escape from aurangabad and one little day in mumbai

Monday, March 21:  We wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready for our 8:10 flight to Mumbai.  Sadly, we will have only this one day in Mumbai and we really wish we had foregone this whole escapade to Aurangabad.  Live and learn.  I always make some mistakes when I travel.  I guess that means I’m sticking my neck out and taking risks.  If one never makes mistakes, I believe it means one isn’t taking enough risks.

lunch and beers at Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai

lunch and beers at Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai

There are things I would do differently next time around.  I would not travel to so many places on one trip.  I would spend at least 3 days in each destination. I would try to linger in town and chat with the locals. I would just BE present in each time and place and savor the ambiance.

toasting to our travels in india ~ our last day!

toasting to our travels in india ~ our last day!

I usually have been good about this, since a trip I took in 1999 to England.  In England, we traveled for only 10 days and in that time we went to Bath, Glastonbury, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, and then to London.  It was too much in too short of a time!  Since then, I decided that I only like to focus on one country and usually no more than 3 cities in one country.  I managed to do this later when we went to France.  I went twice, each time for 2 weeks.  The first time, we spent 5 days in Paris, 4 days in the south of France and 4 days in the southwest at Cordes sur Ciel.  That was perfect.  The second time, we took our sons and spent another 5 days in Paris, 3 days in Normandy, 3 in Alsace, and then 3 near Heidelberg and Trier, Germany.  Later, when I went to Turkey, I spent 6 days in Istanbul, 3 in Cappadocia, and 3 on the coast near Kusadasi.  I have found this is the perfect way to travel because I have time to soak up the ambiance of a place.  There is time to linger, to meet locals, to simply absorb.

cafe mondegar in Colaba

cafe mondegar in Colaba

In retrospect, our trip to India has been overambitious.  We are both exhausted and by this time, we are more than ready to leave this place.  I think back to the British couple I met when traveling in Hanoi, Vietnam.  I asked them what was their favorite part about India.  They said, “The flight out.”  I thought they were just being negative and I brushed them off.  Now, after these three weeks in India, I know exactly how they felt.  Part of it is just the hardship of travel in India, the filth, the poverty that is so pervasive.  But the other part is our own fault.  We tried to do too much.  It’s simply that. I think had we lingered more and traveled less, we would have had a better and more rewarding experience.

mumbai streets

mumbai streets

After our flight on Jet Airways, we arrive at the Mumbai airport.  Though there is an Indian guy from the hotel there to meet us, for some reason we can’t understand, he has no car.  He is waiting for someone to arrive with the car.  We stand outside and wait and wait.  The guy cannot speak English and cannot tell us why he doesn’t have a car!!  We only have this one day in Mumbai, and here we are standing outside at the taxi stand, waiting for a car that never arrives.  Finally, after about an hour of waiting like this, we tell the guy we must take a taxi to the hotel and get on with our day, but we insist he pay for it as we have already paid for a hotel pickup.

another paan maker in mumbai

another paan maker in mumbai

We arrive at yet another stinky hotel with the tiniest and dirtiest room imaginable.  Luckily I don’t really have to sleep much here as I must wake at 2 a.m. to catch my flight home to Washington.  It’s a place to put our stuff basically.  And obviously, we will have to sleep once again in our sheet-bags.  I think Umer has failed us miserably on this more southern part of our trip.  Later we find out that he doesn’t usually book trips further south than Rajasthan, thus he booked us through another travel agency for Aurangabad and Mumbai.

the Gateway of India at Apollo Bunder

the Gateway of India at Apollo Bunder

We head out as soon as possible toward the traveler’s center of Mumbai, the southernmost peninsula of Colaba, with most of the attractions.  We go directly to the Cafe Mondegar for lunch and beers.  We have an excellent lunch but I can’t remember what.  We have been so happy for the most part with all the food in India.  My passion for Indian food has only increased during this trip.  And after the food in Korea, believe me, it’s a welcome change.

horse-drawn gilded carriages which we can't afford to take :-(

horse-drawn gilded carriages which we can’t afford to take 😦

Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra and is an island connected by bridges to the mainland.  It’s the most populous city in India with 20.5 million people, and is also the 6th most populous in the world.  It is also the richest city in India and has the highest GDP of any city in South, West or Central Asia.  We honestly regret that we don’t have more days here and we much prefer Mumbai to Delhi.  It’s much cleaner and not so “in your face” with poverty, although we know it has the world’s largest slum.  Luckily, we bypass the “slum experience” here. We wish we had spent more time here and omitted Aurangabad entirely from our trip.

the carriages lined up around Apollo Bunder

the carriages lined up around Apollo Bunder

After lunch we wander through the shopping streets with their bustling street stalls and markets.  We check out the multitudes of guys making paan.  Paan is an Indian tradition of chewing betel leaf with areca nut and slaked lime paste, and katha brown powder paste, with many regional and local variations. It is a betel leaf, chewed as a palate cleanser, a breath freshener, and for digestive purposes.  Paan makers may use tobacco in paan fillings. Most paan contains areca nuts as a filling. Other types include what is called sweet paan, where sugar, candied fruit and multicolored, sweetened, candy-like fennel seeds are used. In urban areas, chewing paan is generally considered a nuisance because some chewers spit the paan out in public areas.  The red stain generated by the combination of ingredients when chewed make an unsightly stain on the ground. This is becoming an unwanted eyesore in Indian cities such as Mumbai, although many see it as an integral part of Indian culture. In our travels throughout India we see the red stains everywhere and it is quite disgusting.  Even in White Tiger, the author describes entire rooms in buildings on which the entire bottom portions of walls are stained blood-red.

paan makers

paan makers

fishing boats off Sassoon Dock in Mumbai Harbor

fishing boats off Sassoon Dock in Mumbai Harbor

We take a walk to Sassoon Dock where we see the fishing boats and the Gateway of India, an arch of colonial triumph facing Mumbai Harbor from the tip of Apollo Bunder.  It was built to commemorate the royal visit of King George V in 1911, but was built in 1924.  Locals gather here, along with giant balloon sellers, and the usual touts and tourists.  Jayne has a funny experience with one of the balloon sellers.  She wants to buy a large balloon for her son and she goes around and around bargaining with the seller.  He finally agrees to her price, much lower than what he asks, and he gives her the deflated balloon in a package.  Later, when she opens it, she finds he has sold her a much smaller balloon that she intended to buy!  Ripped off!

jayne gets taken by the balloon seller

jayne gets taken by the balloon seller

Along Apollo Bunder are multitudes of horse-drawn gilded carriages, known as Victorias.  We think of purchasing a ride around Colaba in one, but we are almost out of money and it is our last day here.  We sadly have to bypass the experience.

After walking about in the heat, we decide we must go into the Taj Mahal Palace, an exquisite hotel with a blend of Islamic and Renaissance styles.  It was built in 1903 by the Parsi industrialist JN Tata after he was refused entry to a European hotel because he was a “native.” We stop here and walk around the sumptuous lobby and then enjoy a glass of wine and a snack in the outrageously expensive Harbor Bar overlooking the Mumbai Harbor.

the taj mahal palace

the taj mahal palace

a toast to surviving India at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel ~ our last night

a toast to surviving India at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel ~ our last night

After our drinks, our driver Shyam takes us to the Chowpaty Seaface, a long promenade that fronts Back Bay looking out into the Arabian Sea.  We take a long stroll along the bay and watch the sunset.  There, across this sea, at a long invisible distance, is the country where I will spend the next year.  At this time I don’t know it, but later, after returning to the U.S. and applying for many jobs, I’m offered a job teaching at a university in Oman, directly across the Arabian Sea from Mumbai.

at Chowpaty Seaface with our driver Shyam

at Chowpaty Seaface with our driver Shyam

We head back to our hotel where I try unsuccessfully to get a little sleep until I must wake at 2 a.m. to catch a 2:30 a.m. taxi to Mumbai airport.  Here, I take a 5 a.m. flight for 3 1/2 hours to Doha, Qatar.  Then I take another flight from Qatar and arrive in Washington Dulles International Airport at 2:55 p.m.  My travels in Asia have come to an end, and though sometimes difficult, I can say without hesitation my last year in Asia was one of the grandest adventures in my life. 🙂

Daulatabad’s hilltop fortress, Ellora’s cave temples and interloping at the Taj Residency

Sunday, March 20: We start this Holi holiday with cold showers in our “Absolute Shit” hotel.  Cold water and no water pressure, just a little dribble of water.  We call the hotel staff to come up and check.  After fooling with the shower for a long time, the guy says, “Mixed, madam, mixed!”  I say “Mixed would be WARM!  This is COLD!”

jayne at breakfast at the A.S. Club Hotel

jayne at breakfast at the A.S. Club Hotel

So they tell us we can use the shower in the room across the hall, which is obviously in the middle of renovation and is filthy.  It smells like urine.  At least there is a decent flow of water and it is warm.  Following this ordeal, we go to breakfast on filthy tables outside, served by waiters whose uniforms have NEVER seen better days.  The coffee cups are horribly stained, we can’t get jam, and frankly we’re afraid we’ll get horribly sick from the food on this, our second to the last day in India.  We’ve been lucky so far that we haven’t gotten sick, as so many people do from food in India.

off-limit fruit stands in front of Daulatabad

off-limit fruit stands in front of Daulatabad

Daulatabad ~ the mighty fortress

Daulatabad ~ the mighty fortress

We first stop at the ruins of Daulatabad, a hilltop fortress en route to Ellora.  This fortress, with its 5 km surrounding battlement, was built by the Yadava kings through the 12th century.  Once known as ‘Devgiri,’ in 1328 the Delhi sultan Mohammed Tughlaq renamed it Daulatabad, the City of Fortune.  At that time, he moved the capital of his kingdom from Delhi to this citadel, even going so far as to have the entire population of Delhi march 1100 km south.  A mere two years later, for strategic reasons and because of lack of water, this new capital proved to be unsuitable.  The sultan marched his people right back to Delhi, which in the interim had become a ghost town.  Ah, the whims of rulers!

part of the battlements of Daulatabad

part of the battlements of Daulatabad

All along the outside of the fortress battlements are food and fruit stands.  The fruit stands are beautifully arranged and especially enticing on this hot day, but we have been warned, as all travelers are, about eating food from street vendors.  So, mouths watering, we pass and start our long march up to the top of the fortress.  We have no idea what we are getting ourselves into and had we known, we might have suggested we go to Ellora first and stop here on our way back.  It is hot and sultry even in the morning, and the walk is long and all uphill of course.

two weary travelers hiking up to the top of the hilltop fortress of Daulatabad

two weary travelers hiking up to the top of the hilltop fortress of Daulatabad

We meet a big family from Boulder, Colorado just beginning their trip through India, and we try to paint a pretty picture.  At this point in our trip we are burned out and irritable from all the travel and from trying to squeeze in too much.  We don’t want to tell them how difficult our journey has been.  They take pictures of us in front of the 30-meter high Chand Minar (Tower of the Moon), which is a victory tower built in 1435.  It apparently had a defensive and religious role in the fortress.

Daulatabad

Daulatabad

the moat that back in the day was filled with crocodiles

the moat that back in the day was filled with crocodiles

Moat around Daulatabad

Moat around Daulatabad

We come across a moat, 40 feet deep and carved into solid rock with mechanical drawbridges.  In its heyday, it teemed with crocodiles. A 5-kilometer sturdy wall and a complicated series of defenses made Daulatabad impregnable.  However, this fort, though one of the best constructed in the world, never experienced a battle.

Daulatabad

Daulatabad

We continue our steep climb and it takes us about an hour altogether, one way.

a lady worships in one of the shrines

a lady worships in one of the shrines

A series of secret subterranean passages lie coiled like boa constrictors amidst the fort. Here flaming torches were thrust upon an unwary enemy. Or hot oil poured down his path, as he deliberated in the labyrinth. Also the heat from a brazier was blown into the passage by a process of suction suffocating the entire garrison within. The Fort itself sits on an isolated hill; the hill is steep, with its sides falling so sharply to the moat that no hostile troops could scale the height.  However, history notes that even though the fort was supposedly impregnable, it was once successfully captured by simply bribing the guards at the gate.

the girls who accompanied me through the pitch-black tunnels

the girls who accompanied me through the pitch-black tunnels

Climbing up through these pitch-black, bat-filled, spiraling tunnels is dark and our footing is unsure.  Someone ahead of us has a flashlight and lets us follow in their thin path of light.  It’s a difficult ascent and a worse descent because of sheer drops and crumbling staircases.  On the way down, I am helped by a family of Indian ladies and their daughters who guide me by the hand through the tunnel and out into the daylight.  The family insists on taking a picture with me when we return to the bottom, after quizzing me incessantly about where I’m from and where we’ve been in India.

the Chini Mahal, where Abul Hasan Tana Shah was held captive for 12 years before his death in 1699

the Chini Mahal, where Abul Hasan Tana Shah was held captive for 12 years before his death in 1699

We climb to the central bastion atop the 200-meter high craggy outcrop originally called Devagiri, the Hill of the Gods.  We pass by colorful shrines and a series of defenses, including doorways with spike-studded doors placed at odd angles to ward off elephant charges.  Near the top, at a height of forty feet, is the Chini Mahal or China Palace, decorated with encaustic tiles. This is where the last of the kings of Golconda, Abdul Hassan Tana Shah, was imprisoned for thirteen years by Aurangzeb in 1687.

Encaustic tiles are ceramic tiles in which the pattern or figure on the surface is not a product of the glaze but of different colors of clay. They are usually of two colors but a tile may be composed of as many as six. The pattern is inlaid into the body of the tile, so that the design remains as the tile is worn down.

almost to the top of the fortress ~ taking a rest

almost to the top of the fortress ~ taking a rest

View from Daulatabad

View from Daulatabad

When we finish our hike down from the fort, we stop for a cool drink at a colorful little stand.

cool drinks for a hot day

cool drinks for a hot day

cooling off at the bottom of the trek to Daulatabad

cooling off at the bottom of the trek to Daulatabad

We finally return to the bottom, a long and arduous journey, by which time we are utterly sweaty and exhausted and ready to go home for the day.  However, we still have to see the Ellora Caves, which are the main attraction that drew us to Aurangabad!  We take a rest at a little outdoor food and drink stand and try to cool off.   Exhausted and hot, my legs killing me, I drink an ice-cold orange drink and a water. Beckoning from the fruit stands are beautiful fresh figs, which I crave but don’t sample for fear of getting sick. Then we head on to the cave temples.

monkeys at Ellora cave temples

monkeys at Ellora cave temples

At the entrance to the World Heritage-listed Ellora cave temples, about 30 km from Aurangabad, we encounter the usual disarray and monkeys.  After we pay our dues, our driver first takes us up to see Cave 16, the Hindu Kailasa Temple, which is the jewel in the crown of the Ellora caves. It is considered the pinnacle of Indian rock-cut architecture. Carved to represent Mt. Kailasa, the home of the god Shiva in the Himalayas, it is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock.  It contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.  It consists of a gateway, antechamber, assembly hall, sanctuary and tower. Virtually every surface is lavishly embellished with symbols and figures from the puranas (sacred Sanskrit poems). The temple is connected to the gallery wall by a bridge (Lonely Planet India).

flanking the entrance of Cave 16 at Ellora Caves

carvings flanking the entrance of Cave 16 at the Ellora cave temples

This temple was built by King Krishna I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty in AD 760.  Unlike other caves at Ellora, it has a huge courtyard open to the sky, surrounded by walls of galleries several stories high.  The construction was daring to say the least, with 3 huge trenches bored into the steep cliff face with hammer and chisel, followed by the removal of 200,000 tons of rock.  During the removal, care had to be taken to leave behind the walls that would be sculpted.  The complex covers twice the are of the Parthenon in Athens and is half again as high.

at the entrance to the Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

at the entrance to the Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

the courtyard and carvings of Kailasa Temple

the courtyard and carvings of Kailasa Temple

posing with some local ladies at Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

posing with some local ladies at Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

colonnaded arcade around the perimeter of Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

colonnaded arcade around the perimeter of Kailasa Temple ~ Cave 16

Besides size, the temple has amazing sculptural decoration, including scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the adventures of Krishna.  The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic that depicts the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal wife and the ideal king.  The Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas. The latter are enumerated as dharma (right action), artha (purpose), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation).

the demon king Ravana flexing his muscles to shake Mt. Kailasa

the demon king Ravana flexing his muscles to shake Mt. Kailasa

The best one shows the demon king Ravana showing off his strength by shaking Mt. Kailasa.  Unimpressed, Shiva crushes Ravana’s pride simply by flexing a toe.  Jayne and I each stand by this statue, mimicking Ravana’s pose, for pictures.

We then go to Cave 12, the huge Tin Thal (Three Story) Buddhist Cave, which we enter through a courtyard.  It’s a Buddhist monastery from about 8th century AD.  It houses Lord Buddha in preaching posture on a lotus throne. The walls are carved with relief pictures, like those in the Hindu caves.

a Buddha in Cave 12

a Buddha in Cave 12

Finally, we go to Cave 10, which is the only chaitya in the Buddhist group and one of the finest in India.  A chaitya is a Buddhist shrine that contains a stupa, or a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the remains of Buddha, used by Buddhists as a place of worship.  Its ceiling features ribs carved into the stonework; these grooves were once fitted with wooden panels.  A frieze in the upper gallery depicts amorous couples and there’s an enormous figure of the teaching Buddha.

the figure of the teaching Buddha at Cave 10

the figure of the teaching Buddha at Cave 10

After we’ve seen these 3 cave temples, we’ve had enough.  We are dead tired, hot and ready to relax.  We know we don’t want to return to our Absolute Shit Hotel, so we ask the driver to take us directly to the Taj Residency Hotel.  Set in the midst of beautifully landscaped gardens, this palace-like hotel is a quiet oasis in the middle of seedy Aurangabad.  I eat a delicious lunch of oriental green beans and red cabbage along with a mango lassi.  Jayne has a chicken tikka sandwich.  After our leisurely lunch, where we can’t get a glass of wine because it’s Holi, we go outside by the pool and relax on comfortable cushioned lounge chairs.

an interloper at the Taj Residency Hotel

an interloper at the Taj Residency Hotel

Finally, when we feel we have over-stayed our welcome as interlopers in this lovely hotel, we have our driver take us back to A.S. Club Hotel.

a family celebrating Holi

a family celebrating Holi

Here it is 6:00 and we are trapped in this horrible place for the rest of the night.  I finished the last book I brought and there is absolutely nothing to do.  I manage to talk the staff into bringing a beer to my room.  Since it is Holi, they can’t serve alcohol in the restaurant.

Having a beer in our room because it's Holi and they don't serve it in the restaurant

Having a beer in our room because it’s Holi and they don’t serve it in the restaurant

I want to get on the internet, but it isn’t open and we wait, to no avail,  for the lady with the keys to come and open it.  At one point one of the hotel staff knocks on our door and asks if we have a writing pen!  I HATE THIS PLACE!!  I finally drift off to sleep by 9:00 p.m., happy to escape my misery.  Luckily, we leave for Mumbai tomorrow.

Udaipur to Aurangabad: Happy Holi and a day of travel

Saturday, March 19:  In the morning, we eat breakfast, check out of our room and relax by the pool for a while, observing the celebrations for the holiday that begins today, Holi.  Holi is one of North India’s most euphoric festivals.  Hindus celebrate the beginning of spring by throwing colored water and gulal (powder) at anyone within range.  On the night before Holi, bonfires symbolize the demise of the evil demoness Holika, but we don’t see any of these bonfires.  We just watch the locals walking around covered in the bright powders.

reading Brick Lane while waiting to take our next flights to Aurangabad

reading Brick Lane while waiting to take our next flights to Aurangabad

We leave for the airport to catch our 1:30 flight to Mumbai.  Our flight on Kingfisher airlines is uneventful and we arrive in Mumbai around 3:00.

jayne on the bus to the plane

jayne on the bus to the plane

We have to wait around in the airport in Mumbai for four hours until our 7:00 flight to Aurangabad.  At the airport we read and eat some dinner and try to kill the time as best as possible.  Sometimes when traveling, the waiting time can stretch before you like an endless tunnel.

we wait 4 hours at the airport in Mumbai

we wait 4 hours at the airport in Mumbai

During this day, I finish the last book I have brought on this trip, Brick Lane.  I’m glad it’s finally over.  I never like to feel this way about a book, preferring instead to be saddened that the journey with the characters in this time and place has come to an end.  I love the feeling of nostalgia that washes over me when I finish a book, when I can dwell for a time in that other imaginary world.  In this case, I’m celebrating the fact that the main character, a Bangladeshi woman, has FINALLY made the decision to become independent, to make her own decisions apart from her overbearing husband, and to not immediately fall into the arms of another man.  It’s a decision that is long overdue, in my mind.  I was irritated with her throughout for being so complacent and submissive. At long last, she decides to stay in London raising her daughters while her husband pursues yet another of his many foolish fantasies.  He has met with failure time and time again as an immigrant in London, finding his overblown ambitions quashed.  When he decides to uproot his family from their lives in London and return to Bangladesh, where he can become a king in his own homeland, his wife makes the strong decision to stay behind.  Her marriage, arranged from the start, has been portrayed in such a negative light through the entire book that I was impatient and, frankly, irritated with her for abiding it as long as she did.

our Kingfisher plane ~ I get yelled at for taking this picture

our Kingfisher plane ~ I get yelled at for taking this picture

At 7:00, we board our plane to Aurangabad and arrive there at 8:10.  We are picked up at the airport by another in a long line of drivers, who are all starting to blend together at this point.  This one has his young daughter with him, who, because of our luggage occupying his passenger seat, must sit on his lap for the entire long drive to our hotel.

When we arrive at our hotel, the A.S. Club Hotel, or the Aurangabad Sport Club Hotel, it is on a dirt and gravel road in the middle of nowhere.  There is the main part of the hotel and then an adjacent building which looks like a multi-colored prison.  We’re escorted to our room, which is tiny, dirty and has a double bed.  We say this is totally unacceptable.   We argue for a different room.  Finally, we’re taken to the main part of the hotel, where we’re shown into another larger room but still with a double bed.  The hotel itself is grungy and in dire need of major renovation.  I don’t know frankly if it has EVER seen better days.  Our room is horrible.

the horrible annex building to the A.S. Club Hotel where they try to put us ~ we rebel!!

the horrible annex building to the A.S. Club Hotel where they try to put us ~ we rebel!!

We are hesitant to settle in, believing instead that we can call Umer and make different arrangements.  We are due to stay here two nights, after all, and it is totally unacceptable.  We head down to the front desk where we ask the hotel manager to call Umer.  Once again, we’ve encountered a problem, and he is conveniently unavailable.  We email him, but of course it will be too late for tonight to remedy the problem.  We have found a top end hotel in our trusty Lonely Planet, the Taj Residency, which we are thinking seriously of paying for ourselves, just to escape this horrible place.  When we ask the A.S. Club manager to call that hotel, he tells us they are totally booked because of the Holi holiday.  We finally must surrender to the fact that we are stuck here, so we settle in for the night, pulling out our sheet-bags for another night.

Jayne, who is good at calling things as they are, appropriately dubs the A.S. Club Hotel as the Absolute Shit Club Hotel.  A more apropos name, for sure!

the A.S. "Absolute Shit" Club Hotel

the A.S. “Absolute Shit” Club Hotel

Udaipur: City of Lakes, the City Palace, a boat ride and the Whistling Teal

Friday, March 18Udaipur is considered to be Rajasthan’s most romantic city.  It was tagged thus in 1829 by Colonel James Tod, and the tag still sticks despite the city’s unchecked commercialism.  It is also known as the City of Lakes.  Bordered by the Aravalli hills, the old city is dominated by the cupola-crowned City Palace, which rises abruptly from the waters of Lake Pichola.  The palace’s balconies look “over the lake towards the city’s other famous landmark – the Lake Palace – a reflective, fairy-tale confection gleaming by day and spotlit by night.” (Lonely Planet India)

reception at Hotel Swaroop Vilas

reception at Hotel Swaroop Vilas

entrance at Hotel Swaroop Vilas

entrance at Hotel Swaroop Vilas

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Ceiling at the hotel

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a garden area at the hotel

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fancy archways in the hotel

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welcome hanging over our door

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Swaroop Vilas

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Udaipur was founded in 1559 as Mewar, when Maharana Udai Singh II fled from the final sacking of Chittorgarh by the Mughal emperor Akbar.  The city grew famous for its patriotic fervor and love of independence as Udai Singh and company resisted Muslim aggression.

the City Palace in Udaipur

the City Palace in Udaipur

The City Palace

The City Palace

Entrance to the City Palace

Entrance to the City Palace

In the morning, we head to the imposing City Palace, Rajasthan’s largest palace.  Construction was started by Maharana Udai Singh II, the city’s founder, and the palace was added to by numerous maharajas.

at the entrance to the City Palace Museum

at the entrance to the City Palace Museum

Ceiling in the City Palace

Ceiling in the City Palace

The entrance fee to the City Palace museum is not that bad at 50 rupees, but the video and camera fee is 200 rupees!  We try to figure out a way to sneak our cameras in, but at the entrance we realize guards are searching people’s bags.  Just on principle, and because we have seen so many palaces and so many museums, we decide to go in separately, with one of us waiting in the courtyard holding the other’s bag and camera while the other ventures through the museum.  Jayne goes first and I wait quite a long time before she finally emerges, from a different direction.  She says it’s quite extensive, but it’s all one way.  Once you go in, you must continue going in one direction until you are spit out at another exit.  She says it’s well worth it.  Since it is then my turn to go in, it takes quite some time.

a gate to the City Palace in Udaipur

a gate to the City Palace in Udaipur

The museum turns out to be quite lovely and there would have been some great pictures to take had we paid the camera fee.   We see lavish peacock mosaics, fabulous glass and mirror work, a collection of miniatures, gorgeous courtyards and gardens, ornamental tiles and wall paintings.  At the top, we have an amazing view over Lake Pichola and the city.  But.  As we have no camera, we have no pictures….

We take a boat ride from the City Palace jetty (Bansai Ghat) where we do a circle around Lake Pichola.  This lake was enlarged by Maharana Udai Singh II after he founded the city.  He flooded nearby Pichola village by building a masonry dam called the Badipol.

a boatride on Lake Pichola

a boatride on Lake Pichola

Lake Pichola

Lake Pichola

Lake Pichola

Lake Pichola

From the boat we can see the other side of the City Palace, bathing and dhobi (clothes-washing) ghats,   Sisarma village, and two islands.  The first, Jagniwas Island, or the Lake Palace Hotel island, was formerly the royal summer palace but is now covered in luxury hotels complete with shady courtyards, lotus ponds and a pool shaded by a mango tree.  We don’t get to go on this island as it is now private property.

Sisarma Village along the banks of Lake Pichola

Sisarma Village along the banks of Lake Pichola

We do make a stop at the palace on Jagmandir Island, which was built by Maharaja Karan Singh in 1620, and added to by Maharaja Jagat Singh (1628-52).  It is surrounded by a row of enormous stone elephants and has a chhatri carved from grey-blue stone.  It is quite lovely sitting on the island and looking out at the lake through the curtained marble arches.  It’s said the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was partly inspired by this palace for his Taj Mahal, after he stayed here in 1623-24, while leading a revolt against his father, Jehangir.

Approaching Jagmandir Island

Approaching Jagmandir Island

Jang Island

Jagmandir Island

relaxing on Jagmandir Island

relaxing on Jagmandir Island

Jagmandir Island

Jagmandir Island

Gardens on Jagmandir Island

Gardens on Jagmandir Island

Gardens on Jagmandir Island

Gardens on Jagmandir Island

Mural at Jagmandir Island

Mural at Jagmandir Island

Returning back to the dock

Returning back to the dock

After our boat ride, we head back to the Whistling Teal for lunch.  I drink the most delectable fig lassi.  We share Jeera Aloo, potatoes cooked and tossed with cumin seeds and spices, and Hara Bhara Kebab, which are spinach dumplings with yellow lentils and deep-fried, served with mint yogurt.

The Whistling Teal

The Whistling Teal

back at the Whistling Teal for lunch

back at the Whistling Teal for lunch

a fig lassi :-)

a fig lassi 🙂

After lunch Sanjay takes us to Saheliyon-ki-Bari, also known as the Princess Garden, or the Garden of the Maids of Honor.  This is a small, disheveled garden which was laid out for 48 women attendants who came as part of a princess’s dowry.  It has fountains, kiosks, marble elephants and a lotus pool.  The garden looks like it has been neglected, much like many of India’s tourist attractions.

Bridge over Lake Pichola

Bridge over Lake Pichola

Princess Gardens

Princess Gardens

Princess Gardens

Princess Gardens

Pavilion at the Princess Gardens

Pavilion at the Princess Gardens

at the Princess Gardens

at the Princess Gardens

By this time we are tired and irritable and we ask Sanjay to take us back to our Swaroop Vilas.  At this point, he tells us he has four children, the typical Indian story.  He makes a stop at a small grocery so we can buy some cold drinks.

I think at this point, we have had about enough of India.  Many times, Jayne and I had talked about taking a trip together to Italy.  At this point in our trip is when we are questioning why on earth we picked India instead of Italy.  We talk about how we could be sitting at lovely outdoor cafes drinking wine and eating Italian food and meeting gorgeous Italian men.  Believe me, we both still love Indian food, but the opportunities for meeting any gorgeous and well-off men, other than poor young Indian guys trying to sell us one trinket or another, are non-existent.  Any time we go to restaurants or hotel bars, they are practically deserted.  India is not a big drinking country, so we don’t know where we could meet people.  It’s just not happening.

the Princess Garden

the Princess Garden

Back at the hotel, I sit by the pool and get back to reading the book I started in Korea, Brick Lane, which is really not very good at all.  Later, I go to have a full body massage and a shower. For the first time a man gives the massage, and it is a good one, tough on my aching muscles!  Later Jayne and I go upstairs to the balcony bar and order Kingfishers and red wine and eat wonderful peanuts masala and fish Almitra.  Mosquitoes attack us as we sit, making it not such a relaxing evening.

relaxing by the pool before a massage

relaxing by the pool before a massage

We go to bed, too exhausted to do anything in the town.  I wake up at 3 a.m. having a sneezing fit and worrying about returning home to America after a year away in Korea.  As worries often do, one worry leads to another, and before long I’m worrying about my next job, whether I should try to find a job in America or look abroad again.  Our trip is almost over, and it will be time soon to come face-to-face with real life.

at the rooftop bar of Swaroop Vilas for drinks and a light dinner

at the rooftop bar of Swaroop Vilas for drinks and a light dinner

the blue city of jodhpur and a short hop to udaipur

Thursday, March 17:  We wake up early to see what sights we can in Jodhpur before we leave at 1:30 this afternoon for a short flight to Udaipur.  We didn’t really come here to see the sights; we came here because there was no flight from Jaisalmer to Udaipur.  However, since we’re here, we figure we should see what we can see.

breakfast in Indique, the rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Pal Haveli

breakfast in Indique, the rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Pal Haveli

The morning casts a different light on the city.  We eat breakfast in the lovely Indique restaurant and then we get a rickshaw driver to take us first to Jaswant Thada and then on to Mehrangarh.

the courtyard of the Pal Haveli ~ a lovely oasis in the midst of Jodhpur

the courtyard of the Pal Haveli ~ a lovely oasis in the midst of Jodhpur

A shopkeeper selling Indian prints at the hotel

A shopkeeper selling Indian prints at the hotel

On the way out of the madhouse city of Jodhpur, we see the usual hordes of dirt-covered and poverty-stricken Indians trying to eke out a living.  Passing the clock tower and the Sardar Market, we are bombarded by vibrant sights and smells from the bazaars selling vegetables, spices, sweets, silver, textiles and handicrafts.  We pass one man on the street; half of his face looks to be melted, like drooping rubber.  We see the usual people suffering with what seems to be the very common skin disease of vitiligo; their faces are splotchy with browns, pinks and whites, as if they’ve been through an extreme chemical peel.  Vitiligo is a skin condition in which there is a loss of brown color (pigment) from areas of skin, resulting in irregular white patches that feel like normal skin.  It appears to occur when immune cells destroy the cells that produce brown pigment (melanocytes). This destruction is thought to be due to an autoimmune problem, but the cause is unknown.After reading White Tiger and the horrible state of health care in India, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see so much illness and deformity.  However, the pervasiveness is shocking… and horribly sad.

Jalwar Thant

Jaswant Thada

We drive up a steep and winding road where we can see the walls of Mehrangarh fort towering overhead.  First we stop at a lovely spot about halfway up.  Jaswant Thada is a white marble memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II.  It’s a lovely memorial with its plethora of exquisitely carved and whimsical domes and jalis, or carved marble lattice screens.  Its setting is lovely, with flower gardens abloom, and the view to the imposing Mehrangarh is impressive.  We wander around the grounds and through the memorial, soaking up the beautiful surroundings.

Jaswant Thanda

Jaswant Thanda

Jaswant Thanda

Jaswant Thanda

Inside Jaswant Thanda

Inside Jaswant Thanda

Our rickshaw driver takes us further up the steep hill to the Mehrangarh Fort.  This fort with its sheer soaring walls is run by the descendents of the Maharaja of Jodhpur.  It costs 300 rupees to get into the palace within the fort.  On the walk up the steep hill to the entrance, we find an area with ramparts and canons.  Looking out here over the walls of the fort, we can see the blue city of Jodhpur sprawling down below.

Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

The terra-cotta colored latticed palace complex and courtyards are like a maze.  Around every corner is a surprise.  In the extensive museum, we see trappings of Indian royalty, including howdahs, the seats which transported royal family members on the backs of elephants.  We come across sumptuously decorated rooms with plush carpets, gold-filigreed columns, painted walls and ceilings and stained glass windows. We spend quite a long time wandering through the museum and the palace.  At one point, we sit and watch a turban-wrapping demonstration in a small courtyard.  Later we climb to the very top of the palace, where our view of Jodhpur is amazing.

an up close view of the Fort

an up close view of the Fort

Entrance to Mehrangarh Fort

Entrance to Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort

elephant carrier at Mehrangarh Fort

elephant carrier at Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

at Mehrangarh Fort

me at Mehrangarh Fort

me at Mehrangarh Fort

staircase at Mehrangarh Fort

staircase at Mehrangarh Fort

Jayne at Mehrangarh Fort

Jayne at Mehrangarh Fort

me at Mehrangarh Fort

me at Mehrangarh Fort

one of many beautiful rooms at Mehrangarh Fort

one of many beautiful rooms at Mehrangarh Fort

another room at Mehrangarh Fort

another room at Mehrangarh Fort

stained glass windows at Mehrangarh Fort

stained glass windows at Mehrangarh Fort

a sumptuous room in the palace

a sumptuous room in the palace

After we’ve seen most of the palace, we try to find another rickshaw driver to take us back to our hotel.  We know what we paid to get up the hill and so expect to pay the same to go down.  All the drivers want double the amount.  I guess they figure we are trapped up here and must pay their price to get back down.  We know it is a long way down, but we say, “Never mind!  We’ll just walk down!”  And we start the long walk down.  One of the rickshaw drivers, deciding it’s better to have some business than none, comes after us and agrees to accept our offer.

the blue city of Jodhpur

the blue city of Jodhpur

Back at the hotel, we have lunch in the cool 18th Century Bar with saddle bar stools, chandeliers, dark wood furniture and leopard skins on the walls.  It transports us back in time to British colonial days, with its dark and cool interior and its huntsman’s atmosphere.

the 18th Century Bar at Hotel Pal Haveli ~ lunch before departure to Udaipur

the 18th Century Bar at Hotel Pal Haveli ~ lunch before departure to Udaipur

We leave the hotel at 1:00 to head to the airport.  When we get there, we find our 2:30 flight has been delayed until 3:30.  Luckily, once we get on board, it’s only a half-hour flight to Udaipur.  Our new driver, Sanjay, picks us up at the airport and takes us to our new and lovely hotel, Hotel Swaroop Vilas.  This is probably our second favorite hotel in India.

 The hotel is all bright white walls with tiles painted in blue leafy vines and red flowers.  With its marble floors, crisp blue and white tiles, crenellated walls, cupolas and notched arches everywhere, it is an architectural delight.  In the various courtyards are gorgeous tropical plants flowering in pinks and deep greens.   As we find everywhere in India, bowls of floating rose petals and marigolds scent the hallways. Sadly, the room they give us has a double bed, where we have requested two singles throughout our trip.  When we ask them to switch us to a room with two singles, the room is so much inferior to the first room, that we take the original room with its double bed.

After settling in and exploring the hotel, including the pool and the spa and the balcony bar overlooking a lake, we take a rickshaw into the old city and wander around looking in the shops.  We go eventually to the Raj Palace Hotel to find the Whistling Teal restaurant.  It is set back from the busy street in a garden courtyard and has a lovely atmosphere, despite the mosquitoes. There, we enjoy a Kingfisher beer, fish tikka, and the most delectable masala peanuts, which are peanuts mixed with tomato, onion, cilantro, saffron, and lime juice.  The lovely setting only enhances the delectable treats we find in this place.

the courtyard of the Whistling Teal restaurant

the courtyard of the Whistling Teal restaurant in Udaipur

Gadi Sagar, a slow day in Jaisalmer & Jodhpur’s train station from hell

Wednesday, March 16: We have a lot of time to kill today as we have to wait until 4:30 to take a train to Jodhpur.  We are drained from all of our travels and don’t feel like going back to Jaisalmer Fort.   We decide to go to a place we haven’t seen, Gadi Sagar, in the early morning before it gets too hot.

Me under the gate to Gadi Sagar

Me under the gate to Gadi Sagar

Gadi Sagar is simply a tank, south of the Jaisalmer city walls, which was once the water supply for the city.  Small temples and shrines surround it, as well as a smattering of small shops.  Over the road down to the tank is a gateway, Tilon-ki-Pol, which was built by a famous prostitute.  The story is that the prostitute offered to pay for its construction, but the maharaja denied permission because he felt that it would be beneath his dignity to walk through it when visiting the tank.  The prostitute built it anyway in the maharaja’s absence.  She put a Krishna temple on top so the king wouldn’t tear it down.

the prostitute's gate

the prostitute’s gate

Despite our early arrival, it’s steamy out, and we wander around sluggishly and half-heartedly.  There is a possibility of a boat ride in the water tank, but when we see the condition of the boats and the pond itself, we decide just to wander around, keeping to the shade as much as possible.  A group of Indian kids are standing on some steps, a kind of ghat, leading down to the water, and tossing bread into the murky depths.  When we walk up close, we see a black mass of catfish hurling themselves up toward the surface.  In their bulging and heaving madness, they look like frightening deep-sea creatures who are surfacing to devour us. Frankly, I’m disturbed by the sight of them, boiling cauldron of slimy snakes that they are.

the boiling cauldron of catfish at Gadi Sagar

the boiling cauldron of catfish at Gadi Sagar

the boats at Gadi Sagar

the boats at Gadi Sagar

We wander around a little more, dipping into the coolness of another Jain temple decked out with strands of rainbow-colored tinsel and guarded by a large ceramic cat.  A silent barefoot monk in a saffron robe watches us as we pad through in our bare feet.

a monk in the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

a monk in the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

the entrance to the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

the entrance to the jain temple at Gadi Sagar

looking out from the Jain Temple to the lake

looking out from the Jain Temple to the lake

a pavilion outside the Jain Temple

a pavilion outside the Jain Temple

Back on the road again, we encounter a camel decked out in colorful blankets and fabric braids pulling a painted carriage.  We look briefly into the small shops.  Bored, we decide we’ll return to the hotel and relax for the rest of the afternoon.  Back at Himmatgarh Palace, I eat Vegetable Pulao and Jayne eats Kashmiri Pulao, both accompanied by stuffed naan with cheese and two lime sodas.  Then we pack up most of our stuff and lounge around in the cool room reading and trying unsuccessfully to nap.

a decked out camel and carriage

a decked out camel and carriage

Actually, I’m not able to relax knowing that the dreaded train lies before us this evening.  I read pages and pages of White Tiger by Aravind Adiga this afternoon, which makes me more uptight.  His bleak and dark descriptions of India only exacerbate the feeling of unease I have regarding the remainder of our trip and this train.  I hated so much the 12-hour trip from Jaipur; this will be another 6 hours of torture to Jodhpur.  Plus, because this is not an overnight train, I don’t know what kind of compartment or seating to expect.  I frankly am experiencing a great deal of anxiety on this day, between reading this book and fearing our journey tonight.

back at the hotel before the dreaded train ride to jodhpur

back at the hotel before the dreaded train ride to jodhpur

the pool at our hotel ~ Himmatgarh Palace

the pool at our hotel ~ Himmatgarh Palace

Finally, after what seems like an interminable afternoon (why can’t I relax??), our driver takes us to the train station.  We sit on a bench on the platform, awaiting our train, beneath multitudes of pigeons in the rafters.  Suddenly, one of the pigeons shits on my hand.  A lady from Calgary sharing the bench with us says, in unison with Jayne, “That’s good luck!”  I find a tissue and wipe off the wet droppings as the pigeons flap and wheel overhead.

Indians are sleeping on the platform, whole filthy families camped out on every inch of concrete.  The grimy train pulls up, and people are crammed into the luggage cars or bursting through open, iron-barred windows in second class.  We haul our luggage onto our A-1 car (first class) and find the same type of compartment, with the 4 bunks, that we had on our overnight trip to Jaisalmer.  I guess that’s a relief since it means we can recline and be somewhat comfortable.

As the train moves, I settle in to finish my book. An Indian guy comes into our compartment and plops down beside me on my mattress.  “Let me tell you about my nation,” he says.  We ignore him but he keeps on talking.  I say, “No one invited you to sit on my seat! Please move!”  He says, “You could be my mother.”  This irritates me so much that, when the train conductor walks by, I insist that he make the guy move.  He leaves, obviously angry that I refused to listen to his diatribe.

On the rest of this train ride, I finish reading White Tiger, which I happily abandon on the train when I disembark.  The book is a brutal depiction of India’s class struggles. The main character Balram Halwai, a racist, homicidal chauffeur, is from the Darkness, born where India’s downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot. Balram escapes his village and moves to Delhi after being hired as a driver for a rich landlord.  Author Adiga’s crude and brutally honest prose animates the battle between India’s wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his masters.  Later, Balram manages to become a wealthy entrepreneur only after he murders his employer and steals a huge amount of money from him.  This is seemingly the only way to get ahead under India’s rigid hierarchical society.  The book has been such a good companion on this trip only because it only served to underline the poverty and degradation I could see all around me.  I want so badly to see some good in India, and this is why I am happy to finish with the book and leave it behind.

When we arrive in Jodhpur at around 10:30 pm, it’s a nightmare.  First, there is no one from our hotel to pick us up.  In most other countries, this would be no problem.  We would just take a taxi to the hotel.  But in India, we have been warned that we should never take a rickshaw to a new hotel upon our arrival in town.  A rickshaw driver, it is said, will always have a story that the hotel where you are headed is out of business or full.  And then he will take you to a hotel where he gets a kickback.  He will leave you stranded at the new hotel, which often charges exorbitant prices.

This would be a problem for us.  Our whole time in India is arranged.  We have prepaid for the entire trip and we have in fact a reservation tonight at the Hotel Pal Haveli.  This hotel, set around a courtyard and built by the thakur (nobleman) of Pal in 1847, is considered the most attractive original haveli in the old city.   Even though we are only due to stay this one night in Jodhpur, this is one of the nicer hotels, a “heritage” property, Umer booked for us on our itinerary.  We definitely don’t want some rickshaw driver to take us somewhere else, where 1) we have to pay extra and 2) we don’t get to stay in a top-rate hotel.

We stand outside in front of the station in the dark, where people are sleeping all over the concrete, like fallen dominoes.  One lady has her head on another lady’s stomach; a man has his feet on someone else’s chest.  Some have their heads propped on their baggage.  A fat orange-haired lady in a sari sleeps directly on the concrete while huge rats sniff around her face.  Fluorescent lights cast an eerie glow over the whole scene. All these people are sleeping directly on the concrete, no sheets or blankets to shield them from the hordes of rats scurrying about.  Auto-rickshaws are lined up on the street, bathed in the sickly light.  Young men keep coming up and asking us where we are going.  They say, “Pal Haveli? Pal Haveli?”  We say, who are you here for?  We don’t tell our names but insist that they tell us who they are here to pick up.  Finally, after many phone calls, they tell us a name that is not Jayne’s.  We say, no, you are not here for us.

on the train to jodhpur's nightmare train station

on the train to jodhpur’s nightmare train station

We don’t have phones with us here.  I have only my U.S. BlackBerry which has our travel agent Umer’s number.  However, my BlackBerry is on a different network and has only worked a couple of times in India.  I try to phone Umer, but get no answer at all.

Finally, I watch the luggage while Jayne asks one of the attendants at the station to call the hotel for us.  We don’t know the number of the hotel and neither does the attendant.   After a long time, and many phone calls, the attendant tells us the Pal Haveli is not waiting for any guests tonight.  Apparently, we find out later, the attendant has called his cousin to find out this information.

our room at the Pal Haveli ~ FINALLY!!

our room at the Pal Haveli ~ FINALLY!!

We have the attendant call Umer, who is conveniently not available.  This seems to happen whenever we run across a problem in our travels and tonight, we find this infuriating.  We feel lost and abandoned. Umer has really let us down.

Finally, after what seems like a highly uncomfortable eternity, we are able to get someone to speak to the Pal Haveli, which sends a car for us.  They are able to tell us Jayne’s name, so we finally know we have the right driver.

I love this room ~ too bad we have such a short enjoyment time slot...

I love this room ~ too bad we have such a short enjoyment time slot…

Close to midnight, we finally get to the hotel, almost 1 ½ hours after our arrival in Jodhpur.  The hotel staff tells us they have our reservation, but our travel agent didn’t specify that we needed a train station pickup.  No arrangements had been made and they are unabashedly unapologetic.  We had really looked forward to dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Indique, which is the top restaurant pick in Lonely Planet for Jodhpur: it “is the perfect place for a romantic dinner…the views to the fort, clock tower, and Umaid Bhawan are superb.  The food is traditional tandoori and North Indian curries and you won’t be disappointed by the old favorites – butter chicken and rogan josh.”

Our room is actually lovely, with its heritage trimmings, and the kitchen is able to provide room service.  They bring us the most delicious chicken tikka and cheese naan, a soothing antidote to our nightmare of a night.

jaisalmer fort, jain temples, havelis & a rooftop spot called saffron

Tuesday, March 15:  We’re picked up in the morning by our non-English speaking (and still greasy) driver accompanied by an English-speaking Indian who will be our guide for the day.  We usually like to wander about on our own, but on this day, because our driver doesn’t speak English, the hotel has arranged this guide.  In the end, we are happy to have him because we would have just wandered aimlessly around Jaisalmer not having a clue what we were seeing.  We arrive at the Jaisalmer Fort, where, outside the gates, are multitudes of beautiful textiles hanging outside shops.  It is a hot day, as every day is here in the desert.  Nonetheless, I can tell I will like this place with its shopping enticements!

walking up to Jaisalmer Fort

walking up to Jaisalmer Fort

the elaborately carved entry to Jaisalmer Fort

the elaborately carved entry to Jaisalmer Fort

our guide at jaisalmer fort

our guide at jaisalmer fort

We enter through the huge gates of Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler, Jaisala, and reinforced by subsequent rulers.  The fort encloses narrow streets paved with sandstone, a maharaja’s palace, temples and havelis, and sits atop the Trikuta hill.  This place is one of my favorite forts because it is so much more than a tourist attraction; it is actually a living museum as a significant portion of the old city’s population resides within the fort walls.

jaisalmer fort ~ one of my favorite shopping places in india

jaisalmer fort ~ one of my favorite shopping places in india

We bypass the Maharaja’s palace, and our guide takes us directly to one of the seven beautiful yellow sandstone Jain temples that were built from the 12th to the 16th centuries.  We go into a number of these temples, which inside have incredibly intricate and golden-glowing carvings.  We encounter orange-robed monks and hundreds of marble images of Parasnath, the 22nd tirthankarTirthankars are the 24 great Jain teachers. The carvings are exquisite and the marble floors, on which we walk barefoot, are cool and relaxing.  It’s lovely wandering through these temples.

the first of the seven Jain temples in Jaisalmer Fort

the first of the seven Jain temples in Jaisalmer Fort

We see signs in these temples: “Please do not give tips to holy men.  All gifts please place in donation box instead.”

offerings in the Jain Temple

offerings in the Jain Temple

intricate carvings of Hindu gods

intricate carvings of Hindu gods

inside the Jain Temple

inside the Jain Temple

Jain Temple

Jain Temple

inside one of the cool Jain temples

inside one of the cool Jain temples

Another sign outside of one of the Jain temples: “Important – Notice”: Entrance of ladies during monthly course period is strictly prohibited. They are requested to maintain the sanctity of the temples.

IMPORTANT NOTICE!!

IMPORTANT NOTICE!!

Hmmm….. Didn’t God create women to have monthly cycles?  Why should they be considered “dirty” during these times?

on the steps of a jain temple

on the steps of a jain temple

a Jain monk

a Jain monk

more elaborate carvings

more elaborate carvings

inside the Jain Temple

inside the Jain Temple

columns in the Jain Temple

columns in the Jain Temple

more intricate carvings

more intricate carvings

beautiful Hindu gods inside the jain temples

beautiful Hindu gods inside the jain temples

We wander into many shops along the narrow streets.  Our guide has his own shop of painted ceramic doorknobs and wall hooks, similar to those sold in anthropologie and Pier One in the U.S. I buy a wall hook for myself and one for my daughter.  We wander into silver shops, where we buy earrings.  And we spend a great deal of time in a cool textile shop, drinking tea with the young Indian shopkeeper.  After much haggling, we each buy “Welcome” door-hangings.  These are crenellated embroidered textiles that you hang at the top of your doorway to welcome guests.

Jayne and I in the shop buying Indian "welcome" door hangings

Jayne and I in the shop buying Indian “welcome” door hangings

the "welcome" door hanging i buy in jaisalmer

the “welcome” door hanging i buy in jaisalmer

Our guide also takes us further through the narrow streets, pointing out gorgeous havelis, most notably the Patwa-ki-Haveli, towering over a narrow lane with its honey-colored lace stonework.  A haveli is a traditional, often ornately decorated, residence, particularly found in Rajasthan and Gujarat.  This one was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who were brocade and jewelry merchants. However, there are claims that these traders made a considerable amount of money in opium smuggling and money-lending. This is the largest haveli in Jaisalmer and looms over a narrow lane.

textiles on one of the streets

textiles on one of the streets

Haveli

Haveli

Havelis

Havelis

one of the many gorgeous havelis in jaisalmer

one of the many gorgeous havelis in jaisalmer

The streets of Jaisalmer Fort are much cleaner overall than streets in most of India.  Compared to a place like Varanasi, they are spotless.  However, cows do still wander the streets, and at one point we have to pass by a cow blocking a narrow lane.  He has crap smeared all over his behind, and I am disgusted as I have to pass close by.   I’m afraid he will back me into a wall with his shit-covered ass, or he will flick his tail, splattering me with his mess.  Luckily that doesn’t happen!

cows walking the streets

cows walking the streets

At another point, we find a little boy squatting over a gutter outside his home, pooping a yellow mushy mess into it that attracts flies like a sucking magnet.

After much wandering through the fort, we return to the hotel and relax in our cool room and then go outside and hang out in the pool and relax on swinging chairs.  We take some pictures of each other in our bathing suits, which are not suitable for publication.

our hotel

our hotel

relaxing on the grounds of the hotel

relaxing on the grounds of the hotel

Later, our driver takes us into town for dinner.  We go to the Lonely Planet-recommended Saffron, which is on the rooftop of the Nanchana Haveli, overlooking Gandhi Chowk.  A chowk is a town square, intersection, or marketplace. The setting is suberb, with its sandstone terrace overlooking not only the Chowk, but also Jaisalmer Fort on the hilltop behind.  It’s really atmospheric.  We both wish we had some romantic interest in our lives that we could be with in this spot.  However, we have to settle just for each other…

In the Nanchana Haveli courtyard, where we eat dinner at the rooftop restaurant Saffron

In the Nanchana Haveli courtyard, where we eat dinner at the rooftop restaurant Saffron

at Saffron with Jaisalmer Fort in the background

at Saffron with Jaisalmer Fort in the background

We find ourselves in an argument with the waiter about the wine, which we don’t like because it’s sweet and bubbly.  We’re used to being able to taste our wine before purchasing, as in American restaurants.  After we order a different wine, they tell us we MUST pay for this one, whether we like it or not.  We snack on Poppadum, or crisps, while we wait for our dinner.

Saffron menus with Jaisalmer Fort behind

Saffron menus with Jaisalmer Fort behind

on the rooftop of saffron ~ one of our more atmospheric dinners

on the rooftop of saffron ~ one of our more atmospheric dinners

For dinner, we eat delicious Dum Aloo Kashmiri, or potato barrels filled with dry fruits and mashed vegetables; Vegetable Seekh Kebab, or assorted mashed vegetables with mild spices on a skewer cooked in a clay oven.   The dinner is delicious.

Some performers come up as the sun is setting.  They are really cute, banging on drums and playing flute-like instruments.  One of the young guys asks us our names and then proceeds to sing this funny wailing kind of tune, singing our names:  “Caaaattthyyy!  Jayyyynnnnniiiiieeee!” and waving his arm in a snake-dance way.  We laugh and laugh, carrying our laughter with us into the night and back to our hotel.

inside the sumptuous Nanchana Haveli

inside the sumptuous Nanchana Haveli

After dinner we explore the Nachana Haveli, the 280-year-old sandstone haveli converted to a hotel.  All the common areas are sumptuously and romantically decorated, with Rajput trimmings such as swing chairs and bearskin rugs.  After, we go outside to explore some shops in the Chowk while we wait for our driver.   We return to our hotel where we fall asleep, exhausted from the heat and our wine and filling dinner.

the midnight train to jaisalmer & a camel “safari”

Monday, March 14: Finally, after midnight, on a blue train smothered in smutty blue light, we stuff our suitcases in the space between our two bunks and settle in to try to sleep.  With great foresight, Jayne has bought along two sheets that are like sleeping bags, sewn together on three sides, with just an opening for our heads.  This is the first time in our travels that we pull these out and stuff ourselves inside of them.  I am so happy to have this sheet-bag to sleep in, to put layers between myself and the filthy mattress and the tattered and scratchy wool blanket provided by the train.  The train is disgustingly dirty and I have to say I’m afraid of bugs and other critters crawling over me in the night.

the train station at jaipur

the train station at jaipur

I have dressed in yoga pants and a t-shirt to take this train trip. I already feel greasy and dirty because of the massage we got late Sunday afternoon.  Now, aboard this train, I immediately feel even dirtier.  We read for a while until the rhythm of the train rolling over the tracks lulls me into a fitful sleep. The only saving grace is that there is some air-conditioning in the compartment.

Jayne in our sleeping compartment onboard the train

Jayne in our sleeping compartment onboard the train

I get up several times to use the bathroom which is a squat toilet that empties directly onto the tracks.  I get totally grossed out when Jayne mentions that she saw rats running around on the train tracks in the Jaipur station.  I imagine whole families of rats thriving along the rails, gorging themselves on people’s droppings from the trains.  It is all so disgusting.  So often in India, I am shocked by how people live like animals. Yet.  Somehow, they go about their daily lives carefree and chipper, ignorant that anything better is possible.

the midnight train to jaisalmer

the midnight train to jaisalmer

In the morning, we wake up to sunlight streaming in through grimy windows and alternate between reading and napping until our train arrives at noon in Jaisalmer, in the western part of the state of Rajasthan.  I have been reading White Tiger and am totally engrossed in the story, which captures India at its worst in every minute detail.

our hotel in jaisalmer ~ himmatgarh palace

our hotel in jaisalmer ~ himmatgarh palace

himmatgarh palace

himmatgarh palace

Jaisalmer lies in the northwestern Great Thar Desert, which extends across the border into Pakistan, less than 100 km away. At the Jaisalmer train station, a really greasy Indian driver awaits us with a non-air-conditioned car.  He hardly speaks or understands any English. He takes us directly to our interesting hotel, the sandstone Himmatgarh Palace.  The property is lovely, gardens abloom with pink flowers. We are in a round turret-shaped room with the ambience of a medieval castle.  We go directly to the dining room where we order a lunch of gutta curry and butter naan, along with fresh lime and soda, the most refreshing drink we have come across in India.

our "turret" room at himmatgarh palace

our “turret” room at himmatgarh palace

Originally, we are scheduled to go on our “safari” tomorrow, but the hotel owner suggests that we might want to relax this afternoon and head out around 4:00 pm to the safari.  We agree to his suggestion as we can stand to relax in the lovely surroundings. We’re too hot and tired from the train ride to venture out for sightseeing in the city.  We wander around and take pictures and pack a few things for the safari.

our tent at Royal Desert Camp

our tent at Royal Desert Camp

At 4:00 our driver takes us in his oven of a car for an hour drive to the Royal Desert Camp.  At this camp, situated in the hot sun on a flat expanse of desert, we are ushered to our tent room, which is sweltering. But it is quite a nice room, decorated in the British Colonial style, with a dark wood bed, dresser and night tables.  Surprisingly, we find a fully-fitted bathroom, with tiles laid directly on the tent floor and a full modern shower, sink and toilet.  We are disappointed that we didn’t know what to expect; we didn’t even bring much in the way of toiletries or even a change of clothes.  We were fully expecting to take a camel ride out into the middle of nowhere, where we would camp roughly in the desert. We thought we would be sleeping in a tent with possibly a public toilet and no shower facilities.  However, this Royal Desert Camp was built for tourists and it actually is quite nice, except for the heat.

Inside our tent at the Royal Desert Camp

Inside our tent at the Royal Desert Camp

Around 5:00, as the sun starts to set, we climb on a camel directly outside the gates of the camp. Our white-robed guide leads the camel by rope all around the dunes surrounding the camp.  We don’t venture far, but it is lovely as a breeze starts to cool us and the sun drops, spilling pinks, lavenders and periwinkles across the horizon.  I take multitudes of pictures of the desert and the shadows we make on the sand as we ride our camel.  We enjoy watching other native camel riders galloping across the dunes on the humpbacks of their steeds.  As the sun goes down, the guide has the camel lie down in the sand and we climb off and wander around, checking out the other camels and the people running about.  It’s quite lovely, but definitely NOT what I would consider a “safari!”

Jayne at the Royal Desert Camp

Jayne at the Royal Desert Camp

Jayne and me on the desert "safari"

Jayne and me on the desert “safari”

the desert of Jaisalmer

the desert of Jaisalmer

the camel handler

the camel handler

our handler and camel

our handler and camel

more lovely camels

more lovely camels

random people riding a camel

random people riding a camel

me with jayne on our camel "safari"

me with jayne on our camel “safari”

sunset on the camel safari

sunset on the camel safari

After about an hour of this “camel safari,” we head back to our camp.  We don’t want to sit in the sauna of a tent, so we go out to the common area where a show will start eventually.  We sit smack dab in the center of a semi-circle of chairs set up around the stage.  We figure we are the first ones here, so we should be able to take the best seats.  Funny thing is that the only other people here are a bunch of Germans in a tour group.  The two Indian tour guides ask us if we will kindly move to one of the ends, but we protest that we got here first and we don’t want to move.  So, determined to get their way, they promptly start moving all the chairs at our left down to the right end.  After all this chair-moving, it turns out we are sitting at the end, exactly where we did not want to sit.  We are pissed off and don’t hesitate to register our irritation.

camel shadows

camel shadows

Later, the tour group starts to wander over, and they take all the seats to our right.  One of the tour guides has moved the chairs directly to our right inward toward the rest of the group, so that not only are we now at the end, but we are facing the backs of the people beside us.  This is so incredibly rude.  Meanwhile, the waiters at the camp come around and bring us glasses of wine, peanuts, and other delicious snacks, which we truly enjoy.  Dark turbaned men bang exotic beats on their drums while dancers jangle tambourines and jingle finger cymbals. Women in native dress swirl with totem poles of pots on their heads.  The sky overhead is brilliant with stars and a cool breeze slips over us.

our guide and our camel ~ taking a rest

our guide and our camel ~ taking a rest

Much later on, when the camp people certainly understand our irritation at how rudely we have been treated, the tour guides come over to apologize.  I don’t really believe their contriteness, as they don’t seem at all genuine.  Probably the camp owners asked them to apologize.  These are Indian men at their worst, out to make a buck at anyone’s expense.  We encounter this so many times throughout India that we slowly lose any attraction we ever had to Indian men.

the dancers at the Royal Desert Camp

the dancers at the Royal Desert Camp

Finally, after their half-assed apologies, the camp directors invite us to come into a large tent for dinner.  Dinner??!! We are shocked.  We think all evening that all the snacks we have been gorging ourselves on are our dinner.  We are stuffed and sadly cannot even eat the dinner that has been prepared.  All we order are small cups of tomato soup.

Jayne and I eating a belated dinner

Jayne and I eating a belated dinner

Finally, we go to our tent.  I fall asleep, dead to the world, while Jayne spends a miserable night swatting away at mosquitoes and getting nibbled alive by the little pests.

the amber fort, the pink city, a lame puppet show, goodbye to singh & an overnight train to jaisalmer

Sunday, March 13: We have a fabulous breakfast in our 3rd favorite hotel in India and then take pictures of its stained glass windows, painted peacock doors, flower-painted and bejeweled ceilings, and gold-foiled arches and columns.  Since this is our last day with Singh, we take pictures with him in front of his little car.  We admittedly have become fond of Singh during these last 7 days, and we are sad that today we will part ways.  He has grown on us, despite the early-on debacles.  We will miss him dearly.  Little do we know that we will no longer have such a companionable, happy-go-lucky driver for the duration of our trip.

beautiful painted ceilings at the Nahargarh Haveli in Jaipur

beautiful painted ceilings at the Nahargarh Haveli in Jaipur

We must check out of our room, because late tonight, at midnight, we are scheduled to take an overnight train to Jaisalmer.  We leave our belongings in a spare room at the hotel and then Singh takes us to the lovely Amber (also known as Amer) Fort, 11 km north of Jaipur.  This honey-hued fort palace was the ancient capital of Jaipur state.

Singh and me and his little car, in which we've spent the last 7 days....

Singh and me and his little car, in which we’ve spent the last 7 days….

Maharaja Man Singh began building the Amber Fort in 1592. It  is known for its artistic style, blending both Hindu and Mughal elements. The fort with its large ramparts, series of gates and cobbled paths, overlooks the Maota Lake.  We climb up the fort from the road and on the way pass by caravans of brightly painted and decked-0ut elephants coming down the hill.  For long moments I am transported back to a time of majestic trade caravans and maharajas.  It’s quite a romantic place, one of my favorite spots in India.

Me & Jayne, with the Amber Fort behind

Me & Jayne, with the Amber Fort behind

We enter through the Sun Gate into Jaleb Chowk, which is the first main courtyard. This was the place where armies would hold victory parades with their war bounty on their return from battles; these were witnessed by royal family women through the latticed windows.

going up the steps of the Amber Fort

going up the steps of the Amber Fort

the empty elephants come down, after having dropped the tourists above

the empty elephants come down, after having dropped the tourists above

an elephant proceeds down from the Amber Fort

an elephant proceeds down from the Amber Fort

Once we reach the main open area of the fort, I decide to go up the main stairway through a beautiful gate painted with gold, coral, blue and green flower vases.  This is one of my favorite gates with its gorgeous but faded paintings.  I have to pay extra to go into this portion of the fort, and Jayne decides she would rather hang out below than to pay yet another fee.  I go up to explore on my own.  I am not disappointed.

one of my favorite gates at this fort

one of my favorite gates at this fort

I enter a third courtyard through the Ganesh Pol or Ganesh Gate, which is embellished with mosaics and sculptures.   Inside this gate is where the private quarters of the Maharaja, his family and attendants were built. The courtyard has two buildings, one opposite the other, separated by a Mughal-designed garden. The building to the left of the entrance gate is called the Jai Mandir, which is exquisitely inlaid  with glass panels and multi-mirrored ceilings. Also known as Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), the mirror mosaics and colored glasses were “glittering jewel boxes in flickering candle light.”

the mughal gardens and the palace of mirrors

the mughal gardens in front of Jai Mandir, or the palace of mirrors

the mughal gardens

the mughal gardens

inside the palace of mirrors

inside the palace of mirrors

Looking down from the Amber Palace

Looking down from the Amber Palace

a beautiful gate at the Amber Palace

a beautiful gate at the Amber Palace

arches and arches

arches and arches

I am swept along with the hordes of tourists into another past and romantic century where chivalry was honored.   When I finish exploring the maharaja’s chambers and the fancy gardens and beautiful architecture, I head back down where I find Jayne engrossed in a conversation with a cute young Indian guy.  She is glowing and basking in the attention.

Jal Mahal, the palace in the lake

Jal Mahal, the palace in the lake

Sadly, we have to leave this place.  We go back down to the parking lot where we meet Singh. We make a brief stop at Jal Mahal, a small palace set in the middle of Man Sagar Lake.

He then takes us to the Gatore Ki Chhatriyan , a site of the royal cenotaphs.  It is such a beautiful and serene spot (rare in India), surrounded by a small village.  The monuments inside are intricately carved and the whole spot is quite elegant.  Small open air pavilions or gazebos are arranged in an artful pattern.  Each gazebo has exquisitely delicate columns holding up white domes.  The marble cenotaph of Maharaja Jai Singh II is quite impressive.  Gatore Ki Chhatriyan was a royal crematorium site for Jaipur’s magnificent rulers. A cenotaph was constructed in recognition of each of the more famous maharajas cremated there. The royal cenotaph is known as “Chhatris” (umbrella-shaped memorial). The cenotaphs are engraved with magnificent Rajasthani carvings.  Peaceful and soothing, it is one of my favorite spots in Jaipur.

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan was a royal crematorium site for Jaipur's magnificent rulers. A cenotaph was constructed in recognition of each of the more famous maharajas cremated there.

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan was a royal crematorium site for Jaipur’s magnificent rulers. A cenotaph was constructed in recognition of each of the more famous maharajas cremated there.

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Gatore Ki Chhatriyan

Again, at this place, I go in alone as Jayne doesn’t feel like paying another entrance fee of 30 rupees.  When I come out, she is busy talking with two Brazilians who are traveling around India selling jewelry.  They comment on my havaianas flip-flops, which I bought in Korea but unbeknownst to me originated in Brazil!  What a globalized world we live in!

the gate to the City Palace in Jaipur

the gate to the City Palace in Jaipur

Finally, Singh drives us back into Jaipur to see the fabulous Pink City.  Singh drops us off at the City Palace gate.  We hug him goodbye as this is the last time we will see him.  He is heading back tonight to spend one night at home with his family, and then he has a three week tour with some girls from Australia.  He says he is worried now because he has finally gotten used to our accents and now will have to get used to the Australian accent.  We say our goodbyes and he is off.  Suddenly, we feel a little lost.

a wandering musician in the Palace Cafe

a wandering musician in the Palace Cafe

We’re hungry so we go immediately to the Palace Cafe, where we eat another fabulous Indian lunch: Dal Palak, yellow lentils cooked with shredded spinach and Indian spices; Tandoori Naan; Bharwan Aloo, scooped potato stuffed with cashew nuts, cottage cheese, raisins and green herbs soaked in tandoor; Kingfisher beers and lemon rice.  It’s expensive but delicious and we are able to relax in the lovely cafe and listen to a bright-red costumed and turbaned guy playing an interesting oboe-like instrument.

a pavilion in the Pink City's City Palace

a pavilion in the Pink City’s City Palace

The modern-day city of Jaipur, known as the City of Victory, is the gateway to the desert state of Rajasthan.  The Jaipur City Palace consists of a vast complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh, but other additions date from as recent as the early 20th century. After eating lunch we wander through the Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Museum, which holds a collection of royal costumes and shawls, including Kashmiri pashmina (wool shawls).

We take pictures in a beautiful coral-hued pavilion with curlicue and floral white trim and then just wander around the palace until we are hot and tired.  Sadly, somehow in all our explorations in Jaipur, we miss one of the most famous buildings, the Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh.  It is a 5-storied semi-octagonal monument that looks like a honeycomb.  It’s funny, when you are traveling in such a place as India, you see so many beautiful forts and palaces and monuments that you sometimes get burned out from it all.  There are things you miss just because you’re too tired and too stressed from trying to do and see everything.  This is the hard thing about travel, deciding what is just too much and what is not enough.

More of the City Palace in Jaipur

More of the City Palace in Jaipur

After exploring the Palace, we have a lot of time to kill before our train leaves at midnight.  We no longer have Singh waiting for us.  We wander out and get into a rickshaw with the cutest Indian guy who has a very proper British accent.  We think we want to go to shop at the bazaars, but of course this rickshaw driver wants to take us to the shops where he will get a kickback.  We don’t want that and just want to wander by ourselves through a bazaar.  He shows us a book where all his customers have written amazing things about him.  He also keeps saying “Your wish is my command!” in a very British and very chipper tone.  But eventually he gets fed up with us because we don’t want to go where he wants to take us or to buy anything at the shops where he has connections.  He finally just insists that we get out at some random street corner, where he almost refuses to take my 50 rupee note because it has a lacy hole in it.  After much argument, he takes it just out of sheer desperation to get rid of us!

Our rickshaw through Jaipur ~ "Your every wish is my command!"

Our rickshaw through Jaipur ~ “Your every wish is my command!”

Later we find another rickshaw driver to whom we make an extremely low offer (all right, admittedly we are being cheap but we’re tired of being nickeled and dimed to death!)  Our hotel is a little hard to find, so the poor guy drives around and around in circles desperately trying to find it.  We end up giving him more than we originally agreed, thus rewarding him for his incompetence!!

Back at the hotel, we call another massage place where they send a car to pick us up.  This is the Charak Ayurveda Clinic and Research Centre in Bani Park, Jaipur.  We both have what is called the Ayurvedic massage with oil and hard rubbing and a head massage for 1,000 rupees.  We realize we have spent lots of money on massages on this trip!!  But it’s a nice way to relax after a long day of sightseeing.

Our masseuses in Jaipur ~ I have the short squat one

Our masseuses in Jaipur ~ I have the short squat one

We are pretty greasy after this massage, but we no longer have a room and are unable to shower.  We go to the rooftop of our lovely hotel, where we split a Kingfisher and a cauliflower tandoori dish and watch a lame puppet show.  The puppeteer is a very skinny but cute Indian guy wearing balloon-like pants.   He looks like a puppet himself.  He asks me if I am a “fashion designer!”  I have no idea where that question comes from!  Then he tries to give us one of his puppets as a gifts, but we refuse knowing that we just cannot add anything else to our baggage.  Also, as we know, with the acceptance of a gift such as this will come some obligation, to buy something else, perhaps.

the set-up for the lame rooftop puppet show

the set-up for the lame rooftop puppet show

the rooftop of Nahargarh Haveli where we eat some snacks and watch the puppet show

the rooftop of Nahargarh Haveli where we eat some snacks and watch the puppet show

Later, we sit in the hotel lobby for hours waiting for midnight to arrive.  We are sitting on these burgundy damask couches and I am reading White Tiger, which Jayne has finished and has passed on to me.  The book is by Indian author Aravind Adiga and was first published in 2008; it won the Man Booker Prize in the same year.  I can’t decide if it will be rude to lie down on the couch, but I am tired and feel like being in a reclining position.  So I recline and hold the book over my head to read.  Jayne and I start cracking up laughing over the inappropriateness of this, and I laugh so hard that I fart!! So embarrassing!  By this time we are totally giddy.

the lobby of the Nahargarh Haveli, where we spend hours reclining on the couches reading

the lobby of the Nahargarh Haveli, where we spend hours reclining on the couches reading

Finally, at 11 pm, we get a rickshaw to the train station.  This is a surreal and kind of scary experience.  Signs are few and far between and there are 4 platforms; to get from platform to platform, we must climb steps to a bridge above.  We are lugging our heavy suitcases and it’s a pain in the ass!  We run back and forth on the platform, looking for the A1 coach, which is first class (we think, or we hope!).  There seems no rhyme or reason to how the cars are lined up and we run back and forth in desperation, afraid of missing this train.  Finally we find our car and lug our suitcase on board.  We find our four-bunk compartment, separated from the aisle only by a curtain.  The train is filthy!  A couple is already ensconced in the top bunks, so we take the bottom. The girl is from America and the guy from Finland; they just happened to meet randomly on their travels.  We all chat for a while and then settle in for the 12 hour train ride to Jaisalmer.  Pure misery.

the taj mahal to fatehpur sikri to the pink city of jaipur

Saturday, March 12:   The Taj Mahal

After eating a breakfast of omelets in the sweltering merry-go-round restaurant in the Hotel Pushp Villa, we head to the long-awaited Taj Mahal.  We are dressed our part as Indian princesses for this special day, wearing our salwar kameez and flowing scarves.  Singh must drop us quite a way off, because there is a perimeter within which cars are not allowed.  Apparently the polluting cars are kept from getting too close to the Taj Mahal because of resulting discoloration. We wait in a slow-moving line to buy our tickets, which are 750 rupees for tourists, and then at the main gate of the Taj, we wait in another long women-only line to have our bags checked and our bodies scanned.

the red sandstone south gate to the Taj Mahal, inscribed with verses from the Quran

the red sandstone south gate to the Taj Mahal, inscribed with verses from the Quran

It is well-known that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  She died giving birth to their 14th (!) child in 1631.  The emperor was so heartbroken by her death that his hair turned gray virtually overnight.  Construction of the Taj began that year and though the main building was completed in 8 years, the entire complex took 22 years.  Soon after it was finished, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb.  He was imprisoned in Agra Fort, across the river from the Taj, where for the remaining days of his life he could only gaze out the window longingly at his creation.  Shah Jahan died in 1666 and was buried beside Mumtaz in the mausoleum.

the fabulous Taj Mahal

the fabulous Taj Mahal

me with the Taj Mahal and its dried-up watercourses

me with the Taj Mahal and its dried-up watercourses

We enter through the south gate, which is a 30 meter high red sandstone gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran.  Once we pass through the gate, we can see the Taj Mahal, standing on a raised platform at the far end of the ornamental gardens, with the Yamuna River behind.  Because the river is behind and because it sits on a platform, its backdrop is simply the beautiful sky.  There are no unsightly buildings behind to detract from the vision.  Since we are here close to sunrise, the backdrop is brushstrokes of lavender, purple and coral.  It’s stunning.

my favorite picture, on the Princess Diana bench (??)

my favorite picture, on the Princess Diana bench (??)

The ornamental gardens are designed in the style of formal Persian gardens, a square divided by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its center.  Usually, in pictures, I have seen the Taj beautifully reflected in the watercourses.  However, today, there is no water at all in the watercourses.  Why that is, I have no idea, but it’s very irritating.  Why can’t the Indians keep anything properly maintained and running?  Our trip to India has shown Indian government at its worst.  The Taj Mahal is arguably the most beautiful building in the world and is the biggest tourist attraction in India.  You would think that because of this, the monument would be sparkling and spiffy ALL THE TIME!  However, on this day, it looks like a poorly maintained tourist attraction.  People always say the Taj Mahal NEVER disappoints.    It’s still beautiful, but these dried up watercourses definitely detract from the beauty.  Slightly, yes, it DOES disappoint.

the beautiful Taj Mahal

the beautiful Taj Mahal

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reflections

some of the great carvings inside the mausoleum

some of the great carvings inside the mausoleum

across the garden to the Taj Mahal

across the garden to the Taj Mahal

We spend quite a long time wandering around the grounds, watching the people, admiring the gardens, touching the semi-translucent white marble walls and the relief-carved flowers, and studying the beautiful patterns of inlaid semi precious stones.  The building is really so lovely, with its white minarets at each corner of the raised marble platform.  The vaulted arches on its facade are embellished with Quran quotations in inlaid jasper calligraphy.  The central bulbous dome is surrounded by four small domes.  Inside the central chamber,  light streams through finely cut marble screens.  We can’t view the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as they are in a locked basement beneath the main chamber.

the relief carvings on the Taj are exquisite

the relief carvings on the Taj are exquisite

Standing on the river side of the Taj, we can see Agra Fort, where the sad Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son.  This fort was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and his grandson, Shah Jahan, made additions using his favorite material of white marble.  Intended to be a military structure, Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace.  Later it became his prison for eight years until his death, after his son seized power in 1658.

the backside of the Taj Mahal, looking out over the river toward Agra Fort

the backside of the Taj Mahal, looking out over the river toward Agra Fort

parting shot of the Taj Mahal

parting shot of the Taj Mahal

We spend quite a lot of time here just soaking up the magnificence of the Taj Mahal.  The TAJ MAHAL!! I can’t believe we are here seeing this.  It is lovely with its exquisite setting and its mournful story.  In a dream-state, we wander and sit on the benches, soak up the atmosphere and watch the hordes of Indian families and tourists against the backdrop of the world’s most beautiful building.

while driving out of Agra, these boys rode along beside us and tossed roses into our car

while driving out of Agra, these boys rode along beside us and tossed roses into our car

We return to the Pushp Villa where Singh is waiting to drive us on the next leg of our trip.  We are heading to Jaipur today, and on the way we will stop at Fatehpur Sikri.  We load up our stuff and get on the road.  On our way out of Agra, as we crawl out of the town, five boys squeezed onto one motorcycle ride along beside us and surprisingly throw a bunch of roses into the car.  Sweet!

in the car on the way to faehpur sikri, with roses from bicycling boys

in the car on the way to faehpur sikri, with roses from bicycling boys

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri is a fortified ancient city about 40 km west of Agra, and the drive takes us a little over an hour.  It was the short-term capital of the Mughal empire between 1571-1585, while Emperor Akbar was the head honcho.  Emperor Akbar came here to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne.  When his prophecy came true, the Emperor built his capital here, with a mosque and three palaces for each of his favorite wives:  one a Christian, one a Muslim and one a Hindu. Because of water shortages in the area, the capital was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.

Jayne and The Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar's Hindu wife...

Jayne and The Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife…

Singh has to drop us some distance from the city, where we must take a bus.  On the bus are really obnoxious guys trying to sell us tacky trinkets.  They won’t take no for an answer and keep hounding everyone who is captive on the bus until someone buys something.  This place is one of the most annoying because of these persistent salesmen.  When we get off the bus, more boys swarm around us trying to convince us to hire them as guides.  We wave them all off.

Inside the gates, the palace walls are a rich red sandstone, set off by emerald-green grass and colorful flower gardens.  The first palace is the largest, that of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife who is said to have been his favorite.  It boasts traditional Indian columns, Islamic cupolas and turquoise-blue Persian roof tiles and is set around a huge courtyard.

Inside the Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar's Hindu wife

Inside the Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife

Near the Hindu wife’s palace is the Christian wife’s palace, used by Akbar’s wife Mariam, who gave birth to Jehangir here in 1569.  It contains elements of different religions, reflecting Akbar’s tolerance for other religions. The domed ceiling is Islamic in style and holds remnants of a painting of the Hindu god Shiva.

As we head north from an Ornamental Pool, we come to the most intricately carved, tiny but elegant Rumi Sultana, the palace built for Akbar’s Turkish Muslim wife.  Though I’m not crazy about a man who feels the need to have three wives, Jayne and I have to admire someone who makes sure he marries women of different faiths, putting each wife on equal footing.

the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas, with its stone central column and bridges

the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas, with its stone central column and bridges

The Diwan-i-Am, or the Hall of Public Audiences, is a large courtyard which is now a garden.  Here Akbar dispensed justice through public executions, with elephants trampling convicted criminals to death.  At the northern end of the garden is the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas.  Its interior is dominated by a beautifully carved central column.  At the top is a flat-top plinth, where Akbar stood to debate with scholars in the four corners of the room, connected by narrow stone bridges.

On one corner of the Ladies Garden is the Panch Mahal, a pavilion with five stories that decrease in size until the top one which is the size of a tiny kiosk.  The entire setting is lovely with the gardens and the red sandstone pavilion.

Me, the Ladies Garden and the Panch Mahal

Me, the Ladies Garden and the Panch Mahal

Next to the entire complex is the Caravanserai, a vast courtyard surrounded by rooms looking like an old-fashioned motel. In these rooms, visiting merchants stayed.

After walking through this, we come upon Jama Masjid, an immense mosque of Persian and Indian design.  In the courtyard of the mosque is the white-marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, which we enter through a door made of ebony.  Brightly colored flower murals and a canopy of mother-of-pearl shell enclose the interior. Inside everyone is filing past a marble altar and piling up colorful scarves on it.  I don’t really know what this is for, possibly couples wishing for children, since the saint prophesied about Akbar’s son in that long past century.  Childless women do in fact visit this tomb today to tie threads to the marble screens, in hopes of conceiving a child.

the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti

the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti

After taking the bus back to meet Singh in the parking lot, we are accosted once again by myriads of touts trying to lure us into a bazaar which is quite nice.  We would have wandered through there anyway, so it is irritating to have to fend off these annoying men and boys.  After exploring the bazaar, we walk to meet Singh, where we are accosted by more young boys begging us to give them our tickets to Fatehpur Sikri.  Later Singh tells us these boys try to resell the tickets to make money for themselves.

pilgrims traipse by and place scarves on the central altar of the saint's tomb... possibly in hopes of conceiving a child??

pilgrims traipse by and place scarves on the central altar of the saint’s tomb… possibly in hopes of conceiving a child??

We get back in the car for the long drive to Jaipur.  We are surprised to find a multi-lane limited use highway, much like what we have in America.  This is the best highway we have encountered in India and it is nearly a smooth and relaxing ride to Jaipur.  Along the way, we stop at tourist shop for a bathroom and snack break.  Inside we explore the tourist shop and suddenly I am face to face with two girls I recognize!! We all stop in our tracks and stare at each other.  They say, Oh my gosh!  Do you remember us?  We were all on the same trip to China in September.  They remind me their names are Jen and Jenni, and though I don’t recall their names, I do remember their faces.  We had all taken a tour to Beijing from Korea in September during the Chuseok holiday.  What a shock, to meet these girls at a highway rest stop in India!  What a strange and tiny world it is.

the slick bar, Reds, in Jaipur

the slick bar, Reds, in Jaipur

our snacks of cauliflower and corncakes at Reds

our snacks of cauliflower and corncakes at Reds

When we arrive in Jaipur, Singh drops us at our hotel, Nahargarh Haveli.  This hotel sits on a nondescript side street where the road is mostly torn up for construction.  However, inside we find a lovely hotel, with stained glass windows and lovely painted ceilings.  Our rooms is perfectly nice.  What a surprise.  We ask Singh if he will drive us to Reds, a slick bar overlooking the Raj Mandir cinema.  We relax on red leather couches in the ultra-modern bar and drink beers and eat snacks of cauliflower and corn cakes with sauces.  We love this place!  Feeling pretty good after several beers, we head back to the room to read and sleep for an early morning exploring the Pink City.

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