Keep Calm and Carry Ohm

20/11/08 Day 7 - Orchha

With a scheduled 10am pick-up it was nice to have lie-in especially after an night of interrupted sleep. I couldn't switch my mind from recounting the days events and three or four times in the middle of the night I had to get up to add further notes to my journal. It's becoming quite an obsession!

As Julie went through to have breakfast I went to reception to exchange my traveller's cheques for cash. I had already done so in Varanasi without any difficulties. This morning however was another matter. The young lad had already handed the cash over as he went through the formalities but he had to ask for it all back.

"I'm sorry but they will not release an approval code" he said apologetically "I must have the money back"

"What ?!? why? what's the problem?" I asked.

He didn't know specifically and phoned them back again. Having answered a few questions such as where and when did I purchase the travellers cheques they still refused.

I asked to speak personally with the American Express representative who repeated the same questions. Some how I apparently got them wrong again.

Her attitude was a little blunt to say the least and my renowned inner calm flew straight out the window.

"I hope you're not suggesting that I'm a liar" I blurted out. I don't even know why I said that as she obviously wasn't suggesting any such thing. I was just so annoyed.

Having finished her breakfast Julie arrived and decided to send me to the breakfast room to calm down.

I rushed into the breakfast room. A dal sambar with idli, some upma, some channa massala and spinach poori bread was all shovelled down inside three minutes flat. Perhaps I should contact the Limca Book of Records for that performance!

The delicious food may have restored my inner calm but at what price? With a four hour road trip ahead of us a curry in a hurry for breakfast may not have been a clever idea.

When I returned to the reception desk Julie was beginning to get a tad annoyed. She had phoned our bank help line in the UK but they couldn't resolve the situation. To add insult to injury several of the phone calls we made were hotel's phone and they charged us £25 !

Anyway, eventually we tried another travellers cheque and that one worked, even though it was purchased at the same time. How frustrating.

We left a little late, about 10:20am and I was about to make us even later when I asked if I could return to the craft centre we visited yesterday.

The fresh cash was already burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to buy the erotic sculpture that I had promised to return for.

With the skilfully carved sandstone sculpture of an embracing pair of lovers safely tucked away in my man-bag we set off on the open road for our four hour drive to Jahnsi to catch the Shatabdi Express to Agra.

We had a different guide with us today. His name was Anil. He was well-dressed, very gently spoken and had an orange tikki in the middle of his forehead.

He came across as being a thoroughly nice person.

We drove out of Khajuraho southwards to join highway 75. The first town of significance we came across on our journey was Basari.

It was just a large village really but all of a sudden in its centre this surprising structure appeared. It was a tiered pagoda archway spanning over a road and was completely out of character with its surroundings. It must have lead to somewhere important we thought, but Anil didn't know where it could have been.

To compensate he did tell us that not far from Khajuraho was a famous tiger reserve, Bandhavgarh National Park, where an extremely rare white tiger was captured in 1951.

The long journey was never in danger of being tedious. We had plenty to see out of the window as we drove through villages catching glimpses of their daily lives.

Despite the noticeable squalor there was an amazing beauty to be found in the people, the buildings and the colour.

But no matter how beautiful the view the inescapable poverty was heartbreaking.

 

Their life is a harsh life. One where fresh water is only available after a long walk to the nearest well and an even longer walk home carrying the filled pots on their heads.

Their homes, nothing more than shacks, no home comforts, certainly no luxury items, just a roof over their heads.

Yet still they smile and wave as we drive past.

The view out the front window was equally as exciting as the usual road chaos ensued.

The poor quality of the tarmac road slowed us down which in one respect was a very good thing.

There were occasions where someone was just sitting in the road; in the middle of nowhere, sitting on the tarmac's edge.

At one stage a wall of three lorries were heading our way.

Our driver calmly continued his course, veering only slightly to the left, but there was someone sitting in the road!

By some miracle the Tata tsunami flowed past us without collision and we pulled back into the middle of the road moments before squashing the resting local. How we emerged the otherside without some carnage I will never know?

As we rolled into the town of Chhatarpur we noticed a fire engine and two police jeeps in a large field parked next to a very large white letter H.

"The minister of defence is visiting today" explained Anil "he is flying in by helicopter."

The election campaign had come to town and we arrived right in the middle of it.

People were pouring in by whatever means possible.

Stuffed like livestock in the back of a pick-up truck or hanging on to any conceivable space on a tractor or even riding the roof of a coach, they were determined to get to this rally today.

It was fascinating to see politics stir so much reaction. Back home many people can't even be bothered to turn up to vote as apathy rules.

When we reached the town centre it was absolute bedlam.

Our driver tried as best he could to squeeze through but we eventually came to a standstill.

I didn't mind this delay so much as it gave us an opportunity to have a good look around.

It was fascinating to look face to face with people; the older generation in particular.

bus load,  Chhatarpur Their well-worn faces etched by their hardships. I'm sure they could tell a tale or two. In their lifetime they will have seen India change dramatically yet possibly their own corner of the sub-continent has stood still.

Eventually we got through the blockage and back onto the open road.

And still they poured into town. We saw one coach racing towards us with a crowd surfing on top.

bus load,  Chhatarpur

How utterly crazy was that?! I wonder how many deaths are there on India's roads every day? It would not surprise me if it's in the region of thousands.

After driving through Nowgong we crossed the border from Madhya Pradesh into Uttar Pradesh.

Two hours since leaving Khajuraho we were about half way along our journey. Anil suggested we pulled in for a comfort break at a village called Alipura.

It had a lovely lake nearby as we pulled off the main highway and down its narrow streets.

We were beginning to wonder where on earth we were going for our piss-stop when we pulled up alongside a small temple called Dhanushdhari temple.

It wasn't an active temple.

Anil informed us that those in use would have a flag flying from the spire.

It didn't make it any less interesting as Rob and I went for a short walk around the temple to take some photographs whilst Julie and Carol waited by the gates.

They were soon the focus of attention from a small group of cheerful and cheeky children, all practicing their "Hello lady".

One shy girl was not joining in the scrum. She kept her distance.

Dhanushdhari temple, Alipura, Uttar Pradesh
girl near Chhatarpur

I could see her wanting to join in but then looking back towards the houses, presumably towards her mother for her approval.

She mustn't have received it as she didn't come a step nearer, watching us from afar instead.

There was some quite enigmatic about her.

Anil reminded us that we were here to visit tea rooms and showed us inside a small "palace" opposite the temple.

The first port of call however were the pee rooms!

Once the deed was done a toilet attendant appeared from nowhere, turned on the taps for me to wash my hands and then handed me a paper towel to dry them.

I really needed to tip him for his service but my smallest change was a 100 rupee note. He wasn't getting that much.

We walked across the inner courtyard where we were greeted by the manager. I ordered a cup of chai, mostly so that I could break the note into smaller change.

The manager eagerly ushered us into his tea room. With another two hours ahead of us no one else wanted to re-fill their bladders.

He continued rather enthusiastically to get us to sit down and order some food; a little too enthusiastically. His desperation scared us off and I cancelled my chai order. We just wanted to leave now.

On the verge of crying he whimpered "Don't go sir, please don't go". His meltdown was all getting a little embarrassing and we couldn't get out of there quick enough. I pitied him and handed over the 100 rupee note to cover the use of their toilets and the tea that I didn't drink. He just stood there speechless as we walked out.

Back in the van we continued up highway 75.

The next point of interest was a bridge that on the left gave us a view of a damn slowly releasing the water and to the right a trickle of a river flowing outwards.

Damn projects are often contentious but as if to prove a point the landscape here was certainly more lush with many of the fields filled with the yellow flower of mustard or the green of rice paddies.

Everything seemed to improve.

Even the quality of the road was much better, complete with a white line down the middle. Not that anyone paid any notice!

We crossed the Betwa River where the landscape changed dramatically to a lunar grey as we entered a mining area.

We turned left at the moonscape, some twelve miles from Jhansi and entered the region near Orchha.

We were heading to see the remarkable fort of the Bundela kings but first we stopped for lunch at the Bundelkhand Riverside hotel.

It was an old summer retreat of the Maharaja of Orchha and Bundelkhand.

The existing Royal family apparently still owned it and the old family photographs on the walls certainly made you feel that it was a family run business.

It was a lovely peaceful spot to unwind.

"If we're ever back in these parts we should stay here!" suggested Julie.

I couldn't agree more.

Our lunch was a selection of dishes from a buffet. Our concerns about how long the food had been festering in the heat was put to one side as we tucked in. I must admit that my Brinjal Bhaji, Paneer Tikka Masala and Dhal Makani were all very tasty and thankfully I didn't suffer any repercussions.

Refilled and refreshed we left for Orchha, a small town with a very big fort!

When we got there we crossed a 14 arched causeway over the Betwa river to reach the fortified palaces. They were built on a seasonal island in a loop of the river. During the wet season it would be engulfed by water.

Founded in the 16th century it had been expanded over the centuries. The earliest palace, Raj Mahal, was a large if rather plain building.

When the the Mughal emperor Jahangir was due on a state visit the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo decided to build a new palace to impress his influential ally. It is known as the Jahangiri Palace despite staying only the one night.

We drove up to the centre of the citadel and parked up on what looked like was once a tennis court, where a section of the fort, Sheesh Mahal, was now a heritage hotel.

We entered the Jahangiri palace through the small back-door.

Rising up a few flights of steps to emerge into its beautiful inner courtyard.

It was exceptionally atmospheric.

The several cupolas in particular added to an attractiveness. It all hinted towards a magnificent past.

It wasn't difficult to imagine its former glory.

Anil vividly described the centre of the courtyard which once would have had a splendid fountain and the sandstone colour of the walls we see today would have been covered by a turquoise inlay, of which a few examples still existed.

Orchha Palace, Orchha After he finished educating us about the Bundela Rajputs we were then taken to the most impressive of front doors.
Orchha Palace, Orchha

The ornate and intricate designs of the entrance was most different to the rest of the palace.

Two stone Elephants flank a medieval wooden door that seemed so old it had to be the original!

Orchha Palace, Orchha

Above them a balcony to look out across the verdant plains that stretched out as far as the eyes could see.

Dotted about were several other structures, some ruined, some quite intact. A crumbled stable block, half a haman, the remains of the palace of Rai Praveen Mahal.

Out there somewhere was also a row of cenotaphs positioned along the Betwa river. Unfortunately we couldn't see the often photographed memorials from this vantage point.

Anil ran out of things to say so he gave us half an hour to explore the several layers of Jahangiri Mahal on our own.

We scurried up the stairs to the first floor and entered the room in which Jahangir stayed. The sun streamed through the stone trellis casting mesmerising patterns across the walls. I was easily caught in its trance imagining Jahangir and his wife standing where Julie and I stood.

Jahangir was the fourth Mughal emperor, the eldest surviving son of Akbar the Great. He continued his father's legacy and was a very popular leader. His wife Nur Jahan was an even more legendary leader. Her intelligence, her strength, her beauty were all renowned. The real power behind the throne as they say.

I turned to Julie and smiled.

Orchha Palace, Orchha

"What? What are you smiling for?" she asked.

"Nothing; just I love you"

Ram Raja Temple, Orchha, India

We moved up to the highest level where we walked amongst the domed pavillions.

Several of the windows along the south side opened out onto balconies.

I tentatively stepped out onto one of them.

They had stood firm for four hundred years so I was sure they would hold my weight.

My confidence was rewarded by an incredible view.

Orchha Palace, Orchha

The view westwards towards the town of Orchha with Ram Raja temple silhouetted in the distance was breathtaking.

Or perhaps it was the adrenalin rush of standing on a four hundred year old balcony, that could fall to pieces sending me plummeting a hundred feet to the earth, that actually took my breath away.

Orchha Palace, Orchha
Orchha Palace, Orchha

"Be bloody careful" Julie kindly spoke.

I didn't loiter.

Once I had the photographs in the bag I stepped away.

There was something of a fairytale about this palace, something quite magical.

With our half hour up we regrouped with Rob & Carol in the courtyard to wait for Anil to take us across the expired tennis court to the other palace.

In comparison the Raj Mahal's simpler design was quite boring but it wasn't a waste of time to walk here.

The main attractions were on the inside. A few of the rooms were filled with brightly coloured murals depicting the incarnations of Vishnu.

Orchha Palace, Orchha

Anil explained "Many places show eight but only here we can see the Buddha as the ninth incarnation, and also the tenth, Kalki, riding on the white horse. We are still waiting for his arrival."

Hinduism is such a complex faith and far removed from Christianity but it was interesting to draw parallels between Kalki the destroyer of foulness who will appear to end this present age and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

We walked through the public pavilion where the king would meet his subjects to collect their taxes or settle any disputes.

From here the view of Jahangiri Mahal looking back through the scalloped arches was very pretty.

We reached the fortified gate that opened out onto the causeway. Anil pointed out that it was set at a 90 degree angle to the bridge and that was done so for a very specific reason.

"Elephant's can't turn right very well" he said

He claimed that elephants in general find it difficult to turn right. Surely that's not true ... is it?

Orchha Palace, Orchha

I would understand if having the gates on the right hand side of a confined space made it difficult for an elephant to charge but to say that elephants can't turn right seems a bit far fetched. Either he was pulling our leg or he was badly misinformed!

Whilst waiting for our minibus to return we strolled over the causeway to Orchha town.

The street that lead to the crossroads was lined with internet cafes and souvenir stalls ready to service the tourists.

Orchha had a really nice and relaxed vibe. Everyone, including the cows roaming the streets, seemed to be very chilled.

Orchha, India

"I wouldn't mind coming back here" said Julie.

We didn't have time to explore the town much. It was time to leave, we had a train to catch, the Shabadti Express from Jhansi to Agra was leaving in an hour. We left Anil behind to find his own way back to Khajuraho and jumped into the minibus with our driver.

Within minutes, just outside Orchha, we came to a bottleneck at a railway crossing. Two lorries were confusing themselves. Our driver suddenly got very agitated. He pulled out and drove quite aggressively, beeping "Get out of my way" in morse code with his horn and waving his arms frantically. Wide eyed and open mouthed we looked on in shock. "What the hell is he doing?" we all thought.

It all came clear when he squeezed his was past the stranded lorries and nipped over the railway crossing just as the lights were flashing, the bells were chiming and the barriers were coming down.

We all sighed with relief as we made it to the other side without crashing into something or someone. Once he regained his composure our driver explained that if we hadn't have crossed the tracks in time it would have delayed us by at least half an hour.

We arrived in Jhansi in plenty of time to pick up a Kuoni rep (the same one who met us off the plane in Khajuraho) from his office who then accompanied us to the train station.

railway porters, Jhansi, India

He arranged for our luggage to be carried from the car park to platform 4 by the official railway porters.

For the first time on this trip I was happy to pay good money for this service. Not only were we very tired and humping two heavy cases up and over the footbridge would have finished us off but it was also worth every rupee to witness the amazing feat of the porters carrying our cases on their heads!

Protected by his turban the combined weight of 34kg of Julie's case and mine appeared to give him no problems whatsoever. His noble grey moustache didn't quiver once. He strode on ahead over the footbridge with such ease. He didn't even break into a sweat.

Julie and I were finding it difficult keeping up with him. It was quite remarkable.

Hot and bothered we stepped down onto platform 4 and fortunately we didn't have any further to walk. Our pre-booked seats in first class carriage C1 was expected to arrive at this section.

Rob and Carol had to walk half way down the platform to reach their spot on the platform for carriage C7. I'm sure their porter felt he drew the short straw walking the extra distance but also their cases also looked much heavier!

Our rep explained that the porter may come and go but when the train arrives he'll be here to carry our luggage onto the train. He also said "Don't tip him now or you won't see him again!"

Jhansi Station

It was now 5:30pm, time for the train to arrive. Time passed slowly. We stood on the platform as the sun left and darkness arrived but no Shabadti Express. It was running uncharacteristically late.

In the meantime we were attracting some attention. I guess my bright yellow Krishna shirt didn't help us go unnoticed. A pair of young lads came up to us smiling giving us the hippy two fingered peace sign and saying "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama". In their broken English one asked how much I had paid for the shirt. I knew I had paid well over the price, so to avoid embarrassment I halved it to 450 rupees. They still laughed their sandals off!

Julie was getting tired of standing so she took the weight off her feet by sitting down on a small tin box that was tucked away near the steps. In the shadows beneath the steps a litter of puppies were blindly rolling about. They kept us amused for a quite while.

Moments later, scurrying behind Julie on the platform I saw another cute creature. I chose not to bring it Julie's attention for fear of inciting an incident. If she knew there was a big fat rat only feet away from her she would have shat herself then ran across the rail tracks hollering like a screaming banshee.

She wouldn't have been the only mad person crossing the rail tracks however as it was a very busy thoroughfare. Moments before a train pulled in dozens of people skipped from one platform to another. It's no wonder X many people die every year taking this stupid shortcut.

An hour late the Shabdati Express trundled in and true to his word our porter arrived. He picked up both our cases and shoved his way onto carriage C1. We were right behind him.

Looking for seats 66 and 67 we were well chuffed to see that they were first seats we came across. We were less chuffed when we realised that we had nowhere to store our luggage. We resorted to putting them where our legs should have been.

I gave our super-porter 150 rupees for his sterling service which he was exceptionally grateful.

We then tried our best to get comfortable for the two and half hour journey ahead.

Julie managed to get her legs around the smaller case but I had to resort to some extreme yoga position to wrap my legs into a comfortable position.

We left Jhansi at 6:45pm and within quarter of an hour food arrived.

We both got a tray filled with a vegetable samosa, a cheese sandwich and a plastic pot filled with something strange called a soan cake.

Colin & Julie on the Shabadti Express to Agra

Julie nibbled her cheese sandwich whilst I devoured both samosas. They were very nice and spicy. Both soan cake however went back unopened.

In an hour we stopped at Gwalior. The stop was clearly announced both in Hindi and in English and despite the next stop Morena only being announced to the locals we still felt more at ease that we weren't going to miss the most visited city in India courtesy of the Taj Mahal

Minutes after leaving Morena another tray of food arrived. Fantastic !! The food came in a foil wrapped containers which Julie politely declined.

I didn't have a clue what they were but I enthusiastically accepted nonetheless. It was my lucky day as the main mystery dish turned out to be a surprisingly tasty Paneer Tikka Masala which I scooped up with a piece of paratha bread. I enjoyed it so much that I was disappointed that I couldn't eat Julie's. I turned my attention to the smaller dish which was a Dhal of some description but it tasted a little sour. Too sour even I couldn't eat it!

Before arriving at Agra Julie was given a pencil and a customer service form to complete. I didn't get one, only Julie did. In fact I'm sure she was the only one in our carriage to get one. They must have been concerned that she hadn't enjoyed the trip for some reason.

Agra Railway Station , Agra, India

Before long the tanoy crackled "hindi hindi Agra hindi" the announcer declared.

There wasn't an English announcement but thankfully we already knew the third stop was Agra. We untangled our legs and wobbled our way to the exit doors. It was now just after 9pm. Within moments of orientating ourselves on the busy platform "our man in Agra" appeared; a vision of calm amongst the chaos. We waited briefly and were reunited with Rob & Carol.

There weren't any porters to carry our luggage so refreshingly we wheeled our own suitcases. Fortunately the footbridge was reached by a gradually inclined ramp, no steps were involved.

Within fifteen minutes we had reached the Mughal Sheraton hotel, our home for the next two nights.

It was a beautiful modern hotel and instantly calming after our long day.

A water featured walkway lead us to the entrance where we were warmly welcomed with a tikki on the forehead and a garland of flowers.

We sat in the foyer beneath the largest chandelier I had ever seen whilst we were being checked in.

Hare Krishna Hare Rama  Colin in India

Our room was very spacious, certainly the best so far. It even had a "day bed" in the corner for lounging. We were both shattered but before we got some sleep we tried phoning home to Hannah.

Rather frustratingly neither of our mobile phones would work.

We appeared to be able to send text messages so we sent one saying that we were going to be on the internet soon.

We went down to the hotel's "business centre" and paid for 24 hours internet access. We logged into our facebook accounts and had a "chat" with Hannah on-line. She told us she had published onto her wall a video of Rory singing "You are my Sunshine". It was exceptionally cute. Both Julie and I had tears in ours eyes watching it.

Our first weak moment of homesickness I believe!

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