16.05.2014 - 21.05.2014
Before we left Cayman, we sat down with our friend Angel, who had been to India many times for extended periods, to piece together a possible itinerary for the 3 weeks we planned to spend in India. We established that Rajasthan, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and the northern mountainous states were worth the visit and would work well for our purposes.
So we began our tour of Rajasthan with its capital, Jaipur also known as the Pink City for its reddish-painted walls that extend throughout the central core. In Jaipur and throughout the State, the many palaces and forts are evidence of a rich royal past that spanned over a thousand years. We were in for an architectural treat.
The hotel organized our airport transfer and after chatting to our driver we agreed to let him take us on a tour of the city. The prospect of walking everywhere in the scorching heat was just not enticing enough. Our tour covered the main sights within the fortified city and some other attractions in the outskirts of the city.
Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds which forms part of the City Palace:
Political road show speech had voters attention just outside the palace (the Presidential election was scheduled just 10 days later on May 25th):
Two of the many forms of local transportation:
Amber Fort just 10km outside the city:
The poor cobra had its fangs removed so quite harmless but we still didn't feel comfortable getting too close:
Jal Mahal or Water Palace:
This kid's parents didn't even give me a chance to respond when they asked if they could take a picture of me with their son - they simply handed me the kid (who did not look very impressed) and hoped I wouldn't drop him...I guess:
This happened to us a lot in India - couples, friends, families, you name it. They asked and we obliged. It seemed to make them happy so we didn't mind although we sometimes wondered where our pictures would end up!
On our way back to the hotel, we asked the driver to stop at the train station as we needed to check the train schedule and possibly buy tickets for our next destination (which to be honest we were still unsure of). I quickly understood why the Lonely Planet guide has a whole section dedicated to train travel with links to useful resources. The process is far from straightforward and just getting to the right booth took a while. We realized we first had to go to the information booth to get the train numbers and departure times of the trains we might be interested in and then go to the reservation booth to check the availability on each train and make a booking. We also learned about the Indian queuing system. There is none. Everyone ignores the few fools in the queue and goes straight to the front through the sides pushing and shoving their way in. So we did the same and eventually made it to the information booth. With our reservation sheets filled out, we tackled the reservation booth but misunderstood the two foreigners ahead of us who implied we needed our passports to make a booking. They were right but only when booking "foreign quota" seats which are available on some trains for tourists who make last minutes reservations because, as we later found out, the comfortable seats get booked months in advance and most trains in India travel full. Not that surprising considering the population of 1.5 billion! So we turned around and went back to the hotel to do some research.
After some digging around online and going through a lengthy signing up process, I was finally about to book our tickets on the official IRCTC (India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) website. Boom, I could already picture us in our comfy seats enjoying the wonders of air-conditioning. Alas, it was not to be, the system failed to process my credit card three times. I was beginning to think we would have to take the dreaded bus. I went down to reception and was grateful to find a very helpful clerk. He recommended we purchase unreserved tickets for second seating class (lowest class possible and of course, the cheapest) and try to find a seat in a better class once on the train. We had read somewhere that it is sometimes possible to upgrade with the ticket controller. Game on!
We decided to go to Udaipur for a few days and stop in Pushkar for a few hours on the way to split up the train ride. With its holy lake and numerous ghats (series of steps leading down to a body of water) and temples, Pushkar is one of the most sacred Hindu towns in India and we were keen to check it out.
We managed to upgrade to sleeper class (7th of 8 possible classes just above second seating) and were quite proud of our achievement. I just wish I had taken some pictures!We were on our own at first but our benches were qucikly filled by 6 or 7 men who stared at us relentlessly (more me than Greg) and took pictures of us with their phones when they thought we weren't looking. Nice try. I was reading a good book and managed to ignore them after a while but it was difficult not to feel a bit uncomfortable.
The train doesn't actually go all the way to Pushkar but it's just a short bus ride away from Ajmer, one of the many stops on the Jaipur-Udaipur route. We had read that there were buses every 20 min or so in front of the Ajmer railway station. Problem was we couldn't read the signs on the buses and had to ask every bus that stopped: Pushkar? 4 buses later we were still on the street. We noticed the Indian family next to us was also going to Pushkar so we decided to follow their every move. A tuk-tuk driver stopped, gabbled something to them in Hindi and within seconds, we were on the back of the tuk-tuk facing the traffic behind us hoping we wouldn't have to sit like that the whole way to Pushkar. We were greatly relieved when he stopped in front of the bus terminal where we finally got on the right bus. Suddenly the private taxi ride didn't seem like such a bad idea as this bus thing was more complicated than expected, even if it only cost 24 rupees for the two of us ($0.50).
Our nice restaurant with a good view of the lake:
The streets of Pushkar:
It was soon time to head back to Ajmer and catch our train to Udaipur. We actually had reserved seats on this train and managed to find our cabin, which was packed. We were in second seating class again but our reserved seats ensured we wouldn't have to stand for the 5 hours it would take to get to Udaipur. We also had window seats, which saved us from passing out from the heat, and our neighbors were very friendly. Although I still remember feeling slightly outraged when one of them threw all of his garbage out the window, something that sadly, seems standard in India.
Busy Ajmer platform:
Catching a glimpse of the sunset from our window:
Our hotel had organized a tuk-tuk pick-up for us which was greatly appreciated. The less haggling we had to do, the better. Although Greg and I exchanged semi-panicked looks when we thought/imagined our driver had whispered something to a stranger who then stared at us suspiciously. It was dark and Greg's phone GPS wasn't working at that precise moment (of course) so we couldn't verify our location or if we were going in the right direction. Panic over when we finally pulled up to our hotel. I think we've seen too many movies!
Our plan of attack for the next day was to book a cooking course with Meenu (recommended by LP) and explore the city and its famous palace.
The view from our hotel rooftop terrace (Dream Heaven):
We were now used to sharing the streets with members of the blessed bovine species:
The City Palace:
The streets were full of souvenir shops and we enjoyed walking around and doing some shopping: some silver jewelry for Issy and more mangoes for Greg. Seems fair enough
Adjusting my silver ring to size:
There are apparently thousands of mango species so this was just a small selection:
Enjoying a nice sunset from our hotel:
And we weren't the only ones, our neighbors seemed to enjoy it as well:
I was eager to get going the next day as we were meeting Meenu at 8:30am just down the street from our hotel.
We made massala chai (Indian spicy tea with sugar and milk served absolutely everywhere), pokaras (deep fried veggie snacks), two different curries and breads including chapatti and paratha:
We had a great time with Meenu and her family. The delicious food was just a bonus.
Hardly able to move after so much food, we decided to walk it off and explore the city further.
Dog and cow smooching in the middle of the street - why not?
We made some more purchases making it necessary to ship our first package home. We found the post office near the city palace but the clerk informed us we would have to pay for the packaging service separately. Cha Cha showed up a few minutes later and led us to his tailor shop a few blocks from the post office.
I watched Cha Cha as he carefully sowed the wrapping for our cardboard box and sealed the stitching with wax. He did this with such care, I couldn't help but feel the need to give him more than the $5 he had quoted:
We then proceeded to a beauty parlor next door for foot massages and pedicures, which Greg got swindled into just a few minutes earlier, while I watched Cha Cha and he made photocopies of our passports for the post office. One look at the place and we knew it would be an "interesting" experience. The foot massages were OK but I'm not exaggerating when I say a 5 year-old could have done better with the pedicures. Greg had never had one and thought it was OK. I had to explain that there's usually more to it than washing feet and cutting toe nails unevenly! The lady who was doing my feet didn't even know how to remove nail polish properly. With crooked toe nails and bits of nail polish everywhere, I left needing a pedicure just to fix the one I had just had. I guess you get what you pay for: can't expect much from $5 dolla' pedi. I bought some nail polish for $1 to camouflage the damage.
The hotel helped us secure tickets for the overnight train to Agra in a shared air-conditioned cabin which left Udaipur at 10pm that night. We went back to Meenu's for dinner to try her famous pumpkin curry (notoriety well deserved!) before catching a tuk-tuk to the train station.
AC 2-Tier cabin - what a luxury!
We woke-up at 6am the next day in Jaipur where some passengers got off the train and others took their place. I chatted with nice young man named Prateek who described what it was like to work as a marketing consultant for Honda, explained some of the cultural differences within India and shared some funny personal stories about arranged marriages. I could have listened to him for hours but we had to say goodbye when the train pulled into to Agra Cantonment station.
Our hotel had organized a tuk-tuk transfer from the train station and we once again agreed to let our driver show us around after checking into our hotel. We visited Agra Fort, Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah (also known as baby Taj-Mahal) and Greg got to drive our tuk-tuk on the way to Moonlight Garden (Mehtab Bagh) where we watched Big Taj from across the river until sunset.
View from our hotel's rooftop terrace - couldn't wait to get closer!
On the way to Agra Fort:
Another great view of the Taj-Mahal from the Fort:
The streets of Agra:
Contemplating a career change...
The magnificent Taj-Mahal - crazy to think that this white marble architectural masterpiece was built for just 2 tombs:
Goofing around with some local kids:
We parked right in front of a cow who was about to call it a night - I think we woke her up:
We had read that the best time to visit the Taj-Mahal was at sunrise to avoid the massive crowds. We made it just before 6am and it was even more impressive than the previous day.
We left later that morning on a train bound for Delhi. We are now in Hanoi, Vietnam and the next update will be on our Delhi and Northern India adventure, followed by Nepal, Northern Thailand and Laos - yes, way behind, but we're on holiday
Greg and Issy