Friday, 27 March 2015

Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

I'm writing this from the city of Bikaner in the eastern part of the Thar Desert.  It's been a busy day visiting the Old City, Bazaar, Junagarh Fort and Lalgarh Palace.  Just another typical day in Rajasthan really!  I've only been to three cities since I last wrote but it's been an adventure and I've had a great time.

My destination from Udaipur was the lovely city of Jodhpur.  In a straight line on the map it's about 220km.  Now, I'm not certain exactly where the bus went that day but the journey took us 9 hours to complete.  Do the maths on that one!  Actually, to be honest I was worried for a while that I was on the wrong bus because I kept seeing distance signs for Jaipur. a Kiwi accent they may easily be confused.  But finally as the day wore on I began to see signs for Jodhpur and rested in my seat a little more comfortably.

Carrying the royal palanquin, Meherangarh Fort
The main attraction in Jodhpur is the awesome Meherangarh Fort.  This would have to be one of the best monuments that I've visited, certainly the most outstanding of the forts.  Built in 1806, it sits majestically on a 125m hill overlooking the city.  Within the structure there are a series of courtyards, palaces and a temple at the far end.  The ramparts offer great views of the city. 

It is also undoubtedly the most professionally managed.  For tourists, the usual cost of admission to major historical sites is 250 rupees ($7AUD).  The exception to this was the Taj Mahal which was 750 rupees ($21AUD).  The cost for Indians however is only a small fraction of what we pay - in most cases about 5%.  This is often a good topic of discussion between tourists and there are various opinions about it.  The general feeling though is one of acceptance through having no choice.  It's either pay or miss out.

Anyway, in many places you poke your payment through a small window and get issued with a little ticket without any thanks.  But in the Jodhpur fort I received both a map and audio headset so I could do a self-guided tour.  So I had an explanation in perfect English at each of the significant points.  There was even a lounge with sofas where I could rest and get a drink.  All the employees were dressed well and wearing name badges.  It was quite unlike anywhere else.

Jodhpur, the 'Blue City'

Jodhpur is known as the 'Blue City' because of the colour of so many buildings in the old city area.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  Apparently it makes them cooler in summer and the blue also acts as a mosquito repellent.  The views from the fort are magic.  It's also interesting standing on the edge of the ramparts and listening to voices and the sounds of the city being swept up by the air currents.  A few metres back from the edge the sounds disappear.

I also visited the Jaswant Thanda, which is a beautiful white marble cenotaph and the Umaid Bhawan Palace and Museum.  Begun in 1929, this palace is the last to be built before India's Independence.  Constructed of marble and pink sandstone, it is immense and most of it is now a luxury hotel.  Other than that, it was interesting just wandering around the various narrow alleys and markets which sell spices, textiles, silverware and handicrafts.

Jaswant Thanda

From Jodhpur, it was west through the Thar Desert to the beautiful city of Jaisalmer.  The scenery on this journey reminded me a little of the Australian outback.  Vast arid plains of sandy soil with various grasses, shrubs and trees.  Jaisalmer is dubbed the 'Golden City' because of the honey colour created as the sun sets on its buildings.  It has one of the most spectacular forts in the country and there is a remarkable unspoiled feeling about it. 

I noticed the presence of the Indian Army as we got closer to Jaisalmer.  The border area with Pakistan is a military zone and there is an army base just outside the city.  But the Border Security Force or the occasional sound of fighter jets in the sky doesn't really impact on the tranquility of the city.  This is truly the place where tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba come to life.

A beautiful haveli, Jaisalmer

Aside from admiring the fort and impressive mansions of carved sandstone called havelis, I went to Jaisalmer to do a desert camel safari.  There are many different choices and I visited a number of agents to establish what I wanted to do.  In the end, the choice came down to doing a 'tourist' or the seemingly more popular 'non-tourist' safari.  The prices ranged anywhere from about $10 to $25 per day.  In the end I decided to do a three day 'non-tourist' safari and that adventure will be in my next post.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Junagadh to Udaipur

My next bus ride took me to the city of Junagadh.  The main reason for staying here is to climb the nearby Girnar Hill so see more hilltop temples.  If I thought 3200 was a fair hike, this one was 10,000!  Actually, it's not quite that bad because the bus takes you to about step 3000 so you 'only' have to climb 7000. The steps were constructed early last century and I have no idea how these temples were accessed before that.  Climbing them and passing all the little refreshment stalls reminded me a little of the Annapurna experience.  

Mahabat Maqbara, Junagadh

To avoid the heat I started the ascent at 7am and altogether it took me about two and a half hours.  It probably would have been shorter if it wasn't for the misfortune to be doing it on a Sunday.  It's the local's day off and there were literally thousands of them making the pilgrimage up the hill.  I couldn't believe how many of them there were!  I wore my MP3 player so I wouldn't have to answer the maddening questions of 'what's your name?' and 'which country are you from?' every five minutes.

The temples themselves were quite beautiful and characterised by mosaic marble and some intricate carving around the doorways and also on the inside of the rotundas.  Unfortunately for some reason they were very strict about not being able to take photographs.  I had one security guy follow me all around one temple to make sure my camera didn't emerge and I couldn't take my bag into the next one at all.  Once again, the climb afforded a great view back down the mountain to Girnar village and Junagadh beyond.

Temples of Girnar Hill

Junagadh also has a fort but it was nothing much to write home about.  The main attraction within its walls are the Buddhist caves but I gave them a miss.  I think I've seen enough rock-cut caves for now.  The most interesting thing I did see though was the stepwells or baolis.  These are huge wells with water in the bottom that would once have been used for bathing and keeping cool.  Access is by steps; one had a straight stairway and the other a circular.  The water now is filthy but it didn't stop one woman drinking from it.  I almost felt ill watching her.

Another important thing I wanted to do in Junagadh was visit the zoo and see the rare Asiatic or Gir lion.  The last remaining home of this lion is a sanctuary within the Sasan Gir National Park.  Overall, the zoo was surprisingly good and contained many other animals and birds from around India and beyond.  I don't think I'd ever seen a hyena before so that was fun but seeing the lions was the main feature for me.  I visited the museum there also which has some interesting exhibits such as paintings, silverware, coins, pottery, textiles and some rather moth-eaten stuffed animals.

The rare Asiatic lion

Well, here I am in the city of Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan and what a wonderful place it is!  I've only had the opportunity for a short walk around the old city area but it has a romantic and mystical atmosphere.  It's been described as the 'Venice of the East' and having been to Italy I sense why.  It's beside Lake Pichola and there's a palace (now a luxury hotel) on an island just off shore.  I'm looking forward to spending the next couple of days here...

I decided to go straight through Rajkot because there's nothing much to see there.  I had another night in Ahmedabad and so I'm now a few days ahead of my itinerary.  I'm pleased about that because I'd like to spend a couple of nights in Pushkar.  I may also need an extra night in Jaisalmer depending on how long I go on safari for.  But for now I'm just going to enjoy where I am.  Its nice being in a place where so many signs are in English and tourists...I've seen more in a couple of hours here than I've seen in the whole of India so far! 

Late afternoon view of City Palace, Udaipur
I so enjoy being able to just blend in a little bit.  It's a complete contrast to a little place I passed through on the way to Diu.  I don't even know the town's name because it was merely to change buses.  Thankfully I was with another couple of tourists but as we waited we were surrounded by a crowd of literally 60 people (I know this because I counted them!).  They could only speak a few words of English between them but it didn't seem to dull their curiosity.  Obviously not too many tourists pass through their little part of the world!

The bus ride today was enjoyable and it's not often I'd say that!  The highway between Ahmedabad and Udaipur is very well constructed and maintained.  It'd be a nice road in any country but in India it's absolutely top class.  As good as it gets.  The bus was relatively quiet and as I've become used to in Gujurat, not crowded.  There were consistently more seats than bodies which makes a very nice change.  I'm not sure how the buses are in Rajasthan but I'm starting to think that compared to the train bus is the lesser of two evils and I prefer it as my mode of travel.  Time will time...

Friday, 13 March 2015


It was on the journey to Palitana that things started to go a little pear shaped.  The first part was fine but a puncture to the bus tyre was the beginning of the trouble.  After the repairs were complete I started to feel unwell and in the warmth of the bus I started to feel cold.  Then there were serious hints of diahorrea.  Let me tell you... it's the most terrible feeling sitting on a bus, shivering and not quite knowing which will arrive first: your destination or bowel movement!  I prayed hard it wouldn't be the latter and fortunately I made it okay.

The next 24 hours were spent in my hotel room either in bed or visiting the toilet.  It wasn't pleasant.  I also had the sweats and a high temperature at various times.  My main concern was dehydration and I made an effort to drink as much as I could.  I'm not certain what it was other than a virus of some kind and I have no idea where I picked it up.  The possibilities are endless and it's simply one of the pitfalls of travelling the sub-continent.

Repairing bus puncture

Unfortunately, this has had an effect on my travels throughout Gujarat but I'm happy to say that it hasn't stopped me from doing anything that I planned.  So although it hasn't been an optimal experience, I've enjoyed it just the same and seen some great sights.  The first of these was the temples on the hilltop at Shatrunjaya (Place of Victory), 3km from Palitana.  After the day I'd had previous you can probably imagine I was apprehensive about climbing the 3200 steps up to the top.  But it was better than I had prepared myself for and the ascent took about 1.5 hours.

Before I even reached the top there was a sight that I unfortunately won't quickly forget and believe wasn't something I was rushing to get my camera out for.  In a country that is very conservative about dress and showing too much skin, a guy passed me on the path stark bollock naked!  I had no idea what it was all about other than being of some religious significance.  Just to make my day I passed him again going down the hill.  Charming...

Hilltop temples of Palitana

The temples themselves were amazing and well worth the effort to get up the hill.  There are literally hundreds of them built over a 900 year period.  Almost all of them are Jain and it is evidence of their belief that merit is derived from constructing temples.  They are built in nine different enclosures with one main temple and many minor ones clustered around.  They date from the 16th century because the earliest ones built in the 11th century were destroyed by the Muslims.  The hilltop also gave nice views back to Palitana.

My next stop was the beach town of Diu.  I'd been looking foward to the beach there and it didn't let me down.  It's a beautiful, peaceful place with a strong Portugese influence.  This is evidenced by the narrow streets and alleyways together with brightly painted buildings in the old town area.  Diu township is on the eastern end of an island between a huge fort and city wall.  I walked around the old fort which has a lighthouse within it that gave a great view of the town and across to the mainland.  In the afternoon I hired a bike and rode down to the fishing village at the far end of the island.  I stopped at a nice beach to watch the sunset on my way back.

Portuguese fort, Diu
I spent the following morning at the beach before getting a bus to Veraval.  I had the whole place to myself and it was very relaxing.  Perhaps too much because I ended up sunburnt!  Veraval isn't a place I'll remember very fondly.  The area around the port smells of fish and the city is dusty, noisy and congested.  I was only using it as a gateway to visit the temple in the nearby village of Somnath.  To be honest, it was doubtful whether the temple was worth the visit.  There's no doubt it's a beautiful structure with some fine carving but it has no sense of history because it's only 50 years old.

The site itself certainly has a history with the original temple being built over 1000 years ago.  Since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt four times.  (There was a pattern of Muslim destruction and Hindu rebuilding which continued for centuries.)  So, in a way I actually enjoyed visiting the adjacent museum more because it has been partly constructed of fragments of the last original temple and contained many stone carvings found at the site.  I'd hired a bike that day so took it back through the port to see people mending nets and building wooden boats by hand.  Noah himself would have been proud of them.

Fishing town of Veraval
Despite my health issues, I really enjoyed travelling through Gujarat.  The bus rides were relatively short and although the buses were standard-issue old meatwagons the roads were surprisingly good.  To quote from the Lonely Planet again on the journey from Palitana to Diu: "...this is the trip from hell, along bumpy village roads in dilapidated old rattletraps."  Sometimes I love it when my guidebook is proved wrong!  It wasn't nearly as bad as all that.  The trip from hell must surely be from Mandu to Indore.  If there's a worse one than that I just don't wanna know!

Friday, 6 March 2015

Mumbai to Ahmedabad

Well, I've done it - all the way from the mountains to the sea!  After another long day of travel I arrived in the huge, yet glamorous and charismatic city of Mumbai.  There is no doubt that it has a very different feel to the other Indian cities that I've visited. The first reason is that it's so expensive.  The hotel I'm staying in would cost about 150 rupees ($4.50) in most places but suddenly I have to pay 400 rupees ($12).  I know, I's still cheap but when you travel for long enough you begin to know what is a reasonable cost for various things.

The cost aside though, it's a very nice place to be for a couple of days.  The reason is that it's a relatively clean city without the sense of chaos that seems to exist in most large Indian cities.  Streets are all nicely paved and there are actually footpaths to walk on.  Auto rickshaws, animals and trucks are banned from the area and in their place are taxis and buses, some of which are double-decker.  So, there is a genuine English feel and the luxury cars offer glimpses of India's wealth.  Although there aren't many 'sights' to see, the shopping and nightlife combine to make it a vibrant and enjoyable city...while you can afford it!

Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai

From Mumbai I went out to Elephanta Island and to be perfectly honest, this was a disappointment.  The hour-long boat ride itself was good because it gave an appreciation of the harbour size but having been to Ajanta and Ellora, the caves were nothing special at all.  In fact there were only five of them and four were barely worth seeing.  So, for the same cost as the other places I basically looked through one cave.  There was a free guide service there but it's not really something I'd particularly recommend to anyone.

The next day it was on a train to Ahmedabad.  What I read in my guide book made me a little apprehensive about my visit there.  With all it's industry it's been described as the 'Manchester of the East' and also, especially in hotter weather the 'City of Dust'.  The road I stayed on is called Relief Rd and I love the quote my Lonely Planet has about it: " of the most polluted, congested and thoroughly chaotic strips of barely controlled mayhem in the country."  What a great little excerpt that is!  Relief Rd…relief from what? 

Elephanta Island

So, that's what I was contemplating as I sat on the platform in Mumbai but my more immediate concern was the unreserved train ticket I had in my hand and the usual huge mass of people around me.  I've learnt that any train to or from Mumbai is going to be very crowded.  As the train arrived I wondered how it would work because this is the originating station and it was empty.  While I was thinking about it I didn't realise that everyone else was forming long lines to board the carriages! 

When it seemed like I would be last on and no hope of a seat, a big guy approached me and asked where I was going.  When I replied he told me to follow him.  What happened next was quite extraordinary.  He held people out of the doorway like my personal bodyguard and pulled me onto the train.  Inside was just chaos and for a few minutes there were people shouting, pushing and generally fighting for space.  But when the dust settled, I had my backpack on the luggage rack and my bum on a seat.  The guy asked me for 100 rupees for his services but that was quickly bargained down to 30 and everyone was happy.  Especially me...that was money very well spent!

Relief Road, Ahmedabad

I'm happy to say that because I'm using an old guide book Relief Rd wasn't as bad as I'd braced myself for.  In fact it was just another busy Indian city street like you'd see anywhere in the country.  Certainly not a place for a pleasant stroll but not 'barely controlled mayhem' I imagined .  The sights of Ahmedabad are basically a series of mosques and a fort which wasn't really of any interest at all.  It's in neglect and now mostly used as government offices.  So, I just stayed one night there before leaving for Palitana in Gujurat.