Tuesday, March 27, 2007

(This is Part 2 - scroll down to Part 1 if that is news to you)

After bouncing for 6 hours or so through the heat of Rajasthan's dust-filled backroads, and going on an optimistically-up-rounded 3 hours of sleep, we were quite excited to finally arrive in Udaipur, our first stop of many Rajasthani destinations that we are currently cruising through. As our visa time decreases more, we have tried to pick up our pace, as the preciousness of each day becomes more apparent. As we look at all the amazing places we want to go, its tough some times not to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities!
Many of the places in Rajasthan we have some personal recommendations from friends on where to stay, that has (and will continue) helped significantly in finding nice, affordable, lodging, as well as tasty food. Many of these places are overflowing with hotels, so it can be very hard to pick amongst 20 options which place will be the best. And carrying one's heavy cargo between more than a few hotels grows quite exhausting and tedious, particularly since we are undoubtedly being assailed by touts for hotel offers, rickshaw rides, etc. Stimulation overload.
Udaipur is famous because it is a city of lakeside palaces, including one, discriptively entitled The Lake Palace. It is on an island, completely surrounded by water, and since it is the slow season, we were able to get a room with a killer view for only 275 Rs. We stayed at the Lake Star Hotel, deep in the Hanuman Ghat, and so we were fortunately a ways away from the main tourist maze, where small streets are crammed with overstuffed shops, scurrying people, and an entourage of 2, 3, and 4-wheeled vehicles, plus the usual onslaught of animals, all packed into half the space that they usually are. Usually navigating Indian streets is at least a little hectic, but Udaipur was definitely the most congested place we've been yet. We spent four days in Udaipur then, siteseeing being our main priority, so we started at the City Palace complex, which is a massive building that has been being built continually for the last 500 years by various ruling kings of the Mewar family. It is full of elaborately decorated rooms, including some with massive peacock murals made out of glass (?) that were pretty spectacular, plus there was a pair of museums with all sorts of relics, etc., etc. Another day we took a rickshaw tour to a few destinations, including a nice park once occupied by the royal handmaidens, before heading out to a mountaintop palatial lookout point. Monsoon Palace, (which, along with Lake Palace & City Palace, was featured in the James Bond 007 movie "Octopussy," which every respecting rooftop restaurant in Udaipur plays EVERY NIGHT, which we found a little unbelievable, as working there must be like some twisted Bond enemy's hell). The movie itself isn't even that great, and the palaces are featured for a scant few minutes at the beginning and end of the film, but at least we saw it, so we'll never make that mistake again!
Monsoon Palace was also not really that exciting, but fortunately our journey by rickshaw up the mountainside was, as our rick kept smoking and overheating, so at several points we just got out and walked up the road while the engine cooled for a few minutes. But we did finally make it, to be underwhelmed by the damaged, deserted palace, though the views of Udaipur city, lake, and palaces were pretty nice, if you ignored the smoke from all the freshly burnt garbage. So far most of Rajasthan has been covered with a thin layer of nasty, smokey, haze, that limits your views of the surrounding arid plains. From the mountain-top then, we raced back to the city, trying to get to the royal Vintage Car Collection, which in addition (of course) to the Rolls Royce featured in Octopussy, had some pretty nice old BMW, Ford, and even some prototype solar vehicles. We actually arrived late, after closing time, but rupees are rupees and so after some mild discussion we were quickly hurried, but guided, through the collection. Our tardiness paid off, however, as the current king (one of only 3 royalty technically remaining in India) arrived (since they are his cars, and one of them had been taken out of its semi-permanent storage, for the Mewar festival that was occurring, we think), so although we didn't get to meet His Highness, we did get to covertly snap a photo of him and his entourage.
We also decided to take an Indian cooking class, and after a bit of shopping around, we decided on a nice woman named Shashi, who charged 400 Rs./person for around 4 hours of culinary arts. So we learned to cook, and received recipes for, around 10 recipes (many Indian dishes use the same sauces, with different seasonal vegetables substituted where appropriate), including proper chai, malai kofta, vegetable pullao, vegetable pakora, chapatti, parantha, and nan. Shashi has lived an amazing life, being born to the highest (Brahmin) caste, but then her husband was murdered over a business deal (for about $500), and then her husband's family effectively disowned her and their two children, so for a few years she got by washing laundry (which is definitely "beneath her caste" before a Western friend of one of her sons encouraged her to start teaching tourists how to cook... so the mealtime conversation was very interesting, and the food was simply spectacular, and we were both ecstatic to finally learn how to cook at least a few of the numerous delicious dishes that we eat everyday here in India.
That was our last night in Udaipur, despite our landlady's attempts to cajole us into staying longer - every Indian has a sales tactic, and hers was to attempt to overwhelm us with kindness, which was certainly nice comparable to the alternatives, but its hard to overlook her casual efforts to cook every meal for us, decorate Liz's 4 appendages with henna (she caved and got one foot painted...), have us in for chai whenever we walked by, etc. Even kindness can be a bit much sometimes!
We also got some long-overdue massages, though we opted for a bit of a more upmarket place, where the masseuse also focused on bodily alignment. So the massage itself felt great, and we seem to have better balance, but we'll have to see if it lasts or not! So we left Udaipur around mid-day, and headed to the small town (aka village) of Ranakpur, about 90 km to the north. After endless winding mountain roads we finally arrived at our destination, and amazing Jain temple complex. Turns out it actually had closed 5 minutes prior to our arrival, but fortunately the gate keeper was quite kindly, and allowed us (but not our camera) into the temple, despite the evening prayers that were occurring. Ranakpur was the first of 3 Jain temple sites in Rajasthan that we have now seen, and they have all been spectacular. They have all been in amazing condition, with virtually all the immaculately detailed carvings left intact, and since they are multi-level complexes, that means there is a lot of carving! The Ranakpur temple's "claim to fame" is that it's 1,444 columns (or so) are all carved differently... basically it's mind blowing, and of course the booklet and postcards that we purchased hardly do the place any justice at all. After viewing the temple we received some more modern-day Jain kindness, in the form of the nightly dinner that the temple prepares each afternoon for any faithful who may be hungry. So for the low, low price of only 20 Rs., we got an above-average tasty thali, which was quite fortunate since there didn't really seem to be any other hotel (restaurant) options. Our plan was to leave Ranakpur and ride the local bus to Kumbulgarh, a nearby (we thought) 16th-century fort, but due to mountain roads being impassable/under construction, there was no direct route, and we were directed to catch a bus to Syrah, from which we were assured getting to Kumbulgarh would be no problem. Ha.
What that means is that we ended up getting stuck in Syrah, a small mountain village well off any sense of the phrase "beaten path," since there was, in addition to no nighttime transportation out of town, also no lodging options. Fortunately, a Jain dharmasala (holy sanctuary, or resting place, for pilgrims), which some kindly people managed to track down the owner of to open up for us. So we ended up with our cheapest lodging yet, 30 Rs./person for the night, and we also had our largest room ever, since it was meant to sleep around 20 pilgrims on small mats, but we were the only ones on any sort of journey that night, "strangers in a strange land" if you will.
We did get a great night of sleep, though, peacefully snoozing, though a "helpful" non-English-speaking man kept trying to wake us up early (first at 6:15, then 7:15), since he couldn't seem to understand that we wanted to sleep in until 9 am, when we had to vacate the dharmasala. Explaining relatively complex concepts like that can be frustratingly impossible, but all in all definitely a small price to pay for all the amazing things that we see and do on a daily basis. Arising at 9 am, then, we headed to the bus stand, but that turned out to be futile, as we actually needed to be a jeep stand at the other end of town, since due to road repairs no vehicles could get through (on certain routes) to the center of Syrah. After a jeep ride to some un-rememberable town, we then caught a local bus to Kumbulgarh, which dropped us off near the fort.
Usually Indian food is spectacular, but unfortunately the only available restaurant (which did nicely keep our packs locked up for us) was among the worst we've had, as the vegetable biriani was a flavorless mush, and the gruel-esque dish that came with was hardly much better. The fact that we waited almost an hour was merely the proverbial icing on the cake...
However, the owner did give us a ride to the fort on his motorbike, and by now we've long since forgotten just how vile the food was, so all's well that ends well, right?
The fort of Kumbulgarh (which is a pretty fun word to say!) was immense, with its walls enclosing an area of 36 km, filled with fortifications and numerous temples, Jain and Hindu both. Most of the temples were locked up, but one we were able to sit upstairs, amongst the bird poo, and admire our view of the fort. The forts defenses, which were only penetrated once, were pretty intense, with numerous huge gates (complete with anti-elephant spikes), slots for arrows or boiling liquids, plus numerous watch-towers and guard-posts. The whole fort-building occupies a high hill, so from the top we had some sweet views of the surrounding desolate country-side... We were also able to wander through much of the very-abandoned fort, though an intensely-echoing bedroom was probably the highlight (besides the abundance of scenery). After wandering the footpaths between temples for a few hours, we then headed back to the best restaurant in the sub-continent to retrieve our bags, settle our bill, and catch a bus back to Udaipur, since there was an utter lack of direct transportation to Mt. Abu, Rajasthan's sole hill station and our next destination.
By happenstance we picked an all-too-local bus, which meant that our ride to Udaipur (well, almost all the way there, we had to switch buses for the last 45 minutes or so) took practically twice the time that it had taken us to get to Ranakpur in the first place, though part of that was due to the same road problems that had stranded us in Syrah the night before. To translate, that means that our micro-bus (2/3 of a normal bus) had to barrel down a path surely intended only for off-road vehicles, launching we passengers sky-high on the bumps, and scraping the roof against numerous trees. At one point the conductor and another guy had to hop out and remove a pile of rocks that was obstructing our path, while some old ladies became quite vocal about the entire situation - good Indian fun!
We did finally make it back to Udaipur, though between buses Liz did manage to attract one of the local drunkards, which resulted in some amusing conversation (if you can call it that), before fortunately our bus arrived. Back in Udaipur then, we picked a hotel pretty much at random, by the bus station, to catch some sleep before riding to Mt. Abu the next day...
So that's Rajasthan, Pt. II, more to come soon, including Mt. Abu, Jaisalmer, & Jodhpur, our current location.
This is definitely going to be a multi-part post, since the past 12 days have been filled with a lot of amazing sights, as well as some long distance traveling across India. Currently we are residing in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, although early tomorrow morning we are catching a bus (which takes 11 hours) to Jaisalmer, which is in the far west of Rajasthan, near the Pakistani border. Today we went on a fairly exhausting 4-hour nature trek through the Mount Abu wilderness, with a guide from our hotel, and three other Americans as well. We haven't really met any American travelers in a while, so it was nice to be able to have some "normal" conversation about life at home, and just discuss music, life, and those other shared cultural connections that we simply don't have with the Indians we see and talk to most days. We didn't really see too many animals (OK, pretty much none at all) on our hike, but we wandered through some amazing hills and valleys, strewn with rocks, and at one point those that were not claustrophobic (as in Anderson) climbed through a small cave section to reach a hilltop, which was pretty fun, despite the close proximity of the ceiling and a bat!
Tonight we are just doing some internet catch-up work, and possibly watching a VCD at our hotel, if things go as planned, but regardless we need to make it a somewhat early night since we have to be at the bus stand here in town before 6 am to catch our bus down the mountain, in order to be on the once-daily 7:30 am bus to Jaisalmer. While the prospects of a full day on the bus don't sound all that inviting, fortunately most of our other days have been pretty full of amazing and entertaining things.
So... to continue from a while ago (though it sure hasn't felt like 2 weeks to us!), we did indeed travel to the Ellora caves, home to some amazing Buddhist, Hindu, & Jain temples. Entirely carved out of stone, many of the temples (and their statues, wall & ceiling carvings, and altars) were still quite intact, though the ravages of time had definitely left their mark, as had more modern graffitiers. The absolute highlight (and the only part that isn't free), is the pretty-much ridiculous Kailasa temple, which is a recreation of the mountain home of the god Shiva, and is correspondingly enormous, and intricately carved. The spectacular part is that the WHOLE TEMPLE is carved out of the one piece of solid rock. To give you some degree of its enormity, it is over twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, and that is a huge ancient structure itself. Like many things in India, Kailasa is practically too staggeringly large to photograph or videotape, you are completely surrounded by what could have been a town or something, but instead it is only one temple.
We spent an entire afternoon at Ellora, and we didn't even get to the final set of caves, since they were set another whole km down the path, but we still saw a lot of mind-boggling stone-masonry. After returning to Aurangabad by local jeep taxi, which meant that around 20 people were crammed into the back of an ancient Landcruiser-type vehicle, we went and saw the first of 2 Hindi films that we would see back-to-back nights in Aurangabad (our 2nd day was then spent internetting - fun, fun). The first movie was called "1971," and was a bit of a war epic, full of blood and violence, but since it concerned the (attempted) escape of captured Indian soldiers from Pakistan, was quite culturally relevant, particularly given the latest round of talks that has been going on between the two feuding nuclear-power neighbors. As a side-note, we are currently reading an amazing book (thanks Iain & Claire) called "Freedom At Midnight," which is all about the post-WWII years in India (& Pakistan) leading up to the 1947 Partition of British Raj India. It follows Gandhi, Nehru, Lord Mountbatten (last Viceroy of India), and other important people for those last few tumultuous years of British rule in the subcontinent.
The second movie we saw was then on the other end of the movie-spectrum, the romantic comedy "Just Married," which was your standard romantic comedy, though it was oddly devoid of any dancing or singing, leading Liz to call it "a bum deal."
That, then, was our last night in Aurangabad, although some unexpected craziness occured in the middle of the night. We went to bed, and had fallen asleep, when we both groggily awoke, struggling to breathe - so Anderson turned on the light, and our entire room was full of smoke! We quickly deduced what had happened: in our slumber one of us had inadvertently kicked our blankets off the bed... and onto our smouldering mosquito coil. So, slowly we think, given that neither blanket was horribly torched, the blanket had caught aflame. Fortunately we woke up, but it was definitely a little bit frightening, though now in retrospect the situation was definitely quite hilarious! But we did have to pay for the blankets, 400 Rs., although dealing with that the next morning was also an ordeal, as the hotel (which we had switched to to save money - didn't get too far with that plan...) first tried to overcharge us, asking for 1000 Rs. to replace them. It is so frustrating when we know the value of something, and Indians just go ahead and keep lying to us, trying to take advantage of us, assuming we are just ignorant. But given that we've shopped for a few "bed covers," as they are called, we are fully aware that even the 200 Rs. each that we ended up paying was definitely rounding up in the home team's favor. But at least we didn't die, so we'll happily pay $9 to keep on living!
After that scare our journey the next day, with full packs, for a daytrip to the Ajanta caves (en route to some long-distance overnight traveling), seemed like quite the breeze. The Ajanta caves were built some centuries before the Ellora caves, but they remained hidden from "modern man" until the late 19th century, so consequently they are in a much better state of preservation. What that translates to is that the statues are in overall better shape, as are the ceiling and column carvings, but the main difference is that much of the ceilings and walls still reveal the initial elaborate paintings that once covered the entire caves. While much has deteriorated, there are still entire wall scenes of ancient Buddhist stories (unlike Ellora, all the Ajanta caves are Buddhist) intricately painted, as well as whole walls filled with repeating Buddhas and the like. The paintings are full of symbols, and although the caves are low-light to protect them, you can still make out a lot of the painted artwork. There are 30 caves at Ajanta, although only around 20 are currently accessible, but virtually all of them have at least some intact paintings, and the main 3-4 caves are still pretty much coated in paint, as they were 1500+ years ago when they were painstakingly created. Both sets of caves were very spiritual feeling places, as the cool caves were oddly comforting, and their echo-effects were quite dazzling. The other nice part about Ajanta is that all the caves are laid out in a horse-shoe shape, such that they are panoramically visible, while at Ellora they were well-spread out, so inter-cave visibility was at a minimum. Visiting caves is quite enjoyable, as all the caves themselves are great escapes from India's daily-increasing heat. From Ajanta we then headed by bus to Jalgaon, in northern Maharashtra, which was the nearest railhead town. From there we managed to get onto an overnight sleeper-train to Ahmadabad, Gujarat, which was about 75% of the way to our destination, Udaipur, Rajasthan. We have heard many good things about Gujarat state, but unfortunately at this point in our global odyssey, we definitely have to be picking and choosing what things we want to see/do, as India has an unreal number of amazing places to visit, and impressive things to see. Our train was far from the best we've had, as our wait for the train, of several hours, was nowhere near as uncomfortable as our first 5 hours on the train. Since sleeper-class was completely booked, we had no choice but to sit by the bathrooms on the ground with our huge packs, pretending to be comfortable while reading and keeping an eye out for invading nasty bugs. Finally, one book later for Anderson, and many seat-adjustments for both of us, some upper bunks cleared up and we were able to crash land for a few hours, amazingly comfortable sleeping on our dirty packs! Our arrival the next morning at the Ahmadabad train station was a blur, as we rode a rickshaw across town, before settling into a local bus for a bumpy, dusty 6-hour ride through Rajasthani villages, until we finally arrived mid-afternoon in Udaipur, on the 19th of March.
To make reading easier (yes, we read our comments JKB), this will be the 1st-part of a 3-part catch-ya'll-up series.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Continuing on from yesterday, and breathing deeply to maintain relaxation since it will undoubtedly be necessary battling it out with technology here in India...After our time at the fort in Bidar, we continued on to our last main stop, a so-called rock temple dedicated to a local god, that was pretty interesting since it had a still functioning subterranean spring that people were bathing in - those that we saw seemed not to mind the presence of bats above (or the fact that their guano was assuredly below, in the water in which they were cleaning themselves). Afterwards we stopped at a juice stand to treat our driver to a goodwill beverage, but of course that still didn't stop him from trying for more money when he dropped us off at our hotel, for the "waiting time" even though that was obviously included in our deal. Having seen the sights of Bidar, we ate another thali for dinner, that was deliciously spicey (as was all the food there, a nice change from the overly mild food prepared in the heavily touristed areas).The next morning we had to awake ultra-early for us, in order to get out of our hotel, since we had a 24-hour checkout at 6 am, though they did allow us to sleep in just a bit, thankfully. Our morning was then spent shopping for Bidriware, a traditional craft/artform that has been made pretty much only in Bidar for the past 500 years. Basically a mixture of metals is made that looks jet black, and then an intricate pattern is etched onto the item, whether it be a plate, vase, hookah, etc. Then thin silver strips (fishing-line consistency) are put into the etched-grooves, leaving a smooth finish, with silver patterns all over a stark black object. Actually finding the strip of four Bidriware shops took a bit of effort, as we discovered that apparently none of Bidar's residents are much into the art themselves, since no one was very helpful as to where we could find it, so we ended up walking for a bit to start the day, but it was obviously all worth it once we reached our destination. We got to watch some master craftsmen at work, and had the whole process thoroughly explained to us. After shopping, we returned to our hotel to retrieve our bags, ate a leisurely lunch since we had a 2 pm train to wait for, before catching a rickshaw to the train station.Although we didn't know it at the time, we were to be continually double-teamed by interested Indian conversationalists for the next 8 hours or so, which can be quite the challenge when you have talked about yourself and America until you are exhausted, but since we are constant ambassadors, we have to be continually willing to represent ourselves, and the concept of America, well. It's not that engaging in conversation is difficult, it is just quite draining to ceaselessly be at the center of attention, and while using public transportation, where there are hundreds of Indians idly waiting, we are often literally descended upon by entire herds of people.We settled down, first, at the Bidar train station, after learning that the train wouldn't be there until 3 pm, and thus we actually had an hour to wait until tickets would even be on sale. Just about instantly we were surrounded by about 20 interested Indians, a mix of Hindus and Muslims, though none could really speak English, so it was just a massive one-sided staring contest. After a little while an English-speaker came along, and we truly began our day of semi-casual conversation. Soon enough it was time to purchase tickets, and then we relocated to the 2nd platform, where our train was due to arrive. Two kindly Indian men (one older, one younger than us) then chatted with us for the next hour, and when the train did finally arrive, they "assisted" us in finding seats, which meant we were all packed into an upper train berth, squished in with our bags, and even an Indian boy that had somehow managed to fall asleep. Both our new acquaintances were nice enough, but then as they departed after an hour on the train, two fresh Indians, one a lawyer from Bangalore, who was our age and just starting his practice, picked up the conversation. In a way it is just like having to repeat a story one too many times, except that every day we have to repeat that story (since it's all about us!) many, many times...We finally arrived in Parbhani, after the sun had set, which was the railhead town where we needed to switch trains, and it was here where the frenzy reached a fever pitch. We got our tickets quite quickly, and then had to wait around an hour-and-a-half for our train to actually arrive, so in the meantime we grabbed some chai and some cold samosas for some needed refueling, and sat down with our bags.Our Indian friends seemed to be arriving in pairs, and this time our two talk-buddies took the cake, for sure, as one guy was a money-minded businessman who had a friend who owned a petrol station in New York ("5 pumps"), and the other man was a police officer in some capacity, but he was drunk. At first we thought all his handshaking was just awkward nervousness or something, but it quickly became apparent that instead he was just wasted, as every 5 minutes he attempted to clear out the crowd, explaining that they all just wanted to talk with us, though the irony was that was all he was doing, too, he was just evidently exempted from his own commentary on the behavior of his fellow Indians. So we had to pose for photos with him, and the regular police officer who was on duty (and sober) - who didn't seem too happy to have to put up with his superior's behavior, either, and at one point while Anderson was in the bathroom, Liz got to explain what America was like to a blind man (who didn't speak any English). Funny, yet definitely moreso in retrospect, as the last thing one seeks after a tiring train journey is a starring role in "The Truman Show: India."We got some business cards made for us in Bijapur, that look quite slick, and at one point the businessman asked for our email, so Anderson, apparently foolishly, grabbed the cards to give him one, and every Indian around started grabbing for them, even though we had not spoken with them at all, they were just standing and gawking, due to the language barrier (and the fact that they weren't exactly needing to be there, they were just "time passing"). Eventually the train did arrive, and then our two friends began vying to assist us in upgrading our tickets to sleeper car, which ended up being quite funny since the businessman obviously didn't like (or trust) the drunkard, so they were each attempting to thwart the other in being our main assistant. Fortunately for our sake the train conductor (all the employees are called that, even on buses the front seat is for "the conductor") was very well organized, and for a 50 Rs. each upgrade charge, we found ourselves in some comfortable and quiet upper sleeper berths. They were only quiet after the train actually left though, since the drunkard was on board trying to assist, while the businessman was talking/shouting to us through the train window, warning us about watching our bags, being careful, and all these other things that were painfully unnecessary, but what can you do when people don't know when to say when to being helpful? The train ride to Aurangabad, then, was a blessing, and even though Liz failed to get any sleep (which means Anderson happily did...), laying there without having to talk at length about anything was simply priceless.Finally our Herculean day came to an end, as Liz had called a hotel in advance from Parbhani, so we knew where to go once we arrived a little after 2 am. Skirting overly persistant rickshaw drivers we wearily walked to the hilariously named Tourist's Hotel, and were soon quickly conked out. Logically we were awoken less than 6 hours later with some knocking at the door for our passports, and then soon enough an inevitable power outage turned off the fan, and with the heat rising we awoke for our first day in Aurangabad. After an acceptable, yet small, thali at our hotel, we decided to catch the town's main sites, since there aren't really too many, so that our time later would be more freed up for a) hanging out at the internet and b) going to the nearby Ellora caves. So we took a rickshaw north of the city to the undervisited Aurangabad caves (according to Lonely Planet), and fittingly we were pretty much the only people there, only seeing two groups of Western tourists and a few Indian tourists as well. The caves there were all Buddhist, of varying degrees of completion, featuring large statues of Buddha jutting out of the walls, and large chambers carved out of the solid rock. Of the 13 caves there, probably around 4 were at an advanced stage of design, so in those there was ample room to wander, with ample statues and carvings to examine. These larger cave temples also had amazing echo, as our talking and subsequent "Om-ing" demonstrated quite well.All around the caves, and evident within them as well, were huge mineral deposits, primarily of quartz crystals. Many statues then had white ripples of quartz within them, as did the walls around the cave entrances. All along the ground as well were literal piles of quartz, so we spent a bit of time wandering around looking at and collecting a few of the amazing rock specimens. Soon enough the sun was setting, so it was time to head down from the hills where the caves were to check out the "poor man's Taj Mahal," called Bibi-Ka-Maqbara, which was (partially, we discovered) illuminated at night. It was somewhat eerie wandering around a large and mostly deserted mausoleum, but the downside was that much of the detail work on the minarets and even the ceilings wasn't lit up well enough for realistic viewing, but we were able to take some nice long-exposure photos of the entire structure.After returning to our hotel's area by rickshaw, we wandered around to find food and the internet, and in doing so also managed to find a nearby hotel that was 100 Rs. less each night, so we decided that the next morning we would awake early (due to our 24-hour checkout expiring at 3 am - but they pushed it back to 5 am for us), to move down the street and save some money. So we are now at our second Aurangabad hotel, which is nice and pretty much the same as our first residence, and have been generally relaxing, while trying to upload photos and such on the internet, which translates to not really relaxing at all, since uploading is slow anyway, and just when you think things are going smoothly then they all screech to a halt. But all is well, and tomorrow (for sure) we are going to see the caves at nearby Ellora, which are supposed to be simply breathtaking. We shall see!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Our last couple days have involved a decent amount of traveling, including two overnight journies (one via bus, the other by train), so today's "off day" at the internet to upload photos and such, is much needed and appreciated. We are now in Aurangabad, in the center of Maharashtra state, abouty 1000km north of Mysore, and 500km north of our last stop in Karnataka, Bidar. The bus trip there, from Bijapur, was brutally bumpy, such that when we finally arrived, sleepless, at 5 am, we did not mind near as much as we otherwise would have when we got price-hosed by the only available hotel. The Hotel Krishna Regency was conveniently out of regular rooms, so we had to pay 400 Rs. for the deluxe room, which was of course not really all that deluxe, though the matresses were soft and they did have a TV. So we slept from 6 am until 1 pm, and though we wanted to sleep longer (and probably needed to, too), in order to move out of Bidar in one day, we wanted to check out its massive fort that afternoon.
Bidar is described by Lonely Planet as "a place no one goes" but they "didn't know why." Well, it was readily apparent that no tourists go there, as we were definitely the talk of the restaurant that we ate lunch in, Anderson was interrupted 4 times during our meal for conversation, which usually doesn't happen since eating is a respected personal time. One of our interviewers did help us get a cheap rickshaw for the day, which was nice, though the driver then spent the entire afternoon trying to weasel out of the agreement (260 rupees for all Bidar's sights until 7 pm), by asking for more money or trying to casually skip a temple or two. But since we "whities" are so rare in Bidar, our driver's fellow Indians undermined his efforts for much of the afternoon, since at the fort we first received a free tour of an amazing painted mahal (palace) by another visitor, and then we baksheeshed a bit in order to get a brief tour by a supposed worker (you never know who really works for the Dept. of Archeology or whatnot and who is just scamming for cash). He took us down into two sections of the massive 500+ room subterannean complex, primarily intact, that sits beneath the 5.5km of overground fort. The underground area, built as an escape from the heat in the 16th century, still works wonders in that department even today! The main mahal that we saw was very nice, too, as it is similar to the painted palace we saw with Luke outside Mysore, though for this one we were able to go into the upstairs, and could freely take photos and videos. Its interesting that the major sites are where video is banned or restricted or overcharged for, and then elsewhere you can record whatever you'd like, since the Indian infrastructure is simply to thin to support the multitude of archeological sites available. That being said, sights of the "beaten path" are often more enjoyable, since they lack crowds, touts, high ticket prices, and are usually in fairly good condition, since they have not been messed up (graffiti, etc.) by the multitude of tourists (primarily Indian) who come through the bigger places.
*at this juncture the post has twice gotten deleted... so we're gonna try continuing from a fresh post*

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Our traveling has continued, if you can believe it, though we have been a bit of the proverbial beaten path the last few days, journeying through northern Karnataka. Staying in Hampi was quite nice, we ended up "living" there for exactly a week, and while we were amazed by the natural rock formations and the temples carved out of them, we had more fun hanging out with a bunch of nice people, our friends Liat & Moran, and Ron & Reut, from Israel (that we met in Gokarna), and Iain & Claire, who are from South Africa, whom we met a long-seeming time ago in Athens, Greece. We also had a crazy time for Holi, the national holiday of color, which translates to crazed tourists and Indian children of all ages throwing dye everywhere in the street! We wisely armed ourselves with 2-L full of water and a water gun, so we caused a lot of mayhem spraying people down! The actual parade lasted a few hours, before the police shut it down when things started getting too hectic, but Liz's hair will definitely be dyed pink (& blue, and green...) for at least another week or two, and the clothes we were wearing that morning are a bit more colorful.
After Hampi we spent 3 nights in Badami, and one day each at Pattadakal, Aihole, and then Badami itself. The local bus timing slowed us down more than we had hoped, because we wanted to do Pattadakal & Aihole in one day, but we spent hours waiting at a bus stand, before postponing our trip to Aihole by one day, which meant we spent the afternoon visiting with people in the village, which was fun, so of course we had some tasty chai and some chats (tea and snacks). Anderson also got an amazingly cheap silver bracelet, (18g @ 18Rs/g = 320 Rs), and we took more than a few "one photo" requests from the excited village children (who also wanted school pens and the increasingly popular "ten rupees, please?"). The temple complexes in all 3 towns were quite impressive, containing a vast array of structures from the 3rd century through the 9th, but the 4 carved caves at Badami were probably the most amazing sites we saw, with ornate ceiling and pillar carvings, plus giant images of the god(s) all over the walls. The camera has been quite busy lately, hopefully we can find some decent internet soon, so we can begin the tedious task of uploading them all!
We left Badami yesterday around noon, taking one bus to Bagelkot and then a 2nd to Bijapur. To be honest, this place is rather dirty and dingy, there is dust everywhere and the streets quite often reek, but the people have been very nice to us, and the archeological sites are quite fantastic. We've jumped forward 1000 years (and more than a few conquerers) to the 16th century, and have switched from Hindu & Jain artists to Muslim artisans, but regardless we have been awe-struck... our favorite site here in Bijapur is without a doubt the Golgumbaz, an enormous dome, built as a mausoleum, that has a psychedelic whispering gallery at the dome's base (six stories up), such that a whisper, or a yell, is magnified 10 times. It is doubtful that our low-light videos will do it justice, but the acoustics were dazzling, with echoes bouncing in one ear and out another, and claps and yells resonating all over the walls. We were also mobbed by school children, with Liz bearing the brunt of things since all 50 or so schoolgirls wanted to shake her hand, ask her name and country, and smile and giggle nervously! It was a little crazy being surrounded, at the top of the dome, as noise bounced every which way, while at a vertigo-inducing height!
The other big tourist draw here in Bijapur is the Ibrahim Rouza, which while another mausoleum, is totally contrasting in style, much less imposing but focused on detail, with many fine Persian characters etched all over the walls. The style is similar to the Taj Mahal, just dark in color instead of the Taj's distinctive white marble, but architectually the two are "same, same but different."
Tonight we will take an overnight bus to Bidar, which is supposed to have a very nice fort, as well as being the home of Bidriware, a traditional functional art form where metals are mixed to become black in color, and then silver is inlaid over the top. We saw some examples in Mysore, and they were impressive, so we are hoping that things will be even more impressive at the source. So tomorrow will most likely then be our last day in Karnataka, which only partially thanks to Luke has become our favorite Indian state thus far, and then we will head north into Maharashtra after that.
Our sincere apologies about the lack of photos and such, but we simply cannot find reliable internet, in Badami the only place we could even locate wasn't connecting, and now here in Bijapur there is only one internet cafe, and while it can handle email and a little surfing, that's about all it can handle (plus there is a 1 Rs/1 MB surcharge, which is new and a little outrageous!).
Hope all is well wherever you are - Peace A&L

Saturday, March 03, 2007

We've spent several days in Hampi now, on the north side of the Tungabhadra River, in the "tourist village" Virupapur Gaddi that is ... Like Gokarna, the food is rather Westernized, but the atmosphere is very nice, despite the heat during the day. There are ruins everywhere, amidst endless hills of boulders piled up - a very alien landscape, almost as dry as a desert, with rocks, often gravity-defying, piled everywhere, even right next to our hotel room! We spent one full afternoon of site-seeing, riding a rickshaw around to take in all the same-ticket pay sites: the Vital Temple, the Elephant Stables, and the Lotus Mahal. The architecture here is mostly made out of stone, though the Lotus Mahal was a pink stucco-like material, combining Hindu and Islamic building styles. We rented a scooter for two days, traveling around on our side of the river, first going to a nearby lake for some swimming and relaxing, with our friends from Israel whom we met in Gokarna, before checking out the sunset from the Hanuman Temple. Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god, and appropriately enough, the elevated temple was full of monkeys, making for an amazing view of Hampi, on a natural tower of boulders with monkeys running about (and getting the noise on!) as the sun sets of endless amazing rock piles. Yesterday we went for a sunset ride as well, going over 40 km through the surrounding villages, where all the children yell "hello" and wave at you. We have met up with a couple from South Africa that we met in Athens, Greece, so we are hanging out with them right now, waiting for the chaos that is supposed to be the Holi Festival, supposedly the one day in India where the whole nation parties... or so we've heard, but we cannot get an accurate explanation from anyone, so we're not totally sure what is going to happen. We have, however, purchased some water pistols from a local boy (at a probably inflated price including delivery) to defend ourselves, since part of this festival is the spraying of colored dyes. We will probably be staying in Hampi until Monday, since our friend Moran's birthday is on Sunday, but after that we'll continue on our archaeological exploration of Karnataka.
Hampi is really quite amazing, the ruins combined with the peaceful landscape is just as nice as the beach we left, and we are staying amongst equally nice travelers, so things are going well, though our hotel has been causing us a minor headache by trying to blackmail us and Iain and Claire into exclusively eating at their attached restaurant or else we would have to leave, but after a few arguments/exchanges things have been hopefully sorted out, but the fact remains that when you stay at a hotel you are under no obligation to eat at the restaurant daily , especially not when you have already tried the food and it was none too good. This is India though, so the unexpected always happens, even when it is something as outlandish as this!
We have gotten some nice clothes custom-made for us, so we are going to pick those up here, Anderson has finally grown weary of having only one real pair of pants, and when a pair costs only 120 rupees, it is impossible to not get measured!
Hopefully we can upload photos soon, but internet has been too slow and expensive both in Gokarna and here in Hampi, so we'll do what we can when we can, how it always is in India!

For information on Hampi, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hampi
It really is an amazing place, full of natural wonder and awe-inspiring ruins...