India: The verdict

New Delhi, 1 October

Time spent: one month. Distance travelled (land): 1775 km. Distance travelled (air): 2500 km. Places visited: 13.

So the time has come to look back and reflect on our month spent in India. As is our custom, let’s start with the price of a pint.

This explains a lot..

The beer we drank in India is called Kingfisher. It comes in either a 500ml can, a big, or a small bottle, and offers a choice of lager at 4.8% and ‘strong’ at ‘less than 8%’. The most we’ve paid is 350 rupees (£4) for a can of lager, the least 170 rupees (£2) for a big bottle of strong. Is it something we would ever drink back home? Probably not, but on a warm day an ice cold Kingfisher goes down a treat nonetheless.

Then for the final scores as awarded by our lovely judge Lauren:

The people score 7/10. Even though we’ve met some amazing and wonderful people, it’s hard not to also remember India for the annoying selfies, the aggressive tuktuk drivers, and the scam artists at temples. Pushkar is infamous for its so-called Pushkar Passport. Someone puts a bracelet on you or shoves a flower in your hand and then orders you to make an outrageous donation to the temple i.e. their own pockets. We are waiting in a queue at an ATM when we spot some guys handing out these ‘passports’. One of them approaches us. As usual he starts off by asking where we’re from, but Lauren, wise to the scheme, sighs and just says: “What do you want?” You can tell the guy is taken aback a bit and he mutters: “flower for you madam.” To which Lauren replies: “Absolutely not.” And that’s the end of that. Legend.

The food scores 9/10. Even though we finally did end up with Delhi-belly, the Indian food is pretty amazing. There’s a ton of choice and the cooking is not too spicy and very flavourful. Coming from two diehard carnivores, we both actually fell in love with the vegetarian food options. Best dish: Paneer Masala and everything we ate in Bundi. Worst dish: The dodgy goat that made us sick.

The travelling scores 7/10. Though travelling through Kerala was as convenient as Sri Lanka, busses and trains in Rajasthan are not exactly comfortable. Even when reserving the expensive AC seats, the travel isn’t relaxing because Indians love putting their phones on loudspeaker. Love it. Seriously I don’t think anyone up north has heard of headphones. On one train journey I remember a guy entering our carriage a few times around 6am just to make a loud phone call.. We used an app for tuktuk rides which is necessary in Rajasthan if you don’t want to be overcharged, but on the other hand the taxi hire for long distances was great and we managed to some great deals for that.

Best animal: This would have to be the black-faced langur, hands down. Though known to push napping, elderly people off of ledges on occasion, this langur is not generally dangerous and extremely cute with its wee humanlike face, plus some of them are trained to protect people from the more aggressive red-faced macaques, pretty awesome right?

Though I can’t see us return anytime soon to the places we’ve visited this time around, India has been an amazing experience and one that pushed our boundaries a bit too, which is not a bad thing. A trip to the far north and north east of India might someday be on the cards for us and at any rate we would love to come back one day to see tigers in the wild.

Overall, India passes the mark and receives Lauren’s certificate of excellence! Good times!

Party town near the Thar Desert

Pushkar, 28-30 September

We were happy to trade in Jodhpur for our next stop of Pushkar, a small town of 20.000 people near the desert. Situated in the Ajmer region, Pushkar is a pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Sikhs, as well as a meeting place for hundreds of Israeli tourist as it turns out, who are in town to smoke some dope and celebrate Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tovah everyone!

Pushkar is built around a lake, which has loads of stone steps down to the water where pilgrims bathe. It’s considered a sacred city by Hindus which means it’s forbidden to consume meat, eggs or alcohol within the town limits.

At our local, the Funky Monkey Cafe, it takes about two seconds before we’re served beer, I mean cappuccino, in big mugs. The shop across the street sells all sorts of smoking paraphernalia and is run by the campest looking couple of older Indian dudes you will ever meet, wearing unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts with chest hair poking out, bluejean hotpants and big coloured sunglasses. These guys are more than keen to let you examine their special stock too. Pushkar is a bit of a party town, we’re liking it.

Pushkar is also the home of the annual camel fair for trading livestock, happening over five days in November and attracting more than 200.000 visitors to the small town each year. We’re next to the Thar Desert, or Great Indian Desert which covers an area of 200.000 square km and forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. Right now the only camels in town are used for tourist safaris or occasionally as mode of transport by the locals.

Our accommodation, HosteLaVie, is great with a huge grass courtyard where it’s not hard for us to relax and get a few things prepared for our upcoming journey to China. In the afternoons we do a bit of sightseeing and at night play games with other travellers.

There’s hundreds of temples in Pushkar, but it’s one of the few places in the world which has a temple dedicated to Brahma, aka the naughty god. A bit further out of town we take a dodgy chairlift up to the Savriti Mata temple on top of a big hill overlooking the town, where they sell offerings to Hanuman, the monkey god, to feed to the resident langurs.

I’m not feeling brave enough to step inside the chairlift for a second time, so we’re taking the stone steps to get back down. Have you ever been told cows can’t walk down stairs? I certainly hope they can, because about halfway down one is quietly taking in the views.

With our train tickets to Delhi booked (thanks to the lovely hostel owners) and our trip to China prepared, we’re getting ready to watch Scotland play Samoa for the Rugby World Cup, ‘mon boys!

When we’re at our airport hotel tomorrow it’s time for some reflections on our time in India.

Kumbhalgarh: Taking the scenic route

Udaipur to Jodhpur, 25 September

Between the two painted cities of Udaipur and Jodhpur there’s no trains, and after hearing a story from other tourists that the bus they were on doubled as prisoner transport we decide it might be fun to hire a car and driver instead and take the touristic route to Jodhpur past Kumbhal Fort.

We’ve teamed up on this one with a couple of crazy kids we met, Tony and Jas, a Kiwi and Brit living in Sydney. At 9AM sharp we set off on our trip. Today we’re going to see rural Rajasthan, a fair bit of it too.

The drive up should take about 5 hours, plus an extra hour to visit the Fort and in the morning it’s a smooth ride on quiet roads past tiny villages. Though slow-paced it’s full of life here between the farmers herding their cows, buffalo and goats, children playing in the streets and dogs napping in the shade by the side of the road. It’s great to be here at the tail end of the monsoon season, as it’s dry and sunny but the surroundings are lush and green. We pass waterholes where nearby villagers take their cattle inside the house at night because of tigers and leopards visiting at night. Around noon we make it to the Fort, an impressive structure!

We’re still in the Mewar region in Southern Rajasthan where Mewari is the first language, and Kumbhalgarh, which literally means Fort of Kumbhal is a Mewar Fortress built during the course of the 15th century by Rana Kumbha, ruler of the Mewar Kingdom.

Kumbhalgarh is the second largest fort in India. Its walls extend over 38km, making it one of the longest walls in the world, and are thick enough for 8 horsemen to ride abreast on top of it!

A wide, winding stone road takes us up higher and higher into the Fort and at each new level you’re more and more beginning to admire the work that has gone into building this structure. It must have been a gigantic project, just carrying up all the building materials must have taken an army of workers.

Each gate has big metal spikes sticking out to prevent elephants from breaking through, and the walls contain holes for the defending archers. Almost impregnable to direct assault, the Fort only fell once to the forces of Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1576.

After a 30 minute climb we reach the top of the fort to enjoy a grand view of the Aravalli Hills.

It’s time for some lunch, and as expected our driver brings us to a restaurant owned by a friend of his’, or maybe it’s his cousin’s, were not sure, but hey, they serve cold beer, some decent food and even show off the cannabis plant they grow in the garden, so it’s all good.

Back in the car we travel through enormous valleys where the langur monkeys hang out. We stop off to feed them some crisps, which they immediately destroy, and pieces of custard apple, they wait for patiently to receive.

It’s now getting to 3 o’clock and at this point one of us notices we’re nowhere near our destination of Jodhpur yet. We decide to skip our planned visit to the Ranakpur Jain Temple and try and get to Jodphur before nightfall.

This is of course not taking India into account. Everything just takes a little longer. Most roads are littered with potholes, so we’re stuck at 20 km an hour until we get to the toll road. A simple train crossing keeps us stationary for another 15 minutes and we even get stuck inside a big herd near one of the villages!

We watch the sun go down on the horizon. At 8PM we’re finally closing in on Jodphur. We’re ready to turn into our hotels, but suddenly the driver stops at a roadside cafe and wants us to have tea with his brother! This is the moment Tony cracks up and makes clear he would like to be in Jodhpur now. We were told it would take 6 hours to get to Jodhpur, but it’s getting close to double that amount. When we finally reach the city, the driver, with a straight face, remarks he’s pleased we’ve arrived early, and we can’t help but laugh when Tony replies: “Early, you say? Early? Well in that case I got some news for you bud, we’re not f*cking early!” Poor Tony needs a drink. All is well in the end when we finish our night with a cold beer on the rooftop of our Jodhpur hotel.

Reunion in the City of Lakes

Udaipur, 22-24 September

We’re taking the night train from Bundi to Udaipur, second of the three painted cities in Rajasthan on our itinerary and known as the White City. Famous for its palaces and lakes, Udaipur is considered to be the most romantic city in India. Welcome to the Jewel of Mewar!

Our first experience on a night train is pretty good. The train is already 24 hours in motion by the time we’re getting on it, and since it’s 2AM all the other passengers are fast asleep, so we quietly find our bunks in the dark and get a few hours sleep ourselves.

Although unaware of it at the time, by chance we’re dropped off at our hotel by the owner’s brother, who also very kindly arranges our next transportation out of Udaipur. We’re staying at Mewari Villa, a stunning hotel overlooking one of Udaipur’s seven lakes, where we’re booked in to one of the budget rooms. Though our room may not have windows, the rooftop terrace offers great lake views and the hotel is very comfortable.

We meet the owner who tells us we’ve met his brother, and it turns out the owner of our previous guest house in Bundi is an acquaintance of his as well, such a small world! Later that day he invites us to a cultural performance taking place on the hotel rooftop, but in the evening an unrelenting monsoon rain starts and continues throughout the night. We don’t mind at all, but the owner, feeling bad for having had to cancel the event, gives us a free room upgrade instead. Ya dancer, we got a room with a view!

Time then for a bit of sightseeing, and the City Palace seems like an excellent place to start.

Located on Lake Pichola, the palace was built over a period of nearly 400 years, with contributions from several rulers of the Mewar dynasty. Unlike Bundi Palace, its interior with its balconies, towers and cupolas exhibits immaculately preserved, delicate mirrors, marble, murals, paintings and coloured glass, as well as sharply dressed guards.

After the palace we bump into a guy we met in Jaipur, and minutes later a couple we met in Bundi! We spend the rest of the afternoon and evening drinking beers and swapping travel stories on the roof of a hostel.

Waking up late with a slight hangover means we’re taking it easy the next day, which is easily done in Udaipur. Most of our afternoon is spent relaxing in the shade by Lake Pichola looking at the boats go by and eagles circling for prey against a backdrop of the water palaces of Taj Lake Palace and Jagmandir.

What we’ve learned so far on our travels is that India is always full of surprises. With the sun gone down and the lights come on, as we’ve said our goodbyes to Rajasthan’s Venice, an elephant suddenly appears around a street corner. Just a normal night in Udaipur! We thoroughly enjoyed our time here.

Stepping inside of the Jungle Book

Bundi, 20-21 September

It takes only four hours to get from Jaipur to Bundi by car over a quiet highway with the odd cow sleeping in the middle of the road. The exit off the highway quickly changes to a dirt road when I direct our driver to our guesthouse. Soon the dirt road becomes a dirt path with cows standing idly by and pigs getting mud baths in big rain puddles, and then the car gets stuck. We’re literally off the beaten path.

After a few local boys help the driver free the wheels and we’ve said our goodbyes, we’re off on foot for the final part of the journey. First impressions of Bundi are good; it’s an extremely friendly place, very colourful, with loads of little side streets with painted murals, and full of life. We find the guest house just before the rain comes back on.

After the hustle and bustle of Agra and Jaipur, being in a small town is exactly what we both needed and just like that we can relax. It is said that Bundi’s Rajasthan inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his Jungle Book, and you can visit his summer house on the lake where he was known to work on his writings.

As it’s still early in the day we decide to go out and explore. A steep, cobblestone path from town leads to nearby Garh Palace, or Palace of Bundi.

Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, gray towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than men. – Rudyard Kipling

Also described by Kipling as an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge, this vast structure consisting of a palace and fort above it, almost seems to grow out of the rocky hillside it is built on.

Although its foundations were laid in the 13th century, Gahr Palace, which actually consists of different palaces built by rulers from different times, was established mostly in the 17th and 18th century. Today it’s left in a decaying state inhabited by bats. Overgrown by jungle, it vaguely reminds us of King Louie’s Ancient Ruins from Jungle Book.

Hathi Pol, The Elephant Gate.

Beside the structure itself, the palace is also famous for a vast collection of faded turquoise and gold murals, its chief treasure, depicting a variety of subjects, all of wonderful detail: the life of the Maharaja, drunk elephants dancing and fighting, gods smoking opium, giant parades, a tiger wrestling a bull, a langur checking inside a fish’s mouth, and much, much more.

So far in Rajasthan this has been my favourite place, and the level of architecture and decoration is almost overwhelming. It’s no wonder Kipling liked to spend time in Bundi. We spend the entire afternoon discovering Garh Palace and wish we didn’t have to leave!

The sightseeing in Bundi already blew us away and now we find out it has a pretty vibrant night life too, complete with cool rooftop cafe’s, Italian food and Bhang Lassi’s, a drink made of yogurt, nuts, spices, rose water and cannabis! We love it here, but there’s so much more to see in Rajasthan. Tonight at 2am we’re catching the night train to Udaipur, the White City.

Living like royalty in Jaipur

Jaipur, 17-19 September

Our first stop in Rajasthan, Jaipur, is the capital and largest city of India’s royal state. Together with Delhi and Agra it forms the western part of the Golden Triangle tourist circuit and it is the first of the three painted cities we’re visiting in India. Jaipur is named after its founder Maharaja Jai Sing II, ruler of the kingdom of Amer, and was designed to be and established as the royal capital in 1727. After seven weeks of backpacking we can do with a bit of royal treatment ourselves, so it’s the airconditioned reserved seats on the express train getting us from Agra to the Pink City by nightfall.

Usually when booking a hotel we follow a simple rule set: get the cheapest private room, with a private bathroom, along with a decent rating and in a central location. In Sri Lanka and India, with prices for this type of stay ranging from £5 to £15 a night, you just know there’s almost always something wrong with it. Mostly it’s just minor flaws such as a couple loose wires, missing towels, no hot water, etc, but other times, for example in Agra, you find out your hotel doesn’t change the sheets between stays and charges extra for using toilet paper, but they’re also out of toilet paper.. At any rate, it’s very unusual to come across a budget hotel where everything is spot on, it’s just a roll of the dice.

The hotel we have booked in Jaipur is called Rawla Mrignayana Palace. We arrive there late, already a bit weary because we just came off a crazy taxi ride across town with driver Rahul, who is a bit of a character: clearly coked off his face and talking to himself out loud, Rahul was in no fit state to find the hotel without our help. But we made it, the lobby looks nice and we’re just eager to get the paperwork done so we can grab a bite to eat.

With all the forms completed we expect to be shown our room, only to find the receptionist has now disappeared from his desk. Suddenly music starts playing and the same guy, resurfacing on the balustrade, waves at us to follow him upstairs. Halfway up Lauren gets a good fright when out of nowhere we’re being showered in flower petals. The balustrade leads us into a candlelit courtyard where we’re greeted by a full complement of staff and given bindis and flower garlands, not bad for a budget stay!

After the welcome ceremony we’re swiftly guided along, deeper into the hotel. The courtyard leads to another walkway, which opens up into another courtyard. Stairs take us up to a big balcony with a stone fountain and this where we finally find our room. We have to pinch ourselves, did we end up in the wrong place perhaps? It’s completely surreal, this hotel is actually kind of magical. Our room is huge, luxurious and simply stunning, fit for a king and queen. We can’t believe our luck, looks like we booked ourselves an actual palace!

Waking up the next morning we learn it’s not too far from the truth either. Rawla Mrignayani is part of an 18th century Haveli, commissioned by Rai Kripa Ram, former prime minister of the then state of Jaipur. At some point the Haveli was gifted to the nobles of Karnot and it’s their descendants who still own Rawla Mrignayani today. Apart from the hotel, the immense property also houses a school and the owner’s residences. After three nights we’re still discovering new parts to it and the rooftop terrace has wonderful views of the city.

The Pink City

During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh I, in 1876, Jaipur was painted in its trademark pink colour to welcome Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, hence its town centre is nicknamed the Pink City.

Hawa Mahal, or, the Palace of Winds

Amer Fort and surrounding area

On our first day we visit the Amer Fort and Palace, 11km from Jaipur, which was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and built in the same style of Mughal architecture we’ve seen in Agra.

Afterwards our tuk-tuk driver brings us to the nearby Step Well, built to collect rainwater as well as being a Langur family’s favourite hangout, and Jal Mahal, the Water Palace in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, to conclude a successful day of sightseeing.

Nahargarh Fort

The next morning we stay in the city and visit Nahargarh Fort, built in the hills overlooking Jaipur. Its original walls extended over the surrounding hills all the way to the Jaigarh Fort in Amer where we visited yesterday.

Having seen all the forts, we dedicate the afternoon to figuring out our next mode of transportation. We’re getting off the beaten path which is the touristic Golden Triangle to make a side step to Bundi, a tiny village down south. Although we know there’s supposed to be an AC bus going to Bundi, it proves impossible to find it, so this morning we’ll be collected by a private driver instead. We’ve done Jaipur in style and it was great!