Bodhgaya – under the tree of enlightenment, Kolkata – clean but boring, first train experiences in India

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Victoria Memorial

23.10
MAP Varanasi_BoodhgayaWe head to Bodhgaya, Bihar State hitchhiking. This again is a place of great importance to Buddhist community. The distance we have to pass is 200 km. and we are not sure we will be able to reach the city today. I really want us to succeed because today is my birthday and I want it to be filled with the energy of the place as the whole year ahead.

We cross all the ghats on foot and we reach a bridge over Ganga. We catch a shared rickshaw to Mughal Sarai – a small town close to which the highway to Kolkata passes by. From there we decide to catch another one because walking in the dust and the noise is not pleasant.

A truck stops by and is driving very slowly. After 30 km it diverts from our direction and we get off relieved. We are never sorry regardless of who or what kind of vehicle stops for us and we believe hitchhiking is a synchronous undertaking so whoever takes you is the right person for this exact moment and we are always thankful. But we are really happy if we manage to cover more than 100 km. for a day of traveling.

The second truck that stops is going directly to Kolkata which is yet 150 km. away. This one is slow too, but is faster than the latter. There are two drivers and a helper and the three are Muslims from Uttar Pradesh. It often happens that the truck drivers can’t accept the fact that we don’t understand Hindi and speak to us for hours on end, asking us questions all the time, and regardless of our dumbfounded look and us repeating “Hindi nehi bolo” (I don’t speak Hindi) they don’t give up easily. These are more quick-witted and after the tenth question we don’t respond to because we don’t understand it, they give up.

It starts getting dark and to our horror 7 km. before the fork we plan to get off at, the truck drivers decide to stop for dinner, though two hours earlier we had done another one-hour-long rest for bathing. It doesn’t make sense to hitchhike for such a short distance in the dark so we decide to wait for them.

We reach the fork and a truck takes us for the last 20 km. The guy is really nice and leaves us at the roundabout 3-4 km. before Bodhgaya itself. We walk for a mile or so and just before the village we see a big glade with a tree in the middle. It is perfect for camping. There are no houses in the vicinity and we pitch the tent behind the tree so that people on the road can’t see us. My wish to reach Bodhgaya today is fulfilled 🙂

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Our bivouac 2 km. before Bodhgaya

24.10.

We walk to the village on foot, leave our rucksacks at the cloakroom before the main temple and enter inside to look around. In the afternoon we sit at an Internet café because we have so much to do. In the evening we decide to try accommodating at some monastery, but it is already late and most of them are closed. The main monk at the Bangladesh temple turns out to be a real businessman. He receives officials at his table European style, covered with sateen tablecloth. He denies us cordially.

At the end it occurs to us to go at the place where the Kalachakra ritual was held several years ago. The place looks like a pasture and is walled. The iron gate is open, we enter inside and pitch our tent in the darkest corner. It is very noisy because the Muslims celebrate some holiday and go up and down with tractors with generators with speakers attached to them and you can imagine the cacophony. The procession parked in front of the main Buddhist temple where people are meditating inside and the Muslim crowd starts throwing quite a party.

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Muslims at the festival

They pretend to fight with axes and shout like crazy. The muezzin from the mosque which is 50 m. away from the Buddhist temple is also screaming like mad. To us it seems a little too much and a bit unethical, but apparently no one else but us cares. At night a very drunk guy comes to us and says we need a permit for pitching the tent here, but then thinks it over and left. There are no more incidents for the night.

The Kalachakra ritual is being performed for the open public by Dalai Lama for several years now. It is a deeply esoteric ritual, but Dalai Lama decided to make it public so that all who participate can receive the blessings it gives.

The monks draw a fine sand mandala which takes them at least a week. When this artwork is finished it is being destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come to participate and the multitude is amazing. There is a really nice movie directed by Werner Hertzog that shows the ritual in details. It is called “The wheel of time”. With this in mind you can imagine how special the experience of sleeping at this place was for us.

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Sleeping on Kalachakra ground

Bodhgaya – under the tree of enlightenment

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A procession of thirty people with long blue robes, straw, pointed hats and bouquets of lotuses in their hands slowly walk around the tree. An old Tibetan lady walks hurriedly spinning a praying wheel and murmuring “Om mani padme kum”. Another woman lies on the ground then stands and then lies again face down – these special bows are also a part of the Tibetan spiritual practice. Hundreds of monks perform these bows one after another on special wooden platforms dispersed among the dozens of stupas.

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The Chinese group

The people, who belong to the Tibetan tradition, coming from Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and other places in this region are dressed with wine red robes and are easy to distinguish. The Thais wear saffron-yellow robes and in the morning pass by a row of their lay brothers and put in their baskets biscuits and sweets.

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Vietnamese monks

Vietnamese monk plays ritual songs on a wooden frog and sings sutras. In another corner a Taiwanese group of nuns sways gently and sings mantras under their jammed straw hats. There is an enormous red carpet near the tree and many people sitting in different meditation poses with closed eyes sit on it. Representatives of all the Buddhist countries perform rituals and meditations in a way typical for their traditions. The view is amazing.

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Thai monks

The one thing that unites this multitude is the Mahabodhi tree – the one under which Buddha received enlightenment. The tree itself is a descendant of the original tree that casted its shadow here 2600 years ago. Each country that professes Buddhism has its own monastery built here at this most sacred for the community place. Bodhgaya is a living museum of different cultures and religious practices. It really struck us.

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Sri Lanka’s group

 

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Tibetan monks

25.10

In the morning we make a circle around the Mahabodhi Temple. We then visit the Japanese and the Bhutan monasteries since we haven’t been in these countries. At noon we head to Kolkata.

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Mahabodhi Temple

 

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Buddha statue at the central temple

 

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Detail from the temple

 

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Inside the Thai Temple

 

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Bhutan Monastery

 

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Inside the Bhutan Monastery

 

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The Japanese Monastery

 

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Mahabodhi Temple from another angle

A car jammed with four Muslims from Delhi takes us near the exit to the highway. To our relief today only cars stop instead of trucks and we pass 170 km. before it starts getting dark.

After the Muslims a very nice young family takes us to the border with the state Bihar and on the road they show us a small temple dedicated to an elephant who helped people by pushing their carriages up the hill.

We leave Bihar without getting to really know it but what we liked is that there are many forests and a lot of vegetation everywhere. The only not so pleasant thing is that all the merchants lie a lot and we had to put enromous effort to pay the normal price when we eat here.

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On the road – Durga Goddess celebration

The next car takes us to Jarkhand State and we almost crossed it when the people left us at the typical small, but noisy and dirty town. We have to look for a place for preparing a bivouac because it is getting dark. Going out of the town we ask some people for water and they ask us where we are going in the dark. We tell them and they say we must go to the nearby temple. We do it and upon entering we see a fat Baba with rastas who shows us a room downstairs even before we finish asking him whether we could stay here. Inside the room there are two wooden beds and a big empty space. We pitch our tent inside. Then all the young people living close to the temple come to see us and talk to us and later we turn off the lights and go to bed.

26.10

The Baba who also turned out to be a monk got up at 4 a.m., took a shower and at 5 started playing some religious music on the speakers. At 6 we get up because we can’t bear it anymore. We cook pasta for breakfast. In the meantime the Baba is performing his morning puja (prayer) offering chapatas with milk to the murti (small figures) of Rama and Sita. He gives them food and then pulls the curtains so that they can eat undisturbed. Then he offers the meal to the statue of his guru and then (we think) he finally eats the food himself. Before the puja he was hanging around in front of a bowl with burning cow excrements, read some sacred texts and threw wheat in the fire. Other of his occupations included him lying on the ground face down in front of the murti and kissing the floor or taking off their hats in the evening so that they can go to sleep.

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The Baba from Jharkand Temple

We are now used to all kind of strange rituals so we feel like we are at home here. At 9 a.m. we thank the Baba and head to Kolkata.

The day is very lucky. With only two cars we manage to travel the 300 km. and reach the city. Though I have to admit we are very disappointed by Bengal. There are many industrial zones and factories everywhere. The highway is being repaired and traveling is slow. There is not a trace of jungle or Bengal tigers and the views are not so pretty in general. The last 100 km, things get better but still are from what we’ve imagined Bengal to be.

The driver doesn’t speak much and his English is not so good, but we understand somehow that he is the personal driver of some big boss from the east railway company. We stop for lunch and after we finish it the guy goes out silently obviously implying that we have to pay the bill. Here even the poorest drivers always try to pay our bills and we become suspicious whther he will want us to pay him for the ride too. When we ask him he says he expects some payment from us though we had said in the beginning we didn’t pay for transport and entered the car only if people are OK with that. He rages, but finally takes us. Around 4 p.m. we reach Kolkata.

We enter through the very impressive Victoria Memorial.

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Victoria Memorial

We also go around St.Paul`s Cathedral. We thought that Kolkata will be all catacombs and lepers, but the city is very developed. Streets are wide and clean, there are many big parks, new buses, thousands of shiny restaurants. The beggars and the cows can’t be seen anywhere. We are pleasantly surprised by this and catch a bus to our couchsurfing.org who turns out to live 30-40 km. from the center in a modern and quiet neighborhood. We travel for two hours but the traffic is OK, the bus is not jammed as usual and the ride is pleasant.

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St.Paul`s Cathedral

27.10-02.11

MAP KolkataKolkata turns out to be not very intriguing, but is cleaner and quieter than all the cities we have been at in India till now. It has many shopping malls, shops and restaurants. Street vendors offer meat and kebabs everywhere and many of the people are not vegetarians, contrary to all the other Indians in the other regions. These few days we rest more and visit only some of the most famous landmarks. We see the buildings that have colonial architecture downtown and the temple of Cali Goddess who is the patron of the city.

The temple is not so big and the statue of the deity looks like a totem with red face. The fearsome Kali is the goddess of death and is very popular in Bengal. Sometimes the goddess demands sacrifices to be done. We see many small altars on the streets dedicated to Her. In fact there are almost no other types of temples, but those devoted to Her.

One of the days we walk to a very nice small neighborhood on the bank of Ganga River called Khumarthuli where they make all the statues for the festivals of Durga and Kali. It is very interesting to see this. There are dozens of small workshops and all of them are specialized in different parts of the process. In one of them they build the bamboo skeleton of the statue and the basic part of the body from straw, at others people put clay on the statue and yet other people paint them. There are also workers who bring the clay from the river with wheelbarrows and bring it to the workshops. Some statues are 3-4 meters high others are really small, but all of them look creepy.

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The workshops where they create the figures of Kali and Durga

 

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Kali

We visit a Jain Temple then called Parsanth with beautifully painted ceiling made of shining little pieces of glass. These are the main landmarks we visit in Kolkata.

On the third day we move to Jojo – another couchsurfing host because it is really hard to travel 80 km. every day to go to the center. Jojo has a small office consisting of two rooms, one of them used only for his guests couchsurfers. Inside it there is a PC with internet and we manage to do a lot of work. While we are here we mainly work for the blog and party with Jojo and his guests.

Two of the days we are here there are 6 people living at Jojo’s house and we and Karla from Brazil spent seven days at his office. Jojo always hosts the maximum number of guests he could accommodate and his energy is beasty. He owns a software company and can manage his time freely. He takes us out with his car at night to eat local dishes, invites us at various interesting restaurants at noon or takes us to eat with his many guests. At night we talk to Karla till late. We are very lucky to meet her because there is so much to share with her. Karla participates in a two-week voluntary campaign for helping trafficked women with dance therapy.

The main reason we came to Kolkata is to issue visas for Burma (Myanmar) and this was the reason we stayed 8 nights here. Normally the procedure is easy and takes two days, but because of some holidays and the weekend it is slower. We also had to say we will enter the country by plane and Jojo really helped with this (doing reservations and all). The authorities doesn’t want tourists to enter by land since the border was opened just a year ago. The travelers who do it are very few. Wild unknown regions await us and we are impatient to head to the northeast Indian states.

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A pharmacy

On Monday (11.02) we receive the visas and prepare the maps for the journey (we took them from google maps because we couldn’t find proper paper maps at all). In the evening we buy our already favorite vegetarian rolls which are so popular in Kolkata. We go around the neighborhood for one last time. The huge bamboo temples that are built every year for the Durga festival are almost disassembled. We go to bed late as we do here every night.

03.11

Kolkata is a big city and going out of it will be tedious – at least three buses and three hours of riding. Since we’ve entered India we’ve wanted to try riding a train because of the extreme experiences we have heard it offers. We decide that now is our chance.

In the morning we catch a bus to the closest station Seldah. There are at least a dozen of train stations in Kolkata. We buy two tickets for the general compartment. This is the cheapest and the most extreme way of traveling. buy bought tickets to Krishnanagar which is 100 km. away and the ticket costs 25 rupees (35 euro cents). People in this class don’t have reserved seats and inside the carriage can enter as many people as they want. Ticket collectors come seldom and one can even ride for free on short distances.

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First train ride in India – going out of Kolkata

The train is 10 minutes late. It is 11 a.m. which is not rush hour so we even mange to find seats by the window. There are people, but it is not jammed. We travel for two hours and a half and our butts hurt from the very uncomfortable wooden seats. At each station vendors come in – they sell various things: pickles, fresh lemon juice, peanuts etc. We get off and all the rickshaw drivers attack us with offers shouting: “Mayapur – the temple of Krishna Consciousness”. Obviously there is a Krishna temple here where all tourists go. We walk to the circumference and shortly a truck takes us.

The road is in awful condition with huge pot-holes, passes through hundreds of villages and towns and traveling is slow. On top of it it’s getting dark at 5 p.m. and the time when we can hitchhike is limited. After 3 hours we have passed just 40 km. We already regret it we didn’t continue with the train.

After it gets dark we see a restaurant on the road and ask the driver to leave us here.  We are exhausted by the lack of sleep and the traveling. The owner tells us we can pitch our tent on the roof and we fall asleep at 7 p.m..

04.11

We have a very delicious breakfast – freshly baked bread with filling and a meal with French fries with chili. Then the people at the restaurant ask us a very high price for the meal and after a scandal we pay it and leave without even saying good-bye to them.

The first truck that we wave at stops and takes us to Berhampur – a big city 40 km. away. It takes us 2 hours to reach it. All is covered in dust. Endless rows of houses on the road. Bengalese dressed with white vests and blue skirts walk up and down. Again we see the subtle Indian humor in action – at the worst parts of the road there are signs proudly stating: “This road is maintained by the Indian government”. We also see groups of ten people here and there who block the road from time to time and ask money from the drivers for the coming festival Kali Puja.

What we see in Bengal is not very inspiring – dusty, broken roads, overpopulation and endless crop fields. We hope that when we reach the jungles things will get more interesting.

The driver leaves us in the center of the noisy and dirty Berhampur. We walk on the main street and try hitchhiking. Soon a heavy slow truck stops by and luckily goes in our direction. The traffic jams are huge and it takes us an hour to get out of the city. We start considering what are our train options, but when we leave the city we see the perfect wide highway.

We don’t have time to celebrate it because as usually the driver stops for one-hour break for bathing and lunch. We have decided that if our speed doesn’t improve we have to continue traveling with trains because we have only twenty days left in India and the border with Myanmar is still quite far.

After the break we continue full speed on the nice road and we even start taking over the other trucks. We now have a faint hope that we will manage to pass 100 km. in total today. But the hope is crushed soon. We have passed 40 km. when we find ourselves in a big traffic jam. The queue moves 100 m. every 5-10 mins. The two lanes going in our direction are blocked as far as we can see in the distance and soon the opposite lane gets jammed too. We spend the next four hours in the fusty cabin of the truck. The sun sets down. We are covered in a thick layer of dust, dry sweat and dirt and we fall in some kind of trance.

The reason for the traffic jam is the genius of some Indian engineer: the wide highway ends in a super narrow and pot-holed road crossing a town with chaotic traffic. On top of this the trucks are more now because of the coming holidays – Diwali, the celebration of light and Kali Puja in Bengal and Assam.

We decide to stay in the truck till the traffic jam ends, get off when the truck driver stops for dinner and sleep there – wherever “there” is. At 11 p.m. we reach a restaurant with enough space for the tent next to it. We eat our dinner superfast because we haven’t been eaten all day. The drivers don’t let us pay. Then all say we have to sleep in the truck and lock ourselves – the usual safety paranoias. They themselves lie under a tree. We spend the short 5 hours trying to sleep while being attacked by small biting ants.

05.11 

At 5 a.m. we are ready to take off again. The truck will take us to Siliguri – big city 200 km. away. From there we will continue with trains or hitchhiking – depending on the time we have left. We have a couchsurfing.org host who expects us at Guwahati, the capital of the state Assam and we want to get there on the date we agreed.

Six hours later we are a little desperate because we have passed just 130 km. The truck is about to get broken and we drive at 20 km/h. We stop at Islampur and the truckers tell us that after lunch they will try to fix the truck. It will become dark if we wait so we decide to catch a bus to Siliguri.

We head to Islampur on foot and eat a not so delicious lunch in the meantime. We look for an Internet café to tell our hosts that we are still very far away from them (500 km.), but we don’t find any.

MAP Kolkata-SiliguriA small truck saves us from a crowd of caring passersby who try to desperately explain to us that hitchhiking is impossible in India and we have to catch a bus. The driver leaves us 10 km. further, far from rickshaws, caring citizens and bikers trying “to help us”. A luxurious car with two businessmen drives us directly to Siliguri. We wonder whether we shall catch the train again when two things help us with the decision: first we wait for 30 min. for the Prime minister of Bengal to pass by. Then we miss the fork to the circumference. Like this it is easy for us we choose the train.

We are deep inside the city and we have just 30 min. of sunlight left. There is some kind of new sensation in the air. Siliguri is surrounded by tea plantations. The sky is grey and smells of rain. The climate is definitely tropical.

The businessmen leave us far from the train station and we catch a rickshaw to go there. It takes us 40 min. At the train station there are many very strange people from the nearby states. An hour later we hop on the Kanchenjung express going directly to Guwahati. Luckily the general compartments are two and the sleeping compartments are twenty so our carriage is not full. A family who travels next to us gets off 2 hours later and we lie on the soft smelly seats.

In fact the people who travel the whole distance to Guwahati, which are ten hours, buy places at the sleeping carriages. On guy told us: “we are Indians and even we don’t buy tickets for the general compartment for such a long distances”. But we did 🙂 and it was quite nice. I remember traveling sitting the 36 hours from Beijing to Yantai – in comparison Kanchenjunga express is really comfortable. And the fact that you can travel 400 km. lying for 2 euro per person is a real bonus.

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