In a destination competition between MP and UP for me, without even having to think, the outright winner would be MP. And yet, I am one for giving the underdog a chance. Let’s face it where UP lacks in numbers of monuments, it more than makes up for in fame and fortune. It has THE ultimate head start according to everyone who has ever visited India or wants to except me, yes, you guessed it, the Taj Mahal. Then there is Varanasi, India’s most holy city, a place of great pilgrimage and whilst not up there with the Taj, it is pretty high on most people’s wish list when traveling to India. Tourists do flock there, wanting to witness the aarti ceremony on the ghats and imbibe some of the spirituality that is missing from life in the west. The aarti ceremony is wonderful, that I can’t deny, but looking for a pure and true ‘spiritual’ experience is another matter entirely. Indians are nothing if not wily and do have the ability to scam money out of tourists with panache and ease that show just how clever and enterprising this nation is, and no one has perfected this art more than the priests or holy men lining the river banks in Varanasi. Short of a $200 donation and a belief bordering on desperation, not much will gain a person the spirituality they seek, but take that out of the equation and Varanasi or should I say Banaras, is a wonderful destination to experience.
We know I left a little piece of my heart in MP, I have even written a book about it, Escape to India. I love the wildlife, forests, nature and, I have to admit, the lack of tourists (with the exception of a couple of overdeveloped National Parks) and it has some of the most extraordinary monuments in the country, surely it’s a no brainer, MP will win a battle of state tourism supremacy hands down? Let’s face it, MP has five national parks with very obliging tigers, two are over-crowded but the forest department woke up eventually and created stricter controls on numbers entering the parks, as well as zoning which has helped alleviate the situation. Anyone can still build a lodge, but safaris may not be available and it is advised to book well in advance. However, there are also the less well known parks, Pench (head north to Jamtara where the clever Amit Sankhala has built Jamtara lodge in a remote area), Panna with its little piece of heaven which is The Sarai at Toria and Satpura National Park, hands down the best overall safari experience in India thanks to Hashim Tyjabi and Faiz and Ali from Reni Pani. For monuments MP has Mandu, Maheshwar, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Orchha, Bhopal (very underestimated as a destination), Sanchi and Bhimbetka – I am sure I have missed a few but it has three world heritage sights and five national parks, not bad MP, not bad!
But wait, let’s not write UP off just yet. It also has National Parks, I recently visited Dudhwa, most famous for being home to the late, great, Billy Arjan Singh, and was surprised to discover that Dudhwa consists of not one, not two but three wildlife sanctuaries. Not only that but few people know about them meaning that a) no prebooking of safaris is required, b) you will barely see any other jeeps and c) the safaris are still very affordable. The local guides are not brilliantly informed but the new and wonderful Tree of Life Jaagir Lodge has two noted naturalists who have joined and are keen to map wildlife and birds in the area. The safari times are also somewhat limited, being just three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening but hey, that can easily be sorted out by a government keen to promote tourism right?
These three parks are very different topographically and between them have tigers, leopard, bears plus one horned rhino (the only place other than Assam), soft ground barasingha – giving competition to Kanha’s hard ground ones – gharials, Gangetic dolphin as well as wild elephant. Yes ladies and gentlemen, their variety of animals knocks spots off MP. It also borders Nepal and provides essential animal corridors between the two countries as well as being close to Pilibhit, I hope it’s not long before someone sees the potential and opens a lodge there. This is a wildlife circuit that really should be starting to gain the recognition it deserves. Granted, accommodation is limited, but base yourselves at Jaagir Lodge, I would recommend at least four nights, and you won’t go far wrong. From there you can visit all three parks, Dudhwa, Kishanpur and Khatarniaghat with their in house naturalists, and take half a day to chill out by the pool or explore the farm and local village.
So what brought about this realisation that both MP and UP are now upping the stakes and clamouring after the recognition that better known states have? Well, within the space of three days I was invited to two events, one in MP and one in UP and managed to do both. Both events had their respective Chief Ministers in attendance and both were zealously pontificating just how far they are now planning to promote tourism to their states. MP Tourism had set up its Jal Mahotsav at Hanuwantiya, a 950km square dam comprising 90 islands which are pristine and covered with forest. It is quite spectacular. In terms of the camp which had been set up, only two words can suffice, ‘Bloody Impressive.’ One hundred and twenty spacious, fully air-conditioned, ensuite tents (hot and cold running water, proper toilets and showers), sit outs and proper beds provided with duvets. It was far bigger and better than any of the invited delegates were expecting. Not only that but all transport including flights, coaches, cars, breakfast enroute, three square meals a day and a free bar had been laid on, for three days. In addition there was a full program of adventure sports (hot air ballooning, parasailing, jet skis, motor boats, cycling etc) thrown in. This would have been impressive in itself however, all this had been achieved in a place where there was no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, basically,
nothing other than a huge patch of barren land adjacent to a lake. The entire site had even been carpeted.
Cue Lucknow and the Waajid Ali Shah Festival to which I was also kindly invited. As far removed from the extravagance and showmanship of the MP festival as could be. I had to cover my own flights and transport costs, accommodation, meals and booze (I have become Indian enough to take advantage of a free bar when provided, UP was a much more sober affair). This was a far more cultural take on proceedings. A vintage car display followed with readings by some of the city’s younger generation, of Rumi in the chapel at La Martiniere. Time off for the afternoon when I discovered where to buy the chikankali, the locally embroidered cotton work for which Lucknow is also famous (6 pieces for less than half the price I pay for one kurta from my favourite UK designer). Then in the evening, a theatrical dance performance of Radha Kanhaiyya ka Qissa, directed by Muzaffar Ali himself. Honestly speaking, my Hindi isn’t up to Rumi or the story behind the theatre, but despite that, both were most enjoyable experiences.
Both events were an attempt to target tourism, each capitalising on their best assets, nature for MP and culture for UP. Neither offering would, in their current form, be suitable for attracting the inbound market. It seemed to me that both were aiming for the domestic traveller, one more mainstream and one more, shall we say, ‘sophisticated,’ and who can blame them? The domestic traveller is now the largest growing segment in the country and so perhaps it is far wiser to aim for this.
Lucknow I had zero expectations from but one thing I have no issue with (as long as it is justified) is being proved wrong. I last visited in 1999, it made no lasting impression on me and I have had no desire to return since. How wrong can an ‘Indian Travel Expert’ be? It is the Ugly Duckling transformed into a swan. From the airport to the hotel to La Martineire to the Chattar Manzil, the city more than impressed me. It is unbelievably clean, the roads are wide and spacious with excellent surfaces and are a pleasure (yes, a pleasure!) to be driven on. So much has been done to improve the city (in a tasteful and culturally sensitive manner) that these first impressions have left me itching (only metaphorically speaking) to discover more which I will be doing tomorrow. I love Bhopal (another underestimated city which has far more potential than it is given credit for) but Lucknow just wiped the floor with it. A definite one – nil in the contest to UP.
Conversely, the place that I had very high hopes for and that should have won hands down, MP, shocked me to the core. So much irretrievable money had been thrown at the event, yet the five hour drive from Indore to Hanuwantiya was nothing short of squalid. I was appalled, disgusted and ashamed in equal measure. I mean this is the state which I love and about which I have written my book! Plastic and rubbish not only lined but were piled high the entire length of the utterly dreadful road. It was an embarrassment for India, no wonder the CM arrived by helicopter. No matter how impressive the event, the fundamentals of the surroundings are seriously lacking and leave me in serious doubt as to just how well the potential of this new destination will be handled. Talks of amusement and water parks leave me cold. There is a wonderful opportunity to create something extraordinary here but as of now, given what I saw, I have serious doubts as to how well this will be executed, perhaps execute is the right word to use. One talk from the ATAOI by Gopinath Parayil from Blue Yonder emphasised the need to ‘Create better places to live so people have better places to visit,’ and MP would do well to heed this essential point for Responsible Tourism.
I know zero about politics but would guess that roads and tourism are different arms of the government, but the lady from MP Tourism was pontificating about how new roads were going to be built to improve the infrastructure of the state so I am going to throw this into their domain. How can you throw such vast amounts of money at an event, and a possible new destination, when the basic cleanliness of the state is so abhorrent to attracting tourism? At the show, MP Tourism agreed to make the annual set up at Hanuwantiya which they are planning, plastic free, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a joke when you look at the state of the journey to get there. MP Tourism, you have the most beautiful of all of India’s states, you have the intention of turning this into the next “Rajasthan’ which I have always maintained that it can be, but please, invest in a cleaner MP. And think very carefully about what to do with Hanuwantiya, cheap piecemeal tourism, allowing all and sundry to build lodges with no thought to the environment, local populations and eco systems is not the way to go.
It is interesting to see how UP is developing its destinations. It is tastefully renovating its heritage monuments, focusing on its culture and crafts and, very importantly has, in the last month, banned the use of plastic throughout the state. Out exploring the streets in Lucknow and all my meals have been served on plates made out of leaves and drinks have been served in earthenware pots. It is wonderful, it’s streets are clean and the cows are happier. In fact Lucknow on every level has impressed me to the point where I have begun to wonder why every traveller who insists on visiting the Taj Mahal then heads to Jaipur when there is a destination such as good as Lucknow on offer. Lets face it, Delhi – Agra – Lucknow – Dudhwa offers everything the Delhi – Agra – Ranthambhore – Jaipur circuit offers.
I have always loved MP, it is extraordinary and will continue to do my utmost to promote it, but, I have been surprisingly impressed by UP of late. At the start of this piece, I would have said it was a ‘no brainer’ as to who would win the battle of being the next ‘must visit’ destination in India but now I am not so sure. I am increasingly tempted to put my money on the underdog, stranger things have happened, after all this is India, a land where anything is possible.