Huge victory gate at Fatehpur Sikre
Keeping the City Pink
Anyone for some water?
We think this is her "What The ....." look as we ride pass.
We always find a friendly face at the local well.
Nomadic tribes on the move
Colourful tribal village outside Bundi. Amazingly 70% of India's 1 billion people are rural dwellers, that's 700 million.
The narrow streets of Bundi
Jack settles into his own room in the foyer of another Haveli, in Udapur.
Heading for the hills
The people dress differently in the hills.
A few of the many ornately carved pillars in the Jain Temple.
The traffic on the rural roads is slower and more predictable.
More nomadic tribal folks on the move.
Just cruising the highway with my camel and cart.
You meet the greatest characters on the country roads.
The view from our roof top restaurant, Jodhpur.
The palace overlooks the old city.
Jodhpur is famous for its textiles and crafts.
...and village people who have a very hard life in a barren harsh land.
India part 2
Heading west, Rajasthan, India.
Leaving Agra and the famous Taj Mahal and the almost as famous Agra Fort, our first stop on the way to Jaipur is Fatehpur Sikre, only about 40km west of Agra. This former Mughal capital is now a ghost city. Seems shortly after emperor Akbar's death it was abandoned due to water shortages. Despite being a magnificent structure, with entry to the palace through a huge victory gate possibly the largest in Asia, it was only used between 1571 and 1585 and now only the Muslim Mosque is still utilised. As we travel further north west, there are more and more Muslims in this Hindu dominated country and most mornings we are woken up to the 'call' from the local mosque.
We've been caught a couple of times arriving at hotels that are fully booked, and although a bit slow, we are now learning that at times it is best to book ahead. Our guide book gave the Atithi guest house in Jaipur a good rap so we booked ahead and secured a room. Finding suitable accommodation at the end of a long day is one of the challenges we need to minimise and now we could enjoy the ride and just worry about finding the hotel. That too can be a challenge though and at times we wonder if it is easier to just ride into a new town/city and pull up at whatever hotel seems reasonable. Six of one and half a dozen of another I suppose.
We had a good ride from Agra to Jaipur, about 260km and as we entered Rajasthan the roads seemed to improve with lots of roadwork going on. At least half the roads in India seem to be under construction and we spend a lot of time on a detour or a detour on a detour. However it seems we will now have to add camel carts to our list of road hazards! Camels are preferred to Oxen in this desert state, which our guide book describes as 'the land of kings', and 'India's most colourful state'. As usual, we arrived in a strange city at rush hour, but found our hotel without too many hassles, unless you count this one little white car that pushed into the side of us hitting the left hand pannier. I managed to maintain control and traded the white paint he left on our pannier for a size nine boot imprint on his front mudguard. Anyway, a comfortable room, friendly staff and wireless internet, what more could you ask for? Seems just like home, except for the friendly staff of course.
Jaipur is known as the pink city because the entire old city was painted pink. Nowadays it is more of a dusty pink, but nevertheless it is very different. To minimise the problems with parking the bike and carrying helmets we succumbed to a 50 rupee (A$1.40) tuk tuk ride to Hawa Mahal or the palace of winds. An Interesting feature of the palace is the row of small windows that run the length of the street. Seems these were so the harem ladies could see the outside world and day to day activities without themselves being seen. Not sure how many 'royal ladies' king Sawai Pratap Singh had, but there are 152 windows!
Apparently King Sawai also dabbled a bit in astronomy, when he wasn't entertaining his ladies, and built the largest of 5 outdoor observatorys here. This was back in 1728 and these complex instruments were used for measuring local time, (to within 2 seconds), the altitude of the stars, the suns declination, determining eclipses etc. etc. Quite impressive even if we didn't fully understand it, despite detailed explanations on how it all works.
One of the main attractions of Jaipur are the handicrafts and local markets. We spent the remainder of the day wandering along the main market area, at times bemused by the goings on, like the 'pre delivery' inspection of a new sewing machine in front of the new owner, and other times amazed by the skill of watchmakers as they disassemble and reassemble old wind up watches (remember those) without magnifying glasses and in a dingy shop. The people here must have very special eye sight as this is also a centre for miniature paintings. We visited one gallery and the owner felt he needed to impress us so he painted "Haydn Loves Dianne, Gareth and Kelly India 2008" on a grain of rice!!! We couldn't even see the letters without a magnifying glass, and he painted it in a few moments without any aids whatsoever. Incredible. The term miniature paintings refers to the extremley fine detail of the paintings, not to their size.
We had another 'Incredible India' experience as we were about to return to the hotel. Dianne needed new sunglasses and we just happened to wander past an optician shop. As is the norm, they asked if we needed anything, claiming the best prices and service around. Well they did offer fantastic service at an incredible price. For A$50.00 they supplied a new frame and put Dianne's prescription on the tinted lenses and delivered them to our hotel 2 hours later!!!
India, it seems, is littered, dotted, scattered and pretty much covered with old forts and palaces and only 11km from Jaipur is Amber Fort, which for 6 centuries used to be the state capital before the birth of Jaipur. The fort stands on a range of craggy hills overlooking the city and is a blend of Rajput and Mughal styles. Another couple of Kilometres on is Jaigarh, another hill top fortress overlooking Jaipur. This fort was built by the Maharaja Jai Singh in 1726 and has the worlds largest canon on wheels. Apparently a single shot through it's 20 foot barrel requires 100kg of gun powder!!
We just love India now, and we've also discovered a local middle class restaurant around the corner where the food is cheap and wonderful. Again, when you're onto something good it's hard to be more adventurous and we find we're eating all our meals here and feeling like this is home, but after 4 days it's time to move on, this time to Pushkar, considered to be one of the most sacred sites for Hindus.
The road to Pushkar
The road from Jaipur to Pushkar is a 4 lane highway. The road is good and the traffic light and we're making good time, but, it's boring. About 70km out Dianne notices that there is a turn off to the right that will take us on small roads through local villages to a salt flat. We've had some good days on the bike, and today and this excursion rate right up there with the best of them and as we rode along the small roads that varied from narrow black top to dirt to sandy tracks, we got to see many small villages and village life, not normally on the tourist route.
The two maps Dianne has are different and most of this network of small roads are not shown in either map so we have to depend on locals to guide us through to Pushkar. Fortunatly most people know and can direct us to Pushkar but we still ask for at least 3 opinions before committing ourselves.
Again Incredible India came out to play when mid day we were passing through a medium sized village feeling like something to eat. We rode through the village and were about to turn around when we spotted an entrance archway. Naturally we rode through and up and around the narrow street stopping at the base of another fort. A youngster came up to us and offered to show us around. Turns out that this is Roopangarh Fort and the palace has been refurbished. We can stay the night if we choose in one of the palatial rooms for only 4000 rupees (A$115.00) and they are authentic. Dianne particularly likes the Queens rooms, about half the size of a normal house, with a King size bed! Sadly we can't stay but we did have a wonderful lunch there.
It was about another 200km all up to Pushkar and on these roads it took us about 8 hours, but it was a great day and we enjoyed every moment of it and have the pics to prove it.
As mentioned, Pushkar has significant religious importance to Hindus, in fact it is referred to as Tirth Raj or king of the pilgrim centers and Hindus believe that a pilgrimage to any of the other main Hindu centers is rendered incomplete without a holy dip in the sacred waters of Pushkar. Religious 'priests' offer Hindus and tourists alike a chance for a blessing, in fact they can be most insistent. A flower, to place in the waters, is thrust into your hand followed by the blessing for the entire family, some splashing of the water and a request for a 'donation' of several hundred rupees. We believe we lead a good enough life without needing additional blessings so we declined the insistent and persistent offers. Just hope we made the right decision.
Pushkar is a relaxing place, if you can avoid the Priests. The town with it's blue painted buildings line the shore of the central lake and it's holy waters. We spent most of the day watching the antics at the lake and wandering around the various ghats. The streets are also a feast for the camera with many local market and food stalls.
Onto Bundi and Ranthambore Natural park
One day in Pushkar is enough for us though and now it's time to head for Bundi, a small town about 150km away with some (more) amazing forts and palaces and after an uninspiring ride we arrive about midday. As usual Dianne checks out the accommodation and after the clean but cramped quarters last night, we're looking forward to something a little more spacious. We had phoned ahead to a place called Kasera Paradise and booked the room, but what we didn't realize is that this is a haveli (a traditional, often ornately decorated residence) Well this is the best room we've had - probably ever. For 800 Rupees (A$22.00) we have this enormous ornately decorated bedroom with huge bathroom. Everything is clean and comfortable and we even have two chairs! There is a roof top cafe with views of the fort and palace and the food is great. It feels like home and we don't want to leave.
Our local guide book describes Bundi as being 'nestled in a verdant valley, surrounded by the Aravali hills on three sides and enclosed by huge walls with four gateways. A medieval fortress stands sentinel to this city- a mute witness to history and time. Within the ramparts are majestic palaces, heveli's temples and intricately carved cenotaphs. Bundi is also very well known for its exquisite paintings and murals.' I think they summed it up pretty well, and the following day we explore the fort and palace. Of particular interest is the pavilion and gallery of fascinating murals painted in the miniature style, which depict religious stories of Radha Krishna and everyday life in the palace, all painted in traditional blue, green and turquoise.
Dianne has always wanted to see tigers in their natural surroundings and just over 100km north east is one of India's most famous national parks. Needless to say we packed up early and headed for Ranthambore. We needed to get there before 12.00pm as they have a strange system to limit the number of visitors. You can not pre book your ticket on either the jeep or canter (larger bus) so you must queue for your place on a vehicle. The vehicles, though, need to be filled, 6 to a jeep and 20 to the bus before you can apply to enter the park. Dianne got a place at the front of the queue and was allocated a jeep with four other visitors. Not all vehicles get allocated entry to the park so Dianne, right at the front of the queue, had to apply for entry in the hope that a foreigner might get preference. Indians were bustling and pushing and yelling all around her but she did manage to stay in front and get a ticket for our jeep. There was almost a fist fight at the end as not all vehicles got a pass and there were many unhappy visitors.
To further control the number of visitors, the park is divided into 5 sectors and one person from each vehicle is called forward to draw their lot from a hat. Our vehicle drew lot 2, apparently not a good sector. Tigers with cubs had been spotted in sector 3 yesterday and our guide was not hopeful.
Our guide's pessimism was justified and we didn't see tigers, but we did see many deer and antelope, peacocks and other birds and enjoyed the jeep trip through an unspoiled environment. We enjoyed our time and believe it was well still worth the effort.
An early start back to Bundi the next day and a return to our wonderful Haveli, but at a slower pace so that we could enjoy the many small villages we had rushed through yesterday. It's a brilliant day with a deep blue sky and all the sari colours are vibrant.
Udaipur, city of lakes
We'd like to stay in our haveli longer but Udaipur beckons. It's about 250km away and we want to stop at Chittorgarh to visit, you guessed it, another fort, and yes it is, of course, perched atop a hill overlooking the valley below.
The riding was slower than we would have liked as there are numerous road works and deviations and we arrived in Chittorgarh tired and hungry. Again, just as we were feeling a little low, Incredible India appears, this time with a major ceremony through the streets. There are camels, dancing horses, elephants, brass band and dancing girls. Wow. Our spirits are lifted and we really enjoyed the goings on.
After soaking in the festivities in for a while we remembered our tight schedule and made our way up a windy road to the fort. Again the intricate marble carvings have to be seen to be believed. There were many local people here too, all dressed to the nines enjoying the spectacle. As we wandered around we came across a small pool that must have some religious significance as the locals were again getting their gear off and taking the plunge. Perhaps these Indians are just exhibitionists and like a bit of nude bathing?
Another History Lesson, from our guide book.
Fortunately the road from Chittorgarh to Udaipur was good as we had spent too much time at the fort. It was so good we managed to get into 6th gear and maintain 100kph for most of the trip and we arrived in Udaipur, you guessed it, just in time for rush hour traffic. Again we had booked ahead and for a change easily found our Haveli. We're hooked on havelis now.
Udaipur is a famous ancient city, but is more recently known for the filming location of the James Bond film Octopussy. Our Havali even had a room numbered 007 and guess where we stayed! That evening we enjoyed drinks on the rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake and floating palace then watched Octopussy on the large screen TV.
The room was very nice and large but James Bond must be tougher than us as there was no hot water for showering after 7.00pm Perhaps like us, he managed to get a large immersion heater and heat up a 20 liter bucket! Oh well, things can't always be perfect. Jack though had his own room on marble floors in the foyer.
Udaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and is known as the city of lakes. It was founded in 1559 by Udai Singh and named after him. Naturally, as you do, he built a palace here but future additions have also been made by his successors. Today the palace is a conglomeration of eleven palaces, numerous courtyards, pavilions, terraces, corridors, rooms and hanging gardens that have been built over a span of 300 years. We decided not to get a guide but instead elected to get the excellent audio tour (made in Australai) and do it at our own pace. We ended up spending 4 hours wandering around at our leisure while the official guides whistle your through in just 1 hour. We've seen a lot of palaces here in India and overseas but this is without doubt the best and grandest. The Maharanas certainly did lead a good life and in fact still do.
From our rooftop restaurant we could clearly see Sajjangarth or the Monsoon Palace perched atop a steep hill a few kilometers from town. This, it seems was a summer palace for the Maharana and is reached via a steep winding road. The sunset views of Udaipur from here are stunning.
Udaipur is apparently ranked as one of the top ten cities in the world and it is a beautiful city to wander around. It is clean and the touts don't bother the tourists too much and there are many craft shops to browse. It's beginning to feel like home and we don't want to leave, but leave we must and after 4 nights it's now north we must ride, into the hills to a small town called Ranakpur.
Through the hills to Jodhpur
The ride from Udaipur is wonderful as the landscape turns to desert and rolling hills. The villages are very primitive with numerous water wheels driven by oxen and villages comprising just a few huts made of mud and grass. Reminds us of Africa. Ranakpur itself is uninspiring but just outside the town is a magnificent Jain temple dating back from the 15th century. The temple has 1444 ornately carved pillars, each one different and the temple itself is in perfect condition. Jainism, represents only about 0.4% of the population here and arose in the 6th century BC as a reaction to the caste restraints and rituals of Hinduism. It was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha. Jains believe that liberation can only be attained by achieving complete purity of the soul. They believe that right conduct is essential and fundamental and they also believe in non violence in thought and deed to any living thing. Naturally they are vegetarians and both men and women wear white, in stark contrast to the vibrant Hindus.
From Ranakpur we rode further into the Aravalli Range to the highest point at Mt Abu (1722 Metres) The scenery now greener to the right and Thar desert to the (west) left. Stopping at a small town for lunch the bike is again mobbed while we eat samosas from a distance. Jack is completely surrounded by about 50 Indians all wanting to know the usual - how much? what fuel consumption? where you from? aahh Ricky Pointing.
We had again pre booked, this time into the Mount Hotel, since renamed the Mushkil Asan. Last night in Ranakpur was very average with no hot water and no lights but this guest house has just been refurbished and is immaculate and clean. The staff are friendly and helpful and we are invited to the dining room for dinner with the other guests. The meal, a thali that we have smelled cooking all afternoon and what a magnificent meal, full of the tastes and aromas one expects of Indian cooking. We were only going to stay one night but like it so much we agree to a 'day off'. It feels just like home.
A day off once a week is a vital part of our routine and necessary to recharge the batteries, so to speak. It gives us a chance to take it easy and simply catch up on some of the little things in life. Sometimes we'd like two days off but the road beckons and so we must move on.
India has been experiencing a severe cold snap for the past 10 days and this morning there was frost on the ground as we wheeled Jack out and left our new home heading for Jodhpur, the gateway to the Thar desert.
Back roads to Jodhpur
We took the highway out of Mount Abu and drove north west towards Jodhpur. After dodging buses and trucks for a while we decided it was time to hit the smaller roads again. Dianne checked the map and yes there seemed to be some options. One map showed one set of options while the other map showed different roads and therefore different options. We figured that so long as we were headed in the right direction we should be OK. The thing is though that there are many intersections that aren't shown on either map. There are usually locals to ask though, remember there are one billion people living here, but most don't speak english. Dianne tries valiantly to pronounce the place names but this is often met with blank expressions. We never ask 'is this the way to .....?' as this usually results in a yes, whether it is or not, so we ask 'which way to ...?' We make a point now of asking at least 3 people to confirm directions and have come to accept the Indian head wobble to mean 'maybe, perhaps, yes, no or I haven't got a clue what your asking?' Also, perhaps a long time ago, Indians were taught their left and rights the wrong way round. 90% of the time we get directions, they will either wave their arm in a general non descript left to right direction, or they will say 'go here and then turn left' but indicate a right turn with their hand. We're used to it now, but there was a time when it was most confusing. I suppose if this travel thing was easy everyone would be doing it.
Anyway, we wound and weaved our way through the smaller roads and must have done something right because we were soon on the outskirts of Jodpur looking for our pre booked hotel. A couple of boys on a small bike realised our plight and offered to lead us to the hotel. Well they lead us on one of the most hair raising trips we've ever been on. The narrow streets of the old town of Jodhpur are clogged with traffic and barely wide enough for a tuk tuk. The surface is cobbled and rough with many holes and troughs and getting Jack through was a major major (double word intended) challenge, especially as you guessed it, during rush hour traffic. We basically bumped, scraped and pushed our way through these narrow streets and were relieved when we saw the sign for the Haveli Guest House. They had secure parking for Jack and our room was comfortable and after unpacking we were soon enjoying a beer on the rooftop restaurant overlooking, you guessed it, another fort.
Jodhpur is pretty old too, dating back to the 13th century. The magnificent Mehrangarth or Sun Fort was founded in 1459 and sits atop a 125m hill above the city. It was attacked several times but remained invincible. At the first gate there are reminders of the battles with several scars from cannon balls on the walls.
Again we had an excellent audio tour to guide us through the fort and palace's amazing history and spent several hours wandering around and learning about the past and present. Unfortunately, after Indian independence, the Maharaja's were striped of their powers but the current Maharaja Umaid Sing has restored the fort and turned it into a heritage site open to visitors.
While the fort was impressive, for us the markets and colourful bazaars and the people living and working in them were the star attraction and we spent several hours in the late afternoon watching and talking with the many tiny shop owners and handcraft centres. Of particular interest was a tie die operation. I say operation as this bloke was tie dying silk for saries on the foot path. He had a gas burner and several pots of dyes. Women would buy plain white silk for a new sari and show him a colour sample to match and he would do it. Carefully testing the colour and making adjustments to his 'pot' until he was satisfied. His off siders would also fold and tie meters of silk in a special way that after dying would end up coloured with a border. Amazing.
Two days and three nights in Jodhpur are enough though and now we must venture further west to Jaisalmer just over 300km away and close to the Pakistan border. The roads are good and we can make good time. Seems the military presence here, so close to the border is responsible for the good roads and again we check the maps and find a route on smaller roads. Jodhpur may have been the gateway to the Thar desert, but Jaisalmer is right in it and Dianne and I are keen to see and ride through sand blown desert.
Well, it wasn't a bad ride, but not quite as interesting as we had hoped. The temperatures are also rising and we saw 33 degrees C on the read out mid afternoon. Quite a change from the cool weather we've enjoyed since arriving in Kathmandu, and it also means we now have to find a place for our thermal underwear and fleece jackets.
Again our guide book describes Jaisalmer much better than I can. "Jaisalmer, the glorious golden citadel of the Thar desert is one of the last princely bastions of the region. The city of golden fortress is replete with mystic charm of medieval era and has emerged as one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of the world. As one approaches Jaisalmer the magnificent stretch of massive yellow sandstone walls and bastions emerges out of the desert haze in awesome glory.'
Yes, another fort and also a living city within the fort. The outer city is even older than Jodhpur and was founded in 1156 and derived it's wealth from the traders on the Silk Route. It wasn't hard for a guide to find us and for 50 rupees (less than A$2.00) he spent about 3 hours guiding us around.
We're getting a bit over forts though at this stage and the real attraction here for us are the rolling sand dunes of the Thar desert and also the 2008 Desert Festival. The festival begins on the 19th February so we have a spare day to go for a ride into the desert towards Kurri. It's a wonderful ride on small roads with very little traffic passing small villages of mud and straw huts. Hard to believe this is only about 800km from the modern metropolis of Delhi. India has seemed so overcrowded, but here in the desert of far western Rajasthan, it's quiet and peaceful and we are able to forget the traffic and just chill out a bit and enjoy the scenery. Great.
We rode on past Kurri because the riding was just so good, but about 50km further on decided to turn around. At this stage we're close to the Pakistan border and they are voting today, not that we're worried, but the day is getting long and we still want to stop in Kurri.
By the time we reached Kurri, it was time for a break and a chai masala. The place we stopped at also offered camel rides to a local village and a sunset on the dunes. Needless to say, Dianne couldn't resist and before I knew it I'd swapped riding Jack for riding a camel. Now, if you've never ridden a camel then I suppose it probably seems like a fairly romantic thing to do, especially riding off into the desert dunes at sunset. Well, I'm here to tell you that the ride is not what is may seem. Firstly, while the camel obliges and gets down on it's haunches so you can get aboard, when it stands up one is thrust firstly forward and then violently rearward. Having survived that, the walk is not smooth, as you may have seen in the movies, but more like sitting bareback on a trotting horse. I must admit though, that when we started cantering, the ride did smooth out a bit but it's nothing like a BMW GS with Ohlins suspension.
The sunset on the dunes was a magical experience and despite some soreness from the camel ride we really enjoyed this unique experience along with several other 'western' tourists as well as many Indian tourists. Despite our different cultures and upbringings, it seems we all like the same things - the beauty of nature.
19th Feb. 2008 and this is day one of the Rajasthan Desert Festival. This is a major event kicked off by a huge procession through the narrow streets of the old town with camels, marching bands, dancing ladies and camel drawn carts. The procession culminates at the stadium and is a photographers delight. Our resident photographer nearly went mad snapping away without the usual requests for rupee rupee. I think my favorite event though was the moustache competition, closely followed by the Mr. Desert 2008 competition where contestants paraded to the crowds in full regalia. Most Impressive and the photos speak louder than words, see below.
The festival runs for three days, but day one is the most interesting and we do have to keep moving. Bikaner is 320km away, but the roads are good so we sneak out to the polo grounds to catch a glimpse of the Decorated Camel competition before leaving.
We left Jaisalmer about 11.30am and were able to cruise easily at 100kph. Felt like being back in Australia with little traffic, few villages and open scrubby country. The weather is warming up now and today it is over 30 degrees again and we arrived in Bikaner about 4.00pm and easily found the Bhairon Villas, a Haveli that fellow Australian travelers had stayed at and recommended. Their recommendation was justified and our host, Harsh, was friendly and even bought Dianne a bottle of red wine and me a beer. We enjoyed a good conversation through the evening on a variety of topics, from politics in Pakistan to cricket to music to the meaning of life and happiness.
Bikaner as you have probably guessed has a fort, but by now we're forted out and spend today catching up on the Internet and emails. Good news too. Our man in Iran has emailed the Visa Invite numbers, so we should now be able to collect our visas from the embassy in Delhi. The cost for his services is a bit steep at 300 euros, but at least we have the elusive number.
To conclude this posting, I thought I should include a small section from fellow Australians John and Alanna Skillington's blog. Part of being informed whilst on the road involves reading other travelers stories, particularly when they are current and cover the places you intend to visit. When you know the travelers personally their stories are even more relevant and interesting. I came across this gem of literary brilliance that pretty well sums up travel in India. It's so good I felt I should share it with you as Alanna's magic with words succinctly sums up just how it is riding a bike in India.
Then comes the TRAFFIC ............. I cannot even begin to describe how bad the roads are, they go from a lovely two lane highway (still with obstacles such as water buffalo herds, goats, cows, ox carts, tractors and trailers, scooters, pedestrians, and the obligatory trucks careering towards you on the wrong side of the road) to a single potholed bitumen track to a dusty dirt track with half meter deep holes, all within a few kilometres. No exaggeration here.
Then to that equation add insane traffic and drivers. Our Scottish/English Land Rover driving friends Rose and Dave came up with rules for driving in India that went something like this, with a few additions from us:
1. Firstly ensure your vehicle is NOT roadworthy and make sure your tyres are completely bald and preferably patched.
We met one Indian man who said to drive in India you need 4 things:
We concur with all of the above and are not looking forward to driving into Delhi where some new tyres await Jack. In the next update we will go to Delhi and then head for the mountains.
Click below on Next page to go to Delhi and then head for the mountains.
©Haydn and Dianne Durnell 2008