Sunday, April 11, 2010

Like the commercial says: Incredible India!

Mar. 26th → Apr. 1st by Jason

So we arrived in Jaipur safely after a quick SpiceJet flight from Goa (with a quick stop in Ahmedabad.) If you're looking for a good low cost carrier in India, they're a solid choice. We grabbed our luggage and decided to bypass the prepaid taxi stand for the auto rickshaws just outside the main airport gate.

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After Swiss dragged out his laptop and showed the drivers a map to our place one guy said he knew where to go (after his buddies tried to explain it to him.) We hopped into his rickshaw for only Rs 200, about half the price of a prepaid taxi (while this isn't necessarily easy to do in large cities, not to be brash but I think we're experienced enough travelers at this point to pull this off.) Of course about half way there he stopped and picked up a friend, apparently a gentlemen who speaks better English (he did) and knew where we were going. As it turns out apparently this guy (the guy we picked up) generally knows where he's going but had spent the day drinking with a French friend who was in town. Needless to say a few wrong turns and consulting the map on Swiss's laptop 3 or 4 more times and we were finally dropped off at “The Explorer's Nest” a nice little family run guest house. The place only had 4 rooms and was run by a retired Lt. Col. (Arvind) and his wife (a Botany Professor at the local university.) They're a sweet semi-retired couple who enjoy meeting travelers and running this guest house and with central location it made for a nice place to stay in Jaipur. We asked them for a dinner recommendation (assuming they would be giving budget recommendations to people staying at their hostel) and set off for some dinner. Don't get me wrong, their recommendation had great food, but a little overpriced (it was the type of place that a nice retired middle class couple goes to when they don't feel like cooking, not a pair of poorly dressed backpackers.) None the less the food was delicious and their Dal makhani was outstanding so at least we enjoyed the meal for the price we paid (we're on a budget, but at least not poor.) After the morning market in Goa and all the flying it was time for bed.

The start of our fortified adventures

We arrived in Jaipur, and really Rajasthan, with numerous recommendations from Chiara and were ready to make a dent in that list. First up was a nice breakfast of eggs, toast and tea, included in our stay, along with some uninvited guests who found their way into our hostel:

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We didn't really have a plan, though, so we were sitting at the table after breakfast perusing our guide book when we met Stan, a school teacher from Washington DC, who was enjoying his spring break in India. He was leaving that evening on the train to Udaipur but was looking for some people to share an auto rickshaw out to Amber Fort, about 12km outside of town. It was the push we needed and we decided we would join him that afternoon out there (and it was on our list from Chiara also :) First, though, Stan went to grade papers (ah, the life of an under appreciated American school teach) while we spent some time trying to sort out our next 2-3 destinations. We knew we wanted to head to Agra before going up north to Darjeeling and Sikkim and that really only left us time to see one more city in Rajasthan after Jaipur and we decided to also head to Udaipur (it's proximity to Kumbalgarh Fort and Ranakpur Temple really sealed the deal for us.) We used our favorite Indian booking site, Cleartrip.com, to reserve spaces on the 8 hr ride to Udaipur (overnight) and also the 12.5 hr ride from Udaipur to Agra (also overnight.) As we quickly learned, though, the beginning of April marks the start of summer holidays here and many Indian families take their annual vacations during this time. Unfortunately on our leg to Agra the only confirmed seat we could find was AC Chair Car, which meant no horizontal sleeping on that train, unless we had some empty seats to sprawl out on. Part of the joys of travel I guess. That crap out of the way, it was off to Amber Fort! We were dropped off at the base of the hill and started our ascent up to the top. About a third of the way up you pass Amber Palace (not too well marked, though) and you see a much larger and more imposing fort in the distance.

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We decided to climb further (about 1 km) and as we later learned ended up at Jaigarh Fort. The views were spectacular and well worth the climb, although it was hot since we showed up around 1.30pm, right in the heat of the day.

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After about two and a half hours up there we headed back down to actually see Amber Palace, also a beautiful site with beautiful stone work and carvings, made even better by the light from the setting sun.

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Our new buddy Stan's train didn't leave for a few more hours so we decided to take the local bus (only Rs 10) back into town and had a great experience meeting locals along the way. We headed to a great little veg. restaurant that was on the walk home (their paneer masala dosa was outstanding!)

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We chatted with Stan and also a great Taiwanese couple that was staying at the guest house (also taking the train with Stan) and then called it a night after a long day of sightseeing.

Miss Cleo meets ancient Indian wisdom

Sunday would be another packed day of sightseeing before our Monday night train to Udaipur. At breakfast we met Irina, a Latvian woman working as cabin crew for Emirates Airlines. Our breakfast was extended as we talked with her about working for the airline, living in Dubai, and getting some hints on how to get upgraded to business class (let's just say our wardrobe might inhibit that, but we'll still try!!) Afterwards we set off, first up was Lassiwala, a famous local Lassi stand (yogurt drink) that did not disappoint. Interestingly, though, they serve the drink in a one time use clay cup, which seems a little wasteful (OK, it's a heavy cup compared to our western love for plastic, giving the illusion of wasteful to the untrained western eye, when in fact it's likely not) but I certainly did not want to use a washed cup either! The lassi was delicious and filling, especially in this heat (about 98 deg. F by mid day) so that would serve as lunch also.

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We headed into the old city (aka the Pink City, due to the color of the buildings)

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to visit Hawa Mahal, the most iconic building in Jaipur. It was built in 1799 by the Maharaja to provide a place for the ladies of the royal household a place to view life in the city and also processions down the streets. The five story structure provides great views of the city!

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Afterwards it was off to check out Jantar Mantar, home to the world's largest sun dial and what seemed like a giant lab that would be perfect for Miss Chloe if she were a real astrologer (oh come on, you remember the old infomercials for Miss Chloe, right!?!?) The site was used (and is still used) for astrological studies and to measure time, on the largest sun dial with accuracy to 4 seconds!! Each day the local experts calculate the local offset from IST (Indian Standard Time) and post it so visitors can measure the time on the sun dial and compare it with their watch (each instrument was always right!) It's definitely worth hiring one of the government tour guides for this site if you go (Rs 100 for up to 4 people in your group.) While the signage to describe each instrument is in English, instructions to use them is not posted anywhere and most carvings are in Hindi, so unless you read Hindi getting a guide makes the sight much more worthwhile!

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One last item, Swiss needed a haircut. We ducked into a small shop where Swiss got a haircut and also a face massage for only Rs 60! The pictures speak for themselves:

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We were drained after another day of walking in extreme heat and were ready for a break. We headed back home to relax on the porch, chat with the “General” (my nickname for Arvind, who owns and runs our guest house, and a great guy!) Irina joined us after our tour and we had a nice evening relaxing. We headed out with Irina to a little local place to pig out on some butter chicken, mutton and naan. It was delicious (although Swiss may have paid for it the next day.)

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Cheeky Bollywood Humor

Monday was our last day in Jaipur and we'd started looking at tickets to New Jalpaiguri (the station closest to Darjeeling) since it was now less than a week away. Our search online revealed only one train a week from Agra out there and it was booked! We had breakfast, packed up and checked out before heading over to the train station to see if they could help us get anything else on a train out east. An older man with a bicycle rickshaw offered to take us over there for cheap. Unfortunately 2 westerners on his rickshaw weigh more than two Indians (generally, not always though) and he struggled to get us there. I felt bad and give him a little extra because in that heat it's just brutal and he worked for that 3 km journey! Unfortunately this train does not have a foreign tourist quota (tickets reserved for foreigners just until the train leaves, to allow visitors to make last minute bookings) and we settled for spots 8 and 9 on the waiting list. Not great but not horrible (some waiting lists can be over a 150 people long!) It was then back home for a little rest (Swiss was still not feeling too hot after last night's dinner) and then to Raj Mandir Cinema to catch a Bollywood film (it's A/C in there! :) The theatre itself is beautiful, an iconic cinema and one of the most famous in India. Even a 3.30 pm Monday film had a decent number of people in there (mainly Indian, not foreign tourists.)

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Swiss still not feeling too hot and neither of us being terribly hungry we stopped in to McDonald's for a quick snack and headed back to the hostel to relax for a few hours. Swiss met a nice German couple that had checked in earlier that day and they chatted while I uploaded some photos and caught up on world events online. We grabbed an auto rickshaw to the train station and made it to our platform with plenty of time. While waiting Swiss decided to use the restroom one more time on solid ground. Fortunately for him it was quite the experience. Apparently after the previous customer had exited the attendant lit incense in there and cleaned the restroom before Swiss could enter a nice touch that Swiss in kind returned with a small tip. In true Indian fashion (no offense) the train was running late, about 40 minutes, and we passed the time with IT/computer engineering students from Udaipur University. We hopped into our 3AC car, switched around a few spots with an Indian family that had already gotten settled in for the night (it was about 11pm when we boarded) and laid back for the 8 hour journey.

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The train made up for some of the lost time and we arrived around 7.15am, just a few minutes late. We'd arranged a free pickup with our guest house, although no one was there when we arrived. We called and they said they'd have someone there soon, but soon Salim, a gentleman that approached us for a ride earlier, took us for free (of course the guest house paid him when he dropped us off.) Apparently the night before was a large party for one of the owner’s daughters up on the rooftop of the hotel and sounds like it was a fun night, hence the lack of a driver at 7am. We checked in and took a quick nap before Stan stopped by to say hi. We headed to Cafe Edelweiss (yes, the tradition of “German” style bakeries in India lives on and actually sampled a delicious Mango Crumble!)

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Neither of us had slept and Stan was still getting over a bug so we made it a lazy day, which involved another nap, some afternoon lemon soda and appetizers on the water overlooking the Lake Palace

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and finally dinner later at a little cafe and a few rounds of Uno and conversation about life in the USA.

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Oh, and I slept a lot that night.

Driver, take us to the fort, but we don’t mind running errands with you either!

I neglected to mention that Wednesday was our day to visit Kumbalgarh Fort and Ranakpur Temple, recommendations from Chiara and both about 90 km outside of Udaipur, so we decided to hire a driver. In between bouts of laziness the prior day I mentioned to call Salim and take him up on his offer for a car and driver for the day, at Rs 200 less than our guest house offered us and right around what Lonely Planet recommends you pay. Sure enough Wednesday morning at 8am our driver and car were downstairs waiting for us. We hadn’t yet eaten and asked him if he would mind stopping by a bakery to pick something up to go but apparently most places don’t open until 9am so we headed off and he took us to a little local shack on the side of the road where we had samosas and these fried dough pieces (well spiced, in the flavorful sense, of course!) and with a great semi-sweet coconut dipping sauce. Next up along the way we stopped at this oxen driven well

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where we figured he was going to add in a free tour of local farming. We got back in the car and headed another 50 m up the road to where they were cooking the extracted sugar cane juice and reducing it down to a thick syrup. He brought out a drum from the trunk of his car and left it there, apparently we were along for the ride as he ran some errands too!

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Next up we continued on our route towards Kumbulgarh Fort, with a brief stop at a restaurant just below the fort where he talked to the owner from his car window. Off we went, with no idea of what was said. He dropped us off at the entrance and we spent the next 2-3 hour exploring both the fort and the temple remains also in that area.

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After a nice long walk and a much needed liter of water (trust me, for those that know Swiss, I’ve never seen him drink this much water, it’s amazing!) We hopped into the car and headed back down the hill past that same restaurant from earlier. Our driver pulled over and started yelling/honking to get someone’s attention. Within a minute a young woman appeared with 2 plastic water bottles filled with a translucent yellow liquid, a quick chat and we were on our way. Apparently it was fresh ghee (clarified butter) and stop #2 on his round of errands around the countryside :) Afterwards it was to a little roadside restaurant for lunch. Swiss wasn’t terribly hungry (although I was) but all they had was a Rs 190 lunch buffet. It was just slightly pricey but allowed us to also sample a few dishes we hadn’t yet, so overall not a horrible spot. From there it was another 45 minutes of driving to Ranakpur Temple. It’s a Jain temple that’s made of all marble and an amazing site! Over 1000 pillars and each uniquely carved (no 2 are alike!) Along with intricate and beautiful carvings everywhere, walking around I’m pretty sure my jaw was dropped down in amazement the entire time. The pictures don’t do it justice, but enjoy anyway:

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We hopped back into our car and it was back to town.

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A quick early evening nap after a long day of sightseeing and then dinner upstairs at the rooftop restaurant in our hotel. They happen to show “Octopussy” every night (the old 007 James Bond movie, which was partially shot in Udaipur) and we enjoyed dinner and a movie. That was pretty much the end of a full day.

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Is it time to move again?!

Well Thursday morning we were up, packed and checked out by 10am, the rather early check out time of our hotel. It was off for a nice breakfast with a view then to an internet cafe to check on our train tickets. We were still #4 and 5 on the waiting list for our Sunday train to NJP (near Darjeeling in the northeast) and with no movement on the waiting list in 2 days we started to grow a little worried, but with no other trains leaving from Agra to that area for another week, and other trains to that area from Delhi were also booked for the next few days, so we decided to stay put on the list. Next up was a visit to the City Palace of Udaipur, the largest palace in Rajasthan. It’s a sprawling complex that has grown over the last few hundred years as each successive maharaja added their own unique wings or sections to the complex. Admission was reasonable (about Rs 50) but a camera pass was something around Rs 200-300 and a bit pricey so we decided to pass (and give our cameras a little break after the sites of the past few days.) The complex is quite nice and worth a stroll if you come to visit, with some impressive views of Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace Hotel. Afterwards we stopped at a local place for a snack then went back to our hotel to enjoy the sunset from the rooftop. From there it was one more activity, Dharohar, a display of classical Rajasthan dancing held at Bagore-ki-Haveli. It was a lovely performance and a great ending to our quick visit to Rajasthan…of course a few mandatory pictures:

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From there it was off to collect our bags and grab an auto rickshaw to the train station. We boarded the evening train to Agra Cant station for our visit to the Taj Mahal!

4 comments:

Selah said...

Those carved columns look totally rad, I'll have to add Ranakpur Temple to my bucket list!

ricky said...

Well,I agree with the concern information regarding the places which gives reminders of the cultural of India country.I am happy to see such conversation and snaps which gives the good awareness among others.

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gr said...
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grincense said...
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