It's just past 12:30am and I am on the strangest train journey of my life. As I write this, I am perched precariously at the end of a single-width, thin, vinyl mattress which is hanging from the ceiling of an exceedingly noisy, constantly swaying train car. The mattress is the top level of a triple bunk bed set-up and, although its designed for one person, it's currently holding three. In all likelihood, I'll be balanced up here in my cramped erie for another six or seven hours. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Indian railway system.
In the last post, I mentioned that we had bought tickets to the city of Aurangabad for a scenic weekend getaway. Eagle-eyed readers may also remember that despite the cavalcade of hoops we we required to jump through to buy the tickets, we only managed to get six of the ten tickets we needed for the return journey. As I've mentioned before, the national motto of India is "there's always room one more!", so naturally the advice from the woman at the train station was to just pay for ten tickets and just cram into the six remaining beds. We listened, of course. Anyway, I'll get to all this later. I have all the time in the world...
Aurangabad came highly recommended to us from a number of people. The city itself is a fairly minor one, seven hours East of Mumbai by train. The main attractions in Aurangabad are the two ancient cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora and the Daulatabad Fort, which the locals just call 'Fort'.
We arrived at CST Station (the main central station in Mumbai) at 5am Saturday morning for our 6am train because we had been warned that even having a ticket was no guarantee of getting a seat and that we would be better off just getting there early. Anyone who knows me will appreciate the significance of me being anywhere at 5am. The first surprise was the insane number of homeless people who sleep and live at the station. Row after row after row of thin, underfed men, women, and children were sleeping on the cold tiles, usually with nothing more than a ragged towel to use as a mattress if they were lucky. On the platform near where our train was waiting, a mother and the smallest, skinniest baby I've ever seen were sleeping on a sheet on the hard ground. In the child's case, the sheet also doubled as a diaper.
The train was exactly as packed as you might imagine it to be. Although the ten of us managed to claim our seats, the carriage soon filled up to the point of bursting. There were men and women standing in every spare centimeter of aisle, there were women and children sitting on the floor between our legs and there were children riding in both the overhead luggage shelf and on our laps. Although there was no one riding on the outside of the train (that we saw), there were people hanging out the open train doors and one of the locals we spoke to on the train said it was just a normal day and thankfully it wasn't too busy.
All that being said, the trip was long but not unbearable and we survived the trip. I mention we survived the trip because, on average, nine people die on the train network in this state alone every day. Additionally, the 4:30am start had left no time for breakfast, which meant that buying a dodgy samosa from the man walking up and down the train yelling "SAMOSEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!" at the top of his voice was non-negotiable. Some might call this living dangerously, given the state of the train toilets, but everything was cool. We arrived in Aurangabad and found a hotel room without much difficulty. Most of the hotels were full and one had only one room left so we decided to really double-down on the whole 'when in India' thing and decided to sleep all ten of us in one room together.
It was good to see a bit of Aurangabad. Since its not a large city like Mumbai, it felt a lot more like the real India. The air was clear and fresh and for the first time, we actually saw blue skies. Although it was hotter than Mumbai, it was also a dry heat and not humid. It was really a world away from Mumbai.
Since it was already mid-afternoon, we luncheoned in a small restaurant attached to the hotel for a set of all-round average meals. The high/low point was the difficulty in reaching a consensus on what constituted a cheese sandwich. After the third attempt resulted in a plate with a few slices of bread and half a block of cheese grated on top of it, we decided to cut our loses. The caves were all some distance away and closed early so we decided to hire tuk-tuks to take us to check out Daulatabad Fort.
Not everyone enjoyed haggling over the price
As of right now, I still am not entirely clear on who exactly built the fort, when or why as virtually no information was given (even in the information book which we actually paid money for). I believe it was primarily the work of the Mughals, but I can't be sure. Whoever built it, they did a good job. It was a rather impressive set of ruins, complete with shrines, temples, defenses, waterworks, towers and subterranean tunnels. Although the ruins continued to the top of the mountain, access to the public was only allowed to a certain point. Madison and I attempted to explore to the bottom of the tunnels but the smell of the guano (bat poo) literally made our eyes water and breathing virtually impossible. I'll just let the pictures do the talking, since I don't really know too much more about the Daulatabad Fort.
That night we decided to check out the fine dining restaurant attached to the relatively fancy hotel across the street from out hotel room (singular). I don't recall the last time I laughed as hard as I think I did that whole meal. I'm fairly sure the waiters all thought we were drunk but I think it was just a heady mixture of exhaustion and spicy food. That night, however, was a less than comfortable affair. Squeezing ten people into a hotel room with a tile floor ended up being as comfortable as you would expect, despite the three incredibly thin additional mattresses the hotel provided, as well as three supplementary blankets and two additional pillows.
Fortunately, the generally poor sleep made our 6am start a little more tolerable. The Ajanta and Ellora caves are two hours and half-an-hour outside of Aurangabad respectively. We hired a nine-seater taxi to drive the ten of us to the caves and back, because personal boundaries have clearly become a thing of the past. Again, information on the ground was pretty scarce about the actual caves themselves so I might just include a bunch of pictures.
The Ajanta caves were carved into an enormous horse-shoe valley between the 1st and 4th centuries. There are more than thirty man-made caves carved into the cliff face, all of them ornately decorated, most of which seemed to serve as shrines and temples to both Buddha and the Hindu Gods.
Ellora caves were larger but fewer. There were a few large temples carved into the rock but the main attraction was the enormous temple complex which was carved out of one enormous slab of rock. Again, no info, just photos. I'm writing this on the train so I can't even research these places and pretend I actually knew anything about them. It reminded me of Angkor Wat.
Which brings me to how I ended up cramped on a top bunk, sore and bent everywhere, at what is now 5am. As I mentioned, the Indian rail network is somewhat infamous. One of these reasons for infamy is a general lack of safety for any vulnerable persons, which can include white people and females. Given that all of our group falls into at least one of those categories, and the fact we are clearly in possession of valuable money and goods which we can't watch effectively whilst asleep, there was a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion in the minds of some members of our party. Unfortunately, this feeling of mistrust began to manifest itself into condescending, confrontational and downright offensive interrogations of all the other passengers and accusations of sexual deviancy in regards to specific passengers which were pointed out. All of these passengers speak English and could hear what was being said. We're all tired, overwhelmed and these fears aren't totally groundless so I can understand the issues, however, we began to cause quite a commotion in the cabin which was already full of +100 sleeping people. To try and head things off at the pass, I felt it would be best to set everyone's minds at ease if someone were to keep watch while the others slept.
Anyway, it's 10am now, I've been awake for about 28 hours. I'm home (strange how Mumbai is already home), showered and in bed. We took a holiday from our holiday in Mumbai, but I think we all need a holiday from that now.
Vegemite parathra - Indian Australian fusion