Yesterday was a long, but mostly pleasant trip on a train. The trip lasted more than 8 hours, and we were more than a little nervous at a few points, when the train didn’t seem to be going where we wanted it to. It all worked out at the end.
For the first part of the journey, from Agra to Gwalior, the train was pretty well packed. We passed time by sitting in the top bunks, and occasionally talking around the wall that sort of separated the compartments. The train seemed to be identical to the one I took from Suzhou to Nanjing a few years back with Dan, Carly, and Paul. There were 6 seats in a compartment, facing each other, with two benches, one on top of the other—perpendicular to the other seats—across the walkway.
Thankfully, after Gwalior, the train very nearly cleared out, giving us free reign to sit wherever we pleased.
Once we cleared the major cities, the Indian countryside spread out before us in spectacular fashion. It’s really a beautiful country, with ancient, worn down mountains occasionally punctuating the rolling, largely agricultural terrain. The whole country seemed to have a sepia filter over it, with bright yellows and dull oranges dominating the landscape for mile after mile.
For a long time—at least an album’s worth of songs on my Ipod—I just leaned against the open door of the train and watched the scenery zoom past me, from just below my feet out to the distant horizon.
As the sun moved lower on the horizon and temperatures began to cool, the views became even more spectacular. A few sun-showers splashed across the landscape (and through the open windows), and then we were treated to the oranges, reds, and purples of a magnificent sunset, with an ominous, and equally spectacular, thunderstorm brewing in the distance.
We sat at the penultimate station for over a half an hour, watching the lightning strikes get closer and closer, and feeling the wind gain strength from a pleasant breeze, to a strong, gusting force. Finally, and for the first time during our trip, our train started moving in the opposite direction from which we had been going. Needless to say, this concerned us a great deal more than the storm, which was quickly fading back into the distance anyway.
I studied the map in the Lonely Planet, and it was only moderately helpful in assuaging my fears. It appeared that we would have to change directions, but doubt still lingered large. Christine then proposed that “we” ask the tourist of indiscriminate East Asian origin who was dressed up in full Indian garb, including a ridiculous-looking turban. “So,” I said to Christine, “You want me to ask him.” “Yes, that would be great.”
I approached the tourist, trying not to stare at his ridiculous turban, and asked where he was headed. “Khajuraho.” Oh good. “So, do you have any idea how much further it is?” “Yes,” he replied, “About half an hour.” I thanked him and returned, relieved, to Christine with the good news.
Just as he had said, we arrived at Khajuraho Station, exited, and were immediately swamped by ambitious tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers. Thankfully, we knew exactly where we wanted to go from there, arranged for a ride to the hotel from the first driver to agree to our asking price for the fare.
As I mentioned in my last post, Christine has made for a wonderful travel companion. We both seem to be adventurous in completely different ways, which has kept both of us slightly out of our respective comfort zones. I’m far more apt to try new (potentially dangerous) foods, and she’s more likely to take up an offer of a motorbike ride across country.
This was quite apparent yesterday when a guy came through the train selling (what appeared to be) fresh samosas. I quickly shelled out the dough in the form of a few rupees for the cooked variety. I offered some to Christine and she said, “I’ll see if you get sick first.” I’m pleased to report that I was perfectly fine, while she went the next 8 hours with nothing more substantial than a few dry crackers and some fruit.
Also, her domineering, take-no-shit attitude has helped us on all sorts of negations, and has saved us some money in the process. It is certainly more effective than my “Sure, whatever” apathetic approach to bargaining. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere, and it would probably do both of us well if we found it.
Today had quite a few ups and downs, but it ended with one of the highest notes of the trip so far. We set out at 7 to check out the famous Khajuraho temples, known for their erotic sculptures, some depicting kama sutra poses.
We headed out with the same tuk-tuk driver that picked us up from the station last night. He was accompanied by a friend, who acted as a tour guide for the morning. The first temple we visited was outstanding. We were the only ones wandering the expansive grounds as the sun rose steadily over the ancient grounds.
As we walked through the first, and newest, of the temples, we heard a devotee ringing a bell as several other worshippers gathered around to burn incense and sing. The other, older, temples dated back to the 11th century A.D. and had damage, sometimes quite severe, from various conflicts with Muslims over the centuries.
The temples became less and less impressive as we moved on, and then the driver tried to talk us into other, faraway locations, for an additional charge, of course.
It was approaching midday as we returned to the hotel. We decided to nap through the hottest part of the day. And when I say “decided,” I mean we “passed out from exhaustion.”
During my mild coma, Christine went out shopping, came back empty-handed, but with some good news. One of the hotel managers, a friendly, mustached man with a gentle demeanor by the name of Ajay, had offered to take us around town, first to the western group of temples, and then out to the mountains to watch sunset over this ancient town. Better yet, he would do this free of charge. Now, this is what I was talking about earlier; I would have been a little hesitant about heading out on a motorbike, but she jumped at the opportunity.
Thus far on our journey, we’ve been skeptical—and rightly so—of friendly Indians offering help. While I will write more on this subject later, most Indians have been incredibly friendly and also incredibly willing to free us of some of our spare cash in the process. Ajay, on the other hand, seemed to just be genuinely helpful. I know he made my day by handing me a business card for his friend’s Indian restaurant in Seoul. Good non-Korean food restaurants are few and far between in Seoul.
So, the three of us climbed on the back of his motorbike as he zipped us around town. Amazingly, the motorbike was a much better ride than the one we had experienced earlier from the tuk-tuk driver who seemed intent to scare the life out of us, any passing pedestrians, and livestock.
He snuck us around the back of the temples, where we didn’t have to pay, and he promptly pointed out an interesting carving. It was of a man, and how do I put this politely? Never mind, I’ll just come out and say it: the sculpture was of a man fucking a horse. I don’t recall ever seeing that position in the Kama Sutra. According to our guide, men got pretty lonely when they were away from their families during the various wars in the past. I’ll say.
Soon, we were back on the motorbike, cutting through a cricket match being played in an empty field, and heading toward the “Teeth Mountains,” to the east. Indeed, the mountains did look like a disembodied lower jaw, albeit one in need of major orthodonics, with teeth cutting across the blue sky.
Ajay proudly showed us around his farm, pointing out all the trees and what they were used for. The first tree apparently produced an ingredient in Coke. He showed us the dried berries and proudly stated that they fetched him 60 rupees (a little over $1) per kilo. He offered a couple to Christine and me, and I was the first to give the hard, dry fruit a try. It tasted a great deal like a raisin. Christine still had a skeptical look on her face, so I gave her a little encouragement. “Yeah, yeah, live a little,” she said with an eye roll, as she nervously took a small bite.
We didn’t make it up the mountains that evening—there was a storm close by—but seeing an Indian farm up close was really something special. Instead we watched the sun set over this agrarian landscape before making it back to Khajuraho.
Ajay then invited us over to his house that he shared with the owner of the hotel. They served us a delicious array of food and then all but insisted on giving Christine a henna tattoo. Her eyes said, “No way” but to my surprise, and perhaps her own, she agreed to it. I asked them how long it would last and they said about a month. The tattoo had already begun, so Christine just breathed a sigh of resignation.
I was itching to get out of there by the end of the evening. Hospitality is great and all, but I was still a bit weary of our new friends and I felt a little guilty as there was no way to repay them for all their kindness. Soon thereafter, we went to bed, content with the knowledge that we had ventured off the beaten path, and seen some things that no tourists and few travelers have.