The eminent Kristian Lau and Ellie Smith were my first visitors in India last week! Okay, so they didn’t actually come to where I live, but they gave me a great opportunity to travel around the tourist spots of north India with them. We spent 10 days trotting around the forts and temples and rooftop cafes of Rajasthan (the state west of Delhi).
Most of the noteworthy sites in Rajasthan were constructed during the 16th to 19th centuries by rulers of the Mughal Empire, a bunch of Persian imperialists who were patrons of culture and intellect when they weren’t busy imprisoning their own fathers and entertaining their concubines. When Kristian first learned about the Mughals he couldn’t help but wonder aloud why the name sounded so familiar, until he realized it bore a striking resemblance to the non-wizarding communities of Harry Potter fame.
Every city in Rajasthan is different – has its own character, its own type of tourists, even its own color. We spent our first day in Jodhpur, the “blue city”, named for the use of indigo dye in paint (people thought it was a pesticide). We walked around the beautiful Mehrangarh Fort on the hill overlooking the town (the unfortunate site of the deadly stampede a few days later), and made friends with the sellers of overpriced pashminas at Baba’s Art Emporium, where apparently Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie have also been duped into buying at a 300% markup.
From Jodhpur we went south to Udaipur, the most romantic city in India (a great place for three plutonic friends to visit together). The most remarkable feature of the city, which is reminiscent of Venice except for the rickshaws and cows in the street, is a massive island palace that’s been turned into a hotel and is now accessible only if you stay there or shell out $100 for a meal. Jerks. But we did take a boat ride to a similarly cool island with a similarly enchanting palace. We also toured through the City Palace which has 12 different palaces all with different motifs, saw a sweet traditional dance show where a lady balanced 12 jugs on her head, and hung out with an entrepreneur who had just opened a coffee shop near our hotel.
Next we went to Pushkar, an important city for Hinduism because it houses the only temple to Lord Brahma in all of India. Unfortunately the city has turned into a haven for drug-addicted ravers (a rave was raided and 50 people were arrested a few days before we got there), and the sacred lakes you can visit near the temple are swarming with fake priests who pressure you to give massive amounts of money to pray for the health of your family. It did, however, score us some big bindis (the Hindu marking placed on the forehead during prayer, in this case consisting of red powder and dried rice), which we were still wearing none too gracefully along with our dirty sweaty clothes when we arrived at the 5-star hotel we were staying at in our next stop, Jaipur. It wasn’t too surprising when the receptionist, encountering three grimy young adults claiming a reservation on a platinum card that included a free suite upgrade (Kristian has a lot of hotel points from work travel), asked for ID.
So basically Jaipur consisted of us taking advantage of the free Sheraton. We did manage to find some time between the pool and the steam room to see the “pink city”, one of the three points of the Golden Triangle of India (the other two being Delhi and the Taj Mahal). These included the City Palace (complete with a south Indian movie set), Amber Fort (site of the biggest cannon in India, an unusual tourist attraction)
We left Jaipur a little later than expected (I blame the swimming pool) and consequently hadn’t quite reached our next destination, a remote tiger reserve, when we ran across a village protest around 10pm. The crowd (who knows what they were protesting) had dragged a tree across the road and weren’t letting any cars through. Our awesome driver, Chain, got tipped off that there was a way around the barricade through some dirt roads, which seemed like a great idea until we found ourselves at a fork with the options of getting our car stuck in some deep rivets or running into sleeping cows. We chose to turn around. Eventually we found our way around the protest though, and stumbled into our hotel (actually luxury tent camp) around 11pm. Which was great since we had a game drive at 6am.
Our trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve was well worth the adventure of getting there, though. On our afternoon drive we had an amazing sighting of a 300kg male tiger, aided by our jeep guide, who was clearly the alpha jeep guide (he tracked the tiger and informed all the other drivers). He also turned down my offer to sacrifice Kristian to the tigers as bait.
We finished our trip in Agra, where we got up at 6am (again) to catch the sunrise sighting of the Taj Mahal. The first clue that this was going to be a good visit was the fact that Kristian, Ellie and all other foreigners had to pay 750 rupees ($17) to get in, but as a “local” with an Indian tax ID card, I got in for 20 rupees. We had expected a crowded, touristy experience to an overhyped monument, but to our surprise this one actually lived up to its reputation. This tomb, built by the Mughal Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favorite wife (imagine how the others must have felt) really did look like the most romantic building in the world. There’s a massive garden with a bunch of reflecting pools leading up to it, and two red marble mosques flanking it that are architectural wonders in their own right. The real thing, beautifully symmetrical and situated picturesquely along the banks of the Yamuna River, naturally took up about 80 photos on my camera.
If you want to come visit me here and see all these amazing things… too bad, I already saw them, you’ll have to see another part of India with me. Just kidding, but if I do go there again, you have to make sure I fit in an elephant ride.