Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cows, shawls and red – a Rajasthan odyssey, Part II

We visited Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar and finally, utterly exhausted and palace-ed out, finished the Jaipur. We spent on average an evening and a full day in each place, and traveled every other day covering about 350km from one place to another for an average of 6 hours per trip. While arguably a roadtrip is the best way to see a country, there were moments when my behind was so numb from sitting in the back seat of the car that I’d have to walk for a few minutes before I would feel it looming behind me again. You’d think that all that fat I’ve accumulated there would provide some padding. Another issue is what to do for 6 hours in the car if reading is not an option for you since you get nauseous reading in the back seat. After taking pictures for an hour, having thoughtful conversation about culture with the Diplomat for another, playing 389 games of gin rummy on my cell phone, staring blankly at the desert, sleeping in most awkward positions resulting in severe back pain, one really starts looking forward to reaching that damn hotel room. Once there, we would rest, shower and get ready for a walk in the dusky town. Then off to dinner in a nice, romantic place (everywhere we went, we opted for open air restaurants, preferably with views of the palace/fort/local attraction. I will share my recommendations below.

I was mostly impressed by the palace inside the Junagarh fort in Bikaner – a much less traveled destination and often out of the usual tourist path, the palace there is breathtaking inside. It is both beautiful and incredibly well preserved. I highly recommend including Bikaner on your itinerary. For dinner, there is pretty much only one place -Gallops , right in front of the fort. Luckily, the setting is gorgeous, the food outstanding and the ambiance lovely. Other highlights of the trip were

-        --  The fort in Jaisalmer, which remains the oldest still living and breathing fort in the world – people actually still live and trade there much like they did in 1156. For dinner in Jaisalmer strong recommendation is Saffron on the rooftop of Nachana Haveli (haveli means a mansion) - an incredibly romantic restaurant serving food under the stars. If you will try lal maas anywhere in Rajasthan, this should be it – it is organic and it is spectacular. For lunch – Shanti located in the fort and offering stunning views of the city. You MUST have the tandoori chicken there, it is the BEST we had ever had.

-         -- Spending the night in a tent in the Thar Desert after riding a camel into the sunset. OK, it sounds way better than it was in reality given that we were surrounded by about 1000 Indian and Western tourists, all on camels
      or camel carts, rolling about the dunes, eating and drinking and screaming loudly with pleasure. And the tents were Swiss and each had a bathroom area with running water and sitting toilet. Still, it was great and highly recommended as an experience.

-         -- The Blue City in Jodhpur best seen from Mehrangarh Fort. For food in Jodhpur go to Pal Haveli’s Indique – a gorgeous setting on top of an old haveli, offering beautiful vista of the looming fort in the near distance. Order a bottle of Indian Sula Sauvignon Blanc, my current favorite wine. Enjoy. Mention me with appreciation. In Jodhpur, we stayed at Ratan Vilas, a beautiful haveli with free wi fi! Every morning, we would see the owner sitting on a chair in the garden, reading his newspaper in the scant morning sun, greeting the guests regally.


    -- The Pichola Lake in Udaipur – take the touristy boat
    ride around the lake, and enjoy a glass of cold King Fisher beer on the Jag Mandir island. In Idipur, we stayed in a gorgeous haveli overlooking the lake and I would highly recommend it – Karohi Haveli. It also
     has a great rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake and the palaces. Dead romantic! Also had free wi-fi.
           -- The camel fair in Pushkar – turns out, once a year for less than a week, all self-respecting camel and horse breeders in Rajasthan go to Pushkar to trade the goods. We happened to be passing by the city when the fair was full on. I got to hug a tiny goat. Yey. Forget cats and dogs, the face of a baby goat is so cute and so soft that only common sense and fear for personal hygiene stopped me from kissing it passionately all over. I also got to pee in a make-shift desert toilet (see below)at the fair. It consisted of 4 rods, some tin and a rag. It was drafty, to say the least.

-          I was underwhelmed by Jaipur. Who knows why – the pink of the city was beautiful, the palace was OK, and the city architecture was fascinating. Perhaps it was too big and modern of a city, where I was expecting the usual small historic town feel and magic in the air. I do have a restaurant recommendation though – a brand new affair called Wassup in Ashok Nagar. It serves international cuisine of excellent quality and flair, and the setting is beautiful. Set on two floors, it reminded me of sitting on a tree in the middle of a jungle.

      I have several pieces of advice as well as a few astute observations for those who are contemplating similar pursuits:
  1.   I have never seen so many loitering cows in my entire life! For real. They were EVERYWHERE!  In the streets, around the cars, over the cars, on top of merchandise, in the middle of the street dozing off, in the temples, in the palaces, in gardens, toilets, restaurants, markets, in the trash, in people’s laundry, in the back yards, in the front yards, in the main squares. Holy cow!
  2.  If I ever live to see another woolen shawl, I’d shoot myself. Rajasthan is DA land of those damn shawls, made from camel wool, pashmina, other wool, silk, half-silk or who knows what acrylic craptastic material. Everywhere you go, there are a gazillion scarves hanging from all nooks and crannies and everyone is trying to sell you one every 2 minutes.
  3. Women there wear a different variation of the usual saree – they don’t wrap a long fabric around, but wear a skirt and a top, and a long transparent scarf draped over their faces, all richly decorated with beads and shiny things. The color of the long scarf is usually bright red or purple, which makes for a very cheerful sight every time a woman passes in the street.
  4. Indian tourists have re-discovered their land and are now about 90% of the visitors in Rajasthan. I cannot really vouch how fascinating they find the palaces and the forts, but they obsessively took pictures of everything they saw on their phones. Indian tourists also have not lost their fascination with foreigners. I think I was photographed almost as much as the palaces themselves. The weirdest request came from a newly-wed girl who asked me to take a picture with her husband?!? I refused. Seriously...
  5. I have NEVER been asked so many times in my life, “M’am, your country?” usually in a hurried, demanding sort of way. In the beginning, I was polite and would respond that I was from America to the oohs and awwws of my captive audience. Then, I got bored and started saying things like, “I am from Bangladesh,” or “I am from Sweden,” and even, “I am Indian, why?” The whole thing eroded further, and to “M’am, your country?” I began to reply – “My country is beautiful” “My country is great” or even “IS very far away.” The final drop in the bucket was in Kolkata on the way back, where I was standing exhausted waiting for our luggage around 10.30 pm to go and spend the night in a shady hotel near the airport. A middle-aged lady next to me was having a most inane conversation with her husband when she suddenly turned to me, and out of the blue asked me the blasted question. Unnerved, tired and highly irritable, I snapped, “And what is to you lady, am I asking YOU what YOUR country is???” Not my finest moment, I admit, but let’s just say she had bad timing. The problem was that we were the last people there, and our luggage wasn’t coming so it got a little awkward for a while.

All in all, an amazing vacation and highly recommended. Any questions are welcome. Again, I recommend using a tour company to book your hotels and car transfers. We saw a fair amount of Western tourists who thought they’d wing it on the spot and book places as they went. They all ended up in dingy hotels with no running water or were flat out told their reservations did not exist. Awesome. were excellent and when we go to Kerala next year, I think we’ll use them again. 


  1. a credible travel account and a very fascinating one. hope to see the photographs soon.

  2. I loved the make-shift toilet...I could just picture you there, totally stylish :)

  3. Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal, so it will be helpful info for my works.

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