The India pages cover three trips. The most recent was in February 2017. Over a month, I travelled around Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh visiting Lucknow, Varanasi, Bhandavgar National Park, Maheshwar, Mandu, Orchha, Khajuraho, Agra and Delhi. I am presently uploading pages detailing these travels. Previously, in 2016, I took the less travelled route from Chennai to Kolkata, passing through Hyderabad, the tribal regions of Odisha and Chhatirgarh, the temple towns of Bhubaneshwar and Puri, and finishing with the vibrant city of Kolkata with a side trip to the amazing wildlife sanctuary of the Sundarbans, home of the Royal Bengal Tigers. Over twenty years previous to that, I had covered a great deal of the Western half of the country. For that trip I dusted off my old photo albums and scanned in the photos which make up the pages - the North West, Rajasthan, Goa and Hampi and the Far South.
I got a train for the short trip from Bharatpur to Delhi no problem at all. In contrast to Agra, the Delhi air was fresh and the city looked quite green - New Delhi anyway, as I had arrived in the south and was tuk-tukking north to my hotel in Pahanganj, near the main railway station and between New and old Delhi. This is the main backbacker centre and packed with hotels with a price to suit everyone. I usually choose a fairly decent hotel if I'm in a big city and the Hotel Godwin Deluxe was pretty good. Good enough for me to be really decadent and have a blueberry muffin and coffee on arrival. It's never straight forward however, as the wifi only worked in the stairwell which was a bit of a pain but there you go. What do you expect for £25 a night? Actually more than you get in India but that's another story.
From Khajuraho to Agra was the first daytime trip by train. Thankfully, I suppose, it was very uneventful and arrived in Agra pretty much to time. My first impressions of Agra were not good. I arrived at dusk and all I could see were clouds of dust and pollution and smoke. My throat was already burning by the time the tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at my hotel, the Coral Court Homestay. One positive thing was the fact that he was happy to take the fixed rate fee of 150Rs for the journey. I chose the Coral Court because it had an unprecedented score of 9.7 on Booking.com. I have to say, my first impressions weren't this high as I was given the last available room which was in the centre of the building and therefore windowless and the shower broke as soon as I got in and the water was tepid at best. However, the owners lived on site and were very friendly and helpful and soon all was sorted and I sat down to a very welcome pumpkin curry. My proper explorations into Agra would begin after a good night's sleep.
From looking at the map, the short hop from Orchha to Khajuraho should be very straightforward but it isn't. There are few trains and no direct buses. The guy at the hotel said the best bet was the 7.30am train. Not totally surprising but I got to the train station in plenty of time to find it deserted. Even at 7.30 there were only a few hopeful travellers looking wistfully up the railway line. At 8.30, I managed to buy a ticket but the station manager wasn't sure when the train would arrive. As it happens it came by at 9.15. I got chatting to a fellow passenger and it was just as well, as he told me we had to get off at a later station and then go to one of the end carriages as the train split in half! Just as well I'd met this bloke as who knows where I would have ended up.
It was fairly straightforward to get 2 buses back to Indore and I arrived in plenty of time to get another overnight train. And shock, horror, this one left on time and I got a good night's sleep! In fact the only delay was right at the end of the trip but I arrived safe and sound in Jhansi at 11.30am. Jhansi was a bit strange, mainly because it was election time and so all the shops were closed and apparently people were restricted in entering or leaving the city. The streets were certainly very quiet. However, I managed to get an autorickshaw for the fairly short 15km hop to Orchha.
Most of the time I like to take local transport as it's usually fairly reliable and you get a much better experience of the land and the people. Also, the bus and train stations are a great opportunity to people watch. However, I had been told that the only way to get to Maheshwar from Mandu was to get a series of slow buses so I decided to splash out a bit (800Rs) and get a taxi for the fairly short hop. It was an uneventful hour and a half except for a puncture which gave me a few minutes to stretch my legs and admire a very dry and dusty view. I suppose it's not so surprising that the wet season is a more popular time of year for the locals to go on holiday here. On the way I did see quite a few people walking along the road which is quite rare. They weren't Indian backpackers but pilgrims. Maheshwar is mentioned in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two most famous books in Indian history and is a very popular pilgrimage site and I was to meet quite a few in my time here. However, I digress. Another advantage of getting a taxi is that I avoided a fairly long trek from the bus station to the river where most of the hotels are located. I stayed at the Aashay Hotel and paid 1250Rs for a nice big room with bathroom and my own open area outside which looked out over a school. I got there at lunchtime and all the kids were in the playground having lunch after which they all disappeared home.
So I emerged from the tortuous 14 hour overnight bus trip in Indore. Although the bus disgorged its passengers in an unremarkable side street, a helpful autorickshaw driver was immediately on hand to take me to the Gangwal bus station where I could get a bus to Dhar and from there another bus to Mandu. I arrived at Gangwal just in time to be ushered onto the Dhar bus which was due to depart almost immediately. However, I did manage to get a welcome breakfast of chaat and chai to take with me.
After Varanasi I headed south into Madhya Pradesh. On the map about 400kms away, metaphorically a million miles. I left at 10.30 on the overnight train from bustling, noisy Varanasi train station and arrived deep in the Indian countryside at Umaria station at 8.30 the following morning. I was met by a bunch of auto-rickshaw drivers and one took me to the nearby bus station. I say bus station but it was just a dusty open space with a few blokes hanging around a single chai stall. But a bus did come and we were soon trundling towards my next destination, the village of Tala which was the entry point to the Bandhavgarh National park.
Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest cities in the world, one of the most sacred to Hindus and one of the most colourful and fascinating cities on Earth. That's some intro. But it is also one of the noisiest places on Earth. Once out of the train station I was assailed by an army of autorickshaw drivers and soon one of them was weaving me and the rickshaw in and out of some of the most crazy traffic in the world. But then I got to my hotel.
Lucknow is famous for a number of things: it rose to prominence as the home of the Nawabs of Oudh who were great patrons of the arts, especially culinary, and also gracious living. So they left quite a few grand buildings behind. It was also a major base for the raj and famous for the 147-day Siege of Lucknow which took place during the India Mutiny of 1857, or the First War of Independence as it is now known. There was certainly plenty to explore in any case.
According to the Lonely Planet, with its withering southern heat, roaring traffic and scarcity of outstanding sights, Chennai has always been the rather dowdy sibling among India's four biggest cities. I don't know about dowdy sibling but I have to say Chennai doesn't really have much going for it. Having said that, it IS India and therefore there is always something to see, taste and experience. And I spent a couple of enjoyable days getting under the skin of the place and exploring its highlights.
After a few days in the heat, hustle and bustle of Hyderabad, I was headed for a different world - the tribal markets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. But to get there, I first took a flight to the seaside resort of Visakhapatnam. Vizag is Andhra Pradesh's biggest city and port but staying near the wide, long beach, and sniffing in the fresh salty air, it definitely has a resorty feel to it. There is also a very wide prom and at sundown the locals and holidaymakers come down for a stroll along the beach and to buy snacks from the pushcarts. Not icecream and candyfloss, but muri masala. All over India there are chaat sellers. Chaat, as far as I could tell, was any sort of usually fried, savoury snack that was for sale from small food carts. Usually delicious and always very cheap. Along the seafront in Vizag all of the vendors sold Muri Masala which I never saw anywhere else (although it is very similar to Bhelpuri which originated in Mumbai). It is mainly puffed rice along with chopped onions, tomato, peanuts, coriander, salt, chilli powder and lemon all wrapped in a cone of newspaper - just like the chips at a bygone British seaside resort.
After a week in the Adivasi heartlands it was time to return to modern India. It is often said that travel in India is all about the train but this was to be my only long distance train journey. 20 years ago I was used to interminable queues and waiting for often trains already fully booked up. this time it was as easy as a few taps on my laptop. Well, it wasn't that easy, I needed to register on the site, get my credit card details accepted and then start attempting to book a ticket but overall it was far better than queueing in the station. The train itself was pretty similar to sleeper trains as I remember them, both in India and in fact Thailand. Comfortable and no end of snack sellers offering tasty titbits. I got on at 2.30pm, we left on time and actually arrived in Bhubaneswar at 8.30am the following morning also on time. And all for a similar price as an hour's trip by air.
As I had a few days spare on my Indian holiday, I decided to book an overnight trip to the Sundarbans. It was possibly the best decision I made all holiday. I did a bit of research and decided to go on a tour with tourdesundebans.com and they were fantastic. December and January are their peak months when their tours get packed but at the end of February it was only me, Yogish, an Indian guy from Mumbai and two Canadians Jake and Jordyn along with our guide AJ. It took all morning to get there. A few hours in a minibus followed by a very small, rickety ferry, a trip on the back of a strange hybrid three wheeler along narrow paths and through local villages and another rickety ferry. But then we had arrived at "eco village". "The brothers" as the three blokes who set up the tour company like to call themselves had purchased a bit of land just outside the Sundarbans National park and set up a half a dozen cottages. It was actually much more comfortable than I imagined. And, as an extra bonus there were very few mosquitos. We had some tea and a lie down but then in the late afternoon we were on our first recce. AJ got a small boat and we explored a number of the tributaries of the mangrove forest.
After my trip to India in 2016, I managed to dig out the photos of a previous trip I did in 1994. It was over 20 years ago but I am still amazed at the changes that have taken place over the years. Not just on the ground in India but also because it was a time before digital cameras, so I had to scan my old photos from a yellowing photo album. I'm not sure how many I took but I found it quite odd and a little disappointing that there were relatively few taken over a two month time span. For instance the only ones from Delhi are a single photo of the Jama Masjid and a couple of the Red Fort. I've even only got a few from the Taj Mahal. Maybe an excuse to retrace my steps on another holiday because it was a great trip...? I also managed to dig out my old diary of the time so it has been interesting to read about the places, hotels and the costs.
From Amritsar I took the overnight train to Delhi, quickly changing to another for Sawai Madupur. I must have been pretty hardy in those days or just in a mad hurry because I didn't even stay a night there before heading off to Jaipur. But I digress. The reason for going to Sawai Madupur was to visit the Ranthambore National Park and spot a tiger. My diary says I got a pony and trap from the train station to the tourist office where there was a jeep all ready to head to the park, so I just hopped on. I wasn't too hopeful of spotting a tiger as I was told there were only about 15 left at the time due to poaching. However, we had only been driving around for a short while before we saw two!
So I was waiting at the bus stop in Jaisalmer waiting for the bus to Barmer bathed in sweat. It was a fairly short hop of 2 hours. But once in Barmer, I noted that after the relatively clean streets of Jaisalmer I was back to the stench and pollution of a big Indian city and reflected that it wasn't so much of a surprise that there was currently an outbreak of bubonic plague. From Barmer I took an overnight bus to Bhuj arriving at 6am
After a pleasant few days in Diu it was time to move on. My next stop was Bombay (as it was still known then). Nowadays I would have no hesitation in finding a cheap flight but then it was another long distance trudge by road and rail. It started with an overnight bus journey to Ahmedabad. It wasn't an auspicious start as I noted we only moved 8kms in the first hour and although the bus was only one third full, my travelling companians seemed to be all drunk! In addition, the driver had the much dreaded screechingly loud Indian videos on. However, I seemed to get some sleep and was woken at 6am in Ahmedabad. I managed to get to the train station easily enough and then a ticket to Bombay which left at 7.15am. The train journey was uneventful and I arrived at 5pm, 22 hours after leaving Diu. However the journey wasn't quite over.
I stayed in Hampi for a few days relaxing and exploring more ruins and then got yet another overnight train, this time to Bangalore. I can only assume I kept on travelling overnight to save time and money (on hotels). I didn't have much luck in Bangalore as all the hotels seemed to be full so I went back to the train station and got a train to Mysore. I had more luck here. My diary just says I stayed in the Government run hotel and that the staff were very unhelpful. Although also run down, it had olde world charm, my room was spacious and the bathroom enormous. Not bad for 150Rs (£3)