Saturday, 6 September 2008

5 – 6 September 2008: Jaisalmer

Arriving into the desert town of Jaisalmer at dawn, we were immediately besieged by touts waiting for us on the train platform. We managed to evade the first bunch by telling them not to waste their time on us and that the train was still full of tourists (which it wasn't). Unfortunately, leaving the station we we had to wade through a sea of shouting touts, eager to get us into their hotel.

Our guest house has a really old door to the room with a bewildering system of chains and metal hoops to lock it. Hearing me struggling, the owner came up to reveal the simplicity of the mechanism. The rooftop view of the cows and pigs intermittently raiding the vegetable market is very entertaining. The view of the fort came a close second.

After our early start we were low on sightseeing energy, so proceeded to plan the next couple of train trips. Enthusiasm for the 29-hour trip to Amritsar's Golden Temple evaporated. Instead, we plan to travel straight to Delhi, onwards to Varanasi and then buy a one-way ticket to Nepal. Queuing for two hours at the ticket reservation office, we explored the meaning of life and the human condition. When we'd finally reached the counter, one man pleaded with us to be allowed to jump the queue. Yeah right!!! To the back... (Apparently, one of the perks of being a woman in India – yes there are some – is that you can jump to the front of any queue. After one hour and forty five minutes, Jen regretted not exercising her rights because of some vague notion of fairness).

Desperately needing a beer, we headed over to Trio restaurant which was apparently 'the pick of Jaisalmer'. Andy's spicy dish was notable for the absence of spices – the camel train must have got lost in a sand storm. However, the rather bland food was still leap years ahead of the local entertainment: a singer literally doing an impression of a stuck record/mating frog. Jen had a great time watching the horror on Andy's face, as the singing started. For Andy, it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

We got a welcome break today from the heat with cool and overcast weather (27 degrees). The maze of streets inside the fort – 'Indian Disney' – were lined with souvenir shops and lacked atmosphere. The fort palace itself was underwhelming and expensive. The main attraction was trying not to disturb the bats that were busy sleeping/mating above you. The smell of bat urine was only surpassed by the entrance fee.

Luckily, we met fellow traveller Rod on the windy ramparts. His anecdotes and insights, gained over several trips to India, made our day. His holiday enthusiasm had faded one week before his return flight home to the UK. Similarly, our travel plans for Nepal have been brought forward.

We're off on a camel safari tomorrow for two days. Jen's even bought herself a Taliban scarf in anticipation. As our karma would have it, Bear Grylls was on TV last night giving tips on desert survival. Highlights included how to survive encounters with cobras, eating scorpions and sucking water out of dry river beds. We're hoping that our little adventure will be far less eventful.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

3 - 4 September 2008: Jodhpur

The scenery between Udaipur and Jodhpur was stunning. As we got closer to the desert, the landscape changed from green corn fields to increasingly arid plains with occasional smooth rocky outcrops. From time to time the bus swerved to avoid herds of sheep and goats. On the bus we met Neve and Chris who had also been sold seats 17 and 18. They were great fun, and we ended up going for dinner with them in the evening.

Jodhpur is a typical chaotic Indian city. We came here to visit the invincible Mehrangarh Fort that towers over the Blue City. We entered the fort through the Lohapol (Iron) Gate and were immediately surrounded by a large group of locals. It was refreshing to see more women around. They too were shaking our hands.

The courtyards and palaces inside the fort were detailed and stylish with none of the colour clashes seen in other forts. We were won over by the appeal of this towering red sandstone structure. On the ramparts, we met two really lovely girls who were very excited about making our acquaintance. As we took the camera out, a very pushy man with his wife tried to elbow their way into the picture – uninvited!

The audio guide to the fort pointed out lots of interesting facts. For example, the main gate was built at right angles to the approach road. This prevented elephants from building up enough speed to ram the gates. The gates were also studded with sharp spearheads, set at the height of an elephant head. Further along, the wall of the gate was adorned with red hand prints. When the Maharaja died, his wife would leave her hand print here and exit the fort for the last time. She would then join her husband on the funeral pyre, burning alive in the flames.

The ten-minute promotional video for the current Maharaja was also excellent. It gave a great insight into what a family does once it no longer has its traditional political role. After becoming 'common people' in 1971, they have enjoyed polo games, driving vintage sports cars and eating silver service dinners in their new palace (which bizarrely reminded us of a communist party headquarters). Favourite one-liners from the video came from the Maharaja's Oxford educated son: 'My father is my idol' and 'Although I have never lived there, Mehrangarh is in my blood'.

We also made a quick stop at Jaswant Thada, a white marble memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh. We had a welcome rest from the crowds and the heat in this peaceful and shady oasis. Andy said he felt like a fried egg in the +40ÂșC heat.

On a final point, Jodhpur is indeed home to those famous riding trousers.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

1 - 3 September 2008: Udaipur

The city of lakes is famous for the picturesque Lake Pichola, with its two floating palaces and the impressive City Palace Complex on its eastern shore. The town got world-wide fame when it featured in the James Bond film 'Octopussy' in 1983.

We went on a boat ride to view the Lake Palace on Jagniwas Island and another palace on Jagmandir Island. The fairytale like Lake Palace was formerly a royal summer residence, but nowadays it is an exclusive five-star hotel resort. Non guests can only go for lunch or dinner. We didn't want to fork out 2,000 Rupees for a buffet lunch, so we admired the clean white palace from the boat. We landed on Jagniwas Island to visit the palace there, but that too has recently been converted into a luxury hotel and was mostly off limits to visitors. However, we got a good view of the rows of beautiful stone elephants that line the entrance to the island – they also feature in Octopussy.

The City Palace Complex looks very imposing from the outside, and there was certainly lots to see inside. Glass, mirrorwork and mosaics adorn the walls of the most ornately decorated rooms. At times there was so much rich colour and detail that we both felt overwhelmed.

Needing to take a break from it all, we headed to the relaxed – and rather empty – Fateh Prakash Hotel inside the complex for a delicious English afternoon tea. Andy was loving the cream cakes and the tea served in silver pots. Next door was the durbar hall, decorated with three huge chandeliers that the caretaker lit up just for us. The chandeliers were impressive, but not quite as colossal as the ones we saw in the Maharaja of Gwalior's Palace.

We finished off the day by watching Octopussy in the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. The views were fabulous, with endless rooftops and the distant hills surrounding Udaipur. The old town is full of narrow, winding streets lined with colourful clothes, arts and souvenir shops. The sunset was gorgeous, with the magnificent Monsoon Palace perched on a hilltop in the distance.

Read about our close shave with a cow in Jaipur.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

27 - 31 August 2008: Jaipur, Rajasthan

All this travelling can get a bit tiring, so we did nothing for our first two days here. Our enthusiasm supplies needed replenishing after a hectic ten days of zooming around India. On the train from Agra to Jaipur, Jen had a little too close an encounter with a creepy crawly. The inch-long cockroach looking insect had crawled up the inside of Jen's trouser leg, and she had a panic attack when the creature suddenly started moving. Needless to say, the bug met a quick, premature death...

Once safe and bug-free in Jaipur, we managed a couple of lunch trips out, including one to OM – a rotating restaurant with great views over the whole city. It sounds great, but in reality, Jen felt a bit travel sick with the jerky rotation and the battalion of staff were extremely pushy. The food was also expensive and disappointing.

We've changed hotels since we've got here too. Although we really liked the roof top terrace of the first hotel, one member of staff was getting a little to intrusive. He was running his hands through our laundry, searching through our shopping and going into our room when he wasn't welcome. Hmmmm. The attempts at coercing us to see the puppet show – 'it's like your Punch and Judy' – was the final straw. Besieged in our own hotel room, we voted with our feet.

Sightseeing in the Pink City of Jaipur, we visited the five-storey Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds – complete with camel); the impressive Observatory full of instruments that Kepler and Newton would have been proud of; and the City Palace. The grandeur of the City Palace was away from public view in the Maharajah's private quarters. What was on display, felt slightly flat after our trip to the Maharajah of Gwalior's abode.

Stresses today of shoo-ing a man out of the ladies toilet and feeling infuriated at getting paparazzi-ed on top of the Iswari Minar Swarga Sal (Heaven Piercing Minaret) were balanced by meeting a lovely French couple. Chatting with them and sharing our experiences was a welcome oasis during the day. They too were slightly frazzled!

A misunderstanding at the hairdressers left Andy with what can beest be described as the eighties' classic – the Duck's Arse. Re-styling with the nail scissors in the bathroom quickly followed.

Here's some more photos of beautiful animals in not so beautiful settings.

On our final day in Jaipur, we went to Nahargarh Fort. It as a beautiful winding road to reach the top, and it was nice to walk off at least some of our lunch. The fort had great rooftop views of Jaipur.

Returning from the fort, a pregnant cow went a bit mental and tried to attack us. Luckily, some very kind locals herded us into an alleyway to hide. However, the cow came for us again and the locals had to chase it away with sticks. We rushed to an auto-rickshaw – no bartering on the price – and sped away to safety. We didn't even have time to thank everyone for their help.

We would recommend Karni Niwas hotel to anyone staying in Jaipur. The room we had was spacious and clean – it even had a bath. The owners couldn't do enough for us and looked after our luggage on our last day. Tasty masala chai too.