India Holiday – Day 13: Taj Lake Palace

Fortunately, the Taj Lake Palace is beautiful not only in the courtyards, restaurants, rooms and pool areas, but also the toilets. Fortunate as I spent much of the night there, and am still a bit queasy in the morning; I guess it’s time for me to get the obligatory Delhi Belly.

Anyway, after a delicious breakfast in the well-appointed restaurant, I felt well enough to go on our tour of the City Palace and surrounding areas. The Maharan has opened about a third of his palace to tourists, and it’s – as we have now come to expect – impressive, if nowhere near as well kept or lavish as the Taj Lake Palace!

However, I quickly realized that it might not have been a good idea to go out and so I let Mamta and Iain complete the tour while I returned to the room to rest and recuperate.

I can’t think of a better place to do that though! It’s so peaceful and tranquil… except in the evening and in the morning: like clockwork, around 6am and 6pm, thousands of Myna birds descended and started peeping, quite loudly, for about 45 mins. Amazing, actually.

Dinner was a small portion of high-fibre in-room dining, in place of the lavish 4-course menu we had planned to eat at the rooftop restaurant. Oh, well 🙂

To compensate for the short post, I have included a few pictures from the Taj Lake Palace – hope I’ll feel better tomorrow 🙂

The Taj Lake Palace

The Pool and Jacuzzi Area

The Winter Palace seen from our room

The courtyard immediately outside our room

India Holiday – Day 12: Udaipur

With traffic being so chaotic, I made the mistake of looking up accident statistics for India this morning, and almost wish I hadn’t. India accounts for something like 16% of all road deaths in the world, yet accounts for just 1% of the world’s cars. As that number doubles every decade, it can only get worse before it gets better: 20 years ago, there were 15 million cars, today it’s 65 million – and in 20 years it will be 450 million. Yikes!

Of course, just after leaving for Udhaipur we saw the aftermath of an accident: Two lorries crashed head on, with one overturned. Lots of glass everywhere, and enough onlookers that we just hurried past.

In many ways, India has evolved hugely, but it’s also very backwards in many ways. For example, we again saw lots of women carrying water on their heads, often many kilometres, just like we saw groups of women washing clothes in ponds far from their houses. At the same time, we saw bike dealerships and other signs of modern life; it really is a country of huge contrast.

The road is now very bad in places, and has narrowed to a single uneven lane with a bit of uneven gravel on each side, and we have slowed down accordingly, although we’re still not driving in “Western” style like a couple we met yesterday: They are German/Swiss, and their driver is under strict instructions to drive according to the rules, with no “undertaking”, risky overtaking, using of horn, etc – I’m frankly not sure how they ever get anywhere that way, but it’s their choice.

I didn’t know that wearing a Sari in India is a married woman’s prerogative: Once married, custom even makes it mandatory. This explains why some women wear jeans and ride “normally” on motorbikes, whereas some wear a Sari and ride “side saddle”. It does not look comfortable and I can’t begin to imagine how an accident unfolds if it involves a family of mum, dad and kids, none of them wearing a helmet, and mum sitting sideways in her Sari. Yikes!

The “Mecca” of the Jain religion is a huge temple complex in Ranakpur, about halfway to Udaipur, and it is very beautiful. It is in 3 stories, built entirely out of intricately engraved marble, and is even larger than the Taj Mahal! Jain have to visit the temple once in their life, but it looks more busy with tourists than with Jain 🙂

The temple is 600 years old, and the level of detail and effort gone into it is just staggering. Of its 4 domes, 3 are shaped like a mosque rather than as a Hindu temple to confuse and deter an invading Muslim force as they have a tendency to destroy anything non-muslim. Thankfully the ploy seems to have worked, and we spend a couple of hours here before moving on, thoroughly impressed.

We had lunch at a small outdoor buffet place called Harmony Restaurant, shortly after the temple. I hope we don’t come to regret that.

The city of Udaipur is very busy; the buildings are lower but otherwise it reminds me more of Delhi than of Jodhpur. Traffic is all snarled up, and in order to get to the pier leading to our hotel, we have to go through several checkpoints manned by royal staff – it’s owned by the Raj.

The hotel is called the Taj Lake Palace, and it is situated in the middle of a sizeable lake inside Udaipur itself, which is why we have to go to the pier first – there is an 8-minute boat ride to get to the hotel itself.

The hotel is simply pure magic, both in appearance and in the level of service and attention they give us; I have never experienced anything like it. The people at the pier all know our names as we get out of the car, and have welcome drinks ready. They accompany us to the pier, give us fresh wet towels, then stay with us in the boat as we (and our luggage on a separate boat) are ushered to the hotel. Once there, we are met by a rain of rose petals, more individual welcome cocktails, – I think you get the picture. Astonishing.

Even better, they have a no-tipping system, where we really just tip at the end. And they have the first heated pool (with Jacuzzi!) we’ve come across, and Iain too is in heaven as we take the opportunity to splash about for a while 🙂

The Palace is owned by the local Raj, or Maharan, and used to be the Summer palace for his family. From our Palace Room, we have a direct view of his current palace (which used to be the Winter Palace) and from the other wise we can see the mountain resort that is his Monsoon Palace. The life as Raj sure sounds hard; so much moving involved!

Mamta and I want to go to their high-end Indian restaurant, so we get in-room dining or Iain, and he says it’s the best food he’s ever had. I think he’s impressed – and the Thali that Mamta and I have is very good too, just too large for our appetite!

What a day. We tip into our large, luxurious beds and sleep soundly, pretending to be royalty for a day…

India Holiday – Day 11: Rohet Ghar

Is Boxing Day a good day for starting an Opium habit?

The hotel serves a nice breakfast set in lovely surroundings, and we enjoy a slow start. The only downside is that the coffee is instant – not as bad as Nescafe, but still nowhere near a good espresso or drip filter coffee. Gives us something to look forward to at home in the cold I guess 🙂

Just outside our room is a big tree and to our amazement we saw two peacocks sitting in it! How such large birds get up there, I don’t know – it almost looked like someone put them there.  Picture evidence to follow!

This hotel has a no-tips policy, which should be a great relief. Everywhere else in India, everyone expects a tip: porters, waiters, drivers, guides – basically everyone that does something for you. Knowing how much to tip and when to do it is hard, and is something we have to always be aware of, so the message from the hotel that we should pool all tips and put them in a box at checkout – for distribution to all staff – is great. However, it’s not entirely clear if the no-tips includes people who run tours, and the magician, and the people at the spa. Hmm, I’ll ask when we check out.

The only item on today’s agenda: A trip in a jeep to visit two native villages, to get a glimpse of how they live. As we are about to leave, Mr Prakash comes to see us off, so we got to see him out of uniform and in civvies – I hope he has a nice day off, although according to some of the other guests, the “drivers’ quarters” close to this hotel are pretty scummy and smelly, yuck.

Driving in a jeep across land in a desert is… dusty! The vegetation is sparse and the fields look very dry – they yield crop only during the wet monsoon months. We do see quite a bit of wildlife though. Since most of the population are vegetarians and hunting is forbidden, the wildlife does not fear humans very much, allowing us to get quite close even in a noisy jeep before they move off a bit. We found that the Indian Gazelle has a particularly funny bouncy way to run.

The first village is a Bishnu (sp?) one, which is very small and primitive. The compound consists of enough huts to house one family, all descended from the 75-year-old patron of the village, and their philosophy is strict adherence to 29 rules derived and extended from Hinduism to form some sort of ultra-eco-tribe. No meat or eggs allowed, everything must be reused, no electricity, no water pipeline, etc. In spite of this, the encampment was well kept and clean, and everyone look happy as they go about their routine – sorting wheat, making bricks, showering, mending a fence, playing, looking at nosy tourists…

It feels a bit weird to invade someone else’s privacy in that way, wading through their homes, taking photos of how they live and looking at what they do. Perhaps they are used to it; hopefully the tourism helps them with funds to buy what they need from the market on days where that is allowed.

The second village was very different; a sizeable Brahmin village that houses around 100 families. The houses here are not mud huts but are stone buildings, including temples, a few shops, etc. The highlight of the tour is surprising: The men of the village routinely take opium, and we are invited to hear about and watch the ritual.

Opium of course comes from poppies, and while most of the growing is done in Afghanistan, there are farms in India that have got special permission to grow small amounts as well, to enable the communities where opium use is part of the tradition.

The Brahma men do not smoke the opium, but instead dilute it with sugar and water, then after repeated filtration drink the resulting brew and enjoy the anaesthetising effects. One of the men we see is an addict, who needs the brew twice per day, but everyone else is a casual user – and women are allowed to partake only during festivals so are not likely to become addicted.

We are asked if we want to try a small amount too and are told it’s a very mild tourist-friendly version, so we agree to do so, as does the Swiss couple we are traveling with on this tour. The drink tastes a bit like thin, slightly bitter tea and it’s hard to know if the drink is the source of the slight drowsiness we feel later in the day or not. I don’t think it’s a habit we’ll try to get into 🙂

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying the grounds, and having a massage. I tried an Indian Champi, a form of scalp massage that involves lots of oils and drumming on the head – a very pleasant experience indeed that I hope to repeat before the trip is over.

Refreshed and relaxed, we’re off to Udhaipur tomorrow, where we’ll be staying at a very special hotel situated in a lake; that should be interesting! 🙂


India Holiday – Day 10: Jodhpur

The Christmas Gala ended late, so the normal staff was not there for the morning shift – and that did not help improve our impression of the place.  Poor breakfast service and bad (instant!) coffee set the stage for our drive to Jodhpur. Iain is also really tired and we all need a day’s rest at this point.

There is a truly unbelievable amount of building work going on in India, and the infrastructure is clearly being expanded and improved on very quickly.  At the same time, it is chasing a rapidly moving target as the population continues to expand very fast.  I looked up the figures, and between now and when Mamta was in India, the population has increased by around 50% – by 400 million people!  That’s the equivalent of dropping 50 entire Londons into India; a staggering figure.  And while population growth is slowing, it still means that 25 years from now the population is likely to have another 400 million people, to reach a truly staggering 1.6 billion in 2040.

No wonder it feels more crowded now than it did 23 years ago.

It is interesting to look at the billboards next to the road; there are many, and there are just 3 main themes they advertise: Cement, Cellphones and Luxury.  The cement ads are the most common and all talk about strength and engineering, whereas the cellphone ones (all Vodafone and Airtel) just show the brand name – clearly everyone knows them already.  The Luxury ads are for a variety of expensive, aspirational products out of reach for 99% of the population – such as luxury homes, luxury cars, spa treatments and dream holiday resorts.  It makes me wonder who the target demographics are.

That everyone knows the names of the cellphone providers is hardly surprising; there really has been a revolution here and it looks like it’s complete.  Everyone, literally everyone, has at least one phone, from the women tilling the fields, to the nomads in the desert, to people in the slums, to people talking or texting while riding a clapped-out motorbike. Coverage is good too – even in the most remote areas, there is coverage, often even with 2G or 3G data access, and the 3G speeds are at least as good as what I get in London.

The road to Jodhpur is pretty bad in most places; patches on patches try to cover some of the potholes, but largely fail.  It is a truly terrible road, interrupted by long stretches where budget was allocated to make it better.  Mr Prakash tells us that this road is much better than some of the ones we’ll be using later, so I’ll perhaps get back to this when I see what he means 🙂

One thing that strikes me is how well-groomed almost everyone is; from young to old, rich to poor, the hair is neatly trimmed and combed; all of those street barbers are clearly doing brisk business. Some of the guides and driver have expressed surprise that Iain is “allowed to” have long hair; it clearly is just not something that boys do here.  Not that his hair is particularly long, but it might explain why he’s been mistaken for a girl a few times 🙂

Jodhpur has a very different feel to it from Jaisalmer, perhaps because it is less dependent on tourism and actually produces something – both sandstone from the numerous quarries and high quality furniture.  The roads here are also wider and there is less garbage lying everywhere; the air is even a lighter shade of brown. I think a big contributor to the smog that is here are the auto rickshaws, which clearly run on something stinky like diesel – many of them are very old and emit huge plumes of foul-smelling black smoke when chugging along.

We meet our guide at a lovely restaurant in Jodhpur where we have some great food and exchange experiences with another UK family that are on a similar trip to ours – except that all their travel is by train, that they have arranged it themselves and are going the “other way” so we could share tips about what to see and do next.  I really look forward to the more nature-focused parts of our trip that are coming up!

The fort in Jodhpur is huge, imposing, impressive, and is much nicer than the one in Jaisalmer.  It is quiet enough that we can take in the sights and enjoy the carvings and museum, and there are no street vendors to harass us. Instead, there is a beautiful, no-pressure gift shop where we pick up a few bits.  Lovely.

As we are tired at this point, we thank and drop off the guide – a very nice man with some of the least accented English we have come across yet, which is also a relief.

Speaking of accents, the Indians obviously speak English very well and do so with a very characteristic accent that can sometimes be hard to understand, but mostly is not a problem. After 10 days in India, my ears get tired of it though, and I sometimes feel like telling people to “just speak properly, please!”.  Grossly unfair I know, but hey 🙂

A short drive to our  hotel called Rohet Garh is quickly done as it’s just 40km south of Jodhpur, and it is a relief to find that it’s absolutely lovely. We are met by friendly staff and are shown our large, luxurious suite, containing a big, raised 4-poster bed.  The bed is so high a little foot stool is necessary for Mamta and Iain to get up on the bed – but it’s soft and cosy.  Dinner consists of an excellent buffet and it is with great relief that we retire early and find that even the muslim calls to prayer are far away and do not unduly bother the peace of the place.

We’ll stay here for 2 nights and have a relaxing day tomorrow, refuelling for the next leg of the journey.   I have finished my books (Daemon and then Freedom; great reads) and we’re all playing Candy Crush together – lots of fun 🙂

Merry Christmas!

India Holiday – Day 9: Christmas Eve

Our hotel in Jaisalmer is definitely in a different class from where we have stayed until now and feels distinctly ordinary. Our small room with single narrow beds complemented by an average breakfast and mediocre coffee is nothing like the royal treatment we’ve had in earlier hotels – I guess it’s good to be reminded of just how good we have had it 🙂

Jaisalmer is in a desert and as such a reliable water supply is a constant concern. To help resolve this, an enterprising ruler many years ago made a huge artificial lake to capture monsoon water – and made it large enough that it could help the city through a poor monsoon season or two. The city is now connected to the Mahatma Gandhi canal via a 60km pipeline (which gets its water via runoff from the Himalayas) and no longer needs the lake for drinking water, but the lake is where we started the day.

The lake is surrounded by beautifully carved sandstone steps and fronted by an impressive gate. Inside the gate, the lovely structures are offset by the scummy looking water, which surprisingly is full of fish: catfish, in fact. Hindus consider all life to be sacred and will go out of their way to not kill any animal, small or large, but in addition to that, they believe it gives good luck to feed certain animals. This of course includes cows, but I did not know that it also includes dogs, monkeys, birds and fish!

I don’t know what catfish normally eat, but the ones in the lake don’t need to go far to get fed: Come to the lakeshore, where someone is constantly throwing in bread, bits of biscuit, whatever, searching for that little bit of extra luck. We do the same and the result is amazing: within seconds, the surface is broken by fish bodies and long beard-like tentacles as the fish compete for the food. I don’t know if you have ever seen a catfish, but they are ugly mothers – and tens of them competing for food is a sight to behold.

Our Jodhpur guide, Madhusuran or just Madhu, is very funny: he tells funny stories, jokes (real groaners, or what Mamta and Iain call Daddy Jokes) and riddles, and is great at keeping Iain entertained. An example – Q: “If you have seventeen boys and one leaves, how many are left?” A: “Six. You had seven teen boys, now you have six”. Har, har, argh 🙂 Iain quickly picked up on it and made up several riddles of the same kind himself, to the amusement of all.

The main attraction of Jaisalmer is the fort; a huge sandstone structure built 850 years ago. It once housed the whole population of the city, but now houses just 3,000 people – people that the city now is trying to convince to move out. This is because the fort was built at a time where water was scarce, and now that running water is installed everywhere, the walls are being undermined by water leaked into the ground. Some parts have already collapsed, and we saw others that bulge out alarmingly.

Just outside the fort gates, Mamta does a double take: There is a shop called “Govt Authorized Bhang Shop” – in other words, a shop that legally sells hash/marijuana. We take a peek inside where they have a huge tray full of the stuff and show how they sell it in various forms, either for smoking, in a drink, or baked in cookies. The cookie they show us has “just 3-4 grams of hash in it”, and the clerk assures us it’s not a strong one, just medium strength. We end up not buying anything 🙂

The fort itself is unbelievably busy, and it’s not a good feeling here. Narrow, windings streets with throngs of people compete for space with both street vendors aggressively hawking their wares and with motorbikes and tuktuks, most of which use their horns liberally and emit a thick, foul-smelling smoke at the same time. I can imagine the place being beautiful and tranquil, but that is definitely not what we experienced.

Mamta was here 23 years ago with her dad as well, and remembers the place very differently. Back then, Jaisalmer was a small town with none of the big-city bustle and noise that now plagues it – it’s clear that the current Jaisalmer can only be sustained by brisk tourism. “This used to be my one of my favourite places in India, but it is now my least favourite one” summarises how we all felt.

At the centre of the fort are two Jain temples that we visit, after duly taking off our shoes of course. Mamta calls them “Hobbit Temples” because the doors and passageways are so small, but the inside contains a breathtaking array of sculptures carved into the walls and ceilings, filling every square inch completely. They have really made something of the sandstone here.

After visiting the fort, we go to the local market where Madhu introduces us to several shops that sell locally produced stuff – and we buy more of it than we probably should have, both for ourselves and for presents. We ended up buying a couple of figurines, two beautiful bedspreads, an ornate paper knife, a few T-shirts and some colourful pens.

The Indians are masters at the “Bait and Switch” tactic of selling, where they lure you in by showing a relatively attractive piece that doesn’t cost very much. After you show an interest in this, they show you a nicer piece that costs more, pointing out the flaws in the previous one, significant enough to amply justify the higher price of the new one. After doing this a few times, the goods on display really are very nice, but are no longer at all cheap, leaving you with a choice of nice-and-expensive or cheaper-but-with-now-obvious-flaws.

Whether you buy something from this display or not, when you make it clear that you don’t want to buy more and want to leave/pay, they keep pushing: what about this, or that, or this beautiful thing, etc. It’s exhausting having to say “No!” so forcefully so many times and for me it definitely takes much of the joy out of shopping.

On our way out of the city, a couple of cute local kids come up and do the usual “Take picture” routine – not for money, they just want to be in someone’s picture and I have several such pictures. Mamta gives each of them one of the pens she just bought, and they squeal in delight.

Such a good deed does not go unpunished though, and within seconds it is as if the whole city has heard of it as kids call out “Hello lady, pen?” to Mamta as they flock around her and follow us through the streets. As she only bought five in the first place, she just smiles and holds on to the remaining three until we reach the car 🙂

It’s hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve today! It’s 25-28C in the shade, and the weather reports from Denmark with lots of snow are hard to mentally reconcile with where we are. We’ve already had a busy day, but it’s far from over, oh no. Holidaying is hard work!

Next on today’s agenda is a short camel ride on the sand dunes about an hour west of the city, only 100km or so from Pakistan. We rode camels for much longer when we visited Jordan 3 years ago, but it’s still very fun and Iain thinks seriously about staying in India when the guide offers him a camel if he stays behind. In the end, the lack of super-fast internet narrowly convinces him to stay with us though, so we did not have to invoke the Parental Veto 🙂

Once in the desert, we dismounted the camels and sat down on the sand to watch the sunset; absolutely stunning and very peaceful, at least for a few minutes, when we were interrupted by a beautiful bedouin women and two musicians that indicated they wanted to perform for us. We said ok, fine, and as she started dancing to the music, the rest of the troupe came over – another musician and a few scrawny kids.

The performance lasted maybe two minutes, after which the woman stuck out her hand, clearly saying “Pay me!” Mamta gave her 50 Rupees (about £0.60), which she looked at with disdain, showed to the others, then clearly indicated that this was wholly inadequate and with a stern expression conveyed something like “How can I possibly feed this many people with 50Rs?”

Rather than argue the point, we gave her another 100Rs, which transformed her unhappy-bitch face into a smiling one again; a remarkably quick transformation. And then the kids ran over to Mamta and said “Chocolate! Give us chocolate!” Mamta gave them a KitKat, and they all ran off in search of more customers.

The brazenness on display here is one I am definitely not used to, but perhaps it’s necessary to survive out here. It’s a tough life; the two boys driving our camels were just 12 and 15, living in a small village about 5km way. They do go to school and want to learn, but “most days the teacher doesn’t show up”. Sad 🙁

Since we stayed in the dunes until after sunset, the drive back to Jaisalmer is in the dark. And driving in the dark in India is just like driving in the day, but amplified many times – in other words, terrifyingly dangerous as the obstacles remain the same, except that they are now largely invisible! Many vehicles have no tail lights at all, including slow-moving tractors and fuel trucks, and the bicyclists and pedestrians are also dark as midnight. Many cars drive with their front headlight full beams on all the time, blinding you, and the cows, miscellaneous rocks and of course cliff-faced speed bumps remain as numerous and hazardous as ever.

It was with a sigh of relief that we pulled up to the hotel, brightly lit and decorated for Christmas. We now had an hour to get ready for the specially prepared “Christmas Gala Dinner” that was mandatory for hotel guests staying on December 24th.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most unusual Christmas Evening I have ever spent. We sat by tables arranged outside with large fires in between to keep the evening cold at bay (it gets down to 10C so it’s actually a bit chilly). The band played Indian music (very loudly!) and an assortment of belly dancers accompanied the entertainment. I’m not sure the dancers were all originally female either; several of them could easily be trans-gender. In particular, the one Mamta referred to as Samwise Gamgee was not very ladylike in her dancing, but who knows? 🙂

The food was a “multi-cultural mix of Western and Indian food”, as it said in the nicely printed programme. As it turns out, this meant that all of the usual Indian dishes were presents, plus a roast turkey, which the chef in charge valiantly tried to cut with a very small knife. I ended up eating mainly Indian, which was of course very good 🙂

Surrealism on stage went to new heights when Santa Claus – in the form of Indian man with a large black beard covered by a Santa costume including a big fake white beard – entered and started dancing with the kids, handing out sweets, with an Indian version of Jingle Bells booming out over the overtaxed sound system.

What a day; we could use a bit of a rest now, to absorb the experiences, sort out the photos, update the blog, and just hang out by the pool. Unfortunately, we are set to be busy the next few days, so we’ll try to deal with that as best we can…

And to those of our friends and family that have made it this far: Merry Christmas! We miss you and hope you are having a good time too 🙂

India Holiday – Day 8: Jaisalmer

The hotel in Ranvas Fort in Nagaur really is spectacular; the surroundings and staff all give the impression of royalty; it is nice to be treated as such. Alas, we have to leave and do so after a delicious breakfast – where Mamta thankfully is well enough to have Paranthas.

Paranthas or Parathas, or even Parauthas? Spelling in India using the Latin alphabet is less of an exact science than you might think; the Devaganari alphabet used for Hindi has a lot of sounds that cannot be faithfully represented, so approximations abound.

A similar somewhat slapdash approach to spelling of English words is something Iain cannot help but point out whenever he sees an example. Just today, we saw a “Gest House” next to an “Air Streep”, a billboard for a “Uniersity”, a menu containing both “Chiken” and “Has Browns” and a street vendor with a “Water Trolly” 🙂

Jaisalmer is only 150km from the border with Pakistan, and along with other cities close to the India/Pakistan border is host to several large military bases. On today’s trip, we saw lots of evidence of this as apparently several regiments are in the process of relocating from one base to another – on the road going the opposite direction from us we saw hundreds of army trucks along with associated artillery, anti aircraft and support vehicles, as well as a large number of APCs.

We also passed through the area used for the Indian nuclear tests done many years ago now, although thankfully it did not look like they tested any such weapons today.

I never tire of driving in India; every day, they throw up a new spectacle for us. For example, it is becoming obvious that in rural areas at least, it is the women that do all the manually demanding work: till the fields, collect and carry the firewood, do the washing, etc. The men are left to do all of the planning, discussing and driving that needs to be done for the family – a reasonable distribution of work, it seems to me 🙂

As we pass further into the eastern desert, the number of animals on the road increases too. Cows meander slowly around the landscape on and off the roads both alone, in small groups, and in large herds, and as the Hindus consider them holy, they naturally take no notice of cars or other traffic. “As indifferent as an Indian cow” is very indifferent indeed.

Fortunately, the lower population density also means that the road is straighter, and in most places actually of higher quality than it was yesterday. Long straights with little traffic is great, although most of the time the road surface itself actually undulates quite a bit, inducing a distinct sense reminiscent of turbulence when driving along, juddering and shaking.

The roads of India also have some of the most impressive speed bumps I have ever experienced: most of them are effectively unmarked cliff faces spanning the width of the road, just waiting to catch the unwary. Many of them are actually marked: With piles of rubble arranged in a line on both sides of the road, as a symbolic extension of the speed bump itself. The issue of course is that the roadside already is strewn with rubble, and it can be hard to spot when it’s meant to indicate that it’s wise to slow down to no more than 5 km/h…

The biggest bumps are before railway crossings, of which have seen quite a few. The authorities clearly do not want anyone to race across the crossing just before a train arrives, so the bumps here are truly enormous. Just to be on the safe side, the operators (who sit in a little hut next to the crossing when no trains are due) also lower the booms as much as 5 minutes before a train arrives, giving everyone ample time to get off the crossing even if a breakdown should occur there.

Speaking of breakdowns, have I talked about the lorries at all? They come in many varieties, but there is a special very common model that I have come to think of as the workhorse of Indian road-based shipping. Most of them look terribly old and worn, and all sport prominently painted words like “HORN OK PLEASE” to encourage more India-like honking. They also have a sign saying “40 kmh”, which I assume means that they are not allowed to go any faster than that – and many go quite a bit slower.

At the same time, they are both almost indestructible and extremely versatile, carrying enormous loads well beyond their nominal carrying capacity. Many lorries have stacks of stuff on top, in boxes or bags, often as much as 3 meters, making them look extremely top-heavy. Others again have huge bags strapped to the tops and sides, filled with grain or hay or something, nearly doubling the width of them at the base.

With just a single lane road full of these, it is no wonder that the average speed is lower than might be expected – and the tractors are much slower than the lorries, also often carrying huge loads. Today, we found ourselves overtaking a lorry, which itself was overtaking a tractor with a big trailer – and coming the other way was a car overtaking a military lorry. Just another day on the road in India!

And speaking of carrying capacity, a jeep can carry 8 people if they aren’t too big and squeeze in. At least that is what I thought, but we saw several today (taking people to work?) with so many people sitting and standing both in and on them that it’s hard to count. Our driver says that it’s common to have as many as 25 or 30 people in a jeep!!

As we finally approached Jaisalmer, we saw a new phenomenon: bike touts. This is a pair of people on motorbikes driving quickly and very close to tourist mini buses like ours, handing over pamphlets and shouting price information, all to try to entice tourists to go to a particular hotel. The ingenuity of Indians when it comes to finding ways of selling stuff never ceases to amaze me 🙂

Jaisalmer is called the “Golden City” as its buildings are made almost entirely of yellow sandstone. I hope to see more of that tomorrow – tonight, it was covered in a huge, smelly layer of smog that reduced visibility almost to Delhi-levels and made breathing unpleasant. Hopefully tomorrow will be a clear day as we visit the famous Jaisalmer Fort.

Tonight, we saw a puppet show, something that Rajastan is famous for and that Mr Prakash recommended. It was a very well-attended event with some beautifully designed dolls, but accompanied by very lengthy descriptions of the show and background in Hindi that I could have done without. Some of the explanations were in English too, but those were also too long for my taste 🙂

At dinner in a local restaurant and in the hotel afterwards (as I write this), power went out several times for several minutes. It feels like we in some ways really are at the edge of civilisation here!


India Holiday – Day 7: Nagaur

The first call to prayer is at 4:45am, and the sound carries extremely well into our suite. That ritual amplified sound of severely tortured dog is definitely one I can do without – might I suggest that muslims who wish to pray get an alarm clock and let the rest of us sleep?

Sadly, Mamta did not get better overnight and is coughing and sneezing miserably, poor girl. I can tell it’s serious as she for the first time since we started opts for plain toast for breakfast, rather than Paratha!

As we leave Jaipur, the scenery reminds me powerfully of a book I read recently, called Behind the Beautiful Forevers – it is set in Mumbais’s slums, written by a Pulitzer-winning journalist who lived there, and is both interesting and eye opening. In particular it sparks memories as we drive past large numbers of day labourers waiting and hoping for work, be it as a farm worker or a builder for the day.

The weather forecast for Jaipur this morning somewhat surprisingly said “Smoke”, and that is what we get: a thick, smelly haze reminiscent of the Delhi Stink. I don’t know what they are burning, but it doesn’t smell good.

Every city we have seen has autorickshaws – 3-wheeled narrow taxis that zip around and allow traffic to move. In the biggest cities they now run on compressed natural gas and are thus no longer a big source of pollution and interestingly it looks like each city has a different brand of rickshaw. In Jaipur, they are Piaggio like my own scooter is, and a little larger than the ones in Delhi. (In Nagaur they are different again, with lots of silver and decorations on them)

It occurs to me that traffic in India is similar to a fluid; going with the flow is literally what you have to do and while it looks chaotic I am sure it is much more efficient than the more rigid systems we use in the West. Riskier and more dangerous too I am sure, but if Indians suddenly adopted a Western attitude to staying in lane, overtaking on the inside, stopping at red lights and using the horn only in anger or emergency, I think the result would be a huge gridlocked traffic jam that barely moved… Not that that is a likely scenario 🙂

In Jaipur, we see several bicyclists with what looks like huge rifles over their shoulders. Apparently, they are security guards on their way to work – I am not sure what they will be guarding where a big rifle will be useful, but they probably know best. I’m sure they make a frightening Bang and they sure look imposing though!

The road out of Jaipur is frankly very good. 3 lanes in each direction with a big middle divider and relatively light traffic is the result of privatization – this is a toll road, and it’s a good experience. Of course, much of the way only 2 of the lanes are usable because the left one is used by traffic going the other way, or for broken down lorries and cars. Then again, in India 2 marked lanes serve as much more than that.

There is a big sign urging “heavy traffic” to keep left. Har, har. Lorries and buses drive wherever they please, clearly, typically halfway between two “fast” lanes. Our Transindus driver Mr Prakash finds it funny too; I think he has a well developed sense of humour 🙂

After a few hours, we turn off the toll road, towards a small town where we pit stop for lunch. From this point, the road is no longer excellent – in the good places it is a strip of asphalt just wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and in the bad places it’s either just a dirt track or a potholed asphalt road aspiring to become a dirt track. Mamta is feeling worse, and this road is definitely not helping.

Rajastan is famous for its marble, and we see huge numbers of places where marble is processed and sold. In one such city we pass through traffic suddenly grinds to a complete stop. This is unusual as it normally flows at least a bit, and it turns that the reason is congestion: on the narrow one-way road we are on, there are several tractors loaded with marble that are going the wrong way, completely blocking progress in both directions. They apparently do this to save themselves a large detour, but it frankly does not look like it is very efficient for anyone involved 🙂

As we finally approach Nagaur around 3pm, the landscape has turned distinctly desert-like. Big expanses of sparsely populated and very dry soil are interrupted by the odd solitary house and small groups of people working the land. Suddenly the term “to eke out a living” makes sense; eking is what these people do. It looks tough.

Nagaur is a small-ish city of 200,000 people, situated so it completely surrounds the central fort, called Ranvas Fort. It is an old fortification consisting of an impressive 1.8km of outer wall enclosing 36 hectares of land, with elaborate Havelis inside. It used to be the home of the local Maharajah and his 16 wives (!!!), with luxurious palaces, sophisticated water and wind capture systems, swimming pools, air conditioning, and much else. After independence and during the wars with Pakistan, the fort was used by the Indian army, and was sold in 1993 to private investors.

After being extensively restored with funds from both UNESCO and private charities, it started serving as a luxury hotel in October 2010, with each of the havelis (palaces) used by the Maharaja’s queens being used as a suite of rooms. This is where we stay, and it’s amazing! To first enter the bustling and busy city of Nagaur and then from there to enter the gates of the Fort where it is quiet and where there are no people is a relief. The structures are very different from our last hotel, but just stunning.

We opt for an early dinner and then spend a few hours on a guided tour of the place, ending with a walk on top of the outer wall just as the sun sets over the city. Truly stunning, and several groups of people on top of the roofs notice us and wave enthusiastically. It is impossible to resist waving back 🙂

Finally back in the tranquility of our room, we kick back and relax. And after a few minutes, we realize that there is a sizeable muslim population in Nagaur too, and that they also use a very public, loud wailing alarm system for remembering praying time, even worse than in Jaipur. Sigh…

Tomorrow, we leave Nagaur for Jaiselmer. I really hope Mamta feels better after a good night’s rest, so she can really enjoy the trip!


India Holiday – Day 6

Our last day in Jaipur: rest day. We get up at 9 and have breakfast, after which I have a much-needed whole body massage and Mamta and Iain relax.

Our driver (did I mention that he’s super friendly and helpful?) picks me up before lunch so I can go and try out the suit and shirts I bought yesterday – and wow, they are great. At less than £25 for a good quality tailored shirt, it’s a steal, and I let myself be convinced to buy 4 more shirts, for a total of 10. The suit is also nice and fits well – amazing that they could put it all together overnight.

I do resist the temptation to buy a carpet, although my steadfast refusal to buy clearly is the right way to bargain. Where the lovely fine 270x180cm camel hair carpet started out at £1,600 yesterday, today it’s all the way down to a “today only” price of £1,000. I’m fairly sure this is a good deal, but nevertheless say No Thanks to both carpet and more suits. The Indians really as businessmen at heart, but my suitcase is already full and my wallet empty!

While waiting for the suit to be fitted, I had a cup of Indian tea – and the special thing about Indian Tea is that it’s very, very sweet. It’s sweet for the simple reason that they heap huge amounts of sugar into even a small cup, with the effect that it’s a fairly syrupy drink that results. I like it 🙂

After a light lunch (Mamta is still feasting on Parathas), we went for a sightseeing/shopping trip in downtown Jaipur. Or at least in a part of town where there were both a lot of shops and a lot of people; once again, the effort of navigating this maze plus taking in all of the impressions and sights meant that we didn’t even last 2 hours before deciding to head back. We did get a few pieces for Mamta and for Anna though, and took a bunch of colourful photographs.

Iain has really taken to photography: he snaps away without much restraint, has an eye for interesting compositions and is willing to experiment. I look forward to seeing how long it takes before he beomes a much better photographer than myself – if he keeps practicing, I suspect it won’t be long.

A quiet evening at a local restaurant turns out to be quite a loud affair, as a local troupe performs song and dance inside the restaurant. The music is definitely an acquired taste, but the curry – mmm, the curry is delicious. My belly seems to be holding up well, so I am hopeful that I can continue to enjoy the local food and not have to order from the “continental” part of the menu…

Mamta feels a bit unwell so we call it a night early as tomorrow, we leave Jaipur for Nagaur; our driver says it’s a 6-hour drive with a stop about halfway. I am sure it will be interesting!