Oct 25 – travel to Delhi. Dream come true trip, long wanted to visit India and especially Rajasthan. Great flight from Heathrow to Gandhi Delhi airport. Landed at 11.30pm; big airport with hundreds of metres of carpet and 4 seater passenger carriers whizzing about narrowly missing people. Funny experience in the toilets when I walked in to the end stall and had to step up to the traditional porcelain squat toilet. Only to come out and realise that all of the other stalls were the standard UK style toilets. Bloody typical! We had to join the e-visa queue for about 40 minutes to get the official visa stamped in our passport after showing our printed online visa. No extra fee as we’d already paid online. A pre-arranged driver and staff member met us at the airport and by 1am we were in the room at Master Bed & Breakfast about 5km from Connaught Place. Great nights sleep with earplugs to drown out honking trucks, howling dogs and other unidentified aural assaults! (Website links to where we stayed and driver at the end of this blog post).
Oct 26 – Delhi. Porridge toast and tea and a communal table chat at the B&B, getting to grips with the rupees exchange rate and leaving our passports with the wonderful Reiki teacher Ushi (owner of Master B&B Guesthouse). Rita and I headed with Harphool our driver and Naveen the guide in to Old Delhi, weaving in our minivan through auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, buses, cars, mopeds, dogs and wandering cows (sacred in India) past the huge Red Fort (shown below) to our first stop; Jama Masjid mosque. Once at Jama Masjid (below) we climbed the red stone steps, handed our shoes in at the entrance and donned our colourful gowns to enter the mosque; free to enter for a 300 rupee fee for cameras. Naveen our guide didn’t come in with us but guarded our shoes and bags outside. A grand wide open space opens out in to a large area with 4 corner minarets peppered with several speakers for the call to prayer. Indian men washed their faces in an oblong water feature whilst women sat in colourful saris in the sun of a smog hazed yellowed sky polluted by the 25 million population of Delhi. Wandering around the mosque we were asked by an Indian family to be in a family photograph with them, something that became a regular request throughout the day and one which we happily obliged. Two beautiful young girls followed us around; not asking for anything only wanting to be in our company…dressed up for their day out and proud to point out the minarets and arches.
Hawkers at the entrance successfully sold us two amusing little woven lidded baskets with pop up hand painted cobras inside, wobbling around balanced by little magnetic weights; at £2.50 each we dispensed with the traditional procrastinated haggling. Back in the car we stopped at traffic lights and a young boy with a painted face twirled his head to spin a long plastic attachment on his cap and performed backflips on the street in pursuit of tips from trapped motorists. We gladly gave him some money for an industrious performance….sad in the knowledge that he was most likely one of the thousands of Indian children who couldn’t afford to attend school and the money he makes a vital contribution to feed his family. A group of ladies asked to be photographed with us; something we are getting used to and one we never want to refuse on seeing the obvious delight whenever we agree.
Swapping the minivan for an auto rickshaw which could squeeze through the smaller streets, we entered the wholesale market streets of Chandni Chowk, bumping between other rickshaws and pedestrians looking at row upon row of jewellery shops, sari vendors, temple decorations, brass wares, ornate padlocks…
…and squeezed in between, the street food sellers stirring almonds in to porridge, slicing custard apples, stacking fruit…it’s the sensory full on Indian experience that everyone tells you about but not the ‘assault’ or ‘overload’ as I regularly hear foreign visitors describe it…it’s a fascinating fleeting glimpse of daily life in a bustling vibrant atmosphere where we felt safe and welcomed. Years of travelling have possibly prepared me better for the experience; I love the chaos, the colour, the smells…the random encounters with local people.
We visited the spice market; a long street of small open fronted shops piled high with mace, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, tea, dried coconut, star anise, cinnamon bark; hundreds of sacks of wonderful aromas. My Aunt bought a sealed foil bag of a masala mix of spices for chicken and another bag of mango black tea leaves. Outside a street vendor crumbled spices on to cut squares of something which resembled leaves whilst a few feet away 5 people sat around a handcart threading fresh marigolds and other flowers for shrine decorations. A man selling huge balloons another elaborately carved padlocks; whilst someone bashed away with a hammer making a hole into a cabinet drawer surrounded by 6 idling onlookers. And through all of this; the delivery men with boxes and crates piled 3 or 4 high on their heads, pushing their way through the crowds and the rickshaws.
Back to the car and on to the Gandhi memorial at Raj Ghat; the memorial dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi; a black marble platform that commemorates the place of Ghandi’s cremation in January 1948 a day after his assassination. An eternal flame housed in a glass structure burns at one end of the platform with beautiful rings of fresh flowers arranged along the top of the marble structure. Based on the Mahatma Ghandi Road, a wide stone paved pathway leads in to the walled area of garden which holds the memorial. Shoes must be removed before entering the area and it is an obviously popular pilgrimage site for millions of Indian people. Back outside of this walled area shoes can be collected and we walked up on to the surrounding walls for a different view looking down across the beautifully tended gardens and trees.
Rita asked our guide (whom we nicknamed Mr. Bollywood for the frequency to which he attended to his hair) what a particular tree in the grounds was; his reply: “An Indian tree”. An ex cricket player his first love wasn’t as a tour guide which was understandable but he did give us some very humourous answers to questions. A quick lunch of veggie burger and the obligatory drive to the Guide’s friend’s craft shop (admittedly an impressive one of amazing quality but way out of our budget) was followed by a persuasive argument with the guide to stop at the eye-popping Hanuman Temple.
It’s on the side of a chaotic main road but we managed to park and headed inside to have our first orange tiki dotted on our head followed by a second in a dark red colour, a chant by one of the priests which went on a lot longer than expected….both of us swished and bashed quite enthusiastically on the heads and shoulders by a large bunch of peacock feathers and finally offered a drink of water in a small bowl. Not wanting to risk it, I politely declined so unexpectedly and amusingly, he flicked it in my face. A fantastic first day exploring Delhi…we ate a simple home cooked dinner back at The Master B&B with the wonderful Ushi and crashed out quite exhausted in our room.
Oct 27 – Delhi. A 9am start and we decided to ditch Mr Bollywood, a nice enough guy but didn’t seem too interested in being a tour guide…and to be honest the day was way better. He’d been a good introduction to Delhi on day 1 but we found that having Harphool and the car gave us all the convenience and the flexibility we needed. We felt more in control of the day we wanted. Ushi at Master B&B sat down with us the evening before and gave us loads of great ideas. I started the day off well by standing on the strap of the only pair of sandals I’d packed; tearing it off, but I knew there’d be a cobbler nearby who’d sort a quick fix. Swapping to a pair of trainers we headed out in to the heat, talked though the list of what we wanted to see with Harphool and headed straight to India Gate, a huge war memorial which straddles the Rajpath and designed by Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens famously being the main architect of New Delhi and the ceremonial layout which includes the domed canopy situated approximately 150 metres of the India Gate and placed in such a way that it can be viewed through the gate when standing outside the palace. Lutyens was also famous for designing war memorials and India Gate, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1921, is a towering remembrance of 82,000 soldiers, resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and inscribed with the names of 13,300 soldiers. By coincidence our visit coincided with some sort of official event, with uniformed soldiers and police decorated with medals posing for media photographers in front of the gate. Street food hawkers vied for business and a group of school boys with fabulously styled hair were keen to pose for a photograph.
Next stop Humayun’s Tomb, the beautiful red sandstone tomb completed in 1572, of the Mughal Emperor Humayun. commissioned by his first wife Bega Begum, it was the first garden tomb on the Indian sub-continent and is now an UNESCO world heritage site. A long path leads towards the main entrance, lined on either side by large open gardens and trees. Inside the building lay the tombs and graves of Humayun, his wife and various other family members as well as the son of Emperor Shah Jahan and other subsequent Mughals. Visiting schoolchildren mobbed us on our walk around the grounds and building, squealing with delight when we took photos with them and running up to the hedges to practise their english and talk to my Aunt about football (she’s a massive Liverpool fan). Reprimanded by school teachers trying to herd them back in to their school groups. Children here don’t seem to notice age as much as children in Westernised countries, intrigued instead by our foreign-ness and their desire to attempt some greetings in English.
Back in to the car and on to the absolutely beautiful Lodi Gardens, which became our favourite destination in Delhi. Dating back to the 1400s, this gorgeous green escape from the craziness of the Delhi streets is a favourite place for local Delhi people to come to relax and read or to pose for romantic portrait photographs in the doorways of the rubble constructed main domed building known as Bara Gumbad. We could have whiled away hours here had we more time; and the idea of relaxing under the shade of a tree with a good book and one eye on the small groups of wandering street dogs who looked well fed and healthy, was a tempting daydream. Wistfully we walked the grounds for an hour before leaving to drive out to the outskirts of Delhi to the Akshardham Temple.
But after driving through horrendous traffic along a featureless motorway through dust and smog made worse by the constant roadworks en route, we arrived at Akshardham Temple to be faced with enormous queues and strict entry requirements to leave all bags and cameras outside in lockers. Not wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon queuing we satisfied ourselves with a peek through the gates at this huge temple, happy in the knowledge that we’d be seeing so many more temples in the days to come that we could walk away from this one, and head back instead to central Delhi to grab a late lunch. You can’t see everything and sometimes you just need to re-plan ad hoc.
The Coffee Bean cafe in Kahn Market has an unprepossessing facade, situated as it is on the second floor above what looks to be a derelict shop unit with no immediately obvious door; but inside it was fresh and clean and full of young Urban Delhiites in the latest Western fashions. We ordered pakora and drinks and chatted with the couple on the table next to us. Khan Market consists of a couple of streets filled with small boutiques, cafes, restaurants and upmarket shops catering to the fashionable and ex-pats; there’s even a branch of Body Shop. One long corridor of a shop packed with colourful decorations and wall hangings and another small food market selling westernised snacks among many things so we stocked up on sun-dried cranberries and Pringles and roasted almonds for the long car trips to come over the next couple of weeks. Indian food is fantastic but westernised snacks give brief respite from ghee laden spicy heavy meals.
We found Harphool waiting patiently in the car park for us at the market and he drove us to see the President’s palace and Lutyen’s Rajpath grand parade linking India gate to the offices of the Indian government, illuminated by the gloaming yellow light of oncoming dusk. We even managed to squeeze in the last hour of the day visiting the National gallery of Modern Art, enjoying the main gallery but mesmerised by the miniature paintings on display in the Jaipur wing of the building. Magnifying glasses with wooden handles placed on small shelves underneath the paintings encouraged closer inspection of these intricate beautifully detailed tiny landscapes.
Oct 28 – Agra. Early start, got up at 5.30am. Harphool must think we’re mad. He’s dropped us at the railway station to catch the 8.32am Delhi to Agra train whilst he’s driven ahead to Agra with our suitcases to meet us there. But hell, we wanted the Indian train experience! The drop off area was absolute chaos so we legged it as quick as we could in to Saturday morning rush hour. Being told the train was leaving in minutes from platform 7, Rita and I had to push through hundreds of people, fighting our way down a long staircase crammed with people walking up it. Never experienced anything like this madness but it was fun, (thank god we didn’t have the suitcases) didn’t intimidate us and we made the train with three minutes to spare.
Second class AC with fold down bunks. Old fashioned with blue vinyl seats and pull across curtains but wonderfully atmospheric. £12 each for a 3 hour journey. The rail network in India is fantastic and so atmospheric. The tea seller walking the length of this really long train calling out “chai chai!” carrying his large metal teapot; others selling water and snacks. Everyone friendly and quick to help if we needed it. Some stretched out on bunks to sleep whilst we looked out at the slum dwellings backed right up to the tracks; people having a wash or washing their clothes. Cows wandering over rubbish tips. Pigs wallowing in muddy pools, dogs in groups of three or four running around but looking well fed, not scrawny as expected though we know that exists. We passed small brick built, one room places backing on to some two storey dwellings open to the sky where a roof would be expected. Many had been painted in pinks, blue and green…basic and thrown together but an obvious pride apparent in the decoration of many. Fields of rice paddies, cotton, carefully managed square parcels of land growing vegetables. Women in saris digging in to the ground, working on railway track repairs. Someone taking a piss, another man naked washing from a bucket. It’s a harsh life lived out in the open backed on to rail tracks and viewed from the train. Sad yes, poor and challenging definitely…but also fascinating to the privileged observers passing by on a train.
After several attempts trying to contact him on the most useless local mobile phone in India (it had become a source of daily amusement rather than an annoyance) I found help from a lovely local gentleman who kindly called Harphool for me on his phone. Several minutes later Harphool found us in the waiting room at Agra; trying to engage a boisterous young boy running rings around his mother but too timid to come near the funny looking tourists. Harphool dropped us at Taj Gateway Hotel where we were greeted by 5 people at the door, had the customary welcome tikis dotted on our foreheads and taken to our room where the realisation that we had a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance from our bedroom window quite floored us. Time to freshen up and make calls back home. Harphool came back an hour later and took us to Agra Fort.
The Fort, better preserved than the one back in Delhi, is a huge Mughal fortification built in the reign of Emperor Akbar; begun in 1565 and made of red sandstone which radiates a deep brick red glow…deeper in the shade than in the direct sunlight.
Lots of people here as it’s a Saturday but in an area as huge as this, it’s easy to find small areas of calm. We had the usual requests to pose for several more photographs in family groups, with school kids and young men with their girlfriends and new brides. One of the young women proudly showed us her wedding hennaed hands. We don’t understand why they want to photograph us, we’ve been told it’s a status thing for them which makes us feel a bit humbled, but we’re happy to oblige and it’s quite good fun.
The Emperor’s grandson Shah Jahan made further additions to the fort in his favourite white marble only to become imprisoned in it for 8 years when overthrown by his own son. The contrast between the dazzling white and cream colours of the white marble is a stark contrast to the red sandstone of the main fort as you wander from one in to the next. Views across to the Taj Mahal and the Yumana River look surreal; like they’re painted on in a pale hazy backdrop.
From the fort we had a late lunch at an Indian restaurant, posing again with an Indian family for more photographs. Back at the Gateway Hotel we sat on the rooftop watching the sun going down and the madness of the honking, swerving traffic on the main road 7 floors below. We chatted to an Indian family as we watched the Taj Mahal disappear in to the night and listened to the huge flock of birds singing as they flew in to roost in a large tree by the side of the hotel.
Oct 29 – Agra to Jaipur. We did what most of the tourists do and headed to the Taj Mahal at 5am to beat some of the huge crowds and the heat of the day. Even at this time and in the dark the roads are packed with honking buses, cars, trucks and rickshaws. It’s a wonderful chaotic scramble of noise and dust. By the time we’d waited for the ticket office to open, joined a long queue to pay our 5,000 Rupee entrance fee and then another long queue separated in to two lines for male and female to be security searched…almost 90 minutes had passed before we finally entered the Taj Mahal gates. Absolutely nothing prepares you for that first view of this magnificent building. It is breathtaking and we were both instantly stilled by its beauty. It is simply jaw dropping. Sitting like a pale gleaming mirage at the end of a formal planting of trees facing the grand red stone gate, this monument to love built by Shah Jahan for his wife is so very moving that I had tears in my eyes. Donning protective overshoes we climbed the marble steps and walked around the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife, lying behind an intricately marble carved hexagonal screen with the huge dome towering above. It is packed with people in here being moved constantly around by the guards and the constant chatter of visitors is a downside of this…but little can take away the power of its accolade as the most recognised building in the world.
We walked out and around the back of the building and gazed out across the Yumana River, at regal white Ibis and a single boat emerging from the haze as the Taj Mahal glittered in the early morning sun. It really is every superlative you can imagine and even with the crowds at this very early time od day, nothing can take away the impact of its beauty.
Back to the hotel by 8.30am to pack up and have breakfast of porridge, idli (small white Indian dumplings) dipped in to sambar (Dahl like in texture), in to the car with Harphool to drive 40km west of Agra to Fatehpur Sikri in the Agra district of Uttar Pradesh. Founded in 1569 by Mughal Emperor Akhbar The Great, Fatehpur Sikri is a walled beautifully carved red stone city originally consisting of a mosque, court, royal palaces, harem, private quarters and other buildings. The most architecturally stunning part of which is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), dominated by an incredibly detailed carved column with narrow stone bridges radiating out to each of the four corners of the room.
From Fatehpur Sikri we had a two hour drive to the captivating step-well called Chand Baori near the town of Abhaneri. Built in the 8th century with additions made in the 18th century, I was transfixed by the ingenuity of this deep Escher style bathing facility. It deserves UNESCO protection. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the world and it captivated me as equally as the Taj Mahal. The complexity and ingenuity of its design, the hundreds os separate steeply stepped sections leading down to the well; functional whilst beautiful and a testament to the historically dexterous building skills of India.
Opposite is a small Hindu Temple called Harshat Matu Temple. We took off our shoes, climbed the steps and made a small donation to another of the Hindu Gods; so varied that it’s impossible to remember the names of them all. Goats clambered around the steps with green painted horns and a tractor rumbled by piled high with a towering mountain of hay.
Back in the car and two hours later we were checking in to The Umaid Bahwain http://www.umaidbhawan.com our incredible heritage styled hotel in Jaipur. Its elaborate tiered structure, balconies and highly decorated design rivalling the mind-blowing sights of the day. Swags and drapes, marble floors, hand painted ceilings, inlay work, Rajasthani styled paintings, portraits of Mughals and Emperors, a pool, a shop, colourful chandeliers… and a fabulous rooftop food serving great food and local entertainment. All this for less than half the price of a major hotel.
But first we had to hastily check in and then drive to the outskirts of the city to visit and eat Thali with Ganpat and his family; the owner of the small family run travel company called Incredible Tour To India who I found through Trip Advisor. He had bought the train tickets in advance for me before we left the UK and arranged for Harphool and the car and free bottles of water provided daily which really took out the hassle of having to stop and buy it from reputable shops. You consume a lot of water travelling in India and Ganpat’s thoughtfulness on this point was greatly appreciated. We had booked our trip independently, sourcing the hotels online based on reviews and booking our own flights but without Ganpat’s services it would have been so much more difficult to get around this huge area of the country. If you stumble across this blog and are looking for a car and driver, guides. or a tour company to book and arrange everything for you then I really recommend Ganpat and Harphool and you can contact them directly here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct 30 – Jaipur. Leisurely start, but woken at 7am by what we thought was builders (actually the staff setting up breakfast). I never travel without ear plugs so not that bothered really as I’ll remember for the next night! Fabulous breakfast up on the roof…really like this place. It’s quite a labyrinth of interconnecting corridors and balconies with a different eye-popping painted ceiling or large painted wall mural around each corner. Met Harphool and drove first to the magnificent Hawal Mahal or ‘Palace of the Winds’. All of the old city of Jaipur is painted deep pink or built in pink sandstone, it is in fact known as the Pink City. Once inside the gates of the old town every building has to conform to this same colour, Hawa Mahal included constructed of red and pink sandstone. it’s an impressive sight and I’ve seen many photographs of it over the years but never realised that it is set right on the side of the busiest main traffic intersection through the city. Once you find your way in however, (and it isn’t obvious – between the shops, ask the locals) you find yourself in a tranquil courtyard with steps leading up in to the main building. Standing at 5 stories high with 953 small windows; the original intention t allow Royal ladies to look out and watch city life whilst remaining hidden or in ‘purdah’ (face cover).
Drove next to the Albert Hall Museum, the oldest museum in Rajasthan opened to the public in 1887. Beautiful building with some amazing displays of huge woven carpets, pottery, paintings, stone artefacts etc.
We wanted to do a bit of shopping but it wasn’t that obvious where to go in Jaipur. We didn’t want to buy antiques but found some shops back on the same road as Jawa Mahal. Some prolonged bargaining took place, I was trying to buy bed covers and managed to get one I liked at a fair price…and told by the guy selling it to me “your English is impressive ….nearly.” Considering I’m English I’m not sure how I should take that but it’s pretty funny. Bought some woven red nylon harnesses with brass bells used mainly on camels, will get hung across my windows at home…I don’t have many camels. On to Anouki clothing and gift shop for lunch in their cafe, a great little place with branches all over India, excellent European light lunch choices, cakes and coffee etc. Everything here is fixed price and really good prices for great quality. Much more design orientated clothing, impressive and great for gifts. Our last stop of the day to the gleaming white Birla Mandir Hindu Temple (below) backdropped by a setting sun. Absolutely beautiful.
I am running out of superlatives for India. Ate Thali on the roof of the hotel whilst dancers and musicians performed with bowls of fire on their heads; rather concerned they don’t wander too close to the awning and burn the place down.
Oct 31 – Jaipur. Every day we promise ourselves an easy relaxing day we seem to end up being bowled over by more magnificent wonders. Harphool picked us up at 10am and took us to the Amer Fort. I’ve realised now that every time I ask “How far?” He replies “yes?” His name sounding so similar to my question. Squeezing up a tiny road lined by kiosks and street food vendors, dodging donkeys, camels and goats, spotting the odd baboon picking at his fleas, winding higher and higher to the fort entrance as elephants in red blankets are led down after their two hour shifts of lurching tourists up and down.
Then running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers; mirrored parasols, tacky fake turbans, strings of carved elephants, blankets, boxes, bags…we go in to the fort on cobbled paths, surrounded by ramparts and a series of gates. Built from red sandstone and marble and laid out on four levels each with a courtyard, the highlight being the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) a glittering reflective display of hundreds of cut mirror mosaics on the ceilings and inlaid mirrored panels. So much to see here including the Mughal styled gardens and Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory).
On to Elephant Village where the returning Amer Fort tourist ride elephants are tethered and stabled. I’d expected to go to the very well respected charity organisation Elefantastic where elephants are not used for tourist rides but a language misunderstanding led us here. It was okay but we weren’t really comfortable with elephants being used for tourism and after we’d seen an elephant being decorated with non-toxic paints (we were told) we took some photos, declined elephant rides, my Aunt fed one a few bananas…
…and we left to drive by Jal Mahal, the floating summer palace on the lake. Roadside vendors offered costume hire to the locals to pose and take photos with the palace and lake as backdrop, street food vendors pedaled their wares and cooked from mobile carts.
On to Jantar Mantar which is a surreal astronomical site, featuring huge sculptural devices used for measuring the planets which left us a little baffled. Described like this on Wiki: “The Jantar Mantar is an equinoctial sundial, consisting a gigantic triangular gnomon with the hypotenuse parallel to the Earth‘s axis. On either side of the gnomon is a quadrant of a circle, parallel to the plane of the equator. The instrument is intended to measure the time of day, correct to half a second and declination of the Sun and the other heavenly bodies.” A man outside tried to sell us peacock feather fans which I advised him I’d rather see still attached to the bird.
Another lunch at Anouki sharing a table with a young man awaiting an interview for an engineering place in London, happy to chat with us to distract him from his nervousness. Wandered around the shop and bought a few things, so many beautiful block printed fabrics, dresses, shawls and books here. Back at the hotel in our splendidly decorated Royal Suite with 9 chairs we had a ‘finance meeting’; a tally of the day and what we owed and how we planned to pay Ganpat for the driver service. Butter paneer masala, salted lassis, chicken tikka and banana fritters up on the restaurant rooftop. My stomach stretched to the limit….but the food is so good. We enjoyed our time in Jaipur, it’s a vibrant city….very busy with rickshaws, elephants, overladen tractors, fabulous old Land drovers, the roadside barbers, the kids all squeezed in to pickups and minibuses and rickshaws on their school run; waving to us in the traffic jams.
Nov 1st – Pushkar. Breakfast; goodbye to the Thai lady travellers we keep bumping in to, check out of the wonderful Umaid Bhawan. Dropped by to visit Ganpat to pay out thousands… (of rupees!) and be photographed wearing the 3 piece sari outfit made for us by his wife. No we don’t want to wear them over the top of our normal clothes for a three hour drive in 35 degree heat. They are good people and Ganpat is a really helpful organiser but we want to get to Pushkar to relax in the posh 5 star treat Westin Spa Hotel. The tarmac road led us away from Jaipur and on to Pushkar where the landscape became mountainous and the ground sandy and loose. Camels pulled carts or rested under trees with turbaned men. This one below looked like they’d run out of felt tip pens when decorating him.Two goat herders sat chatting in the shade surrounded by about 50 goats. We passed colourful Rajasthani Tata trucks, hand painted and decorated with tassels. A wonderful wedding car covered in beaten gold coloured panels, rickety wheel wagon carts piled high with fruit.
And you know you’re having the time of your life when you get stuck in a camel traffic jam. I love this country…it’s unpredictable, noisy, colourful…and quite mad.Entering the outskirts of Pushkar was great fun as we drove by balloon sellers, lurid pink candy floss, big wheels, camels, people blowing whistles…blaring Indian music, all manner of food sellers, all here for the famous Pushkar camel fair. Chaotic, noisy, dusty and totally bonkers….it looks fantastic. The Westin was rather a comedy of errors finally resolved by the general manager who’d obviously had a very long and taxing day. A wedding of 300 people was in full swing with blaring music at a decibel level I didn’t think was possible…it put the mockers on a swim and relaxing afternoon. A stunning villa room with two massive beds, twin sinks and a sunken bath…but a balcony covered in pigeon shit and fag ends. Things missing from the room. Eventually cleaned up but it all went a bit Mr Bean. They comped us dinner in our room and a pot of tea with torn tea bags. The general manager asked housekeeping to tidy the room…but they took away the replacement tea for the knackered tea and had to be called back to replace it. Since checking in, the room bell must have rung about 15 Times as staff turned up in twos and threes. The wedding music stopped around 11pm but then the speeches started through blaring microphones. Then the music started again and went on until 6am. We got an upgrade however to a room with a pool in it..good fun. To be fair to The Westin I am sure that standards are usually very high, the rooms are gorgeous and huge, the beds luxurious, we got free spa treatments thrown in too and that was amazing. The restaurant is fabulous with quite amazing buffet breakfasts…it’s all of a high standard but on this occasion I think the wedding tipped them over the edge.
Nov 2 – Pushkar camel festival. So the amazing room upgrade with our own plunge pool is fabulous. Great breakfast in the lovely dining room (dinning according to the menus, it’s a giggle), Harphool arrived, 300 wedding guests left with about 1200 pieces of luggage and 20 minutes later we were standing in a scrubby desert field with about 50 camels.
We’d hired a guide through Ganpat called Rajesh; we didn’t need a guide so much as a bodyguard because we knew the camel fair and the pilgrimage attracted thousands of people and felt that some protection from amassing gypsies would be handy. We walked around the horse and camel trading grounds first which were fascinating but emptying out; the last few days of October see the fever of camel and horse trading and then the traders pack up and leave. Dusty carts rolling out with some heavily decorated camels munching on opened sacks of hay…jangling with bells around their legs and draped with masses of colourful wool pompoms. Horses standing regal under elaborate canopies…some Albino with pink muzzles and others with starling blue eyes. Many Mewar horses with the famously naturally curled ears.
After several days of trading in October the fair then kicks in and thousands of pilgrims descend on Pushkar to bathe in the Holy Lake from the Ghats. They flock the narrow streets of Pushkar, market stall doing a frenzied haggling trade. The place is flooded with colour as women in jewel bright saris barter for cloth and spices and silver jewellery. Men dressed in white wearing bright turbans weave through the chaos, determined in their direction.
Young gypsy girls painted to resemble Hindu Gods pose in the market streets, quarrelling loudly when we put a 50 rupee note on one of their trays and not the other, intending that they share… but a squalling cat fight breaking out which Rajesh has to calm. These kids are only about 6 and 8 years old! Feisty characters that I definitely wouldn’t cross. The younger of the two sulking as she poses for her photo and being admonished again by Rajesh. Tt’s funny to watch but getting money is a serious business for these kids and they want to make the most of a lucrative situation; the town being packed out for the fair and pilgrimage.Another painted girl wanders over with the same wig and painted blue face of the earlier child, this one with a rubber snake wound up in to the hair. There’s something a bit Amy Winehouse about her beehive and animal print dress. We give her some money, she poses and then moves quickly to pose again for some visiting Indian pilgrims.We find a cashpoint unexpectedly in the middle of the market streets then head with Rajesh to a roof top cafe with views across the lake. The we plunge back in to the madness of the marketplace to barter for cheap silver bracelets and elaborate camel decorations of heavy engraved brass bells and braided bridles decorated with conch shells. Men burn camel dung and waft the smoke away from the stalls, tables are piled high with powdered dyes for tikis and temples, woven doughnut shapes turn out to be head rests for the pots and bags women carry on their heads. Street food sellers, the dandy in a denim waistcoat, bamboo ladders, stumbling upon a quiet street with a beautiful building on it, ducking away from the outstretched hands of the gypsy women wanting us to take their photos for money.
Street food sellers, the dandy in a denim waistcoat, bamboo ladders, stumbling upon a quiet street with a beautiful building on it, ducking away from the outstretched hands of the gypsy women wanting us to take their photos for money.
We wander back towards the main fairground, queues waiting to board the rickety ferris wheels. We see a small boy on the front of a motorbike with thick black kohl smeared down his face from his eyes. Wander past the balloon selling kids and head for Harphool and his car. Driven away from the crazy, frantic, cacophony of colour and noise that is Pushkar Camel Fair. A fantastic experience but one that has left us hot, knackered and frayed around the edges.
Back at the hotel we enjoy luxurious Ayurvedic massages, followed by an equally luxurious ten minutes relaxing in a steam room that cleared out my nose, my throat and left me feeling fully cleansed and fabulous. Dinner of Indian food in the hotel restaurant and then sank in to our amazing beds with 5 pillows each and slept like a log.
November 3rd – Leaving Pushkar this morning and off to Udaipur. Fabulous buffet breakfast, one of the waiting staff showed Rita how to make Masala chai; grinding the spices and heating the milk. We ate fresh fruit and French toast dripping in honey. It’s a direct drive for around 5 hours to Udaipur and as we drove away from Pushkar we saw the last of the camel traders setting off on long journies home, hawkers trying to sell off some more stock to have less to carry back; two women stood atop a parked bus draping and holding up colouorful saris to catch the breeze and the eye. As we drove out of the city we passed one stretch of motorway where hundreds of monkeys gathered alongside the road, sitting in gtrees, one femal monkey protecting her infant on the roadside wall. I asked Harphool to stop and waiting for a break in traffic I crossed to take some photographs but still from a safe distance, knowing that monkeys can be extremely vicious especially when with their young. A mournful undernourished cow stood by, its ribs and haunches jutting out at angles. Two motorbikes stopped and three young people got off to throw food around. The monkeys ran nimbly from their stunted trees perches and scrambled to grab food. The cow inching forwarding whilst another joined it but none of the scraps were offered to them which surprised me as cows are viewed as holy in India and these were obviously underfed.
Entering the outskirts of Udaipur we stopped off at a vintage car museum with around 20 cars inside, one of them used in the Bond movie Octopussy. We paid a small entrance fee and persuaded the guide to admit Harphool free as locals apprently used to be allowed free entry and Harphool wouldn’t accept my offer to pay for him. The guide seeing an opportunity to get an extra tip from us let him him, and Harphool in his nonchlant way showed an interest in the cars, it was good to have him included in something we were doing as up until this point he had refused our offers of lunch and to join us at things, I imagine he’s seen it all a hundred times before and our lunch breaks meant he could meet up with old friends and family wherever we stopped. We have grown quite fond of him and I think he of us to some extent as we do have a good laugh as we drive around and show him our photos from the day. The guide followed us around explaining details about the cars, it was quite difficult to understand because he spoke so quickly and moved between us and other people but there were signs for each car explaining the model, the year they were made etc. Unless you’re a car buff it wouldn’t keep you here longer than 30 minutes but it was an interesting diversion.
We went from there to the City Palace…the first city palace we have visited as we skipped them in other cities in favour of the forts and temples…and there are only so many of any of these great monuments you can visit before they all start merging in to one and the magic is lost. But the City Palace of Udaipur located on the banks of Lake Pichola is known to be one of the most beautiful and as we entered the main gate and walked up in to the courtyard we realised why. Dappled sun filtered through in to the shaded columned courtyards where people relaxed on benches under the trees. Apparently the building began in 1553 and took over 400 years during the Mewar dynasty. It sits on top of a hill with views across the lake and the city.
city palace on the lake up and down all the steps going in one direction.
We checked in to Madri Haveli, an old merchant’s house converted in to a beautiful boutique style hotel. Two boys from the hotel pulled the bags up the winding steep narrow streets, dodging motorbikes, cows and hobbled donkeys. We are staying in the old part of town where the streets were designed long before anyone would have dreamed that one day cars might want to pass.
Laughing at Ganpat’s mobile phone that never works. I found a button on it saying ‘fun & games’ which it has been, trying to use it and another for the ‘blacklist’ which I’m obviously on. Dinner on the rooftop; a delicious spinach daal, garlic naan bread, crispy bread called lacha parantha, chicken tikka followed by glistening sweet Babel Jamun (sponge balls saturated in syrup). Finished off with thick comforting masala chai then back to our room where we lit the candle in the large beaten metal lantern sitting on a small Rajasthani table in the carved stone ‘nest’ alcove of the room.
Nov 4 Udaipur – I woke to see Rita sitting in her alcove nest reading her book backdropped by the tiny wooden doored peep hole windows and coloured stain glass illuminated by the early morning sun. We could hear the neighbours in the courtyard behind clanking metal cooking pots and throwing out water, their laundry hanging on lines across the back but spied through our furtive peephole windows. The call to prayer echoed around the narrow streets as it bounced from narrow wall to narrow wall.
Breakfast on the roof with monkeys scrambling across from a tree to chase each other across the Haveli, moving supremely fast across the city roofs until disappearing in the flash of a long curled tail in to the distance. Shivum Shanker our waiter, he seems to be the only one out of the group of staff who waits on the tables at breakfast, lunch and dinner. He’s funny and charming and incredibly courteous. I’d read in the guide book about an animal sanctuary a few miles outside of Udaipur and Harphool drove us there after breakfast. It was a depressing place, with an area called disabled heaven packed with about 50 dogs that couldn’t walk. Sad but not realistic. They’d be better off being put out of their misery. We drove past a small temple on the way back in to the city, brilliant white in the sun and painted with tigers. I stopped the car to run across the road to take a quick photo. Nearing the edge of the city we looked out across one of the lakes it is famous for…Udaipur is nickname the Lake City and is a romantic favourite for Indian tourists in Rajasthan.
On to the beautiful gardens Sahelion Ki Bari, with gorgeous gardens and fountains and we were asked to pose in another family photo, the first in a while. They in turn posed for me. We watched the ladies planting seeds out in to pots who giggled when I photographed them and then asked me for money…I politely declined and they continued to giggle and chatter.
To a shop to see door and window decorations and textiles, many of them antique and very collectible, costing hundreds of pounds but stunning in their intricacey and history. Wondering at the efficiency of the sugarcane juicing machine which you see at so many roadsides in Rajasthan…and all over Vietnam when I travelled there. Back to the old part of the city where we stopped in to a miniaturist painters shop; bought old stamped postcards hand painted with Indian animals and chatted for almost an hour with the miniaturist as he showed us his work on wafer thin slices of marble and handmade Indian papers. Lunch on the hotel rooftop of soup and warm bread rolls served as always by Shivum Shanker who when I asked if he had a girlfriend or wife he replied “But M’aam I am baby!” Downstairs we rested up then had naked massages at 5pm in the room right next door to our own…no discreet towels, Rita was initially horrified, I giggled and promised not to look. Tinny Music played whilst Moneesha and her sister whispered to each other and rubbed and pulled our toes, Moneesha breaking off mid massage for a wee in the massage room bathroom. Amusing but still an invorgorating massage…we foggily stumbled to our room next door and managed to sort ourselves out enough to climb all the stone steps up to the roof to eat more wonderful food by candlelight… whilst even more fireworks went off around the city.
Nov 5 Udaipur – We gave Harphool the day off and walked down from Madri Haveli to the clock tower to find the local market for a shopping day, walking around the old town dodging the motorbikes and scooters, declining polite offers of rickshaw rides and stepping over the odd cowpat. Cars cannot access these narrow streets and it is all the better for it. We wandered in to a Jain Temple on the main street to the market, up a few steps from the pavement with an incredible mirror mosaic domed ceiling, carved pillars and brightly coloured handpainting. We helped to chase a dog out of another brightly painted orange temple guarded by painted cement tigers and an elderely lady threading fresh marigolds on to strings for temple offerings.
Fun shopping buying traditional aluminium tea kettles, tiffin boxes, milk pails, spice containers, copper balti dishes, old metal bells with wooden clappers, a hanging brass Ganesh ornament with bells, a temple garland and ornate heavy padlocks where we had to wait for one of the young boys to run off to find the shop owner. No haggling as the prices were so low. We loved it. Food stalls dotted amongst the simple small shops, with ornately wrapped parcels of sweet treats. A little boy passed us on a large bicycle with stabilisers attached, proudly showing off his ability to ride something so much bigger than him, he happily posed for a photo.
Got a little unnerved when we entered the veg market and were immediately singled out by children asking for money…we didn’t feel threatened, just aware and careful to keep one eye on our pockets. A lady bundled threaded marigold flowers in to a sari outside a small temple with a cow chewing quietly as it lay alongside, scooters driving around it. Another worked on woven baskets using a short flat blade to separate the naturally dried plant fibres and press them in to palce, seeing my interest she handed the knife to me and encouarged me to try to copy her…her husband silently glowering behind her as he willed her to get on with her work. Hand painted trombones for bands, wonderful parasols to shade the sun made from slats of bamboo split and interwoven to support a collection of old worn saris, brightly painted buildings and the clatter and bustle of market life. Wonderful.
We visited Jagdish Temple on our way back to Madri Haveli. Built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1651 it sits at the top of several marble steps in the middle of Udaipur’s old city, an area known as Jagdish Chowk. Leave your shoes at the entrance where a local man will look after them for you and accept the offer of a guide because the gentleman that walked us around gave us a fascinating insight in to this beautiful temple and it is how he makes a small living from tnhe tip you decide to give him at the end. In the main temple area there is an idol of the deity Lord Jagannath, carved out of a single black stone. The guide explained how someone could clamber right to the top of the temple structure to change the flag by balancing on each layer of carved stone. Ornate water spouts jutt out, a combination of animals in one carving; a peacock, a crocodile, an elephant…apparently a fourth which I can’t identify looking at it again now. Three stories of hand carved stone feature thousands of Hindu deities and iconography and perched at the top is a steeple nearly 79 feet high. Jagdish-ji is the largest temple in Udaipur and a major tourist attraction but 30 minutes before closing when we visited, it was practically empty. Note the pillars decorated with the ‘swastika’ symbol, an internationally recognised mark for all the wrong reasons when appropiated by the Nazi party during the war where it came to stand for racism and hate, but its origins from the Sanskrit: “conducive to well being or auspicious”. In Hindusim the clockwise symbol is called swastika, a symbol for the sun, prosperity and good luck and the counter clockwise sauvastika means ‘night’. The same symbol is also used in Jainism… and Buddhism where it is alleged to symbolise the auspicious footprints of Buddha.
Udaipur is a wonderful city for wandering, as much as we love having the use of the car and Harphool as our driver, it is great to have these days in between where we give him a day off and we simply wander at our leisure, knowing that we are safe and that people will help us find our way back if we get lost. Neither of us ever had any concerns that we would expereince any problems…and if we got completely lost everything is always a short rickshaw ride away and haggling over the fee is part of the fun. Haggling on the shops wasn’t an issue here at all because most prices appeared to be fixed for locals and tourists alike. At prices this low I didn’t want to insult the vendors when it is obvious how wealthy we are in comparison to the locals. I firmly believe in the tourist price and the local price; no tourist should ever expect to pay the same as a local earning only a few dollars a day compared to the salaries we earn in the West. And though many tourist bemoan the art of haggling, remember that it is a cultural trait and not only there to ‘rip you off’, it is a deeply embedded custom. If you pay an amount you are happy with, then despite what the next person pays be satisifed with your purchase and walk away smiling.
Udaipur is definitely a city to explore on foot; small discoveries and random encounters are the highlight of travelling; like the lovely bookmaker we met on the way back to Madri Haveli; sat cross legged in his simple shop unit surrounded by his hand made leather sketch and note books with Indian paper and tooled designs on the covers. The detailed paintings of elephants and horses that decorated the walls along the side streets we wandered. We both bought several leather bound books from him in gorgeous amber yellow, deep jewel turquoise and orange.Back up the steep street to Madri Haveli, we ate dinner up on the roof and chatted with a couple who live in London, Rita thrilled because he’s a fellow Liverpool supporter. Our last night here, we will be very sad to leave this pretty and ancient small town.
Nov 6 – Drove to Jodhpur, winding down through amazing mountains and gorges, very different scenery to what we’d seen so far in Rajasthan. Landscapes of trees and crops. Harphool slowed down to allow monkeys to scramble over the car, disconcerted when I tapped the window, that I was actually going to open it! Realising that we weren’t going to give them any food they scrambled down and ran off in to the trees at the side of the road. I love monkeys, I know how destructive and vicious they can be, but they can also be very amusing and entertaining.
Too early for the Ranakpur Jain Temple,we drove to a local hotel and whiled away two hours drinking chai and showing Harphool photos on the iPad. Back to the temple for the 12 noon opening and paying only a 200 rupee entrance fee, our jaws hit the floor as we climbed in over the steep marble step with delicately carved monkey heads.1,400 individually and unique carved pillars quietly glow in the filtered sunlight and incredible fractal like ceiling designs spiral above us. Built in the 15th Century the temple is dedicated to Tirthankara Rishabhanatha. Walking through the open chambers (I think there are 27 in total); the scale of the marble workers craftsmanship is staggering. We wandered stupefied and humbled, at each corner some new marvel, a carved elephant, more fractal like ceilings, a beautiful vista out across the hills, an old tree twisting up towards the sun.
A local man dressed in saffron yellow robes, idled in the sunshine, glowing against the marble…his job to grind the sandalwood to make the tika’s used to anoint people’s foreheads. When we leave an hour later we both feel dazed, overwhelmed by the beauty and the scale, the play of light against the stone, the enormity of the dedication it took to create this incredible place temporarily silencing us.
Back in the car with Harphool we enthuse over what we have seen, a structure as equally as breathtaking to us as the Taj Mahal and even more disquieting in its powerful beauty as it wasn’t so crowded and filled with noise. We continue on our drive to Jodhpur, stopping at a roadside chai tea stop where the owner grinds spices and prepares chai in pans over hot coals. He holds out his hands to show us the spices and black pepper, the lump of ginger and his pestle to grind them together. It is the best chai we have tatsed so far and we thank Harphool for the authentic experience.
Arrived in Jodhpur at 5pm, chaotic rush hour traffic as Harphool manouevered the car through the crowded market place and under the main gate to drop us at Haveli Inn Pal right in the heart of Jodhpur market. We checked in and I filled in the giant book under the watchful eye of the owner who sat stately but silent across from me leaning gently against his stick. The manager explained that the owner had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak easily but was still active and when younger had been a revered Rajasthani Mewar horse trainer…old family portraits lined the walls and a large glass boxed table containing equine artifacts took central place amongt the ornate scrolled sofas. We switched from a sad scuffed twin room, arguably with a fantastic view of the Fort, to a double with a giant wide bed raised around four feet from the floor and requiring a low table on each side to get on to it. We laughed as we attempted to climb on without using the tables, I could just about manage but it was a struggle. We looked like something from The Princess and the Pea suspended several feet above the ground with an ornately carved wooden headboard inlaid with mirrored panels. Sitting up on the bed I could look out across the lake and watch the birds diving from a moored wooden dinghy. As with previous Havelis we headed up on to the roof to have dinner, our waiter Som Singh attentive and chatty…. looking straight across to the famous Mehrangarh Fort, slumbering flickering in lantern light on the hill just a short distance from us. In bed I listened to the long mournful sound of train horns, dogs fighting, motorbikes, scooters, buses, rickshaws and lorries; all with their hands permanently pressed to their horns. Earplugs firmly wedged in I snuggled down under the beautiful hand stitched quilt for a good nights sleep in the giant’s bed.
Nov 7 Jodhpur – Awoke feeling a bit ropey, dogged by the sore throat from Delhi possibly brought on by the pollution, but took some paracetamol and we had breakfast on the roof, dragging our table in to the shade, the sun already fierce even at this early hour….but a beautiful day in dry heat and those amazing views across to the Fort as we ate pancakes and drank fresh fruit juice. Sometimes on this trip I need to pinch myself…the daily visual feasts accompanied by the delicious edible ones.Harphool drove us up to the nearby Mehrangarh Fort, situated 125 metres above the city and one of the largest in India. A series of 7 gates give entry to the Fort; Jai Pol or Gate of Victory is the main entrance. We cheated and followed advice to take the lift up at an additional 50 rupees each and operated by a lovely man who dragged the metal lift gate across for the doors to close. My Aunt cautious at first but managing her fear of heights admirably. The Fort seems to grow up out of the rock it is built from, rising magnificently to give dazzling views.The battlements are between 6 metres to 36 metres high. we posed for obligatory photos with Indian families as we looked down across the blue cubed buildings of the old city of Jodhpur. Very friendly engaging people, they spoke good english and enjoyed talking with us about England where they had visited.
Walking in to an open courtyard area, I stop to talk with an elderly gentleman demonstrating an hubbly bubbly pipe; I give him a tip as he encourages me to take his photo and apparently he’s a well known character who has been based here for many years, sitting in his recessed area contentedly charming the tourists. We got talking with an Irish couple and swapped train stories; they had adventurously achieved an overnighter, had enjoyed it but said it was something they would never need to repeat… they didn’t get much sleep and stumbling along a swaying carriage in the middle of the night to use a squat toilet had been quite the experience.
Several beautifully decorated palaces are inside the Fort walls; Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), Sheesha Mahal (Mirror Palace), Sileh Khana and Daulat Khana.The small museum is the best one we have seen so far in Rajasthan; featuring weapons, costumes, paintings and decorative items including gorgeous painted carpet weights which I’ve never seen before. One large room displays several wonderfully ornate elephant howdahs and palanquins.
Leaving the Fort and turning right at the Jai Pol gate, we walked down to the small but beautifully restored 18th Century Rajput Chokelao Garden and after walking further down realised we’d wandered off course to one of the other three gates which exits out in to the old city. We have to walk back on ourselves, up steep cobbled pathways under the towering walls in 33 degrees heat to the correct exit gate for the car park and Harphool…seduced by the gardens and the pretty striped chipmunks, we had been distracted. My Aunt laughed as she tapped me on the shoulder to turn, camera ready, to see a man walking by loaded with rolls of hosepipe…a feature we have spent the past 2 weeks trying to frame our photographs to omit; everywhere we have been the ubiquitous hosepipe trailing across the scenery.
Knackered, red faced and sweating we relaxed in to the air conditioned vehicle, only to get out again a 5 minute drive later to see the beautiful marble cenotaph of Jaswant Thada. Built by Maharaja Sadar Singh in 1899 as a memorial to his father Maharaja Jaswant Singh II.
It is the cremation ground for the Mewar royal family and the area around the cenotaph is made up of several carved marble gazebos, a lake and landscaped gardens. The masoleum building standing at the top of a flight of marble steps is built from carved sheets of polished marble, so thin in parts that you can see the sun shining through in a deep amber glow. We thought at first that it was a trick of the light and merely sunlight filtering through and reflecting from the interior walls but realised that it was actually the sun shining through from the exterior.
Back at the hotel we ate a basic lunch then spent the afternoon relaxing on our giant bed looking out across the small lake opposite the hotel; watching the herons and cormorants airing their wings on the small abandoned boat. Too lazy to head to the rooftop for dinner and after having one of our ‘finance meetings’ we ordered room service, stuffed our faces and flaked out for an early night.
Nov 8 Jodhpur – The Shower doesn’t work in our bathroom, the faucet to flip between tap and shower firmly jammed, encrusted with years of water…but Rita is enjoying sitting under the tap on the floor; I use the handy measuring jug that I find propped up on a bucket. Rubber pipes run from taps to the loo, a rather ominous set up that I’ve not seen before looking like something from One Flew Over The Cuckoos next or any other movie featuring sinister hospitals! We head up to the roof to drink milky spiced chai, porridge and pancakes whilst looking out to the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort still growing purposefully out of its rocky hilltop position. Rita observed that it looks like it’s floating; and it does…grand above the city in the haze of morning sunlight and ever present smog. But the sky is blue today and a more relaxed day awaits us. Harphool picked us up at 9.30 and we headed to a small public park. Rather an odd place, quite scruffy, dusty and void of any flowers but it had its own charm. Street dogs napped under trees and confrontations occurred when other dogs wandered in to their patch. None looked underfed or unhealthy and we saw simple clay bowls scattered around the grounds filled with water, rice and vegetables. The locals were obviously leaving food out for the dogs.
Two soldiers relaxing on a bench chatted with us, asking if we were enjoying India, the older soldier wearing a smart grey beret with a military insignia pinned to the front. A man aged around 60 passed us performing his exercise routine of swinging each arm up in to the air and stretching out his limbs. A dove perched on a sign written in Hindi; cooed and eyed us as we made our circuit of the park. Back in the car with Harphool we went to an ATM and the process of having to make 4 separate withdrawals for the 36,000 rupees balance we owed to Ganpat for the daily car and driver. Next to the main Post office where long queues of people clutching parcels all standing at a single counter looked hot bothered and bored… whilst another counter lit up for stamp sales only had no staff in attendance but several sat in the background eating at desks..when I asked to buy stamps they told me that everyone was on lunch break. The other 15 counters or more all stood empty. It’s frustrating but also amusing so we decided to try our luck buying stamps elsewhere and left the unmoving unquestioning parcel queue to while away their afternoon in contemplation of when they may get served. Harphool drove us to the Jodhpur branch of Anouki, much smaller than the one in Jaipur and no cafe but it sat in a parade of interesting shops which we had a look in before asking him to drop us back to the hotel in the centre of the market where we could wander from on foot. This was where we said our goodbyes and let Harphool head home to his wife and two daughters a day and a half early. It was sad to see him go after spending over two weeks in his company and even though I never managed to get him to call me by name, having to respond instead to the daily “yes m’am” we had cracked him and got him laughing along with us on many occasions. A lovely man who made the long drives so easy. We tipped him handsomely, shared a last few minutes of easy laughter over the usueless local mobile phone which we gave back to him and watched as he wove his car through the traffic and out through the market gate.
The old city of Jodhpur is best wandered on foot; too narrow for cars but a constant rat run of scooters, motorbikes, sputtering auto-rickshaw drivers and ambling cows makes even a simple walk for lunch an obstacle course…but great fun. The blue painted buildings give off a welcoming warm colour, amusing street signs for beauty parlours dot the alleyways, looking up to see gorgeously carved stone balconies and cupolas jutting out above our heads. We loved Udaipur but I think having 4 days to settle in to Jodhpur a little and get to know it’s streets; in retrospect made it my favourite city of all. It has a very easy going atmosphere, feels very welcoming and the streets and alleyways seemed more open to the sun than in Udaipur which felt a little smaller and darker and more closed in.
On recommendation from Shanker the manager back at Madri Haveli in Udaipur, we were looking for the upmarket boutique hotel Raas to have a drink or some lunch. An older gentleman in a local mechanics workshop backing on to the road gave us directions up an alleyway barking “what do you want?!” in a humorous friendly way when we approached. At the other end of the alley a large crowd was gathered, policemen standing by and young boys and men clamoured at the wooden entrance gates to Raas. Confused we pushed through to ask admittance, we allowed to climb in through a smaller gate opened from the larger one, but once inside were politely turned back out again when they realised we weren’t guests or journalists, explaining that India’s most famous cricketer (retired batsman), Sachin Tendulkar, was there on a photo shoot. We left to walk around the streets, directed to a cafe owned by Raas called Stepwell, but before we climbed the steps to the cafe police sirens, honking horns and a small motorcade alerted us to Tendulkar’s departure as boys and young men chased his chauffeur driven car through the streets, people lining the roadside taking photos on their mobiles. It was an exciting moment as one of India’s most loved cricketers with rock star status, sped away waving to his fans through the narrow streets of upmarket boutiques and fancy interior design shops. It wasn’t until we were inside the Stepwell Cafe that we realised the wonderful significance of its name. It directly overlooks a steep ancient bouri (or stepwell) that we must have walked by three times without realising its existence, hidden as it is from street level, sunken beneath pavement level. Sitting on a blue sofa we drank salty lassis and ate lunch whilst watching locals throw bread down in to the stepwell for the fish. Back at the hotel we wandered in to a great little textile shop called Anvi Textiles in the courtyard of Haveli Inn Pal and Pal Haveli (the more upmarket boutique sister hotel accessed through the same main gate). Amongst the pashminas, ornaments and parasols were gorgeous textiles hand-sewn from old cloth and saris, minutely stitched and decorated with silver and gold threads. Made by mothers for daughters as a kind of insurance policy, the textiles could be melted down for the value of the gold and silver. I really wanted one but the 15kg baggage limit in our flight from Jodhpur to Delhi was restrictive; at £170 for the one I most admired I faltered…something I may come to regret. The owner of the shop is lovely and does offer shipping by courier or India Post.
Back in the room we had an hilarious packing and weighing session, cramming our heavier purchases in to our hand luggage including my Udaipur metal teapot filled with brass ornaments. We borrowed an hand weighing hook from reception to check that the main bags were under the Jet Air 15 kilo limit, my Aunt standing on the ‘step’ bedside table to give her enough height for me to lift the bags on to the hook in turn. Som Singh delivered two coca colas to the room (“would you like them served room temperature or cold Mim?”) and laughed with us as we tried to fit everything in. Up on the roof for dinner, gazing at the fort whilst fireworks went off in different parts of the city, the call for prayer drifted across from at least three mosques close by and drumming weaved it’s way up from the temple below.
Nov 9 Jodhpur – Trying to check in online and get boarding passes for Jet Air but it’s frustrating and sending me in a loop. Spent a good chunk of the morning walking around in circles trying to find the Krishna bookstore to buy stamps, meeting interesting people as we stop and ask directions…which ultimately send us on another big loop. The chai tea seller fires up the coals under the huge simmering aluminium pans and grinds in spices, people carrying huge loads on bent backs shuffle by in old plastic sandals, the street food vendors in their bright beautifully hand painted mobile wagons, an elderly white haired lady selling an array of vegetables tries to tempt me to buy with fresh red chillis and tomatoes. We enjoy these labryinth alleyways which when followed logically seem to lose us but when wandered randomly we find exactly what we need. It reminds me of reading R.K. Narayan novels and his rich descriptions of Indian life in his fictional cities.
A street lined with stationery shops directed us down another alleyway where we found ‘the cotton man’ standing on the raised entrance to his store with huge sacks of cotton being weighed at the entrance. On request he pulled back a heavy hanging cloth behind him to reveal his colleague crouched at the back pushing cotton balls through an ancient clanking noisy machine, confined in a small dark unit approximately 12 by 6 feet, fine cotton particles filling the air and coating his hair and clothing. He’d covered his face with a cloth and as fascinating as it was to see the machine working, the realisation of what damage must be being inflicted on his health sobered us.
Two guys in another unit were selling old army metal ammunition trunks and spare parts. We finally found the Krishna book shop which must have just opened on our second or third walk around as it now had the shutters rolled up. The ground floor filled with Indian carvings, camel bone padlocks, postcards and gifts whilst upstairs groaned with a huge weight of books. We bought stamps at the counter downstairs and followed their directions to a battered post box standing at the base of the clocktower (the postcards only took 5 days to reach their various overseas destinations, faster than the postal system back in the UK). Wandering around Sardar Market sprawled out all around the Clocktower we watch as the cloth sellers untie their huge bundles and start to lay out hundreds of brightly coloured used lengths of sari, some cut for shawls and selling at only 50 to 100 rupees each. I buy a couple, at this price not even venturing in to haggling as the prices are already so low. Neighbouring stalls vie for my custom and I wish for an entire empty suitcase and a more flexible Jet Air allownace to allow me to take home loads of these beautiful jewell colours, many sewn with hundreds of sequins which glint at me in the sun. Everywhere is a bustle of activity as the bangle seller sets out carefully bound loops of plastic bangles, a woman tries to sell me silver coloured ankle chains, two men are busy repairing something in a hole in the road helped by a young child holding a pickaxe larger than he is.
After lunch at the Stepwell cafe again enjoying our delicious salty lassis, we walk back to this area and explore another street running to the right of Haveli Inn Pal. It is lined on either side with skilled crafts people weaving baskets and selling hand fired pots, some decorated, some plain. A lady makes temple candle holders, another sells ahnging decorations made from clay; there are charm sellers and brass figurines, carved wooden statues and some more upscale shops with carved elephants at the entrance selling Indian antiques and much larger carved doors and tables. A tractor is parked further along with a small handpainted symbol over it’s headlights and a rickshaw crammed with schoolboys laugh when I go to take their photo …a father pushing one more boy in to the seats who is crying and being admonished for fighting.
Walking back to Haveli inn Pal we see another Mewar horse with its curled ears looking mournful as it stands with it’s handpainted carriage, head bowed… but doesn’t appreciate my attempt to stroke him and bares his teeth. I take a close up photograph inspired by one I’d seen framed back in Madri Haveli in Udaipur. We eat on the roof again, one more butter paneer masala before we have to start our way back to Delhi tomorrow.
Nov 10 – fly Jodhpur to Delhi. And so our incredible tour of Rajasthan comes to a close. We couldn’t have asked more from the so called ‘Golden traingle of India’. We get a taxi to the local small airport at Jodhpur where we join a queue to drop off our bags, both of them coming in around 13 kilos (damn I could have bought the wedding blanket after all!). Everything including the tea kettle gets unpacked from my hand luggage and inspected and put back in to the backpack to go through the security scanners; amused looks pass between the airport security guys. They are freindly efficient and good humoured. We take a seat next to another english woman who turns out to be a textile designer on a grant researching traditional textile techniques in India. I show her photos of the silver and gold thread spun wedding blankets and she tells me how beautiful they are…and that I should have bought them. Hah! She frets that the plane will be delayed, we are all concerned about the heavy pollution in Delhi that has been all over the worldwide news for a couple of days…pollution levels at the highest in the world, outstripping other capitol cities by dangerous measures. Surprisingly to us, the flight takes off exactly on time and around an hour later we land at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport. We check in to the Holiday inn based at the airport and are amazed to see how much more upmarket it is than the branches back in the UK. We eat a large meal in the main restaurant, forgo a swim in the pool as it’s outdoors and sitting under a thick low hanging cloud of yellow smog, call home to our husbands…. and sleep well. Both of us keen to see our husbands but neither of us really wanting this amazing Indian experience to end.
Delhi – Master Guesthouse http://www.master-guesthouse.com/
Agra – Gateway Hotel (large chain hotel) https://gateway.tajhotels.com/en-in/fatehabad-road-agra/?utm_source=Google&utm_medium=Local&utm_campaign=Fatehabad-Road-Agra
Jaipur – Umaid Bhawan Heritage Hotel http://www.umaidbhawan.com/
Pushkar – Westin Resort (large chain hotel) http://www.starwoodhotels.com/westin/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=4379&SWAQ=958C
Udaipur -Madri Haveli Heritage Hotel (our favourite) http://www.madrihaveli.com/
Jodhpur -Haveli inn Pal Heritage Hotel http://www.haveliinnpal.com/