From Varanasi, we headed to the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh with two goals in mind: to see a tiger in the wild, and to see some erotically-carved ancient temples. Both of these goals ended up presenting their own special challenges. First, to the tiger park!
According to our guidebook, Bandhavgarh National Park is the best place in India to spot a tiger, one of the world's most endangered big cats. And based on the map, it looked like it wasn't too far off our proposed route through the north of the country. In reality, getting there required a 12-hour train ride in an overcrowded, roach-infested Sleeper car to the town of Umaria, where we then had to hire a car to drive us the 30 kilometers to the park village, Tala, since it was past midnight by then and the buses had stopped running.
We traded up to an unheated, mildly ant-infested room at Tala's cheap hotel, where we squeezed in four hours of sleep before our sunrise tiger safari was to begin. It was dark and really, really cold in the back of the open safari jeep as we bounced off to the park gate, which brought back happy memories of many such mornings in Africa.
During the four hours of our safari, we saw many nice things. Like the lovely park landscape.
And some green parakeets.
And sambar deer, the largest deer in India. A good feast for a tiger.
And spotted deer, which have spots, and are more light-meal-sized for a tiger. Not sure what the tiger would do with the huge, velvety antlers that this nice male had.
Is that a tiger? Nope, just a langur monkey. Langurs and rhesus monkeys were pretty common throughout the park. Also known as tiger snacks.
All this tasty tiger food...but alas, no tiger. As it turns out, none of the morning safari vehicles saw one. As we rolled back out of the park gates, we had to decide whether to pony up more money for an afternoon safari and give tiger-spotting another shot. Well, it's not like we had anything else to do that day.
So, back in the jeep for the afternoon. More nice landscape, more deer and monkeys and birds spotted. We had pretty much given up all hope when we came across a line of about 10 jeeps all parked by the side of the road to observe...
...a tiger! Lolling in the bush, taking a nap. It actually twitched its ears a couple of times and even lifted its head up once, but I guess all the tourists weren't interesting enough to come check out, because it just kept going back to sleep. Sadly, this was the best picture we could get.
So, the whole tiger-seeking experience was a little underwhelming in the end. But at least we saw one, and now have photographic evidence that wild tigers are not yet completely extinct in India.
On our way out of the park, we passed a group of wild peacocks. As I'm sure you have, we've seen peacocks on various fancy lawns around the world, but it was cool to see some in the wild in the part of the world that they actually come from.
So, that was it for Bandhavgarh National Park. Tempting as it was, we passed up the chance to spend another night in Tala and caught the bus back to the train station in Umaria, hoping to get on a train out of there. It turned out that our choices were a 1AM train or a 4AM train, neither of which had any reserved berths or seats still available, meaning we'd have to travel in the free-for-all that is General Class. Feeling fairly certain that we would not get a seat, much less any z's, on either of those, we chose the 4AM train and checked into another cheap hotel for another highly abbreviated night of sleep.
I don't think I need to say too much about the ensuing train ride except that there were people sleeping on the luggage racks.
After about 10 hours of travel on that train and two local buses, we finally rolled into our next destination, Khajuraho, home of a celebrated cluster of Hindu temples famous for their erotic carvings.
Kids, cover your eyes: Khajuraho
The carvings did not disappoint.
But, they aren't all erotic. For instance, there's this elaborately carved boar outside of the main temple. Who doesn't like a huge boar covered with reliefs of little people?
The temples themselves were built and carved around 1000 A.D., making them quite old and amazingly well-preserved. This is apparently due to their somewhat remote location (still the case from a public-transport perspective!), so the rampaging armies of the last millennium weren't able to find them to destroy them.
Even without all the carvings, the temples would be really impressive just from an architectural standpoint--check this one out from afar. These days, they are set in peaceful, manicured green grounds dotted with trees and azalea bushes, making for a very pleasant visiting experience.
While the place wasn't completely overrun with tourists, it still had some visiting groups, like this co-ed army regiment which really wanted to pose for pictures with me. But they wouldn't let me stick a feather in my cap and call it macaroni.
So, the temples around the complex are all covered with rows of wonderfully posed, very humanistic carvings of people, animals, nymphs, gods, etc., etc. Not all of the carvings are overtly erotic, but a lot of the best ones are.
Cover your eyes, fair lady! Also, note the enormous boobs, which are a common feature on all the female depictions.
OK, enough with the dirty pictures. Here is a big elephant who was guarding the corner of one of the temples.
And a huge sacred cow. Big enough to ride!
The temples were terrific, and Khajuraho seemed like a decent, if touristy, small town. Unfortunately, we only spent about three hours there, total, since there are only trains to Agra three times a week and if we didn't get on the one leaving at 6PM that night, we'd be stuck!
The reserved berths on the very short train were, surprise surprise, already booked out, so once again we found ourselves with General Class tickets. We ended up freeloading in Sleeper, lying in someone else's bunk until they got on the train a few stations later...then sitting four people to a bunk with some other freeloaders til we all got kicked out of that one...then, finally, sleeping on the floor. Luckily, this is a fairly new service and the train was pretty much as clean as could be. Some kind fellow travelers covered us with a warm blanket, and woke us up when the train pulled into Agra at the appetizing hour of 2AM. Another great night's sleep accomplished! Um, not.
Taj Mahal: Not a bad tomb
It took us longer to get into downtown Agra and find a decent hotel room than we'd hoped--I'll spare you the details. I'll just say that I was really happy when we finally crawled into a real bed around 5AM. Time to sleep! Except that the light on the Taj Mahal is supposed to be the best at sunrise, so we were up again by 6:30. Arrrrrgh.
Right, so, the only reason you would ever want to go to Agra is to see the Taj Mahal. It really is a beautiful monument and is worth the expensive ticket price and all the hassle and dirt of Agra. However, at least in wintertime, I'd say that the light on it isn't really that good until around 9AM, thanks to all the fog/smog. Yup, you heard it here first: if you're visiting in winter, no need to kill yourself to wake up at the crack of dawn (unless, of course, you want to beat the crowds, but we still found it fairly crowded as early as 7).
Blah blah blah. Here it is, the Taj Mahal!
No, that is not a fake backdrop, we really are standing in front of the Taj! It's just the stupid smog that makes it look all fake.
It's lovely to contemplate the Taj from afar, but it's probably even better close up, thanks to all the beautiful marble inlay. Built all out of white marble by Shah Jahan in the 1600s, the Taj is a monumental tomb for his favorite wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child.
You aren't supposed to take pictures inside the main tomb area, but Andy snuck one anyway. The lattice carving, bordered by inlaid marble, makes an impressive screen around the central section.
This picture was taken later, maybe around 8:30 AM. As you can see, the light's a little better by then, though it's still not great.
Agra's other main attraction is the Agra Fort, another Shah Jahan creation. Like the Red Fort in Delhi, it's more of a complex of palaces once you get inside the red sandstone walls.
Note the lovely carved and inlaid white marble, which is basically Shah Jahan's signature.
The Agra Fort was filled with one of my favorite flowers, coxcombs! Or, as I like to call them, fuzzy brain-flowers. Such fun to pet!
At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort by his usurping son. I felt very sad about this until I saw his prison area, which may be the most beautiful carved marble in the world. Spacious and airy, too, and with great views of the Taj Mahal downriver. I can think of worse prisons, to be honest.
The fort grounds are filled with playful monkeys. This baby was snuggling with its mama in a quiet corner.
One more shot from the fort. Nice lawns for monkeys and humans to play on.
After visiting the fort, we raced to the train station to actually reserve some seats to our next destination, Jaipur. I'll wrap things up here by saying that it was fun to travel in Madhya Pradesh (where the tiger park and Khajuraho are found), though it might be easier if you had your own transportation. Agra is not such an exciting city, but the Taj Mahal can't be missed, and the Fort is pretty nice as well.