Plunging Hard into India… Cochin to Aurangabad

After a lovely couple of days spent in Cochin and house boating in Kerala, I got back into the swing of things with a day train to Bangalore (morning of March 11th). This is the first real day train experience I’ve had here, and, consequently, my first experience with 2nd Class tickets/coaches. Now this is the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to Indian trains… at least on the day trains… just benches, luggage racks, open windows and fans… and the benches are not what I’d call ergonomic  For the first time for me, this train trip actually felt long… I don’t know if it was because it was directly after hanging out with friends, if it was because I’m used to sleeping half the journey on the overnight trains, or if it was the afternoon heat, but I was pretty beat once I got to Bangalore (at 8 PM…11 hours after I left Cochin that morning). I found my hotel, had a huge dinner (I hand’t really eaten much on the train) and went to bed. I was up and out early to go walking and exploring… and, I have to say, Bangalore is pretty nice. The whole central city is filled with pretty amazing parks, and there’s lots of good places to eat. Now, most of us in the US are familiar with Bangalore because it’s the center of India’s IT industry, but it’s also India’s beer capital, so there are bars for days in Bangalore (a big contrast compared to the rest of India from what I’ve seen), and not just nay bars, but really nice ones that you’d find in any nice western city. Those factors make Bangalore the most western-feeling place that I’ve been to in India  Now, by chance in Goa (back in January), I met a girl from Bangalore, who, even though we only chatted briefly, said if I ever made ti to Bangalore she would show me around. So I gave her a ring before I arrived, and we arranged to meet out at a bar the night of the 12th. She was a very good host and took me to some very nice places… a microbrewery  a cocktail bar and a sushi place for dinner… places that could have easily been in SF or NYC (the sushi was great… I haven’t had sushi for nearly a year now). One funny thing about Bangalore though is that everything shuts down at 11:30 PM. So we called it an early night, which was good, as I had a 7 AM train the next morning… off to Mysore.

2nd Class car on the way to Bangalore... yes, it filled up later in the day.

2nd Class car on the way to Bangalore… yes, it filled up later in the day.

Shot of the train rounding a curve on the way to Bangalore... 20 cars on this one.

Shot of the train rounding a curve on the way to Bangalore… 20 cars on this one.

As an aside, I’m being very guidebook focused on this trip, which is also something I’ve never really done before (aside from limited spurts in Ethiopia). But it’s hard to travel any other way when you’re bouncing around from place to place so fast (and hard to use any other means to pick which places to stop along the way). So, just in case you were wondering, that’s mainly how I’ve been deciding my route for this journey… aside over, back to Mysore.

Shot of Bangalore City Station... and this was only about a third of it.

Shot of Bangalore City Station… and this was only about a third of it.

Now, despite this being a day train, I had a ticket for the sleeper compartment (top bunk of three), which turned out nicely as I got to nap pretty much the entire three hour ride. Mysore is actually southwest of Bangalore, so I was backtracking a little bit, but Mysore gets tagged as one of the “best cities in south India” by several guidebooks, so I figured I’d give it a whirl. The city was the capital of the Wodiyar dynasty until independence in 1956 (just over 550 years), and even then, the maharaja was appointed the first governor of the new state of Karnataka (the state capital is Bangalore). Befitting such a long standing center of imperial power, Mysore is pretty much dominated by the maharaja’s palace (the current incarnation was completed in 1912 for the 24th Wadiyar raja)… it’s pretty ridiculous. Just try and picture what comes to mind when you hear the word maharaja… kings in gold seats riding on the backs of elephants, rows of turbaned soldiers in tunics with huge mustaches  gold, silver and jewels  everywhere… that’s kinda what the palace is like. I think one of the more interesting features was that one side o the palace was basically a huge grandstand that the maharaja would use to receive visitors as well as a viewpoint to watch the annual Dussehra festival. After checking out the palace  I took the bus up to to Chamundi hill (another recommended sight which is just to the south of the palace) to check out the temple, which (of course) is dedicated to the chosen god of the Wodiyar rajas (Chamundi is the name of the god), and to take in the view of the city as well as a sunset.

The palace... the grandstand is on the left.

The palace… the grandstand is on the left.

Temple on the top of Chamundi Hill...

Temple on the top of Chamundi Hill…

Temple monkeys...

Temple monkeys…

Sunset over Mysore...

Sunset over Mysore…

Myosre is a very touristy place (both for Indian and western tourists), so, by nature, it has a certain level of tourist scams going on. Prior to the above sightseeing, I had a run-in with a guy that I think I won (by decision though… no knock out or anything). After cleaning up for my morning train ride, I walked out of my hotel towards the palace, and within two blocks got the “hello, where are you from” line that I get all the time. One thing I’ve learned, through way too much experience in this department, is that if someone approaches you, they are trying to take your money… with a caveat, especially applicable in India, that there’s a five-minute window or so that the merely curious operate in. This guy passes the five-minute mark and then starts in with the what are you doing right now questions. I tell him I’m going to the palace, to which he replies that if I’d like, he’s going to the old market and I can come with him, and that the palace is open until 8 PM so I can go later (a clue as to what type of person he is as my guidebook noted that the palace is open until 5:30 PM everyday). I actually think going to the marketplace would be a nice thing to do, so I decide to go with him anyhow… we begin to walk and, like any good con-artist, this guy is very good at keeping the conversation going and putting me at ease (I’m just being friendly, Mysore people are the best… so open and nice, I’m jsut here today because it’s a festival day… so I don’t have to work, what did you pay for your room… oh you got a good deal, you must be a lucky person to have coincidentally come on a festival day, etc.). We walk around the market for a bit then stop for a chai. He then asks if I’d be interested in seeing some local factories (beedies, furniture and incense)… again, I actually would like to see them, but I’m sensing that here’s where the scam comes in… but… I go ahead and say yes anyways  figuring I could resist whatever gets pushed my way. The factories are actually pretty cool, old buildings with dudes (or ladies in the case of the incense) making everything by hand. No real hard sell on anything at the beedie factory (tobacco sells itself), nor at the wood-working shop, but at the incense factory I’m wrangled into the back where there’s an “ essential oils” shop. Ahhh… a bit of the scam here (he must get commission on any sales). But these guys have nothing on Egyptians, where essential oils shops are basically every third storefront and the hard-sell is much, much harder than here… so after getting some oils dabbed on my arm, I’m out with no real bother and nothing bought. We have another chai and then he mentions that, if I’d like, he can call his father (we’ve covered the fact that his father is an auto rickshaw driver) and see if he’d let us borrow the rickshaw and he could take me up to Chamudi Hill… he says he’ll even give me the local price. Okay I say… what’s the price? He does a good job anchoring here by saying that… usually… rickshaw drivers charge 1200-1500 Rupees to tourists… but… for me… he’ll give the local price of 700 Rupees. Ahhh… so that’s where the scam comes in. Now, I have no idea what the price of a rickshaw ride to the top of Chamundi hill, but 700 Rupees sounds way to high (considering I paid 20 Rupees to go the three kilometers from the train station to my hotel and Chamundi Hill is only 12 kilometers or so down the road). On the other hand, 700 Rupees is like $13, so it’s really not that much, and this dude’s been pretty cool about showing me around with the exception of the essential oils shop. So I tell him I need to run by my hotel and get some things. So we walk over to the hotel… I tell him to just wait here as I need to run up and get something… he says he’ll just go get the rickshaw and be back in five minutes… alrighty. I go in and ask my hotel guy how much and auto rickshaw should cost to the top of Chamundi Hill, to which he says why take a rickshaw, the bus goes all the way, picks up just don the road and is 50 Rupees round trip… alright, but what would the price of an auto rickshaw be were I to take one… 200, 250 Rupees tops he says  I then ask him if it’s a festival day, to which he says… I’m sure you can see this coming now… no. Of course…  so, when the guy drives up, I say thanks for showing me around, but I’m just a bit tired from the heat and need to rest, so I’m not going to Chamundi Hill. I think he knew the game was up, so, after only a bit of whinging, he just said bye and went on his way. I went up to my room and chilled for about half an hour before heading out to get some lunch and see the palace. So… all in all not bad, I got a tour of some relatively interesting factories that I definitely would not have seen otherwise, got some good conversation in with a local (even if he was trying to take my money), and I didn’t part with any big money… all it cost me was time, and the price of two chais and a pack of beedies for my “guide” (about $1 total). After actually going up to Chamundi Hill later that day, I went back cleaned up, ate dinner and went to bed early as I was beat. I got up the next morning, exercised  ate and did some more trip planning before getting to the train station for my 2:15 PM train back to Bangalore (an express train, air-conditioning and plane-like seats… nicest train I’ve seen in India… of course the ticket price reflected that). In Bangalore I had a six-hour wait until my overnight train left (at 10 PM), so I checked my luggage in at the station and headed back to the center of town just to relax and have a nice meal and cold beer (gotta get those in when I can here). Then back to the station for my train to Hampi.

A guy hand-rolling beedies (local cigarettes)...

A guy hand-rolling beedies (local cigarettes)…

Another guy rolling...

Another guy rolling…

Me rolling a beedie... unsuccessfully I might add.

Me rolling a beedie… unsuccessfully I might add.

The finished product.

The finished product.

My ticket said my train was going to arrive in Hampi at 7:42 AM… pretty precise… and they actually almost hit it (my phone said 7:49 AM as I got off). Now, Hampi is the name of the modern village situated in the midst of the ruined medieval city of Vijayanagar… the village isn’t much to look at, but the ruins and the landscape here are amazing. Vijayanagar was the capital of a large Hindu empire (the city reportedly had a population of 500,000 people), but after the city was sacked in 1565 the place was abandoned  Everyone I know that has been here says it’s a place you tend to stay longer than you thought you would and I could see why… there’s just a vibe of relaxation in the air… and lazy days are just a way of life (for the tourists of course). Plus, Hampi being a religious site (even before it was Vijayanagar, the area was sacred to Hindus as Kishkinda, the realm of the monkey gods) there’s no alcohol served or sold anywhere and everything shuts down by 10 PM… so ti really is an ideal spot to unwind. I spent my mornings and early evenings wandering around the various ruins (very cool as sometimes you’re the only person around for quite sometime, it makes you feel like an archaeologist who just discovered the place… just yourself, massive ruins and the wind) and my afternoons just relaxing in the shade (it’s hot and the sun is intense here). Also, due to it’s religious significance, all the meals served here are vegetarian, so I got to sample a slightly different side of Indian food that I rarely choose to eat on my own. I spent 3 days and two nights here, and honestly, it was just nice not to have to pack my things to move every night (I know, I signed myself up for this little travel mission knowing that it was going to be tough, but I’ll take my r’n’r when I can get it). My third night I was off again on a night train to Hyderabad. Oh, and for those of you wondering, Hampi was #23 of my guidebook’s 35 Things Not To Miss (so far I’ve hit #’s 3, 15, 17, 21, 23 and 35).

A shot of Hampi from the roof of my guesthouse...

A shot of Hampi from the roof of my guesthouse…

Although a bit extreme (for tourists), people do dress like this here...

Although a bit extreme (for tourists), people do dress like this here…

What Hampi generally looks like...

What Hampi generally looks like…

Hampi... sunsets, ruins, monkeys and other tourists... it's just kind of what Hampi does.

Hampi… sunsets, ruins, monkeys and other tourists… it’s just kind of what Hampi does.

Ruins everywhere...

Ruins everywhere…

A shot of the river...

A shot of the river…

As another aside, I think I’ve said it before, but traveling by train here, even if it can be a bit slower, to me, is much preferable to traveling by bus… especially for overnight trips, as I’ve found that generally, I can sleep pretty well on a train, but had a horrible time trying to sleep on the bus. But booking trains here is complicated… one reason is that because it’s India, and they tend to over-complicate things here, but the other is that the train system here is massive, and there’s a billion plus people that use the trains, so it’s just complicated when you think about it… I mean, it’s not like a plane that goes from point A to point B and all the passengers board and disembark at the same places, the trains here, on the main lines, run across the country, with people getting on and off and going various distances… so coordinating that from a ticketing perspective is a pretty huge undertaking if you think about it. All in all, upon reflection, their system makes sense, but there’s a pretty big learning curve to figuring it all out as a visitor. So throughout this little adventure I’ve been studying… how to find trains, how to check availability, how to book them for myself, how to judge the chances of a waiting list ticket being confirmed, how to find and use the foreign tourist quota allotments, etc… and somewhere in Cochin I cracked the code (just checking availability involves using two websites simultaneously, whereas actually buying the tickets involves a trip to the train station  one requisition form per ticket and lines, lines and more lines, or paying an agent to do it for you). Also, in Cochin, was where I kind of set down my plan on where I would go and when… so, there, I started to actually book tickets a bit in advance (I booked myself all the through Hampi). In further checking though, I found out that the trains in the northern part of the country are a bit busier, so while in Hampi, I actually sat down, figured out my schedule and booked all of my train rides through to Darjeeling (from which I’ll cross into Nepal in early April). Yes Mom and Dad, I can see you shaking your head in disbelief, but it had to be done (I can plan ahead if I am forced to), and now it’ll be interesting, for a month anyhow, to travel on a fixed schedule… back to the trip.

Now, routing myself through Hyderabad was actually a fall back plan. I had originally wanted to go to Pune (home of Osho, who perhaps some of you older flower children may have heard of previously), but I just couldn’t make the train scheduling work… but I found that I could easily go to Hyderabad and then on to Aurangabad (my next planned stop after Pune) and spend an extra day in Hampi… so the plan then became to take the overnight train from Hampi to Hyderabad (arriving in the morning), then an afternoon train the same day to Aurangabad, where I’d arrive circa 11:30 PM. So that’s what I did… I arrived in Hyderabad at 6 AM, left my luggage and explored the city for a bit (home of a ridiculously large medieval fortress)… then got my luggage, made my way to the other train station (the train to Aurangabad was leaving from a different station than the one where my train from Hampi arrived) and got on board. Now, I arrived in Aurangabad just fine, but that last leg was really grueling  I was tired, it was hot (no a/c in my coach) and there were people everywhere… it’s the first time where the train was really flooded with people with unreserved tickets. Now, in India, sometimes, you can buy tickets just to get on the train, but without a reserved seat, so you can take any available seat you can find or just make due. In general, with an unreserved ticket, you’re restricted to certain cars, but for whatever reason, the ticket guys were letting people in everywhere, so all the cars were just slammed with people… literally, people laying and sitting in every single open space available (floors, other seats, on each other…literally everywhere . As I wasn’t able to do my usual chill by the open door in the aisle routine (too crowded) I retired to my bunk (I was actually forced to, because if I wasn’t there my bunk would have been filled with people and/or luggage). Unfortunately, for this ride, I had a side bunk (not one of the six in a compartment, but one of the two stacked in the aisle). I say unfortunately because, as I found out, I just don’t fit in a side bunk… they’re about six inches to short. But, there really wasn’t anything I could do… so I just scrunched myself up and spent a very uncomfortable several hours waiting to get to Aurangabad (where I was very, very glad to get off that particular train). I immediately went to sleep as I was going to be up early to make my way to #4 of the 35 Things Not to Miss…

My trip recap so far… note that I’m changing this up a little bit… I’m going to drop the Thailand portion of this trip to just show my over-landing in India adventure… and I’m adding in the transportation costs so you can see how cheap the slow way actually is here (so, from the beginning):

3/3: Bus from Thiruvavavthapuram to Kanyakumari: 2.5 hrs. 90 kms. 58 Rps.
3/4: Mini-Bus from Kanyakumari to Madurai: 5.5 hrs. 240 kms. 250 Rps.
3/5: Overnight train from Madurai to Cochin: 12 hrs. 500 kms. 690 Rps.*
3/6: Taxi from Cochin to Kumarakom: 1.5 hrs. 70 kms. Free (part of cruise).
3/10: Taxi to Kumarakom to Cochin: 1.5 hrs. 70 kms. 1,500 Rps.**
3/11: Train from Cochin to Bangalore: 11 hrs. 590 kms, 378 Rps.***
3/13: Train from Bangalore to Mysore: 3 hrs. 140 kms. 130 Rps.
3/14: Train from Mysore to Bangalore, 2 hrs. 140 kms. 328 Rps.****
3/14: Overnight train from Bangalore to Hampi: 10 hrs. 425 kms. 230 Rps.
3/17: Overnight train from Hampi to Hyderabad: 12 hrs. 530 kms. 600 Rps.*****
3/18: Train from Hyderabad to Aurangabad: 10 hrs. 510 kms. 265 Rps.
Total (3/3-3/18): 71 hours in transit to cover 3,305 kms (2,050 miles) over 16 days for 4,429 Rps ($80.53 USD). That’s $.02 per kilometer at a blistering pace of 46 kilometers per hour (circa 29 miles per hour).

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