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.
Rajasthan is a country in itself, desert fringed and spectacular. It's about the size of Poland with almost twice the population - nearly 70 million - and it takes quite a bit of time to get around as you can imagine. Our next stop was Chittorgarh - 250km due south from Pushkar - which looked doable in a morning, but this was when I was still relatively new to the Indian transport system. Our journey was close to seven hours, on a packed, clapped-out bus, whose driver seemed to have a death-wish, and in about 40 degree heat with no air-con. It was a very long day indeed. I lost count of the number of times our driver swerved out into on-coming traffic or fluffed a simpleovertaking manouvre by trying to overtake too many cars or in the wrong place - like blind corners. I remember being extremely happy to leave that bus. Arriving at about 5.30pm, the day was almost gone and there was little to do but find a place to stay, have a stroll and get a bite to eat. Happily for us, Chittorgarh turned out to be another very pleasant town and it was worth a couple of nights' stay. The highlight was yet another fort (Rajasthan is that kind of place). It sprawls above the town, completely dominating it. Chittorgarh Fort is regarded as the symbol of Rajput chivalry, resistance and bravery. It is believed to be named after the person who built it, Chitrangada Mori. The fort itself, which is the largest in India, is situated on a 180 meter high hill that rises from the banks of river Berach. It is known for its seven impressively ornate gates and for housing many palaces, like the Rana Kumbha Palace, the Fateh Prakash Palace, Vijaya Stambha Tower, the Tower of Victory and Rani Padmini's Palace. All these structures are significant for their Rajput architectural features, and are wonderfully photogenic. You can spend a morning or afternoon easily here, and the audio guide you can pay for is hugely informative and worth the small fee. There are also many Jain temples within the fort which add to the attraction.
Another superb sight well worth checking out in Chittogarh is the Meera Temple. India is shrouded in Hindu myths (few of which I'll pretend to know or understand), and this is just one such example. It's a beautiful temple (albeit crowded when we went), built to celebrate Meerabai, one of the most devout followers of Krishna, but it's the carvings that steal your heart. You can see a lot of the walls have been re-done using bits and pieces of the older carved rocks, and the interiors feel like they are screaming the stories of ages ago. Worth a visit, if you'd like a glimpse into the past. And completely free of charge. And you can't say fairer than that. So far, India was proving to be every bit the budget destination I was hoping it would be. I was on a budget of $40 per day, and was finding that more than enough on average. You just don't need to spend much in India, and if you're careful (though not necessarily overly-frugal) you can get by with very little. We ate well, in restaurants, stayed in mid-range places and did plenty of sightseeing, hired rickshaws and had plenty to drink (well, I did). It's one of the cheapest countries I've ever been to.
The next place we visited was Bundhi - and those with a map will realise that we had to head back north and east to get there when our general direction was south and west. Put that down to cock-eyed planning, or last-minute decisions. Good advice: plan ahead - to a degree. Organisation is key, especially if you want to see a lot in relatively limited time, as we did. It'll help you anywhere, and especially India. That said, keeping your options open has its benefits, and we only went to Bundhi at the behest of a fellow traveller who raved about it. We just about had time to squeeze it in (we were moving quickly, spending no more than two nights anywhere).
The main sight of Bundhi is - you've guessed it - another fortress. Was it worth the effort?
Taragarh Fort may not offer much new to those who have already tramped across Rajasthan and seen countless other fortresses, but if you haven't got utterly sick of them yet, I'd say it's more than worth a visit. It is a tough walk up to the fort in Bundi - you should only do it if you have good shoes. Once up there you get to walk around some impressive ruins almost on your own. A particular delight are the families of red-faced monkeys that play around the summit of the hill. There is also oddly a Police radio station at the highest point with a single Police officer on duty when I was there. The icing on the cake is a gallery of wall paintings at the top and some magnificent gardens. The views over the city below are memorable too. Bundhi has the laid-back ambiance of Pushkar, is just a town really, and can be seen in a day, but justifies a longer stay. There are few hassles in Bundhi, and if you are looking for a few days' relaxation, this could just be the place. Strolling around unimpeded (much) by beggars and touts is a rare luxury in Rajasthan - it's a very poor state of India with some major tourist drawcards, so the results are predictable. Overall though, expect hassle in this part of India. It was beginning to grate on me, and I would be glad to leave it behind when we went to the mountains. We didn't have that privilege unfortunately; Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodphur were beckoning before we moved on to the Himalayas.
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This is the second part of a series of blogs written about a five week trip around northern India. To see the first part, please go here:
Part 1/5: Delhi & Agra