Delhi & Rajasthan - March 1-20, 2014
01.03.2014 - 20.03.2014
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The well-chosen slogan from India's tourism authority sums it up in two words: Incredible India!
Delhi: A total assault of the senses from the minute you step out of the airport terminal even at 4AM. If there's one piece of advice to offer, it's act like you know where you're going and how you will get there even if you don't, because if you waiver, for even a millisecond, you will be pounced on by eager men with varying means of locomotion. But Indians are efficient if not organized and the prepaid taxi stand will ensure a fair price and provide reference for future rides which you'll be thankful for the next time you have to negotiate a fare.
Our hotel, Grand Godwin is in Paharganj a bustling, dilapidated, noisy area near the New Delhi train station popular with backpackers and famous for its crowded Main Bazaar. The streets are jammed with yellow and green auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws - affectionately referred to as Indian helicopters - motorbikes, cars and pedestrians weaving in both directions with little regard for one's side of the street! Looking up all you can see are neon hotel signs receding to infinity. While the neighborhood isn't as pretty as the circular colonnades of Connaught Place, the room is 4 star and much better value than anything I will visit in a nicer area (30€/night).
We do however, eat almost all our meals in the restaurants around Connaught Place which range from basic to ultra trendy. One favorite is the United Cafe: mirror, velvet and crystal of a bygone era serving scrumptious food.
Delhi is full of contrasts. Honking is akin to breathing here, but it is possible to escape the deafening noise. Sites like the Red Fort, Humayan's Tomb and the Purana Quila offer immense manicured grounds to stroll through and wonder at the majesty of ancient cultures. Once you get the hang of using the metro with its Smart Card, getting around is easy and less chaotic than the exhaust-filled roads.
There is a large Muslim community and India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, sits high above Old Delhi offering a 360° view. Most popular though is the mosque of Nizam-ud-din where on Thursday nights, thousands flock to listen to traditional singing. Getting to the mosque is a challenge, winding through narrow streets lined with vendors selling flowers, incense, food and other offerings and worshippers hurrying to arrive by sundown. Uncomfortably, we make our way with the mob, the air thick with Incense. Shoes must be removed, but we hold out until the last possible moment before bearing our soles.
Delhi to Jaipur is a 5 hour train ride picking up dust as we rattle our way into arid Rajasthan. Temps are rising and within a few days, we'll be trying to remember the chill we felt in New Delhi. We visit the City Palace and the beautiful Hawa Mahal, but the highlight of the pink city is the majestic Amber Fort perched on a hillside outside the city. On the way are the beautiful white and beige marble tombs of a long line of maharajahs. Save for a group of local boys playing cricket in front, we are the only visitors.
The Pearl Palace Heritage hotel in Jaipur is an unexpected find. Although a new construction, it's quite charming. The lobby is hand-painted and old black and white photos cover the walls leading up bleach-white marble stairs. An oversized lock and bolt opens fort-thick wood doors to our "Jaisalmer" room and we step into what looks and feels like the inside of a sand castle. Call it elegant kitsch! The rates are ridiculously reasonable (30€/night) and I wonder if this will last when word gets out that the hotel was one of the shooting locations of the upcoming sequel to The Best Marigold Hotel.
A friend joins us for 5 days and in order to optimize our time together, we hire a vintage Ambassador with driver and set off on a highlights tour of Rajasthan.
The Samode Palace, an hour outside of Jaipur, is our first stop. The tiny town of Samode is all of one winding, pitted, gritty, road lined with a few local shops. At the end of the main street we pass thru an arch and morph from a dusty, sepia-tone atmosphere, into a brightly-colored scene of bold green lawns, bordering a flower-lined drive. As the car turns in and stops at the base of grand stone steps, our gaze climbs to meet the warm yellow facade of the palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Samode, this 450 year old gem sits like a glowing ember in a cluster of hills. Most enchanting, is the manageable size of this palace. In addition to our elegant suites (113€/night), as first-time guests we've been automatically upgraded, there are two particularly beautiful historic rooms, the Darbar and the Hall of Mirrors. The craftsmanship is palpable in each room with fine glimmering details that cover the walls and ceilings in rich, saturated colors and intricate fabrics. These are gathering rooms for important events where lavish celebrations continue to take place today.
Dinner is a royal treat which starts with a visit of the kitchen to meet the chef and his team and to plan our meal. We dine alfresco with a lovely bottle of Indian wine from the Sula Vineyards.
Pampered and well-rested, we drag ourselves down those magnificent steps to our ivory Ambassador and bump out of town towards the lakeside town of Pushkar. On the way, we stop in noisy, crowded Ajmer to visit 2 very different places of worship. At first glance, the Nasiyan temple looks like a typical, red stone, Jain temple on a busy street. We wind our way up a dingy metal stairway several flights to a very large glass enclosed room that can be viewed from 2 levels. Emerging from the dark stairwell, the scene is simply astonishing: an enormous diorama depicting the Jain interpretation of the ancient universe. Even more astonishing is that this fantastical scene is made of pure gold!
The most important muslim pilgrimage site in India also sits in Ajmer - the Dargah (sanctuary) of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. Our driver inches thru a sea of claxoning rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians until he can go no further. We walk the rest of the street in the blazing, blinding sun amidst thousands of worshipers and very few tourists. We are funneled towards the entrance where we reluctantly hand over our shoes wondering if we'll ever see them again. Somehow, over the shouting, a kind, French and English speaking man gracefully offers to accompany us. We cover ourselves head to toe and enter the flow toward the gate, pressed tightly against one another, until we are ejected from the bottleneck inside the grounds and the noise level resolves. Resting place of the most revered Sufi saint, long lines of people shuffle around the 13th Century tomb, while others pray in the mosque, or simply sit with their families in contemplation.
Although famous for its annual camel fair, on most days, Pushkar is a mellow enclave of pastel-blue tint whitewashed houses, lining the ghats around a sacred lake. We check-in at the charming Inn Seventh Heaven (25€/night) then quickly head out to find some cheap clothes for Holi, the infamous color festival celebrating the change of season taking place the next day: I know from experience that it's imperative to be prepared.
"Happy Holi!" a passerby says as his hand caresses my face leaving a trail of hot pink powder on my cheek. In the same beat, I feel the cool spray of a water pistol and jump as the bright orange liquid hits my throat and trickles down inside my T-shirt! I reach out to shake an extended hand as a fistful of electric blue powder hits my shoulder and when I turn to see where that came from I find myself face to face with a group of jubilant boys yelling "Happy Holi!" Each one shakes our hand, hugs us and throws more color at us. We are not 10 steps from our hotel and already color-coated! The streets are teeming with people carrying small plastic bags filled with bright colored powders, water guns, buckets of colored water, and kids are running around in a frenzy of friendly-fire. We gravitate toward distant beating drums, abandoning ourselves to embracing strangers, slapping hands and chanting Happy Holi, Happy Holi, Happy Holi... The main square is like a huge Rave party, with hundreds of gyrating bodies, all throwing color at each other. The atmosphere is joyous, festive and just plain fun. The party slowly dies down as the sun sets and one can imagine the entire country showering off in exhaustion.
By day 4 we are getting used to our driver zig-zagging through traffic and tailgating cars before darting past on either side, honking incessantly. Sometimes it's just better to close your eyes. Driving into Jodhpur wins him accolades as he navigates the overly congested streets squeezing the car thru the gate of the old city and pushing forward as the streets tighten around us. We transfer to a rickshaw for the ultimate, theme park type, twist and jerk weave through a labyrinth of tiny streets lurching to a halt at the door of the quaint Shahi Guesthouse (30€/night). The steps leading up to the funky colorful rooms are cut for agile giants. The view of the blue city with its majestic fort from the rooftop is mesmerizing.
As this part of the journey comes to an end, we look forward to coming back to Rajasthan in the cooler winter months. For now, we are heading south into sweltering heat and humidity...