Going to Jodhpur

It’s about 350km from Jaipur to Jodhpur, which meant a journey of about 6-7 hours. I’d been suffering with an upset stomach and sore throat since Monday so we opted to pay the extra Rs250 to have the air-conditioning turned on in the car.
The journey took us off to the West, along different roads. The out of town driving in India is as crazy as that in town but for different reasons. The roads are often wide enough for three lanes of traffic, however it’s not unusual to be faced with three lanes of oncoming traffic and to have to swerve off the road to avoid them. The lorries all seem to trundle along at about 50km/h and rarely make way for you if overtaking.

As we headed West, the number of camel carts and Jeeps decreased, and the number of lorries increased. The journey was pretty uneventful, apart from us passing the first road accident we’d seen in India; a head-on collision between two lorries whcih had mangled one cab pretty badly. There were a couple of policemen directing traffic around the spot but little other fuss.

We arrived in Jodhpur at about 4pm, and checked in to our hotel, the Haveli Guest House. The first room we were given didn’t meet expectations (tiny window with no view) so we moved to a much nicer room with a large bay window looking out onto the hilltop fort of Jodhpur.

Back to Jaipur

Another early start to head back to Jaipur. The journey back didn’t seem too bad, as the roads were all pretty good. We got back to Hotel Diggi Palace in the early afternoon and retired to our new room (also nice but not quite as good as the one we’d had during our first stay.

We had considered going shopping in Jaipur but the travelling had left us tired so we stayed at the hotel and used the internet cafe there. I finally got to upload my blog entries using the machine I had downloaded the drivers onto during the previous week. We sorted out our hotels for Jodhpur and Udaipur as well.

Ramgarh and the Golden Room at Mahansar

The Thakur had arranged for his nephew to guide us around some havelis in the neighbouring town of Ramgarh. We had arrived at Mahansar via Ramgarh so it didn’t take long to find the rough 6km road back there.

The first place we visited was one of Ramgarh’s 50 or so centotaph sites. This was similar to the one we had visited at Gaitor near Jaipur, though not as grand as the structures only held the cremated remains of wealthy merchants and their families rather than Maharajas. Each was painted with pictures from local life or Hindu texts.

Next on the tour was a temple to the goddess Kali. The day we visited was particularly auspicious as it was a day on which Kali is worshipped. We were welcomed by the priest and shown around the temple. There is only one temple to Kali in Ramgarh, a town of approximately 35,000 people. The temple’s idol of Kali depicted the goddess as a black-faced woman with a necklace of severed heads.

Following that we moved on to a temple to the Lord Sun, who is the god of Saturday. The temple is covered in many mirrors, and lit only by oil lamp which creates an amazing flickering effect.

Havelis were next on the tour, and we spent some time wandering around the haveli section of Ramgarh. There around 400 havelis int the town, though around 95% are no longer occupied. Many are simply locked up and left to decay, while others have caretakers who will let visitors in for a look around. A few are occupied and are still used to house the descendents of the original owners. In the majority of cases the original owners moved away to the large cities, some even living away when the havelis were originally built, using them as status symbols to show their old home town how well they were doing.

Sadly, now many of the havelis have started to crumble, the paint is wearing off the outsides and no one seems to care for them. We did see one which had had some recent restoration work carried out on it by the current owner but this was definitely the exception rather than the rule.

We were shown around the inside of one haveli which is still occupied, and went up onto its roof terrace to look over Ramgarh. A large part of the town must be made up of the now disused havelis, along with the similarly crumbling cenotaph sites.

Jumping back in the car we headed back to Mahansar to visit another closed haveli, just by the entrance to the castle. The entry hall to this building was fantastically decorated; divided into three sections, one each for Rama, Krishna and Vishnu. Each ceiling panel told a story from the god’s life and was beautifully painted in rich colours and real gold. Some of the local people had scratched off some of the gold, possibly to try to sell but the vast majority of it is still intact.

Back to the castle for lunch and an afternoon taking photos of the room and the view from the roof, before a candle-lit dinner on the terrace outside our room and then to bed.

Mahansar

Setting off at about 10am on Tuesday, following a breakfast chat with Ramesh Jangid, the owner of Apani Dhani, we headed for our next stop at a small town called Mahansar. The route we took meant quite a detour, but avoided the badly potholed roads which blighted much of the area. Only one of our guidebooks (Rough Guide to India) even mentioned the town, and the hotel manager in Jaipur hadn’t heard of it.

After a couple of hours driving we reached the town, about 5km south of Ramgarh. We were both a bit apprehensive as the town was even more desert-like than Nawalgarh. Tulsee (that’s the correct spelling, apparently) asked directions to our accomodation, the Narayan Niwas Castle. Heading down a series of rough, twisty roads we came to the entrance gate to the castle; a sharp left turn, probably to prevent any attacker from being able to built up any speed.

The castle was a warren of buildings, now divided into seperate dwellings for the nine families which live there. The owner of the castle is the local Thakur, a kind of feudal mayor, and the other families living in the castle are all his relatives such as his brother, the local prosecutor. The Thakur welcomed us personally, and we were then shown to our room, number 5.

I’m fortunate to be able to say that I’ve stayed in some very nice hotel rooms during my life but nothing has come close to the grandeur of the room at Narayan Niwas Castle in Mahansar. The room was very large, and had an upper galleried area all the way around. Every wall, pillar, archway and ceiling panel was beutifully handpainted in a similar way to the havelli we had seen at Nawalgarh. There was a huge double bed, with a fan above it for cooling. The room was almost at the top of the fort, only the smaller room 6 was higher, and the views from the large terrace area outside the room or from the windows were breathtaking, being able to see right over the town, down to the scrubby desert at the outskirts where camels could be seen pulling carts.
The bathroom was down a short corridor from the main room, and had a shower and a “western-style” toilet, but no heated water.

We took a few photos but I don’ t know when I’ll be able to get them uploaded. I would strongly recommend that ayone visiting the Shekawati area of Rajasthan books a visit to the castle (+91 1597564322).

After recovering from the shock of how fantastic our room was, we were invited down for lunch. Unlike our previous stops, there is no restaurant at the castle. Meals are usually taken in a dining room shared with the Thakur’s family. A cook prepares the meals which are comprehensive and filling, with at least 4 different dishes accompanying the rice at lunch and dinner.

The Thakur introduced us to his father, and lent us a couple of books about the painted havelis of Shekawati, including one by Ilay Cooper who had stayed at the castle while writing the book.

We watched the sunset from the terrace and then had dinner. As with most rural (and urban) parts of India, power cuts are commonplace and we suffered one during dinner, my pocket torch came in handy as the room plunged into darkness.

After power was restored we retired to our room to rest and enjoy our surroundings.

Nawalgarh

Up early to repack our bags and get ready for our journey to Nawalgarh. We were introduced to our driver, Thulsi (?), yesterday and we had arranged to set off at 10am. A few delay meant we didn’t set off until after 10:30. The going was slow as we made our way through the ever chaotic traffic in Jaipur.

As we left the city, the traffic and landscape changed, with a higher proportion of camel carts and jeeps on the road and the rows of shops and houses giving way to open scrubland.

Further into the journey, most of the cars were the Indian-made Jeeps, usually loaded to bursting point with people. Many had people hanging on to the outside or even sitting on the roof.

During the journey Thulsi was very quiet, and we realised that this was because his English wasn’t verygood, though it was still better than our ability to speak his language!

We finally arrived at Nawalgarh at about 2pm, but our driver didn’t seem to know the town or the location of our hotel. After numerous stops to ask directions, we arrived at another guest house owned by the man who owned our hotel. It was only a short drive from there and we finally arrived at Apani Dhani Apani Dhani (meaning “our hamlet”) is an eco-lodge, providing food and accomodation to visitors on a working farm. The hot water for showers is heated by home-built solar panels, and photo-voltaic cells provide some of the electricty for the accomodation which consists of several traditionally-built huts with thatched roofs. It was a big change from the Hotel Diggi Palace but we had stayed in similar huts during our two trips to the Maldives.

We were greeted and shown our room before going to register and chat with the manager about local sights etc.

We rested for a while before heading out in the car again. The manager Apani Dhani gave our driver instructions on how to get to the Poddar Haveli / museum, but the lack of road signs or names meant that we were soon stopping to ask for directions again. Thulsi had picked up ona amention of Roop Niwas Palace during the directions and so took us there. It’s a hotel and so wasn’t really much use for sight seeing. After 10 minutes there we asked to go to the musuem and after backtracking 1km or so did finally get there.

The museum also serves as a charity school for around 1,000 boys and 50 girls, taught in two shifts in the upper rooms of the haveli. Whether the proportions are indicative of most schools in Rajasthan, I don’t know, though the guidebooks do say that the literacy rate is low, and the mortality rate high for women in Rajasthan.

The haveli has been restored by the Poddar family who are merchants who now operate successful businesses in Mumbai. They also pay for most of the costs of the school. The entire building is covered in colourful frescos, many of scenes from Hindu mythology, but also others of typical Rajasthani scenes and paintings of trains, British soldiers etc.

There are several galleries of objects of which our accompanying guide gave us a comprehensive tour. time was drawing on so we had to return to our lodge, this time without having to ask directions and only taking one wrong turning.

Our evening meal was taken with two Belgian ladies who were staying in the adjoining hut. The meal was traditional vegetarian fare, starting with a cauliflower, spinach and pumpkin soup, followed by dry potatoes, dall, spinach and rice, with a rice pudding dessert. This was all served on plates and bowls made from leaves which could then be composted.

Amber

Up early so we could eat breakfast in the sunshine on the restaurant terrace.

Off with Ali again, this time to Amber Palace. On the way there we passed streams of people heading for the Palace along with several painted elephants. They were going to the Palace for a nine day festival, resulting in the whole area being very crowded.

We walked up the hill to the Palace along with some of the pilgrims but the sight of the queues for entrance put us off venturing any further. We set off back down after taking a few photos of the views, hoping that Ali would then take us to the nearby fort. Sadly, we had expressed an interest in buying Vic some trousers, so were instead whisked off to a factory/shop where we were given a hard-sell on some bedspreads, pashminas and trousers. We weren’t impressed by the prices, being asked for Rs1,200 for a pair of plain cotton trousers seemed a bit rich to us (and you can get them cheaper at H&M or Uniqlo in the UK!)

Ali seemed disappointed that we hadn’t made a purchase, no doubt he would have received a wedge of commission. We asked to be taken to an ATM where we replenished our cash reserves for the forthcoming trip, as the Diggi Palace doesn’t take credit cards.

Then it was back to the hotel for some more lounging and cold drinks.

That brings us up to date at time of writing. The internet cafe here is a bit more expensive (Rs1 per minute) than at the Hotel Ajanta but I’m hoping I can upload this (written on my Sony UX50 PDA) using my USB card reader.

Later: The card reader needs drivers for any version of Windows before Windows ME. The machines at Diggi Palace are running Windows 98SE, I downloaded the drivers but haven’t had a chance to copy stuff off yet.

In case anyone wants to drop me a
message, I’m turning comments offon the blog as I’m spending too much time in internet cafes deleting comment spam. As a result you’ll need to email me using the link near the top of the bar at the side.

The City Palace and Gaitor

A leisurely breakfast and a bit of lounging in the garden, I’d recommend the Hotel Diggi Palace to anyone. Our room (with air-con, fans and en-suite bathroom) was Rs1,080 inc. (about 14 pounds).
The hotel arranged for an autorickshaw to take us out at 2pm. Our driver was a nice chap called Ali and his rickshaw could seat 4 passengers. The first destination was the City Palace, with a brief stop at one of the gates into The Pink City en-route.

Ali dropped us outside the palace and agreed to meet us an hour and a half later. After paying the Rs180 each entry fee we went into the Palace to be greeted by several men offering their services as guides. We turned these down and headed for the textile gallery. This was a display of clothing worn by the Maharajas of Jaipur and members of their families. We were accompanied round by a splendidly moustachioed chap in a turban who filled us in on lots of detail about the exhbits in exchange for a Rs10 “gift”.

Heading through a gate, we came across a section of the Palace being used as a film set, teaming with actors, crew members and extras, along with four beautifully decorated camels and two fantastic elephants covered in jewellry. Nearby were two huge silver pots (apparently the largest pieces of silver in the world) which one of the Maharajas filled with water from the Ganges to take to England with him for the coronation of Queen Victoria’s successor; he didn’t trust the English water.

A quick walk round the less interesting art gallery and armoury gallery and we headed out to see the Royal Observatory. This was an area of ground filled with strange shaped constructions which were (and still are) used as sundials and for checking zodiacal alignments etc. One sundial is 27 metres high and can be used to tell the time within 2 seconds.

After that we met upwith Ali again and drove off up the Amber Road to a water palace, the Jal Mahal, and then on to the Maharajas’ chhatris (marble and sandstone tombs) at Gaitor. Monkeys were playing in the nearby banyan tree and Ali gave us a tour of the tombs.

Back to the hotel for a drink and more sitting in the garden. We were called over by an old chap who mans the switchboard at the hotel and shown an impressive portfolio of paintings, including some tiny ones (less than a centimetre square) of elephants. We succumbed to his charms or rather those of the paintings and bought a few postcard sized pictures, with the most expensive costing Rs250 (about 3 pounds). We resisted the “message written on a grain of rice” though. Not entirely sure I could find a use for one of those.

We called some hotels for our car trip and booked rooms for a our 3 day Shekawati excursion (Nawalgarh and Mahansar).

A good meal at the hotel restaurant and we retired to bed, having agreed to meet Ali for further sightseeing at 11am the next day.

Train to Jaipur

Up at the outrageous hour of 5am to get to the station for our train. it was still pitch black outside so we got another autorickshaw rather than staggering the streets of Delhi with our packs.

Arriving at the station we headed for the train on platform 1 as per our instructions from the previous visit to the station, but found that our train actually went from Platform 9. We made it to our seats with 5 minutes to spare.

The carriage was clean, if a little tatty, and the seats had plenty of leg room. On these Shatabdi Express trains, your ticket includes a bottle of water, and food and tea during the journey, as well as a complimentary newspaper. The ticket to Jaipur cost Rs490 each, about 6 pounds, for distance of 315km. National Rail in the UK could learn something…

The train left on time and for the first hour crawled through the outskirts of Delhi, most of which seemed to be slums and shanty towns.

Looking out of the window, it was interesting to see the changes as we got further in to Rajasthan. The people’s skins were darker, and many of the men wore more Arabian style clothing. There were also camels, working in the fields as well as pulling carts along the roads.

The terrain was generally incredibly flat, with the occasional hill rearing up from the plain, appearing to be almost man-made.

I also noticed there were a greater number of women working in the fields, all dressed in various bright colours. Several were dressed in orange/red and at firstglance appeared to be flames flickering in the sunlit countryside.

The train was due to arrive in Jaipur at about 10:30am but finally got there at about 11:15am. After our previous experience we didn’t hold out much hope of the taxi from our hotel being there, but we were delighted to find a man holding a sign with Vic’s name on it. He took us over to his jeep and drove us through Jaipur to our hotel. Jaipur was noticeably cleaner and lighter than Delhi, and the traffic not quite so crowded (though it was equally crazy).

The hotel,Hotel Diggi Palace was down a little side road off SMS Hospital Rd, and set in a lovely peaceful garden. Our room was great, overlooking a courtyard. The hotel garden were full of birds and animals; sparrows, crows, green parakeets as well as chipmunks.

We chatted to one of the men running the hotel about our proposed itinerary, and he suggested that it may be better ( though more expensive) to hire a car and driver for a few days. We thought about this and decided to take him up on it, but with a changed itinerary. We decided to skip Bikaner for the being, with the possibility of heading the straight from Delhi towards the end of our stay in India in order to have a go at camel trekking. So now the plan was: Nawalgarh, little place called Mahansar, back to Jaipur, on to Jodhpur and then to Udaipur where the driver would leave us.

That will stretch our budget a bit, but saves us hassle of early morning trains, taxis etc.

Connaught Place & New Delhi Railway Station

Outside our hotel window was a large garden belonging to a neighbouring house. During Wednesday we had noticed quite a lot of activity in the garden, with construction of a stage and decorations taking place.

Off to Connaught Place by autorickshaw to find an ATM, a mission accomplished fairly quickly. We then found a mobile phone shop in order to sort out a pay-as-you-go SIM card. The call costs from Indian mobiles seem to be considerably lower than in the UK, with most calls being less that Rs5 per minute and calls to the UK being much cheaper than using our Virgin Mobile accounts.

We wandered round the circular roads around Connaught Place, both of us a little disappappointed by how run down the area was. Back to the hotel for a rest and to pay our deposit for the train tickets, and then out for a walk to the railway station to familiarise ourselves with it before our 6.05am train the next day.

Both on the way to the station and at Connaught Sq. Vic was the victim of so called ‘Eve Teasing’, where men seem to think that it’s fine to grope a woman who is walking down the street. Vic was conservatively dressed (trousers & shirt) and obviously with me. Unfortunately, it was always done when Vic was behind me and she didn’t mention it until we got back to the hotel. The attitude towards women in general and Western women in particular is very bad, with the latter being seen as easy prey.

Back at the hotel, we went to pick up our train tickets. They had our ticket to Jaipur, and a “waiting list” ticket to Nawalgarh, but said that the train to Bikaner was “full”. By “full” they actually meant non-existant. The only way from Nawalgarh to Bikaner by train was to get a train back to Jaipur, and then go to Bikaner from there, but we now had a pretty useless one-way ticket to Nawalgarh. Oh, and they charged us twice the previously agreed commission rate of Rs50 per ticket. Not best pleased , but a useful learning experience.

As we settled back in our room, the stage outside erupted into action, initially with a group of people worshipping, followed by what seemed to be an over-amplified play with much cheering from the crowd which had gathered. Fortunately this only lasted three hours so we were able to get a decent night’s sleep before our early start on Friday.