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Published: April 8th 2015
We woke early and prepared our packs for a long travel day, as we were leaving Agra and travelling west to Madhogarh
, a small rural village in Tehsil Bassi. We had a four and a half hour road trip in a public bus and a 45 minute trip in a jeep to our hotel. We headed to the hotel restaurant (Hotel Taj Resorts) at 6am and opted for the buffet breakfast. We wouldn’t be stopping for lunch until at least 2pm, so I prepared myself for the day with juice, coffee, mango shake, porridge, masala omelette
(spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies) and jeera aloo
(potatoes seasoned with cumin seeds). It was pretty good (and there was nothing else available in walking distance from the hotel at that time of day anyway).
After breakfast we jumped into a minibus, made our way to the Idgah bus stand, loaded our packs into the under carriage of our public bus and boarded at 7am. Apart from the incessant air horn it was a fairly comfortable ride, which was a welcome relief. As we drove out of Agra I started silently out of the bus window and witnessed the worst
poverty I’ve seen since we arrived in India three weeks ago. I have heard people use the term ‘abject’ poverty, and I’ve probably used the adjective myself, but never before have I seen living conditions that were so utterly miserable. Without shelter, warmth or running water (let alone access to public or private toilets), it is hard to imagine living in such cold, wet and muddy conditions.
I’ve been haunted by the face of an old man I saw when we arrived in Agra. He was standing at the train station, and his right leg was badly deformed. As I walked towards him, I noticed he was using an upturned hockey stick as a walking stick. It was an old Karachi stick, the same brand I used in my hockey playing days. I’ve had many hockey sticks over the years (I used to break them often during games), and I was lucky enough to have parents who would buy me a new stick whenever I needed one. This man needed far more than an old hockey stick – he needed corrective surgery, rehabilitation and a proper walking aid. I’m not sure why his face has stayed with me more
than any other, because I saw immeasurably worse images of poverty as we drove out of Agra. This is such an unforgiving place for those who are living in disadvantage.
We stopped at 10am for a quick toilet break and masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) at a midway rest stop in Mahuwa before continuing our westward journey to Madhogarh village. We pulled over on the side of the road when we arrived in Tehsil Bassi at 11.30am, transferred our packs to an open jeep and headed off on a rough dirt road towards Fort Madhogarh, our accommodation for the night. We passed through a number of small villages on our freezing trip into this very rural part of northern India. Our driver started pointing towards a hill to our left, and I could hardly believe we were looking at our hotel – an old fortress sitting on top of a hill with a 360 degree view of the surrounding villages.
We arrived at 12.15pm and I was awestruck. We’ve stayed in many incredible places during our travels, but this was majestical. It was a maze of turrets, arches, walkways and balconies. Our bedroom was amazing – ornate
wall decorations, carved wooden bed, marble columns, tiny windows and a bath! The place was a little tired and in need of some basic (and not so basic) maintenance, but it really didn’t matter. It was perfect. The temperature wasn’t rising and the sun wasn’t coming out, so we were in full thermals and beanies, but it just added to an already incredible atmosphere.
We lunched at 1.30pm at tables in one of the fortress’ open air courtyards. We feasted on dahl, jeera aloo
, pea, tomato and carrot curry, yoghurt, rice and chapathis
(unleavened flat round wholemeal bread). It was fantastic. I freshened up with a cold beer in the cold air, and I was in heaven. We settled on our private balcony and relaxed in the brisk air.
We walked down into the village of Madhogarh at 3pm and wandered through its narrow dirt streets. We met local villagers, passed a game of street cricket and watched the activities of the late afternoon unfold before us. It was an incredible experience, and all the while the imposing fortress loomed over us. I had to pinch myself every now and again and remind myself that we were staying
there. It is without doubt one of the highlights of all my travels.
We made our way back to the fort at 4.30pm and settled down in one of the turrets with a glass of whisky (Ren had rum and pepsi) and chatted while watching the sun set over the village. At around 6pm Ren donned traditional Rajasthani dress and I donned a turban before sitting down to dinner in the same open air courtyard where we had lunch. This time, however, a fire had been lit in the middle of the courtyard to keep us warm, and it was a fantastic experience eating in the open air beside a fire. We feasted on basmati rice with peas, yoghurt mixed with chickpea flour, aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry), baingan curry
(brinjal/ aubergine/eggplant curry), egg curry and chapathis
. It was, in a nutshell, unbelievable. After dinner we stood around the fire and warmed up with a masala chai
. The night was growing very cold, so we retired early with hot water bottles at 8.30pm (the fort had no wifi and no heating). It had been a long and exceptional travel day, and I really, really loved this place. SHE SAID...
We woke early with the intention of setting out on an early morning walk around Agra. Unfortunately, it was still dark and rainy at 6am, so we settled in at the buffet breakfast instead. The breakfast was better than expected -– the masala omelette
(spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies) and jeera aloo
(potatoes seasoned with cumin seeds) were a good combination. And I loved the mango shakes so much that I probably had one too many for a morning before a long public bus trip.
We caught a minibus to the cold, muddy and potholed Idgah Bus Station. We left the hustle and bustle of Agra at 7:30am and headed to Bassi – a tiny village in Rajasthan. It was Republic Day in India (and Australia Day at home) and I was glad we weren't in any of the big cities with all the rallies and road closures. We saw no signs of celebrations on our journey, apart from the fact that it was a public holiday and everyone was out and about.
The outskirts of Agra were even more poverty ridden than we had noticed the day before. The shanty
towns constructed of flimsy cardboard and flapping plastic sheeting materials were heart breaking to witness. I had been complaining of the cold just minutes before while standing at the bus station - and I had thick socks, shoes, two layers of clothing and a jacket with a hood. 😞
There had been some trepidation about this leg of the trip, as we were travelling by public bus and everyone had heard horror stories. As it turned out, it was a normal intercity bus with comfortable allocated seats and no pushing and shoving as expected. I would have said it was a very comfortable trip if it hadn't been for the fact that the driver had his hand semi-permanently on the very loud and screamingly annoying horn.
The road to Rajasthan was fascinating – it was clear that we were heading into dry desert country, and there was a sense that this State was wild at heart. City buildings and dense populations gave way to brown flat land with thorn bushes and neem trees, with the occasional field of mustard or wheat (the most popular crops that seemed to be grown in winter). The little roadside settlements we passed
were usually a small collection of cement buildings with a few goats and a chai
(tea) shop. We also passed an area full of carving workshops that displayed a range of carved pink sandstone and white marble work which Rajasthan is famous for. The bus was higher than most of the other traffic on the road – kids cycling to school, auto rickshaws
(motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) and camel carts (yes, carts pulled by camels!); but we were at eye-level with petrol tankers, brightly painted trucks carrying various produce and tractors towing trailers packed with turbaned men wrapped in blankets.
I loved the fact that all the road and shop signs were now only in Hindi – we were clearly leaving the tourist trail behind. Four hours later we were dropped off on the side of the road in a town called Bassi in rural Rajasthan. We were transferred to our final destination in private jeeps. We drove into the desert, past villages where flat cakes of dung were drying on the walls to fuel cooking fires, barbers were shaving men, and groups were huddled around small fires in courtyards.
The one hour jeep journey was
a very bumpy one – I suspected we were all going to pay for that lack of suspension the next day. It was freezing and dusty in the open sided jeeps, and the road wasn’t great. But I should clarify that when I say ‘road’, I don’t mean it literally. It was merely a suggestion of where we should be driving. It may have been a road in a previous life, but now it was more pothole than road. Regardless, I loved the ride. And at last we spotted a hill in the distance, on which sat a fort straight out of a fairy tale.
Rajasthan means ‘the land of kings’ and it is packed with palaces and forts. Our first taste of Rajasthan was definitely a fine one. The entire sprawling fort of Madhogarh
was our home for the night. Yes we were staying in a real fort, just the ten of us and our group leader Mohsin!
The jeeps took us through the village at the foot of the hill and up the steep cobblestone track to the fort. At the front entrance a woman and man in traditional clothing were holding brass pots, while a
tall turbaned boy greeted us and welcomed us by placing a tilak
(red powder marking) on our foreheads.
The 16th century Fort Madhogarh heritage property is still owned by one of the royal families of Rajasthan. Many Indian royal families have embraced the hospitality industry and converted their palaces and forts into hotels and restaurants. I think it’s a fabulous idea that they are re-skilling and transitioning into a new industry with the changing times. It also assists in restoring and reinstating these old heritage buildings which would be left to become rubble otherwise.
The traditional carvings and decor of the rooms looked authentic, and the hospitality was very welcoming and genuine. Each room in the fort was different, and they were all built into the walls of the fort. Our room was built into the top northwest outer wall, right next to the western turret. We reached our room by climbing two flights of stone steps, and we had our own balcony that overlooked the main courtyard. The room was probably one of the most elaborate rooms I’ve ever stayed in – there were traditional designs on the walls and ceilings, a heavy wooden bed with piles
of quilts in bright traditional fabrics, marble pillars that sat between the bedroom and small sitting room, tiny ancient stained glass windows, hand carved chairs and stools, sepia prints and sprays of peacock feathers in brass vases.
The lower level drawing rooms were full of hand carved ornaments, and the walls were lined with photos of maharajas past. There was a slight air of abandonment and decline about the whole place, but this only added to the atmosphere. We walked through the grounds, past outbuildings and guard houses, and stood on a terrace and watched the morning sun try to struggle through the clouds. The whole top floor of the fort provided sweeping views of the countryside. I was so excited to be here!
We kept being drawn to the fort walls...gazing at the views of the village below, and past the village to the fields of mustard and wheat. There was a pre-wedding celebration in the village, and we watched as the procession made its way around the village behind a car rigged with speakers playing very loud Rajasthani pop.
Lunch was served in the central courtyard. We had a buffet of dahl, jeera aloo
tomato and carrot curry, yoghurt, chapathis
(unleavened flat round wholemeal bread) and basmati rice. The chapathis
here were the best I’ve tasted on this trip so far.
That afternoon as we sat in the courtyard and chatted, the sun came out for the first time that day. A little while later we walked through the village with Mohsin and the lovely caretaker of the fort. The caretaker was a tall man who was dressed in an army jumper and a military beret. He had a magnificent moustache (a pattern is beginning to emerge with this beret and moustache combination!) and a slight limp. We were followed most of the way by a trail of local kids yelling ‘one photo!’, ‘one photo!’. We walked past vegetable stalls, people building houses, a man chopping up his tobacco on his front porch, a cricket match, a chai
stall full of men, women carrying firewood home and a man sewing shirts on an old Singer sewing machine.
I’m never comfortable interrupting people who are going about their everyday lives, but the caretaker’s presence appeared to put everyone at ease and they seemed as genuinely curious about us as we were about them.
Back at ‘our’ fort, we kicked back with a few drinks on the turret ‘bar’ with views of the village and surrounding hills spread around us. Andrew, Paige, Peter, Mohsin and I sat around having drinks and chatting. Mohsin is not the type of guy to force information down your throat, but he was more than willing to answer our questions on social welfare, politics, religion, culture and status. It was a fabulous evening.
As the sun set the temperature dropped significantly, and I had to add on another layer of clothing. Then we had a bit of a surprise – a local woman from the village dressed all the women in our group in traditional dresses. I was given a not so lovely rose pink outfit! While we were giggling our way through the ill-fitting costumes, the men went through the fine art of rolling a turban. The finished results had us in stitches, and by no stretch of the imagination did we look the part as we sat down in the courtyard where dinner was served by firelight. We may have enjoyed playing at being royalty, but I think a few centuries worth of maharajas must
have groaned in their graves at what had happened to their fort.
The power supply at the fort was inconsistent, but we had candlelit tables and a bonfire in the middle of the courtyard for much needed warmth. Dinner was a similar buffet setup to lunch. We had basmati rice with peas, yoghurt mixed with chickpea flour, aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry), baingan curry
(brinjal/ aubergine/eggplant curry) and a delicious egg curry. All served with those more-ish chapathis
! They make such nice bread in the north, and I very much preferred it to their grainy Basmati rice.
We were given hot water bottles to take to our rooms – which was a really lovely homely touch. The bed was surprisingly comfortable with all the heavy quilts and the comfort of a hot water bottle. I attempted to stay up and write notes, but I think I lasted all of about five minutes.
As I drifted off to sleep looking at the elaborately painted ceilings in our very own beautiful fort room, it occurred to me that if we ever wanted to retreat from the world – and be waited on hand and foot in true Rajput
hospitality style – this would be the perfect hideout. There were no outside world distractions, and there was plenty of peace, quiet (unless there was a wedding in the vicinity) and beautiful views. Not to mention a kitchen that produced good food and lovely masala chais
, and an interesting little village just down the hill – what more could you ask for in life?
Next we travel west to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital city.
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