It takes a couple of days to get into the swing of a trip and to be frank because of the cold and Gwalior being a bit scrubby and disappointing I was beginning to question why I had come all the way over here, alone and with a plan on the back of a fag packet.
This morning however the weather has cleared, it’s sunny and pleasantly warm. In addition I have awoken with the desire to journey. I had forgotten why I like doing this so much. The sights are only part of it. It is equally fun and interesting just getting there.
The morning starts with a short march from my vastly overpriced hotel (it was late when I arrived the last thing I wanted was a march around dark streets) to the Indian Coffee House near the station for a breakfast of coffee (naturally) and Iddly Sambar. Iddly is a fluffy rice cake (you get a couple) floating in a spicy veg gravy. It’s a staple in the south and when I was travelling there some years ago I had it for breakfast pretty much every day for breakfast. It’s cheap, delicious and if you can manage it all fills you up in advance of a long journey. In the south you eat with your fingers. Posh here you get spoons.
It’s a whole day travelling today starting with a brief jaunt on the train down to Jhansi junction where I am going to decide to travel further 18km to Orchha or go the whole nine yards and strike out to Khajuraho some 180km further south.
On the train the newest of the the guides I have brought with me informs me that Indian railways have thoughtfully worked the timetable so that departures to my intended destination (Khajuraho) are at 3am and 7.20am. I arrive at 10.30am. This presents me with a choice. Stay in Jhansi (no way – it’s not nice), take the 18k to Orchha which all the guides say is laid back or take the bus to Khajuraho which is going to be 5 hours over appalling roads. No choice then…… 5 hours on the bus it is then.
Jhansi Bus StandBuses in India seem to come in 2 flavours. Swanky white ones with dark windows hiding western tourists from the great unwashed and local buses which although divided into further classifications they all look the same: made in the 1950’s and held together with chewing gum and string.
The “Express” Bus to Khajuraho
The train station and bus stand are 3 km apart so transport is a rickshaw between the two. This is India and I am obviously western so the journey is shared with a taxi driver in cohoots with the rickshaw whallah. Said taxi driver spend the whole journey dissing the local buses. It always takes 4 hours longer! My taxi is comfortable and very cheap! I don’t mind, he’s always plan B if the bus I want has gone.
The bus stand is as many in India a chaotic melée of dilapidated wrecks that pass for public transport surrounded by equally dilapidated 2 wheeled barrows selling all kinds of food mostly covered with those flies that have made it this far into the winter.
Finding the bus you want is normally a little difficult as the signs in the bus screens are usually in Hindi. You walk around the stand saying out loud your destination and people point or gesture a direction. By a process of elimination you end up in the right area. This time however it was dead easy as I had a taxi driver hounding me hoping that I will be so horrified by what I found that I would fall back into his arms begging him to ferry me in comfort at whatever price. Bad luck Tojo I’ve found the bus I want the 11.45 express to Khajuraho which leaves in 15 minutes.
More on the bus categories. If you ignore the intercity and tourist buses there are some differences between “local” and “express” buses in as much that one looks slightly more dilapidated than the other and one is packed and the other is packed to the gunnels. Mine is simply packed but I managed to do a sign language deal with a guy in the
Buses never, ever leave on time. Well that’s not strictly true. On the scheduled departure time the conductor (they still have them here) starts shouting the destination loudly in an attempt to drum up further business while the bus crawls at a snails pace out of the station and beyond. In smaller towns this can last until the outskirts. Finally we are on our way in a crate that sound like a train wreck every time is hits the smallest of bumps.
There is nothing to do on a long distance bus ride than look out of the bars that pass as windows and watch all of the world slide by. I find the sights from an Indian bus endlessly fascinating. A wiry man with his young son with spider like stances, muscles straining in the effort to move a stone that the likes of you and me would call a crane in for. Neatly stacked piles of buffalo dung drying in the sun for use as fuel. Groups of girls chatting as they wash shiny, high rimmed pots. But mostly you see lots and lots of sitting about. I guess there is only so much you can do while your crops grow.
We stop roughly half at a ramshackle halt way for 10 minutes where I grab a quick lunch of 2 fresh made and delicious spicy veg samosas for 5 Rupees. That’s 6p! Now I wonder where the posh white tourist buses stop?
The roads degrade severely as we enter Madhya Pradesh and the last 2 hours are spent being thrown one way then the next as the driver intersperses playing chicken on speed with the oncoming traffic and driving with the left wheels in the soft gutter. All the time accompanied by the CRASH, CLATTER and CREAK of a 30 year old vehicle being pushed beyond it’s structural limit. Totally exhilarating!!
Five and a half hours after departure we arrive at Khajuraho to be greeted by the ever present hotel touts. Look! Western tourist! Attack attack! More on touts in tomorrows post but suffice to say one of them at the bus stand was gentle and eloquent so I climbed into his rickshawto check out the hotel. 300 Rupees for a large double room in a very quiet spot within 2 minutes of the temples. Sometimes (only sometimes) it pays to follow a tout.
Khajuraho is a mega tourist destination so where there be tourists there be wifi so writing this enjoying a couple of beers on a rooftop bar. Karoke has just kicked in so time to leave!