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We left Agra again in the early morning hours and headed to Jaipur. On the way we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, which was the Mughal capital under Akbar's rule. It was eventually abandoned, primarily due to a shortage of water. Just like Jaipur, the city is enclosed by a wall. Inside is a complex of various buildings exemplifying Mughal architectural styles. We visited just one of them, the Jama Masjid. Probably the most impressive feature of the mosque complex is Buland Darwaza, a 177 foot tall gateway containing one of the largest arches in the world. Historically, performers jumped from the gateway to a small pool at its base, but the practice has been discontinued. Yet, it was hard to enjoy the beauty of this place due to the persistent hawkers. We were continuously trailed by folks trying to sell us various trinkets. They failed to understand that our reason for not buying stuff from them was not the price but the fact that just about everything that was being sold was a total crap. Bracelets and beads may cost just a rupee each, but I still had no use for them. I almost wish that this place charged an admission fee just to keep the hawkers away! Yet, some people found a way to use the situation to their economic advantage. One of the places we visited here was the Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti. Just as I was walking back outside, I was approached by a young boy. He could not have been more than 12 years old, but he had already mastered the art of selling. First thing he explained to me in a very good English, was the he was not trying to sell me anything, but instead, that he was a Muslim, and wanted to share his religion with me. First he took me to the musalla, and then we headed to the back, from where I got a nice view of the Hiran Minar. But I don't think it was a coincidence that on the return way we went by a little terrace, where his dad had set up a shop selling various stone carvings. I was actually looking at buying stuff like that, and ended up purchasing several beautifully carved elephant-inside-elephant-inside-elephant statues.
On the way to Jaipur we came across a large flock of goats crossing the road. This is one of the guys tending the herd.
Fatehpur Sikri, site of India's capital under emperor Akbar.
Close up of large bee hives occupying many of the fort's arches.
Later in the day we arrived in Jaipur. I was hoping to see the Hawa Mahal, but due to time issues, I had to settle for a glimpse through the car window. We proceeded directly to the City Palace. This palace holds two silver urns, which are the largest silver objects in the world. The rest of the group shopped for shawls, and in the mean time I proceeded to the gallery. Inside were various painting and oriental rugs. At the first sight, Indian art may seem fairly devoid of detail. Yet, the difference between Indian and European art is not the level of detail, but its emphasis. While the European artists concentrate on the individual, the emphasis in Indian art is on the larger group. Portraits of Indian princes may seem dull, as the faces lack features and are rather flat. However, the art used in portraits is just an extension of techniques used in group paintings. Although the individual figures may not be painted in great detail, the amount of small features presented in each scene is astounding.
Jaipur's City Palace. This is also where I saw my first (and only) monkey fight.
Neil talking to a sadhu.
We spent about two hours in the palace, and then headed to the spectacular Amber Fort. Big parts of the complex have deteriorated, but an active restoration effort is ongoing. When fully restored, this will be a sight to (almost) rival the Taj Mahal. The royal court encloses a central garden which historically had water flowing through it. The water originated in large storage tanks up on the hills. The trickle down bedroom walls acted as natural air conditioner. One side of the garden is Jas Mandir, a hall with walls and the ceiling covered by tiny mirrors. The mirrors can supposedly be illuminated by a single candle placed in the center of the room. The fort also houses a Hindu temple dedicated to Shila Devi. This was the first Hindu temple I visited in India.
The guys took an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort.
Inside the palace walls.
Ganesh Pol is the gateway to a garden and royal bedrooms.
Close up on the arch.
Photos from the two sides of the central garden. One side holds the bedrooms of the king's wives, while the other contains a hall with elaborate mirror patterns, Jas Mandir.
View over the courtyard onto the surrounding hills. The wall snakes over the mountain ridges and surrounds the old city.
Another view down into the town of Amber.
I was pretty exhausted by the time we finished touring the fort. This was only my third full day in India, but we covered quite a large distance and got to see a good number of spectacular sights. However, the constant rush, barrage of hawkers and the never ending honking had simply caught up to me. My plan for the evening was to grab a soup (such as the delicious Indian hot & sour) in the hotel and just take it easy. Roy and I haven't been to our hotel yet, all we knew was it had some fancy name, involving the word "palace." Thinking this was just a marketing gimmick, we expected nothing more than the like of Florence Inn. After few wrong turns and stops for directions, we arrived at a secluded mansion that could indeed be called a palace. No way this place was in my price range, I thought. Yet, to my surprise, this indeed was our hotel, the Narain Niwas Palace. I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Jaipur! The main hall, holding an indoor restaurant and the deluxe rooms, was full of antique pieces more appropriate for a museum than a place of short term residence. Our room was located in an attached unit, which likely housed the servants before the palace was converted to a hotel. The unique feature of the room was its massive wooden door, which was secured by a latch or two chains and real metal lock. Yet the real treat was the garden restaurant. A full course meal, including a soup, appetizers, about 10 kinds of meats and finally coffee with desert cost just 10 dollars. Roy and I ordered a hookah and a bottle of good wine, and watched a show with Indian dancers, fire breathers and snake charmers. Relaxing at this restaurant was just what I needed...
The reception area of our hotel in Jaipur, the Narain Niwas Palace. The garden restaurant was located to the left, and this is where we saw an evening performance with dancers, fire breathers and a snake charmer.
The door to our hotel was secured using two chains and a real lock.
Next morning we left for the return trip to Delhi. Near the end of the drive we passed through Gurgaon, which is becoming one of the largest centers of information technology in northern India. This suburb of Delhi had a very non-Indian feel. The skyline was dominated by high-rises holding both offices and condominiums. The honking was gone and drivers actually followed the lane markers. The proximity of this high tech hub to a major metropolis reminded me of Tysons Corner in northern Virginia, place where I used to work several years ago.
The rest of the day was fairly low-key. We relaxed for a bit at the pool at the Park. Later, all of us walked to a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. Large packs of street kids inhabit this temple. Roy brought with him an old suitcase full of no-longer wanted clothes that he wanted to give out to the kids. He opened the suitcase, and when the dust settled few seconds later, the clothes and the suitcase were gone. We all visited the temple, but on the way back the kids kept following us, demanding money for paint and various other drugs. We took side streets back, hoping the shake the kids off. Instead, we just saw more kids laying on sidewalks with plastic bottles on their side. We finally got the hotel security guard to chase the kids off. The day ended with a trip to the underground bazaar in the center of Connaught Place, where I purchased few last minute trinkets.
The other guys left early next morning for the airport, to catch a flight to Mumbai. After Mumbai, they had few additional days in Delhi followed by a visit to Amritsar, home of a major Sikh temple. But, my vacation balance was already taxed beyond its limit by the trip to Costa Rica, and I could not afford any more unpaid leave. So, this Tuesday was to be my last day in India. There were few additional places I wanted to see, so I hired Neil's driver for the Agra/Jaipur trip, Jitinder, for one additional day.
Unfortunately, I decided to leave the camera back at the hotel, partly because my personal plan for the day wasn't as extensive as what Jitinder had in mind for me. We first headed to Raj Ghat, site of Muhatma Gandhi's cremation. Next, my plan was to spend the rest of the day in the Crafts Museum, but since Jitinder didn't know the way, we proceeded to the Lotus Temple. This modern building quickly became one of the top tourist destinations in Delhi. It is the latest of seven houses of worship built around the world by the followers of the Baha'i faith. A complete contrast to this modern spectacle was our next stop, Mehrauli Arechaelogical Park. I really wished I had my camera when I got here. It houses several ancient buildings, but the dominating feature is the Qutb Minar which towers over the rest of the park. The pillar was completed in the 14th century, some 150 years after the construction began. It is the tallest brick minaret in the world and is absolutely spectacular. A staircase leads to the top but for obvious safety reasons, visitors are not allowed to ascend it. Finally, I asked Jitinder, a Sikh himself, to take me to a Sikh temple. We stopped in one, just in time for me to see the priest reading from the Adi Granth before a monsoon-like rain descended on Delhi.
A shower and a dinner later, I headed to the airport. My flight was at midnight and I figured I'll just spend the rest of the time in lounge reading and napping. Well, it wasn't that easy. First, entrance to the airport requires a plane ticket, or at least some kind of a flight confirmation. I had the print out of my e-ticket, so that was not an issue. However, entry is not permitted until three hours prior to departure. There is a lounge across the road, but access is limited to the five hour window prior to take off. I got to the airport 7 hours before my flight, and thus I had to spend the next two hours sitting on the ground outside the lounge. My situation was later upgraded to a presence in the lounge and finally I relocated to the terminal.
Variety of security checks followed, including a full search of all carry on bags before entering the jetwalk. But the flight back was pretty good. Once again, I got the isle seat, which simplified the restroom access. My stomach started getting quirky after the night in Jaipur. It was probably that hookah, since Roy got sick at the same time as well. Some 16 hours later I arrived in Chicago. The connection to LAX was tight, but both the suitcase and I made it in time.
For some final words, this was a really good trip and I am glad that I got a chance to visit this spectacular country with my former roomies. Having Neil's dad come along also made a big difference. The stories of India being dirty and smelly were to a big part unsubstantiated. My short stay of five days was sufficient to explore the famous sights, although I would have liked spending more time in Jaipur. The plane ticket cost around 1200 dollars, including all taxes and fees. The average hotel bill was about 50 dollars a night. Split two ways, this was not bad at all (compared to about 300 for the Park). The car to Agra and Jaipur cost 200 dollars, which was again split two ways. Finally, I managed to get by on less than 50 dollars a day just about every day. This included all the food, tips, cabs and entrance fees. The ticket prices are severely inflated for tourists, yet, even at the Taj Mahal, we paid just five dollars a person.
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