After another train journey we arrived at Gwalior - a town famous for its fort, decorated with colourful tiles. There are even fewer Western tourists here. We had breakfast at The Indian Coffee House -an Indian institution. A co-operative restaurant where the staff wear white uniform with a colourful cumberband and a white turban hat with a tall white fan! Very reminiscent of the Raj!.. After visiting the fort and a delicately decorated palace, we head to an ancient Temple where Craig persuades a stray dog to perform tricks for a Parlee-G (brand of biscuits we have been feeding dogs -10p a packet). Next stop Khajaraho, after another train journey. The train was delayed by about 2 hours when we got on. Passengers gradually got off and we ended up in a carriage with only 3 other passengers. The train stopped several times-not always at a station, sometimes to let another train pass. The platforms aren't always lit, so it's difficult to tell. The train had stopped (in the dark) and an Indian lad appeared at our window asking us if we wanted a tuk-tuk. Why would we want a tuk-tuk? We had another hour to go to reach our destination. We'd read about scams how touts will try and persuade you to get off at the wrong station and then charge you exorbitant fares to take you to your hotel. Outside was dark and it didn't even seem that we were at station. So we checked with the other passengers and we were indeed at Khajuraho, quickly picked up our bags and rushed off the train. After thinking the worst of the lead, we were actually grateful to him-we might still be sat on the train!
We stayed at a lovely new hotel just outside the town and the (all male) staff couldn't have been more helpful. In fact there seemed to be a competition as to who could be the most helpful! Not that we complained. Khajuraho is a Unesco world heritage site famed for its 11 th century temples adorned with intricate erotic stone carvings. Like other ancient sites in India The temples have been renovated and are surrounded by neat gardens. The temples Are beautiful with amazing fine detail. Some are outside of the town and whilst there are no official guides they each have a local sat outside waiting to point out the erotic carvings! It's said that the carvingsmay have been used as the basis for the karma sutra. They are certainly quite explicit.
Next stop is Bandhavgarh National Park - the Park most likely to give good Tiger sightings. Except for us! Apparently this winter has been particularly wet (sound familiar? ) so the tigers don't need to visit the watering holes for water - they stay in the jungle and are harder to spot. That's nature for you! We did see lots of other wildlife including a jungle cat (very rare apparently) and consoled ourselves with a painting from a local artist (of a Tiger of course).
It's now time for our last (11th) Indian train journey and our last stop in India - Varanasi.
A driver from our hotel was waiting to pick us up when we got off the train and after a15 minute drive we had another 15 minute walk through narrow alleyways to reach our hotel. As advised by Pete and Ali, if you come to Varanasi you must stay on the'ghats' - wide stone steps that lead into the Ganges. And our hotel was was right on the ghats and our room had a balcony overlooking the Ganges. It really is an amazing place where you see all aspects of daily life, and death. It is a very spiritual place for Hindus and all day they visit the river to wash themselves, wash their clothes, bathe their buffalo's and, at a couple of specific places, burn their deceased relatives (the burning ghats). And tourists can watch all these activities, although no photos are allowed at the burning ghats, understandably. It is an honour to be cremated at the ghats and some people choose to make the journey to Varanasi when they are very sick and stay in a nearby hospice as you must be cremated within 24 hours. The body is prepared by a special cast of people and carried through the streets to the burning ghat. The family buy as much wood as they can afford for the funeral pyre and the eldest son has his head shaved and is dressed in a white robe to carry out part of the ritual. The body is doused in the Ganges before being placed on top of the pile of fire wood. The eldest son lights the pyre after walking around it 3 times with the lit straw. It takes about 3 hours to burn a body. Behind the burning pyres we watch people shifting through the ashes for jewellery and anything else of value that didn't burn.
We enjoy a boat trip up the river at sunrise and another at sunset when we placed offerings on the Ganges in memory of loved ones. We watched the sunset 'puja' (prayers) where holy men carry out a ritual involving chanting, candles, music and incense in honour of the Ganges. We spent many an hour walking along the ghats or sat on our balcony watching the activities. We knew Varanasi was going to be different from our other experiences in India, and it certainly was. But we both enjoyed it.