Our first day in Delhi was a bit overwhelming after the relative calmness of Nepal. Despite the posh new airport being a bit like Heathrow, our taxi driver was still quite aggressive and the street our hotel was on was still in the main market street which was a huge scrum of people, stalls, tuk-tuks and motorbikes. The alleyway to the hotel was still full of piles or rubbish and had a strong odour of urine. We decided to head to the relative peace of Connaught Place and the tourist office to figure out trains and find a map. Before we knew it we had met a nice man, on his way home from his job at the train station, who kindly informed Dez that his bag was open and showed us to the tourist office as it was on his way home. Bless him. An hour later we left the “official” (not) tourist office having spent loads of money on a two week tour of Rajasthan with car, driver, hotels and safari tours included. Anyone would think we had never done this travelling lark before. Oh well. The idea, though, is that we avoid the frustration and bureaucracy involved with Indian train ticket purchases. This was difficult enough thirteen years ago but now train tickets are much more difficult to get hold of and we have two kids in tow. So we are no longer travellers. We are tourists for a fortnight.
Our driver is Joni. He drives a Maruti Suzuki Swift saloon car and spends a lot of the time spitting out of the window. According to Joni, only 10% of drivers in India are any good. 90% are rubbish. We’ve yet to figure out which category he falls into. He does drive at a maximum of 80 km per hour but most of that is on the wrong side of the road, avoiding cows, goats and people and overtaking other vehicles. He is perfectly happy to overtake on a blind bend or the brow of a hill or when he can clearly see that there is a lorry coming the other way. We haven’t died yet though. He’s a jolly chap. He knows the main words in English but not the bits inbetween which makes for interesting conversations, some of which we mostly understand.
First stop Mandawa. This wasn’t even featured in our limited second hand Lonely Planet guide. Five hours of driving. Got lost once because the road had changed and Joni refused to believe Dez’s map reading from the back. We were also slightly held up by several thousand Hindus walking along the road on a pilgrimage to the Monkey God Hanuman’s temple. They were all having a lovely time though. it was a bit like a big party. Mandawa is a lovely little town in the middle of the desert. It is famous for its Havelis, posh and exquisitely decorated merchants’ houses. Most of these are now falling into disrepair but we hired a guide who took us round some of them and explained stuff. We stayed in a “Heritage Hotel”, a beautifully renovated Haveli. The boys became Maharajas for the day.
Second stop Bikaner. Another four hours driving to a big, stinky city with a massive fort / palace. We spent several hours in the Fort with an audioguide each, being harassed by Indian tourists wanting “just one photo”, meaning just one photo with every member of their family or school class. Audio guides and local guides have become our friends recently – the boys get a lot more out of a visit to a fort or palace or city when they know more about it. They love audioguides particularly. Sam loves facts and takes everything in, listening to everything intently. Evan is a bit more haphazard with his listening skills and tends to lose track of which bit he’s supposed to be listening to but we’d highly recommend audioguides. The other highlight of our visit to Bikaner was our hotel room. Massive, with two double beds with clean sheets, a sofa, a telly with movie channels, a minibar fridge and room service. We would never have paid for this sort of hotel if we had booked it ourselves. So we spent the evening in our room, watched two movies and ordered Kingfisher and curry from lovely Azziz the room service chap. This was the first time the boys have watched any telly since we started travelling seven weeks ago. They didn’t blink all evening. This is also the first time we haven’t felt the need to use our own sleeping bag liners in the beds.
Next stop The Rajasthani Desert. Eight hours driving to the Khauri region of the Thar Desert. Camel safari to see the sunset, followed by local music and dancing type entertainment and then back to the desert to sleep under the stars. Awesome. And pleasingly, a Monday. You can find Sam and Evan’s Smug Monday post here.
Next stop Jaisalmer. Only an hour from the desert and two nights here. Phew. Jaisalmer is fascinating. The fort dominates the skyline and is surrounded by a city of golden stone, with intricate Havelis and bustling markets. And animals everywhere. Goats, cows, pigs and dogs fill the streets. The colourful saris of the ladies and traditional dress and turbans of the men make for a romantic, iconic sight as we wander the streets. The fort is the second oldest in Rajasthan and the only inhabited fort in India, with 7000 people living within its walls. It houses the palaces of the King and the Queen and some amazing Jain temples with completely over-the-top intricate stonework dedicated to their twenty six prophets. Dez summed up the Jain Temples with the phrase “Jain, love. Give it a rest!”. All life is sacred in the Jain religion. Eating fruit from a tree is ok and milk is fine, but eating root vegetables involved killing the plant so is banned. And as for eggs, well…. Some of their saints don’t wear clothes and don’t stand on mud incase they hurt a beastie. We spent two days wandering round the fort and markets. We are however back to our usual standard of hotel. Boys on mattresses on the floor and the sleeping bag liners are back out again.
Now we are off to Jodhpur, the blue city, another five hour drive. Although this isn’t how we wanted to see Rajasthan and we feel like we are cheating a bit, our tourist tour gamble seems to be paying off so far. We’ll see what happens in Part Two…..