Friday, March 16, 2007

Elusive tigers and playful horses

Khajuraho, 27338 km

Leaving Hyderabad, I headed straight north for Madhya Pradesh, known for its tiger parks and archaeological ruins. I chose Bandhavgarh, because supposedly the odds are pretty good to spot a tiger there (in many other "tiger" parks it is very unlikely). When I arrived around 12AM, the manager of the hotel told me I jut missed a tiger that was seen lying next to the main road a few hours earlier, that sounded like a good omen. I ganged up with David and Paul, who I met there, and hired a jeep. But after 3 half-day visits in the park, only once we could see a distant tiger walking between the trees, followed a few meters behind by an elephant. Of course the rumor spread quickly and within 10 minutes there were more than 20 jeeps on the road, with tourists extending their mighty zooms. As soon as the animal walks away, all the drivers rev up their engine and try to move to a better place, in a big chaos of jeeps reversing in all directions. If the tiger had any intention to cross the road it was of course quickly put off by this big mess.

As it turned out, when a tiger is spotted the rangers set up a business of elephant rides to get closer. The jeeps queue up according to the number they were given when they entered the park, and when your turn comes up (for us it would have been a 2 hours wait), you climb on the elephant in a group of 4, the elephant walks toward the tiger (if it's still there), you snap your pictures with your expensive gear and within 5 (!) minutes you're back and the next load boards for another shuttle, for 600 rps per head. Pretty good business, but the scared elephants seem not to appreciate it as much as the park authorities, and for me it was pretty much meaningless. If you want to learn about tigers' life switch to Discovery Channel. And if you want a close-up photo of it go to the nearest zoo.

Never mind, the rides in the park were very nice with tons of deers all around, and the little bazaar very easy-going, as most tourists are on a package and stay and eat in the big hotels around, and I quickly found my friendly local serving decent food during these 4 days. The weather also was much cooler, not only because it's up north, but also because of a cold front which brought a little rain - first time for months.

So I dug into my bag and retrieved a wooly for the ride to Khajuraho, the major tourist attraction in MP. And it was well worth it as the temples are truly beautiful, each with literally hundreds of finely carved statues, most of them well-endowed nymphs and of course the world-famous erotic carvings, which understandably have shocked the Victorian discoverers. The nightly son-et-lumiere show on the other hand was pretty boring, even annoying at time with Indian tourists speaking out loudly and taking photographs with flash of the distant monuments.

My next destination is Sikkim, separated by the (in)famous state of Bihar. I had heard a lot about it by Indians, describing it as underdeveloped and plagued by corruption and banditry, so I was a it anxious, but also very curious about discovering it. The road goes down the Deccan plateau toward the very flat Ganges basin. I came close to Varanasi, and although I liked it very much when I came there by train in December, I was not in the mood of going into the huge chaos of that big city, so I turned east on Grand Trunk Road and Bihar.


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