Traveling India - Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Ajanta and Ellora caves, Khajuraho, Varanasi
Jaisalmer - cute and smelly camels
The moment we arrived in Jaisalmer we both felt like staying for at least a week. The city with its cozy sandstone fort and total absence of any sales pressure was like balm for our souls. An opportunity to make a 3-day camel safari made a longer stay even more attractive. So we canceled our train reservation to Udaipur, got the bus tickets for a later date and were ready to meet our camels the next day.
The safari was a great - though mixed - experience. The camels were very cute. Jordi got the most curious, smelly and talkative one - very adorable Mr India. My Mr Wind on the other hand was a very stubborn creature and would only walk or run following another camel. At times when he was following Jordi's camel, Mr India was joyfully farting all the time - that's how we established that he was the smelliest camel.
Resting after the long morning walk:
Every day we had 2-3 hours camel ride before noon, then a few hours siesta, and then another couple of hours on the saddle. Now and then we would stop at desert villages. While the camels were drinking, we were watching the village women refill the water vessels and kids play and bathe in the tiny pond in front of the water pump. After the morning ride we were stopping for a lunch / siesta break. Once unsaddled, the camels would wander off to chew on the bushes and trees around (apparently some of the bushes are salty so for them it's like eating Lays). The camel drivers would cook the meal (some vegetables and chapati or rice), afterwards we would either chat or read or sleep, and then another long stretch on the saddle till we would reach our sleeping place.
The village stops were the absolute highlight of our safari experience:
The first night we were all excited about the millions of stars we would see in the desert sky, until we realized that we had to watch them through the same amount of sand grains in our eyes, which was a painful rather than romantic experience. We had a couple of blankets - one to use as a mat and one as the cover, but by morning both were replaced by piles of sand, and each one of us looked like a new small sand dune. The sand storm was getting stronger by day so on the second night our guides suggested that we sleep in a shepherd’s hut. Since Jordi wanted the pure experience, unlike the other two backpackers we slept outside the hut, with the stars and sand in the same proportion like on the previous night.
But overall we enjoyed a lot this spartan but very peaceful experience. In the desert I had dreams of swimming in the sea, probably longing so much for the sensation of water after all this sand. We did get the water the next day – as we were leaving Jaisalmer it started to rain very hard and the moment we reached our bus there were enormous amounts of water pouring from the sky. As we were driving off, the roads of Jaisalmer turned into rivers. Later in the newspapers we read that there were a lot of accidents caused by this torrential rain and absence of a properly designed drainage system in the cities of India.
Udaipur - little romance in a backpack
After Jaisalmer we took an overnight bus to Udaipur which is labeled as the most romantic city in India. Well, the absence of any water in the lakes (will be refilled by monsoon in a month or so) definitely took away most of the charm. It could also be that the city looked less romantic because we had to do the sightseeing with our backpacks (the same evening we had to catch the bus to Mumbai so we didn't check into any hotels and it took some time to find a luggage facility).
Mumbai - indulge yourself
The next morning after a very long night on the bus we were supposed to be arriving in Mumbai. We were passing a city we were sure was Mumbai for something like 2 hours. Since we knew the city was very big with its population almost the same like in the whole of Belarus, we were just patiently waiting. With so many hours without any stop for a toilet we kept hoping we would arrive any moment, until the waiting was too much and we decided to ask the drivers to stop. Everybody on the bus grabbed the opportunity to pee in the nearby bushes. Finally surrounded by a crowd of relieved Indians, we asked when we would arrive in Mumbai. Our question was followed by some uncomfortable silence and a few words in very bad English, from which we understood that Mumbai was 20 km behind. Probably that's what they were shouting in Hindi a couple of hours before. We got off the bus (in the middle of an Indian 'highway'), caught some local bus to the nearest train station and 2 hours later reached Mumbai CST - the busiest (according to Lonely Planet) and most beautiful (according to us) train station in Asia. The station like most of the buildings in Mumbai was built in a very special Mumbai style, which is a mixture of British and oriental architecture.
We enjoyed Mumbai a lot - it was much more civilized and clean than any city before, and they have very tasty vegetable grill sandwiches of a couple of dozen varieties in the numerous street food stalls. The first day we arrived, when we were sitting in the Internet cafe, there was a junkie with a big bruise around his eye asking for something in very bad English from people in the cafe, until out of despair he asked in Russian if anyone could understand him. Since me and Jordi were the only ones with Russian skills, I asked him what he needed. It turned out he was robbed (probably by fellow junkies) the day before, they took his passport and all the money. He wanted to receive a Western Union transfer from his mum but needed someone with a passport to receive it for him. With our help, a couple of hours later he had something like 100 dollar in rupees. He was promising us that he would go to the police and ask for deportation to Kazakhstan (probably that was his only opportunity of a free flight back home with his expired visa).
There were so many second-hand book stalls in Mumbai, with all sorts of huge colourful textbooks and classics. If only we were flying home!
The same day we were wandering through the streets of Mumbai, a guy approached us asking if we would be available for the next day's shooting of a Bollywood movie for a role of a couple eating in a restaurant. We said ok, as we did want a chance to see what's behind the stage in a Bollywood environment. They also promised the actor from “Slumdog Millionaire” would be at the shooting :-). However, later the plans were changed and they needed a British soldier instead of a European couple, so only Jordi got his chance to shine as an aspiring Bollywood star. So the whole next day we spent at a Bollywood shooting place. Jordi had to wear a very dirty British soldier's uniform the whole day, during the shootings he responsibly marched behind the British general together with 4 more "British" soldiers and I had a tour around the Bollywood studios, watched the shooting and chatted with a lot of idle actors.
One of the "British" soldiers who marched together with Jordi was a Russian guy who had spent 8 years here in India. He turned out to be an amazing person, speaking something like 10 languages (including Hindi, Sanskrit and pure Belarusian!). He became a Hindu priest back in Russia, read all the Vedas in Sanskrit and later got into India following one of his spiritual leaders... We talked about a lot of different things in the afternoon when the actors had to wait for the director to decide whether there would be another shooting. Shamil told us about his life in India, a lot of interesting things about Indian and other cultures, that he used to work in doubling movies but these days has to earn his bread by small roles using the advantage of white skin here in Bollywood ... It was a really unique encounter!
Btw, if anyone wants to watch Jordi’s debut as a Bollywood actor, the raw footage will be available from me once we come back, and the final result hopefully can be found on youtube (try googling “The Queen of Jhansi”, maybe add “starring Jordi Paloma” :-). At the end of the day for his brilliant acting efforts Jordi received an impressive salary of about 10 euro, so now we are seriously considering making a living out of it.
Ellora and Ajanta caves - an architectural marvel
After Mumbai we went to see Ajanta and Ellora caves. We took a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad and stayed there for a couple of days, making the visits to both cave locations as day-trips. We had enough time to explore the caves thoroughly and catch one of the regular local buses back. The caves were really impressive - Hindu and Buddhist caves carved out of the mountain. The Hindu temple in Ellora is the biggest monolithic stone temple in the world.
On the bus to Ajanta Caves:
In Ajanta we went to the top of the canyon and enjoyed a hike on top of them. It was probably possible only because now there is no water - during monsoon the whole territory over which we walked probably turns into lakes of water that runs down the canyon as waterfalls.
Khajuraho - kamasutra study
After the caves we took a very long trip to Khajuraho (about one and a half day traveling). Khajuraho is a very tiny peaceful village which hosts a world-famous complex of Hindu temples, more known as kamasutra temples. However, if you would think that you could learn kamasutra from the walls of these temples, forget about it - there were at most something like a dozen erotic sculptures spread over all the temples.
After the caves, we had a walk through the village itself where you can see the locals doing their daily chores, washing themselves at the water pump, kids playing in the dirt, pigs enjoying their dirt baths. A local guy who volunteered to guide us through the village was telling us things like which caste he is from and what implications it has for his life, how he is happy just for the fact that he has all four limbs, how simple things are the ones that matter most in life etc. etc.
Also here since there are no shavers in India, Jordi decided to go to a barber. One of the barbers - probably after evaluating the state of Jordi’s beard - fished him in the street and took us to his barber shop, where he treated Jordi to an authentic Indian barber package, which consisted of a haircut, beard trimming, facial, head, neck and half-body massage, aroma therapy etc. etc.
Apart from the "barber experience" we also tried here an authentic ayurvedic massage (in which they cover every centimeter of your body with ayurvedic oil that is meant for your ayurvedic type of personality). And although normally we don't spend money on extras like this during this trip, this massage was definitely worth it, in the sense that it was a really great session and apart from that we had a chance to talk with the family who runs the business about the basic principles of ayurveda.
Here in Khajuraho we also had a chance to see a local home – a guy we were chatting with at a food stall invited us to visit his family. The house was very tiny: the living room was a couple of square meters, had a bed and a TV. Our host's elderly parents were watching some Indian soap on TV from the bed, but the moment we entered they went to sit on the floor in order to make space for us. The guy has three sons, the eldest of them knew a couple of sentences in English. While introducing himself, he told us his name immediately followed by the name of his caste. Looking at this small kid proudly reciting his caste almost as part of his first name we could see that for generations to come the caste system is unshakable. We were invited to a meal which we declined, had some chai and before leaving finally got a chance to meet the guy's wife, who all this time was sitting in another room (we are not sure whether out of shyness or tradition).
Mahoba - Guinness record of the longest train stop
After Khajuraho we headed to Varanasi - a sacred place for Hindu's, where they have a lot of various spiritual ceremonies on the Ganges. During this 1.5-day trip we had the longest train stop in our lives - it lasted something like 5 hours!!! It happened on a local train from Khajuraho to Jhansi. The whole trip was supposed to be 5 hours in total but after something like 2 hours of moving we were stopped at Mahoba station and we were waiting and waiting and waiting there. At first we were not alarmed as actually it's very normal in India that trains get delayed at some stations for 2-3 hours. There was also absolutely noone to ask (no train staff and none of the co-passengers spoke any English), and we couldn't risk getting off the train as according to our previous experiences they can start moving any time. But when it had been 5 hours and it was obvious we wouldn't make it to Jhansi in time for our next train, we had to get off anyway.
Luckily for us, we found out once we got off that our next train would pass through the station at which we had been waiting all this time. With 5 hours we had already been waiting and 7 more to go, we spent half a day in the most forsaken place you can imagine. There was not a single tourist in the streets and it was the first place on Earth we have been over the past few years of our lives where there was absolutely no internet!!! The image here is of one of the train station we have been waiting at before, which had TV screens all over it. In a couple of hours we had to pass there waiting for a train we were watching King Kong in Hindi, together with the rest of Indians waiting for their trains. Unfortunately, there were no TV screens in Mahoba station :-(
Varanasi - the sacred Ganges
Anyway, now we are in Varanasi - yesterday we were watching the cremation ceremonies at the Manikarnika ghat on Ganges. According to the belief system of Hindu's, if you get cremated here, you get freed from the reincarnation cycle (sort of shortcut to nirvana). We took a short boat trip on Ganges during sunset time and watched a very beautiful prayer ceremony which Jordi claims was very boring.
Varanasi in general has a very nice vibe, so for a couple of days now we are enjoying just strolling around and doing nothing in particular.
We will next head for Bodh Gaya where there is the famous Bodhi tree - the "child" of the tree under whose generous shade Buddha attained enlightenment.