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he did a double take when he saw the destination on my electronic ticket.
the ticket inspector looked at me bewildered, trying hard to fathom why anyone would pay almost 300 rupees to travel in 2AC (second air-conditioned) class only to get off at the next stop when one could take the local bus for less than 30 rupees.
well, i had my reasons, and very good ones too.
1. the train ride was thirty minutes, one-third the duration of the bus journey.
2. i just got off the comfortable, almost luxurious bhopal shatabdi express. it would be too cruel to send myself reeling from first-class train heaven to squashed-like-sardine bus hell.
3. between the two trains was just an one-hour wait (and both trains were on time!). it would be too much of a hassle, not to mention tiring, to get out of the station and find my way around an unfamiliar town to the bus stand.
4. i wanted a seat in air-conditioned comfort. call me spoilt, but i shudder at the likely prospect of having to stand throughout the ninety-minute bus ride.
5. i did entertain the thought of 3AC, which seemed like a
more sensible option, but the price difference was a few rupees. so, why not upgrade?
when lonely planet said, "although sanchi can be visited from bhopal, this crossroad village is a relaxing spot to spend the night...", my mind conjured images of quaint farmhouses at a picturesque countryside. sadly, reality was nothing like what i had imagined, not even close.
it turned out to be a tiny, nondescript settlement, whose lack of charm was made up for by its friendly people, from the good people at my guesthouse, especially the grandfather who kept addressing me as 'sir' (i later found out he had retired from the military) to the psyched employee at the ticket office.
i elected to stay at the guesthouse next to the train station, which was a mistake. and i did not realise it until later in the evening. thankfully, being a minor blip on the indian railway's radar, not many trains passed through the station that night. that probably explains why apart from a couple of indian families, i was the only foreigner staying there. then again, foreigners were a rare sight in sanchi. i counted only four during my eighteen-hour stay, and
they could be day trippers from bhopal.
side note: sanchi must be one of the most underrated sights in india, in spite of its world heritage site status. case in point: this is only the sixth travelblog on sanchi. even a cursory mention elsewhere at travelblog.org is few and far between.
at first light the next day, i braved the early morning chill to hike one kilometre up the steep hill (great workout, though) on which are the magnificent buddhist monuments. interestingly, they are built by emperor ashoka, whose other legacy among many is the mahabodhi temple in bodhgaya, as a penance for his bloody conquest of kalinga. amid the temple ruins, the stupas are the highlights. while stupa number one, the largest with four intricately carved gateways, receives almost all the love and attention, my favourite is the smaller but irresistibly cute stupa number three. even if one is not into relics, taking an early morning stroll in a picturesque setting and breathing the cool, fresh air provide a much-welcomed respite from the smog and ugliness that plague most indian towns and cities.
i left sanchi before the sun got scorching hot but not before having
what was to be the most bizarre breakfast yet. i ordered a tomato cheese toast, thinking i would get a few slices of tomatoes and melted cheddar cheese on toast. no, the cook's interpretation of it was pieces of bread swimming in a bowl of clear tomato soup. and where's the cheese? to be fair, it tasted not too bad.
i caught a local bus back to bhopal this time. and i got a seat! many thanks to the helpful bus conductor. however, it took an hour longer than normal to get to town because the bus was stuck in a traffic jam caused by a wedding procession. i almost melted in the mid-afternoon swelter.
by the time i reached bhopal, it was almost two, and it would be too rushed to visit bhimbetka, 46 kilometres south of bhopal, for its underrated rock art. i had eight hours to kill before my overnight train to jalgaon, so i thought i would find a cheap room near the train station to rest. the lonely planet bible listed four hotels. two of them were in such a sorry state that even the hardiest of backpackers would flee on sight. i
ended up in the highly recommended (and rightly so) hotel sonali. i was sold on the fact that there was a television in the room with many english satellite channels. it was also my first acquaintance with the 24-hour checkout concept. for the uninitiated, there is no standard checkout time at these hotels. guests check out 24 hours from the time they check in. ain't that great? it should be made standard practice at all hotels worldwide! too bad, i did not get to make full use of it.
apart from a quick dinner a couple of blocks from my hotel, i spent the remaining hours in my room watching one sitcom after another. i did not bother checking out the rest of the town, but i doubt i missed out much, if anything.
next stop, ajanta and ellora caves.
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