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In the Heart of India

5th June 2010, Orchha
I've been enjoying my last couple of destinations in Madhya Pradesh, the Heart of India, before heading to the cool of the mountains via Delhi. Since writing last I've left Mandu, visiting Gwalior and Khajuraho before arriving here in Orchha. Next I'm off to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama

From Mandu I had two buses and an overnight train to get to my next destination of Gwalior. There's not an awful lot to see in Gwalior, other than an impressive fort that sits upon an outcrop of rock, towering above the city. There is also an interesting museum in the Jai Vilas Palace - although the entry fees are steep for foreign visitors. I had four nights here, for some reason, and choose an air-conditioned room to stay in. I'd had enough of hot, sleepless nights - it was definitely time to admit defeat. There were a couple more places I wanted to visit in the state, namely Khajuraho and Orchha, and then it's time I hit higher ground. The monsoon is imminent - it should be here in a couple of weeks - and after seeing reports on the Internet about wading knee-deep in raw sewage, and the risks of falling down unseen open sewers or getting electrocuted by fallen power lines that land in water, I'm not too keen on hanging around for it . . . although I'm sure it will catch up with me somewhere along the line. I thought I'd take advantage of being in a big city to post my lens home - that was optimistic of me!

First I caught a rickshaw across town to the post office shown in my Lonely Planet, to find that it was only a small one. They couldn't understand or help me, and a customer translated that I should go to the main post office, and told me where it was - several miles away. I caught another rickshaw there, and went in. I still needed to wrap the lens (over here packages need to be wrapped in cloth, sewn up, and sealed with wax before they can be posted). I explained my situation to an employee who spoke English, and showed him the boxed lens which needed packing, asking him where I could get this done - on my last trip I found the post offices sometimes had an office inside for this purpose. On seeing the lens, the guy told me that it wasn't safe to send it with India Post, miming a throwing action, and telling me it would get broken. Hmmmmm. He suggested a courier company instead. I wasn't able to find the one he recommended in the city - I looked online and found two different addresses, and a couple of phone numbers which came up as number unavailable when I tried them. So at the moment I'm still lugging the heavy, bulky, broken lens around, which is like insult to injury as far as I'm concerned. I got a third rickshaw to a rather snazzy and modern looking (from the outside at least) shopping mall - quite a novelty in India. Surprisingly, despite it being almost eleven o'clock, hardly any shops were open; everything seems to open so late over here. While I was there I got a text from Airtel telling me that my second phone number was being cut off because they had been unable to verify the address (a hotel) I had given them.

The time came to move on, but not before I got stung by an unmentioned 15% luxury tax added to my hotel bill. The receptionist first tried to make me pay for five nights ("check in 22nd, check out 25th - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5" . . . "yes, but I'm checking out on 25th, not staying, so four nights") and I'm sure he made up the tax to wreak revenge on me for sussing his scam. I really should have caught an early bus to Jhansi, the jumping off point for my next two destinations, which was only an hour or so away. I'm very aware though that my train travelling days are numbered; once I hit the hills it will be slow, cramped, uncomfortable, scary bus rides, which I'm not looking forward to (can you tell?), so I'd booked a train. Unfortunately the train was over an hour late on arriving in Gwalior, and even later arriving in Jhansi. I got in after three, knowing that I'd missed the last "deluxe" (meaning it stops slightly less than the other) bus to Khajuraho. My guidebook told me that the deluxe bus takes four hours, and the local bus takes five. A rickshaw driver who spoke good English (a sure sign of a scammer!) told me that the deluxe takes five hours, and the local seven, which I was inclined to believe. I choose not to believe him though when he told me that Khajuraho was not safe for single women, and that I was much better going with him the next day in his AC taxi, and taking a quick, half-day tour of the sights.

He told me a deluxe bus left at five the next morning (which I had also read in my book), so I got him to take me to a hotel - a dirty, dingy place, with filthy sheets on a mattress less than an inch thick. I refused to pay Rs500 for the privilege, and said I would only pay Rs350 - and only then if the sheets were changed. After asking a few more times, replacement sheets were found . . . which were almost as dirty as those already in place. I stamped my foot and a third set appeared. I think they may have been fresh out of the pack, as other than a thick stripe of dirt along a crease they were clean! I ventured out to buy some water, passing a knot of men selling huge fish by the side of the road. One who had a little English told me they'd been caught in a nearby reservoir. As I returned to the hotel I noticed the unmistakable decorations that signify an Indian wedding, set up in the grounds of the hotel. I checked at reception where the cheerful manager confirmed that yes, there was a wedding there that night. Not the best news I'd ever had. I had a hellish night. The music from the wedding was loud enough to vibrate the bed and the air in the room - I felt like I was in a speaker. On top of that, through the window (which I had to keep open due to the extreme heat in the room) was another wedding, at a hotel two doors down, with fireworks and all. I took two sleeping tablets, and eventually dropped off after midnight.

I awoke the following morning at half four, got my stuff together and flagged down a rickshaw to the train station, where the deluxe bus to Khajeraho was supposed to be leaving from. There was no bus there, and the rickshaw drivers insisted it didn't leave from there. I wasn't convinced (although I later found it that this was true), but what could I do? So I caught another rickshaw around the corner where there was a bus waiting, and the conductor said Khajeraho, so I got on. It wasn't long before I realised it definitely wasn't the deluxe bus; despite the conductor saying that we would only make two stops, we were stopping constantly to cram more passengers in. I managed to doze a little until 0730 when we had a longish stop and I got off too get a drink. A couple of hours later we stopped again, and again I went and grabbed another drink before returning to the bus . . . where the conductor handed me my daypack off the seat. Not only was it not an express bus, it wasn't even a bus going all the way to Khajeraho! I got him to pass down my big pack, and show me where the bus was to get me the rest of the way, giving him a mouthful along the way. It was about quarter to ten then, and the second bus didn't leave until 11 o'clock. Admittedly I didn't have to pay any more, but it was still annoying.

I arrived at Khajuraho around 1230, and took a cycle rickshaw to Hotel Harmony. The driver had a bit of trouble with his chain on the way round - it kept falling off, about 10 times in the one kilometre journey. Needless to say I turned down the offer of a tour of the temples with him the following day. The hotel is set around a marble courtyard, and my room was really nice - it cost Rs800, and had air conditioning . . . although it wasn't very good. Despite being set on 16 degrees, the room got no cooler than 37. All I wanted after my hot journey was a cold shower, so I turned on the cold tap and I stepped under the reasonably good flow of water that emerged from the showerhead . . . and was nearly scalded! Both hot and cold taps produce water hot enough to cook potatoes in. I guess there's nothing they can do about it - the water is in big black tanks on the roof. The receptionist said that after ten at night or before seven in the morning is the best time to get a shower - that's handy!

I went to Bella Italiano for my dinner, and sat outside watching hundreds, maybe thousands, of parakeets flocking to an adjacent tree - huge flocks came squawking overhead for their evening meet up. Turning my head to the right, ominously dark clouds were gathering, lightning forking between them, as an electrical storm lit up the sky. The wind increased, whipping up the dust on the road, as the waiter ran over and suggested I move inside before the rain started. I sat a while longer, as the temple across the road became a silhouette against the evening sky. The power went out (for the umpteenth time that day), and I saw swirls of dust, lit up in the headlights of traffic on the road, looking like mini twisters. The rain started, and I sought shelter inside. It didn't last long, just a little overture of the monsoon to come. The evening had been a good welcome to Khajuraho; I felt that things were looking up.

I returned to my room and worked on some pictures on my laptop. After an hour or so with the AC on, I was still drenched in sweat. I checked my thermometer and saw that the temperature remained at 37 degrees - it was cooler outside, on the balcony. Something had to be done. I went to reception and spoke to the young man - he'd made mention of another room earlier, when I'd commented on how poor the AC was. To be fair, it's may well be adequate at other times of year, but temperatures in the high forties are too much for it. I was nice about it - it's not his fault it's so hot, and I chose to come here at this time of year - but said that it was simply too hot in the room, and asked about the other room he'd spoken of. It was either that or switch hotels - if I was paying for AC, I expected the temperature in room at night to be at least cooler than outside.

He showed me to what he called a suite, but you or I would call a larger room. It wasn't as tastefully decorated as the room I was in and had no balcony, but it did have a fridge - and, he assured me, a much more efficient AC unit. I wasn't too enthusiastic, remembering how hard it had been to try and cool my large room at Mandu - also Chris had found me a great deal at a luxury hotel in town, a fair bit more than I was paying here, but a much better hotel. With that in mind I was not inclined to spend an extra 200 on the replacement room here. I was not actually trying to barter, but when he said okay, I could have this room for the same price I was already paying, I couldn't really refuse. I spent the rest of the evening chilling the room properly - at first there was just a little puddle of cool right under the AC unit, and colossal heat in the rest of the room; the marble floor was uncomfortable to walk on in bare feet. My thermometer told me it was over 40 degrees in the bathroom, so I opened the door to allow the air in there to cool - something I regretted five minutes later when the power faded slightly and the AC switched off. Never mind, I thought, I'll put the fan on - big mistake, the heat had risen to just beneath the high ceiling, and was forced down by the fan. Fortunately the power perked up, and I was eventually able to sufficiently cool the room, and get that rarest of things, a good night's sleep.

The following morning I visited the Western Group of Temples, which are widely accepted to be the best. Eleven temples are grouped together within the fenced-off area, with the modern town alongside, and cost Rs250 to visit (nearly £4). Khajuraho's temples are world famous because of the Kama Sutra carvings on their walls; couples, threesomes and foursomes - even a few animals thrown in for good measure - frolicking away happily in a number of interesting and gravity defying positions. The saucy nature of the carvings aside (and there are plenty of non-naughty carvings too), the workmanship is most impressive. Most of the temples in town date back to between 950 & 1050 AD; there were once 85, but now only 25 remain. In common with many of India's impressive heritage sites, after the city had been abandoned it all but fell from memory until it was "discovered" by the British, who then made a concerted effort to conserve the temples. The temperature was relatively cool, and it didn't get over 40 until 11 o'clock - the last few weeks it's been over 40 by nine or earlier. I spent four hours slowly exploring, taking hundreds of pictures. The nature of the carvings here meant I was approached by men even more often than in the rest of the country, but they were easy enough to rebuff. The following day I hired a bicycle and visited the Eastern and Southern Groups; they're a lot more spread out, but I think I managed to find them all. I enjoyed my time in Khajuraho, and didn't find that I got as much hassle there from touts, as my guidebook had suggested.

My next destination was Orchha, and I caught the early bus from Khajuraho - luckily I'd got to the bus stand early, as it left at 0509, not half past like it was meant to. I got out at the Orchha turn off, and refused to pay Rs150 for a private rickshaw the 8km into Orchha. I got a share one for Rs10 instead - just slightly larger than a regular rickshaw - but it managed to carry fifteen passengers and a driver! It wasn't too uncomfortable, surprisingly. Four women (including me) sat on the seat; two more perched on the bar facing us, along with an old man & a teenage boy; four men in the luggage compartment at the back (along with my pack and some other bags); and three more passengers squeezed onto the driver's seat either side of him. Two young sisters practised their English on me, and the journey was a friendly one.

On arrival I tried the Sri Mahunt Guesthouse first, which had grotty, poky rooms with AC for Rs700 - not good value. It was also in the middle of town, with very loud religious music & sermons being blared from speakers mounted on a lamppost outside. They've got a sister hotel, so I asked to see that - it was full that night, but a room would be free the next day. It was a strenuous 5-minute walk - and that was without my pack - to get there. The hotel was in a quieter spot, but didn't look much from the outside, and I looked through an open door into a room - which did look big and much nicer than the other one, but still not all that special. We walked back to the first place - he eventually said I could have one night there, at Rs400, and next five nights at other hotel, with a big room, for Rs500.

I said I'd get something to eat and think about it . . . then scurried off to the Sheesh Mahal, which is set in the palace grounds and came highly recommended in my guidebook and online. I say scurried - there were so many steps I was nearly crawling by the time I got there, struggling for breath. I got in the door, dropped my bag on a chair, waved hello at the guy behind reception, and downed two glasses of filter water that were sitting waiting for thirsty guests. I told the chap I wanted a single room, and asked if that was possible. He cheerfully pointed at the tariff behind him, which showed double rooms from Rs1690 (plus there's the Maharaja and Maharani suite for a few thousand more). "Plus 10% tax," he said. I pointed out that I'd looked on the MP Tourism's website (it's an official, state tourism run hotel) and that showed that they had one single room. "Oh yes," he said, like he'd forgotten it. "1290 - plus tax." I further pointed out that on the MP Tourism's website, the single room was quoted as 1100. "Yes," he said. "Plus tax," but of course. So then I told him that I wanted to stay for six nights, and maybe he could work out a very good deal for me while I went and looked at the room.

I was first shown a double that had just been vacated - the scuzzy previous occupants leaving a used nappy on the floor - charming! It was a huge room, with a massive bathroom - very nice . . . but I wasn't paying Rs1690 - plus tax. He showed me the single, which is on the roof of the palace (Sheesh Mahal means Palace of Mirrors). It was a small room with a tiny bathroom - certainly compared to the one he'd just shown me - but there's an amazing view across Orchha and over to the river, both from the bed and also the toilet, which is nice! As we walked back downstairs, I thought to myself, if I can get it for £15 a night, I'll go for it - you know I'm a sucker for my views. I asked the manager what deal he could do me, and he showed me his calculator - 916. "Plus tax?" I asked. "No, tax included" - a little under 15. Sorted! It's not every day you get to stay in a palace - especially at that price.

The porter carried my bag up, which I tipped him 10 for, and I opened the windows and took a shower - realising that the bathroom was pretty dirty, and the floor in the bedroom too - admittedly not exceptionally dirty by Indian standards, but when you're paying a bit more, you have higher standards. I wanted to go out for some food and water (too pricey here - Rs40 for a mineral water), and left the key with the manager. They were just finishing cleaning it when I got back. The porter/cleaner let me sit in another room while I waited. Then he showed me the Maharaja's suite - which was very posh, and had an even better view from the toilet. I tipped him another 10 and returned to my little room . . . where I discovered that leaving the windows open had been a big mistake, as I'd let the heat in and it was now 40 degrees . . . and the power was off, which meant no AC (although a generator powers everything else). I was just about to go crazy with the heat, the fan making me feel I was in a fan oven, when the porter I'd tipped appeared and told me the power was back on. I was very glad I had tipped him, as the remote for the AC didn't work, so off he trotted, sending someone else up with one that did. He stood in front of it for 10 minutes pressing lots of buttons on the remote, until I took it off him and showed him how it worked. I thought I'd better tip him too, just to be safe. I quickly got the temperature down to the 20s - and vowed that I'd wait until it was a good deal cooler outside before I opened the windows again.

My small room is off of a courtyard that also gives access to the Maharaja Suite . . . but while that remains unoccupied, it's mine, all mine! The Suite has a small covered patio section, with a table and chairs plus a plush, upholstered swing, that I will admit sitting in on occasion. There is a window in the wall of the courtyard facing north and, the wall being almost four foot thick here, I enjoy sitting in the wide window sill, looking out across Orchha and listening to the hypnotic sounds of the man chanting in a small nearby temple, the sounds amplified by loud speakers. The sound is much more peaceful than the cacophonous din that comes from outside the Ram Raja temple. I'm quite happy to sit and an adjacent cafe and eat my breakfast listening to it, and watching the women wrapped in sparkling, rainbow-coloured saris walk by, and men with tie-dyed cloth wrapped around their heads to protect them from the sun's punishing rays. It is incredibly loud though - and I'm so glad I didn't stay in the Sri Mahunt Guesthouse, as I think it would have driven me out of my mind.

I've spent a lot of time wandering unfettered within the grounds, which you can do for free. At certain places you can get through the sturdy wall that surrounds the grounds, and make your way down to the Betwa River which is quite low at the moment, in its pre-monsoon state, but with clean water in that is cooling just to look at. I've explored outside the grounds too - although mostly in the early morning or evening, as it's just so hot in the day. Also my new lens is proving to be a tad temperamental; it doesn't perform well in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees, freezing (ironically) and giving me an error message - and once you get above 45 degrees it all but refuses to work. Still, on the plus side this does give me a damned good excuse to recline in my AC room during the heat of the day.

There are seven major sights to see in Orchha, and you have to buy a Rs250 ticket from the ticket office just near to where I'm staying. I was already a bit miffed that the ticket office didn't open until 8, as normally I like to be out a lot earlier than that. When I bought my ticket though, I discovered that the individual sites opened even later. I'd intended visiting the Laxmi Temple first, as it's a couple of kilometres away - but I was told that it didn't open until 10 o'clock. The guy told me to visit the palaces first, but I didn't want to do that for two reasons: first they are mostly covered, and I figured would be much cooler in the heat of the day; and second as they are near to where I'm staying, I could pop back here for a rest in between. So I asked if the Chhatris (tombs) were open. They are also a way out of town, maybe half a kilometre. I'd wandered down a previous evening, and knew it would take twenty minutes or so to get there. I was assured that they were, so set off.

When I got there I discovered that they were locked. I could wander around the outsides - which I had done for free anyway - but not get inside them. I was not impressed. There are five tombs together, enclosed by a wall, and then another couple inside another wall. The wall to these two was quite low, so I boosted myself over, and set about exploring. I eventually found the staircases - which seemed to hide, you have to creep up on them and look out of the corner of your eye, or you can't see them; most strange. I climbed to the top, enjoying the views and watching the huge Indian Vultures. These are quite elusive too - despite their size, you don't seem to notice them at first. Mind you, they look more like gargoyles until they move, so maybe this isn't surprising. There were another two tombs that had no locked gate, so I explored these - as the gate to the main enclosure was still locked. Afterwards I went down the steps to the river, wetting my hat and my head, as it was starting to get pretty warm. I walked up to the main gate, rattling it and being generally annoyed - and fortunately a guy turned up with a key and let me in. I set about exploring until just gone ten, when I thought it was time to head to the Laxmi temple, before it got ridiculously hot.

I wet my hat again and walked off, back into the small town, pausing to watch the sermon outside the Ram Raja Temple. The women sat on mats on one side of the floor, and men on the other. The main priest was chanting in an animated fashion, accompanied by a number of instruments - the songs amplified to eardrum-rupturing proportions by numerous loud speakers set about the place. At the front of the congregation a handful of women were up and dancing, like groupies at a pop concert, while the rest clapped along. I continued my journey to the temple - a hot uphill walk that was tiring. As I neared the temple I could see an Indian family waiting outside the locked door. A young lad was on the phone, and a short while after I got there he spoke to me, telling me he'd called the office and they told him the temple would not be open today, as they had no guests today - what about me?! I'd paid 250 bleeding rupees to see the sodding thing. I was not happy, but resolved to hang around for a while in case someone did show up - and to have a rest in the shade before I ventured back out into the ferocious sun. After twenty minutes, and casing the joint to see if there was any scope for sneaking in, I gave up.

I returned via Chaturbhuj Temple - another of the seven monuments included in the ticket price, although it seems that I could have got in without a ticket as well. I backsheeshed the young temple guardian, for a trip up the stairs and a tour of the top of the towers, which provided me with some good views. I went and had a go at the officer in the ticket office, but someone else was on duty by then, and didn't really care. I returned to my room for a little cool down, before visiting the nearby palaces - providing they were open. By one o'clock, the skies had darkened, and soon after a major dust storm had blown up, obscuring most of the countryside. There were gale force winds, and it felt like it should be raining, but there was only dust. The window in my room got forced open by the wind, despite it being locked, and I sat with my back against it now to stop it happening again - being careful not to lean back too hard - as there was a big drop on the outside. I could feel the dust hitting my back through the gaps in the window - and the air smelt horrible in my room - dirty and dusty. Ten minutes later the rain followed; torrential rain driven by the wind, which had increased if anything. I heard a crash outside, and rightly surmised that it was the window in the courtyard, which I like to sit at. What I didn't realise until I ventured out some time later was that the whole window frame had blown in, and was sitting several yards away in the courtyard! It was exciting and scary in equal measures. I'd put a towel against my window and moved the bed from the wall, so there wasn't much damage in the room, just a large puddle on the floor (the rain - it wasn't so scary I peed myself!), which the cleaner cheerfully mopped up.

The rain continued on and off throughout the afternoon, evening and night - but I'd bought my ticket, and had sightseeing to do. In a lull between storms I hurried out to the Jehangir Mahal, which is adjacent to the hotel - armed with a plastic bag to protect my camera from the elements. I was extra glad that I had left the nearby attractions until the afternoon. The Jehangir Mahal is a wonderful maze of archways, corridors and stone staircases, and I enjoyed my visit immensely. I felt like I was in a fairytale as I peeked from this balcony, or peered through the jalis stone work onto that courtyard. The moody skies, thunder and intermittent rainstorms enhanced the experience, and I found the wet, red sandstone very photogenic. From there I went to what my guidebook calls the Camel Stables, but the sign outside said may have been a pleasure palace. Here I climbed a steep set of steps, and emerged worryingly close to the edge of the roof. I tentatively edged my way into the middle of the roof, relaxing as I felt much safer there . . . until a rumble of thunder reminded me of that habit lightning has of hitting the highest object; I left rather rapidly! On to Raj Mahal, which had some impressive murals on the ceiling that had lasted a couple of centuries. This palace was nice, but not as impressive as Jehangir Mahal. I sat in a sheltered walkway on the roof, enjoying the views over the lush, ruin-strewn countryside . . . until a young langur monkey became all territorial and chased me down. I'd have confidently scared him off with a few shouts and stamps of my feet - and as a backup I carry a few stones in my pocket to ward off unfriendly dogs - but his much larger mother sat nearby, and I didn't fancy my chances with her.

I went back to the ticket office to see if I could visit Laxmi Temple the following day; they had said it would be open that evening, but having already walked up there in the stifling heat, I didn't relish the thought of getting soaked on a second hike. They agreed, and assured me that the temple really would be open from ten this time. I double-checked in the morning, getting the office to phone the guard to ensure he was in the right place at the right time. I was glad I had persevered, as the paintings on the ceilings here were even better than those in Raj Mahal, and the views from the rooftop were good too. By now my legs were aching severely; I've not climbed that many steps since I last delivered to Maxton. I took it relatively easy the rest of the day, just a few strolls around the palace grounds - or my garden, as I prefer to call it. I ate out that evening at a small restaurant just outside the palace wall. The food was terrible, the worst malai kofta I've ever eaten. I sat there wincing from the amplified noise of the temple coming from the speakers; with an all but inedible plate of food in front of me; and a mangy, hairless dog sitting at my feet; having just worked out that I'd been overcharged at a small shop for some water and biscuits. I watched as a cow headbutted another in the arse for not moving quick enough, and felt a big grin spread on my face. Dammit! This country's getting under my skin again. I returned to the hotel, passing through the sound and light show, that is a nightly occurrence in the Palace grounds. Not a single person was there watching the coloured spotlights, or listening to the booming voiceover - which seemed like an awful waste of electricity to me.

Which brings me onto a rant, which I'd like to share with you this email: the water wastage over here. India is in the grip of the worst drought for nearly twenty years, but as I look around I can see why. It's true the monsoons have all but failed the last couple of years, but the amount of water that is wasted on a daily basis is astronomical. When Chris and I were in Ranthambore - a very dry region - we saw a bore well that had not been capped, water gushing from it, gallons a minute. When we drove past again several hours later, water still poured from it. The hand-pumps are so wasteful too - you pump a few times, then the water comes out - but there's no real effort to capture it all; a significant amount trickles away onto the road where it evaporates. Also there's the custom of throwing water on the ground morning and evening time, to keep the dust down -okay, it makes sense . . . but surely not if you're in a drought and suffering from water shortages. Plus of course there's the way that they drink water - for cultural reasons, once something has touched someone's mouth it becomes jutha - kind of dirty, taboo - for example, if someone drinks out of a bottle of water, another person can not drink from the same; the water has to be poured into the mouth from a distance. Another way of doing this, when drinking from water stations in particular, is to pour the water into the right hand, and drink from that. On the railway station in Gwalior, people from a charity were dishing out emergency water for free, due to the heat-wave - but the amount that was being wasted and ending up on the tracks, having spilt from peoples hands, must have equalled the amount that was drunk. I was at a chai stall in Khajuraho, along with a family who were eating and drinking water from there. I watched as the father scooped a cup full from the container, had a couple of mouthfuls then chucked the rest on pavement - really rude, I thought, as the stall holder's son was cycling back and forth from pump with containers of water. So there we go - my thoughts for the day are to preserve the resources you've got, especially when they are in short supply. Thank you, and good night!

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