We have a lot of country to cover in the next few days. We are leaving Sanford’s friends in Khanna, which is located near the northern end of India and we are going to go south and east to Chennai. On the way we are planning to see two World Heritage Sites, the caves in Ajanta and the caves in Ellora.
We always travel using local transportation. This makes the journey more interesting because we are not then just seeing the comfy tourist travel but we are privileged to see what I call a “slice of life” of how people really live and get around.
In the Lonely Planet guidebook to India they say that riding the rails in India is a reason to travel all by itself. There are seven different classes of seats available:
- Air Conditioned 1st Class (1AC) – The most expensive class, with two or four berth compartments with locking doors and meals included
- Air Conditioned 2-Tier (2AC) – Two-tier berths arranged in groups of four and two in an open-plan carriage. Bunks convert to seats by day and there are curtains, offering some privacy.
- Air Conditioned 3-Tier (3AC) – Three-tier berths arranged in groups of six in an open-plan carriage with no curtains; popular with Indian families.
- AC Executive Chair – Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space
- AC Chair – Similar to Executive Chair carriage but with less fancy seating
- Sleeper class – Open plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC
- Unreserved 2nd class – wooden or plastic seats and a lot of people, not guaranteed a seat – really cheap
Sanford and I mostly travel in the bottom two classes. We have always gotten a seat in 2nd class but I have seen trains where this class is overflowing with people, all seats filled, people standing packed in like sardines and some people hanging out the doors.
Sleeper class is interesting because you never know who belongs there and who doesn’t. During the day, anyone can come into this class and take a seat, however if you hold a ticket for a seat someone is sitting in, you can ask for the seat and get them to move. What usually happens though is that you just squish in beside them. Once evening sets in and the seats are converted to beds, those that don’t have a ticket are to leave, however I have seen many people just sit on the edge of a bottom bunk while someone else sleeps.
There is constant activity on the rails. The train has employees, who wear shirts with the slogan “Meals on Wheels” who go around selling chai tea and coffee and meals. At each stop vendors will come on the train and try and sell playing cards, locks, toys, water, fast food, chips, etc. Two buskers came on the train at one stop and because we were the only white people on the train we were immediately targeted and serenaded to. There might be some shoe-shine people working away at polishing shoes till the train starts to pull away. There are some badly crippled people who travel the rails and in a 24 hour journey might come through about 5 times begging for money. I have noticed that the Indian people, at least those we sat with, were often generous, and gave to just about everyone that came around.
What Sanford and I both enjoy is that you tend to form a kind of bond with the people you are sitting with. Often food is shared and there is some conversation throughout the trip. The main way people pass their time is the same as in North America…. on their cell phones; taking pictures, listening to music, playing games, texting, phoning.
The morning of the 15th, we leave Khanna and head to Jalgaon. We traveled via train in sleeper class, the journey covered 1393 km and took 26 hours. We travelled from the north of India to about the middle of the country on the west side.
We arrived in Jalgaon on the 16th and we are going to use Jalgaon as our base to do some site seeing in the area. We are going to take in two World Heritage Historical Sites, the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora, iconic for displaying the cultural heritage of empires past. We plan to leave our large backpacks in Jalgaon and just use our daypacks. We will take the local bus to travel the 55 km south to the Ajanta caves on the 17th. After taking in the caves we will again board a bus and travel 131 km further south to the town of Aurangabad for the night. The following day it will be back on the bus for the 31 km north to the Ellora Caves and then 154 km to return to Jalgaon on the 18th. Once back in Jalgaon we will leave the following day, on the 19th, to travel to Chennai, 1352 km, by train. To Chennai will be about 24 hours and this will take us further south and onto the east coast. It is from Chennai that we will fly to Sri Lanka in a few weeks time.
Bus travel in India is efficient in that there are lots of buses available and the price is affordable but it is very slow. For each leg of our journey we were on the bus for 1.5 to 4 hours depending on the distance. The buses are all very old, not too comfortable, no air conditioning, and are loud as they “rattle” down the highways. I don’t honestly mind them at all but by the time I had finished the train ride to Jalgaon, the next couple of days with hours on the bus, and to be followed by another full day of train travel, I was pretty wiped.
The Buddhist Ajanta Caves are quite old, from 2nd century BC to 6th century AD. The 30 caves are set in a horseshoe shaped cliff face and typically consist of an excavated chamber with Buddhist statues in the sanctum and paintings around the periphery, walls and columns. Ajanta is noted for its paintings and for their remarkable preservation over 1.5 to 2 millennia. There are few other examples from ancient times matching their artistic excellence and these paintings are considered to be of unfathomable heritage value. We enjoyed going through the caves. Unfortunately in order to preserve the paintings the lighting in the cave made it difficult to actually see all the detail that was there are even harder to get any really decent pictures.
From the Ajunta caves it was a 3.5 hour bus ride to Aurangabad. We had a nice evening there. Although I’m not struggling with the same degree of diarrhea as I started the trip with, my stomach is still quite touchy and I do have to be careful with what I eat. We decided to go for an upscale meal in a hotel. We each had a drink, I had a very mild chicken curry with rice and Sanford had a goat curry with rice, chapatti and raita. It was the first time I felt full in a long time. The bill was $20.
The next day we took in the Ellora caves. This cave site is not a vertical cliff like Ajanta, rather it is a sloping rock face, so some of the “caves” are actually open-cut, and therefore exposed to the sky. Ellora Caves don’t have the paintings of Ajanta; the attractions here are the magnificent sculptures and the sheer scale of some of the excavations. The caves date from about AD600 to AD1000, and are in 3 main groupings; a Buddhist group, a Hindu group, and a Jain group (the latter too far away for us to bother with).
The main temple to see was the Kailasa Temple, a vast open-cut complex of temples, rooms and sculptures. It had been sculpted from the top down, so everything there – and there was a lot – was part of the solid rock. 200,000 tonnes of rock had to be removed to build it. It was truly impressive. Both Sanford and I agreed that the Ellora Caves are arguably even more remarkable than Ajanta. The quantity and detail of sculpture is amazing.
Another 4 hours on a bus took us back to Jalgaon ready to take off the next day on the train for Chennai. We enjoyed our last night in Jalgaon and feasted on a watermelon that we easily devoured. Delicious!
We have upped the class we are travelling in on the train to Chennai. We are going Air-conditioned 3 tier. Because we are going to a hotter climate we decided to treat ourselves to air-conditioning for the 24-hour train ride. With this higher class there are other differences too. The air conditioned cars are more restricted, only those that hold tickets in these cars can enter, so you don’t get people from other parts of the train coming in, in addition you don’t get the beggars and buskers here as well. The seating is more cushioned and bedding is supplied. The only thing about the bedding is I don’t know when it was supplied. I have no idea of how many people had already used my pillow, sheet and blanket before me as I did not see anyone come around with new bedding and my bedding looked used. I also noticed an interesting sign painted above each window “Caution, rat trap available under the seat”. Isn’t that nice?!
The best part of this train ride was there was a large family traveling in the next berth to us that chatted with us throughout. A few hours out from Chennai, the women in the family gave each other a hair treatment that included a head massage and putting oil in their hair (this is commonly done in India and the oil is thought to make their hair shinier, healthier and stronger). They asked if I would like to have this done too and I enjoyed a wonderful massage.
At long last we are in Chennai. Time to rest, or would we?