In order to complete our tour of India’s Golden Triangle, we took a short train ride from Agra to our third destination – the renowned pink city of Jaipur, in Rajasthan. We were quite excited to take the train as Indian trains have this semi-mythical reputation of being the quintessential Indian experience. Unfortunately getting a ticket isn’t the easiest thing for a tourist so we highly recommend that you ask your hotel or B&B to help you get one, if you want to avoid spending a day in a ram packed station trying to get such a ticket, that is. On this occasion, the train ride itself was only 3 hours long and we were seated in the 1st class air-conditioned carriage. It was a little cold but very comfortable, and we were served loads of very spicy Indian food!
Upon arrival at the train station we were inundated by self-proclaimed “guides”, Tuk-Tuk drivers and various hangers-on who seemed to speak every language…to Alex’s delight, for some mysterious reason, they all seemed to be fluent in Italian and to have been to either Milan or Rome, and proceeded to tell Alex that he looked Indian. This is a theme we encountered again and again in every Indian town (it goes like this “Oh you are Italian? Milan ,Turin or Rome? you look Indian man!). For the record, whilst Alex has nothing against being perceived as looking Indian he doesn’t agree the description to be truthful. Phenotypic considerations aside, you won’t get a good deal here, so it’s best to ask your hotel to arrange a pick up, don’t worry he’ll speak Italian too. But this in itself won’t suffice, your pick up will probably be late, so be strong and turn down any and all offers from Italian speaking Tuk-Tuk drivers offering you rides for cheaper prices, tours for the next day, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things! Eventually we managed to find our driver.
We had high hopes of Jaipur, but again India threw us a curved ball…oh India! Jaipur is not a quiet little historic city, it’s actually massive, and the pink city is only the old quarters. Oh yes, and it’s also not really pink! We found it to be a weird off-orange Trump-like colour! We had also thought that the old city would be a pleasure to walk around, but it turned out to be just as traffic choked and ram packed as other places we had visited. We chose to sleep away from the chaos in the newer part of town and would recommend this traditional town house (called a Haveli), because it and the staff were just so lovely.
So, what is there to see in Jaipur? You can buy a composite two-day ticket for the main sights which are mixed between the old city and the surrounding area.
Inside the old city
City Palace and Jantar Mantar
The City Palace still belongs to the Indian Royal family so much of it is off-limits. We decided to visit the Jantar Mantar astronomical instruments instead which basically looks like a garden of modern art sculptures or an Escher optical illusion! They were finished in 1734 by a Rajput King who also built similar instruments for observing astronomical positions with the naked eye in Delhi and Varanasi. There is not much by way of explanation, so if you have a particular interest, then hiring a guide would be advisable.
Nearby is the Hawa Mahal which is quite a magnificent building. You can go inside and wander around the corridors but it must also be appreciated from the street. Here it appears as a giant wall with many, many windows, designed so that the ladies of the royal court could observe festivals or other events without being seen by outsiders.
If you have some patience then you can scour the many bazaars which are famous for silver and fabric. Of course, haggle hard, it’s a very touristy place. You can also find flower markets, sari streets, perfumes and all manner of things to eat. There is something for everyone but we noticed that the Indians shop keepers have a tendency to list everything in their possession and to assault you and gang up on you as soon as you glance at an item. We found it an annoyance; as westerners, we like to take our time to look through and nose around and will ask questions if needs be, but Indian shop keepers tend to follow you like a hound and baby sit you through the whole experience. If we don’t show you, how do will you know what you want? One told us?! Cultural differences we guess, but we found that approach a turn off and didn’t end up buying much.
We also wandered in to a Brahmin’s temple for a brief respite. The priest let us look at the view from his rooftop but we soon discovered that even he had a shop and wanted to sell us something! Even the temple has to pay the bills!
Outside the city
Transitioning outside of the city is quite an experience in itself. Our Tuk-Tuk driver took us through the outskirts which were full of animals of all kinds running around the streets and mingling with the locals. We counted cows, pigs, goats, camels, chickens and dogs. We won’t mention what they were up to!
The Amber Fort
The most famous sight outside of the city limits is the Amber Fort. It, along with the other forts perched on the hillsides is very imposing. Sadly inside much of the decoration was missing, but there were a few highlights like the painted entry arch and also an excellently preserved Hall of Mirrors – which must look fantastic by candlelight at night. It’s also fun to wander around in the various staircases and tunnels. We found the fort’s toilet and then ended up being taken on an impromptu tour by a security guard around the tunnels and on to the rooftops. What a nice and helpful guide we thought…till he demanded a hefty tip! Something that keeps happening: officials wanting to be paid for well…doing their jobs!
Whilst we were there we witnessed the filming of a scene from an upcoming Bollywood movie, apparently the star was quite famous and there was a bit of a furore, even the resident cows moved aside when they left in their SUVs!
The Amber Fort is famous for elephant rides up the hill to the gates. It was late in the day when we visited so there were not any elephants working. Of course we wanted to see an elephant, but we would never ride or condone riding one as the practices used to ‘break’ elephants in are barbaric and there are some questions regarding the welfare of these animals in Jaipur. We also noted that there are a couple of elephant sanctuaries near to Jaipur. We chose to opt out of this activity as we couldn’t be sure whether to believe the good or the bad reviews. We did spot an elephant in Jaipur from afar, it was being paraded in the street as part of some festival. We hope to see elephants in a more natural habitat in South East Asia.
Jal Mahal – The Floating Palace.
On the way to the Amber Fort, this palace appears to be floating in a lake. We just stopped for some pictures at dusk and it did indeed look like it was an eerie ghost palace.
Galtaji Monkey Temple
We also took an afternoon trip to the Galtaji Monkey Temple which was quite fun. It’s a good half hour outside of the city but at least you feel like you’ve got into the countryside. This was proved to us when a local pointed out a leopard high up the hillside sitting on a ruined temple. As we had a zoom lens we managed to capture a hazy image. Alex quickly became the most popular person at the temple as everyone ran over to take a look.
The Monkey Temple is of course filled with monkeys and they are just bonkers and fun to watch. You can buy food to feed them but they seemed pretty well fed already! The temples are also used by humans for ritual Hindu bathing although we are not sure of the sanitation here!
We also walked up the hill behind the temple through a community of people who seemed to live off displaying their holy cows with extra leg deformities. At the top of the hill there is a Sun Temple which you can enter and watch the sun setting over Jaipur.
Although Jaipur is part of the famous golden triangle of India, we weren’t too impressed by what it had to offer. At this point in our Indian Odyssey we were ready for a bit of peace and quiet and a city which we could stroll around under our own steam. Probably our unrealistic expectations of India kicking in! But such is India, we were starting to realise. Don’t have expectations or you’ll be disappointed, go without expecting much and Nirvana will be revealed to you, or at least you will see a holy man or two. As hard as it is for us westerners to get our heads around, India is a place of chaos, extremes, contradictions and culture shocks, it takes some time to get adjusted to this system, so be patient. Luckily our next stop was the bucolic and no-nonsense Camel Fair in Pushkar…finally some quiet?!