Friday, 13 August 2010

STINKING STATIONS AND FASCINATING FORTS - Sanchi, Gwalior and Allahabad, India

Our journey from Lucknow was the worst so far on this trip. It is quite a long story, so let's just say we slept well all the way on the train to Bhopal, and arrived in this unfriendly, filthy, stinking, noisy, expensive and fly-ridden city. We had a very hard time finding a room, decided to leave again immediately, and after waiting all day for a train that never came, took a bus to Sanchi, our haven!! Bhopal has joined the ranks as one of the worst cities we've visited, alongside such glorious places as Ambala, Guwahati, Indore and Aurangabad, although on subsequent day trips there from Sanchi, we did find some nicer areas in the town.

So, two weeks in Sanchi was a pleasant contrast to the cities we've been in before that. Another re-visit, having been here on our very first trip to India- of course, it's changed, but we found it to be small, friendly, quiet, cheap, interesting and COOL!! The monsoon sort of arrived while we were in Sanchi, after threatening all through June and July. The rain in this region has been very minimal compared to normal years, and we have been very lucky (or unlucky) to have had almost no rain travelling in India during the summer/monsoon!! Still, the occasional shower is a great relief, and still gives us most of the day to do our sight-seeing. There is SO much to see in the area, much of it Buddhist ruins, but also 12,000 year old cave paintings, forts, museums, mosques, giant lingams, ancient Hindu carvings in caves high up in the rocks. Most of the places are recommendations from locals, and not much in the guidebook.

Stupas, Sanchi

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka
Cave paintings, Bhimbetka
Lingam with Shiva face, Udaigiri caves
Udaigiri caves

Bhojpur temple

Biggest lingam in the world- Bhojpur

After quiet Sanchi, Gwalior town was quite full on, but we quickly found a hotel in the perfect location next to the bus and train station, and a short walk to food and drink stalls and internet! Splashed out a bit for Sal's birthday, with a room with TV, hot water, and air cooler. The fact that there were no English channels on the TV, it was WAY too hot to use the hot water, and the "air cooler" was a machine that blew dust into the room, didn't make it any less special! In our travels through the area on previous trips, we'd always managed to miss out on Gwalior, so it was great to finally get here, and explore the massive and impressive fort. Although it was built about 800 years ago, some colourful tiles still remain on the outside of the lovely palace building, and one side of the fort has ancient Jain carvings, some six meters high, and very unusual. Not being much else to see in Gwalior, we left a couple of days later for Allahabad.

Gwalior fort
Gwalior fort
Gwalior fort

Gwalior fort

Gwalior fort
Gwalior fort
Gwalior fort

Allahabad was a pleasant surprise- one of the nicest big Indian cities we've visited. Like Lucknow, it also has spacious streets, lots of established trees and gardens, big mansion blocks, and Moghul ruins.

Ruins, Allahabad

It also had an extraordinary number of homeless/beggars in our hotel vicinity. The best thing about Allahabad, however, was our massive room at the once palatial Royal Hotel. We had an upstairs corner room with 3 lots of french doors leading out to a huge verandah (overlooking slums, rubbish and the local kids shitting area), high ceilings (leaking), massive bathroom (possibly never been cleaned), antique furniture (including a humongous bed with a mattress as hard as a rock), and a sweeping staircase leading up to it (splattered in bird poo and paan (disgusting red colored chewing tobacco))!!!! But the staff were friendly- sometimes a little too much. One night we had a knock at the door. Richard answered it.
"What do you want?"
Staff :" I am wanting to talk with you , sir"
Richard: "Is there a problem?"
Staff: "No problem, sir, I am just wanting to talk with you"
Richard: "We were sleeping"
Staff: "I am very sorry, sir. When can I come back and talk to you?"
So, loads of character and charm, but very dilapidated- all for 200 rupees a night (AU$5).

Royal Hotel, Allahabad
Royal Hotel, Allahabad

Our room, Royal Hotel, Allahabad

Our room Royal Hotel, Allahabad

Royal Hotel, Allahabad

Allahabad is yet another Hindu pilgrimage place, and people come to see the place where the Ganges river meets the Yamuna river- kind of cool, because one's light brown, and the other dark, and we saw them mingling from the shore. The ghat area was disappointing with none of the charm of Varanasi. It was mostly huge, dusty, empty areas used by the 70 million+ (!!!!) pilgrims during the four yearly Kumb Mela festival. We loved wandering through the old town, though, admiring the old buildings and looking at the market stalls. Not quite as hectic as chowks in other big cities.

So, although the second half of our 6 months in India has been a complete contrast to the first (some of the richest states in the country, and then some of the poorest), we've very much enjoyed the vibrancy and craziness of the "real" India. It's also tired us out, and we will be grateful to arrive back in Malaysia in the next few days, and recuperate on the islands for a while. India has turned our bodies saggy from weight loss and no upper body exercise (Richard has lost nearly 20 kilos!!), and EXTREMELY pale, so we will be a scary sight on the beach!!

Ironically, our health has been perfect since we've been down on the filthy, dusty, unhygienic plains, with the first three months in the clean, fresh mountain air being the time we were the most sick (especially Richard). We've been eating well, especially enjoying the fruits in season- huge variety of mangoes, plums, pineapple, papaya and crunchy apples. Of course, being mostly vegetarian, India is great for the range of veggies, and apart from the occasional splurge on meat or western food, we've pretty much been surviving well on rice, roti (bread), and delicious curries, although (I know it's hard to imagine) we are quite over this kind of food.

As for costs, sadly, but inevitably, India is getting much more expensive. It's no longer the bargain basement destination it once was, and although cheap food/rooms/transport are still available, they are harder to find. The petrol prices have risen a great deal even in the last year, and the price hike is most noticeable on rickshaws and food. Apart from in a few areas such as Rajasthan, Gujurat, and parts of the North west, there aren't many rooms under AU$10 any more. Varanasi was our cheapest room at 160 rupees (AU$4), and our splurge in Gwalior the most at 600 rupees (AU$15).

Richard loves to tell the story from 2005, when we leaving Delhi airport after 4 months in India, and having problems with a scam at the airport, and Sally yelled " I'm never coming back to this  $#@**  country again" !! Unlike that trip, we are not happy or keen to leave this time, and are already planning our next trip here ! A lot of that is due to the time we've taken to travel around slowly and steadily, and not tire ourselves out too much (very easy to burn out here!). For us, it's the best way.

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