After leaving Jaipur we were pretty weary of big cities and couldn’t wait to get to some small towns. Jaisalmer and Pushkar fit the bill perfectly. Jaisalmer is a desert town built around an 850 year old sandstone fort, which does look like an enormous golden-hued sandcastle perched on a hilltop. In its entire history the fort was only captured twice, the first time after a siege lasting twelve years. When the inhabitants finally decided they could no longer live under siege, they went out with honor by not surrendering. After extensive rituals, the women dressed up in their finest outfits and one by one threw themselves upon an enormous fire so that they would be ready to meet up with their husbands who would soon be joining them in the next life. All the men put on their finest clothes and stormed the numerically superior enemy, fighting until they had been slain to the last man. With such fierce warrior traditions, it’s no wonder the fort was only taken twice in eight centuries.
Both the fort and many of the surrounding buildings have the most intricate carvings that I’ve ever seen adorn an edifice. Truly works of art. We spent most of our time just wandering around and admiring the stonework, and then laying around our hotel’s rooftop restaurant admiring the view of the fort. The amazing Indian food they served made it hard to leave. I know we put in a few pictures of Jaisalmer before, but I can’t help but share a few more.
After Jaisalmer, and the desert safari that Jennifer wrote about, we moved on to Pushkar. The lake that Pushkar surrounds is considered holy to the Hindus as it is where the supreme god Brahma dropped a lotus flower, creating the lake. Shoes cannot be worn within 10 feet of the lake, and they should not even be carried within 50 feet of the lake. Like the holy Ganges River, Indians pilgrimage from many miles to bathe in the holy waters of the lake. We washed our feet in the lake after walking around it, so we are hoping that counts for some extra karma.
We were lucky enough to happen to be in Pushkar for a small music festival, so we got to hear a Tibetan singer, a Sufi band, a few Indian bands (including a guy who played two recorders at the same time and another guy who killed it on the mouth harp), and even a gospel choir. The gospel choir sang a song about Jesus in the water, which we thought was rather inappropriate to be sung right at the edge of the Hindu holy lake, but at least they were good. Nobody seemed to mind.
The variety of goods sold at the Pushkar market, as in many places in India, is staggering. We spent hours wandering the stalls admiring the diverse textiles, brass goods, paintings, and sculptures made of camel bone (ivory is no longer legal). It helped that bhang lassies were cheap and plentiful, so we also spent a lot of time relaxing in cafes. Thank the gods (Ganesh? Vishnu?) for the Kindle, an invention that didn’t exist last time I backpacked. I’ve already read more than 10 books and have over 900 more to go! My awesome Aunt Annie said I’ll be dead before I finish them. A sobering thought, but also a reminder to enjoy our time here, as life is fleeting. A significant part of backpacking, at least my backpacking, involves reading good books in beautiful and exotic (and cheap) locales.
One night while sitting by the side of the lake, admiring the sunset, a group of teenage guys sat down next to us and struck up a conversation. The one who knew English asked where I was from, and I said USA. “Ah”, he observed, “your god is very plain. Do you know about Hindu gods?” More amused than taken aback, I thought to myself that yes, compared to Hindu, our god is very plain. I said I knew just a little, and took that as cue to explain about Shiva, Ganesh, Vishnu, and their various incarnations going back 1000 years. It was a lot to take in, and I had to concentrate my hardest as he threw in the occasional question to make sure I was paying attention. The bhang lassi was not helping matters at all.
Luckily, he eventually steered the conversation to other matters and seemed fixated on comparing India to China. I agreed that China was another large emerging economy, trying to think analytically about other economic comparisons I could make. He then followed with the question, “which do you think is better, China or India?” with an expectant look on his face. I should have seen the obvious answer, but my retort was simply, “I don’t know, I’ve never been to China.” The mix of shock, confusion, and betrayal on his face was priceless, despite the fact I was hoping I hadn’t started an international incident. Luckily, he rescued the situation. His face lit up as he decided, “I am sure that if you ever visit China, you will know that India is much better!” We all heartily agreed, and he went on his way satisfied that his country’s reputation was preserved.
Now we’ve moved on to Udaipur, India’s most romantic city (so says Lonely Planet). It certainly is pretty sitting on our hotel’s rooftop restaurant and admiring the beautiful buildings and palaces surrounding the lake (not a holy lake, but still pretty). On our first day we walked around to get the lay of the land and stumbled into another Oberoi hotel. Our hotel in Agra was next door to one and we couldn’t help checking it out. Apparently it’s a super fancy hotel chain which I never heard of, but I have to admit they are gorgeous. In Agra they didn’t like the look of us scraggly backpackers and the staff discreetly followed us around until we left, so Jen didn’t want to go inside the one here in Udaipur. We have decided, though, that when we come back here after striking it rich we will only stay at the Oberoi. Travelling on a shoestring is fine, much better than not travelling at all, but if you have the means…
Anyway, next door to the Oberoi was the largest art/souvenir/furnishings store we’ve ever seen. Kind of like everything from Pushkar but super fancy and of the highest quality. Amazing stuff. We would love to spend fifty grand that we don’t have to furnish the house we don’t have in the place we don’t live. Alas. Being a nomad has its advantages, but shopping for home furnishings is not one of them. As my other awesome aunt Judy said, we are “living the dream”, but everything in life has its tradeoffs. Despite that, Jen was almost talked into buying a four foot high Ganesh statue intricately carved out of hard wood. We managed to leave unburdened, but not without some regret. Some day.
Yesterday we took a tour of the city palace, built over 400 years ago and still the home of the current maharaja. It was a great place to see some views of the surrounding city from the many balconies, towers, and cupolas. One can tell that the kings liked a bit of flair by admiring the mirror-work, marble-work, murals, wall paintings, silver-work, inlay-work, and stained glass. Apparently, one maharaja ordered a ton of crystal work from England but he died before it arrived. It sat unopened and forgotten for 110 years, until just 30 years ago. The collection includes crystal chairs, dressing tables, sofas, and beds, among others. Ah, gratuitous decadence. Trump would be proud.
Today we took a bicycle tour around the big lake and through the countryside around a few other lakes. It was nice to get out of the city and get a bit of local flavor from our guide. We saw the monsoon palace on top of the highest hill, built by a maharaja to be above the clouds during the monsoon season. Sometimes, we all need to get away.
Next we’re on to Bundi to get out of the city and kill some days before our 25 hour train ride to Gokarna in the South. We’re on the wait list, but we really hope to get on as that’s way too long to spend on a bus. We’re trying to avoid a layover in Mumbai as we’re tired of big cities. Wish us luck!
Places to stay in Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Pushkar and Udaipur
Jaisalmer – we stayed at Shahi Palace and loved it! The rooms are smallish (the cheaper ones anyways) but the roof deck has a great view of the fort and amazing food! The owners are really nice and helpful too! We hung out on the roof top for hours and no one cared which was nice 🙂
Jaipur – we stayed at Pearl Palace – this place had it down! It’s in all the guide books and rightly so – the rooms were really nice (with beautifully painted ceilings), the roof top restaurant was really good and they had live music at night – AND with the money crises going on – you could pay for everything with a credit card! There is also a place across the street called Kalyan Hotel – it’s not in the guide books so not as busy (and not quite as nice) but I bet you could get some deals on rooms over there.
Pushkar – we stayed at the White House (apt isn’t it?!) This place was small and clean. The doors do shut at 10pm so beware of that as we heard some poor soul pounding on the doors to get in at 2am. Though, to be frank, I am not sure what one can do until 2am in Pushkar. In any case, it was really cheap and the owner was nice – I wouldn’t recommend the rooftop restaurant though as there are better places close to the lake. Pushkar Inn looked pretty nice in Pushkar as a place to stay…
Udaipur – we stayed at Pratap Bhawan – it’s decent, though pricey, and the beds are pretty hard and the windows don’t really hold out the noise. The roof top restaurant is good (but pricey) but the worse part about it is the service (at the restaurant)… they literally ignore you for as long as possible before serving you…. kinda annoying but the view is nice.