Delhi QuickTrip: Khajuraho and Orchha

Kandariya Mahadev Temple, Khajuraho, India

For the past three-day weekend, we decided to revisit a site we’d already visited, and to take in a new site on the way back.  One should probably choose one of the two for an ideal weekend trip, and I will provide the logistics for those preferred itineraries.

Sexually explicit carvings Lakshmana Hindu Temple, Khajuraho, India

Khajuraho is a peaceful small town in Madhya Pradesh famous for the amazing sculpture, much of it erotic and some of it downright “pornographic”, on its 10th/11th century Hindu and Jain temples.  Khajuraho is certainly worthy of a revisit, but what really drove it as a destination for us this past weekend was the relatively last minute availability of overnight train tickets–on the UP Sampark Kranti which departs Delhi’s Nizamuddin Station at 8:15 PM and arrives in Khajuraho at 6:35 AM.  The rail connection to Khajuraho is fairly new–when we first visited in 2003, Khajuraho was, for those who didn’t want to fly, a painful multihour jeep/bus journey from the nearest railheads–and the rail connection seems to have caused fairly positive developments in Kharuraho’s tourist infrastructure, including a better selection of hotels and restaurants and a pedestrianized area in the core of the town near the greatest set of ruins.  We stayed at the Hotel Surya, which cost less than 600 rupees for a non-AC room booked online.  (I should note that while there are some upscale hotels in town, none of them are walking distance from the ruins.)

One could easily spend two nights or more in Khajuraho.  The town is peaceful, the selection of food and lodging pretty good, and, even if the ruins themselves would occupy only a day of sightseeing, there are likely pleasant walks and bicycle rides that could be had, strengths that come from it’s being pleasantly quasi-rural for a major Indian tourist site.  But because my time was limited, we didn’t want to take an overnight train back to Delhi and Khajuraho still has no nonstop flights to Delhi (flights to Khajuraho go on a triangular Delhi to Khajuraho to Varanasi to Delhi routing), we stayed only one night in Khajuraho and took a rather painfully slow daytime passenger train to Orchha, which left Khajuraho at 12:30 PM and arrived after sunset.  To return directly from Khajuraho to Delhi, you could take the UP Sampark Kranti back, which departs Khajuraho at 6:20 PM and arrives at Nizamuddin at 5:30 AM, if you are okay with an overnight return trip, or take the Khajuraho – Udaipur InterCity, which departs Khajuraho at 9:10 AM, and then transfer to a Delhi train (such as the Shatabdi, see below) at Jhansi, Gwalior or Agra (probably the first, in order to have the safest connection).

Riders on a train in Madhya Pradesh, India

From Orchha station, which is right before Jhansi Junction, we caught an auto rickshaw to Orchha town, about a 20 minute journey for which you will certainly be overcharged.  By the time we checked into our hotel (unremarkable but cheap Fort View Guest House), it was dark.  Were we to do it again, or arrive at Orchha earlier, we would certainly try to book the Maharaja Suite at the Hotel Sheesh Mahal, which is the state-run establishment that is the only lodging in the fort itself.  Being a state-run hotel the Sheesh Mahal is not fancy, but the Maharaja Suite is fairly impressive, and for a relatively low price of around $100 allows you the experience of staying in a unique and private part of the old palace.  The Maharani Suite, next to the dining room, is nowhere near as impressive–we imagine the substantially cheaper regular rooms may be more appealing.  The Sheesh Mahal is also, by our limited experience, probably the best place to eat in town.  We visited some of the more upscale hotels located just away from the town center but were not really drawn to any of them (despite really wanting to be).  With one’s own transport the Bundelkhand Riverside may be okay, and we didn’t visit the fanciest hotel in town (the Amar Mahal), though its location didn’t inspire us.

Orchha may be one of the most impressive sites in India that are not commonly visited.  Though seemingly well frequented by tour groups (including especially Korean tour groups), which may find it an easy stop from Khajuraho, there are not very many tourists considering the tremendousness of the fort.  The Jahangir Mahal, in particular, is extremely explorable, and in most ways just as impressive as any of the palaces in Rajasthan.  Chaturbhuj Temple, which is in Orchha town, is also unique–a vast cathederal-like Hindu temple with an impressively high roof with a good view.  Like Khajuraho, Orchha is also pleasantly rural (and less tourist-oriented to boot), and would be a good base for walks and bicycle rides (we are also intrigued by the “mud-hut home stays” listed in the Lonely Planet).  Of the places we’ve visited “near” Delhi so far, Orchha is the one that we could most easily imagine visiting repeatedly.

Jahngir Mahal, inside Orchha Fort, Orchha, India

Chaturbhuj Temple, Orchha, India

To return to Delhi from Orchha, we took an auto rickshaw to Jhansi Junction and then the comfortable Shatabdi to New Delhi Railway Station, which leaves Jhansi at 5:59 PM and arrives in Delhi at 10:45 PM (though odds seem to be that it will run late).  The excellent timing of the Shatabdi return trip makes a simple weekend trip to Orchha easy.  Any number of overnight trains departs Delhi for Jhansi, including the Dakshin Link SF Express, which departs Nizamuddin at 11:00 PM and arrives in Jhansi at 5:20 AM, giving you a full 1.5 days in Orchha for a two-day weekend.  If you want to arrive Friday night, a few different trains leave Delhi in the afternoon and make it to Jhansi Junction about five to six hours later, though unless you leave a bit earlier in the afternoon that would mean an Orchha arrival after midnight.

Jahangir Palace, inside Orchha Fort, Orchha, India

Tibet to Kathmandu to the Caucasus to Eastern Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan

After our time in Tibet, we crossed the border into Nepal, spent a few days in Kathmandu and then flew out to Azerbaijan via Dubai.  Then we went overland from Baku to Georgia, with a brief detour to Yerevan and back.  From Georgia we crossed over into Eastern Turkey, where we spent quite a bit of time looking at old Armenian, Georgian, Kurdish and other sites.  Places we visited included Trabzon, Erzurum, Kars, Van, Diyarbakir, Sanliurfa, Mardin, Midyat.  We were joined in Diyarbakir by a friend, with whom we traveled into Iraqi Kurdistan, all the way to Erbil.  After a few days in Istanbul we flew back to the Washington, D.C., where I started a new job.

I wrote posts covering some of this itinerary, but sadly never finished them.  At some point I may put up first draft type posts from this section of our trip…

If It’s in Lonely Planet…

A guidebook whose greatest weakness is that it is overused (though of course there are other significant weaknesses as well), one is sometimes amazed by how authoritative Lonely Planet become. Traveling around the world one often sees hotels, restaurants and stores marketing themselves as having been “recommended by Lonely Planet.” A Lonely Planet listing can corrupt a previously fine business (with rising rates and lower standards) or create a legend out of a roadside stall (e.g., a tiny omelette shop in Jodhpur). Travelers (including ourselves) check its listings to verify the “right” price for an item if in doubt, and rest assured in the face of a corrupt autorickshaw driver that we have paid enough (never mind inflation, rise in price of fuel, etc.). In this post, I want to share two unrelated stories of how “if it’s in Lonely Planet, it must be so.”

The first story is from Jodhpur, India, 2003. We were on our first trip to India, and advised by a fellow American traveler to stay at the Haveli Guest House when in Jodhpur. The room was quaint and the price fair and so we followed his advice. We were in something of a rush that morning, but the hotel attendant seemed keen to show us the rooftop restaurant and give us a map of the town, and so after refusing several times we let him follow through. On the map, he showed us the location of “the government store, Maharaja Arts [not if that was the name],” and let us know that Jodhpur was a great place to shop for souvenirs. Later that day, while sightseeing, we saw that we were near the store, and so decided to stop by.

A bit of background on Indian government stores. In India, most states have a chain of government-owned stores selling local crafts. In Kerala it is called Kairali, in Tamil Nadu Pompuhar. Because it is owned by the government, you have some assurance of quality and authenticity, and the prices are fixed and so there is no need to bargain. You may not get the best price possible for a particular item, but you know that you’re not going to get seriously ripped off, either. All in all, they’re not bad places to shop.

Already well into our Rajasthan travels, I knew that the government stores in Rajasthan went by the name of Rajasthali. But I figured that it was possible for there to be another brand of government store in Jodhpur–and also the Lonely Planet confirmed that Maharaja Arts in Jodhpur was a government store selling at fixed prices.

Walking into the store, which was pretty big and had a decent selection of merchandise, I knew instantly that it was not a government store. Government stores, because they are run by the government, have a certain feel to them. They’re a bit musty, often seem poorly maintained and managed and are overly departmentalized. This store had the feel of a private enterprise and, more tellingly, their sign and receipt book (which I demanded to see) stated clearly that it was a “government authorized” store, which I believe means little more than that they have a business license, although it is supposed to signify reliability.

We asked the lady behind the counter specifically whether this was a government owned store, and she insisted that it in fact was. An outright lie. Derek and I were in a bit of a bad mood that day, and picked a fight with the shopkeepers in the upstairs showroom, asking why they were lying to us and everybody else. [Of course, the answer is clear–by doing so they could charge inflated prices and have customers trustingly not bargain.] After they confessed that they were indeed lying, one explanation: “It is not the fault of your hotel or of the boy on the street that brings people here. It is the fault of the Lonely Planet for listing us as a government store!” (The logic is baffling.) They grew belligerent and told us to leave. The store was crowded with tourists, who at that time seemed like innocent victims to us, “on our side,” and so we made a scene, making clear to all present that the shop was a fraud. The store owner got even angrier, resulting in a slight physical altercation and our departure. [Nothing like a little adrenalin to get a bad mood out of your system.]

Later that day, we ran into other tourists who had visited the store, believing it to be a government store. A couple of them were with the popular Intrepid tour company, showing that even western tour operators (or their local partners) can be trusted in India not to give you false information for commission profit. That night, we chatted with a friend we had made earlier in our trip, a quiet Frenchman who was on our Jaisalmer camel safari. He explained to us that he’d gone shopping and purchased some things that he really liked. Unfortunately, he had followed the hotel’s advice and gone to the “government store.” We explained to him the con, and after some discussion he decided that he was fine with the purchase, even though he probably had overpaid substantially. After dinner, we parted, he to take an early train the next day.

Early the next morning, we awoke to hear the sound of an argument in the hotel lobby–our room was upstairs but the place was small enough that voices carry. The voice was clearly that of our French friend. We went down to see what was the matter. He was explaining to our hotelkeepers that he was upset about their tricking him about the store. We joined the argument and demanded that the hotel give him a refund on the items that he purchased. Since the store wasn’t open, we told the hotel to pay us, and work out the matter with the store directly later. They explained to us their commission scheme and finally agreed to give us a refund (after a great deal of argument).

The second story is from a few days ago, at our Trichy hotel. Not having had access to the internet in a while, I thought that it would be a good idea to check some of my bank/credit card accounts to make sure that everything was in order. Taking advantage of the fact that our room had a phone, I dialed AT&T to make some collect calls. (As you should know, almost all banks and credit cards accept collect calls from a customer, from anywhere.) I made a few different collect calls to check various accounts, and went to sleep.

Upon checking out, I was shocked to discover a hotel phone bill about three times the cost of the room (though still only $50 or so). This was clearly an error–they had billed the operator-assisted collect calls as if I had made direct international calls (although actually the rate was well in excess of normal international direct dial rates, probably because of hotel surcharges). We tried to explain exactly what we did, and why we shouldn’t have to pay the full amount. What finally got them to see that we must be right? The Lonely Planet. We took out our Lonely Planet South India book and showed them the section on using the AT&T operator to make collect and calling card calls, which specifically mentions that the charge in India should be that of a local call. When the lady at the front desk started to complain about using the book as reference material, her manager quickly quieted her and assured her that the Lonely Planet was in fact not just any book. The hotel still checked this repeatedly with the phone company, etc., over the next hour (uncharacteristically we waited patiently while they confirmed because we didn’t want the desk clerk to somehow have to eat the cost from her check). They read verbatim from the Lonely Planet to the people with whom they were confirming the charges.

Maybe we should have bootleg Lonely Planets published somewhere, and whatever we write will be believed to be true. Free night’s stay for bald travelers? Half-price Pringles for anyone wearing glasses?

Scams

Dangers and Annoyances. So reads the heading of the Lonely Planet section that describes troubles you may face in your destination. Of course, in most of Asia, the risk of physical violence is small, but there are still risks, and perhaps no more so than in India. As any tourist to India can tell you, the risk of petty theft and cons is extremely high, leading one to be in a relatively high state of alert. The railways have signs warning you not to take food from strangers due to the risk of drugging (to put you to sleep while you are robbed), you constantly hear stories of other tourists having their bags stolen, and touts and would-be-touts harass you, hoping to make this or that commission off of your hotel or souvenir transaction. Lonely Planet even reported of a scheme in Agra that made you seriously ill in hopes of getting a commission from the local clinic.

South India (so far) has felt super safe, and has been nearly harassment free. Nowhere is perfectly safe, though, and this topic came to me because we experienced the other day a potential con artist. Actually, I think he probably wasn’t (Derek thinks he was), and I feel somewhat guilty for suspecting him, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes, even if that means to lack faith in your neighbor (at least when you’re carrying everything you hope you will need for the next year in one bag).

On our way from Chettinad, where we were looking at old mansions, to Trichy, a transit hub of Tamil Nadu state, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man came up to say hello to us at a medium-sized town bus station. Now, this is pretty common in South India–people are extraordinarily friendly and eager to make contact, however small, with foreign tourists. I imagine we’re still a novelty for many of them, since there are so many of them and relatively few of us, and it helps pass the time. We’re generally only too happy to return the greetings, even if answering the same two questions (name and country) fifty times a day gets tiring. This man spoke considerably better English than average, though, and asked a few other questions, also typical ones, and sort of lingered about while Derek took photos of vendors at the bus station. We found this a bit peculiar (if you have something to say to us, or want to talk more to us, go ahead, but don’t just hang around us), but let it go. We decided to go for lunch before we caught our next bus, and headed to a restaurant across the street. A few minutes later, the man entered the restaurant (one of many), and again made meaningless chatter with us (not even friendly, conversational, just meaningless) and generally hung about while we were looking for an empty table. He followed Derek to the handwash station (all Indian restaurants have handwash stations since Indians do not use utensils) and provided useless helpful information such as where the soap is and how to turn on the already running water. My alarm bells rang when we went to sit down and were looking for a place for our big backpacks. He suggested that we put them near a staircase across the busy room.

[Flashback] In our first few days in India in 2003, we took a train from Delhi toward Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, our first Indian train ride. At the New Delhi Railway Station, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man with pretty good English came by to ask us if we were okay and to be generally helpful. A little too helpful, we thought, for a stranger, but didn’t think anything of it. A bit later, after we were settled, we saw him helping another couple of tourists out. Again, we didn’t think too much of it. We talked to those tourists later to find out that the man, pretending to be helpful, had suggested they move carriages. He involved himself in the process of their moving their bags, and with an accomplice took off with their small backpack (with the more valuable items). The couple had been in India every year for the past ten years or so, in part for business, and it was their first real loss, and a hit to them both materially and to their pride. Because it happened so early in our India trip, and because we were almost the victims, it taught us a valuable lesson: Be wary of the out of place, overly helpful stranger. [I know, standing alone the lesson sounds a little sad.] [End of flashback]

Now, we try never to part with our bags, and to keep them in plain sight. Here, a strange man was suggesting that we put our bags halfway across the room, where crowds would block our line of sight periodically. This man spoke pretty good English but didn’t have anything really to say to us and followed us around, even waiting until a seat at our table opened up. We met him at a bus station (obviously a haven for crooks). Although this city was an unlikely location for such a thief (and so I am inclined to think he was not one), it fit too closely the Delhi pattern, and we kept our bags close by. We finished lunch while we kept an extremely tight awareness of our belongings. Again, sad, I know, this distrust–but sometimes better safe than sorry.

Other scams we’ve faced:

– In New York, up by Columbia where we used to live, there were two people particularly famous for their scams. One would hang out near the ATM, saying that he needed cabfare to go to an AIDS clinic. Innocent liberal college students, particularly drawn by the HIV/AIDS angle, would give him money. Another man acted mentally disturbed and generally deranged, contorting his body, making strange noises and saying that he was hungry (even on dollar Whopper Tuesdays). Of course, other times, he would walk down the street, as healthy and normal as anyone else in New York. One day, when he was putting on his performance, a young student pointed at him and screamed, “He’s a perpetrator–it’s a scam! He’s perfectly fine–I saw him the other day! Perpetrator!” following him down the street, a scene we’ll never forget.

– In Thailand last year, outside a small museum, we ran into a French woman who was acting slightly hysterical. She had a very long story about how her husband had been injured during a robbery and was being held by corrupt policemen in Pattaya and she needed money to give as a bribe to free him, and to get back to Pattaya. We were quite sure that it was a scam, but gave her the benefit of the doubt, asking for any documentation she could provide to confirm her identity–of course she had none. Scams by foreigners are not uncommon in Thailand, which draws a lot of long-term western visitors. Of course, not as common as the “attraction xx is closed, let me take you to attraction yy [and tailors/jewelers/etc.]–only 10 baht” tuk-tuk drivers.

– One of my favorites: In Shenzhen near the Luohu border with Hong Kong, women with little babies sit out on the roads eating rice out of garbage cans. The first time we saw this, we were heartbroken and gave the lady RMB 20 (around $2.50). The second time on the same day we saw this (with another woman, though nearby), we realized that the rice was sitting on a very clean newspaper, at the top of the garbage can, clearly placed by the woman herself. It gave us a good laugh, as we felt that the genuine emotion of heartache that the first display drew within us was well worth RMB 20. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us earlier that if a person truly needed to take food from the garbage, she’d likely do that, take it from the garbage, rather than sitting on the sidewalk eating directly from the tipped can. A Chinese friend told us that in China they rent babies so that people can go around begging with them!

– Delhi 2003, we were the victim of a classic scam… but this is a long story, and so perhaps I will blog separately later.