Saturday, 23 August 2008

23 August 2008: Cave paintings of Bhimbetka

The rock shelters and paintings of Bhimbetka, 41km south of Bhopal, contain some of the world's oldest Stone Age paintings. They were discovered in 1957-58 by Dr Vishnu Shridhar Wakanker, around 9,000 years after the artists put brush to rock.

The caves were very impressive, with one towering high and having a tunnel running all the way through it. It would've been perfect for sports climbing! The paintings were beautiful, with the oldest painted white. As with television, colour came much later. Our favourite painting was the bison chasing the distressed hunter.

On the way to the caves, we met some nice kids. They were on their way home from school and were keen to chat to us in English. We also met a pleasant group of men at the caves. We were really pleased to meet such nice and normal people who were genuinely curious and friendly. We protested that we weren't celebrities but the men insisted on taking our photo. The expressions on their faces range from dumbstruck (far left) to pride (far right).

On the walk back to the main road we were accompanied by five cows. Once we left them, we came across four water buffalo doing what they do best in the heat of the late afternoon. Later on, it rained for the first time since we left Mumbai. We have been so lucky that we've managed to get some beautiful weather even though it's the monsoon season. Glad the gamble with the timing of our visit to India has worked out ok so far.

Our observation today is that there are very few women around on the buses, at sights and on the streets, with the ratio being somewhere around 90% men to 10% women.

We're feeling slightly less frazzled today than we did yesterday. We're looking forward to our next destination, Gwalior, which is home to an impressive fort.

Friday, 22 August 2008

22 August 2008: Sanchi

Located 46km from Bhopal, the small village of Sanchi is famous for its Buddhist stupas. Built in 262 BC, the stupas were forgotten about until they were rediscovered by the British in 1819. The site was restored between 1881 and 1919.

We travelled by a packed public bus to Sanchi, with Jen sitting on the row behind me. Unfortunately, some dirty man repeatedly tried to grope her through a gap between the seat back and bench. It stopped when a furious Jen tried to grab the offending hand to give the owner a public telling off. Not a very pleasant situation, and it put a downer on the rest of the day.

Arriving at the stupa, we felt further harassed by groups of guys who gave us very long, intrusive stares and whose gazes followed our every movement. What a contrast to the women we've seen here. They carry themselves impeccably, and would never stare like some of the men do.

The stupas themselves were well worth the visit. By mid-afternoon, the number of visitors had dwindled, and we enjoyed the views in the peace and quiet. The four carved gateways surrounding the main stupa were a highlight.

On our journey back to Bhopal, the water buffalo were having a great time. They were wallowing in the lakes in the late afternoon sun. What a classic postcard picture image of India!
Our Lonely Planet guide book summed up the day nicely. India has the “ability to inspire, frustrate, thrill and confound all at once”. We agree. And because we don't want the post to be too negative, here's a list of ten things we like about India.

1.Cows holding up the traffic and cute Indian Palm Squirrels.

2.Gulab Jamun (super rich treacle pudding).
3.Masala Dosa (crispy pancakes with potato filling).

4.Chai tea (spiced tea which you can't get enough of).

5.Superfast internet everywhere.
6.Whizzing though town in a rickshaw.
7.Atmospheric evening markets.
8.The trains – they're so comfortable.
9.Ancient historical sites.

10.Women's colourful clothing: sarees and salwar kameez (tunic & trouser combo) .

Thursday, 21 August 2008

21 August 2008: Bhopal

First impressions of Bhopal weren't great. Disembarking from the train at 3.20am to a platform full of women sleeping rough, being swamped by numerous taxi touts and then walking down dimly lit streets to our hotel didn't bode well. And being the unenviable home of the world's worst industrial accident, Bhopal needed to do a lot to make us like it. Why then did we come here? Because it's a good base for some other sights.

Surprisingly, by the end of our first day, we warmed to the place. First, we managed to get our next three train tickets booked without too much hassle. We paid in rupees rather than our limited US dollars. We wish we'd managed to get a photo of us at the ticket booth, as it was quite the comedy scene. A crowd of Indian gentlemen were literally breathing down our necks, wrestling each other to be served next. If you leave even a tiny gap in between you and the person in front in a queue, every man and his cousin will be guaranteed to squeeze in. So you have to just forget about personal space and get territorial.

Once finished at the train station, we got an auto-rickshaw to our lunch venue. Unfortunately, the driver was rather confused and needed directions to where we wanted to go. He was a bit miffed that we weren't going to pay for his lengthy detours. It was hard to argue with us as we were running away. Lunch at Bapu Ki Kutia was excellent – today's special was Mushroom Hyderabadi which went down easily. This country is truly a vegetarian's paradise with lots of very nutritious and tasty dishes. Look at the portion sizes too. This is the dosa which Jen ordered yesterday (right).

We walked off lunch at the Van Vihar National Park. It's home to many animals living in fairly decent conditions. The 4km walk goes past hyenas, bears, lions, leopards, tigers, crocodiles, snakes and birds. It was a bit like the West Midland's Safari Park but without a car. The local Bhopalese also got to see a rare exhibit today – two white Europeans – and they were busy staring at this surprise addition to the menagerie. One guy on a bicycle took a paparazzi photo of us as he rode directly at us – he didn't even ask!

Early evening we went on a cruise of the Bhopal's Upper Lake, a 46km long expanse of water which was beautiful in the setting sun. We ended up missing most of the scenery, as we were too busy swapping stories with a couple of Italians who were also staying at Hotel Sonali. As a special treat for our evening meal, we visited the luxurious Jehan Numa Palace Hotel. The food was very good, and the prices were reasonable.

A great first day in Bhopal.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

19 August 2008: The Ajanta Caves

The impressive Ajanta caves lie around 60km south from Jalgaon. There are 30 caves along the steep canyon side. The caves date from 200 BC to 650 AD and are famous for their intricate paintings and stone carvings. The caves were discovered by a British party in 1819.

The semi-darkness inside the caves was a dark contrast to the bright sunshine and searing heat outside. We were blind each time we entered a cave, stumbling along in our bare feet on the cool stone floor. The paintings were certainly impressive and the colours beautiful, but some were in poor condition, so it was impossible to figure out what the painting was about. We were most impressed by the age of the place and the sheer effort that it must have taken to carve out of the rock.

We climbed up to the viewing point on top of the canyon for a stunning vista of the caves. The experience was spoiled by a couple of touts trying to get us to walk further along the cliff tops. Feeling cautious about their motives, we made a hasty retreat. Apart from this it was a great day out.

On the bus back to Jalgaon we met a lovely Korean guy called Shin who'd spent a month travelling around India already. He very kindly pointed out the vomit explosion at the back of the bus which we were about to sit in. (So that was why there were seats free in the bus!) In the evening we had our first beer since arriving in India.

Staying at the spotlessly clean Hotel Plaza, the owner gives complimentary cups of masala tea and is extremely friendly and helpful. A welcome relief from the Welcome Inn and Hotel City Palace. I hope our other hotels will be as great as Hotel Plaza...

Read about our last day in Mumbai.

18 August 2008: Farewell Mumbai

Checking out of the plush West End Hotel, our standard of living plummeted as we moved to the Hotel City Palace. This was just to kill time until we caught the midnight train to Jalgaon. The only interesting thing about Hotel City Palace was that the lift played 'Jingle Bells'.

Our last afternoon was spent gorging ourselves at Indigo Delicatessen again – our last western meals for sometime. The deserts were great – croissant bread and butter pudding and a trio of chocolate mousses. Yum yum!! Some final sightseeing included University of Mumbai and the High Court.

With eight hours still to pass, we watched our first Bollywood film whilst in India – Singh is Kinng. Not sure about the plot as the dialogue was all in Hindi. The big set piece dances around Luxor, Egypt were impressive though. We saw the film in the beautiful, art deco Eros cinema. It must have been nearly 80 years old and harked back to a time bfore huge out-of-town mutliplexes. The cinema was as much part of the experience as the film.

The overnight train trip to Jalgaon was very pleasant. The train was very long - it took us 10 minutes to walk along the platform to get to our carriage. Once there, we chatted with a very knowledgeable Indian Army major before the sheets, pillows and blankets arrived. We slept well although Jen got a little motion sick with the swaying train. It was great to wake up in the early morning and see the sun shining over the green fields.

It was a relief to be seeing a different side of India.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

17 August 2008: Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island is about a one-hour boat trip from the Gateway of India. Luckily, the initial swell calmed down and our boat navigated its way through massive tankers, oil rigs, and past the naval dockyard complete with aircraft carrier. No young children throwing up on this journey, just urinating directly on the deck instead.

The island is famous for its cave temples carved into the basalt rock. The main temple houses a giant statue of Sadhashiva, a three faced Shiva representing the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe. The temples are over 1,200 years old.

The island is also home to some impressive defences. The aptly named Cannon Hill is home to twin cannons. The cannons were made in Britain and had the seal of King Edward VII on them. (Edward VII was Emperor of India from 1901 to 1910). This group of men asked us to take a photo of them posing on the cannon.

On our return to Mumbai we had an impressive view of the Gateway of India from the sea, before stopping for dinner at a very fine delicatessen. No food poisoning this time, just gout. I had a cheese fondue and Jen opted for the traditional roast chicken dinner.

Just in case you were wondering where the cows were, here are some on the side of a fashionable Colaba street.