The recap so far… 102.5 hours in transit covering 4,919 kms over 21 days has brought me from the southern tip of India to Agra. Despite being very close to Agra while in Delhi (here), I failed to make it to the Taj Mahal… so I figured I had to see it on my way to Nepal. Agra was as far north as I’d be going in this part of India, as afterwards, I’d be reversing course for a bit then heading eastward, before switching it up and heading back northward to Darjeeling. Now, in order to keep to my planned schedule after Pachmari (my last stop before Agra) I had to start moving really quickly, no more than one day in any place basically, on my way up towards Darjeeling. My trip to Agra exemplified this kind of travel… I arrived on an overnight train at 6:45 AM and was leaving on a 1:35 PM train later that day. Just enough time to see the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and have a couple of decent meals before heading out… but let me tell you about getting here first.
I mentioned in my last post that all the trains had been packed with folks traveling for Holi (an Indian festival). And the way the India Rail accommodates all these people is the unreserved ticket, which is a ticket that lets you on the train, but doesn’t give you a seat (you can sit anywhere that a reserved ticket holder is not sitting, on a first come, first serve basis). Generally, these those with unreserved tickets are confined to the second class chair cars, but for festivals the ticket collectors turn a blind eye and let these folks in the sleeper class cars (where I generally am). So, when I go to board my train to Agra (circa 10 PM), it’s already packed with people… I find my way to my berth only to find an old woman dead asleep in it. I ask the people around and turns out it’s a family (or course only some of them with reserved tickets). The son (about 25ish) says he has berth in a different car that I can have if I let his mother stay there… same, same on the berth… an upper (i.e the top). I’m skeptical, but end up following the guy about 6 cars down the line (climbing, with my bag, over all kinds of people and their baggage who have camped out in the aisles and between cars). My skepticism is proved correct when I get to his berth and find out it’s not exactly an upper berth, it’s a side upper (Indian sleeper class cars have compartments with six bunks, three to a side, however, perpendicular to those compartments across the aisle, are two other bunks, the side upper and lower)… this being a problem because I’m about six inches too short for the side bunks (at least in the bunks in the compartment I can let my feet hang into the aisle). Now I’m pissed, but I can just see the pleading in the guy’s eyes, so I take it. I make him go through the trouble of clearing out the two people already sitting there and finding a place for my bag. Done and done, I hoist myself up there and settle in. However, this car (and all the cars actually) is just overflowing with people… to the point where there are two people in each bunk and every inch of floor space is taken. Here’s a blurry photo from my bunk looking into the compartment across the aisle:
Now a couple things you can’t get from the picture… first, it’s hot (temperature, plus the body heat from that many people and only, somewhat inadequate, fans and open windows as cooling), and I’m wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt (to prevent mosquito bites), so I’m schvitzing. Second, it kind of smells like shyte… the bathroom is pretty close by (this is also the first compartment in from where the coach doors and the bathrooms are located), and with all these people, it’s getting heavy usage, plus many of these folks are a tad on the ripe side after having been travelling for a while. Third you can’t see the five guys sitting below me in the side lower bunk, nor the dozens of people occupying the other floor and aisle space… but, believe me, they’re there. So let’s just say it’s not very comfortable (understatement). The crowding is bad enough that a kid (20ish, one of four people sitting in the upper bunk across the aisle from me) seats himself cross-legged on the tiny corner of space my feet aren’t occupying. I give him the stink eye, but he just shrugs his shoulders and gestures to look around…. and he’s got a fair point. I’m reading now, so I tell him can stay until I go to sleep, then bye-bye (as I have a reserved ticket I cab kick him off). But a half hour later, when I’m ready to turn in, I can’t bring myself to kick the kid out… he’s all scrunched up and honestly, not taking up much space (and, believe me, there’s no space anywhere else for him to go)… plus, even if he goes, it’s not like I can stretch myself out fully as the bunk is still too short for that… so I let him stay. So, it’s hot, I’m sweaty, it stinks, it’s loud (open windows on a train and all those people) and I’m cramped as a mother-, but what can I do? Honestly, it’s miserable… so I just start to smile… because hey… it really can’t get any worse than this. At least I have a bunk and I don’t have to sleep sitting up on the floor with 20 other dudes the whole night. And then I laugh a bit more as, after all, this is what I signed myself up for… a bit of India by train adventuring. After that I sleep… how shall we say… fitfully.
I arrive in Agra (happy to be off that train), check my bags and am immediately accosted by rickshaw drivers, but at least Agra’s station has a pre-paid rickshaw booth, and, nicely for me, it has rates for half-day and full-day touring (so you can pay a flat rate, even if it’s a touch high, without having to haggle over a price while not knowing what the actual price should be). I hire a guy for a half-day and have him take me somewhere for breakfast (which he nailed). I fuel up, hit the Taj Mahal… and all I can say is that what everyone else says is true… it is absolutely, stunningly beautiful (and since it’s the Taj Mahal and all, they actually hire people to clean up, so there’s no trash, or animal shyte anywhere… a first for me in India). I spend about two hours there, and then my driver takes me to the Agra Fort, which is also impressive, but no Taj. The guy takes me to a lunch place (decent) and then I spend the ride back to the train station fighting off his request to tkae me to some shops he knows (and his not so subtle hints at me giving him a tip). Back on the train going the ame way I came in for a short ride to Jhansi (although the scheduled 3 hours tuned into 5 hours… all next to the most annoyingly hostile man I’ve had the non-pleasure to spend with with in India) and then a 20 kilometer auto-rickshaw ride to Orchha (I think I found a room by 8:30 PM).
Orchha is similar to Hampi in that it’s a small village situated in the midst of some spectacular ruined castles… all in a generally serene setting long the banks of two rivers. A very good place to wander around in and just relax. The first night I was there I got to talking to one of the waiters who offered to show me a spot to go swimming in the river the following afternoon (yes). I also got to watch an impromptu (very good actually) musical performance in the temple square by members of India’s third sex…. all very cool (there were about 20 old, and I mean old, Indian dudes in white and orange robes, seated, all playing various cymbals and drums, while about 4 third sexers danced and sang and collected money). The next day I was up early and hit the ruins, met my waiter-friend and went swimming in the river, and then ended up eating dinner with him and his family that night (yes, they hit me up for money, which I was happy to give as they were very warm, inviting and friendly).
My original plan was to get up early the next day and take the bus to Khajuraho (just down the rode in relative terms), then I had a night train leaving Khajuraho that night at 11 PM (heading to Varanasi). I didn’t think it would take more than a morning to get to Khajuraho, giving me the whole afternoon and evening to see its famous temples. However, in asking around, I found out the bus ride was something like 6 hours long, plus I had to take an auto-rickshaw back to Jhansi to even think about getting a seat on the bus, which would a) be super-tiring as I’d have to leave at around 5 AM, plus the bus rides in India aren’t exactly relaxing and b) might not give me very much time at all to see anything in Khajuraho as the temples close at sunset (6 PMish). So I cheated a bit and hired a car (for $40… crazy expensive in India terms), which picked me up at 8 AM and whisked me there in air-conditioned semi-comfort in 3.5 hours (yes, even in a car it took 3.5 hours to go the 175 kilometers 110 miles). Now Khajuraho, like Hampi and Orchha, is another small village set amidst some spectacular ruins…. the ruins, in this case, being the famed “erotic carving” temples. On arrival, I found a hotel for the day and then spent the afternoon wandering around the temples, which have been restored rather nicely… you can tell this is an important site as well by the nice manicured lawns and lack of trash and animal shyte surrounding the temple complex. Some more good food, relaxing and cleaning up and back to the train station for my overnight train to Varanasi. Now, I’m not sure if it was because this isn’t a popular line (with non-tourists that is), or because the Holi festival started that night, but the train was the least crowded I’ve seen an Indian train since I arrived here in December… it was like the train in Thailand… more tourists than Indians. Strange… I guess to make up for the relative comfort and space, the train managed to pull into Varanasi three hours late.
Varanasi… wow… for me, Varanasi is India, but even more so… maybe India full power would be the correct term, or India concentrated. Everything about India that makes it India, the chaos, the colors, the smells, the animals, the people, everything, seems magnified here. Just walking around is a full frontal assault on your senses… I loved it. Varanasi is Hinduism’s holiest city… situated on the banks of the Ganges River. The main/old city is full of temples and twisting/winding lanes that all seem to lead down to the riverside ghats (steps and piers that lead out into the Ganges). Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation from the cycle of rebirth, so bodies are cremated down on the ghats (yes, I saw burning bodies… no, I did not take pictures). In addition, the ghats are filled with encampments of Sadhus… ascetic, wandering Hindu monks (many naked, covered in ash, or wearing the traditional orange-colored robes). The place is just madness…
As I’ve mentioned before, the Hindu festival Holi was being celebrated on the 27th… now the night before the 27th there are ritual fires (and a party), and on the morning of the 27th is the color festival itself, with that being over out by mid-afternoon. I think I’ve said before that I didn’t really have any idea that such a thing would be going on, so when I planned my trip and bought up all my train tickets, I ended up doing it in a way where I pretty much missed the festival (details…). I was on the train from Khajuraho the night of the fires, and still on the train during the morning color festival (it was 3 hours late)… that also probably explains why the train was rather empty. Anyways, when I got to Varanasi I got to see the aftermath… streets, walls, people and animals all covered in colored powder or paint (and the odd really drunk person petering out)… but had missed the party. However, that night I was wandering around town with some other tourists I had just met, when we heard music on the air. We all trace the sound back to the source and found an impromptu street party going on, which we promptly joined… music pumping, people (mostly little kids) dancing, colored powder flying through the air, animals just hanging out… it was great. So I’m happy to report I got a least to have a mini-Holi celebration as you can see here:
I spent the next day wandering around the town, watching a nice lightening storm wash over the city and generally relaxing. That night I was off on a night train to Jalpaiguri, where I’d catch a jeep up the hill to Darjeeling. It was my last (scheduled) train ride in India and I’d booked an a/c car ticket (my first a/c overnight train since my 36-hour haul from Delhi to Goa in December… fancy… and the only ticket available), so I was looking forward to a bit of (relative) luxury. The ride was nice… I even arrived 25 minutes early. I ate lunch and found a shared jeep for the three hour ride up to Darjeeling to start a trip into the mountains that will likely last until I leave Nepal.
3/24: Train from Agra to Jhansi: 5 hrs. 215 kms. 405 Rps*.
3/24: Auto-rickshaw from Jhansi to Orchha: 0.5 hrs. 20 kms. 225 Rps.
3/26: Car from Orchha to Khajuraho: 3.5 hrs. 175 kms. 2,000 Rps.
3/26: Overnight train from Khajuraho to Varanasi: 14 hrs. 455 kms. 300 Rps.*
3/28: Overnight train from Varanasi to Jalpaiguri: 13 hrs. 715 kms. 1795 Rps.**
3/29: Shared Jeep from Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling: 3 hrs. 110 kms. 250 Rps.
Sub-Total (3/24-3/28): 39 hours in transit to cover 1,690 kms (1,050 miles) over 6 days for 4,975 Rps ($90.45 USD).
Grand Total (3/3-3/29): 141.5 hours in transit to cover 6,610 kms (4,100 miles) over 27 days for 10,717 Rps ($194.85 USD)… or $0.03/km at the warp speed like rate of 47 kmph (29 mph).
* I bought these tickets through a travel agent in Hampi, and all inlcude surcharges of 50 Rps to 250 Rps (the latter being for him having to make the 30 km roudtrip to the train station for foreign tourist quota tickets).
** The fare is so high here becasue this is an air-conditioned car with a 250 Rps foreign tourist quota surcharge from the travel agent.
My other check lists… of the 35 Things Not to Miss in India from my guidebook, I have now seen #’s 3: Kerala Backwaters, 4: Ajanta Caves, 5: Taj Mahal, 9: Khajuraho, 11: Orchha, 15: Kochi, 17: Cricket (in Mumbai), 21: Madurai, 23: Hampi, 24: Ellora Caves, 26: Varanasi and 35: Palolem Beach (Goa). Of Lonley Planet’s Top 20 Experiences I’ve done #’s 1: Taj Mahal, 2: Kerala Backwaters, 3: Varanasi, 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, 16: Khajuraho, 20: Delhi.