To recap, so far, 71 hours in transit covering 3,305 kilometers over 16 days has brought me from the southernmost point in India to Aurangabad. Why Aurangabad you might ask… well… for nearby cave temples of Ellora and Ajanta of course. Now, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a universal equation somewhere, containing the variables monks, caves and chisels, all over time, which always seems to equal ridiculous cave temples… and, according to what my guidebook tells me, there’s no better example of that equation at work than Ellora and Ajanta.
Close your eyes and imagine (okay… keep your eyes open… as how else are you going to read this), the year is 1819 and you are a British soldier working for the East India Company (stationed in India of course). For a bit of fun you and your friends set out on a tiger hunt (yes, you would consider that fun). While chasing tigers with your local guide, he leads you through some brush towards the cliff overlooking a bend in a nearby river, and when you both clear the brush and step out toward the ege of the cliff, you see this on the other side:
Well… maybe you see that without the safety rails and concrete walkway,and maybe with a bit of plant growth over the front, but, congratulations, you’ve just made one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of all time… the Ajanta Caves… 28 colonnaded caves chiseled out of the cliffs lining a horseshoe bend of a river. Carved out by Buddhist monks from the second century BC to the seventh century AD (whereupon the whole place was abandoned for unknown reasons), the caves are filled with stupas, stone Buddhas and most importantly from the archaeological perspective of course, lots, and lots of murals. I spent a good couple of hours wandering into the caves and climbing to the lookout point across the river (the point from which the British soldiers first saw the caves). In general, the caves weren’t overly large, and the ones with the murals were pretty dim, but still fascinating (for me anyhow) to see. Plus, the setting is spectacular… it was to bad that the river was dry, as it would be quite the sight if it were roaring full (during monsoon season maybe).
The next day I made my way to Ellora for some more cave temple action. Now, work at Ellora began as Ajanta declined (there are some contemporary Buddhist caves at Ellora, but the most impressive caves are Hindu, which were completed both during and after the Buddhist caves and after Ajanta had been abandoned). In general, the caves and temples at Ellora are much bigger and more complex than those at Ajanta. Some of that likely has to do with all the practice the workers had from Ajanta, as well as the fact that Hindu temples are, in general, much more decorative than Buddhist temples (scholars believe that the relatively ornate later Buddhist temples at Ellora were a competitive response to the work at the nearby early Hindu temples). A few of the caves were particularly massive… three stories tall, deep into the rock… bigger than many modern buildings actually. The piece de la resistance of Ellora is the Kailash temple, a Hindu temple that actually lived up to it’s hype. The Kailash Temple is a massive, massive rock-hewn structure that makes what I saw in Lalibela, Ethiopia look like child’s play… very, very impressive. It took me about 5 hours to make my way around all of Ellora… good thing I got an early start because the sun here is murder during the middle of the afternoon (and nice to be exploring caves as well). After seeing both Ellora and Ajanta, I have to say that Ellora is much more impressive from a cave and temple perspective, but the setting of Ajanta is much nicer (and just a note for those interested, Ellora actually has a third religion present, Jain caves and temples, that were begun after the Hindu ones… reportedly all three religions managed to coexist peacefully at the site).
Transportation around the sites proved to be a bit more challenging compared to what I had planned. You see, Ellora is about 30 kilometers from Aurangabad (which is where I had arrived from Hyderabad on the train and was staying). Ajanta, however, is about 108 kilometers from Aurangabad on the road to Jalgaon. So my plan was to see Ellora the day after I arrived, sleep in Aurangabad that night, then catch the bus to Ajanta (with my bag) in the morning, and move on to Jalgaon for a departure the following morning (Jalgaon is on a main train line so has many more trains coming through than Auranagabad). However, my impeccable timing worked in reverse on me… the day I wanted to see Ellora was the one day a week the complex was closed. So I had to bus up to Ajanata and back the first day, then bus to Ellora and back the second day, and then take the four hour bus ride to Jalgaon that same evening… a total of 11 hours on the bus… way more time in transit than the 5 hours I had planned on.
In general, transportation in India is much more focused on moving people from place to place than it is on comfort, style or speed… which, if you think about it, makes sense, as much of India is very poor, so those folks need transportation that will get them from place to place cheaply… they can afford to pay in time and discomfort as opposed to money. Practically, that means that, when necessary, every available space on a vehicle is used… bus seats made for two can fit three…if there’s no seats people can stand in the aisles… etc. (on a bus for example, instead of selling tickets based on the number of seats, they’ll sell tickets to as many people as can physically fit on the bus). This makes for another practical difficulty… when boarding the bus at a station, there’s often more people than seats, and everyone knows this, so getting on the bus becomes a massive fight for everybody to try and get those seats (lots of yelling, shoving and poking). Unfortunately for me on the four hour hour bus ride I had to take to Jalgaon, I showed up a bit after boarding time, so I had to take my place in the aisle with my bag and prep myself for a long ride while standing. Fortunately about five minutes into the ride, when everyone found out where I was going (for some reason the whole bus always knows where the foreigner will be disembarking), a small conference took place in a seat a couple of rows ahead of where I was standing and I was given a seat by a young man who was getting off 25 minutes down the line (he stood). It felt a bit weird (is this what women feel like when they are offered seats?), but I took it gratefully and thanked the guy profusely and had the small “where are you from” limited English conversation that is common here. Not standing on a bus for four hours was definitely nice… thank you again kind sir. I arrived four hours later in Jalgaon, found a room, had some food, hit the hay and woke up at 4:45 AM to get to the railway station for my 5:30 AM train.
In another bit of fun transportation timing, Holi, and Indian Festival day, was coming up (Holi takes place on March 27th this year), which means that every possible mode of transportation is now crammed with people headed out all over the country to reach their preferred destination for the festival (i.e. the trains are packed). The Indian railway system has developed a way to handle this… it’s called the unreserved train ticket. Throughout the year, one can show up at any station, at any time, and buy an unreserved ticket for practically any train. It’s the cheapest ticket available because while the ticket will get you on the train, it doesn’t guarantee you a seat. Generally, those with unreserved tickets are relegated to the second class cars on every train, but, around festival times, when so many people (poorer people) are traveling the ticket enforcers turn a blind eye, and the unreserved folks are allowed in most of the other cars on the train (I’m not sure about the a/c classes, but definitely in the sleeper class, which is where I book most of my tickets). The deal being that they can sit anywhere, but must make way for those with reserved tickets when they show up (if they’ve managed to find a seat/bunk… because when I say anywhere, I mean anywhere… floor, aisles, between cars, near/in the bathroom, etc.). So when I go to board my train at 5:30 AM, it’s pretty much a giant clusterfuck. I have to climb over all kinds of people and bags to find my birth, which of course, contains a guy sound asleep. Now to his credit, when I woke him up and showed him my ticket, he exited my bunk gracefully. So, I now have a bunk, but then I have another problem … there’s no where to put my bag. All of the storage compartments are filled with other bags (and sometimes people) and there’s two guys sleeping on the floor of my compartment so I can’t just plop it on them… what to do? Well, what can I do… I put my bag on my bunk in the little spoon position (I’m a side sleeper and spoon my bag while drifting off to sleep. The guy who vacated my bunk sits down on the little spot on the far end where my feet aren’t…. I’m to tired to care, plus he’s really got nowhere else to go, so that’s that. I sleep for about two hours before I’m woken up by the guy above me looking for his (now lost) mobile phone. We get to talking after he can’t find his phone, and turns out, that although born in India, he’s lived in London for most of this adult life. He’s back in India on holiday. We end up talking straight through the next four hours before I get off at Itarsi Junction to change trains (he’s the one who explained why there were so many people on the train and what was going on with everybody crammed into the sleeper class cars). Now, I just had to go one stop down the line, so I hand’t made a reservation in advance. I buy an unreserved ticket on the next train heading in the direction I need to go and brace myself as I head to the second class chair cars. Man oh man… wow… the term cattle car comes immediately to mind given the amount of people stuffed in there. I, believe it or not, found a spot to sit, cross-legged, in the luggage rack… yes… the luggage rack (I actually joined another guy already up there). Sitting in the luggage rack didn’t seem so strange as every rack had at least one guy in there with the bags. Which turned out not to be a problem for them, but it was a problem for me as my legs went numb after about 30 minutes (I’m just not as flexible as the average Indian apparently). So I got down and stood for the remaining 45 minutes until my stop. Then off the train and onto a bus for another hour and fifteen minute ride (I had a seat… joy) to Pachmari.
Pachmari is a hill station… i.e. a town founded by the British somewhere in the mountains to get away from the summer heat (generally, the hill stations would function as the summer administrative centers for the British Raj… Darjeeling and Shimla are the more famous hill stations that some may know). It was very pleasant to get off the bus and find a touch of briskness in the air (just a touch… Pachmari is only 1000 meters high… but a few degrees makes a difference). It’s a relatively small town and not that well known (especially as compared to the more famous hill stations)… actually most people I had spoken with, inclusive of Indians, had never even heard of it. I have to hand it to the British and the Indians that have lived there since (or always maybe)… Pachmari is really nice (for India mind you)… big trees everywhere, grassy open spaces, not too much trash or animal shyte, and a touch cooler than down on the plains. Now… why did I go through all that trouble just to get to a a place nobody’s heard of before? Good question… I came primarily because I saw, in my guidebook of course, that there’s a a nice long trek that follows a Hindu pilgrimage route up Chauragarh Hill (I just missed the annual Shivaratri Mela, where about 100,000 pilgrims climb up to the temple with symbolic tridents to plant at the shrine). I figured that since I’m heading to Nepal specifically for trekking, I’d better start training a bit (as a long time, plus Goa, has elapsed since I last did a significant trekking), plus I just enjoy the activity. I had arrived relatively late in the afternoon so I spent dusk just wandering around and enjoying the open space and cool air.
I got up early to head out (as I didn’t know how hot it would be in the middle of the day) and I hit my first challenge right away… no one was serving breakfast until 8:30 (it was about 7 AM). I wandered around and eventually found one place on the edge of town that was open… I ate solid breakfast and had them make me some cheese parathas for lunch. Sufficiently provisioned, I set out for the temple. Another slight challenge was that I really only had the vaguest of directions to follow about this trek and no map… details right (I honestly really wasn’t sure how long it was or what I was heading toward other than a hill with a temple on top)? I knew at a certain crossroads I had to head south (easy enough to figure out by the sun) and I’d eventually get there. However, after that crossroads I came to a fork in the road (whereby both were roughly heading south from my perspective). Luckily, fate intervened in the form of a very friendly Indian gentlemen waving me into a chai shop… I went in, had a chai (that’s spiced milk tea btw… and it’s delicious), a samosa and a bit of a chat… and he graciously pointed me in the right direction (noting that he thought it would be forty kilometers round trip which would be way to far… but since I’d be on the road for most of the way I could always catch a ride back) and back off I went. The scenery was pretty nice… foresty, with tons of leaves on the ground as if it were autumn, rolling hills, some canyons and, because this is India, monkeys more or less everywhere. In about two hours I made it to the Mahadeo Caves… a series of caves turned into Hindu shrines… also the point at which the road ended and the path up to the temple began. In a monkey related note, I was walking through the caves complex when I felt a tug on my backpack. I turn around to see a monkey grabbing at it from one of the hand rails along the path… I, naturally, yank back, but the little bugger managed to steal the small package of cookies I had sitting in an outer mesh pocket… f-ing monkeys!
Sans cookies, I started up the trail to the temple… Now, even aside from the annual mela, this is a popular pilgrimage route, so once I reached the caves, I was definitely not alone (everyone else drives to the caves and parks at the bottom of the hill… I was definitely the only one walking on the road until that point though). There were lots of folks going up and down this dealio… I even saw some guys who had stopped and asked me if I needed a lift… old, young, parents with babies, women in saris, many people without shoes… needless to say I looked a little out of place, but most everyone said hello and I even got a few “which country?” Another hour or so and 1,365 steps later (not all at once mind you, but it seemed that way at times), I reached the top… circa 11:30 AM… about 3 hours and fifteen minutes after I started (one reason I think it went quickly was my inability to stop anywhere without attracting what felt like a million flies… so I only really took one little five minute sit on the way up). I sat down for about half an hour in a shady spot with a stiff breeze (to keep the flies down), ate lunch and enjoyed the view (and said namaste to about 65 people). I didn’t go in the temple as I’m a bit templed out and this one didn’t look all that impressive (location aside). As it was only noon, I figured I’d walk back… which went pretty well even though it got a bit hot in the afternoon (lots of water on the head/bandana). I took the same three and a half hours to get back… based on my camino de santiage pace of about 4.5 kms/hr, I’d say the whole thing was somewhere in the range of 25 to 29 kilometers… a good bit of walking… and I was pretty tired by the time I got back. The next day I did some wandering around during the day (after sleeping in of course) and then started out on the same journey I took to get here but in reverse: 5 PM bus to train station (got the last seat), unreserved ticket on next train to Itarsi (no luggage rack this time, stood the whole way), where I had dinner and internetted a bit before my 10:00 PM train to Agra (and the Taj Mahal)…
For this bit:
3/19: Bus to/back Aurangabad and Ajanta: 5.5 hrs. 216 kms. 253 Rps.
3/20: Bus to/back Aurangabad and Ellora: 1.5 hr. 60 kms. 50 Rps.
3/20: Bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon: 4 hours. 158 kms. 150 Rps.
3/21: Train from Jalgaon to Itarsi: 6.5 hrs. 331 kms. 195 Rps.
3/21: Train from Itaris to Piparia: 1.25 hrs. 68 kms. 35 Rps.
3/21: Bus from Piparia to Pachmari: 1.25 hrs. 57 kms. 50 Rps.
3/23: Bus/train return trip from Pachmari to Itaris: 3 hrs. 125 kms. 95 Rps.*
3/23: Overnight train from Itarsi to Agra: 8.5 hrs. 599 kms. 485 Rps.**
Sub-Total (3/19-3/23): 31.5 hours in transit to cover 1,614 kms (1,001 miles) over 5 days for 1,313 Rps ($23.87 USD)
Grand Total (3/3-3/23): 102.5 hours in transit to cover 4,919 kms (3,050 miles) over 21 days for 5,742 Rps ($104.40 USD)… or $0.02/km at the warp speed like rate of 48 kmph (30 mph).
* The train took 30 minutes longer and they charged me 10 Rps more for some reason.
** I bought these tickets through a travel agent in Hampi, and all include surcharges of 50 Rps to 250 Rps (the latter being for him having to make the 30 km roundtrip to the train station for foreign tourist quota tickets).
Also a new checklist… of the 35 Things Not to Miss in India from my guidebook (Rough Guide India), I have now seen #’s 3: Kerala Backwaters, 4: Ajanta Caves, 15: Kochi, 17: Cricket (in Mumbai), 21: Madurai, 23: Hampi, 24: Ellora Caves and 35: Palolem Beach (Goa). Of Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Experiences I’ve done #’s 2: Kerala Backwaters, 5: Ajanta Caves, 6: Hampi, 7: Riding the Train, 9: Hill Stations, 10: Neighborhood Markets, 11: Goan Beaches, 12: Mumbai’s Architecture, 14: Wandering the Streets, 20: Delhi.