April 2, 2008

To The Taj....

Rajasthan really is the India of postcards, the spectacular forts and magnificent palaces have survived colonialism and demonstrate the power and wealth that once existed across this land. It was an India vastly different to today. Probably one of the most striking elements of Rajasthan is comportment of the men. Even the smallest dustiest villages are full of proud moustached gentlemen wearing vividly coloured turbans and baggy jodhpur trousers. Different chaste, status and occasions call for different coloured turbans creating a fantastic multicolour spectacle.

Our next stop was the old city of Jodhpur, surrounded by old city walls and dominated by the restored Mehrangarh Fort. It is an ancient castle of the Rajputs, the princely clans who are native to the state of Rajasthan, and claim to have descended from the sun. The fort is awesomely perched over the town looking like something straight out of a story book. Many of the buildings in the old city are blue, a holdover from the old days when residents of the Brahmin caste distinguished themselves from their lower-caste brethren by painting their buildings a distinctive color. Now it no longer denotes caste status, but it lends the city a romantic hue when you view it from the ramparts of the fort.

Merenghar Castle is set up like a living museum and a visit there is made worthwhile by the excellent audio tour, narrated in parts by the current Maharajah himself, which explains the odds and ends of the castle and relates stories behind all the important rooms and artifacts. The complete presentation allows visitors to get good insight to how life within the fort was many years ago from how it was defended during attacks to the sad little hand prints of all the widows of Maharajah Man Singh, who committed "sati" upon his death. This was common Rajput practice where the wives accompanied the funeral procession out of the castle and sat on the pyre with their dead husband and were burned alive in silence. Suffice to say we left very impressed with the castle and the tour.

After spending four hours standing waiting for the Jodphur train booking system to recover after a system crash we secured tickets onwards to Delhi. We were queuing at the "Foreigners, Senior Citizens and Ladies" window and so were entertained by a couple of elderly gentleman who happily discussed everything from soccer to President Sarkozy's new wife. As expected once the system recovered the mood of the queue rapidly deteriorated as a cut throat push to get to the front ensued. Some things never change!

Delhi became our base for about a week as we sorted out visas for the next leg of the trip. We took a side trip to Agra for a couple of day to tick the big box of the Taj Mahal. People in the past who have been to Agra warned me that the Taj Mahal is fantastic but the surrounds leave a lot to be desired. Our experience was quite the opposite, perhaps there has been some huge effort to clean up rubbish in the surrounding area. The approach to the Taj Mahal is breathtaking you don't actually see the building until you pass through an arch and it suddenly comes into view.

We returned to Delhi to get ready for our trip to Australia .... talk for the last few days was centred upon all the things we were looking forward to eating when we got there. Murphys Law worked against us and we managed to pick up a nasty bug somewhere between Delhi airport and Melbourne that knocked us out of eating action for a while. We've since recovered and made up for it!

We've spend a few weeks here in Melbourne enjoying 40 degree weather followed by a sudden drop down to 10 degrees that saw us searching through boxes for some winter layers. It's been a hectic few weeks catching up with family and friends. The Nance's threw a big homecoming/ engagement party for us. Thanks Julian & Daina.

Melburnians - good to see you all again. Thanks for all the good wishes. See you soon.

We fly back to Delhi tomorrow morning to begin our travels north, across Pakistan and on into the Middle East. Stay Tuned for more....

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Bollywood to Rajasthan....

:: Mumbai...really ::

Having read the Mumbai based novel "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts it's hard not to have preconceptions about Mumbai as a city. The novel portrays Mumbai as a vibrant, colourful city harbouring a huge underbelly of crime and poverty. We got there more paranoid than usual about being robbed and were super vigilant of pickpockets and scams. In reality it was no more dangerous or grim than any other stop on our travels. We peeked into Leopold's to see what was happening and were disappointed to find a modern bar, expensive menu and large groups of tourists hobnobbing - sadly the old world charm depicted in the book was jettisoned in favour of shiny surfaces and clean lines.

Outside the slums, Old Bombay resembles London, with huge imposing buildings, wide boulevard streets and huge park areas. As the home of Bollywood it has lots of high end shops and restaurants catering to the glitzy set. We took an evening walk down to Chowpatty beach passing massive wedding marquees which we peeped into.... (the rage seems to be thirty man orchestras and multicoloured water fountains). Amazingly most of the restaurants we ate in in Mumbai ended up being South Indian ones rather than the North Indian food we were craving. I guess it's a novelty there!

:: Gurgarati Thali ::

Moving north we decided to spend a couple of days in Gurgarati State; normally travellers scoot through as there's not really too many tourist attractions so the State itself receives few visitors. On a positive side, when tourists do stop they are a real novelty and warmly welcomed. Arriving before dawn off a night train we made our way to the bus station where an enthusiastic chai man (man with big kettle of tea and stash of plastic cups) dashed around waking random sleeping people up so that we would have somewhere to sit down. Within minutes everyone waiting for their respective buses knew exactly where we were going and the second the bus appeared we were practically carried onto it. After an exhausting day of travel we reached the island of Diu, a tiny ex-Portuguese port town that enjoys special tax exemptions on alcohol. In other words, in this strict vegetarian and alcohol free state this is the place where people come to let their hair down. Our big effort to get to Diu was rewarded by an amazing couple of days exploring the imposing fort, tootling around the island on a beat up motorbike, sitting on a deserted beach and tucking into some of the best thali meals that we've had in India.

:: Udaipur ::

After a few days off the beaten track we found ourselves on a bus destined for Rajasthan State and the city of Udaipur which is most definitely on the tourists must-do list. Udaipur is a spectacularly romantic city built on around a picturesque lake. It has a remarkable resemblance to Varanasi, as the sun sets, a warm glow bounces off the ghats around the late but obviously Udaipur it is far more palatable due to the lack of burning bodies at the waterside and cow shit on the streets. Udaipur was probably the first place we've been in India where we've seen lots of luxurious accommodation - the India in the travel magazines where you stay in a Maharaja's palace in the lap of luxury. As it happens we didn't have such bad view from our budget quarters.

:: Bundi ::

Out next stop was Bundi, a beautiful blue city nestled on the foothold of a huge palace. The palace itself is currently under restoration but completion is a long way off so visiting it evokes the feeling that you are one of the few people lucky enough to stumble upon it and admire its turquoise murals and awesome views out over the blue city and on through the surrounding valleys. It's also home to some scary looking monkeys who demand to be fed before they allow passage through their domain - they didn't look like the type that would be willing to negotiate so we had to curtail trek up behind the palace to the top of the fort.

:: Pushkar Lake ::

Pushing northwards we stopped in the holy town of Pushkar on the shore of Lake Pushkar. Originally a holy city with five principle temples and 52 ghats it's now a little tourist oasis and the guesthouses and restaurants far outnumber the holy sites. It's the ideal place to kick back for a day or two and enjoy some home comforts. On the narrow main street tourists flock to pig out on cheap stuffed nans washed down with fresh fruit juices. We spent a couple of days sampling the street food and people watching before we got bored and decided it was time to head west out into the Thar desert to Jaisalmer city, 100 miles from the Pakistani border.

:: Serenity ::

Rajasthan State in India is home to some big ticket places such as Udapur, Pushkar, Jaisalmer and it's neighbours Delhi and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In short it's on most people's itinerary. Sadly more so than elsewhere in India, there is a pool of sharks lying in wait ready to turn a buck and relieve you of the contents of your wallet. We've run into some backpackers and tourists who arrive and are completely intimated by the all the touts, beggars and scam artists, so much so that they end up opting to spend more time in their hotel than bother to put up with all the hassle. After this long on the road we've developed an ability to ignore people and move through crowds quickly so that level of hassle is easily dismissed. What is harder to wear are blatant lies, extortion and unreasonable opportunism. Such examples have been when we've paid big money into a fort or museum only to find someone has stationed themselves as a welcoming committee on the grim toilets asking that you "pay as you like" ... when in fact it should be free. We've checked out of a hotel and a random member of staff we've never seen before has demanded a tip. And the most irritatingly has been when we've gone to a street seller to buy sweets, we get in the long queue but by the time we get to the top the seller suddenly forgets the unit price of the sweet he's been selling all day and needs to "double check" with someone else and naturally comes back with a greed inflated orice.

Our month in Rajasthan was peppered by a few such run ins. After a long night bus to Jaisalmer a opportunist got on the bus and went around all the tourists conveniently selling them a "tourist tax ticket - valid for one day". No such thing exists but I'm sure tired tourists fork out for it everyday. Marcus refused to pay on the basis that the word "municipal" was incorrectly spelt therefore it had to be a fraud - it's a good point though, when it comes to using proper English the Indian's are sticklers for the small things. When we did reach Jaisalmer the bus pulled into a parking lot and we stepped out to a vociferous swarm of touts frantically waving massive placards and pushing on mass towards the bus, I've never seen so many touts before. We actually felt famous, I know why the stars hate the paparazzi now. Local police acted like bodyguards pushing the mob away from the bus and providing a channel through which we could pass. It was a great camera moment that we missed. I remember looking back over a policeman's shoulder to see Marcus on the steps of the bus grinning and waving to the crowd ... enjoying every second of the spectacle. A few lies later and Jaisalmer fort had gone from being "too far to walk" to being "10 minutes walk up that road". By taxi you'll always be taken the scenic route which is the more profitable full lap round the forted city dropping you off a few hundred metres from you jumped in.

:: Desert Fort in Jaialmer ::

All that being said Jaisalmer is incredibly beautiful, the yellow fort sits restored on the top of a hill majestically looking out over the desert. We stayed in a cute little guesthouse within the walls which was a real novelty. In the evenings we sat on the rooftop looking out over the setting sun. Due to a tight schedule we decided to leave Jaisalmer just before the desert festival started. It probably would have been amusing as there were best moustache competitions, polo on camels and all those other weird events that'd you'd expect on the bill of a desert festival.

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