India Part 1 – Jaisalmer, Bandhavgarh, Varanasi
Heat is a funny thing – you can stand it when it’s moderately hot, but when it’s 40/42/43 degrees it changes. You feel sweat in the strangest places; eyelids, backs of knees, the crack in your spine becomes a slow river.
It’s extremely uncomfortable. Nothing feels light enough to wear, particularly with arms, legs covered. Dark colours go dark with wet patches then light with powdery salt residue in only awkward places. Your day is spent sheltering from from the sun at its worst, avoiding the hottest parts of the day (usually mid afternoon) and drinking more water than you thought possible (I think I topped 4 litres one day).
You’re in a weird state of feeling constantly thirsty where nothing will slake it. Cold water in a zone where power is more blippy than anywhere else becomes sought after, cold beer even more so. The beer never really seems cold here, and just below room temp beer in 40 degrees is undrinkable. Air conditioning is always too cold, you’re in a constant state of switch on switch off – made even worse by the overloud fans, in some restaurants shorting out.
Under this heat we ventured to Jaisalmer, a city on the edge of the Thar desert, not far from the border with Pakistan.
That border was more than a smidge nerve wracking, as Jaisalmer is near an airforce base. Jets were patrolling the border 4/5 times a day – a strange sight against the backdrop of the huge fort.
We stayed in a hostel outside of the main fort – it loomed in the distance like a giant sandcastle. Walking there didn’t take long, back alleys & horns – avoiding motorcycles and cows.
To be honest, it’s sadly a tourist town more than anything else. Shops, a few ancient temples, the famous Bhang shop. Indian kitsch including plastic statues, plastic shoes, traveller clothes, every similar shop selling a similar thing. We ate at the hostel, the well-rated hostel next door, in the fort – the food wasn’t great.
Being a tourist town everyone (well – men as women don’t work in hospitality as much here) is overfamiliar. After the stares and strangeness of Jaipur it feels even weirder in Jaisalmer. I don’t appreciate being called “Boss” or having guys push into my personal space all the time, trying to shake my hand, be my best friend.
India is strange like that – it’s really disconcerting as it makes you instantly uncomfortable in most situations, as there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground as a female. I’ve got to the point that I barely talk to anyone unless I genuinely feel comfortable, which isn’t that often. As Jaisalmer is such a tourist town, and it was so, incredibly hot – I decided to wear shorts for our little walks about, which was fine (for a change!) and unbelievably liberating. I wanted to shout to the ceiling “LOOK world my KNEES are showing but I’m too hot to care”.
It is beautiful, and amazing to walk around a living fort, finding random places to eat, searching out the one place that serves coffee (alongside a scarf shop), avoiding the terrifying bats as I ran under alcoves. The yellow is stark in the overly bright sunlight, the blue sky pale and almost white. Even in my sunglasses it’s so bright it nearly hurts.
Bats, flying rats, strangely scared me half to death. For all the time I’ve never understood a fear of birds – I now get it. I’m totally afraid of bats! Hearing them and smelling them before I see them put me off doing anything near dark in Jaisalmer. I went into one of the famous Haveli, heard them, smelt them, and basically had to go outside before I started to hyperventilate and felt sick! I have NO idea where this fear of bats has come from? I’m weirdly scared of them flying into my hair and face. Gross.
Jaisalmer is also famous for their Camel Safaris, long stints deep into the desert up to 16 days long. Deciding that too long was probably not the best of ideas, we chose a day and a half safari into a quiet part of the desert.
Armed with a couple of cookies from the Bhang shop, hats, light clothing and sunscreen –we ventured out.
Have you been camel trekking before? Well, it’s hellish. It’s uncomfortable – insanely so. Being in 40+ heat & direct sunlight with little shade and a grumpy camel with limited water (I kept running out as I was so thirsty) is basically my idea of hell.
You’re stuck, with nowhere to go, no position that doesn’t really hurt, constantly trying to wriggle into a slightly more comfortable position. You’re leading the other camels so your guides are constantly saying “kick him kick him” to which your camel never ever responds. Someone offers a stick to beat your camel with, but you’re horrified and say no. You realise that the kids with your group are about 10/11, and you’re contributing to the child labour problem in India…
With not exactly a “fat cushion” on my butt my pelvic bone constantly felt close to the skin, forming bruises & discomfort sitting down for days afterwards. My cheap nasty trousers I bought in Delhi for £1 rubbed so much against my skin I got burn marks. In stretching his leg to reach over his camel, Dan split his pants. It was hilarious.
So you get the idea.
We took a “Non-touristic” trek to some dunes that weren’t the usual Sam ones, sadly this meant trekking to a single dune, probably the biggest anti-climax I’ve experienced in a while – until somewhere, out of a village in the distance, a man turns up with cold beer.
Sure it’s a premium, but after that journey it was like cold honey nectar.
We sipped and downed our crumbly bhang cookies, waiting the inevitable 1.5 – 2 hrs for anything to kick in.
It’s a weird sensation, I kept feeling my mouth pull and twist into a smile. Ludicrous things are suddenly hilarious. With a few different people who’d had various amounts of cookie meant for several different experiences. Some people zonked out into their own headspace, some lay in a corner giggling. For me I lay down watching the stars for a while – they looked super bizarre, with halo-like outlines similar to nebula. Turning my head made things drift and seem moving at a slower speed, leaving trails.
Not long after, I was asleep.
It’s cold in the desert, a welcome break from the searing heat. Chai is very welcome first thing, but with an impending dread of knowing that you have to get back on that camel…
On the way back minutes passed like hours. “What animal am I thinking of” (thanks Aaron – we’ve played this more in India!) turned into desperation of “What music genre am I thinking of” and “What New Zealand town am I thinking of”.
I didn’t care about the scenery of dire looking desert farmland. Desert rocks. Powerlines stretching hundreds of kilometres in the distance. Jets overhead.
Getting off the camel for the last time was incredible, (and also bizarre as you’re in so much pain you can’t really walk normally) waiting for our ride, unpleasant. We had two stops on the way back to Jaisalmer. One at an oasis – supposedly safe to swim in, however looked more full of green algae and frogs than anything else. One at a ghost town – people up and left in the night for one woman to avoid a marriage. Not much left but foundations and sand.
The day after we got back, there was a huge dust storm. Bigger and more intense than the one in Jaipur, like a windy fog descended over the city. You couldn’t see far in front of you – so we stayed at the hostel, not really keen to venture out.
I was definitely ready to leave Jaisalmer, but dreading the long journey to get to Bandhavgarh.
Trains beyond the main routes are often late. Someone decides you’re interesting to wants to stare at you on the platform for 10 minutes at a time without a break. Once you get on the train, someone is always in your seat – using up the clean sheets. There’s always a crying baby, an absurdly loud snorer. The manners of Indians totally different to Westerners – there’s burping and farting and talking at full loud volume at all hours of the night.
You’re constantly nudged and bumped if your feet go over the end, while you desperately try to sleep with your daypack as a pillow in the fear that someone might sneak on at a stop in the middle of the night and take passports/cards/money/trainers.
The train rocks and rolls and shudders to a halt for seemingly no reason. Other trains scream past at what seems like light speed while your train never gets above 50kmh. The air while cold is dry, your nose and throat are in a constant tickle – I slept with a scarf over half of my face to try and ease it.
You’re awake every half hour in fear you’ll miss your stop, thank god for GPS and maps, you’d never know which stops are what in the middle of the night.
Train 1, Jaisalmer to Jaipur. Train 2 Jaipur to Agra. We stopped for a few hours in Agra, going back to the hostel we stayed in for a few hours rest, a shower and a good meal, only to get train number 3 7 hours later.
Bandhavgarh is a National Park, near the centre of India – in the middle of nowhere. The closest train station is 1.5hr away, in a tiny village (barely a village) of Umaria. As far as train stops go, it’s a 2minute stop, so you can imagine our nervousness with a train that was nearly 4.5hours late when we got on, when we were due originally to reach Umaria at 5:35am, going straight into our first tiger trek/safari.
Train stations throughout India are varied. Some – well signposted, well lit – some, essentially empty platforms in the middle of nowhere with barely any shelter let alone a huge sign with the station name in English!
Interestingly, we had the nicest attendant of any train yet – who knew where we were going, promised to wake us up and tell us before we got to our stop.
Somehow we made up 2 hours – but only got off the train at 7:15, with the added drive to get to Bandhavgarh – missing the park entrance for our first safari in the end as they close it 1 one hour after entry.
Driving from Umaria to Tala took nearly 2 hours. There’s a single lane raised road in parts of it – massive pot holed roads in others. The landscape a huge change from the yellow desert of Jaisalmer, with lush green everywhere. Tiny small huts metres above the ground are dotted around in small paddocks – villagers sleep in these above their crops to shoo away animals and birds.
The lodge we stayed in was beautiful as well – huge garden, warm sunshine, quiet – it was a wonderful break from the touristy-ness of Jaisalmer, though it wasn’t a break from the intense (now humid and syrupy) heat, or (for me at least) mosquitoes.
Bandhavgarh is open post-monsoon for 9 months of the year, and is one of the few parks that have tigers, and used to be the most densely populated. The park is split into zones, with only set numbers of Jeep allowed into each zone – in the Tala Zone where our tickets were booked, only 16 Jeeps allowed during both sunrise and sunset treks.
The park is stunning, with a natural fort in the centre – and hilly ground making for some exciting forest driving at times. There are small waterholes and man made lake areas for tigers, huge expanses of the park closed to visitors now (only 20% of the park is available for viewing) and sadly, hardly any of the tigers are left.
There used to be 79 in Bandhavgarh, in the Tala zone now it seems there are about 3 that we’re aware of. The ones that used to be there have died or have been killed. I don’t for a second believe there at 1500 tigers left in the wild. A quick google shows that numbers haven’t been updated in decades, at the place we stayed one of the owners mentioned the Forestry Service (who have been given guardianship over the parks and tigers) often get details wrong on which tigers have been killed, and when this is pointed out – have previously refused to change available details.
It’s devastating to understand the reality of how difficult it will be to save the tigers in India – just a few days ago after a man was killed by a tiger in the buffer zone (A buffer zone is on the edge of the park, outside the fence. Tigers pop in and out of it to find food, and often tiger territories cross over into it). Upset by the death, local villagers went on a rampage, attacking forest staff, setting buildings alight. 29 of them have been arrested. But what’s to stop the villagers going back in at night and attacking the tiger themselves? Nothing.
Buffer zones aren’t the rainforest, bamboo and isolated zones they used to be. Life and people are always encroaching. Farmers are making fences, taking bamboo and wood out of the park to build them. Villages are trying to find the small spotted deer called Chital for food.
Even within the park things are changing. With a lot of the older tigers who used to be in the park now dead, there is now a lot of empty territory and pushing on territory borders – some of the older tigers have been pushed out of the park by younger ones, and within the younger ones there is a lot of in fighting – no dominant male to provide a sense of control. One tiger was even killed by the Forestry Service. Hit by one of the jeeps at night, that wasn’t even supposed to be in the park.
Also affecting numbers – there’s little food for tigers further into the park, sambar and chital are in limited numbers on the edges, often poached by villagers encroaching on the buffer zone.
After missing our first safari drive, we had 4 left – leaving at dawn and dusk. One of the lodge owners joined our safaris – pointing out birds, understanding bits of what the drivers were talking about and sharing the history of the park, and the truth of what had been happening to the tigers over the years – she’d been there over 20 years.
The park is incredibly beautiful. Huge meadows with toi toi /pampas grass in flower, covered in thousands and thousands of huge dragonflies. Swampy lakes with native cockscomb on the edges, buzzing with the sound of hundreds of bees. Green pools that look perfect for tigers to cool in near summer. Hills strewn with moss-covered rocks, peeking through the various levels of forest some that seem to be made by a single solid rock. Huge, steep mountains ducking in and out of the distance dependent on which angle you looked. Some of it is like a dream – like a movie set, monkeys sitting like humans would, in patches of sunlight just asking for photos.
We heard warning calls a lot – from chital, from monkeys, each time stopping to listen for the sounds, as they give clues to where the tigers were moving. Similar to the lions we’ve followed earlier in our trip tigers like to walk on the parks defined roads. Huge paw prints plodding in the dirt, often fresh. Marks on the roadside not dissimilar to domestic cats, poop and brushed over dirt. Massive lines on trees where the tigers had treated them like scratching posts (or couch ends).
On the first morning we were driving though a gorge, and heard a loud warning cry – it was from another jeep – Tiger spotted!
We drove quickly to where they were, enough to get a glimpse of the beautiful creature slinking through the undergrowth.
They’re huge. HUGE. Their paws the size of large dinner plates. White stark against the greens and browns of the forest. Oranges bright for us as the forest had the post-monsoon lushness, rather than the near camouflage in summer. Mouth open and moving quickly and silently through the undergrowth, almost running to avoid being spotted. And within the blink of an eye he was gone.
We only saw it for the briefest of moments, and it was the only time we saw one. Even then we were incredibly lucky. People have been at the same lodge for 8 days, and didn’t even see a glimpse.
On leaving the park, feeling the sun on my back, watching the forest and listening to the birds I was struck with an intense sadness about the tigers, and even with best efforts I don’t think there will be any left within the next 2 generations unless there can be huge changes around and within the parks.
I don’t think education will save the tigers; villagers who get by on an absolute minimum don’t care about the survival of an animal that to them can cause destruction and death when they’re barely getting by as it is.
I don’t think further intense management & targets will save the tigers – beyond chipping them and watching via gps their exact movements, even more pressure on the parks to save them will cause further mistakes to be made, and with limited ability (or want it seems) to correct them.
From talking to our lodge owner, a push for more food within the park can help, tigers will be more likely to define their territory within the park boundary rather than across the buffer zones, but this would require something like wild cows to be pushed in (more meat than chital, and easier to kill than the large sambar deer), however with cows sacred in Hindu India, this is unlikely.
Increasing the size of the Buffer Zones, and moving the villagers further out would help, but with the amount of time it would take for the forest to regenerate on the edges & costs attached this is also unlikely.
I don’t know. They’re such beautiful animals – and zoos aren’t the place for them, their territories are 10-95 square kms. Putting them in a small enclosure just so there are some left doesn’t feel right to me either.
It’s hard not to come away feeling sad and depressed about what we’re doing to this planet and wondering about the future of the worlds endangered species.
Even in saying that, after 2 ½ days of amazing food, great conversations (thanks Kay) and quiet relaxed bliss – we were back at a train station for another overnight journey – this time to Varanasi.
After nearly 6 hours on the train platform and a 4 hour train delay, we were getting slightly nervous about heading back into the madness of India proper. We arrived at 6:30 am – after catching up at least 3 hours on our train, at Mogul Sarai, a station about 45 minutes from Varanasi proper. Expecting (and hoping) a hotel pickup – we looked and looked, but there was no one there. Knowing that this is always the type of place that travellers get fleeced, we waited for about 10 minutes trying to work out the right autorickshaw driver.
Thankfully the one we found show us the price map of how much we should be paying to get to our hotel, and we agreed on that set price. Phew.
We drove through a huge truck stop for what felt like forever. It was wet, muddy and ducking between brightly painted trucks we reached a roadblock, started by a truck driving down the wrong side of the road, oblivious to the chaos he was causing. Sigh we were definitely back.
Varanasi (or Banaras or Kashi) is on the bank of the River Ganges. Huge ghats (concrete stairs) reach into the water, and behind these is an absolute maze of tiny roadways, barely enough space for a motorbike or a cow to get through.
We crossed the ganges and zoomed behind the ghats, getting to the last one – Assi Ghat where our guest house was. We had decided to stay somewhere a bit nicer, rather than roughing it for 300 rupees a night each, and stayed a bit out of the madness, with a view of the Ganges from our room.
Exhausted, we wrote off our first day, watching life pass by, the river the same colour as the grey hazy sky.
One of the holiest places in the world, the city of Varanasi (Banaras or Kashi and the Ganges is place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It’s a riot of colour, smells, feelings, tastes – totally different to anything we’d experienced.
We walked the next morning, wandering the ghats one by one as workers cleaned the silt of the post-monsoon receding ganges off the ghats. Thick, black, polluted with rubbish and plastic bags and whatever else – we tentatively walked past trying to watch our feet.
Past incredible graffiti. Past people washing. Past Sadhus (holy men) asking if we wanted to take their photo. Past Mala sellers. Past the pumphouse installed by the British. Past areas that smelt like it had been a mens toilet for centuries. Past areas that had the sweet smell of rose petals and marigolds. Past women and men washing clothes – the bright colours and whites stretched across the steps in the sun to dry. Past smoke and burning – at one of the cremation ghats.
It’s strange being able to watch from the steps, seeing bodies lifted on to a funeral pyre and lit, flames reaching high from ghee and straw. Watching wood being weighed for the next cremation. Blinking the flying ash from your eyes and the acrid smell of burning from your nose. Walking past you can sometimes smell putrefying flesh amongst the smoke.
It’s confronting. Insanely so. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but impossible to look away. There’s a real sense of peace there. After the body is laid, lit and alight it’s left alone. Often no one is there, the body crumbling into ash. The workers occasionally stuffing more orange cloth into the fire, moving the body and surrounding wood to ensure it continues to burn. More details on the full funeral rites here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antyesti
Each ghat is different from the last. Some have temples within them. Some Yoga places, some Ashrams. Some have hotels. Some look like they’re about to collapse, but people live in them. Some are brightly painted and have families of monkeys fighting for territory.
It’s an amazing place to walk – so many facets of life from birth to death that you see within minutes. People are friendly too – there was no staring, no awkwardness. Some people went out of their way to say hello, to get their children to say hello to us to practice their English, and say “Happy Diwali”.
I felt more confident and relaxed than anywhere else we’d been to – the friendliness isn’t forced or awkward like it was in Jaisalmer, and I didn’t feel unsafe or nervous like I did in Agra & Jaipur & Delhi. I could look up and beyond my feet – and smile at people for a change. It was a wonderful feeling. I loved Varanasi.
Walking behind the ghats is like chaos. While there are small signs directing you places, if you miss the next one you’ve missed where you’re going. Shop owners are kind enough to point you in the right directon – there’s no google maps here, GPS doesn’t work correctly. Shops aren’t exactly pinpointed. There’s hundreds of shops dedicated to deity replicas. Ganesh and his mouse. Shiva and his bull. Radha and Krishna always together.
It’s hard to find food – there’s not really many restaurants, so often we either ate at the hotel (the food was amazing there), at the village behind Assi ghat (cold coffee at one place, fantastic food at a tiny restaurant called “Cozy Corner” another). We tried a few international meals for a bit of a break, but it’s hard to get the clean-feeling Japanese or traditional Korean food (bibimbap) right.
We had some snack food tho – a Papaya and banana Lassi for 60 rupees (£0.60p) which was more like a meal in a glass. I dragged us to Ksheer Sagar a famous sweetshop (Varanasi is famous for sweets, traditionally given and shared during Diwali), oh my gosh they were amazing. One like Shortbread. One pistachio and rose petal. One fig and pistachio – not too sweet either!
Early one morning (so many 5am starts!) we did a boat trip. Rowed from our hotel, to see the early Ganges. Lots of the people living close by had neither a toilet or bathroom, so you get view of the real india.
The massive area before the Assi ghat is a public toilet. The smell of human excrement is offensive, yellowybrown plots all over, people in bare feet trying to avoid where someone went last.
Further down it’s for washing. Women in full saris immersing themselves in water, washing their hair. Men barely covered, Brahmins obvious by their side strings across their body. Dead cows, blown up pass by. People collecting water at the edges – in takeaway see through bottles, murky and brown.
It’s an incredible sight – like nothing we’d ever experienced. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about Varanasi – the ability to just watch the world go by in a totally different world that you’d ever experienced.
Some of the best parts of Varanasi were at night. I’d planned our trip to culminate in Diwali, festival of lights. In the days running up to it kids were letting fireworks off all times of the day. A huge BANG when you’d least expect it. At night a veritable chorus trying to our do each other in volume.
Before Diwali night we did a boat trip from our guesthouse to watch the ganga Aarti (worship to fire) – hundreds of people on the steps and boats watching, on the sides of the ghats small terracotta pots being lit with fire.
We ventured into the hotel district for a few drinks (it was Will’s last night with us) and when we stepped out at nearly 11pm it was like WWIII.
Fireworks were going off every second. HUGE bangs nearly hitting us within the Auto Rickshaw we took back to our guesthouse. The sky searing open with coloured blooms, reds, sparkles. Kids yelling and smiling at each other, people were saying “HAPPY DIWALI” to us from all over. We’d brought earplugs with us, as some of the fireworks were uncomfortably loud – it’s amazing that people have their hearing with the volume of some of the fireworks, and don’t even get me started on overall firework safety.
It was the most surreal driving experience of my life as I barely held on to the side, eyes to the sky, watching for every brightly lit shower. Back at our room we could watch the full stretch of the ghats, and the fireworks went on till midnight – and petered out after that.
Our last few days few by, we headed to Sarnath – where Buddha taught for the first time. Not much is left bar a large, beautifully carved stupa, covered in goldleaf from pilgrims (ignoring the “No Gold Leaf” sign).
Varanasi assed in a blur. We said goodbye to Will. We walked the ghats more. We had more cold coffee. We started to get nervous, realising that our next flight would take us to Kathmandu, then to Lukla and from there – to Everest.