Monday, June 21, 2010

An exquisite Jain temple & a massive fort! Ranakpur & Kumbhalgarh, India

Destination:  Ranakpur Temple & Kumbarlgh Fort
Number of days spent:  1 day
Where we stayed:  N/A
Best Restaurant:  Kachori & really yummy spicy chai in a clay pot by the side of the road.
Best of:  Ranakpur’s temple was incredibly beautiful.
Worst of:    Bit pricy excursion by Indian standards.
Most memorable:  The site of over 1400 intricately carved marble columns with no two being alike.
Useful Tip:  Despite their proximity to one another visiting the two places in the same day is nearly impossible by public transport.  While it is cheaper to rent a car from Udaipur, the difference wasn’t enough to justify giving up a day of transport for us.
We spent 2875RP for a non ac car (it was 3200 for an AC car – we probably should have upgraded as it was hot and dusty).  We booked through Lake City Travel in Udaipur which was recommended by another travel.  The owner’s name was Adittya Trivedi [].  We found him to be very honest and helpful.  In addition to the driver he hired for us he also booked us bus tickets later on. We spent a lot of time chatting with him while we were in Udaipur and found our chats informative & helpful.  We would without a doubt recommend his services to other travelers.
Sandwiched in between Jodhpur and Udaipur, two heavy weights on the Rajasthan tourist map and a little difficult to reach independently, many visitors give the temple of Ranakpur and the fort at Kumbarlgh a pass.  That’s a shame for these two sites live up to the little hype they receive.  The drive from Jodhpur to Udaipur through this area also passes some everyday, local villages giving a glimpse of rural life in Rajasthan.
Pink and Red.  Not the colors we would normally associate with rough and tumbled men, but out here every Rajasthani worth his weight in salt dons brightly colored turbans.  Old men drive ‘Camel’ carts, women with gold nose rings dressed in saris walk around burdened with children on hips and the arid, dusty air prevails over all.  Wells are still drawn by manual labor.  A man and his oxen spin a series of waterwheels bringing up the water from an open face well deep below the surface and into irrigation channels that are used for everything from washing to watering the crops.  We even saw a man riding his elephant out to be worked in the fields but we weren't fast enough with the shutter.
  DSC_6997 DSC_7004
DSC_7249 DSC_7235
One of the finest Jain temples, Ranakpur stands out for its magnificently carved columns, walls and ceilings.  We know all too well that temple fatigue can set in quite fast, but this one will not disappoint.  Made from milky white marble, the temple is nearly 600 years old and stands as a masterpiece of devotion.  The men and women who painstakingly carved the temple were no Michelangelo's, just very devout and humble peasants.  The result of their efforts is undeniably breathtaking. 
 DSC_7029 DSC_7035
DSC_7055 DSC_7083 DSC_7072 DSC_7116   DSC_7138 DSC_7139 DSC_7168   DSC_7224
Once considered one of the largest and most important forts in the the area, Kumbarlagh still looms ominously perched upon a hill.  The castle itself is protected by over 30 kilometers of fortifications which at one time also protected the entire kingdom as well.  The fort was only taken once in its long history, and that took the combined effort of several armies.  The fort was retaken two days later and remained that way until walls and forts became obsolete.  The castle itself is impressive, albeit a bit void of anything too interesting inside.  The views of the surrounding valleys and mountains from the top however are stunning.
DSC_7254  DSC_7324DSC_7278 DSC_7281 DSC_7283 DSC_7305 
One of the joys of getting off the beaten trail is seeing the reactions of the kids.  After visiting the fort and temple, we stopped to have one last snack and some chai at this little roadside place before getting to Udaipur.  The kids all came out to check us out and to vie for a place in the shot.  The spicy chai was delicious, but it is the kids with their curious and innocent smiles who warm the heart the most.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Feeling a little ‘Blue’ in Jodhpur, India

Destination:  Jodhpur, India
Number of days spent:  2 days
Where we stayed:  Durag Niwas Guest House (tel. 91-291-2512385, 450RP/$10)  A little outside the city but the owner is friendly, the courtyard and rooms are well decorated, clean and it’s quite at night.
Best Restaurant:   Samosas are a dime a dozen in India, but this joint just outside the main gate to the city was particularly delicious!  It served up hot and spicy samosas and stuffed peppers wrapped in newspaper, check out the size of that wok :-)
Best of:  One of the finest examples of Rajasthan architecture in the Mehrangarh Fort,  the ‘blue’ city really is blue!
Worst of:  the heat is on – dry, hot, and endless sun make doing anything outside during the day a task
Most memorable:  Watching one of the last Maharaja’s drive into his still active home to much pomp and circumstance.
Useful Tip:  For commanding views of the city exit out of the fort and walk around to the temple at the tip of the rock looming over the center of the city.  Watch out for the cheeky monkeys! 
A night train ride away from Delhi it may be, but Jodhpur seems a world away from Mogul India.  The sands and heat of the desert make their presence known and the air of spice laden camel caravans and turban clad Maharajas still hangs heavy in the air.  The current state of Rajasthan consists of a collection of once former independent kingdoms, all with a ruling head of state, a Maharaja, that maintained a certain degree of Independence by force against the Moguls and diplomacy against the British.  These maharajas have lost most of their political clout today, but they still live on and enjoy their royal status.  With its powder blue buildings, spice markets & thriving royal family Jodhpur provides an excellent introduction to Rajhastani life and culture without all the tourist crowds that have taken over some of the other cities.   
Before the seas became the primary trade route, spices used to have to travel for months overland from India to Europe.  Cities like Jodhpur grew up in the arid northwestern deserts to offer respite to weary travelers.  Today’s market is just a shell of what it once was but is still a colorful array of piles of spices and silk.  Spilling out from the market, the city streets snake and wind around a massive hill that dominates the center of town.  We wandered around the streets a bit, checking out the ever present cows, goats, and lazy dogs.  We would have wandered around a bit more, but the heat at this time of year can be quite oppressive during the middle of the day so we relaxed in the afternoon before making our way up to the top of the hill for sunset.
DSC_6570 DSC_6548
DSC_6556 DSC_6551
 DSC_6565 DSC_6993
DSC_6990 DSC_6986 
From the streets below you get an occasional hint of blue, but from above, the setting is magical.  From the entrance of the fort, we walked around the bottom of the walls until we made it out to a little temple that rests all alone at the tip of the hill.  From the rooftop, shades of blue can be seen everywhere and you will likely have the place all to yourself aside from the temple attendant.
DSC_6644 DSC_6708
The Mehrangarh Fort looms over the city below offering protection from would be invaders.  As the largest fort in all of Rajasthan, the fort serves as home to the royal palace, several temples and even a few gardens.  As the royal family still lives here on and off, the palace is well maintained and a delight to wander around.  Even the audio guide is excellent and included in the admission price.   
DSC_6579 DSC_6756
While we were there, the Maharaja himself came driving up the ramparts on his way to his private quarters.  Long before his approach, the guards were in a frenzy, ushering visitors to the sides and out of the way of the motorcade.  The band strikes up their finest number.  The whole procession lasts mere minutes but it proves that despite the transfer of power, he is still the most respected man in town.
Just past where we caught the glimpse of the present leader sits a memorial to a past one.  Per tradition, when the king died, his wives (yes, plural), threw themselves onto his burning pyre one at a time from oldest to youngest.  A plaque with the handprints of the departed, some rather small, sits to the side of the main gate in memoriam.
The rest of the palace is a blinding array of stained glass, intricate lattice work, and loads of Arabic style arches.  The blend is distinctly Rajasthan both influenced heavily from their more powerful neighbors on either side – the Moguls and the Persians. 
 DSC_6800    DSC_6873
 DSC_6892 DSC_6916
 DSC_6954 DSC_6962
More than just a palace, the grounds also serves as an active Hindu temple.  A steady stream of worshipers don their finest saris and make their way to the back of the complex where the temples are housed.
With the fort successfully conquered, we packed up and headed out for the ‘Romantic’ city of Udaipur with a couple of detours along the way.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Adventures of Mr. Grunt and Baksheesh Bob: Smelly Delhi – New Delhi, India

Destination:  New Delhi, India

Number of days spent:  3

Where we stayed:  Hotel Maharaja Continental – 900 Rupees – We would not recommend this place.  The location is in the center of town which could be great but in reality the center of town is a pretty seedy place.  This hotel probably had the rudest staff we encountered in our 2 year trip.  See #3 below.    

Best Restaurant:  Haldiram’s in the old quarter had great masala dosas among other tasty snacks. 

Best of:  Humayun’s Tomb was nice and the old quarter is quite lively and worth a stroll.

Worst of:  See tips below.

Most memorable:  The man at the Jama Majid literally grunting at us to get out before prayer time.  The same man was more than happy to take our money for a ‘camera fee’ 5 minutes before closing the place up. 

Useful Tip:  Ok.  Let’s get this out there first – we think Delhi was the worst city we have visited on our trip so far.  It’s dirty, polluted and overcrowded.  The people who live there (that we encountered at least) are the least friendliest bunch.  The touts, tuk-tuk drivers, and hotel owners (at least our anyways) are some of the most crooked in the world.  Nearly every wall seems to be used as a public urinal as we could not walk a block without getting hit with the smell of stale urine.  After being here for three days we now believe the stories we hear of people getting off the plane only to realize their mistake and get on the first plane back out.  Yep, it’s that bad.  Having said all that, there are a few redeeming qualities.  A few ways to minimize the impact and fleecing that will invariably happen:

  1. Use prepaid taxi stands.  The government takes a couple of rupees but it saves you the hassle that 100% of the time will happen and you get a fair price.
  2. Metro and Bus it whenever possible.  The metro is clean, efficient and cheap.  The rub is that it only runs east to west when most of the sites are north to south.  Construction is underway to extend the line further south so hopefully in the near future that will help.  A few buses are in circulation that are A/C and new.  One that we caught and is handy runs the length of Mathura Rd (from in front of the Red Fort to near Humayun’s tomb (the Oberoi Hotel stop; a 10 minute walk.)
  3. Don’t stay in Paharganj.  If there is one city to splurge in, this is it.  The last thing you want after a maddening day touring the city is to come back to a dirty and loud room.  Even the mid-range hotels just north of Paharganj (where we stayed) are poor value and we didn’t meet another traveler that could recommend the place they stayed at.  Look at Karol Bagh instead.  It’s near a Metro Stop and there seemed to be several options out in this quieter area.
  4. Come after the 2010 Commonwealth Games.  Even the ‘nicer’ parts of town like Connaught Place are one huge construction zone with piles of dirt, concrete, and scaffolding everywhere.  
  5. Hit the highlights and get out.  The ‘major’ sites can be seen in a day and India has so much more to offer than this crap hole of a city…in our humble opinions.
  6. If all else fails, you know where either the train station or airport are and you know what to do.

We arrived on the train from Agra around 11pm.  Having phoned ahead, the hotel arranged for a man to meet us at the station and take us the hotel.  So far so good.  We followed the man out of the train station, stepping over the bodies that were scattered across the floor of the station and out onto the maddening streets.  Even the little man from the hotel could not avoid the extortionist prices being quoted by the rickshaw drivers.  We opted to walk.  After arriving at our hotel we were given a bottle of water, later to find out that they charged for this ‘kind’ gesture, and kept awake by the loud group of men in the lobby. 

Things didn’t get much better in the light of day.  Paharganj is a bit seedy, but at least they have these fancy metal detectors in the middle of the road to keep everyone safe. 


After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to find a fair price for a rickshaw to the Jama Majid, we finally found one that would take us for 20 RP.  When we arrived, he claimed that we agreed to 100 RP and even had a couple of his crooked friends ‘translate.’  We shoved the 20 RP in his handle bars and walked off – not the way we wanted to start off the day.

We climbed up the stairs and entered the Mosque where we were greeted by a man who demanded a ‘camera’ fee.  Even though we explained that we would leave it in the bag he simply grunted and demanded the fee, blocking our entrance until we forked over the cash exclaiming “Don’t want to pay, leave in hotel!”  Despite Tracy’s modest dress (long sleeve shirt and pants; more modest than even some ‘local’ women), they still forced her to wear this ridiculous polka dot outfit.  The mosque itself, built by Shah Jahan (same Taj Mahal dude) is quite beautiful and an excellent representative of Mogul design.  Not more than 5 minutes after we had paid the camera fee and donned the twister matt for a dress the same rude man came strutting across the courtyard yelling at everyone to get out, it’s prayer time.  After ignoring his grunting and general rudeness we still wandered around for a little while longer as a couple of tour groups had snuck in and Mr. Grunt had diverted his attention to them.  We wanted to climb the tower, and the ticket man was happy to take our money despite the rest of the mosque being closed.  We decided just to leave not wanting to have forked out the money to climb and then be told to leave.  After a few more grunts and arm waves we headed for the exit.  As Tracy handed over the dress, Mr. Grunt and his sidekick, Backsheesh Bob, asked for tip money.  We laughed and grunted back as we made our exit.  So much for that site.  Word to the wise, don’t go anywhere near prayer time.

DSC_6414 DSC_6395

DSC_6399 DSC_6404

Running between the Mosque and the Red Fort, Old Delhi’s streets provide a fascinating stroll.  Each alleyway provides another shopping opportunity with direct competitors all lined up next to one another.  Some of the more interesting streets are the wedding dress street, the printing street filled with stationary, and the fireworks alley which we would come to learn that Indians LOVE fireworks for just about every event of significance. 


If you have no plans of going to Agra or Rajasthan, then the Red Fort is a nice alternative and worth a quick visit though it’s certainly not as nice as others in Rajastan.  This sprawling complex of mosques, palaces, and baths was the last home of the Mogul Empire.  Shah Jahan (here he is again at work, draining the states coffers) constructed the fort and declared Delhi to be the new capital.  The British took over just a few years later turning the fort into Barracks.  Being one of the top sites in one of the most visited cities, it gets crowded and don’t be surprised when a group of field trip high schoolers all break out the cell phone cameras and start snapping pictures of you instead of the fort!

After leaving the fort we felt like we needed a little western therapy so we headed down to Connaught Place.  This area once served as the home to the British Raj and is well known for shopping, food, and western style hotels.  Stepping out of the metro revealed a slightly different story however.  The entire area is one big construction zone.  Not just one street, or a couple of buildings, but EVERY street, sidewalk, and pathway have been ripped up.  Massive craters and ditches make walking a hazard and the air is filled with dust.  We made our way out to the government emporiums, a hassle free way of shopping for items made from all over India.  Not exactly the shopping mecca Tracy was hoping for, but it was an interesting microcosm of the entire country.  Every state was represented by one store.  While the richer states enjoyed A/C, neat displays, and in one case – a cafe cum tea room, the poorer states like Bihar seemed to be struggling to even keep the lights on.  It was an unintentional lesson on the dichotomy of India all within two square blocks.

DSC_6455 DSC_6446

The next day went much better.  We started the day off with the Salaam Balak Walk.  This non-profit group helps street kids receive an education and hopefully lead to employment one day.  The guides are street kids themselves who have learned English.  Obviously not a conventional tour, you are lead behind the train station to see the squatter village that has sprung up along the tracks.  The families who live here are mainly railroad employees scraping by.  Their water comes from the taps that the train company uses to wash out the carriages.  The day we are there, they have just learned that the government plans to destroy their makeshift homes and have given them 30 days to move.  A family sits on an abandoned platform, flies in the children’s eyes like something off a late night info commercial generally reserved for drought stricken Africa, not an emerging superpower.  It’s a sad and harsh reality that some have come to terms with while others have not.  An American woman on our tour, in India for a wedding between two well off Indian friends, starts to cry at the sight.

In the run up to the Commonwealth games, the city has taken great measures to make sure the best face is put forward to the world.  The most prevalent road blocks that appear in every city small or large in India, the Holy Cow, have all been herded up and hid behind the main streets out of the public eye.  No one likes to air their dirty laundry, but in a nation that is expected to pass China as the world’s most populated state, little can be hidden for too long.

    DSC_6460  DSC_6473DSC_6468 DSC_6470

From the have not’s to the haves, we took a quick cab ride to the south to Khan Market.  As one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Delhi, English is spoken as a sign of wealth and upper class.  Chic stores and cafes all cater to the upper crust and foreign expats.  We wandered around for a while doing a little window browsing, a bit of hassle free shopping (Tracy recommends Anokhi for great cotton clothes which are nice and cool in hot India weather and conservative enough to keep the staring to a minimum as well as the Silverline silver store for enamel earrings), picked up a few books to read at the English bookstore and had an overpriced coffee before heading back to run down Pahrgang.

Upon checkout of our hotel we asked how much it should be to go to the Old Train station.  They quoted us what we thought to be a ridiculous price and asked why it was so much.  It didn’t look like it was that far on the map, but responded that it would take about an hour to get there.  Skeptical, but naive, we trusted our hotel to help us out and got in the rickshaw.  20 minutes later, we had arrived and even more upset with our hotel.  Since our train was not until 8pm, we left our bags at the station and set off for a little more exploring.

Not to be missed, and in our opinion the highlight of Delhi sites is Humayun’s tomb.  It’s a bit of a slog to get out here by public transport, but the peaceful setting and the beautiful building was more than worth it.  Predating Shah Jahan’s enterprises, this tomb is an outstanding example of Mogul architecture and style.  The gardens are equally as nice and well kept.


DSC_6538DSC_6496DSC_6536  DSC_6525

Having reached the ‘fed up’ stage with Delhi, we were excited to be moving on and thankful we had decided to only spend three days here instead of the 5 or so we had originally thought we would need.  We made one last stop at Haldiram’s, one of the highlights of Delhi, before catching the night train out to the ‘blue city’ of Jodphur!