Waking before dawn on our fourth morning in India, we said goodbye to Rick and his family, and Delhi, and caught a train to Jaipur. The train station was a bit crazy–it was nearly impossible to figure out where to go, signage didn’t make sense and the loudspeaker through which they called the trains and platforms sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. But finally, we found our train, and managed to locate both the correct car and our seats.
As this was our first time on an Indian train, we decided to book first class seats. First class is not as grandiose as it sounds, and it’s actually pretty inexpensive, far less than coach tickets on Amtrak here in the states. But don’t get me wrong, it is quite comfortable–very roomy, in fact–and the porter comes through several times during the ride, first with a liter of water for each person, then tea and biscuits, then a hot meal. It was eminently civilized.
Which made the contrast of what you see out of the train windows so striking: mile after mile after mile of, essentially, slums. It wasn’t shocking, per se; we had been prepared to encounter the extreme poverty of parts of India. And in fact, we hadn’t really seen much of that in Delhi, somewhat protected as we were by being guests of Brits who lived there.
But the scene out the train windows was more vast than expected. The sheer scale was overwhelming (overwhelming is a word that comes to mind frequently in India).
Along the tracks, we saw dozens of people getting ready for their day, and all that entails…clearly there were few if any toilet facilities in the crumbling buildings and tents and tin shacks. It felt wrong to be able to watch people at such private activities.
But what struck us most about what we were seeing was not the fact of the poverty, it was the very regularity of it. The people we saw were getting up and ready for their day; the children were washing their faces and brushing their teeth in front of basins of water, dressed in impossibly white school uniforms. They did not see themselves through the lens of an international news report, as a statistic on some chart about world poverty or population. They were simply going about their lives, sending their children to school, and surviving in conditions we could only imagine.
The needs, wants and complaints of the western world seemed absolutely ridiculous at that moment.
Arrival in Jaipur: after what felt like an hour scanning the crowd (it was probably only 10 minutes), we located the driver for our hotel, and gratefully got into the back of a white Ambassador taxi. The seats were covered in pristine white covers and the windows were covered with curtains. We soon realized why, as we encountered the first of many women tapping on the glass, asking for money.
We arrived at our hotel after a short drive, freshened up from the train ride, and then set out for the Pink City – the old city walled center. Not knowing quite which direction to walk in–and in any case the street the hotel was on seemed more of a highway than a walkable street–we took a cab to the edge of the Pink City. We began walking, without a clear idea of where we were or where we were headed, but just hoping to get our bearings.
After leaving the haze of Delhi, the warm sun in the desert climate of Jaipur felt wonderful. But far from the relaxing walks we took through the souks in Marrakech, walking through the Pink City felt much more challenging. The main streets are lined with shops, usually with covered galleries running along the front. Not one sidewalk was passable for more than a few feet, with entire stretches covered in goods for sale, piled with trash, or crumbled into ruins. Sometimes all three.
There are few if any street signs we could find, and maps turned out to be somewhat useless in this area. (For the record, the maps in the DK India book are laughable when it comes to this part of the world). We picked up a local map that eventually, after a lot of backtracking and circles, led us to our destination: the Hawah Mahal.
This “Palace of Winds” was built by a majarajah in 1799 to allow his royal harem to view the street life but still stay hidden from public view. It’s essentially a facade, and the “rooms” within are mostly open areas; it connects to the larger City Palace complex. Whatever you feel about its purpose, there’s no doubt the Hawah Mahal is an impressive and beautiful building, especially when the late afternoon light hits it just right and makes the pink sandstone almost glow.
Getting back to the hotel should have been easy, given that tuk-tuks (AKA auto rickshaws) abound, and we knew both the name of our hotel and the street it was on–about a 10-15 minute drive. However, it proved to be more difficult, as a few drivers quoted us fares much higher than they should have been; others didn’t seem to ever have heard of our hotel. After about 15 minutes or so, we did find a driver who looked at our map and agreed to a reasonable fare, and off we went, dodging the odd cow on the way.
And then stopped dead in traffic. We apparently were stuck in a rush hour of some sort, and it took us almost an hour of stop and go, detours, crazy driving, and honking. I’ll write more on Indian traffic another time, but suffice it to say we were a bit exhausted by the time we got back to our room, where a nice footbath soothed our dusty feet, and a glass of wine eased our aching heads.
Day two in Jaipur was all about the forts: Amber, Jaigarh, and Nahargarh. We arranged a car through the hotel, as there really no other way to get to all of these. Pictures say more about these forts than I ever could, particularly Amber, which is both a fort and palace complex. It’s so incredibly vast, and the views over Jaipur and the surrounding area from Jaigarh were breathtaking.
Particularly beautiful were several of the courtyards at Amber, including were the spectacular Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), one part of the private quarters of the majarajah, covered with inlaid glass and convex mirrors. I’m not sure pictures do this part justice, but trust me when I say Versailles has nothing on this place.
We managed all three forts before a very late lunch (breakfast at the hotel is hearty, so we were fine; but you definitely need to plan on lots of water for seeing these sites). Not knowing where to eat on the outskirts of Jaipur, we had to rely on the driver to bring us somewhere for lunch. Alas, as we should have expected, he dropped us off at a very touristy restaurant, evidenced by the buses out front, the “authentic buffet” on offer, and the “real Jaipur” memorabilia for sale by the door. We skipped the buffet and ordered from the menu, and actually the food was fine. Not memorable, but tasty and hot, and served with a smile.
With a full stomach, our driver assumed we would be quite interested in shopping, but as it was approaching mid-afternoon we had a better idea: Galtaji, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple. We had read that the best time to visit was late afternoon or early evening, as that’s when the monkeys gather in large groups down at the temple to bathe. Convincing our driver that no, we didn’t want to come back tomorrow, but also promising him that we would hire him for some more sightseeing the next day, he agreed.
Dropping us off at the base of a hill, our driver pointed us to the path we needed to take; the temple was on the other side of the hill, so we needed to go to the top and then down. The minute we exited the car, we were surrounded by five or six boys offering to be our guide. We had no need for, and really did not want, a guide, but they were insistent and refused to leave us alone. It wasn’t a question of money: we simply wanted to experience this by ourselves. It took quite bit of exchange before we finally made it clear we were not going to hire them, and although they hung back several followed us for a bit as we started walking up the hill.
This was one of the frustrations that we never really got used to. The other were the guards or official-looking guides at various sites, who would idly walk up and begin telling you about the ruin, mosque or monument you were currently looking at, and after a minute or so hold out his hand for money.
We had been prepared for outright begging, but this was different and felt far more awkward. Short of turning and walking away from the person, or telling them outright to stop talking–both actions very against our nature–there seemed to be no way to avoid this. Actually, we tried both and neither was effective in any case.
The climb to the Monkey Temple was long–much longer than we anticipated–and after a day touring the forts, our legs had already had a workout. But we were rewarded as we finally made our way down the far side to the temple, and saw dozens of monkeys running towards us up the hill. We were literally surrounded by monkeys. It was very cool. There was also a large pig, and a few cows, and a big yellow dog that accompanied us on our entire walk, like a canine guide.
Our final day consisted of a visit to another Jantar Mantar, this one much better preserved than the one in Delhi, the instruments more detailed and original markings more visible.
We also visited the City Palace and Museum, parts of which are really beautiful. External courtyard rooms contained crystal chandeliers. Doorways had elaborately painted motifs depicting seasons or dedicated to Hindu gods.
This gigantic (4000 liter) silver urn was one of a pair commissioned by Majarajah Sawai Madho Singh II to transport “pure” Ganges river water with him on his trip to England in 1901. They are, apparently, the largest silver vessels in the world.
All in all, a really good two and a half days in Jaipur. We accomplished just about everything we set out to, and survived our second Indian city on our own. We returned to the hotel for a bit of quiet reading by the pool, and to rest up for a very early flight the next morning, to our third destination on this trip: Calcutta.
Check out the beginning of our trip in Delhi here, or click the India tag to read all previous posts about the planning of this trip.