Orissa - Perth

Leaving New Jalpaiguri late at night, we arrived at Calcutta in the morning, and went immediately to the booking office, eager to go straight to Orissa and avoid staying in Calcutta, even overnight. The best we could do was a 2AC berth to Puri, leaving late that night, so we decided to go with it, bought the tickets, and thought about what to do for the afternoon. At that time of year Calcutta is hot and tiring under the best conditions; with packs on our backs we were loath to see more of a city that had not made a good impression last time, so we opted to go to Howrah Railway station early and wait there. This is not as boring as it may sound. Life at the railway station is fantastic, with people coming and going, living out their lives in the foyer (or so it appears, from the semi-permenant camps set up by many families), and there is always someone to talk to or something to look at. After dinner we took advantage of the 1st class waiting room to have showers, get changed, and prepare for our journey.

As the time approached to leave, we haunted the announcement boards, looking for our reservations to be posted, but nothing happened - our train didn't appear on the lists. Trains came and went, as did our departure time, with no announcements. Finally one of our fellow-travellers told us that there had been a derailment and that our train would be some time yet. We finally pulled out of Howrah at 1am, and fell into bed and asleep immediately.

Morning found us a long way from our destination, slowly chugging through the flat lands of Orissa. The countryside was green and lush, and all along the way we could see temples in even the smallest villages. We crossed the wide Mahanadi River, and worked out that this was Cuttack. It seemed to take a long time to reach Bhubaneshwar, and then an eternity to get to Puri, such a short distance away; the train was slow, and stopped frequently.

We finally reached Puri, where Geoff and I decided to walk from the station to the beach, much to the dismay of a rickshaw cyclist, who insisted on acompanying us, his price for the trip dropping lower and lower as we got closer to the beach! We stayed in the Z Hotel, in a huge corner room with canopied bed, mosquito net (much appreciated) and reasonable food. Best of all was the view from the roof, taking in the wide beach, temples along the way, and the fishing village to the north.

The beach isn't a great place to swim, being used as a huge open-air toilet, but the fishing village is an interesting place to visit, especially when they are bringing in the boats. These are just some roughly-hacked tree trunks, bound together into crude boats, then unlashed and left on the beach in pieces to dry when they aren't being used. The fishermen bring in a wide variety of fish, from tiny to large, including rays and sharks. Shark fins are cut off immediately, on the beach, since they are prized exports to China.

Puri is home to the Jagganath Temple, closed to non-Hindus. We walked around the perimeter, then sought out the library, to gain a view into the temple compound. The library staff are well practiced at extorting large donations out of curious travellers, presenting you with a book recording other donations, some of staggering amounts. We paid our more modest but still rather exorbitant amount and were led up to the tower. In truth, the view into the temple was less than exciting, although the tower does offer a great view over the wide main street leading from the temple to the beach, and it was almost worth it to gaze out over the town from such a good vantage point.

One of our days in Puri was spent going out to Konark (Konarak), to the Temple of the Sun. This temple was only uncovered this century, although it dates from the 13th century, and its state of decay and status as a national monument make it open to all visitors. It is a really wonderful temple, covered with high-relief carvings in a style similar to those at the famous temples of Khajuraho.

We spent a lot of our time in Puri just wandering around the town, looking at the small, local temples, visiting the wood-carving centre and stone-carvers. On our last day we were walking the length of the beach, when I saw a piece of palm-leaf book in the sand - palm-leaf that had sanscrit text scratched into it, then dye used to highlight the writing. There was a hole in the middle, where string would have been threaded to keep the book intact. As we walked along, more and more of these leaves were to be seen, so we collected them up, and ended up with a substantial number of pages from an old text. We took them back to the hotel, cleaned them up, and kept them as an unusual souvenier of our trip, assuming they were washed in from a ship. Later we saw a book of this type in Bhubaneshwar, selling for some hundreds of dollars.

We caught the early bus to Bhubaneshwar, renowned for its temples. We had time in the afternoon to look at some of the closer temples, but the heat was oppressive, and we left it until the next morning to explore the extent of the buildings around the town. The temples are impressive, with extensive carving, and many are set in gardens. I was led off to the depth of one dark temple by the priest, intent on extorting donations, and given a lecture on how I would have lots of babies and be very happy. I paid up, not bothering to tell him about my tied tubes! When we were exhausted from the heat and suffering temple-overload, we headed back to our air-conditioned room to recover, emerging to explore more of the town in the evening. Bhubaneshwar has a lovely park just up from the railway station, an excellent place to sit on the lawn as the shaddows grow long, and observe the flow of life around you.

We spent a day out at the Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves. They are quite a way out of town, requiring a bus ride and then a walk, but we found them even more interesting than the temples back in town. Udayagiri has some impressive caves carved into the hard rock on the face of the hill, but the most interesting things are the granite boulders, hollowed out as dwellings or storage spaces, with doors and windows opening out onto the world. Even small boulders were carved into rooms, just big enough for me to crawl into, and one tall rock was two-storied, with entrances on opposing sides for the top and bottom rooms. Right at the top of the hill we came across a curious set of trees, where stones tied in red cloth were attached to the tree branches. We were unable to find anyone who could tell what this was, or why it was done. Khandagiri is reached by climbing steep steps, with long-tailed monkeys scampering up and down, or sitting along the edges of the masonary. The caves were not as interesting as Udayagiri, but we climbed to the top of the hill for the view back to Bhubaneshwar.

Having a couple of days left before we were due to fly out of Calcutta, and being reluctant to return too early to that city, we decided to go to Chilka Lake for a couple of nights. We caught the bus down south, but part of the way to the lake a fight broke out between the bus driver and some of the passengers, and the bus staff seemed to go on strike. Mind you - that was our interpretation, since no-one spoke English, and we lacked any local languages. Eventually, all the passengers left the bus, gesturing for us to do so as well,and we clambered out, reclaimed our luggage, and tried to work out where we were and what to do about it. We were just deciding whether or not to walk, when a shout went up; another bus pulled in, and everyone jostled aboard. Somehow or other we all fitted in, crushed together in the aisle.

We decided to get off at the first town on the lake - Barkul - and had the people next to us point it out. In the event, we were set down some distance from the Government Tourist Bungalow, but helpful people gestured us in the right direction, and we walked into the tourist compound, much to the surprise of the staff, used to much more affluent visitors arriving by car. We booked in, and set out to explore the area, but found it very disappointing. At that time of year (June) there were no migratory birds, so the water was desolate. In addition, a massive water sports "baths" was being constructed just near the Bungalow, with dusty earthworks and noisy machinery. We managed to amuse ourselves for the day or so we were there, but wondered at the well-off Indian families who spend their entire holidays here, with nothing to do, nowhere to go, limited choice of menu for meals, unreliable electricity and voracious mosquitoes. We were bored, and weren't unhappy when the time came to pack up and return to Bhubaneshwar.

After one last day in Orissa, looking at handicrafts, we caught the train back to Calcutta, arriving the next morning. We booked back into the hotel we had used on arrival from Australia, enjoying the airconditioning to fight off the oppressive heat. We had another full day before we were booked to fly to Bangkok, and spent it shopping, mainly in the extensive Hogg markets, looking for silk saris and material. During the afternoon it poured with rain, and we waded ankle-deep down Sudder Street to find a restaurant for our evening meal.

We left for the airport, quite happy to leave Calcutta behind us. On the plane we scanned the papers, and were horrified to read of the slaughter of democracy movement protestors in Bangkok, just happening. We landed in the early evening, and caught the train in, seeing deserted and barricaded roads, fires burning in the middle of the intersections, and a hushed and unhappy group of commuters. Although it was barely 8pm the streets near the railway station were deserted, and the hotel was shut - curfews were still in place. We rattled urgently, and the hotel keeper let us in by the side door, provided us with a hurried meal, and we all scurried off to bed.

Although the curfew was lifted the next day, life was subdued, and people watched the TV, read the papers, and listened to the radio, all anxious for news of what was to happen as a result of the demonstration and deaths. Everyone we spoke to was horrified, although I had a little deja vu, having been in Bangkok in the 70's, when students were hung in front of the University for some of the same reasons that they were shot this time.

We caught the early train out to the airport, happy to be heading back to democratic Australia. However, that was not to be. Although no flights were affected as a result of the uprising, our flight was cancelled; the democratic baggage handlers in Perth had decided to withhold their labour, and no flights were going into or out of Perth for an indefinite period! People were rushing here and there, trying to switch to other flights, and a number of the passengers managed to get through to Melbourne or Sydney. We were on cut-price tickets, and had to take whatever was offering; Thai Airlines booked us onto a flight three days away, and we headed back to the city.

We decided to move upmarket to a better hotel with air-conditioning, and found a reasonable place near the main shopping area. We could spend one day shopping, but aren't really excited by endless Pierre Cardin and Guy Larouche outlets, and didn't really want to go uptown to the area where people had been shot - it seemed a bit goulish. We compromised, and went to sleazy Pattaya, where people shop for flesh and probably should be shot!

Our next trip out to Don Muang proved successful; the baggage handler strike was over, and six hours later we were home.

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