Rajasthan. This (together with Taj Mahal) is most likely what you think of when you think of "Incredible India", even if you might not be aware of it. Rajasthan means "the land of kings" and consequently it is full of previous maharajas' palaces and forts, each more impressive than the last. Majarajas, forts, deserts, bazaars... It can all be found here.
We had planned to visit two towns in Rajasthan, Jaipur, the capital, and Jodhpur. We took an overnight train from Varanasi and arrived before noon the following day in Jaipur. When we had told people in Varanasi that we were going to Jaipur, they looked at us with pity and said "But it's so hot there!". Knowing that it was well above 40 degrees in Varanasi, we didn't really see what the fuss was about. According to the forecasts, Jaipur would be around the same temperature, if not one or two degrees cooler.
Well, one or two degrees in either direction doesn't really matter. The point in Jaipur is that, unlike Varanasi, there are no alleys where you can escape the heat. If you're out, you're out. You want to see the main sights? Get ready to sweat. So we did, covered up in long sleeves and scarfs and sun hats and just about coped.
There are actually a number of benefits of the heat. Firstly, the sights are less busy and sometimes we could even find ourselves almost alone. Secondly, the heat gets to the hawkers too. Not only are there less of them, but they are also, if anything, less persistent than usual... At least that is what we would like to think. That being said, we don't want to create an illusion of the hawkers not being annoying. Rajasthan has got the worst and most annoying we've experienced in India (probably anywhere) so far. "No", no matter how it is said, quietly, loudly, with or without eye contact, friendly, angrily, is not understood. When we say "no", they hear, "Please ask me what country I am from", so they will then ask "Hello, which country? Madam, Sir? Yes please, Madam!!! Hello??". The only thing that might work is to ignore them altogether, but even that often doesn't work. "Madam? Hello, Madam?? Yes, please Madam?! Sir?? No speak English, Sir?"
Eventually they might tire, mumble something in Hindi and bugger off. Every time it feels like a small step for mankind, but a bloody huge step for us. Imagine this, every time you leave your hotel. You can't let it get to you because than you might end up hurting someone (we do outsize most people here) so we try to be zen about it. Which works, sometimes.
Luckily, the sights in Rajasthan are, without a doubt, worth the hassle.
Jaipur is full of bazaars selling beautiful saris, bangles, scarfs, textiles etc... Grant has a theory that the reason girls like India so much is that it's all about dressing up (for girls at least) and there might be some truth in that. In the Jaipur bazaars, however, they are very used to tourists with cash to spend so you are less likely to get a good deal here than in many other places.
More generally, Rajasthan feels very different to the other parts of India we have been in. It is much drier here, sights are kept clean and tidy, people look Middle Eastern, or rather, "Mughal", and the sound of Islamic prayers float across the cities at regular intervals during the day. It is funny that having been in the Bhuddist mountains of Darjeeling and the Hindu holy city of Varanasi we are now in a very mixed territory, with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Christians living together. Rajasthan is also a centre of spices, as we discovered at lunch in Jaipur on our first day; after taking one bite of the particularly spicy curry Grant began hiccuping loudly and uncontrollably, prompting the waiter to bring over a glass of water which he deposited with a sympathetic smile!
A bit too much of this in Grant's food
In the pressing heat, we were keen to save our energy for the sights rather than shopping, and ventured to the Old City and the City Palace.
The New Gate into Jaipur
If you urgently need a chapati
Well into the City Palace, we started to look around. Beautiful, of course, but little did we know that we would see far more impressive buildings in Rajasthan!
These guys happily posed for a photo, and of course wanted some rupees afterwards
Inside the City Palace
Next stop in the Old City was Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds. It was constructed in 1799 by the incumbent maharaja in order to let the ladies of the royal household, living in Purdah, get a view of city life. The palace does indeed offer great views.
At the Amber Fort, just outsider Jaipur, we could choose between taking a jeep, riding an elephant or walking up the hill to the fort. It didn't look very far and we decided to walk it. On the way up we could see the invariably Western tourists having their ride up on these amazing animals, ruined by hawkers walking alongside every step of the way, trying to sell various types of crap. Walking up, we were almost left alone, even if we had to dodge some particularly huge piles of elephant dung.
The Amber Fort
You could opt for taking an elephant up...
...but we walked
The Amber Fort was constructed for the Rajput Maharajas in 1592 and abandoned by the family in 1727 when the incumbent maharaja realised that that the surroundings were becoming too small and the city needed to be moved, to what today is Jaipur.
The Amber Fort was just magnificent. As we arrived in the first courtyard there was live music - a type of drums - playing, which obviously is very touristy but still contributed to a great ambiance, especially when you add in the elephants. It was like we had moved back in time!
The Divan-i-Aam, The Hall of Public Audience
Inside the palace
The Ganesh Pol, entry to the third courtyard and the maharaja's apartments
Third courtyard, in the background the Jai Mandir, Hall of Victory
The Hall of Victory, originally Belgian glass was used!
We can't get enough of the beautiful details of these palaces. It's obvious that no expenses have been spared building them and there is beauty everywhere. It is this architecture that puts Rajasthan at the top of every tourist's India itinerary.
Details from around the palace
And at last, the end and an escape from the heat. Our first visit to the Indian Starbuck's equivalent, "Cafe Coffee Day"
Now, although we weren't planning to do any shopping, Helena decided that it would be a shame to be in Jaipur without looking at bangles and we went to a nice shop where we were the only non-Indians in the place. While Helena bargained hard over some bangles, the other men in the shop did their best to convince Grant to get a pair of camel skin slippers. Not having a need for camel skin slippers, Grant politely declined.
Shopping in Jaipur - bangles for the lady...
... And camel skin shoes for the gentleman
Jodhpur - the blue city
From Jaipur we took our first day time train. While waiting for the train on the platform, Helena experienced some success. As late as that same morning we had discussed how few Indian women we had talked to since arriving in India. Men approach us all the time, and the hotels and shops are almost exclusively "manned" by men. We see women everywhere of course, dressed in beautiful, colourful saris, but we don't know anything about what they are thinking. As a rule we try to ask women for directions as it generally means less hassle and we otherwise never would talk to them.
And then, on a platform in Jaipur, it happened. A handsome woman with two children started chatting to Helena. Having ignored numerous invitations to conversations ("Which country?") in the last hour, this was one that was not going to be ignored. When Helena told her, "you know, you are the first Indian woman who has started a conversation with me since we arrived", she wasn't at all surprised. "Ah, but I've spent ten years in Singapore, that's why I am very friendly". She proudly told us that her daughter was going to school in Warwick in England in the autumn and we wished them all best of luck, very happy to have spoken to a nice Indian woman.
With Helena's birthday coming up, we had booked a nicer hotel outside the city in Jodhpur as a special treat. When we arrived at Devi Bhawan it felt like we were in paradise. The place was simply perfect: clean, spacious, beautiful, with friendly staff (all men needless to say), good restaurant, and a nice pool - a few days of luxury for us backpackers. We had booked no less than three nights here, to make sure we had enough time just to enjoy ourselves.
The first stop on the Jodhpur tourist circuit was the amazing Mehrangarh Fort, one of the most impressive sights we have seen in India, if not the whole trip. It is so elaborate and beautiful, over the top at times, but then again, that is what you expect of a majaraja's home, is it not?
Enemies tried to seige the fort with elephants and canons (see holes in the wall) but the Mehrangarh Fort never fell
"The Pleasure Room", yes that's what they called it. In here the maharaja's ladies would "dance" all night, the audio guide told us
Inside the fort
The maharaja's bedroom
More views from inside the fort
View of Jodhpur - the blue city
Down the road from the fort is the Jaswant Thada, another beautiful building, built in "marble so fine that it is almost transparent".
Dog cooling off in the water outside Jaswant Thada. Can't blame him
As for the birthday dinner, we went to a lovely rooftop restaurant called Indique, located at one of the posh hotels in the old city, with a view of the Mehrangarh Fort. The food and service was excellent. They also managed, following Grant's secret plotting, organise a delicious chocolate birthday cake after dinner. Delicious as it was, we weren't able to finish it ourselves and offered some to an Aussie-English couple at the next table, who were on their four month honeymoon, who happily accepted.
What more could you possibly ask for on your birthday?
The Singh dynasty of Jodhpur are still around and the current maharaja's family lives in a huge palace, Umaid Bhawan, on the outskirts of town, which also serves as a heritage hotel. We went the following day to have a look at the museum part. Before entering the palace, we had to pass quite a rigorous safety control, which is mot uncommon for the sights in India (albeit the strictness of the controls vary a great deal). The fear of terrorist attacks here is wide spread; there are several religious extremist groups operating here. (When filling out your Indian visa application, you have to specify whether your father was born in Pakistan or not, indicating that there are particular concerns as regards India's neighbour. We also note that in every Indian newspaper we have read, there will always be a story about "Pak" problems, painting the neighbour and rival in a bad light.) Having passed the security control and in the process of getting our tickets, Grant was making a joke to Helena, reading out the cost of entry tickets: "Indians 50 rupees, foreigners 100 rupees"and then his own, made-up addition, "and Pakistanis, 500 rupees". The guy selling the tickets burst out laughing too, having overheard Grant's politically incorrect remarks. Good thing the guy shared Grant's sense of humour!
The incredibly opulent Umaid Bhawan palace - built over 15 years starting in 1929 and containing 365 bedrooms. The place was too long for our wide angle lens
While being impressed by the sheer size of the place, the museum itself wasn't much to write home about. We only saw a tiny part of the palace where we could look at family photos and some expensive exhibits. We were however amazed by the wealth of the family, and the money spent on extravagant luxury. Every country has its income differences, but nowhere are they as manifest as in India.
The museum was kept clean at least
More lassis and a famous omelette
Hardly a day passes in India without us having lassis, and Rajasthan would prove no different. Again following the Lonely Planet's advice, we went to two popular and well known places in Jaipur and Jodhpur respectively.
Lassiwala in Jaipur is literally a hole in the wall serving lassis. They only come in one flavour "plain", but there is nothing plain about them. We could easily understand the long queue as well as all the Lassiwala copycats next door!
So many Lassiwalas, but there is only one original
Very good lassi indeed
Jodhpur also has its lassi institution, the Shri Mishrilal Hotel. We decided to take a seat in the busy establishment one lunchtime. Just like like Lassiwala, we were the only foreigners and our presence caused quite a stir. We sat next to a student and his grandfather who started chatting to us, very interested to hear about how we liked in India. Our answers seemed to please them. We asked them what they did and the grandfather turned out to be an advocate and indeed was wearing the same type of pin striped trousers you see on British advocates.
Enjoying yet another lassi in Jodhpur
The lassi here was really thick, almost like drinking cake doe. It was really tasty, albeit on the sweet side and again we could see the reason behind the place's popularity with the locals. Following our new friends' advice, we also tried the rabri which is made of sweet, boiled milk (unlike lassi which is made of curd). When trying to order two, the waiter first said no, saying we would like the lassis better. When we insisted he reluctantly agreed to bring us one half glass to share, as he was so sure we wouldn't like it. In Helena's case, he wasn't completely off the mark, as this thing turned out to be incredibly sweet. Grant on the other hand contemplated ordering another, that's how much he enjoyed it. Instead, he decided to have a wet shave, which went very well!
Grant enjoying a wet shave i Jodhpur
We also tried another Jodhpur delicacy, namely the omelette made by "The omelette man". This is another example of how Lonely Planet can make a restaurant or shop etc. Following a mention in the Lonely Planet a few years back about the tasty omelettes at this street stall, the Omelette Man got famous - and very busy - overnight, and is now selling over a thousand eggs-worth of omelettes from his tiny stall every day! We opted for the cheese masala omelette and were not disappointed.
The Omelette Man
Rajasthan turned out to meet our expectations and then some. We had a really pleasant few days here despite the heat which, in fact, turned out to bring a few benefits. It was also nice to treat ourselves to some rare luxury, and we felt incredibly relaxed and happy when we left our nice hotel and Jodhpur, continuing our Indian adventure.