Pune, Nashik, Ellora, Ajanta, Mandu Gwiandor, Agra to Delhi Wed 22 Jul Sun 2 Aug 2009
Just prior to leaving we did a quick whirl around a few of Pune's attractions which we'd not seen including the Tribal Cultural Museum and the Raja Dinkar Kelekar Museum - a really eclectic private collection see www.rajakelkarmuseum.com - both were interesting. We left the car and walked but when it really started to pour down we jumped in an auto rickshaw and had a whiz around the old town full of interesting buildings and with a very different feel to where we'd be staying.
We also took in the ruins of the Shaniwar Wada Palace with its imposing fortress gate, though we didn't go inside. The rains were very heavy and we saw a lot of entrepreneurial umbrella salesmen and a lot of soggy camels!
The camels are actually on tour from up north (Rajasthan probably) they bring them down in caravans and scratch out a living giving rides when the heat up north drives anyone but mad dogs away. The owners camp in basic tarpaulin tents on the edges of cities - which must be a tough existence.
Anyway sadly we finally had to leave Matthias's flat which meant we lost our "staff"!! The 3 young men turned up every day to clean up around us - there often seemed to be far more staff than we needed. We were reminded of the old "how many X does it take to change a light bulb? " jokes when we needed this doing and 6 staff arrived!!! Labour is very cheap here and maybe to protect salaries jobs are very specific - everyone has just their job to do and they don't like to step outside it! We could get used to having this help but we haven't room for staff in the car so we waved a sad good bye to the guys!
We were also sad to leave the excellent broadband connection which was a real luxury as we usually have to slum it in sticky internet cafes! We finally got Skype up and running - and spoke to our friends Cam and Asa in Dee Why which was fun. It was incredible we felt like we were all in the same room as the picture shows. I also got to speak to my friend Rachel and even got the aged parents Skyping which was a major achievement! It was lovely to catch up with people - pictures and all!
Finally in the rain we left Pune and headed north to our first stop the Nashik (or Nasik depending on which map!) region noted for its wine. Nasik itself stands on the Godavari one of India's holiest rivers and so is surrounded with temples and bathing ghats for pilgrims to bath in holy water. Incongruously it is now also a centre for wineries. There are approximately 20 odd wineries in the area dating from 1998 onwards and their strength as a tourist attraction is starting to be exploited. We stopped at one -Chateau Indage - and had a tasting followed by a nice lunch. It was weird like being back in the Hunter Valley - only with an Indian flavor - it's not often you see palm trees in the vines! The wines were actually pretty good and we bought a couple of bottles from the factory outlet next door.
We headed into Nasik intending to find the tourist information and pick their brains as to where to camp. This proved to be pretty tough as there was a big political meeting in the building backing onto the tourist office so a lot of the roads were temporarily shut down. Eventually some passers by felt sorry for us and stopped to help! We got to the office (the whole area was alive with police) and had just sat down when pandemonium broke out outside, A man protesting about something had doused himself in petrol and set himself alight!! The tourist man ushered us away "we are having a few political problems here presently." Quite!
Anyway after that excitement we asked him if they could recommend anywhere to camp. He suggested Sula Vineyards a winery we had heard of who have a small resort and restaurant about 20 kms out of town. This all sounded fine but to make sure we asked the man to ring. He did so and they rang back to say that it was ok to park the caravan. All good - off we drove in the still driving rain and (after a few wrong turns) arrived at the Sula Vineyards out in a fairly remote area. It was a lovely looking funky building with a tasting area and a bar overlooking the vineyards. The man Andrew had spoken to greeted us and said we had to speak to the manager but did we need to order anything? We decided to order a bottle of red and a cheese plate- a bit of a splash out for us but we felt if we were camping there we should. Anyway the manager arrived - very good English all smiles - and we had a pleasant chat for 15 minutes or so. Eventually he said of course we could park though there would be a nominal charge - of 5,000 rupees!!!! To put this in perspective the most we have ever paid for a night's camping is 150 rupees - a decent budget double room with bathroom and TV anywhere but Mumbai usually comes in around 500 rupees!!! How could it cost over $100 USD for one night sleeping in our caravan on the edge of their property??? Thanks but no thanks ……………this had really put us out as it was now almost 8pm Andrew had been driving all day and there was really nowhere else to go. We left without having our wine or platter!!! In the post mortem we went through this - did he actually mean 500 rupees - which whilst on the high side for camping was more believable. The guy spoke good English so it seemed unlikely -but who knows!
We found the only other restaurant in the area and asked if we could camp there if we ate there. Again they had to ask the manager and in the meantime we ate - but no answer materialized. We have had this reaction a few times. I am currently reading "maximum city" a brilliant book about Bombay by Suketu Mehta - and I find I strongly disagree with one point he makes. He says India is the land of the "no" I find the opposite. People hate giving you a negative answer so they will either say yes but with a ridiculous set of conditions or just ignore the question. Often by the time we get out of them they don't want us to park it leaves us in a difficult situation - driving in the dark. If they just told you "no" up front you'd have time to sort yourself out.
Anyway that night we just camped on the road and were perfectly ok though we woke up very early surrounded by a curious posse of field workers on their way to the wineries!! We were really looking forward to our wine and cheese too!!!! Have to wait till France I guess!!!
Still in the rain we drove on to Ellora the site of 34 World Heritage listed Hindu Buddhist and Jain cave temples. On the way we drove past Daulatabad an imposing 14th century hill top fortress though we didn't climb to the top but only had a look around the outside.
After a beautiful drive through rolling hills we arrived at the caves and went to a little restaurant Vrindavan to have lunch. Amazingly the owner who had seen us drive up and ran a small guest house came and asked us would we like to park there - for no charge of course! One extreme to the other but we said yes and spent 2 very comfortable nights there camping under the trees - though we had to fight off the local monkeys a few times and we once lost a casually set aside bunch of breakfast bananas!!!
The next day we went and got a very nice government guide - Madhusudon - and had a look around the caves. They really were incredibly impressive and if they're not one of the world's 7 wonders they should be!
Over 5 centuries (from 600 AD) these rock temples were carved out of this 2km long escarpment and decorated everywhere with incredibly intricate carvings.
The real masterpiece of Ellora is the huge Kailasa temple like the Elephanta caves in Mumbai this one was dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is amazingly hewn out from one piece of rock making it the world's largest monolithic structure. Beginning in 760 AD it took 6,000 labourers 150 years to complete and the amount of detail and the sheer size is staggering!
The first caves built were the Buddhist then as that religion declined the Hindu and finally the Jain between the 5th and 10th centuries.
Despite dodging the showers we felt it was a great time to come as as we walked around the caves (which are spread over 5 km) the greenery was beautiful and lush and the waterfalls were in full flow. The little squirrels have made the temples their home and were to be seen scampering around everywhere. We really enjoyed the tour and would recommend getting a guide as ours was a wealth of information and there was a lot we'd have missed alone.
We spent a bit of time relaxing in Ellora and that afternoon headed into the local bigger town of Aurangabad to hit the internet. We headed back at about 7pm Friday night. It was incredibly as we pulled out of the town we noticed huge crowds of people trying to get a lift. Almost all the 30km back to Ellora the entire streets were full of people - all walking most of them young many barefoot. It was incredible and quite scary as by now it was dark the roads were pretty twisty and narrow and everywhere were masses of people all over the road. We wondered what on earth could be happening and were seriously worried that we wouldn't be able to get into our camp spot, with no exaggeration we passed over 100,000 people. Amazingly about 1 km out of town they all veered off and the road was empty again. We asked the hotel manager what it was and he said it was a Hindu festival Dindi involving worshiping the monkey god and they were going to the festival to pray!
Seriously it would have been an all night affair. As I type we haven't tracked down any other information about this festival but certainly locally it was massive. The hotel owner casually said it happens once a year for an entire month!! Religion and the related festivals are very much a key part of every Indian's life far more so than in the west.
Next day we headed on just over 100km to yet more World Heritage listed cave temples at Ajanta. It was a pretty drive through very rural scenery - bullock cars still seem to be a popular mode of transport here! We stopped briefly at the Hotel Sai Milan - and again lucked out on camping. They have hosted many overlanders (and had a picture gallery to prove it!) and with a phone call arranged for us to stay at a nearby viewpoint. There was no restaurant there but we arranged for our meal to be delivered by bike at 8pm!!! What service!! We dug out the maps and they gave us some guidance on which route to take which ultimately we were very grateful for.
The caves are set up on a high ridge so we had to climb up steep stairs -or you could be carried up!!! A few people were but we decided against it ! Again we decided to get a government guide - this time we managed to split the cost with a few other travellers- and again it was really worth it! The Ajanta caves are older than Ellora dating from 200 BC to 650 AD and all of them are Buddhist. They were abandoned when Buddhism declined and remained undiscovered until 1871 when an English man - John Smith! - was tiger hunting and he saw them from exactly the viewpoint where we were going to camp.
Numbering 30 the caves are all carved into the steep horseshoe shaped rock gorge over a river.
They have some intricate carvings of Buddha (some remain unfinished when the caves were abandoned) and there were fantastic acoustics in some of the caves but the real attraction for us was the amazing paintings.
All done in vegetable colour they are in pretty good condition when you consider the age and were vivid depictions of life in those days with a wealth of fascinating detail.
Our camp spot had spectacular views over the caves and we were lucky enough to witness a really good sunset - the only downside was that the local touts had heard we were around so we got hit with the hard sell for stones/crystals from the caves which are the big seller here. We bought a couple of small pieces as keep sakes.
Travelling on we were now on Highway 3 - renowned for being one of the most dangerous roads in India (which is saying something!!) mainly due to the presence of huge numbers of homicidal truck drivers! The brightly decorated trucks often have warnings painted on them - e.g.) "Don't Overtake on Left Side" & "Put on Lites in Dark" .. very reassuring.
Also of course there are cows everywhere and now we are heading north even camel carts on the freeways! We passed many terrible looking accidents as well as the odd dead cow and a great number of squashed dogs!
We had to change a tyre at one point but thankfully we had a lot of helping hands so it was quickly accomplished. At one point crossing a river due to the volume of trucks going over a single bridge we all stopped for 40 minutes or so as traffic went the other way until it was our turn. We were of much interest!!
Now we are a bit off the beaten track we often are a big focus of attention though thankfully none of unfriendly. We stopped in one small town to buy some plastic (as a shower mat) and bananas and literally the whole town formed a ring around us and followed us up and down the road staring!! Guess we were the most interesting thing to hit that place for a while!
On the advice of the guys from the Hotel Sai Milan we had decided to stop next at the town of Mandu. Situated on an isolated 20km plateau surrounded by a deep valley the drive there was lovely - if a bit scary! - and it was fascinating and we were so pleased we'd been told about it.
Initially founded in the 10th century by a Hindu ruler, Mandu was captured by the Mughals in the 15th century when Dilawar Kahn and later his son Hoshang Shah both Afghanians established it as an independent kingdom. It remained largely within Afghani hands until it was eventually abandoned in the 16th century. Being in such a remote location much of it remained undisturbed and it now has the finest examples of Afghani architecture to be found in India.
Again we found a good place to sleep - the Hotel Rupmati - named after a famous Hindu beauty and singer and the owners made us welcome - this time for 100 rupees a night better than 5,000!
We spent a day (in the rain!) exploring this wealth of Mosques, Palaces and Tombs. Again we invested in a guide as there was so much to learn. Particularly impressive was Rupmatis' pavilion, and the Jahaz Mahal or Ship Place - named as it was long and narrow and surrounded by the water on both sides. It was reputedly built by a ruler (2 on from Hoshang Shah) Ghiyas -ud-din for his harem of 15,000 maidens!!!
Many of the sites (3,500 in total) are being renovated and everywhere we saw local people -mostly ladies hard at it shifting cement and bricks around.
There's too much information to really make much of an attempt to explain here but it's definitely worth a visit the place just oozes with history.
Next day it was back onto Highway 3 for us . On the way we stopped off to get some work done on the car as we'd had a couple of flat tyres and needed to do a tyre rotation. We were a bit of a novelty at the truckers stop but were treated very well and given chai! People kept coming to take our picture with their mobiles so we are no doubt now famous in Indian trucky circles!
As elsewhere the young apprentices are amazing. I guess at least they are getting to learn skills but it seems a shame they are working at such a young age - no school and not much childhood. The little boy in our pictures seemed happy enough though and he seemed to be well treated by all the older guys - like a younger brother. He certainly seemed to work hard!
Further down the road we stopped for lunch at the town of Shivpuri and had a quick look at the chlatris. Set in formal gardens these are quite lovely buildings in honour of family members of the past rulers of the Scindia empire built in the early 20th century.
We didn't really have time to do it justice but the beautiful marble inlaid with semi precious stones completed in Rajasthan is a fore runner of the Taj Mahal. The intricacy of the work is amazing.
Next stop that night was Gwalior- a fort town just out of Rajasthan. You can really tell we are moving north -just 2 days ago we were enjoying hot showers - now we can't get one cold enough as the water in our tank is already too sun heated!! We again got free camping in a very up market hotel - the Regency "of course you can" the lady said "absolutely no charge at all"!!! Oh that is was ever thus! We ate at their really nice restaurant and enjoyed live Indian Classical music -sitar and drums. It was a bit hot and noisy to sleep though - being directly on the freeway - but never mind!
We went for a quick tour of the fort and palace but could have stayed longer. India is truly incredible every corner has so much of interest there are so many hidden gems you could spend a lifetime and still not cover it all
.The drive up to the fort was a bit hazardous very windy and narrow and we lost our wing mirror (well the glass in it!) to a speeding tractor on the way - but as we climbed up the views were magnificent. There were various rock sculptures on the way up of Jain figures. Again we got a guide Mr. Samor Singh - who was absolutely incredible a walking history of the area we'd definitely recommend his services. He can be contacted on 09301899803.
The fort was originally dated from the 5th century though much was built in the 15th by Raj Man Singh. It is very imposing decorated with blue colouring which you see a lot in architecture influenced from the Middle East as it comes from Persia. We had a tour of the Raj's palace - which had interesting features such as internal pipes by which the Raj could speak to any of his 9 wives (one of whom had a separate palace down the hill being of a lower caste!) The beautiful music rooms were used as torture chambers and prisons on different occasions as rulers came and went!!
Interestingly the fort is unique being the only one in India with a Sikh temple within its walls, which commemorates a Sikh warrior (Guru Hargobind Saheb) once imprisoned here. It is a great place of pilgrimage for Sikhs.
We definitely felt we didn't do Gwalior justice and plan to get back here after Nepal.
We drove on to arrive in Agra - home to the Taj Mahal. Hitting town we stopped for lunch at McDonalds - you know you're back in touristville!! Having a quick drive around we found the parking at the Taj's east gate - vehicles aren't allowed any nearer to the Taj - and arranged to camp there that night. We hired a cycle rickshaw to take us around - but he only took us a few metres and couldn't go any further we'd have had to pay another one from the other side of a barrier. Two teams operated separately on each side. We asked why and a guard shrugged "it's India!" Sums it up really! We started having a walk around - trying to dodge the many touts trying to get you in their shops!! There's certainly no honour amongst traders they all keep telling you how crooked and dishonest all the others are!
Anyway we were lucky enough to bump into an Aussie couple heading to catch a boat cross the river to get some pictures of the Taj, it only cost 40 rupees so we did this too and it was an interesting first view of the icon itself. Not a disappointment you'll be glad to know despite the grotty smelly river it was a breath taking sight. We're not going inside this time as we have to keep heading north so we'll save that for our return trip after Nepal when it should be a good few degrees cooler.
When we arrived to camp that night we met a bit of resistance. The security men didn't mind us camping but wanted us to camp where they could keep an eye on us (for our own safety!) right under the lights. Indian people seem to be able to sleep anywhere - on roads in heavy traffic etc -so a bit of light wouldn't bother them. There was no way we could sleep under a virtual spot light. Eventually we won but it made no difference as there was some sort of temple shindig going on and all night the noise (drums singing shouting down the microphone) was deafening. On top of this poor Andrew had somehow picked up a bug and was up and down vomiting all night! Not a good night's rest all round!
Next morning Friday was a day off for locals as the Taj Mahal is shut so we were surrounded by the touts and their horses (horse drawn carriages are popular around the Taj) and as ever we'd attracted a stray dog or 6!! The locals were actually very kind and tried to find Andrew some medicine but he still felt bad and the growing heat wasn't helping. We decided to head on and find a place to stay for a couple of day's rest.
As we left we passed many trucks (and a few laden down donkeys) carrying the red sandstone the area is famous for. It is cut into tiles and exported all around the world.
We headed on to Delhi - a couple of hours' drive. First view is that it is a huge hot dusty metropolis and a bit exhausting, but we probably weren't really in the mood!!
We had decided to get a room to stay in but finding one with a parking spot (in our budget) was tough and we had a few close calls getting stuck in narrow lanes. Again the LP came to the rescue and we found the Manju-Ka-Tulla area AKA the Tibetan Colony. Just 15km north of old Delhi this refugee camp is just like a little Tibet - compete with a few Tibetan run guest houses and plates of steaming momos - though it's a bit hot for the later!!
Currently we are staying at Wongdhen House a guesthouse run by lovely friendly people and as at Sunday 2 August we are having a break from the heat and Andrew is recuperating and having a bit of a rest before we head north to see Simar's family in Chandigarh our next destination.