Circling Back to the Center

March 11, 2010

I'm typing this from a train bound for Varanasi.  For the first time, on this trip, I am actually moving toward Delhi rather than running away.  On tap for the middle land are the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, and a couple of tiger parks in Madhya Pradesh, the true center of India.  I am a little early.  I expected to spend more time in the Northeast but things unfolded a little differently.  For a start, I expected to spend four days at Kaziranga.

Image hog deer in velvet
Image elephant rear end

Working with the time that I had, I decided it would be simpler to do jeep safaris only on the first day and defer the elephant ride for later.  This had the opposite effect.  When I went to arrange a vehicle at the prescribed time of 7:30am I found that the system for sharing was quite weak and there were scarcely any tourists around.  Prime wildlife viewing time ticked away.  A few groups, unwilling to share, came and went.  At 8:30am (9:00am by the sun), I gave in to an act of frustration and fiscal irresponsibility and booked a jeep for myself.

It was awful.  Except for buffalo, a Hog Deer, and a one elephant with it's tail toward us, everything was very far away:  barely more than specs in a 500mm lens.

The momo shop at the highway still had no momos so I ate lunch at the thali vendor at the tourist complex.  I wish they had been open for dinner as well since they seemed to be to the only source of good food in the park.  (The hotel restaurant food was competently prepared but everything was either indigestably heavy, fried, or both)

Image of Rhino
Image of Elephant

The afternoon session was different.  After the morning, there was no way I was paying for a second private vehicle.  Further, in the afternoon, wildlife viewing actually gets better as time passes so I had no reason to jump the gun.  I was rewarded with a relatively cheap outing with three Indians (students, I think) to the slightly more expensive Western Range.

Unlike the morning, there was no guide ( which meant we probably would not see anything small and subtle ) and no guard.  I'm not quite sure what that meant.  I'm not sure why we needed a guard for the first safari and it was even less clear why it would then be OK to skip the guard for the second trip.

The big, obvious beasties came through.  Rhinos were close.  Buffalo were easy pickings and wild elephants, at one point, nearly blocked the road. The day and the park were redeemed.

That evening, I booked the elephant ride and managed to secure a jeep share to the mounting point with a young multi-national couple.  The hotel staff informed me that there was no room so I could extend my stay.  I hedged.  So far, the viewing was good but the cost was high and I wasn't seeing the variety of wildlife that would warrant an extended stay.

Image of photographer on elephant
Image of rhino

The elephant ride was appropriately early.  The animals were very very close.  To my surprise, it  was fairly easy to wield a large telephoto lens from elephant back as long as the elephant wasn't moving.  Viewing was excellent but we didn't see anything I hadn't seen before on jeep safaris.

Image of buffalo pulling a plow

The couple that had booked their vehicle to go directly from the elephants to a jeep safari in the Central Range, something I didn't know was possible.  Whether because they thought they were looking out for my interests ( I had already been on a jeep in the Central Range ) or whether they just wanted the time alone is unclear but they suggested we part ways after the elephant ride.

I was dropped at the park gate.  This turned out to be a further from park HQ than I expected.  It took me nearly an hour to get “home”.  But in the cool morning, the walk through the village area was actually rather nice.

I checked in at the jeep rental stand to express my desire to share a vehicle to the Eastern Range and headed back to the hotel for a pit stop.  I informed staff that I would like to extend for one day (not two).  By allowing me to get in two more jeep safaris, I would maximize the use of my entry and camera fees.  It would also give me time to book ahead for a hotel in Guwahati.

The morning safari felt like a repeat of the first day.  Few tourists.  My guess is that most people go directly from elephant safari to jeep safari.  They do not return to headquarters in between.  On top of that, few people stay long enough for more than one or two safaris.  For tourists paying Indian rates for entry and camera fees, the vehicle cost is a much higher percentage.  That means not much traffic to the more remote and expensive Eastern Range.  I gave in and ponied up the Rs 1400 for a private vehicle and guide.  There was no guard available since all of the guards were in training.  The guide and driver picked up rocks “just in case”.

Image of monkey looking away

Pretty much a bust.  Some storks.  An eagle of a species that I seen before both in India and SE Asia.  The dolphins never appeared.  The rhinos were very far away.  I did photograph an Assamese Macaque.  It isn't a great photo but my primate “collection” is more complete.

The thought occurred to me to just checking out of the hotel.  I wasn't really interested in doing another safari.  But I told the staff I was staying and I stand by my commitments.

I walked into the hotel lobby and was informed that there had been a new booking and that I would need to change rooms.  Not my preference, but “ok”.  And that the new room would be at a higher rate.  Not OK.

I checked out and set about finding a decent place to sleep in Guwahati.  Option number one was full.  Again.  Option number three was full.  Option number two wasn't answering the phone.  I figured my best bet was to get into town as soon as possible.  I grabbed some snacks to partly make up for a lunch I had no time for and boarded the first bus to Guwahati.  When I reached town, it was later than I had hoped and I was really hungry.  The first place was still full.  The second place had one room for one night: an expensive but manageable “deluxe” room in the government run hotel.

It was one of the worst bargains on this trip:  An AC room where the mosquitoes could not be kept out because of high mounted windows that could not be practically closed.

The next morning I made the rounds.  Hotel after hotel: Full.  Full.  Full.  One place fessed up to not taking foreigners.  I eventually found a room.  It was only slightly cheaper than where I had spent the previous night but of very high quality.  I wouldn't call it a bargain, but it was nice.

Next step was finding a train to Varanasi.  The plan was to book a few days out and then get out of town for a few days.  Maybe Manas.  Maybe Shillong.  Maybe something else.  'Trouble was: I found only three trains.  Two were weekly.  One was twice weekly.  None could be booked.  They came up “not available”.  I even tried a travel agent.  He didn't know what to do.  He told me to wait until tomorrow (Monday) and see the railroad office.

On Monday, I learned that I had to book for Lucknow and get off the train early at Varanasi.  All that remained was to choose among the lousy day and time options.  I could stay another week and get into Varanasi at a reasonable time.  I could leave on Tuesday and get into town late or I could leave on Saturday, pay substantially more, and get into Varanasi after 1:30am.

And so I am here.  After booking, I learned that Manas was even more expensive than I feared.  Shillong never looked like anything that would hold me more than a day.  The train left Guwahati nearly three hours late.  I hope I can get into my prebooked room when the train finally arrives in Varanasi.

The train arrived at 1:45am, three hours late.  This is not so bad which your consider that at one point, we were running nearly four hours late.  It's not hard to see why Indian trains are always so late.  At several stations, the train was scheduled to stop for only one minute.  I don't see how you can stop a train like this, disembark, embark, and leave again in only minute.  As far as I can tell, this never happened either.

The late night interaction with the rickshaw was a little suspicious but I made it to my chosen guest house without serious insult to my sense of fair trade.  It was nearly 3:00am.  I was groggy.  The hotel manager was apparently just woken up and my reserved room had someone sleeping in it.  But they had another, more expensive room they would let me sleep in until morning.  That is where I am now, waiting for my “permanent” room to be available.

During breakfast at the roof top restaurant, I got my first view of the Ganges from Varanasi.  (Not my first view of the Ganges.  The Sunderban is the Ganges delta).  I was surprised to see open land on the far side of the river.  I had always imagined the Ganges at Varanasi being urbanized on both sides.