When our friends from Montreal, Hubert and Nicole, invited us to join them on their January tour of Rajasthan; we jumped at the chance. First, we knew they had done the homework, picking the right destinations and some gorgeous hotels. Second, winter is cool there versus the often 45-50 °C heat of summer. Cool indeed. A little more than we counted on when a few nights hit 7 °C.
January 3, 2014 - Arriving in Delhi before noon on the 5 hour flight from Singapore was easy, even in economy. We were in the lovely Imperial Hotel by 1:00 PM and, once quickly settled, began our first of many, many tours.
Delhi, a major city of 22 million, has two faces. New Delhi is the remnants of the British Raj. Dating from the early 1900’s it is full of parks, broad boulevards, government offices and headquarters for all branches of the military. The old British officers housing, rather grand even now by any standard, are assigned to members of parliament at no cost; a rather nice perk.
Dominating the New Delhi landscape is ‘India Gate’, an arched memorial constructed in 1921 to commemorate Indian soldiers who died in WW1. It is the long parade leading from it where India has their Republic Day Parade showcasing all its newest military hardware to impress Pakistan and China. The entire area is surprisingly green and has all the British affectations like multiple roundabouts with giant government buildings, Parliament, etc. dominating.
Then, there is Old Delhi. Largely framed by the Red Fort built by Shaw Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) in 1639. Old Delhi has been a city of some sorts since the 6th century and today is the beating heart of this sprawling metropolis. It contains the 17th century market Chandri Chowk that runs through the center of the walled city and contains many important temples and mosques. It also contains thousands and thousands of people in a very confined space. In truth, we saved Old Delhi for the last day of our trip and by then we had quite enough of teeming masses. We stayed in the car.
In the morning we flew south to Udaipur on Spice Air. Hubert and Nicole were impressed with the Bombardier Dash 8’s from their hometown Montreal but less so when the plane would not pressurize and we had to turn back ears popping. Another plane got us to Udaipur but this time the cabins were over-heating. We felt that Spice Air was a bit too spicy for us thank you.
Udaipur is a dream. Dominated by Lake Pichola, a man made freshwater lake built in 1362, it has many palaces built by a long succession of Maharana’s; a title variation of Maharajas used in some city-states.
We arrive at a boat launch and set off for our hotel, The Oberoi Udaivillas on the far shore. We later learn it is easily reached by land but the boat adds some character. We pass the Taj Lake Palace, built on a 4 acre rock in 1743 and completely abandoned in the 1950’s until a 1969 restoration and a Taj Hotels remodel to 83 rooms in 1971. The Bond fllm ‘Octopussy’ was shot there. Our water approach to the sun kissed and glimmering Oberoi was starting to feel quite special. It did not disappoint.
Built new on the grounds of an old hunting lodge, its 30 acres of gardens, fountains and pools are stunning. The public rooms are massive and a highlight is an oval room with 5,000 pieces of glass in the ceiling lit by a table of giant candles. Some rooms face the spa pool, some the main pool and some the old private zoo held over from its hunting lodge days. Our budget room is charming with a balcony overlooking the fountains of the inner courtyard. The staff speak perfect English and, once installed, everybody knows your name and you never have to sign for anything. We book massages at the spa followed by a swim in the heated main pool where we are the only guests in evidence. Dinner is on an outdoor terrace with charcoal braziers providing warmth on a very cool evening. Fantastic.
In the morning we are off to tour the City Palace. Actually, it is many palaces built on a rock starting in 1559. Most of the hill is faced with stone with the palaces sitting on top. Now a museum, it offers a commanding view of the lake, the city and all the smaller palaces on and around the lake. It is here my camera battery dies, more on that later.
That evening we book dinner at the Taj Lake Palace and take the boat over just after dusk. The place is amazingly chic and, although some of the areas and the best restaurant are restricted to hotel guests only, we see enough to know it is an over the top destination. However, it is The Oberoi Udaivillas that has been voted the best resort in Asia by Travel and Leisure magazine. Here is one reason why.
On our return to the Oberoi that night I find that I have packed the wrong cord to my camera battery charger. That means iPhone only shots for the next two weeks. In the morning I take the charger to the concierge and ask if by some chance he could find out if anyone sells Nikon equipment in town. I leave him the charger and head to the terrace for breakfast. In an hour he comes to my table. A proper Nikon cord has been found, delivered and my battery is being charged at his desk. In Udaipur !
That same morning we embarked on our first major road trip, the six-hour drive to Jodhpur. On route we made a scheduled stop at Ranakpur Temple, a Jain Temple built in the 14th century. The Jain sect is an ancient, pre Buddhist off shoot of Hinduism. Their aim is absolute purity; they don’t eat meat or eggs, they avoid taking any life. The temple is carved from light colored marble and its 1,444 pillars are all unique. Abandoned for over 90 years the Jains did an 11-year restoration re-opening the temple in 2001. The temple guards are vigilant, no leather (belts, bags etc.) are allowed and cameras require a fee of 100 rupee. Shoes, as usual, are left outside.
The detail, the intricate marble carving, the symmetry, the silence are amazing. The bathrooms, however, are not. India is very good at temples, the rest… not so much.
As we moved on we drove through moonscapes of marble and granite quarries and took note of the first of thousands of TATA and Ashok Leyland trucks. India moves everything by truck. Usually in desperate states of repair, decorated like Christmas trees and very often dangerously over loaded. Villages seem to exist solely on vehicle repair. Trucks, buses, scooters by the hundreds line the side of the road, some with their massive engines out and lying in the dirt, all leaking fluids at impossible rates. Nothing seems new, all are beaten and worn. We saw trucks on the highway missing their cabs, just a seat and a steering wheel at 80 KM’s an hour. Buses with as many people on the roof as were inside and the ubiquitous Maharinda Major Jeeps. A CJ knock off that has many functions, principally as ad hoc public transport with as many as 8 people crammed inside and more hanging off the back and sides. The road to Jodhpur is just two lanes. We saw many smashed vehicles on the side of the road and witnessed some heart stopping near misses in the passing lane. Our driver, Mr. Singh, had the unique combination of bold and safe that we were very grateful for.
Eventually, we limp into Jodhpur about 5:00 PM after a long day on the road. Clearly, there is a major military presence in town as we pass base after base and the sound of jets taking off at full power seems to surround us. We are getting closer to Pakistan. A drive up a long winding road and as we reach the top we have our first sight of the Umaid Bhawan Palace. OMG !
The 357-room Palace was built during the 30’s and finally finished in 1944. Now home to the Maharaja Umaid Singh’s relatives in one wing, the hotel takes up only 64 rooms and suites leaving more than a few rooms empty, say, about 200. Our arrival is not without fanfare. A red canopy has been raised; liveried staff are throwing rose petals on the red carpet. Jasmine garlands and requisite ‘bindi’ (dot applied to the center of the forehead to protect your from demons and bad luck) and welcoming drinks offered. Feels just like home.
We retire to our rooms on the second floor and look out from our huge balcony at the gardens and manicured grounds the stretch out before us. It took 3,000 workmen to build this place over a dozen years. The gardens required 500,000 wheelbarrows of dirt, manual labor of course. Several of the function rooms are over 5,000 square feet, each. The central atrium is 110 feet high. Drinks at ‘Pillars’, the terrace overlooking the gardens, to watch the sunset and dinner following with the warming charcoal baskets in use again. Again, we are amazed.
We only have one night and are off again in the morning to tour the Mehrangarh Fort. Built in 1459 it towers over Jodhpur and has the finest museum we’ve seen yet. You enter through 7 gates and from the ramparts you look down upon the ‘Blue City‘. The blue wash is believed to have been started by the upper caste, the Brahmins, to separate themselves from the rest. Then, everybody did it and it is a warm contrast to the beginnings of the ‘Great Indian Desert’ that begins just outside the city. In the museum are fabulous, jeweled rooms, galleries full of ‘Howdahs’ (elephant saddles) and ‘Palanquins’ (kind of a rickshaw for women). One on display was built for Queen Victoria but never used. She couldn’t fit. Wonderful place.
On our way back to the Palace to pick up our bags and drop our guide off, we stop at a huge antiquities store with a fabric shop in the basement. Ellen and Nicole disappear while I wander through a warehouse full of amazing things; giant, ornate carved statues of Ganesh (the elephant God) to old camp chairs with Coors Beer logos. While there a man bought two life-sized carved wooden horses for his daughters. Gorgeous things, they were $2,000 USD a piece. After much haggling downstairs we departed very late but laden with pashminas and fine tablecloths. Only later did we discover they might not be as valuable as we thought they were.
Now, we are quickly in the desert and it’s not a pretty one. Mile after mile of scrubby bush and rocky sand only broken by the occasional village dedicated to, what else, vehicle repairs. We are heading for Jaisalmer, an ancient desert outpost that for centuries made its living by taxing the overland caravans. Then, with partition in 1947, no more caravans and it slowly crumbled into the dusty little rat hole it is now. The population of fewer than 50,000 is supplemented by nearly 200,000 Indian military as Pakistan is just 40 KM’s away. Almost. They have a ‘no man's land’ beginning 20 KM’s from the border and no one gets past that. We are very late due to the shopping and arrive in the dark. Our man Singh gets pretty lost and we wander about for an extra hour before we find our hotel, the Suryagarh, just 15 minutes out of town.
We are a bit surprised to find it’s a replica fort, not a real one. While it is a pretty ambitious idea, we have been spoiled by three excellent hotels up to now and this place is not near their level. However, it does have its quirky charms. In the morning I’m up early and in the central courtyard, a turbaned man serenades us with a flute from an upper window. The house-dog, a Golden Retriever named Alexander, drops by to say hello. Peacocks land in the fountain and fluffy doves will sit on your head and arms for photos. The staff are nice and trying hard but it hasn’t got the creds of a real 5 star. Still… not bad for Jaisalmer I guess.
In the morning we are off to Jaisalmer Fort. This one is truly ancient having been built in 1156. Made of sandstone it is deteriorating badly due to the fact it is a ‘living’ fort with a quarter of the towns population living inside. That means waste water, among other things, goes into the ground causing it to rise. Cows wander here as they do everywhere and I’m sorry, the place is just a sewer. We went to another Jain Temple (not nearly as nice as Ranankpur Temple), had tea at a lovely boutique hotel (Hotel Killa Bahwan) overlooking the town and left having seen and smelled enough for the day.
Next up were camel rides at sunset. I had to be arm twisted to do this camel thing again (having done it in Dubai) and still refused to ride versus the camel powered cart. The sand started to whip up, no sunset and on arrival at the designated place we were surrounded by a few hundred camels, a few hundred tourists, a few dozen begging children and sand dunes pocked with every kind of garbage. I personally think war with Pakistan might improve Jaisalmer. It is a dirty, dusty, desert shithole and not worth the trek. If you must, there is a Relais & Chateaux called ‘Serai’ on the road back to Jodhpur that looks very nice.
End of Part 1