The desert state of Rajasthan is India’s Land of the Kings and a colourful one at that. I stumbled upon Rajasthan for I knew little about it before leaving home. I had just spent three weeks travelling in the south of India and my itinerary was wide open so when several foreign tourists recommended Rajasthan I decided to follow their advice. It was the highlight of my trip to India.
- Jaipur (the pink capital)
- Udaipar (Rajasthan’s most romantic city)
- Jodpur (the blue city)
- Jaisalmer (fairytale fort and the Great Thar Desert)
Jaipur is said to be Rajasthan’s most popular tourist destination. While it has interesting palaces, forts and temples and is part of the Golden Triangle (along with Delhi and Agra) try to travel beyond it.
Jaipur is rather chaotic, the sort of place where you have great difficulty crossing a street without having someone to hang on to, where men pee in urinals on either side of the road, where people are after you, after you, after you.
Where are all these tourists? Well, based on my stay they are not on the street (or at least very few of them) but looking down on the street from a rooftop restaurant or riding elephants up the hill to the Amber Fort, eleven kilometers outside the city. To really experience Rajasthan you need to travel further.
The setting of Udaipur on Lake Pichola is really quite romantic. The peace of the place is broken each morning by women pounding laundry on the steps outside the hotel and washing the clothes in the lake below. It was early February when I visited and the air was frigid and people huddled around open fires to keep warm.
The taxi driver who brought me to my hotel was friendly so I hired him for the day to show me around. He took me to all the must-sees, from the City Palace and Jagdish Temple to a dance performance at the cultural centre.
He also took me to shopping outlets where I bought way too much stuff for what were probably grossly inflated prices.
Jodhpur is known as the blue city because of its blue-painted houses. It is 335 km from Jaipur and seems like an oasis in the Thar Desert. The city—surrounded by a 10 km-long wall—is a maze of winding streets. The Mehrangarh Fort perched on a 150 meter hill is considered to be the most magnificent fort in Rajasthan and indeed I thought it was rather spectacular.
This desert city looks like a giant sandcastle that emerges from the desert. People go there for safaris into the Great Thar Desert. It’s not an easy place to get to; I had to share my seat on the bus with two others, a goat was in the aisle and the window wouldn’t open. But it was well worth the effort.
I stayed in what was once a traditional residence of the wealthy called a haveli and when the owner’s son heard I wanted to go to the desert he offered to take me to a place where there were no tourists, where the sand had no footprints. Off I went and it was a top-of-life journey.
Detour to the North
I was planning to spend my last week in Delhi, and while there is lots to see in that city I was tired out. After being hassled endlessly for a couple of days I stumbled upon a travel agency with a big sign in its window that said “recommended on page … in the Lonely Planet”. And indeed it was, so in I went and the agent suggested an itinerary for my last few days and when I agreed to it he provided a car and driver for a very affordable price. It was a brilliant choice.
We went north, away from the chaos of Delhi to Haridwar where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas and one of the seven holiest places for Hindus. It is said that taking a bath there purifies the soul. A pilgrim offered to float the flower-covered lamp I had purchased (to honour my children) in the clear water off-shore. Thousands and thousands of these lamps (called diyas) start their journey down the Ganges from there. The sheer number of pilgrims and holy men was quite startling and while there were few outsiders I did not feel unwelcomed.
We went on the Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world made famous when the Beatles stayed there in the 1960s. Rishikesh is considered an excellent place to meditate and for treks to Himalayan pilgrimage centres. It is the sort of town where you may want to stay awhile.
The final stop on this journey north was the hill station of Mussoorie, which is beautiful and serene, quite shockingly cold in February, and a great place for trekking.
The journey north was embarrassingly affordable and particularly enjoyable because my driver/guide was very proud of this part of India and went out of his way to make sure I saw the best. I, in turn, made sure he had a room to sleep in each night (instead of the car) and when he dropped me off at the Delhi airport he surprised me with a small gift for my daughter. I left India with a smile.
And as the airplane carried me back to the other side of the world all the anxieties I’d left behind in Canada six weeks earlier slowly reentered my body so that when I reached home my life was just about the same as when I had left.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010
Updated May 2011