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Rajasthan, India - Part 1

"You from, Sir?"
"Switzerland."
"Oh, Switzerland! I go Switzerland next year!"
"Skiing?"
"Yeah, maybe skiing. You from Skiing?"

No, we're not from Skiing, but conversations like this happen all the time here in India, and are part of the amazing everyday life as a tourist (or "travelers", as some people prefer to be called). And travelers we are again, finally! And again, time to post our stories on this blog, so, off we go... A word of caution: this is the longest entry on this blog so far. It has not been easy to find internet connectivity fast enough to connect our laptop and upload the pictures. However, it's been such an intense time it would be a shame not to share it here. And don't forget, you can click on the images to get the full size.

Rahel and I arrived in Delhi on the same day - I was flying in from Zurich via Dubai, while she was coming from Kathmandu. A driver, which happened to work for a travel agency, picked us up at the airport and took us to the hotel. The hotel was not overly exciting: a bit run down, no windows, but at least quite central and, most importantly, it had available rooms (I was trying to book a hotel room from Zurich, but most hotels didn't answer my emails and those who did were booked out).

Because we had the impression that everything was booked out, and because we thought that the driver (who picked us up from the airport) was a nice guy, we got into contact with the travel agency he works for on the next day, and rather spontaneously booked a full tour for our three and a half week stay in India. Everything was organized: hotels, transport, tours. We've never done anything like this before, but the prospect of getting the chance to visit a lot of places, having our own driver and car, and not needing to check out an endless number of hotels seemed like a good idea (and is in total contrast to what we've done so far, and to what we will be doing in New Zealand).

We must confess that we initially feared that we had been ripped off - everything went so fast and sounded so good, and looking back, we probably would have been an easy prey. However, it really was the driver who intuitively seemed like such a nice guy that the whole idea of a scam seemed absurd. We're now on the 16th day of this tour and we're lucky to say that we've made the right decision to trust our instincts. So far, it has been a great trip. It's basically a tour around Rajasthan, one of 29 Indian states and home to some of the most impressive forts and palaces and extraordinay cities, a place of fables and royal heritage. Also, we included a trip to the Taj Mahal and to Varanasi, a city at the river Ganges and one of the four sacred places of Buddhism and Hinduism.

The first two days we spent being driven around in Delhi and looking at various interesting sights (of which there are many!). We will spare you with the details, but Delhi was as expected: noisy and intense. It's the sixth biggest city in the world, and will probably be number 4 in ten years. Twice as many people live in Delhi as in Switzerland. Although we were prepared for some intense experiences, and although we had our own driver and vehicle, Delhi was very very exhausting. There simply is no privacy. At every stop there are people rushing to your car showing their disabilities and open wounds and asking for some money to buy food. We decided to ignore them as much as we could, but most of the time felt horribly sorry for these people, especially the kids. Architecturally, the sights in Delhi are fantastic, and the old historical buildings (up to a thousand years old) alone are worth a visit.

On the last of our three nights in Delhi, we met with Kaushik, a guy we contacted via couchsurfing. We went out with him and ended up in a private party somewhere in Delhi with people from all around the world. You learn so much about a place by getting to know the local people anywhere in the world. This is something we want to do in other places in India as well, and couchsurfing seems like an ideal platform to do that.

The next morning, we left Delhi and drove almost the entire day through small, rural villages. Already after about 100km after Delhi, we felt like having travelled backwards in time. Life there looks like what it probably looked like centuries agos ago. People stared at us as if they hadn't seen Europeans before. In the early evening, we arrived in a village called Mandawa, famous for its "Havelis", i.e. large merchant residences built about 200 years ago with vibrant, colorful murals. The most beautiful haveli has been turned into a heritage hotel, and it was the one we stayed at. We were the only guests that night which seemed a bit strange, but at least it was quiet! However, it was quite cold at night as the rooms were not heated, and we were quite glad to have our sleeping bags with us. We now know that the concept of a heating system simply doesn't exist here, and after having learned that temperatures rise above 40 degrees celsius during 9 months of the year, we also know why.

The morning after, we had a short tour through the village and then drove to a larger city called Bikaner. Bikaner has a large, impressive fort (about 1000 m walls), and it was easy to imagine how it felt living there during the time of the Maharajas. The next day, we went to an unusual temple: the Karni Mata Temple, home to hordes of holy rats. The locals believe that because these rats are holy, they don't get sick and cannot spread any diseases. At least that's what they claim to believe, although it was pretty obvious the many of the rats were dead sick. Anyways, an interesting place.

Next, we went to visit a Jain Temple. We wouldn't loose a word about YAT ("yet another temple"), but this one stood out because it was small (for a change) and extremely beautiful, and because it's not everyday that you enter a temple of a religion you hardly heard of. Out of many interesting facts about this decidedly non-violent religion, the Jains believe that the universe is infinite and was not created by a deity. Not bad for a religion founded around 500 B.C. Makes Genesis look like a fairy tale. Oh, wait...

On the way back to the city, we also visited the National Camel Research Center. Amazing place, full of camels (surprising, I know). Camels are amazing animals, and were quite eager to go on a Camel Safari two days later, out in the Thar desert.

The next morning, we drove to a city called Jaisalmer. This was the most eastern part we would ever go to, only about 60 km from the Pakistani border. It was a rough ride, as the streets started to get quite bad. We stayed in a beautiful hotel which has been some kind of palace in the old days. One of things that is really amazing in Rajasthan is that many of the hotels are heritage hotels, and we could have easily stayed longer in many of the hotels just to relax, read and drink chai.

Jaisalmer is famous for its fort which literally looks like a sand castle. It stands in the middle of the golden city, on a three peaked hill, straight out of an oriental fairy tale. An absolutely amazing place we will never forget. Sad enough, tourism has taken its toll: the fort is full of restaurants and guesthouses, and the official opinion is that if this development is not stopped, the fort will collapse one day. We were quite glad we were booked in a hotel outside of the fort.

The day after, we went on an overnight Camel safari in the desert. It was just the two of us, a guide and a kid who helped him. It was an interesting experience, but Rahel must have eaten something bad somewhere, or maybe she had too much sun on that day, but she spend a part of the night throwing up. Plus, it was very very cold, and I hardly couldn't sleep because I woke up shivering ever half an hour. Also, the guide there was a bit a strange person: he told us stories of the death of his father in law, and how much he had to pay for the burial. It's absolutely common that people whine about how much bad luck they had recently (only in the presence of tourists, of course), but the story this guy came up with was so bad and so blatant a lie that we gave him a good tip for the entertainment he provided.

After the safari, we drove to the city of Jodhpur where we basically went to the hotel, checked in and fell asleep until early in the afternoon the next day. Jodhpur goes under the name of "the blue city", because a large part of the houses in the old city are painted in blue. The fort in Jodphur was absolutely fantastic - looking back now, it's easy to say that this was the most beautiful fort in all of Rajasthan, and we've seen a lot.

The next morning, we were driving to our next destination, the city of Udaipur. To do so, we had to cross the mountain range that goes through the state of Rajasthan from north to south, the Aravalli Range. A very beautiful area, and according to the guide book, the oldest mountain range on the planet. In the middle of it, we stopped at a place called Ranakpur, to visit another Jain Temple. We were not very interested to see yet another temple, but now we are glad we did. This was by far the most beautiful religious building we have ever seen in our whole life. It's impossible to describe it, and impossible to catch its beauty with a picture. The temple is made out of marble, a complicated series of 29 halls supported by a forest of 1444 carved pillars of which no two are alike. It was absolutely phenomenal.

We drove on to Udaipur, where we stayed in the most beautiful hotel of the entire trip so far. It was an old palace, and we had a huge, spacious room with two balconies with beds (!!), overlooking the garden where birds would sing and monkeys would play. Udaipur is "the romantic city", and it really is gorgeous. Surrounded by hills, it has an artificial lake which has dried out in recent years, but because the past monsoon was quite wet, the lake was full again.

Let's come to an end for this blog entry. Up to Udaipur, the trip has been fantastic, and it turned out to get even better: only a few days later, we would see three Tigers in Ranthambhore National Park, one as close as two meters from our jeep (which was open-sided!). But more about this later. We are currently in Jaipur, the state capital, and will head on to the Taj Mahal tomorrow.

A final word about everyday life as a tourist in India: it's intense. People stare at us as if we were from a distant planet, and we never experienced something like that before, not even in Africa. Well, you have to get used to it. Then there's the money and begging issue, as described above. You have to learn to ignore it. Then, there's the trust issue. In shops, restaurants, even at museums we hardly ever get the correct change. We've heard an enormous variety of lies from all kinds of people (some of them were so absurd that even our driver had to laugh when we told him). You have to be very careful or you are fooled every minute. On the other hand, it's superbly safe. There's a lot of hassle, sure, but never any violence. Amusingly, they are afraid to give us spicy food. We insist on spicy food in resaurants when we order, but they just smile and give us the mild food because they think we can't handle it. We asked, begged for spicy food, learned to order spicy food in Hindi, nothing worked. It got to the point where we had to return the food and say this was not what we ordered, and that we are disappointed that Indian food is not spicy at all! From that moment on, it worked ;-) All of this gets better, as always, when you leave the cities and go to the villages. But it takes its toll on you. Just yesterday we met a woman from the US who had travelled everywhere, spent half a year in Africa and was always proud of herself that she could handle any place in the world. She said she couldn't handle India.

For us, it's easier, presumably because we have a private car and driver, and stay in nice hotels. It's still intense though, but we enjoy it a lot. It has been the best time of the entire trip so far.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 28, 2007 12:10 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Nepal.

The next post in this blog is India - Part 2.

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