Incredible India? Trepidatiously we set off on our journey across the country but with a new traveling companion, Mumbai and ancient caves on the agenda it was time to get exploring…149 days in.
Every traveller we’ve met whose been to India before has warned us about the ‘India experience’; you’ll love it and hate it in the same day, the streets are lined with rubbish and excrement, the constant din of car horns, everyone will try to con you out of your money, offer you a taxi all the time or take you to their brother’s guesthouse and that the food is amazing but don’t eat any meat as it’ll give you delhi belly. With all of this advice we were apprehensive to say the least but after travelling for nearly 5 months and landing in Mumbai after our week in Sri Lanka we felt ready to face those taxi drivers and the challenge of India.
In addition to the excitement of visiting such a polarising country, we also have a new travelling companion for three weeks; our friend Dan from back home, also a keen runner. We were looking forward to catching up with a friend, learning the news from back home and I was glad there would be someone else to pose while Mike tries to take the perfect shot. As usual we had planned the first 3 days, staying in Mumbai to acclimatise to India and had all registered for a race a week later in Gujarat but other than a vague idea to do the typical Rajasthan and Taj Mahal route that was it.
Our first task after surviving the airport taxi ride and a wander round the nearby streets was to work out where to go next in India, we’ll go to the train station and book a ticket we thought. Having spent five minutes trying to work out how to get inside the correct entrance, we were soon told by a ‘friendly’ local that we had the wrong one and he would show us to where we could book a ticket. For those reading that have been to India before you’re probably smiling and can guess where we went, a travel agent, eager to part us from our precious rupees. It wasn’t so bad in the end, yes we overpaid for the tickets but we had an itenary for the next week and some caves to visit, apparently one of the top sights in India; however we had no clue as we hadn’t read that much of the guidebook at that point but it sounded interesting.
We really enjoyed our few days in Mumbai, the city was pretty busy and hectic but our hostel was within walking distance of most of the attractions and the day after Dan arrived was the start of Ganesha Chaturthi, a Hindu festival where families and communities worship at temporary shrines with a clay Ganesha and at the end of the festival the Ganesha is immersed in water (sea, lake, river, etc). It’s always great fun to experience a festival while traveling and our first in India was no different, parades through the streets with drumming and dancing. One of the temporary shrines was incredible, with hoards of locals queuing up, never mind the tourists, after asking one of the organisers if we could visit we awkwardly queue jumped and were taken inside for a guided tour.
Mumbai felt strangely familiar, with colonial architecture and tree lined streets, after a day taking in the sights on foot including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Mahraraj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum (well worth getting the audioguide, the most amusing of the trip so far if not ever), we ended our day at the Gateway of India and Dan had his first experience of mister mister, selfie selfie and posing in numerous photographs.
Leaving Mumbai early we boarded our first train in India bound for Aurangabad and the caves. In comparison to our train in Sri Lanka this was pleasant, we had a seats for the whole journey, admittedly the family of seven sat on the opposite three seats minimised our leg room but still I found it fascinating to watch everyday life in between snoozes. To explore the caves at Ellora, we hired a tuktuk and driver for the day, stopping at Daulatabad, a hilltop fort on the way; the climb to the top rewarded us with panoramic views and felt as if we had stepped into a page from the Jungle Book with the monkeys running around.
Ellora caves are a series of temples (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) carved into the rock over a period of five hundred years from the 7th century. A unexpected highlight of the trip, although with 30 caves to visit we had cave fatigue after the 16th (the grandest of them all) and knowing we had our tuktuk driver waiting to take us to the next ‘tourist’ spot, another friend’s shop selling pashminas or another item we have no interest on buying whilst on a year long trip!
We finished off our stay in Aurangabad by walking to Bibi-qa-Maqbara also know as the poor man’s Taj, in spite of constant offers from tuk tuk drivers we managed to make it on our own, well with the help from Google maps! It looks similar to the Taj Mahal and on quick glance at a photo you may not spot the difference, we fooled a few Facebook friends with a black and white selfie at the mausoleum to conceal that this one is not as grand and extravagant but still much nicer than the average grave!One week in and our first impression of India was good, the food was amazing, really amazing, and so cheap, the sights were dramatic and yes it was loud and the streets were hectic and often stunk but it only felt like a small notch up from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, a sign of a seasoned traveller perhaps or would our first sleeper bus change this opinion?!