by Kate Humble, The Telegraph, April 22, 2019
The long, blue train pulled out of the station at Delhi, left behind the shacks and camps beneath the bridges and along the sidings, and carved its way through neatly ordered green fields, guarded by scarecrows and cattle egrets.
At Agra it stopped and the other 20 or so foreign passengers in my carriage got off. But I stayed put for another hour until the train had crossed into the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and pulled into the station of a town called Gwalior.
Gwalior does not make it on to many tourist itineraries, which is extraordinary, given that is has one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. And I have seen the Taj Mahal. It is a city of 1.5 million people – small by Indian standards – spread across a flat plain, and overlooked by a high ridge of red sandstone.
Look up to the ridge from anywhere and you see that it is encircled by a crenellated wall. A magnificent stone gate, big enough to ride an elephant through, leads from the hubbub of the city up a winding road to the top, where awaits the remains of Gwalior fort.
When it was built in the 15th century for the ruler of the time, it was like a city within a city. The site covers about 500 acres and, although only a fraction of the original complex remains today, it is impossible not to gasp at its intricate beauty.
A few of the internal rooms and courtyards have been restored, a shady maze of staircases and passages lit by the sun filtered through elaborately carved stone screens. But it is the exterior wall that makes a visitor stand, slack-jawed with delight: gold stone, sculpted and shaped into turrets, finials and reliefs with the remains of jewel-bright ceramic tiles that pick out the details of the stonework. An architectural treasure and yet, on that sunny January morning, I was the sole foreigner paying homage to it.
I was travelling during peak season, but reasoned that in a country as vast and diverse as India, I could still avoid the tourist crowds and find treasures that, for one reason or another, get missed off tour operators’ itineraries. Hotels – or the lack of good ones – are one of those reasons. But in 1906, Gwalior was visited by the Prince of Wales, later George V, and the incumbent maharaja built him his own palace to stay in.
Now non-royalty are allowed to stay and take advantage of the beautiful rooms, tranquil gardens, charming staff and delicious food, much of it grown by the award-winning chef and his team in the hotel grounds.
I have visited India several times and still I find the sheer number of people and the chaotic streets full of mopeds, cars, dogs, pedestrians, trucks, cows, blaring horns, the shouts of hawkers, colour, smells (good and bad) exhilarating and overwhelming in equal measure. Outside the peaceful confines of the hotel, Gwalior, too, has all the colour and chaos, but on a smaller, less-intimidating scale.
My guide, Manu, at first horrified that I wanted to spend more time on the street than at the maharaja’s palace (I did go, to appease him, but giant chandeliers and roped-off rooms are not really my thing), quickly shed his tourist guide persona and introduced me to the things he loves about his home city.
When he was a boy, his grandparents would take him to buy garak from the Faridi family, who have been selling the sesame seed and jaggery treat for 150 years. It is still made in the traditional way in the small room adjoining the shop. Jaggery, a kind of cane sugar, is boiled at a high temperature on a fire until it becomes like a soft toffee. It is then mixed with sesame seeds and beaten, by men with heavy wooden mallets, on the stone floor. The result is delicious.
Later, I joined the afternoon crowds at a stall selling chole bhature and feasted, for 100 rupees (just over £1), on potato and chickpea curry, scooped up with hot puffs of deep-fried naan bread and accompanied by potent green chillies. I drank hot, sweet, gingery chai with the market workers. And everyone treated me with a gentle, genuine hospitality. India may be full of ancient treasures, but they are only a tiny part of what makes it such a compelling and exciting country to visit. As I boarded another train to take me further south, I was genuinely sad to leave.
I was heading for another unlikely tourist destination, the state capital, Bhopal. The name is familiar, perhaps, because of the horrific Union Carbide disaster – a lethal gas leak at a woefully mismanaged factory that killed thousands of Bhopal citizens in 1984. But it is worth allowing it to shed its tragic past because it is a lovely city of faded grandeur full of friendly people, vibrant street life, impressive mosques and crumbling but still beautiful palaces built around a huge man-made lake.
It also has the Museum of Tribal Life, which if it hadn’t been for young local guide Ajay, I wouldn’t have bothered with, imagining it to be full of dusty glass cases of badly labelled exhibits. But Ajay was insistent – rightly so, because it turned out to be one of the best museums I have ever visited and made me want to immediately cancel my ticket home and spend the rest of my days exploring the remote villages of Madhya Pradesh.
The state also has three Unesco World Heritage Sites, two within easy reach of Bhopal. There is the magnificent Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, built in the second century BC, abandoned in the 11th century and hidden in thick jungle until it was rediscovered by a British Army officer in the early 1800s.
There is the temple at Bhojpur, not a World Heritage Site and not on my original itinerary, but again I have Ajay to thank for taking me there. It looks, from the bottom of the hill on which it sits, like a rather plain, very solid, not very beautiful box.
It is only when you climb the steps, when you take in its vastness, the unfathomable size of the pieces of stone used to create the building and its centrepiece which you realise that in the 11th century when it was built there were no machines, no cranes, only manpower and elephants, that you are left speechless with wonder.
And older still are the remarkable paintings on the rocks at Bhimbetka. These are believed to be the oldest examples of rock art on the Indian subcontinent, but they span an enormous period of time: the oldest are thought to date back 30,000 years, the most recent 3,000 years – an extraordinary record of human settlement and cultural evolution. I felt, as I wandered between the sculptural sandstone rocks, a direct and visceral connection with our Stone Age past.
Although I had seen almost no other foreign tourists anywhere I had visited, Madhya Pradesh does have one of India’s biggest tourist draws: tiger reserves. Of its nine national parks, six are tiger reserves, the most famous being Bandhavgarh and Kanha.
But I decided on Satpura National Park, better known for its sloth bear sightings than for tigers. I stayed at the Reni Pani Jungle Lodge on the outskirts of the park. Tucked discreetly among the trees, the lodge is run by Aly Rashid, whose family also runs the two smartest hotels in Bhopal.
Aly is a passionate and hugely knowledgeable naturalist, as are all the guides who work with him. On my first day in the reserve, I was introduced to giant squirrels, two species of deer, wild pigs, blue bulls, the huge gaur bison and a great variety of birds. I tracked tigers in the morning and a big, male leopard in the afternoon and, although both remained elusive, I did spend an unforgettable half-hour or so in the company of a very relaxed sloth bear, foraging for berries and unperturbed by her enraptured audience.
But it was not just its wildlife that drew me to Satpura. It is the only park in Madhya Pradesh that has a walking trail and allows you to camp. Together with Aly and a local forest guide, I set off from the hill station of Pachmarhi. Our route descended gently through trees and dappled sunlight.
We followed the tracks of a sloth bear and later those of a jungle cat. We stopped frequently to watch mixed flocks of brightly coloured birds feeding among the branches and on the forest floor. A loud rustling and grunting alerted us to a family of wild pigs on the other side of a ravine and, when we stopped for our picnic lunch in a beautiful spot by a shallow river, I held my breath as a shy barking deer approached the bank to drink, unaware that she was being admired.
Our route continued, following the river, and we walked in the company of kingfishers, pond herons, wagtails and a crested eagle. In the warm, pink glow of the evening sun, we waded across the cool water to the opposite bank, where the most beautiful camp had been erected on the sand.
The next day, we walked on, again following the river – and the tracks of a big male leopard. As the sun warmed up, birds started to call and feed: orioles and woodpeckers, flycatchers and parakeets. Butterflies flitted amongst the foliage and we came across a wonderful array of them: common jezebels, lemon pansies, forget-me-nots – feeding on a flowering shrub. A deep pool lured me into its cool, green water for a swim, and I lay back, gazing upwards, drinking in the beauty and scale of the landscape around me.
As we sat around our campfire that evening, the almost full moon casting silvery shadows around us, an owl calling in the deep, velvety silence, I realised that, for the past two days, I had seen no other people, something I did not think possible in a country that has a population of more than a billion. But my journey had defied my expectations and previous experience of India.
There is good reason why the Taj Mahal and the palaces of Jaipur will always draw the crowds, but there is a compelling reason to look beyond the crowds. Because it is a country full of treasures, full of experiences and full of opportunities.
All you need to do is stay on the train until the next stop.
Kate Humble travelled as a guest of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com, 020 87417390) which offers small group and tailor-made holidays across India. Kate’s 14-day itinerary, through Gwalior, Bhopal and Satpura National Park, finishing in Goa with private guides, all sightseeing and full luxury camping facilities, costs from £3,950 pp, excluding international flights. Kate will be talking about her experience in India at the Frontline Club, Paddington, on April 30. Doors open at 6pm for talk at 7pm. See wildfrontiers travel.com/events for details.