All Aboard for Ranthambhore!

This morning our wake-up call came at 7.30am so that we’d be packed up and ready to go after breakfast by nine o’clock. We were on the move again today, but our first stop this morning was to Fatehpur Sikri.

As ever we battled our way through the frenetic streets, marvelling at the diversity of the sights and sounds. We saw decorated camels as the main beasts of burden, making their way through the streets crowded with rusting vehicles as well as stray cows, pigs, dogs and people. Lorry drivers also liked to personalise their rigs with flowers, braid and hand painted decals. Among them all were the ubiquitous green-and-yellow tuk-tuks, their drivers doing a roaring trade.

Once we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, we alighted from the bus and followed Vikram through the main gates into the interior, a lot of which seemed to be taken up with a large courtyard. As the political capital of the Mughal Empire for a little over a decade in the 16th century, Fatehpur Sikri must have been a breathtaking sight to behold, an architecturally harmonious wonderland of palaces, pavilions, public residences, mosques and parks. But, superseded by a new capital at Lahore, better located for waging war on the Afghan tribes Fatehpur Sikri remained abandoned and virtually unknown for hundreds of years until it became a popular ‘must see’ among visitors to India.

We spent a couple of hours here, fighting off the persistent hawkers until we once more boarded the bus and Peter opened the “shop”, that is, he allowed one or two of the vendors to sell their wares on the bus and people in our group purchased embroidered mirrored compacts, postcards, trinket boxes, handmade ethnic jewellery and decorated pens. The pens were good value for money – 10 for 100 rupees. Then once more were on our way, and the potholed roads and urban decay gave way to dual carriageway and cultivated fields. I was idly looking out of the window in the late afternoon sunshine at a flock of blue-backed pigeons pecking away in a field; as I watched, they suddenly took to the air as one in a flash of grey and blue, a contrast of natural beauty amidst the insalubrious surroundings of the towns and villages.

Eventually the bus dropped us off at the railway station at Bharatpur Junction; it would be continuing to the Ranthambhore Regency Hotel with all our luggage, so all we needed was our carry-on bags. We found it exciting to be going by train; India’s railways are famous (or infamous, depending how you look at it) the world over. Peter had assured us we wouldn’t be packed into the carriages with only bars across the windows and sharing with chickens and goats as well as people, but we’d be in the Indian equivalent to First Class carriages. 🙂

The first thing we noticed was how incredibly long the platforms were, as indeed were any trains we saw passing through the station. Trevor and I were allocated seats 32 and 33 in coach C1, so we walked along the platform to the place with which coach C1 would be aligned when the train arrived.

We were quite amazed by the things we saw. Despite there being a footbridge which you accessed by means of a long ramp, Indian passengers were just dropping down onto the tracks and walking over them to get to the other side! We saw a one-legged man crutching his way over the tracks as well as some teenagers who showed complete sang froid as they crossed, despite the approaching lights of a slow goods train. But we had to rub our eyes when we saw a cow placidly sauntering along, udder swinging, on the opposite platform. She was completely unconcerned at the passing of the trains and the babbling crowds of people, punctuated every so often by the announcements from the loudspeaker.

Instead of the bing-bong we hear in Britain, there was a loud Ta-daa! preceding each announcement and, around 3.15pm, we heard the announcement for our train, destination Sawai Madhopur. A few seconds later the train rumbled slowly into the station, giving a resounding whoooooonk! as it did so.

We boarded the spacious carriage and made our way to our reserved seats. The carriage was wider than the ones we’re used to in Britain; there were three seats, then the aisle, then two seats. The seats themselves were wide and had lots of leg room, and they had airline-style pull-down tables attached to the seatbacks in front. The large windows had tinted glass in them.

At a blast from the train’s horn we started to move slowly out of the station and I settled down to enjoy the views from the window. The train actually went faster than we’d thought and was a comfortable journey. Several blokes walked up and down the carriages, selling crisps, snacks, sweets, soft drinks and tea (no beer!) and looking around us we saw that our fellow passengers were either reading, napping or looking out of the window – we had a journey of just over two hours.

As the train sped along, we commented how the tracks just ran through streets of dimly-lit dwellings or through cultivated fields. Several times we saw more cows alongside, or even on, the track, as well as dogs, people, and on one occasion, a large pig. My daily commute to work in Newcastle will never seem quite the same after this! 🙂

At around 5.45pm, as dusk was descending, the train pulled slowly into Sawai Madhopur station and we gathered together our stuff and disembarked into the balmy air, rich with the thrilling smell of woodsmoke and incense, as small lights twinkled in the nearby dwellings and shops to welcome the coming night.

We walked over the footbridge and out of the station and there to meet us were a couple of canters, or open-topped single-decker buses. They reminded me a bit of the old-fashioned charabancs of decades gone by. Each canter carried 20 passengers plus guide and driver and these would ultimately be the vehicles in which we would go off on safari in Ranthambhore National Park, with the first safari being tomorrow morning at 7.00am.

It was only a short hop to Ranthambhore Regency Hotel, about 10 minutes. The hotel was more rustic than the Trident at Agra, but was nevertheless picturesque and charming. We were allocated room 118, which was near to the pool and small pool bar.

As the coach carrying our luggage had not yet arrived, we had a quick wash and brush-up before making our way to the hotel bar for a cold Kingfisher each. 🙂 We then had a look around, calling at the small souvenir shop which sold all sorts of stuff from clothing, to hand-painted tiger wall-hangings to jewellery and lots of other tempting wares. Their prices were very reasonable too, and I did the touristy thing and bought a Ranthambhore National Park t-shirt featuring a picture of a tiger. It was only 300 rupees, or three quid, so a bargain. 🙂

Then it was time to go to the dining room where, once again, we enjoyed a delicious Indian meal. There were other tour groups there, from Germany and the USA, so the dining room was busy with everyone looking forward to the next couple of days.

After we’d had our dinner we went back to our room to see if the cases had arrived, but they hadn’t. So we had to go along to the bar again and have another beer, whether we wanted to or not. 😉

Eventually the bus pulled up and all the cases were offloaded and reunited with their respective owners. We went to bed fairly early tonight as we had to be up at 5.45am for the first of three safaris. With any luck, tomorrow we would have the immense pleasure of seeing that most magnificent of animals, a tiger in its own natural habitat, wild and free.

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