A Year in Asia 2006- 2007 travel blog

Trish, Laura, and Sean at Aurangabad caves

Matt at Aurangabad caves

Enjoying some much needed rest at the Aurangabad caves

Close up of silk threads being woven into a sari at a...

The complex of ancient caves at Ajanta, a two hour taxi drive...

Part of a painted wall inside one of the Ajanta caves ......

Sean, Trish, and Matt at Ajanta

Massive carved Buddha statue inside one of the Ajanta caves

Buddha and attendants in one of the Ajanta caves

 

Buddha statue at Ajanta caves

Detailed carving of Buddhas on cave wall

Looking out of cave entrance into the dry hot valley surrounding Ajanta...

Matt sitting with Buddha

Carving inside Ajanta cave ... not sure who or what it is...

1400 - 1800 year old wall painting inside one of the more...

Cave with ornately carved ceiling and walls. The ceiling carved to look...

Buddha statues like this are usually in the rear of the cave,...

Close up of Buddha head

Sean and Matt clutching our water bottles for dear life at the...

Fields around Dalatabad fort, on the way to Ellora caves

Laura made a new friend at Dalatabad fort (she's more interested in...

Stairs winding up between fortified walls to the top of the fort

Looking down at the foundations of what was once the village surrounding...

Cave at Ellora ... each carved out of a 2km long escarpment.

Carving inside one of the Ellora caves

Trish and Sean at the massive cave 16

Another ornately carved cave, all done by removing stone ... what remains...

The outside of one of the Hindu caves at Ellora

The outside of cave 16, the world's largest monolithic sculpture, and 2x...

Trish, Sean, and Matt at Daulatabad fort ... the geeky Tilley hat...

The massive temple at Ellora caves ... bigger than the Parthenon in...

The four of us after a long hot day at Ellora

The outer edge of the massive temple open to the sky (they...

Carved elephants seem to scoop out piles of dirt with their rocky...

Minute detail on the temple wall (each row is about the width...

Strange and eerie lifelike figures reclining in a side chamber

Trish and Sean at the end of a massive cave at Ellora...

Glass slides glued across cracks in the rock to detect if they...

Sean sneaks a granola bar to a needy dog


Matt:

We wake to the 'eep eep eep' of our alarm clock in the early morning darkness of Mumbai. Our room is thick with humidity and heat. We've had maybe five hours of restless sleep. I'd woken regularly with irrational worries, my mind unable to stop (would we get a cab in the morning? would we oversleep?) I move slowly. I feel a little nauseous. The humidity of the bathroom is choking and for a moment I think I'm going to be sick. It passes and we move slowly as we zip our bags and lift them onto our backs. We're sweating before we start to move.

Laura feels ill too, worse than I do. Our stomachs are groaning against the early morning as we wake the front desk staff (they are sleeping on the desk, the floor, the sofa) to unlock the door so we can get out. Five flights of stairs later and we wake a security guard to let us out of the building. It crosses my mind that we'd never get out in a fire ... every exit was double locked with a key.

Trish and Sean are waiting for us on the street and soon we are in taxis racing through the empty Bombay streets toward the train station. A stale fishy wind blows hot through the car windows. Already, there are men wandering the streets; street cleaners, truck drivers, street people, taxi drivers ... the city has begun to wake.

The train station is busy, as they always are, and despite a frantic moment of worry that we're at the wrong one (there are TWO Mumbai CST stations it seems), we quickly find our train, our car, and our seats. There is even some time to get some water before leaving.

Laura sits groggily, besieged with stomach cramps and in obvious pain. I ignore my nausea and try to help her, though there's not a lot I can do. The best I can come up with is meditation ... concentrate on relaxing, I tell her, so the pain disappears. It will be a long train ride.

Trish and Sean sit beside us reading until the ticket man comes and forces Sean to move into his assigned, but separate seat. Why don't they ever seem to be able to reserve contiguous seats that are beside each other?!?!?

As we leave Bombay behind us, the air conditioning chills the car more and more. I start to shiver and end up using the blanket I found for Laura (to use as a pillow) to keep warm. I'm feeling worse -- cold and shivery -- while Laura starts feeling better and better. I spend a few moments standing in the space between train cars enjoying the heat blowing through the open doors as the dry arid landscape blurs past.

When we arrive in Aurangabad, a crowd of passengers cluster around the doors as the train slows. We wheel our cumbersome bags down the aisle and wait to exit. As soon the train stops, ten or more locals start pushing their way onto the train, blocking our path out, just as we are blocking their way in. "Wait!" we yell and push forward. "Just one moment!" a local man tells us and starts pushing past us and crawling over our bags into the cabin. A woman stands in front of me trying to push forward. A crowd behind me pushes to exit; I couldn't let her pass if I wanted to. "Let us off!" I yell. The man starts crawling over our bags. I've had it. I lean my full weight forward, lift my 55 kilo bag up in front of me, and push. The man still pushes forward. I drop my bag on his foot and lean my shoulder into him, slamming him against the side of the train. The woman steps sideways as I shove past her, swearing loudly. Can they not wait 10 seconds for people to get off the train before pushing their way on?!?!?

On the platform, the midafternoon heat hits us with a power I've never before experienced. We climb up and down the stairs over the tracks slowly. I feel dizzy and breathless. Laura and Trish leave Sean and I with the bags to go find a hotel, aware that I'm not feeling great. They wander away down the road pursued by touts as Sean and I sit in the shade of the railway building with the bags.

As we sat there, I felt progressively weaker and hotter. I poured water on my face and neck with little effect. I'm so thankful Sean was there to talk to, to take my thoughts off my worsening state.

By the time Trish and Laura return, I know that I won't be able to walk the three blocks to the hotel. An autorickshaw takes us there instead. I barely remember the ride and the walk to our room. I collapsed on the bed in a darkened room, exhausted.

Over the next several hours, my fever went as high as 103 degrees. My fever muddled my thoughts and drained me of energy as Laura laid wet towels against my skin to cool me off. Hours passed. I sipped water, ate some toast, shuddered from the touch of cold towels on my bare back. In my fuzzy state, I'm aware that I've felt this way before in Jodhpur; I decide its likely this is a recurrence of a bacterial nasty waiting in my gut for a chance to gain control. Laura gives me a dose of the "Cipro" antibiotics we carry with us.

Tylenol slowly breaks my fever and I gather the energy to stand in a cold shower to bring my temperature down. I sleep intermittently the rest of the night feeling cooler with only brief periods of nausea.

The next day, I rise to have breakfast with Laura, Trish, and Sean. I feel better, only weak. A trip to some sights around Aurangabad is being planned and I decide to come along. The antibiotics seem to have made a huge difference! However, the credit for my speedy recovery must be given to Laura who nursed me patiently for hours to bring down my fever, applying wet cloths to cool me in the hot stillness of our room.

Soon we are piling into two autorickshaws (Trish and Sean's first rickshaw ride!) and heading toward the Aurangabad caves, ten caves carved out of the hillside in the 6th or 7th century AD by Buddhists. They are a 'warm up' for our upcoming trips to Ellora and Ajanta -- and warm it is! As the sun beats down on us, we are thankful for the relative cool of the caves. Laura is even happier for the squeaks of bats hanging from the ceilings, though Trish is not quite as impressed by them.

Next, we head to the Bibi-Ka-Maqbara (the poor man's Taj Mahal), a towering white building that -- not surprisingly -- looks remarkably similar to the real Taj Mahal, except smaller. The building was built in 1679 as a mausoleum for the wife of Aurangzeb (son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal). Apart from being architecturally ambitious, the family was also bloodthirsty: Shah Jahan killed all his male relatives to eliminate competition for power; his son Aurangzeb threw his father in jail and took over the throne.

The 'poor man's Taj' is impressive in its own right, though modest in comparison to the Taj's extensive use of marble and inlaid gemstones. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant place to explore in the heat of the afternoon.

A brief stop at Panchakki, a water wheel driven by water carried by earthen pipes from 6 km away, and we're off for a thali lunch.

The afternoon passes quickly with a brief stop to see traditional workshops making Himroo material, a cloth made of cotton, silk, and silver threads. We took some photos for the textile-oriented though bought nothing. It is quite incredible how much effort is put into a section of cloth, and the amount of detail and decoration that is put in the clothing!

My first post-illness day went by quickly, dedicated to absorbing the sights and shuttling from one place to another. Surprisingly, I felt fine and only a little tired. Antibiotics are wonderful things! My quick recovery only confirms -- I hope anyway -- that our treatment was the right one.

I'm not only grateful for a quick recovery, but also for the graciousness of Sean and Trish who accepted the delay in our plans seemingly without concern or reservation; their willingness to postpone our trip to Ajanta is much appreciated!

On our third day in Aurangabad, we wake early and load into a taxi destined for Ajanta caves, about 100 km away. These Buddhist caves, built between 200 BC and 650 AD, are older than the ones at nearby Ellora. Apparently, they were abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years until a British hunting expedition discovered them in 1819. Because they were abandoned so long, the paintings inside them are incredibly well preserved.

How to describe the detail of many of the paintings that extent across walls and ceilings? The caves alone are massive and solemn places with huge carved Buddha statues staring out toward their entrances. The caves are dimly lit. Hues of red dominate the paintings, merging with the darkness around them. I manage to hold the camera still enough to get some acceptable photos, but many of the most impressive paintings are not photographed due to lack of light.

We make our way from cave to cave, slowing as the day progresses and the heat outside gains strength. I douse my hat under a water spigot. Laura feels a little dizzy from the heat. Trish has granola bars to replenish sugars and a little salt. We're aware of being on the end of heat exhaustion.

Crowds of Indian tourists wander the caves with us. Young men stare at Trish and Laura with something more than idle curiosity. Frustrated, Trish tells one "Its rude to stare!" and they titter and, later, repeat her words of "don't stare!" as we walk past and they seem to undress Trish and Laura with their eyes.

We are hot, tired, and more than a little weakened from walking between the 30 different caves in the glaring sun. We continue because they are incredible, beautiful, awe-inspiring. How can so much of the paint and detailed work last 2000 years?! What must the caves have been like -- cavernous monasteries mostly -- echoing with the chanting of monks and dancing with the kaleidoscope paintings of peoples lives dancing on ceilings and walls? To walk barefoot across floors worn smooth by the feet of Buddhist monks over 2000 years ago! This is truly one of the most impressive places we've seen in India.

The caves behind us, we walk slowly back down winding stairs to the restaurant. Water and salt-coated french fries disappear quickly. We all feel dehydrated and exhausted, even a little shaky.

Once again ready to face the heat, we wait for the bus that will take us back to the barrage of souvenir shops and snack sellers and our taxi. A bent partially toothless man approaches me, "I'm farmer ... buy these ... Help farmer." He holds a newspaper wrapped around purple and white crystals, beautiful rocks certainly, but not something I want. He ignores my refusals, his price getting lower and lower. I feel his desperation. His offers turn to pleading. Laura is frustrated, "they always pick on you!" she exclaims as the man follows me, whimpering he is a farmer and to buy buy buy buy. I escape guiltily onto the bus. He stands outside the window, tapping against the glass, and finally gives up and leaves.

We find the return price on the bus has doubled. Air conditioning, we're told. The driver looks intoxicated, the attendant shuffles about with an arrogant stupidity. A European woman argues the price, refuses to pay double. "You cannot charge double because you decide to offer only the air conditioned bus!" she argues and we agree silently. It is a useless argument over a pittance. She loses, ends up paying twice to the sneering, swaggering attendant and sits fuming with anger as the bus hurtles dangerously back to the parking lot. India is full of such moments, times when its irrationality and arrogance and selfishness can destroy one's experience if you let it. Sadly, she did.

Shortly we are in the taxi heading back to the hotel. We pass fields lit orange and yellow by the setting sun. A crowd gathers by the side of the road and our driver explains:"Body burning". A cremation is about to take place, apparently. We drive through towns filled with street vendors, people on bicycles, dogs and goats and cows. The chaos of the street reaches its crescendo as daylight wanes and we speed toward Aurangabad and some much-needed rest.

On our last day in Aurangabad, we travel to the nearby Ellora caves, stopping at the Daulatabad fort on the way. The fort is a typical hilltop fortress surrounded by multiple walls and towers to guard against invaders. Sean and I climb staircases and explore the ramparts while Trish and Laura wander ahead. There is a huge cannon and a massive water tank, crumbling walls (some being reconstructed out of new material by the looks of it) and stairs that wind up up up toward the hilltop palace.

Partway up, a man follows us into the darkness of an enclosed area, lighting a smoking kerosene torch on the way to 'guide us'. The stairs wind upward around sharp corners in pitch blackness, an area where burning coals and boiling water were thrown down on unsuspecting invaders bewildered in the darkness. Of course, our 'guide' is unable to communicate such things, only his demand for 250 rupees (double the entrance fee) is clear ... as I hope was my laughter in response to his aggressively pushy greed. He got 10 rupees from us despite Laura's fury at his smoky treatment of the ceiling covered with hundreds of bats.

We climb to the top of the fort on a long windy set of stairs, tired from the heat and steep climb. The palace, when we reach it, is covered in graffiti, its corners stained blood hues from paan spitting.

As we leave the fort, I wonder at why people would destroy the place with spitting and graffiti, a piece of history dating from the 14th century. It is not because of poverty or even a lack of education -- pride in your country needs neither of these, in my view. It is, I believe, the importance of the self -- my concerns, my needs -- that rules over all else: its fine to have a historic monument, but I need a place to spit and its even better if I put my name on it and tell everyone that I was here. Perhaps, in a country of 1.5 billion people, the need to leave one's mark, to assert oneself, is overpowering.

A short drive later and we are at the Ellora cave temples. Over five centuries, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu monks carved monasteries, chapels, and temples out of the 2 km long cliff and decorated them with intricate carvings and sculptures. Most impressive off all, the entire complex was made only by removing rock; what remains is a single contiguous piece of carved rock without joints, bricks, or any form of construction. The resulting 34 caves are incredible.

Even with a myriad of photos, it is difficult to convey the scale of the accomplishment at Ellora. The masterpiece is Kailasa Temple, a structure that covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens, was created by removing 200,000 tonnes of rock, and took 7000 labourers over 150 years to complete.

How to describe such a place? Massive carved statues of elephants line the base of the temple, each seeming to gather a pile of rock with its stone trunk. Strange and fantastic creatures tower over me from the intricately carved walls. Everywhere you look is a wonder, something strange and incredible and beautiful at the same time. This is the most impressive structure I've seen in India. This is truly one of the places on Earth that must be seen and experienced.

We wander the rest of caves, smaller and less extravagant but worth exploration nonetheless. The Buddhist caves have a calm, peaceful feeling with carved Buddha's staring out from dim enclaves. The Hindu temples, in contrast, dance with mystical and strange creatures -- many limbed gods seem frozen in the middle of a movement, giving the caves a feeling of a gathering of gods frozen in time. Like Jain temples, the scale of the caves is smaller, but perhaps the most detailed.

We manage to see most of the 34 caves that make up the Ellora complex. Admittedly, the heat pushed us back from stairs that could have been scaled and from remote areas that might have contained new surprises. It is a constant battle against the burning heat of the sun and we scale our efforts accordingly. Unlike Daulatabad fort, the caves are free of grafitti despite there being no admision charge or guard at most of them. Is it their religious signficance that prevents people from marking them? Or are they cleaned? It is a puzzle I cannot answer. By 6 PM, we have seen all we can and head back to our taxi and our hotel. I leave feeling I've seen one of the most incredible places in India, marvelling at the effort that was manifest here for the sake of worship, the years of labour and cost. It is truly an amazing place.

On the drive back to our hotel, two completely naked men walk side by side down the street. Beside them, a clothed man accompanied them, holding their hands in friendship. "Jain people" our taxi driver explains. Hmm ... you don't see THAT too often!

So our time in Aurangabad winds to a close. My illness, despite intense heat and no small amount of fatigue, did not recur. Hopefully, the antibiotics managed to cure me for good. Our exploration of Ellora and Ajanta was a highlight of our trip and I'm really pleased we could share it with Sean and Trish.

Next day, we wake early to catch a bus to Pune where we will join Trish and Sean at their friend Preeti's wedding. It, too, will be a highlight of our trip we expect!

Laura:

Mumbai has turned out to be a unexpectedly wonderful city and our brief tour has only made me want to come back. I look forward to exploring it more when we return for a few days before our flight to Nepal on April 20th. I certainly hope we can find better accommodation as the the place we are in is really unappealing. The cities in India are so expensive for hotels compared to the smaller towns. I cannot believe what a nice place we had in Udaipur for only 350rs whereas in Mumbai, 550rs only ges you a windowless box with a shared, nasty bathroom.

We awake early for our train to Aurangabad and I feel really rough. I have an upset stomach and dread the trip on the train. We arrive and get seated and the gurglin and cramping in my stomach almost brings me to tears. I am also going on only a few hours of sleep and am thoroughly exhausted from the heat and humidity of Mumbal. Fortunately the train is air-conditioned and after a few visits to the train toilet, I manage to get some sleep. Thankfully we are at the originating stop of the train so the toilets are clean! Matt is very helpful and he calms me down and helps me get to sleep while I can tell he too is suffering. Fortunately a nap makes me feel remarkably better.

We arrive and as Matt mentioned, Trish and I go exploring for a hotel. It is strange to walk around with another woman, as the looks we receive are very different than when I am with Matt. We get settled and

I spend the afternoon worrying about Matt as he shivers from a fever while his skin feels like it is on fire. If his temperature climbs higher than 103, what will I do? Why didn't I pay more attention in first aid class!?!?!?!?

Fortunately, the cool towels, the Tylenol and some sleep work their magic. Matt awakes craving salted chips, so I head out to find them. The hotel taxi/rickshaw driver helps me by taking me in his rickshaw on a short tour of town while we find plain Lay's salted chips and some bananas for me. He is very kind and seems to understand that a sick traveler is a priority in a hotel.

The antibiotics kick in for both of us and I am surprised how much better I feel. They enable us to visit the sites and to enjoy our first days with Trish and Sean. I am excited to visit the "poor man's Taj" in Aurangabad as it takes me back to Agra and the magnifcence of the Taj Mahal. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize what a highlight that was for me on this trip to India.

The caves are also amazing, but the heat really takes it out of me. I am stunned how much water we can drink without ever having to go pee! By the end of the first day, my mouth is so dry and pasty that I can't think straight. We didn't bring enough water with us as we started the long trek along the wall of caves as I assured everyone that "hey, this is India - there are always people selling things". Wrong. Not here. We race back to the restaurant and chug freezing cold water like it is the elixir of life, which it is!

The caves at both Ellora and Ajanta are very impressive in their mammoth size and intricate detail. Matt makes the most observant comment that this is the first Buddhist site we have visited that hasn't felt really spritual. The Buddhas are not draped in saffron robes, there is no incense burning, there are no chanting monks and no cushions for the guests to kneel on in front of the Buddha. It leaves me feeling a little empty.

I think the key to my full appreciation of these sites to learn more about them before I arrive. I am growing tired of looking at old things as I don't know anything about them. I will add these caves to my list of things to read about when I get home. Perhaps there is a good documentary about it that I can rent...

Our day at Ellora is almost extremely hot, but this time we are more hydrated and we eat before beginning our slow walk to the caves and their many stairs. We are approached by many sellers offering postcards, necklaces and carved elephants. One man breaks my heart as he appears to be mentally-challenged. His voice struggles to convey his offer of postcards and I am struck by how difficult his life must be. Life is already hard enough in Inida for the poor, but adding a handicap to the mix? I cannot imagine. I buy a book of postcards from him even though I don't want them and I hope my measly 40rs make some type of difference to his life. Unlikely, but it helps me to keep moving forward. The granola bar that Trish and Sean share with a stray, but extremely friendly dog also helps us feel like we have helped, if only a tiny bit...



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