I had tried very hard to book a flight from Jaisalmer to Jaipur. There is an airport, a former military one, and I have seen pictures of the finished terminal. However, despite lots of comments about ‘opening soon’ dating from 2012, it still isn’t. So, we faced our longest drive of the trip. Long enough we had to break it into two with a stop in Nimaaz and it would still be an 8-hour trek just to get there. Although it didn’t take long to leave the desert, the villages along the way had that same forlorn look; families living on the side of the road, cows and goats and dogs. I had been keeping a road kill count and got to three dead cows, five dead dogs, a goat and a lamb. Then, we saw our first dead guy and it wasn’t funny anymore. We think he was punted off his scooter by one of the big trucks and lay in a crumpled heap on the roadside surrounded by about 20 people. He was the first but wouldn’t be the last.
We hit Nimaaz at dusk and promptly got lost. With instructions via mobile phone we finally made it to our hotel (The Lakshman Sagar) an hour later in the dark. Tonight, we were splitting up as the 5-star tented hotel only had one room for Hubert and Nicole. We were a bit nervous about that but we were in for a pleasant surprise. This small property with 8 bungalows is a former hunting lodge. The trek to your room up and down rocky trails by flashlight is daunting but the charming stone and mud hut we found was very cool with a large bedroom, living room with fireplace, a nice big terrace with plunge pool overlooking a small lake and Australian Shiraz in the fridge. We were invited to have cocktails at a large fire pit in front of the main building where we met an American who was doing a bit of a tour following his brothers wedding in Delhi. Dinner was lovely and sleep came quickly in the total silence except for a roaring fire they started for us.
Good thing we slept as we were up for the nature walk at 7:30. Equipped with hand-whittled walking sticks we walked the cliffs around the lake following a herd of antelope that were just below us. Then, we descended the hill and walked through a field to have our ‘Field Breakfast’. The lodge arranges for a local farmers wife and daughters to cook a traditional breakfast outside that’s served on a white tablecloth with white cloth covered couches. No idea all of what we ate but there was fresh buttermilk that Ellen churned (a bit), various breads with yoghurt and ghee. It was really different, very good and the farmer’s kids were charming providing me with the best picture of the entire trip. Great place. Not 5-star but so glad we got to see it and experience a little bit of real life.
On the road again. This time another six hours to Jaipur with a stop in Pushkar. A little town famous for its camel fair and auction that brings 50,000 camels to dress up and sell in November. Pretty good turnout given there are only 14,000 people living in Pushkar. The town also has one of the few Brahmin temples (locals say it is the only one but there are four more in India). Legend has it, Lord Brahma shed a tear on the death of his wife and one of the tears created a pond. That rather large pond now has 52 ‘ghats’, bathing places for the worshippers who arrive at the rate of 6,000 a day. We go to the temple and I take a pass as it requires removing shoes for the 10th time and a half block walk through the cow crap filled street to the temple. By the look on the faces of my compatriots when they returned, I made a good call. Nicole threw her socks out of the window of the van.
So much for Pushkar. We speed along to Jaipur. The capital of Rajasthan this city feels different. Perhaps because it was the first planned city in India, divided into seven sectors separated by broad boulevards 34 meters wide. We arrive at the Oberoi Rajvillas, a 32 acre property complete with its own restored 280 year old temple and a Rajasthani mansion that now serves as its spa. The drive from Pushkar was less than 5 hours and we settle into our tented villa, dinner and an early night.
The next morning we head out to The Amber Fort, the most spectacular we’ve seen so far; especially with the added attraction of an elephant ride to the top. They use 100 female elephants for the steep uphill trek and you sit sideways having stepped into the ‘ howdah’ from an elevated platform. We are told to pay the ‘mahout’ (the person who steers the elephant) a 50 rupees tip. I give him 100 and he complains. He wants 200 or he won’t let us off. For some reason I feel I’m being gouged for the extra $1.50 and I refuse. It takes the cops to move him along for our exit.
The fort, built in 1592 is fabulous. The Hall of Mirrors has inlaid pieces of mirrored glass by the thousands. It is said; the light of one candle reflecting from all the glass can light the huge room. The museum is excellent and while everyone is in the bookshop I pet a cobra outside. Yes, one of India’s million remaining snake charmers has set up shop on the exit ramp. While their craft was banned in 1972 due to cruelty to the cobras, these remaining ones formed a union and continue today although largely as snake removal specialists. This particular snake has had its venom glands removed that shows by the indentations behind the eyes, some have their mouths sewn shut or their fangs plugged with wax or broken off. Still, it is quite a rush to see it rising from the basket and spreading its hood.
We are liking Jaipur. It is known as the ‘Pink City’ as the buildings were all tinted rose pink after an experiment with different colors to cut down the suns glare for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876. Next up we head for the ‘Palace of the Winds’, an extraordinary 5 story façade built in 1799 with 953 lattice covered windows to allow the royal ladies to view the street unseen. But, it is a façade with only small rooms and access corridors behind it. The lattice is designed in such a way as to create a ‘venturi’ effect cooling the small interiors. Traffic in this area is horrible and getting out for a closer look is impossible on this day. We missed the small museum inside.
Jaipur is known for its shopping. Nicole remembers a place from a previous visit and we wind up seeing everything Jaipur has to offer under one roof. First we are shown block printing; hand made blocks, five or more in succession, dipped in different colored dyes and applied perfectly to cloth in layers. Then, a woman weaving carpet on a loom followed by a man torching the back of a carpet with a gas flame to remove all the bits. We are taken upstairs and shown fabulous carpets; some that take a year to make. One was a gorgeous 8 by 12 blue grey and he was asking $3,000 USD. Unsure of our sizing needs we pass and it was a mistake. In the courtyard dozens of workers are assembling, staining, distressing furniture while others are hand carving elephants the size of a small car. The hand block printing guy calls me over on the way out and gave me the little elephant he created for us. A place where you could spend hours. We did.
We had a final dinner with Hubert and Nicole in the Oberoi’s Indian restaurant as they were heading off to see tigers in Ranthanbore and we were going on to Agra. The restaurant staff took us into the open kitchen where we were shown how to make their wonderful ‘Naan’ bread by slapping it on the walls of a Tandoori oven. In the morning we saw our friends off and Ellen went to meet her sandalwood bead supplier in town. Getting to his factory was an adventure in its own right but successful in the end. The government tightly controls endangered sandalwood releasing from its own warehouse stock annually. Big business. Most go into the large and elaborate carvings, the scraps made into beads. This one guy buys 60 tons of it a year.
On to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Jaipur to Agra is one of our shorter trips and Ellen and I are alone with Mr. Singh now as Hubert and Nicole have another car. We are staying at another Oberoi, the Amarvillas, which is directly in front and 600 meters from the Taj we are told. It’s not. It would be more like 1,200 meters, if you could even see it through the smoke and fog. While the grounds here look lovely this is not the most impressive of the Oberois we have stayed at. It feels older and more than a bit tired. Our guide advises us that the fog and smoke could burn off the next day by around noon and to see Agra Fort and the Baby Taj first. Turned out to be good advice as in the morning we couldn’t see 100 feet. It is winter in Rajasthan and, in the morning, people light hundreds of small fires on the street for warmth and cooking. Mixed with the fog it hangs like a blanket over the city.
Agra Fort is enormous. Its 70-foot tall red sandstone walls date from Akbars rule in 1558 but there was a fort on this spot since the 11th century. Shaped like a bow or a crescent, it once had 500 buildings within its walls but most were destroyed by Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson, for his more preferred white marble. Now, only 30 red stone buildings remain. This place has an amazing history but it will always be best known as the prison where Shaw Jahan’s son kept him for the last 8 years of his life. Everyday he could stare at the Taj Mahal downriver where his beloved wife Mumtaz was entombed before joining her in 1666 when he died at age 74.
Finally we arrive at the Taj Mahal. Built by Shaw Jahan in 1632 as a memorial for his wife Mumtaz who had died giving birth to their 14th child.
The Taj was built from white marble dragged by elephants from quarries 400 KM’s away. It took 20,000 workers 12 years to build and created much discontent as Shaw Jahan diverted food from locals to his craftsmen. It is nothing less than spectacular but it is when you get up close that you are completely overwhelmed. Time to speak of ‘Pietra Dura’. At the Taj and other palaces it is the art of carving out intricate patterns in marble and filling them perfectly with inlays of precious and semi precious stones. The entire face of the Taj is covered in it. It appears seamless with no rough edges or grout showing. Practiced in Italy from the early 17th century and dating back to Roman times it was adapted by Indian artisans and is still a major industry in Agra today.
The Taj is without question one of the most beautiful structures in the world, full of mystery and rife with optical illusions created by its Persian architect. The four minarets lean slightly outward in order that views from a distance keep them perfectly straight. It also ensures that in an earthquake the minarets would fall outward v/s on to the Taj itself. Then, there is the enduring love story of Shaw Jahan and Mumtaz who met at ages 14 and 15, lived a fantastic life that ended sadly until they were joined again and remain forever in the crypt below the Taj floor.
And then, we are done. The 200 KM’s back to Delhi are on a new superhighway, almost empty due to the heavy tolls. Now the trip takes less than three hours versus the 7 hours on the old road. Just as our driver is telling us this we come upon a horrific accident, a shock as we have seen almost no cars or trucks. It seems a few hours ago 7 big trucks and 3 cars barreled into a wall of fog leaving a field of carnage; dumped loads, crushed cars and smashed trucks. From the look of it, many fatalities and for the next few miles we saw flattened cars being dragged to the next exit by tractors. Road kill count went way up we think.
And that is India, more particularly Rajasthan. Shocking poverty, endless piles of garbage, filthy streets, thousands of wandering cows and crumbling infrastructure all covered in the grime of life. Then, there are the gorgeous Oberois, the unforgettable Umaid Palace, the incredible forts and, finally, the sheer beauty and elegance of the Taj Mahal. And, in the end, Hubert and Nicole saw their tiger. Just one but the biggest and oldest in the park walking slowly right beside their open truck. Damn, sorry we missed that.
Rajasthan. You won’t like all of it but you have to see it. It is spectacular.