Pune, India. 26th September 2022.
The flights from Heathrow went smoothly, as they usually do. Check-in at Heathrow was pleasurable for a change because, to my surprise, Oman Air fly out of Terminal 4. I discovered this when I arrived at Terminal 2 and couldn’t see my flight listed. And no, it hadn’t been stated on the ticket! A first ever trip on the Heathrow Express (free, between terminals) got me to the right place and it was actually a pleasure to go through the process in what seemed to be a small and friendly place.
Jay had booked a hotel for me in Pune and met me there. The problem was that they weren’t registered to host foreigners, which he hadn’t realised. This can be a problem sometimes, more so in cities where I guess the authorities check more often. In small towns it rarely seems to matter. So after a bit of searching around we found a different place and, after some food, I was able to get some rest. All of my gear had been at Jay’s flat, with the bike in use by him when he wanted it. He’d stuffed everything into the panniers and brought them and the bike over to the hotel. Sorting it all out was a job for the next day. I needed some sleep!
I had bought a new rear shock absorber for the bike. The standard one isn’t very strong and tends to bottom out. YSS, a Thai company, make replacement shocks for lots of bikes and I’d ordered one on-line from an Indian company and had it delivered to Jay’s friend Dilip’s address. I met him at the Enfield dealer where the bike had been serviced last time I was in Pune, and he explained to them all the work that needed doing. I had a few other upgrades to be done as well. It’s so very useful to have an Indian friend at these times, especially as he managed to knock some money off the final bill for me.
A day of sorting things out, ready to leave. Then an evening out with Jay, Dilip and a couple of his friends. I was taken to a restaurant attached to a fresh fish market. There, I was fed four different kinds of fish, presented in four different ways. All of it delicious. I almost felt like slapping my flippers together in appreciation. Dilip, it turns out, has worked in many countries and has told me to keep in touch with him so that he can introduce me to people as I travel round. Included in his personal collection is a member of the Nepalese royal family. I plan to go to Nepal so a banquet at the palace may be on the cards – or maybe not!
I was keen to get up into the Himalaya before the weather turned against me. I wanted to visit the town of Shimla, India’s most famous hill station, and the Spiti Valley, a beautiful area much visited by tourists. I also had ambitions to ride over Umling La (pass), India’s newest “Highest Motorable Road”. It’s now usurped Khardung La’s claim to that title so, of course, I wanted to go there. But winter moves in early at those heights and I needed to get going.
Jay and Dilip came to see me off. I promised I’d get back at some point to see them again. It didn’t take me long to remember how to join battle with the traffic and not lose too often. In the past I’d sometimes made things a bit awkward for myself by trying to push through small gaps, along with all the other bikes. Now I’d resolved to relax a bit and remember I was on a touring bike with panniers rather than a scooter. The small amount of time lost just really didn’t matter.
Once clear of the city I made good time on the expressway. One thing I noticed was that all the signs outside cafés etc were in Hindi, no English anywhere. This was unusual, surprisingly, but I still managed to find some coffee. I was in Maharashtra state, India’s largest, so bothering with English probably didn’t matter so much here.
My destination for the night was Aurangabad, where there were some interesting sights to see, and I managed to find a half decent hotel without too much trouble. And here I must register some dissatisfaction. Some hotels have a central supply for hot water but it’s often only available at a certain time of day. That’s usually in the morning, which is of no use to a sweaty, dusty motorcycle traveller who needs to clean up late in the afternoon. This hotel offered to bring me some hot water in a bucket, which was good enough. So, Indian hotels, if you’re listening please shape up!
Those sights I mentioned were caves, which had been carved out of the hillsides to make temples. The first was Ellora Caves, with a total of more than one hundred, thirty four of which are accessible. They represent Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. The biggest one is Kailasha Temple, which is Hindu. Just think about it. There you stand, gazing into this shallow cave, and you think, “I know what I’ll do here. I’ll get my mates to help me carve a temple out of the hillside.” As they opened the cave out the roof was removed and then everything inside was carved out of the rock, going back and sideways into the hillside. With the exception of two of the statues and a tower, every part is connected to every other. It has several different levels, as well as galleries, walkways, side rooms, statues and terraces. All linked together and all accompanied by some very fine carving. I tried, and failed, to imagine the amount of planning and design that must have gone into it. And all built in the 6th to 11th centuries. Quite amazing. Some of the other caves were good too, but on a hot day I didn’t bother to look at all of them. Wiki link here.
I had a little win when I went here. The fee for foreigners was Rs600 (Rs50 for Indian nationals), which I paid at the ticket office. I was given a token and then walked away. But they called me back and gave me Rs400 change. Why? I have no idea but I can assure you I didn’t mind.
That evening one of the managers at the hotel told me of a place I should visit. Called Bibi Ka Maqbara, it was a famous Muslim temple. When I went there next morning I found a small and rather run down copy of the Taj Mahal. Almost exactly the same design, and the same purpose too, that of a mausoleum. I had a quick look round but wasn’t impressed. It was undergoing some much needed refurbishment though, so perhaps it will improve. I haven’t bothered with photos of it, especially considering the real thing is coming soon.
But my main visit for the day was to Ajanta caves. Also carved out of the hillside, these were far more impressive than yesterdays. They were placed in a semicircle, carved into a more impressive hillside and overlooking a very lovely gorge, with a river flowing through. They were higher up too, and were served by a terrace that ran along in front of them, warmed by the afternoon sun.
These were all Buddhist, some dating from the the 2nd century BCE, others from the 5th century CE. They were a mixture of monasteries, temples and meeting halls. Some had long rows of columns, leading down to a statue of the Buddha, clearly used as temples. Some had large central areas, with sleeping cells off them, used as monasteries. Others were smaller and were simply shrines, with a statue of the Buddha at the far end. As with Ellora caves, the method of construction was simply to cut in, up and sideways into the relatively soft basaltic rock.
But what set these caves apart from those at Ellora was that a lot of the original artwork had survived. Both columns and walls had coloured paintings on them. Some depicted the rural life of the area, other the stories told by the Buddha. They were in very good condition, considering their age and location, and are regarded as the finest examples of such artistry. A credit to the work of these ancient peoples.
Both sets of caves had been ‘lost’ and had been rediscovered by the British, who’d researched their likely history and tried to make sense of them all. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) now look after them, along with most of India’s ancient monuments, and have done a great job of making them accessible to the public. Wiki link here.
As I rode into the complex I saw a bike parking area, so stopped there. Then I fell into conversation with a guy named Ali, who owned a shop selling quartz type rock. Naturally, he wanted me to visit him there. Naturally I wanted not to. I assured him I wouldn’t be buying anything, not having any room on my bike for souvenirs, but he wasn’t put out by that of course. He treated me to a coffee before I went in and then made sure I knew the number of his shop so I wouldn’t miss it when I came out. But there was no chance of that anyway as he’d posted a lookout to watch for me. I had another coffee while Ali convinced me to stay in his friend’s hotel in the nearby town. In the end, I agreed.
The hotel was nice, I talked the price down a bit, then arranged to meet Ali on the rooftop for food and beer. I liked the guy. His schtick was to talk to people in a cockney accent, even to other Indians, just for a laugh. He had UK friends but had never been there. We enjoyed food and drink together, had a great chat and a good laugh. I paid the bill, so I suppose he got his pound of flesh in the end, even if it was only chicken.
Over the next few days it was mostly just riding. I stopped in one town because I’d read that the riverside area was interesting. It wasn’t. And that there were some nice temples there. There weren’t. Some roads were awful, some were good. I was in the middle of India and the temperatures were quite high, around 35-40 degrees. I got into the habit of stopping for five minutes every hour for a drink. Dehydration needed to be avoided.
At one point I came across a sight that runderlined the variety peoples that populate India. Ahead of me I saw groups of about one hundred goats being herded along the side of the road. Nothing too unusual in that. But then among the goats I saw bullock carts being driven by people who were, by their looks, clearly different to the local people. The open carts were full of their belongings, including homeware such as bedding, kitchen utensils etc. Many of the younger guys favoured a hairstyle that was short all over apart from a small pigtail at the back of the head. It was clearly a migration of a herder clan, possibly taking their livestock to market or simply to better pastures. I’d loved to have known the full story, having seen a similar thing when up in Kashmir.
I was not far from the city of Indore when, on a rough section of road, my phone ejected itself out of the cradle on the handlebars and dropped onto the road. Needless to say, it landed “butter side down”, so now I had the problem of a smashed screen. I needed the phone for navigation as well as all those other things that we all use phones for. It had to be repaired.
I rode into Indore and searched for the shopping area, where I found some phone shops. None of them could help me but one directed me to a Samsung repair centre. Could they fix it? Yes they could. It would take two hours and cost £80. Gulp! But it had to be done so I left it with them while I found some coffee. Once I’d collected it I still needed a protective screen cover. A little further down the same road I found a shop that could supply one. He also told me, with a smile on his face, that he would have replaced the screen for £40. Humph!
I was heading for Agra, wanting to visit the Taj Mahal again. I stopped at a hotel not far from the city and had one of those ‘incidents’ which can sometimes plague the traveller. As I was unloading my luggage a guy wanted a selfie. I was happy to oblige and he took a few. Then another guy wanted one, but also wanted to talk about the bike. No problem. Then the first guy wanted more, so I obliged, but was beginning to think he was a little bit simple. No, he wasn’t, just completely stupid. Before I could stop him he decided to climb on the bike, but from the right hand side. He wasn’t strong enough to hold the bike up, so over it went, crashing into the car parked next to it. Some minor damage to the handlebars but a big dent in the wing of the car. I was furious! Fortunately the second guy spoke good English so I enlisted his help to make sure the hotel owner, and everyone else around, understood whose fault it was and that I had no intention of paying for the damage to the car. He also told the idiot to go away. The owner of the car came out and drove away, saying nothing about the dent. Did he not see it or chose to ignore it? I don’t know.
Once in Agra, and settled into a hotel, I started to make plans. I wanted to see the Taj in the early morning sunlight from the other side of the river on which it sits. There’s a special viewing point for this and the pink of the sunrise glowing on the white walls is supposed to be something quite special. So I went out on a reconnaissance to make sure I knew where it was. The route took me through narrow, and very busy streets. It was the end of the festival of Dussehra and the streets were full of happy people, covered in powder paint, dancing to music coming out of speakers on the backs of vans at an earbleedingly loud volume. And I mean really painful. I was stuck behind them far longer than was healthy. But they were having fun so who am I to moan.
I found the viewpoint and worked out where to park etc. On the way back I turned down a side road and found myself next to the river. A walk across a field took me close enough to get some nice photos of the Taj and surrounding buildings. It’s great to have a different photographic perspective on these famous places.
Next morning, somewhere around about “Oh my God, is that the time?” I went back there. It was due to open at 6am and I was there a bit early. I waited around but nobody came to open up. At 6.20 I gave it up as a bad job. It was a miserable morning, cloudy and dull, and I suspect that may have been why they didn’t bother to open the viewpoint. No sun, no crimson glow.
I rode round to the main entrance to the Taj and parked in the motorbike car park. I was asked for RS50 and given a ticket with Rs20 written on it. “Why was it Rs50”, I asked? “Because of your luggage”, I was told. There was an argument to be had there but I couldn’t be bothered. No traffic was allowed within a kilometre of the Taj to try to protect it from the effects of emissions. An exercise in futility if ever there was one, given how much pollution hangs over Indian cities. On the walk down there I was approached by several guides, looking for business. I declined their offers. One of them said to me, “But without a guide you’ll just be wandering around”. “That’s exactly what I want to do”, I said. He didn’t know that I’d had the guided tour last time I was there. Sometimes wandering is all you need.
Having bought my ticket on-line I was inside in no time at all. The ticket price includes a bottle of water and some shoe coverings, to be used when you go into the mausoleum itself. I’d paid the extra RS200 required for this, otherwise I’d only have been able to access the gardens and gaze at the main building from the outside.
The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan in memorial to his third, and favourite, wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died giving birth their fourteenth child. Her husband is buried along side her. But the tombs you can see are false. The real sarcophagi are at a lower level, inaccessible to the public. The whole building is a work of art and a tribute to the architect’s ability to create a set of buildings that do so much justice to the Shah’s desire to pay tribute to his love.
The white marble mausoleum was built with complete symmetry around all four sides with regard to where the openings are, and how the decorative aspects have been placed. The entrance is different to the other sides, of course, but that’s all. On either side of the plaza are two buildings which are exactly the same as each other. One is a mosque and the other is for meetings and accommodation. They are built of red sandstone, which helps to set off the white marble of the mausoleum. The whole ensemble is overlooked by a minaret in each corner. These towers lean very slightly outwards so that in the event of an earthquake they’d be less likely to fall onto the centre piece. A very clever and forward looking idea. Builders and artisans were drawn from all over India and the rest of the Muslim world, providing work for thousands of people.
An aspect of the building that I wasn’t able to enjoy was the way in which the white marble changes colour as the day goes by, reflecting the changing light of the sun. The early morning clouds didn’t clear up, as I’d hoped. If anything they thickened and some light drizzle arrived. So everything looked a uniform grey. That disappointed me but there was nothing I could do.
Once I’d finished with the buildings I enjoyed a walk around the gardens. These aren’t especially pretty but do provide some shaded places to sit. All in all I really enjoyed my second visit and was able to gain a better insight into what this place is about than I did before. The full info is here.
After Agra the obvious place to go to is Delhi. So I did. I’d been there before, of course, but hadn’t managed to see many of the sights of the city because of Covid. There were still a few on the list. Once I’d found a hotel I managed to link up with another Indian friend, Dev, for some food and a beer. He and his Dutch partner run tours in the north and in Nepal. He was just finishing a tour but he hoped to be able to meet me for some of the sightseeing next day. Well, that didn’t happen. Rain stopped play. It was far too wet for riding or walking around the city. But I’ll be back sometime so will try again.
One odd thing that happened while I was killing time in the rain was meeting an Austrian woman in the Café across the street. We got talking and she was telling me that she’d been living in Bangladesh for twenty years or so after marrying a Bangladeshi man. But he worked in Germany while she remained in Bangladesh. He came back once a year for a week, to see her and their two kids. She had no desire to live back in Austria, which to me would have made more sense. The whole arrangement just struck me as very odd.
But the mountains were still beckoning me and it was time to head north.