Well we're officially one week into our tour but it might as well have been a month as we've seen so much and met so many people. After Monday in Delhi it was an early start on Tuesday morning to catch the 'Taj Express' to Agra. 'Express' turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration as we were delayed by three hours. There had been a train crash on the same line earlier that morning, with several fatalities. Policemen were escorting a criminal who, under the pretence of needing to use the toilet, tried to escape and so the policemen ended up pulling the emergency brake. Several minutes later a train behind - which must have missed a signal - crashed into the back killing about 20 civilians. The policemen are in big trouble as you can imagine. Once we were on our way we passed the wreck. By that stage there had been some tidying up but it still looked pretty messy.
So our trip was off to an exciting start, but we made it safely to Agra. After a nice lunch we headed off to the Red Fort where we joined another Intrepid group for a guided tour. The guide was great - an old chap who'd been showing people round for decades and has even been on telly several times. The architecture was interesting incorporating muslim, christian, hindu, jewish and jain elements. Apparently, the mogul that built it was of the view that all religions should join to worship one god.
Then on we went to the Taj Mahal. The setting is most impressive, overlooking a massive bend in a riverbed, and the use of pearlescent marble and symmetry is amazing. The tomb inside was not quite as interesting but we spent some time just oggling at the outside.
Next day it was another train ride and jeep transfer to get to the remote medieval town of Chanderi. We met a young indian girl - Shilty - and her dad and brother who were on a 24 hour train ride to Mumbai to attend a cousin's wedding. We had to tell her everything about NZ and she took great delight in listening to all the 'western' music on my ipod (particularly Enrique Eglesias)and reading the Lonely Planet. We also learnt about indian weddings, indian cricket and bollywood stars so our four hour train journey went by quickly.
In Chanderi we were greeted by local guide Kalley Bhai. This friendly man showed us around the 'village' (with population 30,000 it would classify as a city in NZ) and into his home where we had dinner on the terrace under the stars. Chanderi was once a large and strategically important city of the muslim Mhoguls who built a fort with numerous karawansereis and mosques in the area. Today there are muslims, jains and hindus living side by side. Even the population exchangs after the Indo-Pak war did not affect this. The next day Khalle Bhai took us for an orientation walk and we got to visit the local school where the pupils asked us about our jobs and it took some time explain what a town planner does. In the afternoon we headed 25km out of the town to look at some prehistoric rock paintings which Kalley Bhai stumbled on about 4 years ago. He has been lobbying the government to protect them (as well as the Mhogul ruins in Chanderi) but until now they have shown little interest in his cause. It was interesting to meet someone so passionate about preserving and promoting his local heritage. The people in Chanderi were amzingly friendly, open and inquisitive because Intrepid groups are pretty much the only tourists which come to this remote area.
The next day we proceeded to Orcha. An even smaller town this place was home of the hindu Bhandela dynasty who built several massive palaces and temples in the area by the Betwa river. Here we got to witness Hindu celebrations down by the ghats and the daily prayer in the Lord Rama temple. We also took a cooking class with a local lady called Vandana. We've got the recipes so we'll be trying them out back home!
Today we had a three hour drive to Kachuraho, again famous for its temples, this time built by the Chandelas from about 900AD. They are famous for their many tantric and erotically themed rock carvings of men and gods practicing various positions from the Kama Sutra,. As our guide put it these carvings were intended to illustrate the union of opposites (men and women) to make a whole. Despite these carvings only constituting about 2% of the temple sculptures, Sex sells and these carvings have certainly put Kachuraho on the tourist map and bought a lot of traffic to the town.
Today we caught up with another traveller - Mike - who we had met back at the Delhi hotel and who was two days ahead of us on the same tour but with another group. Due to illness he sadly has had to discontinue his trip and is heading back to Oz tomorrow. So we caught up with him while Ruby organised a local doctor to see him.
Tomorrow we are heading off to Panna National Park where hopefully we'll be able to go for an elephant ride!
We're staring to feel at home in India and can say with confidence that the people we have met are some of the friendliest we have met anywhere. Many Indians do not have much but they are amazingly hospitable people. We've been treated like celebritys in the smaller towns and at the Taj with many photo requests.
F & G