|Hopping around India with a brief layover in Seoul||1 2 3 4 5|
Due to our delay in Agra, we ended up skipping Fatehpur Sikri, a former Mughal capitol and a World Heritage site. Instead we headed straight for the Amer Fort (also known as Amber Fort) on the outskirts of Jaipur. Today being the New Years day, the place was jam packed! First it was a holiday, and second, there is a tradition that as you do on the New Years day you will do over the rest of the year. So perhaps Indians actually like the idea of traveling and sightseeing, they just don't have the time or means to do so. This fort is a really spectacular place. One of the first highlights is the hall of royal audience where the king would sit during meetings with his citizens and help dispute quarrels. Later we got to see many beautiful corridors with inlaid mirrors that reflect candlelight. We also saw the private quarters housing the king's many wives. Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan. The history of the state is tied to strong Rajput kings who resisted against the invading Mughals. Most cities in this state are named after their founders: for instance, Jaipur is named after Jai Sing II, Jodhpur is named Rao Jodha, and Jaisalmer is named after Jaisal Singh. The royal heritage continues even to this day. The Rajasthan kings used to receive money from the federal government for agreeing to relinquish their ruling rights and join the Republic of India. These privy purses were abolished in 1971 by India's prime minister Indira Gandhi as part of her social reform. Since then, many royals converted their palaces into museum to generate income from entrance fees. One such palace is the Jaipur City Palace which we visited the following day.
We stayed in Narain Niwas Palace, the same hotel I stayed in with Roy on my first trip to India 10 years earlier. This is another spectacular colonial-era mansion converted into a heritage hotel. I think the hotel has gone through a major renovation as the rooms were much nicer than I remember. Sheesh, our tour organizer was waiting for us at the hotel and helped with the check in. After we caught up with him, Sandra and I went for dinner. The hotel now has several new restaurants, including an Italian place that was fully booked for the night, and a western style eatery where we had a really good pizza. As you can seen from my picture, I was quite ill that night. I think I was having chills as I was feeling cold despite it not being that bad. Jaipur has a lot to offer but due to our day late arrival, it looked like we will be missing all the major sights. Well, we got lucky as our flight to Jaisalmer got delayed by several hours (the plane was coming from Varanasi of all the places) so now a delay worked in our favor. This gave us just enough time to hit the main highlights. We saw the outside of the Wind Palace (Hawa Mahal, supposedly there isn't much to see on the inside), and we learned about ancient astronomical research at the Jantar Mantar, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I got to pet a cobra and finally we headed to the beautifully decorated Jaipur City Palace. Part of palace is the museum with the royal family residing in the rest. We got to visit some of the private quarters and also the armory. Later we enjoyed juices and cookies on the terrace, but unfortunately the king didn't come to join us. Then it was straight to the airport. There we said our goodbyes to Sheesh as we boarded the flight to our next destination: Jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer is a bit out of the way for many tourists to India but we are really glad we came here. This was my favorite town of the entire trip. Jaisalmer is located deep in the Thar desert and is only a short distance from Pakistan. By Indian standards, it is a tiny town of only 78,000 inhabitants. Many of these people live off the seasonal tourism and pack their bags in the summer when temperatures reach scorching 120F. Per our tour guide, Jaisalmer was for a long time a forgotten outpost. This changed in 1971 during the India-Pakistan war. Pakistan dropped some bombs on or near Jaisalmer which made the federal government remember there is a town out here. Subsequently a military base was built here which generated a source of revenue for the town. These day, Jaisalmer is becoming a popular tourist destination. Many interesting sights and the overall laid back feel surely contribute to this.
From the airport we headed to our hotel, Hotel Heritage House. As the name suggests, this was another former mansion converted to a hotel. This hotel was smaller than the giant palaces we stayed in Agra and Jaipur but was still interesting. The rooms are built around a central open courtyard. There is a rooftop restaurant serving breakfast and where we also had some food waiting for our evening tour to begin. The hotel seems to be managed by several young lads. What surprised was that there was also a white lady camping on the roof. She kept going into the kitchen so it seemed like she worked there too. As we found out later, the girl is from Germany and has been staying in Jaisalmer for few months as part of some time off from work / spiritual journey. Jaisalmer is a big hippie destination, maybe due to having the state's only government licensed bhang (edible marijuana) shop. We didn't visit there, but it's famous for their "special" lassi. That evening we headed to a small hill from where you can get a nice view of the fort and the town below. Sunsets in Rajasthan are unlike anything I have ever seen before. I think that because of the amount of smoke in the air, you end up with an interesting pattern, in which the setting sun looks more like a rocket engine plume than the round shape we are used to seeing in the West. Some poor kids from the shanty town below were here walking with their pet goats, asking people for money. Some other kids below were flying kites which seems to be a very popular activity in India. Later while having dinner on the rooftop terrace, I snapped a picture of the full moon.
Prior to our trip, we told Sheesh that one thing we were hoping to experience in India was a yoga class. He arranged for us to visit one the next morning in a temple located a short walking distance from our hotel. I knew that yoga is different from the athletic-focused Hatha yoga practiced in the west, but didn't know exactly what to expect. This was a really interesting experience. This class focused mainly on breathing excercises. We did things like alternate nostril breathing, slow and rapid breathing cycles, long exhalations while chanting "Ohm", and finally getting down on our hands and knees, sticking the tongue out, and making lion like noises. This was followed by raising the arms in the air and laughing out loudly. We ended up doing two more yoga sessions after this one but this one was by far our favorite. After breakfast we started our city tour by heading to Gadsisar Lake. It was quite interesting seeing a body of water in the middle of a desert. This lake was excavated in 1367 and is used to collect rainwater for the city. After visiting a nearby Hindu temple we headed to Jaisalmer fort. This is the only living fort in Rajasthan, meaning that people still live there. It was a very interesting place. Besides simple people watching we also explored several Jain temples located inside the fort. Next we stopped in a fabrics craft shop. We ended up buying a duvet cover with hundreds of stitched in mirrors. We asked to have it shipped back home, and to our great surprise, the package actually arrived on the day we specified, about two days after returning back to the states. One thing I found fascinating about this particular shopping experience was that as I was paying, the shopkeeper became very fascinated with my wallet (purchased the day before in the Jaipur airport) and was quite serious I should give it to him (empty of course) as a gift for completion of the transaction. We had a similar experience again in another location. This to me is a very strange custom. I would think that the money the shopkeeper receives from the customer should be a sufficient gift but apparently it's expected here for the customer make some token offering. Finally, we visited a haveli, a fancy rich merchant house, similar to one that ended up getting converted to our hotel.
Then in the afternoon we set off to participate in an activity that was the primary reason for us coming to Jaisalmer: taking a sunset camel ride in the Thar desert. Many people even do multiple night safari journey but given our limited time, we ended up doing just a single journey to Sam sand dunes. This was a great, once in a lifetime experience. I don't know if I will ever find myself with an opportunity to ride a camel on a sand dune. These dunes are located only 47 km from Pakistan. Camels are tall! You mount one while it is sitting. You then hold on for dear life as the camel stands up. The camel first straightens its back legs which makes you lurch forward. Then you lurch backwards as it raises the front legs. Once it's standing, the ride is fairly smooth. You end up bouncing up and down a bit but as we were going quite slow, this wasn't bad. Each of us had a handler that was directing the camel. Few times we had to get off the road and descend down a small ravine to make room for speeding camel rickshaws. We started near the road in a section covered in shrubs and finished 30 minutes later on top of the sand dunes 1.4 miles away (I had Garmin GPS watch recording this). Before we set off, some guy asked us if we would like a beer at the end. Being the naive tourist, I figured these were complimentary. They were not, but even with the desert markup, the price ended up being quite reasonable. We sipped on beers as we waited for the sun to set. On the way back we were brought to a jewelry shop.
The next morning we set off on a 5 hour car journey to Jodhpur. This is the second largest city in Rajasthan and is famous for its fort. The drive itself was pleasant, and we were surprised by how nice the roads were here compared to what we saw earlier in Varanasi and Agra. In Jodhpur we stayed in Pal Haveli, another former merchant mansion converted to a hotel. The hotel and the rooms were really nice. Yet as pretty much in every hotel in India, there were few tiny omissions that kept the room from being perfect. For instance, there was a coffee maker in the room, but no place to plug it in. The cord was only an inch too short to reach the plug that was next to it. Being an installer of electrical switches must also be a lucrative job in India. Every single hotel had about 20 light switches in each room. There are even switches to activate power outlets. What's frustrating about these switches is that there is no rhyme and reason to how they are connected and they are not labeled. A light switch on one side of the room may switch on a light on the opposite side, instead of the light that is right next to it.
This afternoon we went for a walk to a step well. Coincidentally, I read about step wells for the first time in the inflight magazine on the flight to Jaisalmer and didn't even realize there was one to see here in Jodhpur. These massive wells have steps on their sides that were used to reach the water level. It's actually fascinating thinking about how these were built since there are additional levels under water. One side contains decorated chambers used by the town people to cool off in the hot summer months. We mentioned to our guide that we were looking for simple bedsheets and cotton shirts as the cotton you find in the United States is not of good quality. Well, the guide brought us into another crafts palace, where we were being again shown the multitude of scarves, and runners in elaborate design. Some of the things they showed us were quite ridiculous, like a jacket that Sandra is demoing below. It was more suited for Indian royalty than for someone like us. Instead after the tour we returned on our own to a boutique we noticed earlier by the stepwell called Nicobar. We finished the tour with a walk around the town market. One shop here is supposedly famous for their lassi so of course we tried it. We then watched the sunset from the clock tower. You can see our hotel in the picture below. Our hotel had a well known rooftop restaurant. When we went up to see about having dinner, we were told the place was fully reserved. But since we were staying in the hotel, they gave us a table. Just behind us came in an elderly Australian couple and since we had a table for four, we invited them to join us. We ended up spending the evening chatting with them about their own India experience so far. I think they were having the fairly typical experience in that they were completely overwhelmed by the utter chaos, wild driving, dirtiness and poverty that you see all around you. That is India. However, from my own experience, those aspects fade away quickly and you end up left with memories of the wonderful palaces and unique culture that you won't find anywhere else.
The next morning we first headed to Jaswnat Thada, a stunning white marble funeral memorial (a cenotaph). It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh to honor his father Jaswnat Sing II. From here you also get a clear view of the Mehrangarh, the Jodhpur fort. Unlike Amer or Jaisalmer forts, this one truly feels impermeable. It sits heigh above the city, with entryways consisting of narrow steep passages with sharp corners that were difficult for elephants to traverse. Near the entry gate you can still see imprints left from invader cannonballs. This is not a living fort and instead the various rooms house exhibits of ancient weapons, palanquins (seats with sticks carried by human bearers on their shoulder), and howdahs (ornate elephant seats). Palanquins were a popular mode of transport even for the not super rich until faster methods such as trains or rickshaws made them obsolete. From the fort we headed straight to airport. This airport looked impressive from the outside but was tiny on the inside. It had only a single waiting area and two gates, which opened directly to the tarmac. It was time to say goodbye to Northern India and head south: Chennai awaits!
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