After leaving Agra and seeing the incomparable Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, it seemed as if everything would be an anti-climax but quite to the contrary, partly to the cessation of the pulsing tooth and getting into a rhythm of the trip, its seems as if each day has its own uniqueness not the least of which is eating, sleeping, riding and having time to reflect on the marvels of the universe.
Within a few hours of riding from Agra, we left behind the heavy cloud of smoke and grime, so characteristic of large cities and the agglomeration that is an extension of New Delhi. To our delight, the temperature also warmed up, starting the day in the high single digits and reaching the mid-twenties quite rapidly, as the blue sky became the norm. Riding in glorious sunshine with a faint coolness in the air, is ideal for cyclists.
Even the traffic started to abate, obeying the gravitational model of traffic generation: the volume being directly related to the size of the cities and inversely related to the distance between them. After Agra only Gwalior and Jhansi were of any size, and soon thereafter, we left the four lane national highway, for the mostly quite two lane roads. Much has been said about the chaotic traffic in India, and certainly in the cities and at most cross roads, where people, animals and goods are transferred from wholesale to retail; from large buses to small tuk tuks, from trucks to small vans, it is noisy, dusty and with a fight for space seemingly disorderly. And yet, after a few days of riding, cyclists are the most nimble and despite our loads, we are able to navigate and like the locals, we too can fight for a fair share of the space. Although I have no musical talents, nor did I ever aspire to acquire any, at times in the heaviest of traffics jams, I think of the hapless concert master, on the first day of an orchestra’s rehearsal, full of head-strong musician: everyone knows the score, ie. the rules of the road, and yet wants to play the music their own way; in the midst of all the other players, I am humming the choral section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and while not a perfect rendition, it feels and sounds good.
One of the joys of riding and particularly being in India, is that it’s largely vegetarian, and after two and a half weeks, and riding about 700 kilometers, we still not have had any meat, and that the food is wonderful. Partly because of building up a healthy appetite, but mostly because of eating “authentically” on the street and on the roads, without menus, without a discussion of the degree of spiciness, no specifying of ingredients, (unlike the interminable ritual of order a coffee in the western world), there has not been a single meal which has not begun with both of us declaring “this is delicious”. There is the ubiquitous chai, hot, spicy and fragrant, an ounce of which is an energy booster, and at its best, from a chai wallah who takes pride in adding fresh ginger and boiling it long enough to meet an exacting standard. For breakfasts, potato stuffed parathas with thick yogurt-like curd have become our staples. For lunch, usually at a place where truckers stop, it’s a “tali”, meaning a complete meal of several dishes, (ie curries, dhal, aloo gobi, rice and tandoori baked breads), the best feature of which is that it’s an all you can eat affair, and we have a prodigious appetite and the food is offered and served with delight. Along the way pick up bunches of small bananas, tangerines and as fragrant guavas are in season, we buy them by the kilo. In the evenings, we have simple bread omelettes, full of spices, a simple soup or perhaps more breads, and in the touristy towns, it’s hard to resist pasta, which unlike in most places in North America, has not been siting pre-cooked, is freshly cook, el dente!
Accommodations have also been excellent ranging from staying in one of only eight rooms in the fortified palace in Orchha from the 1500s run by the Madhya Pradesh tourist department, where being the only guest were treated royally, to small guest houses along the way, where the staff to guest ratio is at least five to one. On a couple of nights, there being no heating available, we did benefit from having as many as six heavy blankets as the temperatures dipped to single digits: this and our mode of travel, the fact that we are not eating meat, is our contribution to lowering carbon emissions.
Beyond the basics, the riding, scenery and sights have been also great, such that between Orchha and Nowgong, we covered 110kms on the flat to rolling two lane country road, almost effortlessly. As in most parts of the world, where people still live off the land, it’s the people waving, smiling and greeting, who make the journey special.
As if great food, comfortable stays, and friendly people were not enough there is the ever present antiquity, which is barely if at all mentioned in our guidebooks, the focus of which are the star attractions. In Gwallior, we had a peak from a distance at a fort from a distance on top of a 300 foot hill as we rode into town. After a quick shower, and no lunch, we took a ride to the easterly gate, where a magnetic force seemed to draw us up a steep cobble-stoned ramp, through five different gates to ward off attackers, to the fort itself and various temples. Exiting by the western gate, we were once again full of “wows” as we marveled at the massive carvings directly into the stone face of the hill.
Between Gwalior and Datia, from a distance of about 10kms over the horizon, a series of spires loomed large and even though it was getting late in the day, we were drawn to Sonagira, well off the main road, with dozens of breath-taking temples dating back to the 1500s. Later that day, stopped at a small village cross-roads, peaking through an opening was the Datia Fort, eliciting more “wows” of excitement. To add to our delight the only guest house in the region had a recently remodeled room, with a clear view of the fort for us to admire in the rays of the near full moon, and a warm welcome from Israil Khan, who is from Kochin, who is a Muslim, but we could not help but imagine that at one time, his last name might have been Cohen?
We are now in Khajuraho, a small village with about 25 astonishing temples dating from 900 to 1100, reminiscent of Angkor Wat in style and period of construction. This was the place I initially found by accident and being one of the more remote World Heritage sites, held special attraction and allure. It being well of the beaten path also accounts for why so many of its delicate and intricate stone carvings have survived in excellent condition for more than a 1000 years. Although comprising only about 10% of the total, the most dramatic are the erotic carvings, some a meter in height, showing the range imagination that might make not only the ancients but some current visitors blush. To some they might give a new meaning to the term “hard-core” but above all the carvings illustrate a profound joy and love of life, a love of life that continues to permeate this Incredible India. Our life is simple in this land full of contrasts where appropriately the national flower is the beautiful lotus that can flourish under any, and often adverse conditions whose pedals are held together by central stem, perhaps like a divine force that unites all people of diverse religions and beliefs.