Saturday, April 29, 2006

Glorious Rajasthan with a Greek



















I have spent the last two undeniably lovely weeks traveling around Rajasthan with Christina. Arguably India’s most evocative state more then lived up to its fame and I could not have asked for better company to experience it with. Simply delightful.

I had spent some time planning and booking up tickets for this couple of weeks but we could not have been more lucky with the places we stayed, the people we met and the sights and things we saw.

One possible exception was Christina’s flight being cancelled stranding her in Kuwait until she “urged” them to put her on a flight to Bombay before connection and very later arrival. She was calm and composed throughout but I have to admit I lost my rag a bit when informed that I was not allowed to enter the building to find out from the airline what the situation was on a girl stuck in the middle-east. The bureaucracy in India can be simply infuriating and a more forceful approach seems to be the only one that works in certain situations. I had to make them take me all the way to the head of security for the airport before I could find out the information required. This is just one example of the struggles I had. I can tell you it feels like banging your head against a brick-wall and you lose patience with those all around who try and shaft you (one in particular would certainly not try and con me again), but I shall move on as this is a tale of positives.


JODHPUR

There are innumerable nicer places then Delhi, so after only a few hours we jumped on an overnight train to Jodhpur in the centre of Rajasthan.

Jodhpur is dominated by the impressive Meherangarh Fort, quite a striking sight with the pale blue houses (mozzie deterrent) of the old town nestling beneath it - hence the ‘blue city’. The highlights of the place were undoubtedly two-fold.

Firstly the fort itself. It is wonderfully preserved and has an informative tour that puts other similar sights in this country to shame. The Maharaja appears to be at the forefront of this achievement and should be very proud. We learned many things about the intricately decorated palace and massive ramparts protecting at the summit of a steep hill. I was fascinated by the context of kingly politics and struck by the breathtaking views and magical walk-up from the old-town.

Secondly our room. I have been quite tight when it comes to my cash since I have been here so the idea of spending nearly 5 pounds each on a room was a shock, but my word was it worth it. This came straight out of a movie – a veritable Al Capone suite. You go through the entrance hall into the vast expanse of a period decorated master bedroom of a 500 year old Haveli (mansion house). Simply wow!

Walks around the hussle and bussle of the windy narrow streets, Chris trying on her first Sari (I still have to wait for my first fitting) and a ‘village safari’ were pleasant and interesting activities to fill our time when we were not chilling in the friendly Singhvi Haveli over an excellent laasi. Of great interest was watching an old tribal man and his opium drinking rituals (drunk in a similar way to alcohol at home - the west’s enforcements of our own views on others does niggle somewhat).



JAISALMER

On we went via another overnight train journey (really quite comfortable though girls taking the top-bunk comes highly recommended to stop excessive staring and poking) to the desert city of Jaisalmer, as close to Pakistan as anywhere else.

The fort looks like a giant sand-castle sticking out of the Thar desert for the reason that that is essentially what it is. It is a giant sand-stone construction surrounded and containing numerous sand-stone buildings. The only thing to spoil the view was the large wind-farm nearby – an enviable scheme, but when you have the whole Thar desert in front of you I ask why on earth spoil this particularly majestic view… not a time for a rant.

It was great to wonder around the old houses, Jain temples and the palace itself, all within the mighty walls slowly sinking because of water-problems. Like many things in Rajasthan I imagine a little nicer than in the peak season.

The highlight was though our top-notch 2 day camel trek. So much fun and not too many sores to show for it. This was very different to the one I undertook in the Taklamakan - thankfully this time we had something close to a saddle and means of communication with the guide. Further, the experience was all the more interesting for the small villages and wildlife doing their best to live off the land.

Really beautiful stark country is better from camel-back, especially when you take control of your own reins and make the stubborn but not as smelly as other times things move about. I know Chris in particular enjoyed the latter rocky cactus strewn landscape after spending the hottest hours hiding from a small sandstorm underneath a sheet.

The guides were simply great, cooking awesome food (washing plates in sand) and rummaging up some fireworks Chris had purchased for my birthday. So it is we spent the night of my 24th out under the full moon with fireworks scaring all around and only each over, a ragged dog and a multitude of dung beetles for company – marvelous.

Chris was very good with the non-remtore existence of multiple species of snake and scorpion.

UDAIPUR

Another overnight train and long bus ride later we arrived at this very special place. Out of the dessert and into the hills we rolled into a place to which I must return.

As soon as we walked out onto the balcony of our very special room I astounded by the mesmerically romantic view encompassing bright-white palaces and haveli’s reflected in sparkling Lake Pichola, with majestic green dotted hills behind. Something else.

Most of our 4 or so days here were spent wandering the charming streets full of delightfully welcoming people both within and outside the tourist district, and lounging in roof top balconies spellbound by the views.

A wonderful day's horse-ride around the local countryside was a definite highlight. Chris got to ride a horse for the first time and I was allowed to full gallop on the fastest horse I have ever ridden with far more experienced riders. There really is nothing quite like going at full pelt hanging on for dear life while being pummeled by stones kicked up by the horse in front. The quaint small villages we passed were delightful and the views simply spectacular. A place I could spend weeks and weeks.

One must not forget the most impressive palace complex I have visited in India. The Rana’s of Mewar had a magnificent history well laid out here and expressed by the abundance and variety of palaces. Perhaps the most famous is the lake-palace - as seen full of lycra-clad women in Octopussy (yes we did watch it here) - but the main palace beside the lake is seriously impressive, covered in such intricate detail throughout the section we were allowed to see.

We also spent quite a bit of time in the markets and at tailors. A generally good experience except for one tailor who obviously thought we were fools – when we left after a long-drawn out negotiation to seek nicer people we did not part on great terms. This brings up an important point. I do no think it is wrong to be tight with your money in this country, especially when it comes to people who just see you as a dollar sign. I am no more the western stereotype then the guy in front of me is the Indian. That is why I have no qualms in watching every rupee with such people, whereas I will happily give a big tip to a person who is friendly and treats you with respect as another human being. Such things should be mutual. On the counter though, the actions of many Westerners when travelling in India and an unhelpful portrayal in the Indian media make a negative view of such people understandable if not particularly acceptable. It is thought-provoking that it rarely seems to be the bottom rung that treats you in such a poor way.

On one such a shopping trip a rather large grey waddling object with tusks walked towards us and it was our chance – Hati riding time! A half hour ride around the streets aboard the largest elephant I have ever seen was not only amazing fun but says a lot about India. Firstly that you can randomly pick up such a ride, and secondly that it does not seem odd to anyone that it is happening. Hati Hati Hati….the elephant even takes sugar cane tax from stores it passes

I must not forget to mention that we met up with Paul and Fanella again and had a lovely night on the beers with some Aussies. A sort of latterly bday drink with great company.

RANTHAMBHORE NATIONAL PARK

Yet another overnight train and we arrived in the not so nice town of Sawai Modhupur. Luckily for it, it has the glories of Ranthambhore on its door step.

At 6am the next morning we took a 3 and a half hour canter safari through the park that more than lived up to expectations. The park is similarly beautiful to Corbett but much much drier. Beyond the imposing fort lies an increasingly sparsely tread area that runs up into the far hills, sprinkled with wildlife packed water holes. Amongst many things we saw crocs (which I know Chris loved), sambar, hare, cheetal, langur monkeys jumping all about like gymnasts (rather dodgily conjured by revving of the engine), numerous birds including beautiful storks, dancing peacocks, and.... just wait for it…..TIGER.

After a wonderful few hours being spoiled by an abundance of wildlife we rushed across to the other side of the park based on a tip-off and after a bit of searching found a back end that belonged to an 8 and a half foot tigress. Fortunately it was connected to the front-half of her behind as she slept half covered from view by some foliage. A wonderful sight from around 10 meters away (hard to tell in such excitement).

I really want to put it across how amazing it is to witness one of these animals even if it is sleeping (and yes we could see it breathing). It really makes your heart skip a beat.

I just could not believe the ignorant Brits in our truck whining at the guide for not "producing" tigers when he is searching for signals(“we have deer at home” I quote), and then to cap off their rudeness and stupidity they complain about not seeing enough of the tiger and wish him to make her move. Do you really want a nearly 9 foot tiger on your hands that is pissed of because it has been woken by some foolish apes? I did not - fortunately the beautiful beast was allowed to sleep!!

So we left the park exhilarated and happy, specifically thanking the fantastic guide. Spurred on by Chris’s ever diminishing time, the comparable unfriendliness of the town (I showed my displeasure to the hotel man trying to shaft me as we arrived in the middle of the night) and the fact we could not stay in the park, we took random decisive action and cancelled our train tickets for the next day to Agra and jumped on a train to Jaipur.


JAIPUR

I had not originally planned to return to Jaipur as, along with the other Golden triangle destinations, it is as far as I know more full of con-artists and unfriendly persons then anywhere else in this delightful country. It does though have some impressive sights so we gave it a chance.
Unfortunately, on the first morning it lived up to its reputation among travelers. After much negotiation I agreed to visit a single shop for 10 minutes with no purchase if a rickshaw driver would take us around town to complete a number of errands (I know those of you who have been in this situation will be screeching never do such a thing, but when you know what to expect the whole thing can be quite fun - and we were very clear of the agreement). So errands completed, we went to his artist shop and spend nearly twice the agreed time seeing the handiwork and actually buying a particularly beautiful item (hati, tiger, horse and camel all displayed – the story of the 2 weeks) – hence significantly more than completing our side of the bargain. The problem, I believe, was that I bargained the item down to street prices (as later acknowledged by similar items we found) leaving only minimal profit. The rickshaw drivers make their money out of a percentage of sales or a single fee for the visit. This greedy man was obviously not happy with his cut as his demeanour changed from bubbly and friendly to downright nasty saying he disliked Brits and refusing to drive us back into town as agreed. I told him what I thought of him without once being rude and left on significantly higher moral ground. In a country of karma I fear for the little man.

On arrival back into the town we strolled around the pink palace – not so pink nowadays due to the pollution – and were suitably impressed by the marvelous Janta Manar. The observatory is so much better with guided explanation and we were able learn about the importance of astrology to the people, and marvel at the detail and scope of the complex from the small planned models to one of the largest sundials in the world – it is huge.

Then by bus (no rickshaws thank you very much) again onto the Amber Fort. To me much more impressive then the later achievements at Japiur (though one Maharaja after the move to Jaipur did reportedly have 108 wives – a startlingly impressive but significantly more daunting an achievement). Again a guide really added to the experience explaining many of the large and smaller charming details of the multi-extended palace rides above the picturesque valley below.

That I only realized at the last minute that the Taj Mahal was not open on Fridays (Chris’s penultimate day) did not even put a dampener on things for as with most problems it was sortable with little fuss and worked out like a treat.

Onto Uttar Pradesh and Agra. Finally I shall see the Taj and with appropriate company as well. As fitting sn ending as I can imagine for 2 great great weeks

Note: Congratulations to anyone that actually finished reading this blog!!! A few mistakes I am sure as costs too much to correct them in Burma.
Note to self: Try not to rabbit on quite so!!
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