Five hundred years ago the southern Indian town of Hampi was one of the largest cities in the world and the richest in India. Today it’s a dusty village with 8 square blocks of dirt roads and narrow concrete structures — a far cry from its heyday half a millennium ago.
Once the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi is now a UNESCO heritage site with an economy that almost entirely caters to tourism. People traveling from all around India, with a few foreigners like myself sprinkled in, come to visit the ruins and various sites that hold particular significance in the Hindu religion.
Geographically, Hampi actually reminds me a bit of my home in San Diego. The terrain is dominated by rolling hills strewn with large, weathered granite boulders. It looks just like the mountains of San Diego, albeit with a more tropical climate and frisky primates.
I came to India with flexible travel plans. When I asked around about places that I had to visit, Hampi repeatedly was recommended by locals. So I figured, why not give it a go? I packed up my backpack and surfboards to ironically head inland as my third stop in India.
Getting to Hampi: Learning how to ride Indian trains
Trains are the lifeline of travel in India. The web of routes is extensive and if you are willing to stay on the train long enough, you can get from one side of the country to the other in one ride.
Learning how to navigate the Indian train system takes a bit of know-how, especially if you are traveling with big bags like me.
The trains are segmented into different tickets that vary in comfort. The amount you pay determines if you have a seat or a bed, the size of your bed, if there is AC or not, and how many people you’ll be crammed with.
For my first ride on an Indian train, I opted for somewhere in the middle — an air-conditioned class that had three vertical tiers of beds.
With much effort, I squeezed my bags through the narrow car door and found my seat. My section sat six people, with three beds that were laid out vertically on each side, perpendicular to the length of the train. The middle bunk folded down into a backrest if the passengers decided they wanted to sit on the lower bed instead of sleeping in the stacked beds.
That led me to my first lesson about Indian trains: You and your immediate neighbors will become intimately acquainted during the ride. Since I was on the bottom bunk, if I wanted to sleep, I had to reach a consensus with the other passengers on my side to agree to fold out the middle bunk and turn it into beds. Luckily everyone was easy-going, but I can only imagine how an inconsiderate neighbor could make your train ride hell.
My experience with traveling long distances on trains, planes, or buses around the world is that you are allotted your own personal space, even if it is small. I realized that on the Indian trains, you have no such space. This first hit me when the guy across from me put his feet up on my bed while I was sleeping it. He was polite and careful not to touch me, but I realized that in the world’s most populated country, the same personal bubble rules do not apply. Space is scarce. I couldn’t complain much because my surf bag and backpack were taking up more than half of the available luggage space, so I popped in my headphones and listened to tunes for the 8-hour ride through the Indian countryside.
Lightning tour through Hampi
Before I could even slow my momentum from stepping off the train, a young, striking man with carefully crafted hair and model good looks grabbed my bag and offered me a ride into town in his rickshaw. He introduced himself as Muttu in a level of English was quite good, which made him stand out from the crowd. Years of working in tourism had perfected his sweet talk and wide smile for visitors. I decided to avoid the whole taxi debacle that always ensues when you arrive in a new city and just go with this charming fellow.
We strapped my surfboard on the top, much to the curiosity of the locals who would squint their eyes trying to figure out what we were transporting on the roof. From the train station it was a bumpy 30-minute ride in the open-air rickshaw to the little town of Hampi where I had booked a room.
Hampi has over 1,600 ruins spread over an area of 16 square miles. It would take months to see it all, so I opted to just see the main sites on my first day. The most efficient way to do so was by hiring a guide, which Muttu offered to do for about USD $20, the going rate. (He later subcontracted the job to his friend. Not a problem, I suppose.)
The tour commenced at a few sites that were laughably close to where we started. So close, I was beginning to regret having paid for the guide. “Why didn’t I just walk here myself,” I pondered. The new guide didn’t provide much background info unless I pressed him, and his English was a little more limited as far as what he could explain.
At that point, I was an hour into an all-day tour, so I figured I was in for a long day.
But it got better.
As I explored several other sites throughout the course of the day they became more interesting, and far enough that I realized the hired driver was necessary. I was particularly impressed by the old gargantuan stone stables where they use to tame and house elephants. The granite monolithic rock carvings (as in one piece of stone) were also awe-inspiring.
By the end of the day, I felt that I had definitely got my money’s worth, and I had done so much walking around ruins that I was utterly exhausted.
Day 2: The journey trumps the destination
My trip to Hampi was strategically quick. I only planned to stay two and a half days before returning to the coast, correctly estimating that I could only last a short time in such a small, yet crowded, tourist destination.
I was content with the sites I had seen on day 1, so on day 2 I crafted a more mellow itinerary: a sunrise hike to a temple followed by a long walk to another hill coined “Monkey Temple.” The proper name of monkey temple is Anjanadri Hill, which holds significance for Hindus as the birthplace of the Hanuman, a half-human half-monkey god that symbolizes strength and energy.
The sunrise hike was nice, but the hike of Anjanadri Hill was a bust in my book.
The monkey temple was absurdly crowded. To reach the top you have to scale 500 narrow stairs that wind up the hill, and, in hindsight, this should have been obvious, but it was quite congested at noon on a Sunday. The line was slow, the beating sun made it pretty miserable, and people were getting desperate and pushy to make the line budge. When I finally reached the top I enjoyed the views, which were not any better than the previous hike I did in the morning, and then decided that was enough. I lingered for maybe 10 minutes on top before hopping in the same snail-paced line back to the bottom.
The destination was so-so, but as the cliché goes, the journey was more memorable.
I was a bit stubborn about saving money this day and decided to walk the 3 miles or so under the beating tropical sun. I enjoy a good walk, but midway through I was beginning to regret my decision as sweat collected on my brows.
However, as I was chugging along the side of the road, a bearded man with a red scarf and a head wrap called out from across the street and asked me if I wanted to play guitar.
“How does he know I play guitar?” I thought to myself. “Am I giving off guitar vibes???”
It had been a few months since I had access to a guitar and I actually had been wanting to play, so I accepted, even though I was weary about what possible tourist trap this could be.
I entered his humble cottage and took in my surroundings. His son was sleeping on the floor and dozens of instruments, guitars, percussion, you name it, hung from the walls.
He handed me an acoustic guitar and we started jamming. I showed him some Californian music, like Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers. In return, he played me some songs that he had written in Kannada, the local language of this region of India.
We chatted for a bit and then he offered me a scooter ride the rest of the distance to Monkey Hill. When he dropped me off, he didn’t ask me for anything in exchange, which I found bizarre given the touristic nature of the town. He just gave me a smile and a handshake and told me that he hopes we meet again.
At the end of the day I felt that the highlight of the day was my quick jam session on the way to the temple — the cliché of the journey being the destination once again held true.
Off to Udupi on the overnight bus
After two full days in Hampi, I was ready to head out. It was definitely worth a little detour, but the tourist riff-raff and unreliable small-town internet infrastructure weren’t going to bode well for my style of work/travel.
Something I found particularly interesting about Hampi was the sheer number of ruins that still stand and the varying degrees of attention they all receive. The main sites have been reinforced with concrete so they don’t fall, and they have quaint gardens and manicured pathways for tourists.
Then there are random structures that you will see on the side of the road behind a chain link fence that appear abandoned or neglected. Ancient ruins are so abundant in Hampi that some, in plain sight, go unnoticed and unvisited.
I could only imagine the detailed attention that each of these sites would receive if they were a Roman ruin in Italy.
I bid farewell to Hampi on an overnight bus headed south, off to visit friends in the city of Udupi.
The overnight bus was an experience in its own right, one that I would be cautious to repeat. Between the driver’s unwillingness to take my surfboard, the bumpy roads that made it impossible to sleep, and the lack of a bathroom on the bus, it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable 10 hours I have spent in my life.
But the Indian adventure continues in Udupi. More to come on that soon.