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.