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Normal Service Has Been Resumed

20th May 2010, Mandu
What's this - another email from Serena? But I haven't read the last one yet! Well for those of you who can't be arsed to read this one either, here's the low-down. I got a new lens in horrible Bhopal not the one I was after, but it was the cheapest and quickest way to get me back on the road. Currently in Mandu, taking photos of deserted Islamic ruins grrrrreat!

The manager - in one of his many daily visits and phone-calls to me - he was becoming quite a pest - said that he had a Swedish couple arriving at lunchtime, and would I like to go on safari with them. I said I'd only consider it if there was space in zone one. He assured me that there was, so I set about coaxing my camera into zoom mode. I eventually managed it - although it would not return fully to wide, and the auto focus was still knocked out, but now at least I would be able to capture a few shots, if we were lucky enough to see a tiger. At 1545 we set off from the hotel, picking up the compulsory park guide at the gate. Many of the guides just sit there, taking no active part in the safari, but this guy was great - very knowledgeable and with a fair grasp of English. Zone one was much more pleasing to the eye than zone two, which had been quite barren. Here the terrain was mostly big sal trees, with lime green leaves and almost-black bark. The guide told me that their wood, which is very hard, was used for railway sleepers in bygone times. In many places parasitic creepers had wound themselves around the trunks, killing the host tree within a decade or two. In some places the original tree had long since disappeared, leaving only the gnarled, twisted creeper, which had then reached out to a neighbouring tree. It gave the wood a slightly spooky feel to it, which added to the atmosphere.

Not long into our drive we came across a gathering of a dozen or more jeeps, all clustered at the edge of a small ravine. There could only be one reason for this - a tiger, or in this case, tigress. At first it was a rather disappointing encounter - we were parked three jeeps back, and couldn't see a thing. But having finally got my camera to work, albeit partially, there was no way I was missing out on this photo opportunity. I climbed out of our jeep onto the one in front, and continued on to the foremost, standing precariously on the bonnet. And there she was, in all her magnificence. The stunning creature was about fifteen feet away, laying in a pool of water calling for her cubs (the guide told us this particular tigress had three). She was so beautiful, her wet fur glistening in the sun. She shifted slightly - which was good of her as it gave me a much better view - and ceased calling long enough to lap up some water. My hands were shaking with excitement as I shot picture after picture, hoping I was managing to manually focus properly. I took time to enjoy the experience too, rather than simply snapping, awe-struck when she looked right at me . . . and it did cross my mind that if she really wanted to munch on some humans she quite easily could have done so - we were so close, and all boxed in.

After a while I moved back, letting the Swedish woman get a good look, and negotiated my way to our jeep, full of happiness, for the first time in days. A short while later the tigress was on the move - her cubs wouldn't come to her, so she had to go and find them. Chaos then ensued, with drivers and guides all shouting; engines revving; jeeps wheel-spinning away in the sand, competing for pole position for when she crossed the road. It would be a wonder if no one has ever been seriously injured, as those standing up were thrown back into their seats and jeeps narrowly missed colliding with one another. At one stage, just after she'd crossed the path, the noise became so intimidating that she actually broke into a run; I couldn't help but feel sorry for her, as much as I'd enjoyed seeing her myself. Walking, she was even more stunning - and so big. We watched until she disappeared into the undergrowth - the driver said he could see her with the cubs, but we couldn't make them out ourselves. It was a fantastic experience, and I wasn't at all disappointed that we didn't see any more tigers that day; a mere one tiger in zone one is a pretty poor show by all accounts, but I certainly wasn't complaining.

The following morning I had an encounter of the pervy kind with the manager, when he not-so-accidentally brushed against my arse on the viewing platform outside the room. The day before he'd patted me on the bum, but I'd given him the benefit of the doubt on that occasion - he could feasibly had been aiming for my back and missed - I didn't really believe that was the case, mind you. This time there was no mistake, and I stomped off muttering about unacceptable behaviour. Within the next half-hour I'd received another two phone-calls, and a visit asking me to look at his digital camera for him. The room had a security chain, which I put on, telling him that after his behaviour I did not feel safe alone with him, and that I would take a look at the camera at reception, when there were other people around. He phoned again a few minutes later apologising, but also insisting that he'd done nothing wrong. All this before seven thirty in the morning! It was disappointing to think that what I'd first taken to be kindness had instead been the prelude to lecherous behaviour. Still, I was leaving that day, so not to worry - he'd soon be behind me - no pun intended!

The manager had given me a bumsteer (sorry, that one was intended!) about bus times, and I found myself stood alongside the road that afternoon, worrying that I was going to miss my train - and in India it isn't just a case of catching the next one, you usually have to book a couple of days in advance. Fortunately a nice couple from Katni, who'd been staying at the hotel with their young son, came to my rescue, and offered me a lift. They would have taken me all the way to Katni, but I thought it best I get on at Umaria, just in case the TTE thought I was a no-show and gave away my berth. I had an hour or so to wait at the station before the train arrived, almost on time. I figured there had to be a lot of people getting off here, as it looked like there was a full train's worth of people ready to get on; how wrong I was.

As the train pulled up there were people hanging out of the door of my (and every other) carriage. I tried to hold back the flow on boarding passengers, to allow those alighting here to get off . . . but it soon became evident none of them were. A small girl and her smaller brother wormed their way past me onto the train, the girl then grabbed my arm tried to haul me into the carriage. The people standing in the doorway made this impossible. With my pack on my back and my daypack - which was extra heavy as it had my defunct camera and my laptop in it - over my shoulder I just did not fit. I could feel my daypack slipping off my shoulder, with over a grand's worth of stuff inside! If I got separated from it I'd have little chance of getting it back. I did the only thing I could to keep hold of my possessions and thumped the man in the doorway, forcing him out of the train, so I could quickly drag my bag in and secure it in front of me. The inside of the train was like nothing I'd seen before - it was like the most crowded General carriages I'd seen, with at least three times capacity already inside. My pulse was racing as I squeezed through the mass of people in search of my upper berth.

When I did find it, there was a man and two kids sitting on it. I told him to move, but he just smiled at me. My adrenaline was pumping - the overcrowded carriage and near loss of my valuables had truly shaken me - I was getting in my upper berth and staying there. I began shouting at the man to get out, when he pointed at his kids I told him I didn't care how many children he had - that was my berth. When it became obvious that this loony woman was not going to quit, he handed the kids down to his wife, and climbed down himself. Amazingly I found some room under the seat to stow and lock my big pack, then I laid claim to my upper berth, safely out of the way. Not long after, the TTE came along - pretty pointless really, under the circumstances. As he checked my ticket I let rip at him - how could he let this happen, it wasn't safe there were too many people. All he kept saying was that I had my berth, don't worry about the rest - or words to that effect. As he moved on, I realised I needed the loo. I locked my daypack securely to the frame of the bunk, and jumped down, hounding the poor man as he attempted his impossible task.

"How can I get to the toilet? There are hundreds of people in the aisle!" (A slight exaggeration, but not by much) grasping my point, he began forcing his way through, like an icebreaker, clearing a path for me to use the facilities, yelling at people as he went. We were pulling in to a station, and he must have kicked a load of them out, as, when I returned, I was actually able to walk along the aisle without stepping on anyone. There were still over twice as many people as there should have been in that part of the carriage, but the situation was greatly improved. A chai-wallah had got on at the stop, so I bought one, barely able to drink it, my hands were shaking so much. After such a shocking start to the journey, things could only improve and the train was just overcrowded by the normal amount by the time night fell. My ticket was booked until Indore, but I'd decided to get down at Bhopal, hoping that the bigger city would enable me to find a replacement lens.

I arrived, knackered, a little before five, and spent some time in the Upper Class waiting room on the Internet (bless my modem!). Chris had done a lot of research for me, into camera shops and hotels (bless Chris!). The city's hotels had 24hr checkout (which means you check out 24hrs from the time you checked in) so I was in no real hurry - plus the guide book warned of pickpockets around the station area, so I thought it safer to wait until daylight. I decided I was going to go for Ranjit Hotel, which supposedly had clean, smart rooms from 350. Well I was shown a 500 room, which was neither. Admittedly it was big, but very grotty, dirty sheets and all - and as they add 10% tax on top, not good value either. Never fear, my second choice, Rama International, was practically next door . . . only the guy at reception was asleep, and wouldn't wake up. I eventually woke him by banging an ashtray on the table loudly a number of times . . . but he told me the hotel was full! I apologised for waking him.

I crossed the road, where I could see a number of other hotels, and was approached by a tout with a big handful of hotel cards. I normally avoid being taken to a hotel by a tout, but thought it might be the best option here. The first one he suggested was full, so we walked to another - which was so dingy and dark (to be fair there was a power cut, but I had the impression it wouldn't have been much better with the lights on - it had a creepy feel to it like an underground car park) that even the cheap price of Rs275 couldn't persuade me to stay. I checked out a few more places - some with the tout, and side-tracked to a couple alone (where he obviously didn't get commission). I started to feel a little like Goldilocks - this one's too grotty, this one's too expensive - and these ones are full. At least they were all concentrated in one area, so there wasn't too much walking. Then the tout whipped out a card for the Sonali Hotel, which had a few pictures & reasonably priced rooms.

I fell a bit behind over the uneven ground as we walked there - the touts never offer to carry your bags. They had standard rooms for Rs450 and executive for Rs600; I asked to see both. They also have a presidential suite, but I don't know what sort of tinpot banana republic's president would stay there! I was led along the ground floor, through a marbled corridor, to the cheaper room. My first impression was how tiny it was - it was a proper single, which is unusual - normally you just get a double at single rates. The 600 one was up four flights of stairs, with the corridors getting scruffier the further up we went. It was a very big room with two beds. Being awkward, I asked to have another look at the cheapie - it wasn't as small as I first thought, perfectly adequate, and with the marble floor and magnolia walls, it looked it much better nick than the pricier one, so went for that. When I checked in I was asked (as is standard) how many nights I'd be staying. I explained the situation with my camera & said it could be anything from one night to a week. The guy said to put seven nights - oh, I said, won't that cause problems if I check out sooner? Not at all. I told him what the manager of Kum Kum said & he laughed.

Trying to work on my karma, so the search for the lens works out ok, I tipped the sweet little Nepali bellboy (boy - man in his forties) for bringing my bags to my room. It didn't do much good though, as I'd asked for clean sheets as they were dirty (as per usual). Housecleaning wasn't on duty yet, so after asking a few times, reception got the Nepali to get the sheets for me . . . he came with me to the room and handed them to me to put on myself. I didn't really mind, so I did that, but he hadn't brought pillowcases and they were in even worse condition than the sheets. I took the dirty laundry to reception, & told them I'd put the sheet on but needed pillowcases as well - he confirmed that I'd had to do it myself, and rolled his eyes & shook his head.

I was pretty shattered, so once I had breakfast I decided upon a little nap. I'd not laid down for long, when the buzzer went - as a general rule, outside each hotel room is basically a doorbell . . . which makes an incredibly annoying noise. I asked who it was but got no answer, so grumbling I got up, put some clothes on, and opened the door; no one there. A few doors up a tall man had also opened his door and was looking into the corridor. I closed my door, took off my clothes, and settled back down to sleep. Ten minutes later it happened again. It's fair to say that I was a tad annoyed, but again I dressed and opened my door. Again, the only person who was in the corridor was the tall man, who had just opened the door to his room. Hmmm, I was beginning to get the picture. He sauntered over to my door, standing oppressively close and asking what the matter was - if my door had been open any further I'm sure he would have walked into my room. I told him someone had rung my buzzer, "did it disturb you?" He asked.

"Yes," I replied. "I was trying to get some sleep," and shut the door in his face. Right, I thought, muttering angrily to myself, that's not going to happen again - I rather naughtily jumped up on the bed and pulled the wires out of the buzzer! I gave up on the idea of sleep though, and began my hunt for what may as well have been the Holy Grail - a shop with a Nikkor 18-200mm lens in stock. I did find one with a Tamron 18-250mm, and checked out the reviews online - not bad. Other than that I'd have to put down a deposit of half the price, and the required lens would be mine in two or four days, depending on whether I wanted a receipt or not. From what I can gather, the whole gray market thing is a tax dodge. The lenses have already been imported, but, to make them official - which means you get a receipt and manufacturer's warranty - you pay around 200 more and wait an extra couple of days for the paperwork to come through. Decisions, decisions. One thing that helped me to decide was the fact that I very rapidly grew to loath Bhopal - or Crap-hole as I christened it. In a country of dirty cities, it stood out as the filthiest; the city stuck; the drains overflowed; I'd seen two people openly sniffing glue in the street, one only looked about twelve. It was a horrible place, I wanted to get out as quickly as I could.

So I bought the Tamron lens for Rs18,200 - nearly half the price of the dodgy version of the Nikon - and booked a ticket out on the same train I'd come in on - only 24 hours later, and in an air-conditioned carriage. Before I left, I shocked myself by punching a man who pinched my bum in the street; had one of the receptionists at the hotel phone me in my room to tell me he really liked me (so does my husband, I told him, and wished him good day); had a mysterious phone call from someone claiming to be in Delhi, who asked, "am I disturbing you?" Hmmmm; and had someone knock at and try to open my door late at night. I was so pleased to be leaving Bhopal - it really was the most ghastly Indian city . . . and most of India's cities are a tad dire.

The next morning I caught a rickshaw the short distance from my hotel to the railway station - a combination of laziness, and a wish to avoid the unsavoury types I had seen along the road in the daytime - although as it was a little past four in the morning, they were probably all asleep. My train arrived almost on time, and I found my berth in the 3AC carriage - I have to admit that it was bliss, and I felt a pang of guilt for subjecting Chris to the discomfort of sleeper class. The carriage was not overcrowded, and there was even liquid soap and a fan in the toilets! I still insist that the situation was not as bad on my previous trip to India; that five years ago the sleeper carriages were not so overcrowded, and there was usually ample room for both luggage and passengers. I do remember a couple of occasions, last time round, when passengers without reservations invaded the carriage - but they stick in my mind because they were the exception, not the norm. Maybe this is simply a case of rose-tinted glasses and a bad memory though. The glass windows (as opposed to the open, barred windows in sleeper class - which provide me with my view) meant that the journey was a lot quieter - and cleaner - and the sheets and pillow provided made me feel quite privileged. I am considering booking the remainder of my train journeys (which won't be many, as I'll be going off the rails soon and will have to rely on buses - eugh!) in air-conditioned comfort. What a sell-out I am!

On arrival at Indore, I had to get to the Ganwal bus stand, to continue my journey to Mandu by bus. The first few rickshaw-wallahs all quoted me Rs100 for the short journey, but then an older man with a nice moustache said he'd take me for Rs50. As we drove through the streets I marvelled at how clean the place was in comparison to Bhopal, there was hardly any litter at all, and what was there had been swept into neat little piles. My driver pulled alongside a bus, and one of the conductors asked if I was going to Mandu, instructing me to put my bags in the rear luggage compartment (hurrah - it makes me so nervous when they throw it on top of the bus). I got a seat just behind the door, next to the window, and waited while the bus filled up. Once all the seats were filled, plus a few people standing, we set off - picking up more passengers along the way. There are only three direct buses a day to Mandu, and this wasn't one of them; we were headed for Dahr, where I would switch buses.

Before we had left the city of Indore, we came across some roadworks - the left-hand lane had been dug into a deep ditch, and we had to make a tight dogs-leg onto the rough ground at the side of the ditch. It was too tight a turn for the bus, and we leaned at an alarming angle as the rear wheel slipped into the hole. A large man leapt up in alarm, and made to get of the bus, but the rest of us kept our cool. The driver reversed, and tried again - with the two conductors shouting the Hindi equivalent of "left hand down a bit" from the side of the road. The second attempt had the same result, and we lurched to the right as the wheel lost contact with the ground. It was third time lucky though, thanks to the conductors placing large rocks under the wheel. I applauded them as they got back on the bus, which made some of the passengers laugh.

Two hours or so later we arrived in Darh, and the conductor escorted me to the bus to Mandu - which was already full; standing room only. A man who spoke good English (and who I correctly guessed had a travel agency in Mandu - it had to be that or a hotel) spotted a free seat. A girl who looked a cut above most of the passengers had placed her bags on the seat next to her, to avoid any riffraff sitting alongside; she didn't look too impressed when I took the seat. I did feel guilty, as there were women with children and elderly passengers standing. I considered giving up my seat . . . but as the bus continued to fill up, bodies jammed together, I decided against it. Rightly or wrongly, I rationalised my decision thus: I have been on the receiving end of a good deal of sexual harassment of late, and did not relish being squashed between two men for the hour-long journey; I had been travelling for nearly nine hours, since half past four in the morning, which I doubt anyone else on board had; and there were a good number of young men sitting down who could quite easily have given up their seats. I still felt guilty.

It was around two o'clock when I arrived in Mandu, and the sun was at its most fierce. The accommodation is somewhat limited in Mandu, and the bus stand is outside the cheapest option, Tourist Resthouse - a row of basic rooms with squat toilets and bucket showers. I checked in my guidebook, and decided on the second cheapest, the Hotel Maharaja, which according to the book had slightly larger and quieter basic rooms. I hovered around the bus stand for a while, waiting to be accosted by a rickshaw-wallah, but none came. So I set off in the direction of the hotel, which a sign informed me was 300 metres that-a-way. It was nearer 500, and I was suffering badly in the heat by the time I reached it, my head throbbing and my legs a little shaky. I flung off my pack, panting to catch my breath, and looked around for someone . . . anyone . . . I shouted - no one came. I waited about five minutes in the shade, but still no one. My feelings on this were mixed: on the one hand it had been a bloody hot walk, and I did not relish the hike back into town in the heat; but on the other hand, the rooms - I could tell from the outside - were pretty dire. It put me in mind of a place I'd stayed in Ethiopia on the overland trip, where a number of the rooms were broken into. My spirits have been pretty low of late, and I didn't think that staying in this place was going to raise them.

The book told of the Hotel Rupmati, a mid-range option which had some rooms with exceptional views into the valley (Mandu sits upon a 634m plateau), so I figured I'd try there. The downside was that it was about two kilometres away from where I was now - but what could I do? It was a hard, hot slog back into the village, and when I was hailed from the Tourist Resthouse I thought I might as well look at a room - at least it was an opportunity to take my pack off and catch my breath. A row of men sat outside, and the bus I'd arrived on hooted his horn, drumming up business before he set off. The rooms were dirty and squalid, and not even worth the low price of Rs150; they certainly wouldn't lift my mood, that was for sure. So back on with the pack, and off I trudged along a different road out of town. Scruffy children outside basic abodes - some made of mud - waved and shouted "bye bye" as I walked by. I waved back, and smiled through gritted teeth, really feeling the heat now. A pack of vicious-sounding dogs took umbrage at my passing, barking and making moves in my direction. I carefully stooped and gathered a few stones, preparing myself in case they attacked; a few shouts and stamps of my foot did the trick in the end, but I felt unsettled all the same.

A safe distance away I had to stop in the shade of a tree, take a rest for a couple minutes before I could go on. I'd had very little sleep in the last couple of days, and had eaten nothing but moong dahl (a salty snack of dried lentils - and one of the very few non-spicy nibbles you can get here) all day. I gathered what remained of my strength, donned my pack again, and continued my hot hike - deciding before I had arrived that I was staying at Rupmati, no matter what! When I got within sight of reception I shed my packs, and staggered on unburdened. "I'd like to look at a single room," I gasped. "But first I need a fanta!" I downed the cool drink in one, and then looked at a room.

I was shown first to a huge room, that had a slightly crusty, colonial feel too it. The bathroom was clean, by Indian standards (pretty filthy by European, but this is India) and the shower worked too. The sheets and towels were almost spotless - certainly fresh on the bed, which is a real novelty for here. A door led out to a small patio with two plastic chairs, beyond which was a shared, grassy veranda, which did indeed look out over to the valley. A multitude of small birds - purple sunbirds and oriental white-eyes among others - flittered from one air-cooler to another, drinking the water therein. I liked it a lot. I asked the manager how much it was, and if I could get a discount for staying three nights - Rs850 a night, but I could have it for 800. He told me that there were cheaper rooms available, Rs650. I had a look, and they were serviceable, but not so large as the first I'd seen, and without the great views. I decided to treat myself, and went for the first room I'd seen.

Just across from the hotel was a sizeable ruin just waiting to be explored, so once I'd settled in (that is, emptied the entire contents of my pack on the floor) and donned my hiking boots (both as protection against dogs and ankle-twisting . . . and because I've been carrying the bloody heavy things for two months, and hardly worn them) I rushed across the road, eager to try out my new lens. The ruin was just the way I like them - deserted. On top of that, it was most impressive - I particularly like the symmetry of Islamic buildings, and Mandu is said to house some of the best Afghan architecture in India - it's probably the closest I'll get to Afghanistan for a decade or so at least.

Once I'd had my fill, I walked into the small village to recharge my phone. Kids with matted hair asked me to take their photo, which I did, followed by requests to give them money or chocolate, which I didn't. I mean chocolate - it's over forty degrees, who in their right mind carries chocolate in this weather? As I'd not eaten all day, I thought I should have something healthy for dinner - a navratan korma, which is a curry with nine kinds of veg and fruit in it. Sorry, I was told, no fruit or veg - it's too hot. Curious, as I'd seen stalls selling both in the village. The following morning I discovered that the heat had also effected the supply of bread, as neither this place nor the other two restaurants I asked in had any. Maybe it means that the bread delivery boy can't be bothered to go and fetch the bread, I don't know.

I spent the day exploring lots of lovely ruins, both the Village Group and the Royal Enclave, which cost Rs100 each to enter. Some of the ruins here date back to the fifteenth century, and are in states of repair. I love the onion domes on top of the buildings, and enjoy exploring the vaulted spaces underneath. In one I found a multitude of bats, all roosting together in one large colony. Later, around five o'clock, I saw some huge fruit bats swooping down to drink from the water in the Royal Enclave as usual I was amazed by their size.

I also hired a bicycle. The first place I tried had a bike with a basket, which would have saved me carrying my daypack on my back . . . but the tyres were flat. In fact most of his bikes were broken in some way. "It's not possible for me to fix them," he explained. All he had was too-tall bikes with crossbars, so I went to search elsewhere. Further along I found a bicycle repair bike with two bikes for hire. The girl's bike was a rusty old thing, with great flaps or rubber peeling off the tyres. "It's okay," I was told. "It's only on the outside." Hmmmm. In the end I took the other - a too-tall bike with a crossbar and no basket. Later on I bumped into the man whose bikes I'd turned my nose up at he was annoyed that I'd hired a bike just like the ones he had. I pointed out that he could get his bikes fixed at the cycle repair shop. Touché

The front wheel was badly buckled, and I could have done with wearing four-inch platform shoes to reach the ground, but it served its purpose, and I survived unscathed. Annoyingly the waiter here told me this morning that they have new bikes here I could have used . . . I bet they have baskets too. It was hot, but enjoyable riding around, seeing the ruins dotted here and there. The roads were bum-achingly bumpy in places, but there wasn't much traffic about. I'd shout namaste to the colourfully dressed woman with shiny pots of water, or bundles of firewood on their head; and wave to the children, who shouted "bye" as I rode past. Dogs aside, it's a friendly place, where people reply to your greeting rather than look at you as if you're something the cat dragged in, as can happen elsewhere.

Today I visited the Rewa Kund group of ruins, where I met three very poor children. They were at the drinking fountain in the site; the elder was holding her baby brother, giving him a drink from a leaf folded into a makeshift cup. The middle sister wore a filthy, ripped jumper, miles to big for her, and nothing else. The guard shouted at them, and chased them off, but they lingered, returning to ask for a photo. I took one, and showed them, expecting to be asked for money - but the older girl just said hopefully, "shampoo?" They certainly needed it, their hair a matted mess. I don't normally give kids money, but I couldn't help myself - they were such deserving cases. I gave her a ten rupee note, and mimed that they should get some food with it; her eyes shone and her smile grew even bigger.

I explored a few more ruins on the way back, and intended to see some more which were down a side road. My head pounded, despite the three litres of water I'd drunk, one with a rehydration powder in it, and the ibuprofen I'd taken. I stopped under the shade of a tree and ate a packet of crisps I'd brought with me - I figured I needed the salt. I couldn't remember the name of the place I was meant to be going to - the book said it was nice. It was past noon, and over forty in the shade - not that I was in the shade, I was riding around like an idiot in the midday sun. Enough was enough - I still had over a kilometre to ride back into town, and another to walk after I'd dropped my bike off - it was time to call it quits. I'm off in the morning, so I guess I'll just have to come back another time to see whatever it was I missed out on . . . it seems that everywhere I go, I give myself an excuse to return one day? Except Bhopal, that is.

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