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Published: September 13th 2010
As I crossed the pedestrian bridge at Visakhapatnam train station I looked down upon the long blue snakes of the waiting trains and tried to decide which might be ours. There was a departure time listed for our train (the 1VK Visag to Kirandul passenger) but no platform number and at six in the morning there was nobody at the counters to ask. Though none of the ticket booths were open the platforms were all busy with the constant buzz of commuters, coolies, venders and beggars, all going about their lives with typical languorous efficiency. After a couple of failed attempts we found our train, located our carriage, gained our seats, purchased a breakfast of coffee and biscuits and then settled in for the 2 hour trip to Tyada in the Aruku Valley. A comparatively short journey when compared to some we have recently made but easily the most beautiful.
It took the train a half hour to clear the spreading industrial stain of Visag, but once it had the furnaces and rubble conveyors were replaced by lime green paddy fields, brown lakes, and the gently budding mounds of the eastern ghats. From the open door of our carriage I
watched mesmerised as the world slipped swiftly by. At first the landscape was similar to Tam Cok in Vietnam or parts of Laos, with wide expanses of green paddy backed by steeply rising forested hills that were karst like in their abruptness. Soon though, as the blue reptilian train snaked its way further up the valley, the hills closed in and the vast expanses of paddy were replaced with much smaller fields of maize. The train began to labour as the incline steadily increased, our speed slowing to that of a fast run. We passed through station after station, each one more rustic and quaint than the last. Signal men stood on the stone platforms holding out green flags and children paused from their games to wave.
An hour and a half into the journey and the train was really climbing, the tracks hugging the convoluted contours of the mountain and passing through tunnel after tunnel. The views down the mountain and across the valley were genuinely stunning. Every time the train was spat from a tunnel's dark throat into the blinding white light of day, and after my eyes had readjusted to the light, a completely different view
was presented for my slow perusal; each more spectacular than the last. We crossed bridges spanning mighty gorges and passed so close to waterfalls that their spume spattered our carriage. We saw colourful groups of adivasi tending their cows or working the fields next to their simple huts, and we passed through tracts of jungle so thick that it blocked out the light almost as completely as the tunnels. The journey was so mesmerically beautiful and the communal atmosphere on board so pleasant, that when we eventually pulled into Tyada we were actually sad to be leaving the train.
Most of our time in the Aruku Valley was spent sat in wicker chairs, on the porch of our hut, watching the rain. For an English man this was something of a busman's holiday, but a lot more pleasurable than it sounds. Our cabin was surrounded by thick stands of broad leafed trees and clumps of towering bamboo through which could be seen great banks of forested land that rose up and encircled us like the green terraces of a mighty stadium, so that all we could see, in any direction, was a myriad shades of green. All we could
hear was the hypnotic sound of the rain in the trees, a sound like that made by a constantly applauding stadium of six year old girls, or the soft drumming of a million tiny fingers upon a million sheets of paper. The only movement, in an otherwise perfectly still day, was that of raindrops striking leaves. Unlike the movement created by wind, with the rain the branches and twigs did not move, only the leaves. It was as if a billion emerald butterflies had alighted to quiver in the boughs. A subtle but all pervasive movement that, when coupled with the constant soft chatter of the rain, created one of the most relaxing sights I have ever experienced, and certainly one of the most compellingly beautiful.
Ironically, the aspects of travelling that most travellers look forward to the most are the moments spent going nowhere that are sandwiched between the crushing monotony of actual travelling. Our journey to Jagdalpur proved to be a notable exception to that rule. The next morning, in some unexpected sunshine, we walked back to Tyada train station to continue our journey over the eastern ghats to Jagdalpur. From our exemplary position in the open
door of our carriage we watched the dramatic mountain scenery slowly unfold as the train laboured to crest the mountains before easing down to the plains. Just one of the views we witnessed would normally take a full days hike to reach but we were privy to hundreds of them, and all without having to move at all. Eight hours, three states (Andra Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh) and two huge smiles; now that's what I call travelling!
We pulled into Jagdalpur station in the soft light of early evening and ambled round to the back of the little building to search for a rickshaw. We found a small swarm of the yellow and black trikes, but not one tried to sting us. Intrigued, I approached the nearest one and enquired as to how much the trip into town would be. "As you please," being the enigmatic reply.
"As I please?" I echoed, somewhat surprised. "Can you not give me a price?"
With a rustling of his bushy white beard where his mouth should have been that, judging by his gently creased eyes, suggested a smile, he replied; "Please get in sir, we can discus the price when
Being a huge fan of procrastination I decided to clamber in and see what would happen. "Chello Hotel Rainbow," I called from the back seat, "lets go!"
We arrived about ten minutes later. I thought the fare should be about 35 - 40 rupees but was ready to accept 50: "How much for the ride?"
"Twenty rupees sir", was the quiet reply.
Twenty I thought, that has to be selling himself short. "No, no, not at all. Here, take fifty." I insisted.
"Thank you sir," he replied, simply.
"No, thank you. Danyavaad." I smiled, joining my hands together.
"It was nothing sir, I was just performing my duty. Enjoy Jagdalpur. I wish you both happiness, goodbye!" With those kind words and a smile so large that it opened a hole in his beard, he was off. This gentleman rickshaw driver's old world politeness was the perfect welcome to a new city and, as first impressions go, it proved to be absolutely bang on the money.
Chhattisgarh is a densely forested state that forms the southern tongue of Madhya Pradesh. It is little touristed and mostly known for its large tribal
population and as one of the strongholds of the Maoist rebels, or naxalites. We came to know it as the friendliest, prettiest and quite possibly most interesting region that we have visited. India is a welcoming country and if smiles were currency then Chhattisgarh would easily be its wealthiest state. In actuality it is one of the poorest but, as is so often the case, it seems that Chhattisgarh's financial wealth is inversely proportional to its people's happiness. I make a nasty habit of generalising for effect and in no way am I glamorising poverty or cheapening the hardship of lack. I am just, in the few paragraphs that I think that you'll tolerate reading, trying to state my observances and to put down my badly drawn conclusions. The truth is, though a very poor state, I didn't see one beggar and the markets were all absolutely stuffed with piles of fresh produce that most everyone seemed to have enough money to buy. I saw no desitutes, nobody slept on the streets. Everyone had a simple home in town or, as the majority seemed to, a hut on a self sufficient farm. Chhattisgarh is an overwhelmingly agrarian state and has
little other Industry except for some state run mining operations. This is the reason the official figures label it a poor state and also, I believe, the reason why its citizens appear so contented.
On our first full day in Chhattisgarh we wanted to both enter Kanger Valley National Park and to visit some tribal villages. The lack of even a rudimentary tourist infrastructure in the Bastar region necessitated the hiring of a car and driver, an uncommon frivolity for travellers such as ourselves and an experience that lent the day a delicious feeling of mild extravagance. The drive to the park was a pleasure in itself. Beautiful tree-lined avenues that dappled the sunlight which shone through the windows soon gave way to winding roads that cut their lazy way through thick forest. We passed more buffalo, goats, cows and brightly dressed adivasis on the road than we did other vehicles, our car's horn sounding lonely and mournful as its plaintive voice was swallowed unanswered in the depths of the forest. About five kilometres into the Park proper and we arrived at our destination: Tirathgarh waterfalls.
In the past we have visited many waterfalls; our high hopes for
a wet and wild ride so often left frustratingly dry by the flaccid, dry ejaculation of actuality. Tirathgarh managed to spectacularly buck that unfortunate trend. The Kanger river was in full spate and danced its way down the wide main drop in thousands of delicate cataracts that neatly bookended the central thrust of the falls. The water then collected in a series of shallow pools before splitting to flow either side of a small temple to then take a further plunge deep into the gorge below. From the top of the falls the wide lazy river seemed hesitant about the drop and appeared to pull back from the edge in a series of small, nervous pools. Once it worked up the courage to take the leap however, its character changed in an instant; from hesitant, brown and lazy, it became dashing, white and brave. Some of what went down came back up in the form of fine droplets of mist that rose as clouds from the valley's thickly forested floor, a number of which were no doubt destined to make the same journey again.
The first part of our day complete and having been a great success, we went
back to the car to travel onwards to the small village of Kodenar to visit its haat, or tribal market. One of the constants of traveling in India is being the continual recipient of stares. For a first time traveller it can take a little while to adjust to being constantly appraised (some never do) and to realise that the looks are entirely benign. At Kodenar's haat this national pastime had clearly reached its intense APOTHEOSIS, as where ever in the market we walked, we bent necks and attracted gazes. Delicate negotiations between trader and buyer would pause mid bid to watch us with an uncommon intensity as we walked by, machetes would be stilled above a fish, glinting in the midday sun as their owners stopped mid butcher to take a long butchers at us and, if someone had not yet noticed, they would be nudged by a friend to have our exotic personages pointed out so that they could add the weight of their curiosity to the not inconsiderable tonnage we were already carrying.
Initially I thought the looks were hostile but I soon realised that the assembled tribal people, some of whom had walked half a
day from their native places to sell their produce here, were just incredibly curious, surprised by our presence and just a little nervous. The smile test produced either wide toothy grins in return, or a shy hiding of faces. When we eventually engaged them, as we did when purchasing a stunning bell-metal sculpture of a tribal couple, we quickly drew a fascinated crowd who all watched intently as we haggled for our item. Like at a tennis match the crowd followed the negotiations back and forth by moving their heads; they groaned and gasped at any exciting moments, held their breath at the tense points and actually cheered at the deals completion! I'm pretty sure the cheers were not for my bargaining skills but rather for the price the lovely adivasi lady managed to extract from this particularly naive foreigner! Still, ice was broken, a gift was bought and a whole market of friends were made.
We enjoyed our day so much that we decided to do pretty much the same thing the next day, only without a trip to a waterfall. To reign in the costs a little we hired a rickshaw to drive us to the haat,
this one being at a village called Nagarnar. The market itself was a little smaller than the one at Kodenar, and as it seemed to consist mainly of food and clothing we decided to walk around the village instead. We ambled away from the market on a compacted mud lane that lead us through the village and on to the paddy fields that surrounded it. We passed mud brick farm houses with clay tiled roofs that had buffalo tied to woven wicker fences, chicken and pigs scratching in the yard, huge cartwheels resting against the outbuildings that were shaded by the enormous banyans that grew in many front yards. Some houses were painted vivid colours and beautifully decorated, some had immaculately tended gardens and yet others were centres of small industry with pottery and baskets being produced in dusty front yards. Eventually the lane left the village and cut through the lime green paddy. This track was busy with long lines of Adivasis travelling to the market, either on foot or by pushbike. Most bikes carried at least three people or were heavily laden with produce. Those on foot, especially the women, carried their saleable items on their heads in
impossibly tall or wide baskets. It was a beautiful place in which to walk, full of shy but friendly locals and about as far removed from your typical Indian urban environment as it is possible to get.
Although we loved our time in the villages it was to the city of Jagdalpur that we returned each evening. Jagdalpur is, when compared to many other Indian cities, of a convenient and manageable size. There were noticeably fewer cars, lorries and rickshaws, but a definite increase in cows, goats and cycle rickshaws. English was most definitely the exception rather than the rule, as thankfully was the use of horns and dishonesty from auto drivers (a fairly good litmus test of a cities pleasantness). The pace of life was markedly slower and the shopping pretty decent, we made some more excellent purchases of tribal art from a haphazardly arranged, but very reasonably priced, government emporium. Jagdalpur also has a large market of its own that although at its best on a Sunday, was still a fascinating place place to walk around. We purchased some earrings, bindis and henna (all for Anny I assure you) and a large slice of pumpkin that we
eventually managed to explain to our hotel's perplexed manager that we wanted the chef to make into curry.
At the back of the market I almost tripped over a couple of two foot high clay sculptures of rats. They looked more than a little surreal and perhaps in slightly bad taste, standing as they were in such close proximity to the market and in apparent honour of one of its less salubrious residents. It turned out that they belonged to an elephant and were waiting there to be decorated before being returned to their owner to serve as his cosmic vehicle. We found their owner, in fact we found six sheds full of elephants just like him, all in differing stages of completion. You see, the elephant was none other than Lord Ganesh (who has a handy little rat employed as his chauffeur), and hundreds were being sculpted by a small army of local artisans in readiness for Ganesh Chaturchi, the upcoming festival in celebration of the universally adored elephant headed God Ganesh. These sculptures (that were destined for ritual immersion in tanks, lakes and rivers) stood up to eight feet tall, were constructed from a straw and wicker
frame covered in mud that was shaped like clay before being left to dry in the sun in readiness for some spectacularly gaudy painting and decoration. In a country not afraid to be wildly different, this production line of pink, silver and gold pot bellied elephant headed long trunked and four arm preening, ladoo holding, tusk throwing, snake belted, moon taunting manifestations of luck, knowledge, wisdom and excess, was none the less a quite overwhelming display of the odd and overwhelmingly kitsch.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable time in the Bastar region and truly wished that we could have stayed longer as we felt, in fact we knew, that the region had so much more to offer that we missed, and which only an extended stay would reveal. Our three days of pleasure have come to an end and in a Karmically necessary way are to be replaced with an equal amount of purgatory. We are to travel from Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh to Udaipur in Rajasthan. A very long journey by anyones standards, but made that much greater by there being no direct route. In three full days we are to travel about 1800kms, through five states by two
trains and one bus. We will spend two whole nights asleep on two separate trains and have but one solitary, six hour stay in a hotel. I am secretly quite looking forward it.
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