack and a day pack plus my little money bag, it wasn't the easiest task getting from the train to the exit, but then again I've encountered worse, so I took my time, went with the flow (or rather push) of the crowd and made it to the exit where I found my driver - an elderly gentleman with a broad frame and gentle manner. He guided me to the car and by now I began to feel the cold of the night and to add to it the fog wasn't helping. I reached at my hotel Crystal Inn, had a quick dinner and shower and passed out. 

Woke up early next morning to more fog, some sun and lots more cold. Bundled up like a woollen layered clothes rack, I set off for my little escapade at Agra Fort. What can I say about the place... the facade is imposing, the grounds are massive, the structures are well laid out, the opportunities to explore are in abundance. A tip to you - get a guide or take the audio guide they have available at the entrance. But that's only if you have a lot of time to spend at the fort... especially since everyone makes a beeline for the Taj Mahal when they are in Agra and forget the fort. This is what I saw.

 

After the fort, I was took a small detour from my schedule to make sure that I saw the Taj. I had no patience to brave the maddening crowd of eager admirers who I would encounter standing in lines at the Taj entrance... so I asked my trusty driver, Vishal to take me to another less glamorous part of Agra... this is what I saw...
How many times in one's life can you say "the view from the back is as breathtaking as it is from the front" :). After this, I was on the move for a full day of work, work and work. Back to the hotel for a relaxed evening of TV, hotel dinner and a brandy to warm my cold self.


The next morning, I woke up quite relaxed but I knew I had a long day ahead of me - a fairly long drive... Onward to Gwalior, a very haphazard town with lots of traffic, lots of noise and loads of people. There are numerous places to stay, but very few that will meet you hygienic standards.  After a bit of work, I headed for my bit of sightseeing. I managed to divide my time between the Jai Vilas Palace, a magnificent palace steeped in antiques and history and the G Fort. 

Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior

I took a good hour at the palace looking at all the antiques, paintings, photographs and family portraits. Then I headed straight for the Gwalior Fort that I had heard and read so much about. I was hoping to get the right light for it, but alas, time wasn't on my side. Enroute to the fort, I glanced some exquisite sculptures of Buddha all along the length of the wall. At the Fort itself, The Man Mandir palace was everything they say it is... absolutely breath-taking. After a bit of window shopping at a local mall I headed back to the hotel with my dinner and lounged in my room until I hit the hay!

Ok... so, the next day, we headed for the tiny town of Orchha. Normally, it is easier to get there by a train to Jhansi, but being on a bit of a time constraint, and taking into the account the unpredictable weather, thought it best to just drive there. I wasn't too pleased with my decision, as the roads were bumpy, unpaved and in some parts, just plain  rocky-like terrain. Phew! We reached Jhansi and headed straight for the Jhansi Fort. Considering the number of forts I have seen in India, this one was pretty well kept and green and it can be well explored. I love every little bit I walked through. The steps were high and some areas were a little precarious, and despite my battle with the bulge I managed to explore all the paths, stairs, shafts and spires in the fort. Woo-hoo... I should say I was quite pleased with myself. 

 
  

After a whole lot of walking, sweating and being throughly out of breath, I got into the car and departed to the a small museum run by the governemnt. It was rather nice, although nothing overly special. I was hungry by then, but I had to get to Orchha as I had just a half a day there.... Onward to Orchha with lunch on the way at a very overpriced midway. 


Arriving in Orchha, was like entering another world... the country side is devoid of high rise buildings and except for a few local huts, shops and the odd cenotaph along the way, the ride has views of the lush fields. And that is exactly how you know that you have reached Orchha, there are so many cenotaphs here, all over the area. I checked into the hotel, Orchha Resort, and was so pleased with my room. It was bright, cosy and colourful. The North India cold was getting to me by then, so I was so glad I had an electric kettle in the room with tea and coffee supplies. I freshened up and headed for a quick lunch at the hotel restaurant. Something was amiss... I realized that they only served veg food here.... no meat. :( Anyway, the food was tasty. I ate in a hurry and headed for the sights. There are at least five places to see in this small town - The royal cenotaphs (Chhattris), the Chatrabhuj Temple, the Laxminarayan Temple and the massive Orchha Fort Complex, and of course the lifeline of this lovely town, the Betwa River. 


I started my sightseeing with the Orchha Fort complex and thought that I would finish it soon enough, but I was mistaken. The fort is impressive right from the entrance to the top. There are paths and niches and massive steps, which huge arches and domes and the as always, the higher you go the better the view and the less ruined it is. I spent two hours at the fort and I can proudly say that my plump form managed to fit through all the narrow flights of steps and passages. Having said that, I should also mention that I was doing all this at the pace of an 80 year old woman. :) Nevertheless, I am proud of my achievement. After that I headed for a bit of work and PR and then back to the fort for the evening sound and light show, which was ok but nothing too great. I guess it didn't help that the weather felt like I was in the north pole. I returned to the hotel, for a hot shower, dinner and then settled into the comfort of an inviting bed. 
 
The following morning, I awoke early, next morning and drove to the other side of the Betwa River to get a full view of the cenotaphs with the river in the front. The view was awesome. After that I headed for the Chatrabhuj Temple and was the first person to enter the temple along with the priest. 

It was a scary entrance for me as there were some very large monkeys who weren't at all friendly - one even hissed at me before showing me his very red behind! A nice simple caretaker put the monkeys in  their place, welcomed me in, showed me around the temple and explained stuff to me in stilted English. He then unlocked a tiny door and showed me the way up some very very big steps, but it was again all worth it as the view was amazing. I took a lot of photographs. 
There was another level to go, which I declined, as I  didn't want to take a chance again, being the only person in the temple at that time. Considering my refusal, he offered  to go up there and take some photographs for me... What would you have done in my situation?  You are in a temple, you are the only person, you give your camera to your guide and don't follow him, what would you have done? I know what you're saying... don't give the camera to him! .... Well, that's you, as for me I did just that - I gave him my camera, after which he made a beeline for the next level. He disappeared for what seemed like an eternity and I was left standing on higher ground watching tiny people stroll around below me. Finally, my nerves started coming undone and I shouted out to the only person around -- the priest! I asked him to find the caretaker. After some shouting and grumbling from the priest, the caretaker showed up and was most excited... he went camera mad taking photographs of the different views and even got a photograph of a baby vulture. I thanked him, headed back down the steep steps and after putting a small money offering I scrambled back to my car. 
Post a quick breakfast, and shower, I checked out of the hotel, and headed for the Chhattris. I walked around there for about 20 minutes, got some lovely pictures of the flight of a flock of parrots as well as the impressive monuments. Then we headed off for  our next and final stop on my cold little trip up north - The land of the Kamasutra -- Khajuraho!

The road from Orchha to Khajuraho is not pretty - trust me... at some point, I was wondering if there even was a road. I felt sorry for my driver who was trying to be as patient as possible considering all the dust, scooters, potholes and mammoth trucks enroute. We finally made it at about 3pm. I checked in and quickly headed out for more PR for the company, finally ending at the Western Group of Temples. For someone who hasnt seen it before, the sight does take your breath away. I reached the temples at twilight, so I got to see it just from the outside. But still, it was lovely. 

I then headed for a small cultural center called Kandariya and saw some lovely dances. They also have some lovely sculptures if you want to take some back home - a little overpriced maybe but I think a better quality. 
 
As I walked back to the car I began to feel some pain on the sole of my foot, not bothering, I headed for dinner and then to my room for a shower. That's when I realised, that I had neglected to check my foot.... there was a massive painful blister on my left foot and it wasnt going away soon. I patiently treated it with medicines I had and had a restless sleep that night... more worried about the fact that I had a long walk ahead of me at the temples the following day!

I woke up with a lot more pain in my foot, but put lots of padding and decided to brave it. The Eastern group of temples are beautiful, but not as grand as the western group. I went to see them at sunrise and they looked amazing. There was a bunch of annoying Korean tourist there who didnt have any regard for the rules of the Jain temples and they walked into the temple with their shoes on!! Not nice!
I reached the Western Group by 9 am and it took all of 3 hours to just about make it in and out of all the temples. Yes, yes, I did see those erotic carvings... and like everyone else, I smiled when I saw them. Actually, they are rather hard to find, unless someone points them out to you. Some are so small that you actually have to look carefully. Well, by the end of this visit, I had become an expert at spotting them out and I even had a couple of foreign tourists following me and taking the same pictures as me. Ha ha. An unofficial tour guide you could say. 

 


 This was my last sightseeing obligation! It was pleasant in Khajuraho, but with so many steps and walking all around I was hot and tired and needed revitalization. I headed back to the hotel for lunch and a shower. 
My overnight train back to Delhi was later that night, so I requested the hotel for a late check out. I passed out in my comfortable bed until about 5pm, when my trusty driver picked me up for our final drive... from the hotel to the Khajuraho railway station. I boarded the train with time to spare and was grateful for some good family people in my compartment. I was also happy I had a lower berth! I slept fairly well until 2 am when the train halted in Agra and all the chaos started all over again. I finally reached Delhi at about 5 am, had an early breakfast with an old friend and colleague and then headed to the very charming boutique hotel, Shanti Home, to make some new friends. My last day in North India was spent eating some excellent lamb curry, walking through a nearby mall and then eating my favourite, Stroopwaffles! The ambience was perfect, the staff so friendly and the hotel so clean, I felt right at home and very very spoiled. 

I stayed just a night but was so sad to leave. I got to the domestic airport in good time and my flight was on time. The only annoying part was Pizza Hut at the airport who were really inefficient!! There weren't any bells rung there that afternoon. I boarded the flight and came back to my beloved Goa! 
All in all it was an amazing trip! It was a new adventure and I learned something new... I was in my element while travelling... despite the little hiccups!

That's it for now... check back for more on where my feet took me.