Along the Away

a traveler's tales

Archive for June, 2011

Ummm yep, I went for a ride on this (noticed the windscreen after the trip had commenced)…

Next stop was Jaipur – the capital of the state of Rajasthan and one of my favourite places thanks to its bustling vibe, filled with bazaars and busy streets. We had a lot of fun attempting to fit as many people in an auto-rickshaw as possible (eight! But apparently you can fit 12 if necessary) which resulted in lots of in-unison-screeching as pot holes sent eight heads bashing onto the rickshaw ceiling and butts slamming onto the hard skinny seats – but lots of laughs too of course!

A Jaipur highlight was seeing a bollywood film at the Raj Mandir theatre, deliciously retro with its candy pink and baby blue foyer complete with chandeliers and star-shaped lights. We felt like celebrities out the front where an Indian tourist came over to us to introduce his family and have photos with us. The film, Thank You (थैंक यू), was in Hindi, no subtitles, but still universally entertaining (cheesiness knows no language barriers).

Another Jaipur must-do is the trek up the hillside, past a heap of crazed monkeys, to the Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple at sunset. What a fabulous view of Jaipur from the top! The monkeys are spoilt, aggressive little brats that you have to avoid making eye contact with otherwise they will jump you and mug you for everything you have on your person. But apart from that, we enjoyed a perfectly pleasant visit speed walking past the monkeys and taking photos from the top.

There was some good shopping to be done in Jaipur’s bazaars, in particular for silver jewellery – proud to say I played my part in supporting the local economy. Yep, that’s what it’s all about! As I was wandering around the bazaars with the girls we stopped to window gaze at a silver store. The next thing we knew we had been whisked inside the door by a peppy young guy who smoothly had us all lined up in seats at the counter, offering to make us tea while pulling out trays and trays of shiny silver pretties! Normally I’d be backing out the door at this point but there was just something about him, his keen entrepreneur spirit seemed genuine and he chatted away giving us an art history lesson in Indian traditional and contemporary jewellery. We liked him and more importantly we liked his trays of shiny silver pretties so it was not long until we all had our wallets out.

The bazaars are brilliant to wander through; photo moments at every corner, each store packed with a colourful variety of produce, sweets, spices – well everything actually! And the store owners were only too happy to have their stock and themselves photographed.

The tour of Amber Fort near Jaipur was a favourite for me; what an awesome presence this late 16th century citadel has, staking its claim with stone walls running along the mountain tops wherever the eye can see. Predominantly constructed with red sandstone and white marble, the fort sits picturesquely next to Lake Maotha and stands four floors high. The imposing exterior fits into the rugged landscape perfectly but the interior is a piece of art. Intricately carved columns, mirror-inlaid patterned wall panels, paintings flaking away but still showing glimpses of vibrant colour – the attention to detail inside is exquisite and one can only imagine what life was like for those who lived and worked inside the fort when it was in its prime; especially with furniture and textiles further cosying up the ambience.

The four floors all seemed to serve a purpose, the bottom set the scene for parades and the bustling bazaar, another held offices of the ruling empire and halls for public and private audiences, and another housed the consorts (100+ of them!), gardens and temple. The top floor was home to the twelve wives, all set up in their own mini-palace apartments accessible by the Maharaja by a discreet common corridor so that no one but he knew who he was visiting and how often, diplomatically maintaining harmony in the household! Diplomacy was one thing the Amber Fort was lauded for; the careful attention to neutrality and strategic alliances with other ruling forces, from nearby kings to the British meant Amber Fort enjoyed relative peace and was never attacked or conquered. I’m sure the impressive walls and outposts on the surrounding mountains also helped :-).

Rajasthan adventures continue in the next post…!

Leaving the Taj behind us, we travelled by local jeeps to a rural village heritage stay at Madhogarh Fort – a dominating-mama of a building perched at the edge of a small village.  The 400+ year old fort belongs to one of Rajasthan’s royal families and provided a unique stay in a more rural part of Rajasthan.

We were lucky to spend an afternoon walking through the local village where we were accosted by local children begging for ‘one photo’ then clamouring to see the end result on the camera preview.

We met so many charming personalities through our walk in the village, and even through the language barrier we had fun stopping for a few minutes to take photos and show the results.

We were able to visit the school and some local bead makers and sari embroiders.

And watched village life as it continued rolling on around us.

Gradually it seemed that news of our visit spread through the town as we started to attract more attention, and after we stumbled on a wedding celebration in the village we were completely surrounded. The cameras were turned on us as the wedding photographers came over to snap away. We became aware of a commotion happening to the side of us and noticed the musicians were playing their drums and instruments amongst a throng of people smiling and pointing into the circle they had made; on closer inspection we saw Alan, an older Melbournian on our tour, putting on a dance performance with one of the Indian guests. He was clapping and foot stamping and waltzing around with a big grin on his face much to the delight of the entire wedding party. I think it certainly made the event the talk of the town for the rest of the year!

After returning to the fort, the sun started setting on the horizon and it was a perfect time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the crumbling building. It has its own brand of charm, perched above the village with the rural landscape flat-lining all the way to the horizon. We sat on the top of a turret and watched the sun set with cold drinks – ah, peace!

That night we were dressed up in traditional skirts, tops and saris for the girls and turbans for the boys and then enjoyed dinner in the courtyard under the stars – which were popping out on the sky-scape away from the bright lights of urban India. A very special experience!

From Delhi I was off to explore Rajasthan – the land of palaces, forts, scorching summer heat and colourful villages; a very culturally diverse part of India. I joined a Classic Rajasthan two week Intrepid Travel tour with ten other travellers and a guide. It had a great itinerary and attracted an awesome group of people; we had a lot of fun and many laughs as we explored this amazing part of India.

We were meant to get a train to Agra but after an early morning trip to the train station our train turned up but with no seats for us! Something to do with the Indian ticket confirmation system – our tickets had been BOUGHT, but hadn’t been CONFIRMED, so they’d been resold. Why does that not surprise me in the slightest? Ah India! Nevermind, off we went in rickshaws to an empty bus station and got on a bus instead. It was an enjoyable four hour ride, if a little hot and sticky but nothing an open window and an ipod can’t improve.

No room for us!

Once in Agra we made an afternoon visit to the impressive Red Fort, the imperial walled city of the Mughal empires.  The massive fortress encloses multiple palaces, two exquisite mosques, a hall-of-public-audiences, a hall-of-private audiences and a tower in which Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son for the final eight years of his life due to a power struggle between his sons to reign the empire.

Legend has it that Shah Jahan died in his tower looking out across the Yamuna River at the Taj Mahal, the monument he built in memory of his love for his deceased wife. A pretty tragic ending for the guy who gave history its biggest statement of eternal love. The palatial tower where he ended his time was not too shabby mind you, he did dwell imprisoned in luxury next to the palaces of the concubines and even had a sort of ancient-times-jacuzzi. Not that you can put a value on freedom of course, but just saying, he wasn’t slumming it.

The view of the Taj from the Tower of Shah Jahan's Imprisonment

We had a guide take us around the fort and it was fascinating to hear about the history and functions of all the buildings, right down to the way the plumbing worked and even some ingenious air conditioning. Impressed!

The next morning it was time; time for a quintessential Indian experience – early morning at the Taj Mahal.

This beautiful, highly-recognisable domed monument is a mausoleum built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s third but favourite wife who died delivering their 14th child (yikes!) in 1631. The Taj took 21 years to build and is made of white marble and inlaid with gem stones and jewels.

I admit it was smaller than I expected, but still pretty spectacular. The atmosphere was very peaceful and quiet, with 17 ha of beautiful gardens surrounding the Taj and its structures including a mosque and gateway. There are plenty of benches scattered around the grounds on which to sit and absorb the scene.

Everyone who enters is immediately possessed by some sort of photo snapping obsessive compulsive disorder. No wonder it is considered the most photographed subject in the entire world – does anyone walk in, take a picture and put their camera away? No. No one does that. Everyone walks around and takes photos from every angle possible, and then maybe even goes around again (well the light had changed!!!) So, like the masses, I have about 6 million photos of the Taj Mahal. Super! Thank God for digital cameras.

Apparently there are some other monuments in Agra, but really it’s pretty much all about the Taj, which lets the Red Fort share a bit of the limelight as it sits in the Taj’s shadow; but they’re quite time consuming to visit so it’s pretty much all I fit in while in Agra – definitely a must see on the Rajasthan tourist trail!

With a reputation like Delhi’s it was an eerie arrival at the Delhi International airport, all squeaky clean with quietly humming travelators, helpful navigation signage, rubbish bins in convenient locations and no clumps of people camped indefinitely around the place. Oh there’s nothing like a global sporting event to tidy things up! Thanks to the 2011 Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup for my smooth and efficient arrival intoDelhi!

Even getting a taxi and the drive from the airport to the city was breezy, none of the expected taxi touts waiting for fresh blood outside the airport doors or the slum lined roads one expects. Ah, see the cynicism that results from a burned-by-India experience? Not to worry, once accepted back into the country without any issues (except the immigration officer reminding me I only have a month and a half left on my visa, yep thanks for that) I was good to go again and back on the ‘I heart India’ bandwagon. It was time to explore the north and I was excited! 

The long travel distances and the temptation to leave the logistics to someone else for awhile were enough to lure me to a tour, so I had booked a two week Intrepid backpacking tour of Rajasthan – but first I had a chance to look around Delhi.

The real Delhi – that is, the absolutely chaotic, sprawling city heaving with 12.8 million people – soon revealed itself in the teeny tiny little bit I saw.

Old Delhi is where the stereo-type is at. Established in 1639, it was previously enclosed within a great red stone wall which has since crumbled down around most of its fourteen former gates.

Walking through the crowded alleys in the bazaars here is an eye-opening experience; whereas a lot of the shenanigans I see in India no longer incite a blink of an eye from me, a result of previous experience in developing countries and having become accustomed to Indian ways over the past three months, Delhi has its own unique head-turners. The electricity poles and wires are absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Looking up to the sky from the streets there is a mass of tangled wire draping from pole to building to pole. I don’t know how they manage to deliver electricity to anything or how they don’t combust into flames in the Delhi heat but somehow it works (intermittent power cuts excused). Amazing!

There is a method to some of the madness. The laneways of the bazaars are sorted for convenience into themes. There’s a laneway of shops selling wedding stationery, a laneway for fireworks, another for bangles, for tassles and so on. The biggest spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli, is also in Old Delhi and well worth a wander. The streets are busy with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs and deliveries of boxes and bags of products via all of the above, and they are fascinating to walk around and watch it all unfolding.

Ducking into the occasional ‘residential’ alley is also a treat; beautiful doorways line either side, symbolising the affluent households of those in the ‘merchant’ castes who make their living in the bazaars.

The towering Jana Masjid was a fascinating first taste of ancient architecture in the north. It is India’s largest Mosque with a capacity for 25,000 people and was built between 1644-1658 in Old Delhi. 

It’s important to be covered up appropriately when entering the mosque, but even if you’re dressed head to toe, chances are they will still make you wear the brightly coloured floral mu-mu’s they dole out to the tourists to wear – on a stinky hot day I dread to think how many others have worn the bright orange garment they hand to me – but oh well, on it goes! My shoes are also handed over and it’s a quick dash to the shade as the white marble floor is scorching! But the mosque inside is beautiful and well worth the effort, as are the views across the city.

One of my favourite experiences in Old Delhi was visiting the Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj, which is built at the place the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded in 1675 by a Mughal emperor for refusing to convert to Islam. It was a unique experience from the start. Firstly we needed to stop by the visitor’s room where we were greeted by a Temple representative who gave us an introduction and head scarves to tie over our hair. We left our shoes outside and then walked towards the entrance stairs where we first stepped through a sort of trough on the ground filled with water – washing the feet of everyone who stepped into the temple. We entered the main worship area where three men were sitting cross legged at the front singing the kirtan (call and response chanting) from the Sikh Holy book which is on display next to them under a golden canopy. It was a very serene environment and I really enjoyed sitting cross legged on the floor with the devotees, listening for awhile.

When we moved on we went outside to the community kitchen, an important part of a Sikh Gurdwara – a place where everyone can eat together without discrimination regardless of gender, race, religion etc. Between 2000-4000 people are fed a hot yummy, healthy vegetarian meal for free here every day.

We were lucky to tour the kitchens and see all the food prep going on. Most impressive was the roti (round flat bread) dough being rolled out by some women seated on the floor and then fed into a machine and spat out all warm and toasty-delicious looking. There was some space around the table so myself and Annabelle, one of the girls on my tour, squatted down next to the women and smiled. They smiled back and rolled us some dough. My first attempt to roll the ball into a perfect circle was amusing enough to them but after a few I got the hang of it and it was a special moment to experience.

Situated south of Old Delhi is New Delhi, which was founded by the British in 1931 but over an area encompassing seven ancient cities so there is still plenty of historic sites in the area, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, 16th century Humayun’s Tomb. This impressive monument was built by the wife of the second mughal emperor and is made of red sandstone and white marble with design elements which were later replicated on the Taj Mahal. It is a very peaceful place to visit in an extremely busy city.

The heat of the Delhi daytime hit well into the mid-forties when I was there, which was pretty intense, so it was a relief to visit the night street market in Karol Bagh during the not-so-hot evening time. It’s a festive affair, with mounds of clothes, shoes, toys, bags and more more more. Anything and everything is available, so even though Delhi is currently at the height of its dry hot summer it was no great effort to pick up a raincoat in preparation for my future trip to the mountains. Even if you’re not buying, the markets are a feast for the senses and a great way to immerse yourself in the city vibe outside of the heat of the daytime.

Apart from these sights, my time in Delhi was spent eating (like everywhere in India there is yummy food galore and I am still a more than willing participant), some requisite shopping and escaping the midday heat with some hotel down time. I enjoyed what I saw in this crazy city but I admit it was with a slight sense of relief that I prepared to leave it for awhile – the sensory overload is a lot to take in for too many days in a row in such heat, however I’d happily come back and explore a bit more next time I come to India!

Next up Rajasthan, a wonderland of things to see and do… stay tuned :)