2009 India – Fatephur Sikri – Jaisalmar

After a good night of sleep we left Agra pretty early in order for our 300 km drive to Rhantambore National park. Shortly after we left we had an extremely nice break at Fatephur Sikri, the place of glory…. Oh well, for as long as it lasted anyway as lack of water caused the city to be abandoned. What remained however was extremely interesting. First we visited the palace of emperor Mahal and his 3 wives (a Muslim, Christian and Hindu wife. it was the Hindu wife who gave him a son and therefore the Taj Mahal was built after her death). The three private areas for the wives were each different in size and shape but it was great to see how symbols of all faiths were on all the residential areas. It was the goal of emperor Mahal to unite, therefore he had three wives (I can think of a number of other reasons as well though…..) After the palace we visited the area for the common people and this was almost as impressive. The entry gate was enormous; the biggest of it’s kind in Asia. We spent over 2 hours in Fatehpur Sikri after which we continued our journey to Ranthambore where we arrived late afternoon.

Rhantambore was a place the both of us were extremely looking forward to, it houses the Benghal tiger but we were already told at arrival that sightings were rare at this time of year… bad planning on our side? Oh well, whether we would see tigers or not the trip was worth it anyway as we had a beautiful place to stay, a tented bungalow…. now this was something totally different from your average camping and it took a while for the both of us to get over the shock of our… ehh tent. The afternoon we spent at the pool, a good thing to have a break in such an action packed holiday. In the evening we found out that ten thousands of beetles gathered everywhere which was a pathetic sight and smell… One of them landed in Paul’s beer so he could throw that away as immediately it tasted totally different, not pleasant at all

Once again the next morning was an early rise; we woke up at 4.45 as we were being picked up at 05.30 for our first safari. With them being 10 minutes early it was a bit of a hurry but then we took off in our jeep to the national park. The scenery was absolutely beautiful and 4 hours seemed to go by like nothing. We saw deer’s, monkeys, peacocks’ and loads of other wildlife but no sign of the tigers apart from a set of footprints….. 2 more safaris to go, to more chances….  After the safari we had breakfast after which we went to the pool again for some relaxing and sun tanning. Paul was not feeling to well, apparently the beetles are highly poisonous and although he had not swallowed it or the beer he noticed the result of it… Not a nice thing for him as it meant I had to go on the afternoon safari by myself as he jut wanted to sleep. The afternoon safari was much livelier; I saw more animals, a couple of male deer fighting for the leader position in their herd, some wild pigs, but…. no tigers… We were already on our way back when we encountered another jeep with the people franticly waving to us and yes, there they were a tiger couple lying next to the water, relaxing and drinking. I was absolutely pleased, however with mixed feelings as I could not share it with Paul. I told him on my return about what I saw and he was really pleased for me, the only thing we could hope for was another encounter on our last morning safari the day after.

The next morning we woke up again at 04.45, Paul felt much better and full of expectations we went on our last safari. After 2 hours highly interesting hours of driving luck was on our side again, the same couple as yesterday was spotted by one of us so we were in seventh heaven. We took our time to enjoy the presence of these majestic animals (they look very cuddly until you see the size of their paws and teeth) and by 10 we arrived back at the resort for our much deserved breakfast. It was still early day but the both of us were extremely happy that things worked out so well for us.

After breakfast we headed of to our next destination, Jaipur where we arrived 4 hours later. Our first stop was a textile shop where we bought raw silk for a new quilt (got the shopping list from my mother who will make it for us, yet another of her masterpieces which will make our house even more beautiful). Besides silk there was also pure cashmere wool on sale and with Indian tailors having such a good reputation for making suits…… Oh well, do I really need to tell this story? Yes we could not resist and ordered a suit, shirt and tie for each of us. Let’s hope our new suitcase will be big enough. Shopping done we continued to Barwara Kothi,our hotel, an old colonial villa which now had 4 guest rooms. It was fabulous! The room was beautiful with lots of art deco influences. We had dinner at our hotel and decided for yet another early night.

The next morning at 7.00 our suits were delivered for first fitting, and guess what, 1st time was a perfect fit! Amazing… Three tailors had worked the best part of the night to have it ready in time…. After breakfast we were picked up by our local guide and went to Hawa Mahal, also known as the wind palace. It was not really a palace but a narrow building with a lot of sheltered windows from which behind the women of the maharaja could watch local life. (They were not allowed to be seen in public in those days)

Our next stop was the amber fort, where we spent the best time of the morning. It was an absolute fabulous experience to travel the slope towards the entrance gate of the fort on top of an elephant. The fort itself was an impressive collection of buildings and it took us quite a while to visit all of the highlights. Life in these days must have been absolutely fabulous with all the wealth that the trade over the silk route brought, oh well, at least for the happy few as we are convinced it must not have been that good for the majority of people (Nothing seemed to have changed that much in India since now….)

After lunch we went to see the Jantar Mantar Observatory which was built in 1728. In spite of its age it looked very modern and some of the instruments to determine the exact time and planetary movements were absolutely stunning. The observatory also houses the biggest sundial in the world with an accuracy of 2 seconds… yes you read it right, 2 seconds and it was built in 1728… WOW!

Or last stop the palace of the current maharaja; also over here we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the woodwork, carvings and fresco’s. The palace also housed a museum which contained a lot of dresses, brassware and jewelry. As already said before, life in those times must have been absolutely amazing… There was also the possibility of visiting the private area of the Maharaja (Photo’s showed an extremely luxury interior) but as the entrance price was a whopping 50 US$ each we decided to let that opportunity pass by.

Late afternoon we picked up our suits and we can only say we are absolutely pleased with the result. A very modern cut, beautiful fabric and a slick design. Taylor made for the price which you cannot even get a decent suit in Europe from the shelves….

After breakfast we continued our journey to the Shekhawati region, a long, long drive. We noticed the area was getting dryer and dryer and the roads narrower and narrower. Param, where the hell are you bringing us to? The roads were so narrow that avoiding oncoming traffic resulted in coming to a full stop off-road in order to let it pass. The area was almost desert like with a lot of dust, some trees and hardly any sign of life. Every now and then we passed by a little village (We already wondered how the people can survive over here) and finally we arrived in Mandawa, our destination. Mandawa is the capital of the Shekhawati region but do not take that to serious, sandy dusty paths, a small village completed by some forts and Havelis (huge and impressive mansions for the happy few). Paul and I had already come to the conclusion that the hotel would be ehh.. a little bit basic and below standard but fortunately it was only for one night. We had to stop of couple of times to let the cows and camels pass by and but that all added to the charm of the village.

We stopped in front of a fantastic 19th century haveli, full of frescos and carvings, this was without doubt the most beautiful mansion in the village and much to our surprise it was our residence for the night… Totally speechless we greeted the traditionally dressed doorman and entered into the courtyard which was cluttered with frescos and carvings. What a place to stay, we could not believe what we saw. In the middle of nowhere, after a long drive over dusty roads we arrived in this picturesque village in the middle of the desert to find this. This was totally beyond our expectations but the biggest surprise still had to come…. At checking in we were told we had a poolside room,  ehh excuse me? Poolside? Yes sir, please have a look, we walked on a bit and looked out over a fantastic garden with a pool shining in the middle of it. How crazy can it get… The room itself was even better. Three arches, beautiful frescos on the ceiling, even the rings were still present to mount the old fans….. The only downsize was two single beds, oh well, one can’t have it all.

In the afternoon we went for a stroll through the village. From all sides we were greeted by friendly kids. Namaste sir, where you’re from???  We felt like being in a time warp, Things were so quiet and peaceful; the contrast could not have been bigger after the hectic city life in Jaipur… Early evening we had decided to pamper ourselves so we were treated with an ayurvedic massage with traditional Indian oils. It was heaven and I only needed to be woken up twice…. We ended the day with a rooftop dinner, how surreal can a day get…..

As you can guess we woke up early again and by the time it was 08:00 we had breakfast and the car was loaded once again for departure. At least another hour we drove over narrow roads in an abandoned landscape before we hit the ehh “highway”….. By lunchtime we arrived in Bikaner which is on the northern top of the desert’s triangle. The first stop was a fort built by Rao Jodha in 1587 which protected 37 palaces, temples and pavilions within. What a sight it was. Nothing compared however to the next one….

A small temple dedicated to one of the 33.000 gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion. Fortunately (Or should I say unfortunately) she was not alone in her temple as she was accompanied by the souls of passed away local people who now continued their lives as ehhh……………  RATS!!!!!  There were thousands of them… Yuck….  Just as we discussed whether it would be better to change our sandals for closed shoes our guide told us we were supposed to go in barefoot, as is common for all sacred places in India…  Hmmmm, let’s be brave… The sight was in one word repulsive. Rats everywhere, on the floor, on the roof, on the fences, over our feet…..  We shortly watched the sacred shrine after which Paul had more than enough and fled the place. As I still wanted to make some more pictures I stayed a couple of minutes longer but then had more than enough, I did not know how quickly to get out of this place. In the car we thanked our guide for bringing us to this special place but he must not have been in touch with a lot of Brits as he totally missed the sarcasm in our comments… (How could he have missed). yes sir, beautiful place it is, very special, isn’t is sir. Yes it is.. YUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

Our last stop for the day was a Jain temple, this time fortunately a very clean temple which contained lots of frescos (Which is special for Jain temples as they normally only have carvings).

With the sightseeing done it was time to go to the hotel. It was located in the old city center of Bikaner and we could only get there through a labyrinth of small alleys and paths. The car could hardly make it, as the roads were so narrow and crowded. Paul and I looked at each other and thought where the hell we are going this time…. I have already mentioned before that India is full of surprises and this was no exception. We stopped in front of a gate which led to yet another Haveli. In the gateway an old beautiful car was parked, very much alike the car Paul and I married in. A big silver snake formed the horn, beige leather interior. Wow, and this was only the gate…. At the reception desk our jaws dropped to the floor again… A beautiful courtyard was surrounded by a 3 story high mansion. The hallway… hmm what should I say, I guess Versace and Louis the 14th would have been extremely jealous by seeing the interior. Totally over the top is the understatement of the year after seeing this. We saw some living rooms, heavily decorated with gold, porcelain statues, and grand chandeliers, how mad can it get….  Oh well, believe me you ain’t heard anything yet…. We were brought to our room where we cold not stop gasping around. First we entered through a heavy double wooded door after which we arrived in our private hallway, decorated with shields and painted tiles. The bedroom was about the size of our living room, the ceiling about 4 meters high, heavy velvet wallpaper with gold painting, an antique seating area and a huge (and I mean huge) double bed… WOW, this is how royalty must live…. The hallway led to another hallway, some steps up and we arrived at the bathrooms… yes, bathrooms… there were three different rooms, one for the toilet, one for the washbasin and one for the shower…. Welcome to India, a country that never fails to surprise.

When we finally overcame the grandeur of this place we set down at the courtyard. Two musicians were playing classic Indian music which just completed the atmosphere in a fantastic way. We met another Austrian couple and with them we spent the rest of the evening, enjoying a couple of kingfishers and dining together (Dining was another experience not to be missed, a fabulous vegetarian dinner served in a way which absolutely matched the place…)

In the morning we had breakfast together again, couldn’t stop chatting and finally said goodbye after receiving an invite to come to Vienna…. Param, our driver was already waiting for an hour but did not want to hear our excuses; it’s my duty sir……  There was a long drive ahead of us. 330 km which took us over 6 hours, in spite of the fact that most of the road was categorized as highway…. The landscape became even more desolate and remote and we wondered how people is the villages we passed by could survive this climate. Today was cool… Only 39 degrees,   in summer temperatures reach 50 degrees easily, not a place you want your car to break down… Both of us fell asleep a couple of times and by the time we woke up Jaisalmer was not far anymore. Pretty obvious was the large presence of military camps. Not strange as we are getting pretty close to the Pakistan border, India’s biggest enemy to date…. Jaisalmer is a desert town which is dominated by a large fort. We walked around at the city center looking for ATM’s. Not with a lot of success, currently unable to process your request…. Surrounded by a lot of Indian’s who were kindly passing on instruction I did not feel very comfortable to enter my pin number so I aborted after a couple of tries… More luck next town….

Our hotel was just on the outskirts of town and had a number of simple but tastefully decorated desert bungalows built in sandstone (as the whole city is). We had a short swim in the pool after enjoying the panorama in front of us. The air was colored bright orange as a sandstorm was passing by, a fabulous sight though…

Early evening Param picked us up to go out to party and what a party it was…. We drove to town, and while we waited in the car Param went off to the “English wine shop” in order to get some beer. As today was the most important day of Diwali he insisted on treating us. Also he got some ‘bombs’ as Diwali without firecrackers would be like food without wine. Once all party essentials where in the car we went of again to…. halfway the hotel where he parked aside the road.

Beer was opened, chips passed on, let the good times roll….  hmm, Paul and I were a bit surprised to say the least as we had expected to go to the centre of Jaisalmer but Param had other ideas of throwing a party. Still it was pretty nice though, he enjoyed it a lot and could not stop lighting the ‘bombs’… and bombs they were, my God, we thought Pakistan had once again invaded, the noise made our ears ring. Actually the spot, although a bit weird, was not bad at all, we had a good overview of Jaisalmer and its fort and could see constant fireworks.

The next morning we were picked up by our local guide who first brought us to an ancient man build lake which was used for the water supplies. Being in the middle of the desert this was no luxury. In True Rajasthan style there were some nice buildings and temples of the lake.

Back on the roadside we had a good view of the fort which stands almost 100 meter above the city. Its 99 Bastions were both impressive and a good show of power.

Inside we visited a small Jain temple which was quite special. The carvings were amazing (once again) and the domes were just of outstanding craftsmanship. Really, really nice.

It was busy in the fort and when I say busy I mean BUSY. Loads of local tourists were sightseeing as in Bangalore schools were off and many people were on holiday. The place was flooded but that was a good excuse to make some close up pictures of people, the only problem being the constant flow of other people walking between me and the chosen ‘subject’, oh well, things went quite fine.

After the fort we went to see some old haveli’s (Big houses of old traders) and we can only say we were more than impressed. The facades were intricately latticated and conspicuous. Beautiful carvings, we could hardly believe that these were built so long ago (16th and 17th century) when the Silk Road was flourishing.

The afternoon we took a rest at the pool before we were picked up again, this time we drove to the sand dunes of Sam for a camel safari. Once again, due to the holidays, it was very busy but our guide had already arranged two camels for us so off we went for a fun packed trip to see the sunset from the sand dunes. It was great fun and Paul and I were joking that the camels would stop in time before we reached the Pakistani border which was only 20km away… But the camel handlers had things under control so we did not end up in unwanted territory and remained at the lovely sand dunes.

Back at the hotel we had dinner, packed our stuff once more and called for an early night. Ready for new adventures to come….

Continue the story with the final part: Jodhpur – Mumbay