Hindu Holy Sites Tour
Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
45Trip End Mar 30, 2006
We arrived in Orchha around dusk and spent quite awhile roaming around the village looking for a hotel. Our theory about lots of package tourists visiting Orchha was strengthened upon discovering the greatly inflated rates guesthouses were charging. Our search paid off, though, and we ended up in a brand-new place just outside of town that was one of the best deals we had in India. Spacious, clean, hot water, international satellite on the TV and a balcony for about $5.
We enjoyed Orchha quite a bit and stayed for four nights. The main attractions of the town are a fort (lots of old forts in India, as you probably have gathered) and old Hindu temples. The village also is located on the bank of a beautiful river and surrounded by nice countryside. The central square of the town was filled by day with vendors, mainly catering the crowd of Hindu pilgrims - they sell stuff like rice offerings, bracelets that have a particular significance, and "paint" for marking foreheads - but they also throw in crafty stuff for tourists for good measure
We spent our time in Orchha taking a walk by the river, visiting the fort and temples and generally roaming around town. We were ready for a few quiet days. Unfortunately, we have one bad memory of Orchha - a little boy living with the family running our guesthouse who seemed most content when torturing a motherless puppy. We joined a few other travelers in trying to convince him and his family that puppies shouldn't be thrown, kicked or have their legs twisted, but they didn't really understand our Western paradigm any more than we understood how they could stand the puppy's shrieking and crying. Sort of traumatizing.
From Orchha we traveled to Khajuraho, another Hindu temple town about 5 hours away by bus (though less than 100 km, which gives you an idea of the road conditions). Khajuraho is home of some of the most famous temples in India, which are known for their spectacular carvings, the most famous of which glorify the more sensual aspects of humanity. Though the town of Khajuraho wins of award for most annoying in India (far exceeding the much-detested, hassle-ridden Agra), the temples really were spectacular works of art. There are dozens of them in the town, most of which are in one large area that has been made into a nice grassy park
After Khajuraho, we took a bus to the city of Satna, where we caught a train to Varanasi, the third stop on our Hindu Holy Sites Tour. Varanasi is the holiest of Hindu holy cities, located on the shore of the Ganges River. Nearly every Hindu tries to make it there during their life to bathe (and, as we observed, wash clothes, brush teeth, gargle...), but it is most well known for being a place to die and be cremated. Our entrance to the city wasn't the best. Varanasi has a reputation in the travelers circuit for being one of the most hassle-ridden cities in India, and we got our taste in the form of a new breed of hotel tout. The thing that set these guys apart was that rather than try to convince us to come with them to their hotel of choice (who gives them a good commission), some of the guys in Varanasi simply follow you around until you select a hotel and then collect a commission (we aren't sure of the amount, but the common wisdom is that it ultimately is paid by the traveler in the form of a higher room rate). The guesthouses next to the Ganges are located in an old part of the city filled with narrow winding alleys where rickshaws and taxis aren't allowed, so we were let out by a cycle rickshaw at the entrance to the alleys
But, this bad start behind us, we ended up loving Varanasi. The Ganges was much more beautiful than we expected, the old alleys filled with shops and enormous bulls seemed like something out of history and there was always something interesting going on along the riverside (kite-flying, boat rides, vendors, music). There were pilgrims along the riverside bathing and we spent a little time watching the cremation ceremonies that go on 24 hours a day at two locations along the Ganges
From Varanasi we took our last Indian train ride to the city of Calcutta, where we would catch our plane to Bangkok. It was another crazy trip, first involving a 4 hour delay, then getting in the wrong car and then finding the correct car was ridiculously overbooked, which meant that the people in our correct car weren't being very generous about letting us put down our berths to sleep, despite it being around 11pm. In the end, they moved, but Allison almost ended up in a fight with a few of them to make it happen (this never would have been an issue if we had not been foreigners - they all knew perfectly well that we had a right to our bunks like any Indian would...).
Having arrived, we spent three nights in Calcutta, which was a great surprise - we loved it and wished we had had more time. It was very much an Indian city - crowded, kind of dirty, crazy - but it had a sophistication that we hadn't seen elsewhere: bookstores, coffee shops, no cows in the road... Though, now that we think about it, we did see a herd of goats being led down the road - India is insane.