Rounding the South

February 9, 2010

Image of Sri Meenakshi Temple
Image of Brihadisvara Temple

I had hoped to make it to Madurai early enough to catch another bus to Tanjor. It even looked promising when I left Kanyakumari at least 45 minutes earlier than was supposed to be possible. Somewhere in between, the road became impassible and I, also with riders on a half dozen other buses waiting some two hours for clearance to move on. I spent the night in Madurai.

Some call the Madurai temple the “Taj Mahal of the South” but I don't see it. It is big, busy, and colorful but it is also random where the Taj is precise and refined. Despite being built in the 16th century, this is a living temple with clearly well maintained paint. It provides, perhaps, a glimpse of what Hampi may have been like in it's day. Still, I find worn, drab, and less crowded spaces more appealing. Due to limited opening times, I had less than two hours available. It was more than enough. In the afternoon, I shuffled off to Tanjor.

Tajor was once the capital of the Chola Empire, which once controlled much of Southeast Asia. In the Big Temple of Brihadishwara, I could see similarities to the libraries of Angkor Wat, though not the main structure. Unfortunately, the big temple isn't all that big and there isn't much else in town that is worthwhile. I caught an overnight bus to Chennai and a two hour connector to Mamallapurum.

Image of Five Rathas Temple Complex

Mamallapurum is bit like Hampi meets Goa, although less of each. The temples are fewer and smaller, though much much older than Hampi. The beach isn't terribly impressive but I'm not usually impressed by beaches anyway. Food is more like Goa: expensive mostly western sea food. Five litre bottles of water are readily available so clearly long stays are expected. I can't see why, however. After recovering from too much, transit, I got up early on Saturday and rather quickly ran out of temples. I suppose this is a good thing, as it gets hot quickly and I definitely enjoyed what I saw. Still, I kind of expected more. With little more than debris remaining to visit, I set about plotting a course beyond Tamil Nadu, even beyond the uninspiring state of Andhra Pradesh, to Orissa and its fabled Sun Temple.

Travel in India is often hampered by the simultaneous requirement and inability to make plans.

This was definitely the case for the trek North to Orissa. Too far for a bus, too expensive to fly, the only real option was a twenty hour rail journey.

Getting a ticket the normal way was impossible. All trains were booked out for over a week. Even the premium Tikal system wasn't working. Tickets disappeared as soon as they became available. My chance was through the hypothetically brilliant but seldom actually useful “foreign tourist” quota.

I logged on mid Sunday morning to find that four tickets had become available on the train to Orissa that evening. The catch is, foreign tourist quota can only be booked in person at the station of origin. I quickly checked out of my room and caught the next bus to Chennai.

Image of Crowded Rail car

About three hours later, I was told that they had shut down the foreign tourist counter at noon. The best I could do was a short wait list for AC2. Nicer, but nearly 3x as expensive as the non-AC sleeper that I planned to book. Not wanting to burn a day or more in Chennai, and possibly having to use one of their notoriously dishonest rickshaws, I took what I could get. At 7:30pm, I was confirmed for the 11:40pm train. Along the way, I learned why one doesn't want to spend long evenings at Indian rail stations: mosquitoes. The stations are entirely open air and if you stop, the mozzies will find you.

At least I wasn't traveling unreserved. Those cars will packed like sardines nearly two hours before the train's departure. At least one fight broke out among people trying to squeeze onto the train.

After a surprisingly restful night, I set about reserving me a place to stay when I rolled in past 8:25pm (theoretically). Most places were full, except for the ones who's phone numbers didn't work. I did finally find me a place but it will cost me double what I usually pay.

The train arrived at 9:00pm. Only 30 minutes late. Not bad for a 20 hour trip. Certainly better than the train from Goa to Bangalore which left 1.5 hours late despite being only one station and about 20 minutes down the line from the origin. Today, I am off to Konark, home of the Sun Temple. I would have preferred to go to Puri first but I'm still having trouble securing accommodation. Puri doesn't seem to be exciting by itself but it appears to be the jumping off point for tours of Chilika Lake, home of Irrwaddy dolphins.