The unmistakable stench of a combination of human excrement and decaying rubbush hit me as soon as I alighted the train. It was only a three hour train ride. My first, in Sleeper class was just fine but not quite as well equipped as AC class. Khandwa was on the map but not mentioned in the guide book. How hard could it be to get to Mandu?
Khandwa was not in the guide book for a reason – it consisted of a train station, a few bedraggled stalls selling random stuff and a bus station filled with philosophical cows sitting in their own pats. No-one had a word of English (not that they should, of course) but I did get the message that there were no direct buses to Mandu. One shop seller told me I had to go to Dhar and catch one from there. That would leave at 1.30. It was 9.30am. I took a seat, bought some somosas and bhajis and started to read. Or try to read.
People often approach you in India, sometimes out of genuine curiosity, others to sell something or scam you. One man who, wearing a finely stitched silken beige outfit, much better dressed than anyone else in town, took a particular shine to me. He kept urging me to go to Indore instead as that was where all the connections were (I gathered through hand signals and gestures). I asked around and the opinions were about 50/50. Footprint had said that Indore was the place where to get connections to Mandu in the first place. Eventually preferring to be on a moving bus than sitting in Khandwa, like an alien, I succumbed to the dedicated follower of Hindustani fashion's gestures and hopped on.
Much to my surprise a whitey sat beside me on the bus. Giles, a teacher from Plymouth. Small world coincidence, he knows Calstock. He was the first tourist I had seen in days and the first I had actually spoken to since arriving in India. We were both glad of the company - the bus ride was long, bumpy, uncomfortable but made bearable by the conversation and ridiculously cheap cost for a 5 hour ride. Giles was making for Mandu too and had had the misfortune to get stranded in Khandwa the previous night. He was even happier to be leaving the place than I was. Giles needed to cash some travellers cheques so we agreed to meet at Indore's Gangwal bus stand to make the trip together. It was 5 o clock in the evening and we needed to make tracks if we would get there by nightfall. Indore, the centre of India's automotive industry is an aggressive city choked with traffic jams and beeping. Everyone beeps all the time. Everyone tries to scam you for extra cash as your are white. Open sewers abound. Cows sit in the middle of dual carriage ways (although I liked this aspect). I did not want to stay here any longer than necessary and certainly not a night.
As I only to visit an ATM I was there before Giles. Just as I pulled in, a group shouting “Mandu Mandu!!” descended on me, urging me to get on a jam packed standing room only bus. On the last bus lots of punters stood the whole way. I declined. Anyway I had said I would wait for Giles and what kind of person would I be if I pulled up the ladder like that. When Giles turned up we swapped stories. We had missed what was the last bus to Mandu. Giles had not been able to cash his cheques despite having spoken to the manager of the bank by phone earlier. We had not done very well. There was a bus to Dhar though so we took that in the hope of getting a connection to Mandu. It was on this second ride that the rain, which had been patchy all day, started to take itself seriously. The going was bumpy, slow and packed once again - my rucksack was too big to fit anywhere. I jealously eyed Giles' tiny backpack and remembered that he had six weeks and I had a year so it was ok. All the while we passed by saffron wearing men making pilgrimage, some in bare foot. We had been in buses for hours – I shudder to think how long it takes them.
Dhar bus stand is incomprehensible. There are tons of buses randomly sitting around surrounded by goats and banana wallahs. Destinations, times. A ticket office? Ha! Platform is not part of the vocabulary. Someone pointed the right bus for Mandu and we got on, my rucksack on my knees. It was an empty twenty seater bus that within 10 minutes had at least 40 people crammed on. We were lucky – we had seats. The cold rain dripped freely on top of me from a leak in the ceiling. It was pitch black now and no reservations had been made. One hotel, the Roopmati sounded decent enough. I saw the sign loom in and out of view and then another for a different hotel. I hurriedly stopped the bus and we stepped out into the full force of the monsoon. The wind whipped the rain into our faces, blinding us as we ran for the shelter of the first hotel. No rooms. Another wet sprint to the Roopmati.
They had no rooms either, but did for the next day. We booked it and asked for help finding a place. Footprint mentioned another place, Maharaja, but the phone was disconnected - not a great sign but it was our last chance.
We took a taxi and arrived at the most run down sorry excuse for a hostel I have ever come across. It was run by children, the oldest of whom was a filthy but smart 15 year old trying hard to grow his first moustache. They had one room left. It was seriously dirty, stained and had one double bed which came equipped with bedsheets printed with Indian martians.
Not ideal to have to share a bed with a relative stranger the same day you meet them but such is travelling. After 15 damp bumpy hours on the road I would have bunked with satan.
It wasn't raining in the room. We had bought a few beers and had the tunes so it wasn't all bad. The boy-manager walked in to the room (no knocking here!) and pretty much told us to go with him to eat. It was a short walk through the weather to follow him for food. It wasn't really raining any more, more that we were in the centre of the cloud where everything is damp, even the air as you breathe it. So much for keeping my ears dry.
The restaurant, if it can be called such was a barn with one lightbulb, a table caked with old food and god knows what and a few plastic chairs. Dinner consisted of limp chapatis and cold dhal. We had waited for 10 minutes for one of the younger ones to heat it up but the meaning of the word heat was lost on him. It was actually ok, but I wouldn't order it again...
(thats the mist in the restaurant!)
It was Giles' turn to look on jealously as I wrapped myself in my silk liner while he had to make contact with the bed sheet aliens and whatever secret baddies that inhabited them.
Neither Giles or I had any qualms about skipping breakfast with the boys the following morning. It was a bit brighter and the rain held off as we walked into the town past the mosque and battlements the town is famous for.
I was hungry but Giles had been dealing with a touch of Delhi belly so he watched on as I had rice, naan and veg curry – my new staple diet. Then a quick taxi ride back to the Roopmati to check in. It was a delight compared to the last place. There was a shower which even had hot water. There were two beds and a balcony with a view over the valley (when the cloud allowed a view). It was clean!
Much more relaxed with things, and with the weather seeming to behave, we left the hotel and rented some bikes. We made for the palace of Baz Bahadur, a few km to the south of the township.
Cycling in India is an experience. You have to be simultaneously polite, determined, inconsiderate and rude if you want to get anywhere without causing offence. The going got a lot tougher when the rain started.
This happened to coincide with our getting to the traffic jam. Buses, trucks, cars, jeeps, motorbike, bikes, cows goats and people, all trying to go in opposite direction through the mud track which was probably built to handle nothing more than a cart. The bike became pointless as walking through was the only way.
After almost an hour of struggling through the jam we almost gave up but eventually came across the source: an abandoned bright orange truck on the middle of the road at the crest of the hill. Nothing bigger than a bike could make it past it. I felt sorry for the poor local sightseers who had driven maybe three hours to get here, spent an hour at whatever the attraction is and then spend hours looking at a cow's arse..
After that we were able to freewheel down to the entrance to the fort. We made first for Roopmati's pavillion, the home of a musician prince way back when. After making our way to the top of the fort, past the hawkers selling pakora and cucumbers, a fabulous view over the plain below was opened up and the clouds parted for a few minutes.
Within minutes of getting to the top we were beset by mob after mob of curious, boisterous teenage boys, each trying to outdo the other's audacity and general rudeness towards Giles and me. The incessant 'which country' 'what your name' was very tedious.
There was a rickety ladder which everyone climbed up to the roof and a permanent jostling crowd to take steep steps back down.
It was a trampling waiting to happen but I wouldn't have minded if the people were in any way pleasant. I never thought I'd say this but there's a lot to be said for a queue!
On the way over to the next palace I got some cucumber wedges with a salty powder – very tasty and simple and expertly served in a big banana leaf by a smiley woman and her young son.
One of the more persistent kids tried to steal a few of my wedges to impress his mates. Although he ended up with nothing it strangely reminded me of being in school with bullies whose testosterone levels far outstripped their intellect. It was a pretty enough palace but we didn't stay too long – besides it was starting to rain. Luckily the jam had dissipated a little by the time we were heading back.
The hot shower, my first in India was bliss. A few hundred extra rupees goes a long way here! I was looking forward to a lovely thick curry for dinner so I ordered Ghobi Tikka. What I got was baked cauliflower with a tasty powder on top. Very dry but just right. Giles' stomach still wasn't the best so he stuck to chinese. I taught him cacho afterwards. Just after the game he jumped up from the table, ran out to the garden and chundered marvelously all over the flowers in the garden. Bolivian dice games sometimes have that effect on people! The rain washed away the sick in minutes.
These events unlocked a decision in my mind. I was not going to go stay inland and go to Bundi, another “timeless backpacker village in beautiful setting”. The monsoon was starting to really piss me off. I was going to go straight to the desert as quickly as possible. Battered and bruised Giles was of the same mind. Mandu would, I'm sure, be a very agreeable place to stay under many circumstances. It just so happened that our arrival did not coincide with any of them.
Tomorrow: Udaipur or bust!