Our trip to Hampi began, fittingly, with a monsoon, as we struggled to stuff ourselves and our luggage into the tiny cab, while trying rather unsuccessfully not to get soaked in the process. We chatted excitedly during the 45 minute ride to the train station, unsure of many things: what the 11-hour train venture would consist of, our accommodations in Hampi, what exactly we were planning to do. Security is pretty lax in the train station; no one checked our bags or our tickets and we kind of just strolled through the metal detector onto the platform.
In preparation for this trip, I had studied an article written by a man whom seems to call himself “India Mike.” He had an extremely detailed article on the Sleeper Class part of the railway system, which was the class we had selected. If you’re really curious, check it out here, as he does a far better and more detailed job of explaining things than I could. In this article, he ranks the different seats from best to worst. I was thus excited, upon seeing my seat code printed on my ticket, that I had received the “Side Upper” berth, which based on his article is akin to winning the lottery.
All in all, the train ride itself wasn’t nearly as awful as I had been imagining- considering whenever we had told locals at school that this was our intended method of transport, they had looked rather incredulously and shook their heads: “You realize there’s no AC, right?” It was about as comfortable as I think you can get for a bunk and there was decent air flow. The “Side Upper” was as wonderful as promised, besides the fact that you’re kind of exposed to the whole train while lying there, which made me a little apprehensive about my bags while I was sleeping. I ended up stuffing my backpack into the bottom of the makeshift sleeping bag I had- which consisted of a queen-sized sheet, folded in half and sewn at the bottom and ¾ of the way up the other side (hopefully you can visualize this). Honestly, I’d recommend making a bag like this to anyone doing light traveling in warmer months- it was perfect for this occasion.
I slept fitfully, waking up a few times when people walked by (the downside to the “Side Upper” berth, I suppose), but better than I expected, and awoke to four men looking at me curiously from the bunks across the aisle. They turned out to be really nice, and part of a larger group of people- about 15 in total- that were extremely generous and insisted on sharing their breakfast with us. We had been warned about accepting food from strangers while traveling- both because of safety reasons and because of us potentially getting sick from uncooked food. However, it is also considered rude to decline, and, once someone offers you something, they have already decided in their mind that they are going to share their food with you, so it is a little tricky to say no. “You want breakfast, yes?” prompted a man in yellow shirt “Oh no, we’re fine, we’re really not hungry” I protested weakly. The man nods excitedly, and four others appear, bearing plates, bowls, and various breakfast foods. We looked at each other and shrugged- everyone was eating it, so it mustn’t have been that dangerous! (and it was very good)
Upon arriving in Hospet (which is a small town outside of Hampi where the train station is located) we were immediately surrounded by various rickshaw drivers, shouting out (drastically inflated) prices to drive us the 13 km to our hostel: “300 rupees, madam, all the way to Hampi” promised one driver. We looked at him incredulously: “150 rupees, no more, and all the way to our hostel,” insisted one of the girls. The driver faltered and we walked on. I’m learning more that rickshaw bargaining is kind of similar to bargaining while shopping, say you’re going to look somewhere else instead, and the price will magically drop. “Okay! Fine. All the way to your hostel” the man shouted after us, and leads us to a rickshaw. After clarifying again where exactly he was taking us and agreeing on the price once more, we were off.
Hampi is absolutely, overwhelmingly beautiful. While I still doubt anything will compare to the pure, breathtaking awe I felt at the Taj Mahal, Hampi may be the most beautiful place I have been in India thus far. In the same view, there are large reddish rocks (making me nostalgic for the western U.S.), palm trees, rice fields, and wide open skies. In addition, there are what looked like ten thousand temples and shrines hidden everywhere you turned, adding to the magical feel of this town.
There are two parts of Hampi, the main “town” area, and a quieter area that is across a small river. During the peak of monsoon season, this other area literally becomes an island when the river swells and completely encircles it. This was the side on which we were staying, meaning we had to take a small boat back and forth. On our first day (we arrived around 11:00 am) we decided to hike to Hanuman’s Temple, which was about 4 miles from the hostel where we were staying (which looked like a tropical resort, but cost less than $20 for two people for two nights). After unpacking, we loaded up with bug spray and purchased some two-liters of water (yes, they sell bottles this big) to prepare for our hike.
Once again, the sheer beauty of Hampi was astounding. As we wandered around dirt, gravel, and finally paved roads, we marveled at the scenery before us. A short while later we arrived at the foot of Anjaneya Hill. Legend has it that Hanuman, or the “monkey god,” was born at the top of this hill, which is a (short) 600 stair climb to the top! After a brief break we marched up, pausing every now and then to admire the landscape (which, if possible, was even prettier from an elevation) and the monkeys (!) which were everywhere. They weren’t that shy either; it was clear they were used to people and almost expected food from them. The slight domesticity was heartbreaking, yet also slightly a relief because it didn’t seem like they would be attacking anytime soon. After ducking under a huge rock, we finally reached the top (albeit a little out of breath).
The scene from the top was almost hauntingly beautiful. We could hear the murmured chants from inside the temple as we quietly explored the plateau at the top of the hill. A gentle breeze and ample cloud coverage provided some relief as we took in the surroundings. The stark white of the temple was contrasted against the brightly colored accents, the deep brown-red of the rocks, the grey river, the electric green and emerald and forest, and every other shade of green dappled along the land before us, punctured by slender palm trees and spotted with occasional pink flowers: it was a sight unlike any other I have seen.
Off to the side of the temple were larger boulders that extended along the top of Anjaneya Hill. We clambered on top of these for a while, pausing to catch our breath and admire the scenery. All in all, it was extremely serene and peaceful, and a wonderful break from the hustle of the city we had been accustomed to in Hyderabad.
By the time we trekked down the hill and walked back to our hostel we were ravenous. After asking around, we decided to try somewhere called “The Laughing Buddha,” as it boasted of a riverfront view and a 5-star rating.
We were not disappointed. This was vacation, which means you can eat whatever you want, right? Good. We enjoyed a dinner of coconut Nutella crepes, pizza, and a sort of “chocolate ball” for dessert (still not quite sure of what it consisted, but it was chocolate, so it was good). My nutrition professor would have been so proud of this balanced meal!
We headed to bed early that night: we had walked a total of 9 miles, climbed 600 stairs, spent the previous night on the train and planned to be up around 8 am so we could cross the river, grab breakfast, and explore the town before our planned rickshaw tour at 10:00 am.
While perusing the menu at breakfast (at the quaint rooftop restaurant of Gopi House, definitely recommend as well if you ever find yourself in Hampi, we quickly realized that nearly all the restaurants serve a variety of the same food, catering to the plethora of European tourists that vacation here. We weren’t necessarily complaining. I may or may not have had three coconut Nutella crepes, which they call pancakes here, during our three day visit. This will be neither confirmed nor denied.
The rickshaw tour can only accurately be described as a whirlwind. Some of the tourbooks I skimmed about Hampi said that you either need only a few days in Hampi or at least a month there, so you can really dive into the history and explore more in depth. Given that a month isn’t possible we went with the abridged version of Hampi. However, I don’t necessarily think we were shorted on anything: in our 7 hour tour (which consisted of us bouncing around in the rickshaw to each destination, our driver telling us a few words about the place, and leaving us to explore on our own) we visited at least ten different places: temples, shrines, old forts/complexes, and even a museum.
This type of tour was different than any we had been on before. During our travels in Northern India, we had a guide at each historical site, nearly bursting with information to feed our eager ears. Now, we were on our own. While I did enjoy the fact that it was up to us to decide how long we wanted to spend at a certain place, and what specifically saw, the hidden history lover inside of me did miss learning everything there was to know about each particular site. Some had an informational plaque, which was helpful, but it was less history overall.
Out of everything we saw during the day, my favorite was the Lakshimi Narasimha Temple (also known as Ugra Narasimha). This temple depicts Narasimha sitting cross-legged on a coiled, seven-headed snake (one of the heads can be seen above the god’s own, looking like a hood). Narasimha is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Originally, the Goddess Lakshimi (hence the original temple name) was sitting in the lap of Narasimha, but this figure was damaged and destroyed long ago, probably during the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire.
We were pretty lucky with weather: while it did get very warm and sunny there were also respites with the occasional midday monsoon, which did leave us stranded in a shrine to Lord Hanuman at one point. I suppose there are worse places to be trapped, though?
By the time we reached the last temple, however, we were fading fast. It is worth noting that we were so determined to get everything in that we didn’t exactly take any breaks while sight-seeing. So, at 5:45 pm as we headed towards the river to cross, everyone was getting a little “hangry.”
As we sailed slowly across, we started talking to the two young couples in the boat with us. From Bangalore, they were here on a brief vacation, and invited us to join them at their hostel for dinner. I am so glad we did for two reasons. First of all, they were all incredibly nice and friendly; a prime example of how genuinely kind nearly everyone is here. They were all in their late 20s, so not much older than us, and extended an open invitation to Bangalore, should we ever get the chance to visit. One of the guys was particularly funny- he used to teach at a university and said that we reminded him of his students. After asking us what kinds of music we listened to (and what kinds our parents played for us growing up) he declared my exposure satisfactory. He then offered us some wasabi peas as we waited for dinner to come, stating that sometimes you need to “assault your senses” (they were really spicy).
The second reason I was glad we had accepted this invitation to dinner was because I had the best Indian food I have had since arriving in India. I realize this is a bold claim, but the cashew masala I ate was so delicious, I’m nearly tearing up now while writing this. I don’t think I have ever had cashew masala before, but I believe I would be content eating it every day from now on. It was that good.
After the lively dinner and conversation, we bid our hosts goodnight and returned to our hostel, falling asleep pretty early again after our exhausting but enjoyable day.
Realizing that falling back asleep after all this excitement would be nearly impossible, I quickly got ready and took my Hindi homework outside to the restaurant area of our hostel, which was pretty much just a covered deck with pillows on the ground and tables haphazardly scattered. I got approximately one sentence written before being distracted by the gorgeous view before me, an offer of tea and cake, and the only other souls awake: an Indian man who was a tour guide in Kerala (rumored to be even more beautiful than Hampi…) and an Italian tourist. I showed the Italian the Hindi I was learning and practiced it briefly with the Indian, who told us about a special-needs school in Kerala that he helps out at, which provides schooling to children with special needs, and helps set them up with jobs when they are older. The Italian guy told us how he has been traveling for a few months- Indonesia first, and now a brief stint in India before returning home to Italy for a bit before exploring Central and South America. Between these two, the couples we met the previous night, and two other men we’d meet later, simply getting to know people and learning their story was, in my opinion, just as cool as exploring the city.
We had breakfast at the Gopi House again (their homemade muesli was incredible), where they kindly let us leave our bags (as we had to check out of our hostel at 10:00 am) and we explored the main temple, the Virupaksha Temple, which is in the center of the city. We spent an hour wandering around the inner compound and admiring the temple elephant before heading towards the Hampi waterfalls, which we had heard were an easy 2 km walk from the main bazaar.
Here’s a quick tip: don’t go chasing waterfalls. After stomping through a banana plantation for 50 minutes in the heat of the day, thick black mud trying to steal our shoes at every step, we abandoned our quest and decided to return to the town for lunch before catching the bus back to the train station. We had saved what was hailed as the best restaurant in Hampi for last: a place called Mango Tree.
While I’m not sure anything will ever compare to the cashew masala I had had the night before, their cashew curry was pretty darn good (note: masala and curry are vastly different dishes, although both are delicious). And the dessert was to die for: a thin pancake/crepe, smothered in nutella and sprinkled with fresh coconut and sliced bananas; it was almost too good.
Stuffed, we waddled out of the Mango Tree Restaurant and caught the bus back to the train station, readying ourselves for another 11-hour journey. While still really not that bad at all, this ride wasn’t quite as enjoyable. I was assigned the “Middle Berth,” which (though I don’t recall India Mike’s opinion) I am deciding is the worst berth ever. Not only was it claustrophobic (considering I’m fairly short and I couldn’t sit up straight, I shudder to think of someone taller than me in this bunk), you are directly parallel to the bunk across from you, which meant that I got to stare into the eyes of the middle aged man across from me all night. Also worth mentioning is that the middle berth folds upwards, and is supported by two chains from the top berth. Meaning if, for some reason these chains break, the middle berth will swing downwards and “probably kill the person on the lower berth upon impact” (direct quote). Already nervous about this, I became even more worried when two men climbed into the bunk above me, which caused me to imagine their bunk collapsing on me, which would cause my bunk to collapse on the man below me, meaning we would all be goners.
Thankfully, we survived the night, and somehow, despite leaving 30 minutes late, arrived in Hyderabad 50 minutes ahead of schedule, which was nice because it gave me a little extra time to nap before Kuchipudi (classical Indian dance popular in Southern India, which is beginning to become like a boot camp of sorts).
In retrospect, this was a wonderful, and much needed, mini-vacation. I didn’t realize until I was out of Hyderabad that it can occasionally be a bit stifling on campus considering you’re a 30 minute walk and then a rickshaw ride away from anywhere. And if you’re ever in India, Hampi is a must see.