Or this could be subtitled, The Dog Ate the Newtons, or The Cow in the RR station.
This year three of us from last year’s Oman trip plus a fourth from a Mali trip, joined forces to explore Rajasthan independently. Two Americans and two Brits, all women of a certain maturity. Most of the planning was done by one of the Brits and implemented by a New Zealander with an Indian bas ed tour company.
Accommodation was in reasonably priced guesthouses, havelis, hotels and two nights sleeping out on charboys. Transportation was mostly by train - first class, second class, third class, coach - where ever we could get seats. Several times we had car and driver as there was no other way to reach the destination. Locally, the four of us crowded into motorized rickshaws (aka tuk-tuks) as necessary.
The itinerary was Delhi>Jaisalmer>Jodphur>Jaipur>Pushkar>Udaipur>Ranakpur>
Ranthambore>Agra>Delhi with one going on to Bharatpur for two days bird watching while two headed home and another onto Mumbai to visit a friend. Armed with three guidebooks - Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and Footprints - and an ability to bargain, we spent three weeks in Rajasthan. And yes, Indians celebrate the holidays, with lights and trees and tinsel.
Actually, on Christmas Day, we were homeless in Pushkar. We had to check out of our guesthouse before noon and weren’t due to take the the “Midnight Flyer” out of Ajmer to Udaipur until 12:55 AM. Fortunately, the parent haveli for our lodging let us leave baggage. We wandered about the town, famous for its Fall Camel Fair.
Three of us made Puja with flowers given us; however, we may not have had the proper attitude for difficulties followed us for a few days afterward. We had a good Christmas dinner at the haveli and then to the Ajmer station, where the floor was covered with sleepers, not unique, but the wandering cow was. Roaming in between prone bodies, she managed not to splat on anyone.
Turned out there was a mistake in our tickets, the first train to Udaipur was full up, and we waited for the next train, now with only a General ticket but no seat/bunk assignment. Time was spent observing the rats’ activity about the station. Did get on this train, did get places to sit/ lie down.
New Years was better - we had a roof over our heads at Ranthamblore - but a severe thunder storm blew the management’s plans for a big New Years Eve Garden gala outside with food, fire, music and dancer. It became a crowded inside affair, still with food, music dancer - and space heater.. New Year’s Day was dry so we did eat outside, huddled about the various fire pits. But two trips for some, three for others, out to the the National Park netted no Tiger sightings - suspect they holed up with the storm and the wet. But there was a interesting film shown, Broken Tail, following a local tiger that wandered way off its turf
But first was Delhi where we stayed in the Old City, walking distance to the Red Fort, the Jama Mosque,Lahore Gate and Gandhi Memorial. Hiring a taxi, we moved into New Delhi and Humayun’s Tomb (precursor to the Taj Mahal), Connaught Place, India Gate where a rehearsal for Government Day ceremonies was happening, and a walk around the beautifully maintained government buildings - as contrasted with other parts of Delhi that weren’t as beautifully maintained.
Then, to Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar desert. It reminded me of Timbuktu - what is there about frontier desert towns? A gritty, unfinished quality. We stayed at a charming guesthouse on the edge of town where arrangements were made for two nights in the desert with two camels, overnight in the desert being a big tourist attraction, I found it a tacky desert, decorated with bits and pieces of trash.
We “camped” roadside near the structure holding equipment for the campout. The quilts and charboys were lugged a bit away, so there was an illusion of solitude,but tire tracks and lights of a nearby village gave lie to that illusion. We, our guide, his eleven year helper, and the camels, wandered about aimlessly, returning to to base at night. To experience the true Thar desert, you needed a permit to get further in, nearer the Pakistan border.
But others in the Gang of Four, enjoyed the experience. even the roaming dog who stole the raspberry newtons from my backpack, wrapping and all.
In Jaisalmer, there was the Fort with its shops and Jain Temples, the lovely Gadi Sugur, once the source of water for the town, and the puppet show - actually marionettes. Fascinating place.
Jophur was next: My notes describe it as “crowded, colorful, dusty, noisy and messy” but then, that describes many Indian towns. LP says of The Fort, Meherangarh, that it is “the most formidable fort in fort-studded Rajasthan”. No argument from me. Awesome, though I was impressed by all the Rajasthan Forts. However, this museum shop had the best selection of any shop on the trip. And the Museum had a lovely collection of old photos taken when King George and Queen Mary were in Jodphur for a Dubar.
Onto Jaipur where we stayed in the middle of the old city where the hotel warned occupants to keep windows shut to keep the monkeys out. On our list was Jantur Mantar, the observatory, which is the best preserved of the five built by Jai Singh. It was as I remembered, with various constructs for measuring the sun. Three of our group took a look at the City Palace Complex and weren’t particularly impressed. But the Fort-palace at Amber was not to be missed, with or without the elephant ride.
Next was the brief stay at Pushkar before heading onto Udaipur, where we relaxed three nights at a haveli overlooking Lake Pichela. Per LP, Udaipur is called the Venice of the East. Lovely and serene - though once away from the haveli, the sounds of India were unabated. We took a boat trip about the lake, three of us had massages, we explored the City Palace and museums, had free tea in the Chrystal Gallery - or at least I think it was - and an evenings entertainment by rather mature dancers and marionettes.
Ranakpur was next. This by car as no train went there. Enroute we stopped at Kumbhalgarh, a huge secluded 15th Century fort, with 36 km. of walls, surrounding palaces, gardens,and temples. Once at Ranakpur, we had the evening meal at an nearby elegant hotel - and I was more impressed by the price than the meal. But the hotel was worth a walk through. The next morning was spent at the Jain Temple complex. with their erotic sculptures and distinctive architecture.
Then to Ranthamblore, with the rainy New Year’s Eve and unsuccessful tiger hunt. However, the Park was beautiful and birds and beasts were about - just not the elusive tiger. .
Agra is in Utter Pradesh but a sight of the Taj Mahal is mandatory for a traveler in India - and two of our group hadn’t been before. We spent time at the imposing, red sandstone Fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for seven years, the Itimad-ud-daulah (aka “baby Taj”) and the Taj Mahal and its adjacent structures and gardens. It was foggy/smoggy but the Taj’s beauty shown through.
This was the end of the line: three of us back to Delhi and one off to Birder’s Inn.
Throughout the journey, we experienced the generosity and kindness of Indians, even when I impolitely waved off a man only trying to keep me from getting totally lost. People made room for us when we were dumped on a train without seat assignments. Strangers were happy to help us find ourselves.
India is a vast country of differences. I had been in some of the cities - Jaipur and Agra - ten years ago; they seemed even nosier and more crowded than I remembered. But earlier this year, I was in NE India which has a different atmosphere than Ladakh, where I traveled last year - both less frenetic. And all varied from Rajasthan. There is a vibrancy and energy which contrasts with the grubbiness and poverty.
Ladies beat the wash to death on one ghat while the trash lies up on another. Proprietors sweep litter before their shops into the open gutters.
There were a large number of Indian tourists - one can only conclude Indians are becoming more affluent and able to travel. One Indian though, said Indians are getting more aware of a larger world than just their families and are now exploring their country. They were surely on the go over the holidays.
Hot water was unpredictable: sometimes, yes but often, no. The trains, though a bit old and grimy, did work: clean sheets and pillow covers were handed out on the sleepers. Hot food was hawked. The only scary time was trying to board in Delhi, when several carloads just debarked and were in a rush to get up and over the stairs and overpass - we were going against the tide and were close to being trampled down.
We ate Indian vegetarian, which was cheap and good. Most places where we stayed included breakfast which often meant corn flakes - either that or chocolate flavored cereal though occasionally, muesli) and omelets, along with Indian items.
I paid roughly $1000 for accommodations and train fares. I spent less than $500 for food, admission tickets, extra transportation and purchases. Airfare with Cathy Pacific cost $1843.20 roundtrip San Francisco to Delhi (and assigned me a bulkhead aisle seat on the Hong Kong-San Francisco segment home).