Thursday 2 January 2014

Enchanting Madhya Pradesh - The planning

Travelling with family is an altogether different experience than solo travel. It is a luxury that, when possible, needs to be indulged in at least once a year. These are the times I do not have to worry about clinging on to my budget and above all, be carefree and not worry about getting lost and ending up in shady alleys. Add to that, how often do I get the chance to travel with like minded people and spend quality time. On the flip side, planning is a nightmare. Holidays, exams, family obligations, clashing interests, every aspect that are non existent in planning a solo travel become the main hassles, to be considered even before the planning can even start.

And then there are the times when instead of planning our holidays around a trip, we have to tailor the trip around our holidays. This time around, it ended up being just a case like that. Visiting Madhya Pradesh was on the cards since last year. However due to time constraint during last Christmas, we had to change our destination to the North Eastern part of India, a decision I am glad we took. Maybe some day I will be able to document that magnificent travel on my blog. But first things first, so better not get distracted. This time around, a lighter work load at the end of the year meant we expected to take a relatively longer holiday and so the planning started. But as fate would turn out, the trip had to be heavily curtailed, even shorter than the last time.

The planning

There was a time when we used to plan our family trips during the tourist off-season, taking care to avoid major holidays especially school holidays. We always had the place to ourselves to enjoy. However, gone are those days. With my niece starting her school, we now join the crowd of holiday makers during the peak season and try to look for peace and solace - a very difficult combination.

As a major aspect of the planning, nowadays we also have to consider the age of our elderly parents and my eternally super charged niece. This means, travelling times have to be kept to a minimum, we need longer stopovers and a single mode of transport, hence everything has to be pre-planned. Also, given what Madhya Pradesh offers, we could only do a part of it in our limited time. A major challenge was what to leave out. Thus started our planning.

'Tapobhumi Narmada' written by Shailendranarayan Ghoshal Shastri about half a century back had made a deep impact on my family, especially my father. As a result Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada, was highest on the list of places we had to visit and so we concentrated on the eastern stretch of the state. Throughout the eastern stretch runs a major forest belt and we wanted to visit at least one of the forests in so-called Kipling country. Our target was either Kanha or Bandhavgarh, mainly due to accessibility and chances of tiger sighting. Though Pench is where Rudyard Kipling had based his Jungle book, it would have been difficult to fit that in our schedule. My brother took up the planning for the jungle safari and after incessant web surfing and talking to friends, we decided on Kanha. Even though Bandhavgarh has a higher probability of sighting of the magestic beast, Kanha is a better place to enjoy the forest.

So our trip would start with Kanha. The famed marble rocks of Bhedaghat near Jabalpur was a must see and it fitted in our intended route as well. We would then move on to Pachmarhi, a hill station developed during the British era and aptly named as the Queen of Satpura. My sister-in-law was intrigued by Sanchi and I wanted to see the Bhimbhetka caves. So came Bhopal in our itinerary. We were to take the train from Piparia (Rail station near Pachmarhi) and reach Bhopal to visit Bhimbhetka and Sanchi. A train would have then taken us from Bhopal to Pendra Road (Rail station for Amarkantak). That would be our last stop before returning via Bilaspur. The magnificent carvings of the famed Khajuraho temples had to be dropped from our list, as it was way off our route. I hope, someday we would cover it along with the northern stretch of Madhya Pradesh which hides jewels like Chitrakoot.

The Madhya Pradesh toursim website ( was a huge help as unlike most other government websites, this one actually worked and held proper information, at least to start the planning. These people are really serious about their tourism industry. The catchy adverts appearing regularly on television was indeed another stimulus that got us hooked. And off course, there is always Tripadvisor.

However, even though we were finding information on the web about these tourist destinations, it was quite scattered and most of them gave vague details. Kanha and Bandhavgarh were well documented, but as for the rest, all websites seemed to copy the same information. With limited feedbacks and reviews, we were struggling to make our bookings, and the holiday rush coinciding with our trip was not helping our cause. During our  last year's visit to the North East, we had a very good experience with Holiday IQ ( in respect to their help with finding a knowledgeable travel agent, so this time around we went through them as well.

We were referred to MP Holidays ( A very helpful Mr Vinod Maheshwari contacted us and listened patiently to our requirements. He had valuable suggestions and worked out the route plan that suited our needs. He made arrangements for our accommodation and had an impeccable service worth recommendation. It was tough to get bookings at this time of the year, and we would have struggled to make arrangements without their help. Bookings were made for visiting the core forest area in Kisli zone at Kanha for the 22nd December. That was the last booking available until the 3rd January.

All set, the wait was now for the holidays to begin. We were to start on the 19th December and return on the 4th January, a nice long holiday covering a major chunk of Madhya Pradesh. However, problems had to creep in.

My niece had made it to the Spell Bee Grand Final but was waiting for the dates of the event. As luck would have it, the date was eventually communicated to be the 22nd December afternoon. And as if that wasn't enough, I received information that my holidays could not be extended beyond the 1st January. After much discussion and deliberation, which at times was definitely not very calm, we finally decided to chop down our trip. Frantic calls were made to Mr Vinod and all our confirmed bookings had to be cancelled, including the one at Kanha for visiting the core zone. We made fresh reservations on the train where luckily a few scattered seats were still available. Unfortunately, no fresh bookings were available for the core zone in Kanha till the 3rd January, so visiting Kanha seemed fruitless. We decided to include a much lesser know Achanakmar forest instead. With a tiger population of only 26, chances of sighting was very low, but we would be in the core zone still and have a feel of the forest. It was also getting difficult to move further into Pachmarhi and Bhopal. As if to provide some peace of mind, Mr Vinod informed us of the Pachmarhi festival that runs for a week from Christmas drawing in a huge crowd, something we definitely wanted to escape. Pachmarhi, Bhopal and Sanchi were cancelled.

Finally, this is how our re-planned itinerary looked

22nd December: Leave for Bilaspur on overnight train
23rd December: Reach Bilaspur at 9:30 am and leave for Achanakmar. A vehicle would be waiting for us at the station It would accompany us through out or trip
25th December: Reach Kanha and visit buffer forest zone. With extreme luck, we might have a sighting. We might try for the Tatkal booking which needed queuing from early hours in the morning and see if our luck favoured. Mr Vinod said, we only had 25% chance of acquiring one.
26th December: Leave for Bhedaghat
28th December: Leave for Amarkantak
31st December: Leave for Bilaspur and take overnight train to Howrah. We welcome New Year on the train.

In the map below our destinations are marked in red with the yellow showing what we had cancelled. The maximum travel time would be from Bhedaghat to Amarkantak, a distance of 250Kms which on ghat sections would take us about 6 hours. This was manageable. The rest was between 3 to 5 hours of travel. We were not sure how the roads would be in Madhya Pradesh. Some of the older posts did not speak too highly of them, but Mr Vinod assured us the situation had improved in the past couple of years. The roads are good and the ride comfortable, he said.

For some reason I had a nagging feeling that the trip might have to cut shorter even further due to my problems at work. Unknown to others, I procured train tickets to return on the 27th December. I was praying not to use it. No wonder, I was already losing interest in the trip. For me it was now a mere family outing, something we do no have much nowadays with our work lives ruling our personal lives. I was now looking forward only to that. I was no longer feeling the excitement of an impending holiday trip.

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