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Published: July 26th 2011
Mumbai to Aurangabad
Our next stop is Aarungabad, a city North-West of Mumbai in the central area of Maharashtra. Its close to the Ellora and Adjanta caves, a world heritage site. I realize during the afternoon the day we're leaving that I actually booked the bus tickets to Ahmenebad instead of Aurungabad. My bad! There goes $20 hard-earned dollars right down the drain! Its easy to re-book the tickets however, and we're off again on another night-time express!
This time on the bus we're on a 2+1 sleeper arrangement. Trung is on the bottom level and I'm on the top, and we each have our own bed. Its actually quite roomy, but 1" too short for me. My feet touch the wall ahead and the top of my head presses against the wall behind. No matter, in the morning we pass into Aurungabad which seems like your average busy, dirty, crazy Indian city. There's no real city centre so Trung gets in a fight with the tuk tuk driver again about taking us to the 'city centre'. he has no idea what Trung is talking about, but Trung is persistent and agitated. Eventually we agree to be taken to
one of the hotels the driver proposes. It turns out to be 500 rupees more than our 1000 rupee budget, but the other hotels on his list don't look so hot. He manages to get the room cost down to 1200 rupees for us, which is really handy. Most hotels have fixed prices printed on their business cards and aren't willing to barter.
He seems like a genuine guy so we talk to him about going out to see the Ellora caves, a 1 hour drive away. There's also a large fort on the way that we'll stop at, the Daulatabad Fort.
Daulatabad and Ellora
After a few hours of laying on the bed taking deep breaths, taking showers, freshening up, etc. we've had breakfast and are ready for our adventure. The Tuk Tuk driver is waiting (it's his friend, not actually our guy, and the friend doesn't speak English, but 'Knows where you go, no problem, no problem, ok, ok'.
After 1/2 hour of beautiful countryside, cows, goats, trucks, trees and rows and rows of vegetable fields, we're at the fort, a spectacular, black volcanic stone monstrosity on a 200m tall hill. Its extremely imposing looking.
Outside the fort there's the usual small village of vendors, tour buses, ladies selling strings of flowers, etc. etc. After we get through the scrum we're at the first gate, which seems about 1/2 km from the beginning of the sheer cliffs of the hill. Each gate (7 in all) is huge, about 20-50 feet wide with a 45 degree bend in the gate tunnel and each wall gets higher and more imposing until we're in a kind of ancient market area. There's a road about 100 feet wide, paved in black granite, with stone buildings extending the length of the road on either side with tiny stalls carved out. In my imagination I can see 100's of years ago, vendors lining up and down the street yelling, bartering and selling all sorts of things.
The path leads ever upwards towards the hill, through more gates, past old stone structures and temples. Its extremely imposing and impressive. In order to reach the hill we have to cross a tiny bridge across a deep moat with sheer cliffs. the pathway leads up a steep set of stairs into a tunnel carved in the rock. The tunnel splits into a
large maze inside the hill, but there are so many Indian tourists we're able to pick the right way each time. The tunnel stinks of bat droppings and they're squeaking in the darkness around us. After climbing vertical through the tunnels on steep staircases past sheer drops, we're at the top. I can't imagine trying to invade this place. There are places where the enemy could get stuck, the tunnel filled with coals and closed off, cooking everyone alive. There are other places where one wrong step could send you through a near-vertical tunnel into the crododile-filled moat, 100's of feet below. Thankfully these have steel grates over them. There are still quite a few sheer drops in the murkey darkness and I have no idea how or WHY dozens of 80 year old ladies are walking the slow walk up the uneven stone stairs in full length saris and typically bare feet. The way down, with no railing, will be interesting.
After the dark bat-caves there are still hundreds of stone stairs to the top where there is a temple/shrine in honour of a local guru, hence the stream of well-dressed ladies heading for the top. There are
also ancient battlements with original, ornate cannons. The view of the surrounding valley and mountains is breathtaking. The entire 30km of wall circling the hill can be seen, including the ruins of the ancient city and the new city built outside of the walls of the fort.
I've stubbed my toe several times on the way up, including once badly and the skin on the end of my toe is peeled off and bleeding, so we take some time at the windy summit so I can wash the wound and flap the skin back while Trung chats with a few local kids hanging out on the cannon base, the very top of the hill.
The way down is much harder than the way up, as usual, especially during the dark segments. Feeling your way around an uneven, smooth set of stairs in the dark is not easy. Again, I can't imaging how these ladies are doing it! I did see one fall eventually, but she was fine and stood up again right away, embarrassed.
By the time we reach the bottom its nearing 2pm and Trung is famished, so we head across the highway to see what
the roadside stands have going for them. This is a usual type of food arrangement in South East Asia and we ate at roadside stalls while we were in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The usual fare was fried rice, fresh fried morning glory with garlic, and soup. Here, however, they're serving mainly Tali, which is a classic Indian lunch served on a stainless steel, sectioned plate. The plate has 5 or 6 items on it, usually a flat bread or two, rice, Dhal curry, vegetable curry, fresh curds, and a sweet for dessert. The curry usually is cooked much earlier in the day, and the curds are made from who knows what, so naturally Trung and I are a bit suspicious of this one. We stick to what we know: samosas. They're fresh from the fryer and delicious and served with mutton gravy on the side, which we also don't touch. Its a bit cold with something floating in it...
On the road to Ellora its very dry. The monsoon hasn't hit here yet, apparently. However, we pass a full-fledged water park randomly in the barren hills. Random.
Ellora is very beautiful. There is a string of caves,
in chronological order, dating back thousands of years. As the population in the area slowly changed from a Buddhist to largely Hindu and then Jain in religion, so did the caves. Each cave is carved into the cliff, with a large entrance and ornate sculptures or cells inside. It reminds me of photos of Petra that I've seen. The first caves are very simple, small cells for the monks in the monastery and a central sculpture of Buddha towards the rear of the cave. Each generation, not wanting to be outdone by the previous, created larger and larger caves. The final Buddhist caves are three stories tall and filled with sculptures of the different postures of the Buddha.
Again not wanting to be outdone, the final Hindu temple is the main attraction and is massive. A solid chunk of granite about 100ft high and at least 200ft x 100ft in plan has been carved to create a two storey temple with three towers fashioned out of a single peice of rock. Its stunning, covered with sculpture and I can't believe this is only ONE peice of rock! Its still a working temple so there's a steady stream of people
in and out, chanting, the whole bit. Its beautiful and fascinating at the same time. You think of a person with a hammer and chisel 100's of years ago pounding away at this massive peice of stone. What could they be thinking? It must have taken generations to construct. I'm trying to imagine the building process. You pick a spot on the hillside and start chipping down, down, down then you're like "ok, this is where the top of the crazy tower on the gigantic temple will be. Then you stop chipping at that spot and chip around it until you've gone down another 20 feet, in roughly the shape of the tower (allowing for sculpture and finishes), then you're like "ok, this is where the roof of the main building will be" then what? You've got to make sure it's all the right size, to know where the sculptures will go, ect. etc. and if you mess up, it's all over! Its by far the largest sculpture I've ever seen.
The entire time we're at the caves, Trung and I are asked for photos. "Just one photo, please, one photo" becomes a familiar phrase. People are (generally) polite,
ask where we're from and get us to snap their photo so we can show them. People only have cell phone cameras so they want us to take photos with our cameras, especially Trung's SLR so they can see on the screen. I'm probably asked twice as much as Trung so by the end I'm feeling a bit harrassed, but people are polite about it, so I don't mind posing. A few times people just walk up and try to take an in-my-face photo of just my head, but that's where I draw the line. If you want a photo, you have to pose with me, I'm not THAT much of a tourism attraction.
The Baby Taj
By the time we find the tuk tuk driver in the giant scrum of cars, buses and tuk tuk's its sunset and we just make it back to town in time to see the baby Taj Mahal. Its a 1/2 scale copy of the Taj, built by the local ruler only 20 years after the Taj was completed. We found a guidebook in Mumbai and use it now, and it describes the baby taj as a cheap replica of the real thing.
"Immediately apparent is the odd proportions of the domes and associated finishes". As bad as that review sounds, the monument is breath taking, and there aren't many tourists around. Its a great find! I get to re-inact the famous Princess Diana photo where she's alone on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal. There's not as much feeling in my photo as I didn't just break up with Charles, but I feel I did it justice.
After we saw the baby Taj, it was time to take the tuk tuk back to the city. We've been driving around for most of the day, so its nice to finally return to our A/C hotel room and take it easy.
World Heritage Ajanta
The following day is our big bus ride from Aurangabad to the caves at Ajanta. Its a 3 hour drive each way, so the bus leaves bright and early in the morning. After crossing flat farmland for 2.5 hours, the bus seemingly drops off the end of the earth. The area we were driving on suddenly stops at a sheer cliff. The bus takes forever to cross the switchbacks all the way down the side
of the plateau to a parking area at the bottom. Buses and cars aren't allowed near the caves, in order to preserve the world heritage site and the famous paintings inside the caves. An 'electric' bus (which is obviously deisel, and cost 15 rupees) takes us to the park entrance.
We've got a guide for this trip who is extremely patronizing to the white tourists on the bus, especially the women. It doesn't take us long to lose him. The 40+ caves are in a very deep river valley, carved in a semi-circle around a bend in the river about 1/2 way up the large cliff, with a new trail hugging the cliff face, running from one cave to the next.
A few of the caves have paintings inside, and are closed off from the outside and air conditioned to preserve the wonderful artwork inside. Its so old and detailed, its truly a sight to see. Over the last 150 years, people have been working on replecating the paintings to keep a copy. The first attempt was by a British historian in the late 1800's. After 27 years of painstaking work, he lost all the paintings in a
fire at the British Museum in London. He died shortly after. The latest attempt, by a Japanese group having spent years creating casts of the sculptures using rice pressed into the rock, lost all of their work in an earthquake in Tokyo in the 80's. Bad luck, people. Perhaps just take some photos?
After a few hours of wandering in and out of the caves, it's time to go! There's a scrum of touts selling books about the caves. We've got to quickly make our way through these guys to our 'environmentally friendly' diesel bus. Some guys are selling 'crystals'. They have the audacity to actually just place the crystal on your shoulder or arm in an attempt to get you to buy them. Its almost impossible to give the crystals back, the guys won't take them. Some of the tourists fall for it, but I manage to get my crystal back on the guy's box of crystals before he can back away enough. HA! Take that, crystal guy! Its a bit like playing dodge ball.
That evening, we set out towards our next stop on the Incredible India tour. We're going to head North on
a sleeper bus to Mandu, a small town surrounded by ancient palaces. Its located on a large plateau of land and is supposed to be a quiet vacation spot, a place to take it easy. After the last few days, we're ready for it!
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