Updated: Mar 29, 2019
We took a bus from Agra to Jaipur, this one 'deluxe' and about twice the price of the regular one - but still very reasonable - about $20 for a ten hour journey. This executive decision had been made following our previous bus journey, Delhi to Agra. It had been a sweaty, bumpy, noisy, cramped, painfully slow, nerve-jangling experience. When we arrived I would have jumped for joy and kissed the ground if I hadn't been trying to get away from rickshaw drivers the moment I left the bus. It had, however, been made somewhat less excrutiating by the fact that whenever you stop, people crowd around outside selling cold mineral water, nuts, bananas and ice-cream for a few pence. They also sell 'masala chai', which is a sweet, almost sickly, spicy version of the drink we know as milky tea. The spices added include cardamon, cloves and cinnamon. After the initial disgust you feel when first tasting it, it actually becomes quite palatable and even more-ish. If you start thinking of it as a warm soft drink rather than a cup of tea, it helps. It's actually the reason the British drink tea with milk - inspired by the Indian version, they started the tradition of tea-drinking we know today (but minus the excessive sugar and spices). Anyway, the bus journey to Jaipur, in Rajastan, was actually quite painless, verging on the pleasant. It took precisely five hours, it was well aired, if not actually air-conditioned, and most importantly, it only contained about ten people. Obviously the jump in price had rocketed us into a new travelling class, and we were no longer amongst the 'untouchables'.
The Land of the Kings
The plains of Rajasthan began opening up before us, and the odd hill appeared to liven up the landscape from time to time. It was pretty green, for what is the driest state in India, though there wasn't much sign that it had rained recently. It is a state mostly comprising desert, which forms a natural bulwark between India and Pakistan. Rajasthan literally means 'land of the kings', and is quite distinct in character to the rest of India. Bordering Pakistan to the north and west, it was ruled by the Rajputs from the 12th Century, and many of the great castles and palaces were built during this time. The invading Islamic Mughal dynasty took over from the 15th century until the British arrived, and presided during a time when India had a direct link through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Persia. Castles dot the state, and fortresses dominate most of the cities - northern India was the most warlike region of the country and these testify to that. This leaves the visitor with plenty to admire. Outside, the sun was blazing and it was close to 40 degrees. Everything was just smooth until we got to Jaipur. I was ready for the rickshaw drivers here, as I'd read about them in The Book (The Lonely Planet for all you non-travellers). One of them actually came ON to the bus here, and tried to persuade me that we'd arrived at the central bus station, and that I should come out and take a rickshaw ride with him. As I knew that this wasn't the central station, I shooed him away. What a nerve. After some predictable hassle in the bus station, we found our pre-booked rickshaw driver (whom I had located having given a secret number and password by phone to my hotelier), and we were driven swiftly to our hotel. As soon as we stepped through the doors, we knew we had arrived at what may be the best hotel on the trip, and all our anxieties faded away. We were shown a fantastic, air-conditioned room with balcony, TV, fridge and huge double bed, with internet and library next door and a truly fantastic rooftop reastaurant above. The rest of the day we just lazed, strolling to the restaurant from time to time for a cold drink before going to get a sumptuous banquet of mixed Chinese, Tibetan and north Indian cuisine. A Rajasthani sitar player and singer accompanied the meal and the awesome view over Jaipur and its fortresses as the sun set. Finally, we began to relax.
After Delhi and Agra - both hugely touristy and highly populated, this actually seemed small and relaxed in comparison. Jaipur's major drawcard is its fort, as is the case in most Rajasthani cities. This one is called Amber Fort, and unsurprisingly it is of a rather orangey hue. This was one of the most majestic forts we visited and possibly one of the best in India; we took the time to hike up the ramparts to the fort above the Amber fort and found it to be well worth the effort despite the heat. It gives a real glimpse of the wealth and grandeur associated with the Moghul royal family. The Fort is an architectural marvel with a wall over sixteen kilometres long, which we were told was the third longest wall after the great wall of China and Kumbhal Garh. We had hired a rickshaw driver for the day to take us round the town and show us the sights - actually quite a good plan in Indian cities, as you get a reasonable deal, don't have to worry about maps or getting lost, and are shown all of the major sights in one day; perhaps a bit of a lazy way of doing things but what the hell. We had seen a few sights like the stunning senotaphs on the edge of town (carved of marble and with some beautiful, intricate detail), Jantar Mantar (a royal residence with bizarre sculptures such as massive sundials which were built by Jai Singh, a Moghul king, 300 years ago and is actually one of the world's first observatories), and the palace built within the old walled pink city. Apparently, the locals had painted their houses pink with a kind of red sandstone/water mix in 1870 something when Prince Albert came to visit (later Edward II) and the tradition has been upheld ever since.
It was at Amber Fort that I spotted my second elephant in India - they take tourists up and down the hill for a few hundred rupees. Next to the elephants I spotted a sign - "elephant complaints here please", which I found rather amusing. You would have to be a very pedantic person to complain about an elephant, I would have thought. Or perhaps (and I hope this is true), they expected elephants to complain here about their clients. Who knows in India. We walked up past the elephant complaint bureau and up the hill past the palace - swarming with vendors and hawkers of various kinds - and made our way to Jaigarh, an even bigger fortress which stands above it, about a kilometre further on. This took quite a bit of climbing, but the views were tremendous, and inside there were very few tourists. It took some time to clamber round the rather unkempt and ragged grounds, but there was loads to see. The stern fort was topped off by whimsically-hatted lookout towers from which we got a bird's eye view out over the whole valley - which was punctuated by other, smaller, fortresses, butresses, lookout towers and discarded cannons. It gave the impression of a far from peaceful history, but presented us with a superb view. We topped off the day with another fantastic feed and a swim in the hotel, followed by a rickshaw to OM tower, the highest building in Jaipur - famous because it has a revolving bar at the top, from which you get to see the whole city while you sip your banana lassi.
The next day we decided to head to Pushkar, another backpacker destination, but this one was apparently smaller-scale, more relaxed, a bit of a goatee-bearded hippie hangout where you could experiment with spirituality, do yoga, find out about Hinduism and find your tantric centre. It's famous for its camel fairs, which can attract 200,00 in October or November every year. Only 150km or so west of Jaipur, it took about four hours by bus. The town has an enchantingly mystic quality about it, and you can find yourself drawn in by the masses of faithful who come here to pray and chant: Pushkar being an important centre of spirituality to Hindus. It is said that the devout come here at least once in their lifetime on a pilgrimage. The town itself is centred on a peaceful lake, and there are over fifty 'ghats' around it where the holy go to do theirritual bathing and ablutions. 'Pujar' (prayers) take place around town in the many temples, and the air is filled with religious chanting. All in all, quite a relaxing place. The main street is basically one long bazaar, full of religious items, clothing and trinkets. Yes, it's a touristy place, but only by Indian standards - it's by no means over-run, and the town is small enough to feel quite close to nature and relaxing. Roaming monkeys and the ubiquitous nonchalent cows wondering the streets all add to the rather mellow atmosphere. It's a place you should definitely add to your Rajasthan itinerary.