We left Varanasi at 7:00 am and had a long day on the road due to road construction and congestion issues. Being in India has really brought home the importance of good infrastructure for commerce and basic travel. We only covered about 400 km of road during the day, which would ordinarily take a maximum of 4 hours on good roads: it took us 13 hours to cover that ground. Factoring in a lunch break, it was dark by the time we arrived. Fortunately our group leader managed to arrange for a buffet meal at our camp ground so we didn’t have to set up the kitchen and cook in the dark.
Here’s our truck on arrival:
Our campground was in a tree lodge that had a nice dining room on stilts as well as pretty decent looking cabins that one could upgrade to for a mere $7 CDN. Naturally I went with the upgrade. Here’s a photo of the pathway to the dinning hall so that you can get a sense of the place at night:
The little cabins were reasonably nice, and certainly worth the $7 fee not to sleep in a tent with another person in 34 degree weather. Here’s what the cabin looked like:
Let’s not get carried away though, the place looks nice but the bathroom was covered in bugs and we had cold bucket showers. This is also where I picked up my traveler. More about that later, but word to the wise, if your room has insects, it’s a good idea to zip up your bag at night.
For our camping sessions we were divided into three cook groups, each responsible for cooking two meals. The following morning the first cook group made breakfast based on food that they bought in Varanasi the previous day. As you can see from the picture that follows, these trucks are very self-sufficient. We have tables, chairs, wind-shielded stoves with four burners as well as a bunch of tents. The trucks also have a fridge that keeps stuff reasonably cool and washing facilities to take care of the dishes and cookware.
Before we left to explore the temples of Khajuraho, I was also able to take a photo of the dinning area of the tree lodge. It overlooks a river and has a bar as well as plenty of outdoor and indoor seating:
Here is a photo of a bridge on the way to the temples at Khajuraho and a photo of my group on our truck:
Khajuraho was the religious capital of the Chandela Dynasty which reigned between the 8th and 12th century AD. The tradition was for each Maharajah to built one temple, so the size and complexity of the temple built by a Maharajah is a good indicator of the economic conditions at the time. At one point there were 85 temples in this city. However, because this was only the religious capital of the dynasty, the city was abandoned when the Chandela Dynasty came to an end. The locals always knew that there were ruins in the area, but they were not excavated until the British started using the area as a hunting ground in the 1830’s. Out of the 85 temples originally on the site, 25 now remain.
Here is a photo of the streets surrounding the temples:
Visiting the temples is not cheap by any standard. Entering the grounds of the World Heritage site costs $14 CDN for people who come from outside of southeast Asia. In fact as luck would have it, prices tripled overnight right before we arrived. However, the Hindu-Aryan architecture displayed here is truly unique and impressive. Rarely have I seen buildings with so much detail both in their general structure and the friezes on the facades.
What is also extraordinary is that these buildings were not built using cement or any other binding substance. Rather they are like giant Lego blocks put together in a precise interlocking way that makes them very stable. The piece at the top screws in, securing the blocks below. You can tell the age of the various blocks by the different colours of the blocks, with the lighter ones being newer, i.e. showing which ones have been restored. In order to restore those blocks they had to take the structure apart from the top down.
Here are some photos of the extraordinary temples:
We went to Khajuraho during the monthly pilgrimage on each month’s moonless night. On that day, people from the town and the surrounding areas pay their respects to the only temple in the area that is still actively used for worship. This is the only temple used because it is the only temple with the Vishnu statute intact. Here are the pilgrims packing into the temple:
The traditional thing to do during this pilgrimage is to break a coconut in the area surrounding the temple or on its steps, and present it as an offering. The coconut is symbolic. The hard, furry inedible edge represents the coarser aspects of human nature that need to be broken away to get to the the softer, pure and edible flesh inside. Here are is a picture of some pilgrims breaking coconuts:
I also recorded the sounds of the chanting, punctuated by the cracking of coconuts that you can hear just outside the temple:
As I mentioned above, these temples are known for their amazing friezes. And frankly when you compare the quality of the rendering of people and animals on these friezes to what was being done in Europe at the time, the quality of work here is remarkable.
Note the almost Mayan features on the people depicted in this frieze:
The dancing Ganesh in the photo below shows a depiction of motion and human flesh that was not accomplished in Europe again since the Romans until late in the Renaissance some 200-300 years later:
Here are photos of a dancing girl and of a girl picking a splinter out of her foot:
Khajuraho is unfortunately known mostly for the erotic carvings which are formidably graphic. It is rather stunning that a religious structure would have such pornographic icons, but one thing that was pointed out to me is that the erotic carvings are located on the outside portions of a given wall, while the centre has somber depictions of deities. The explanation that I was given for the pornographic friezes is that a worshiper was intended to walk around the structure several times. If their attention was drawn to the pornographic images, they were supposed to continue walking around until they were able to focus their minds to pay attention only to the religious icons at the centre. At that point, they were ready to entre the temple. Here are photos of the erotic friezes:
Here is a photo of Tim, our most prolific photographer in the group, setting up a shot (I’ve frankly been too lazy to take out my SLR yet, I’m mostly rocking a fancy point-and-shoot because I find it more discrete and it shoots really well in bright daylight and even in moderate low light):
We did lunch in a nearby cafe with excellent curries as well as international food, and a great courtyard for outdoor eating. This being India, a cow walked into the courtyard as I was eating. Me and a cow:
Some observations about doing an overland trip on a Dragoman truck. I’m only a sixth of a way into my trip with the group, so these are only preliminary observations. And mostly, I’m comparing this to Intrepid trips that I’ve done in the past that also go primarily overland, using local transportation.
The advantages of travelling in the same truck is that you can divide your stuff into into things you will use daily, and things that you won’t use much. Since I have a duffel bag to put over my backpack, I’ve been using it to store my camping gear and cold weather clothing. This has significantly decreased the weight of the backpack that I carry on-and-off the bus.
It is also nice to be very self-reliant. The truck is in good shape, can travel over most terrains and is decked out with enough equipment that we can stop in the middle of nowhere as long as we have food and cook a meal. We don’t have to find the nearest town to meet our basic needs.
The truck also comes with some downsides. As I’ve noted before, the crazy suspension can handle most terrains but is brutally rough on most roads. It is also not the most comfortable way to travel. Luckily, it is only half full so only two people ever have to sit without an extra seat next to them. If this bus is ever full, I cannot imagine that it would be comfortable.
The camping also sounds like a good idea, but cooking meals is actually a bit of a pain. Setting up the kitchen and washing stations requires pretty much everyone’s help and takes a very long time, as does washing the dishes. Also, depending on where you do your food shopping, you may or may not be able to find the necessary staples to cook a meal. My group had the misfortune of having to shop for food in Khajuraho where we would pretty much only find eggs, vegetables, stale bread, and even older potato chips. I’m sure the locals can make a feast on what is available in the town, but it takes far more time than the one hour we have to cook each meal. Then there are the time considerations. After eating, we only had 1.5 hours to check out Khajuraho on our own, but our cooking group burned 1 hour of that shopping for food. The cooking process also takes anywhere from 1 hour to 1.5 hours, and everyone has to be around for the start and end of that process because everyone needs to help in setting up and taking down the kitchen.
Factor in all that time and effort, and I’d rather shell out $5 a meal to avoid the hassle.
In terms of the transportation issues, travelling by bus in a country such as India which has excellent trains does not appear to be the best idea. Trains are more comfortable in general, and because we would be in a train full of locals, the travel time is more time that you can spend immersing yourself in the culture. I have very fond memories of 12 hour train rides chatting with locals in China and checking out the scenery. In contrast, on the truck, because we are generally only spending 1-2 nights per town/city, and spending an average of 6-10 hours on the road per move, I would say that we spend about 35-40% of our waking hours on the truck with one another rather than with locals.
Now, I have already been to plenty of locations on this trip that were nowhere near a train station, but I found that in my Intrepid trips, they also got us to remote places by making use of other forms of local transport such as boats or small trucks, so I’m not clear that the truck is that much of an advantage for that aspect.
Then there are the human aspects. Unlike an Intrepid trip where your sole responsibility is to pretty much just show up on time to the various meeting points, taking care of the truck requires a division of labour. Some people are put in charge of keeping the truck clean, others are in charge of making sure the windows and doors are secured at every stop, and I’ve been a part of a three-man crew that unloads the backpacks from the back locker. So far, I’ve been the only person to consistently show up on time to do the job. One fellow shows up maybe 1/4 of the time and is actively avoiding the task. The second fellow is easily distracted so he often just forgets, shows up late or shows up until his bag is unloaded and then disappears. Then in terms of the rest of the group, people can be pretty inconsiderate in terms of buying way too much stuff that I have to load and unload from the truck, or generally going way over the strict 20 kg limit for bags. As you can imagine, all of the above gets cumulatively annoying in 34 degree heat.
Anyways, I’ll keep assessing things as I go.
I’ll close this post with a photo I took once we returned to our lodge near Khajuraho. After dinner it was was pitch black and I had yet to see the river that the dinning room of the lodge overlooks. I could only see darkness when I looked over the railing so I decided that my best bet for seeing the river was to try for a long-exposure shot. Here’s a 30 second shot from the railing: