Should I go to India? (Rajasthan)

It’s difficult to imagine a country more diverse than India. With 22 official languages,  6 major religions and countless traditions and cultures, your experiences in India will depend greatly on the areas you visit.  Of the places we visited, Rajasthan was the most flaunting of their customs and traditions, and no matter where you travel there, you get a taste of the individual cultures that make up this desert state.

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Rajasthan is a state located in north-western India.  Although it is mostly famous because of its Thar Desert, Rajasthan has much more going on than just sand.  We visited 5 cities (and could have doubled that number if we’d had the time) and had some pretty awesome experiences.  Here are some of the highlights of Rajesthan.

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Palaces and Forts

Prior to its independence from England in 1947, India didn’t look the way it does today. Although it is now a democratic country, India used to be made up of several small city states, run by kings.  As a result, there is an abundance of history in Rajasthan and if you like seeing antiques and learning about the past, the palaces and forts in Rajasthan are excellent ways to spend your afternoons.

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Rajasthan’s forts speak volumes about India’s past.  The different colours seen here are because these two areas were built in different times and of different materials

The fees to get into some of these palaces were quite high, and from what I heard from other tourists, not always worth the money.  In Udaipur, we opted to skip the palace because of the high camera fee.  We were relieved to hear from a couple later on that it had been wise to skip it; there was little more than a few paintings to see.  In other places, like Jodpur for example, the forts (and attached palaces), are well worth your time and money.

Many of the hotels in Rajasthan are actually old palaces and government buildings from past rulers.  We stayed in several of these buildings, known as Havelis, while in Rajesthan…each had beautiful architecture and interesting rooms.

Architecture

Each city we visited in Rajasthan seemed to have a nickname.  Jaipur is ‘The Pink City’.  Udaipur is ‘The Lake City’, Pushkar is ‘The Pilgrimage City’, Jaisalmer ‘The Golden City’ and Jodpur ‘The Blue City’.  Each of these nicknames comes from the unique architecture and geography in the area.

Jaisalmer impressed me the most with its beautiful sandstone carvings.  Not only is the golden colour of the sandstone beautiful, but the intricate detail found all around the city is a photographer’s dream.

Similarly, Udaipur’s gorgeous hotels built along the lake are a sight to see.  The white buildings reflect on the lake, giving the city a serene atmosphere.

And if the cities themselves aren’t beautiful enough for you, the temples and other landmarks in India are also sights to behold.  After all, the Taj Mahal is just one of India’s famed buildings…there are many, many more!!

Markets

If shopping is your favourite pass-time during travel, Rajasthan is for you!  Every city we visited had markets where you can check out Rajasthan’s unique textiles.  And, for a state famous for its desert, you wouldn’t believe the colour you’ll see in these markets!!

Among the best cities for shopping were Pushkar and Udaipur.  While the shopkeepers in Jodpur and Jaipur were pushy and known to chase you down the street…Pushkar and Udaipur had a much calmer feel to them.  There was an abundance of art and textiles (bedding, scarves, clothing etc…) to see everywhere we visited in Rajesthan, you could only really peacefully visit shops in these two smaller cities.  We bought the majority of our souvenirs in Pushkar, where the prices were fair and where I was given the chance to try things on without people grabbing my arms and trying to drag me into different stores (a frequent experience in Jodpur!)

Of course, you do need to be careful when shopping in Rajasthan.  The prices aren’t nearly as inflated as they are in the Golden Triangle, but you will still be ripped off if someone sees the opportunity.  Pushkar specifically had an interesting scam that involved locals trying to push you into paying for flowers that are originally presented as being free.  A rule of thumb in Pushkar…people are really nice…just DON’T BUY THE FLOWERS!!!!  And, of course, be weary of anyone telling you that their products are 100% Kashmir or Pashmina…they most likely aren’t.  I paid 1000 rupees for a scarf that I saw for 400 rupees only a few days later in one of the smaller cities.  Be skeptical of initial prices and BARGAIN HARD!  (even when they try and make you feel like you’re ripping them off…it’s part of their shtick)

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I saw these table clothes for 500 rupees in the market.  We ended up buying 3 of them from a gentleman in Jaisalmer, who was selling them for some of the women living out of the city.  We paid only 100 rupees each and we knew he was STILL making good money on our purchases.

Wildlife and Landscape

Rajasthan is THE place to visit if you are interested in diverse landscapes and wildlife. From monkeys to cows, there won’t be a day you don’t see an animal while in India.  And because Rajasthan covers such a large area, the landscapes change a great deal as you travel around the state.

The farm life within the cities is astounding.  Not only cows roam the streets of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, but also goats, sheep, pigs and chickens…

There are monkeys all over the place in Rajasthan!  I’m always afraid of being bitten because monkeys can be so aggressive, but the zoom on my camera made it easy to get some good close ups of these cool little dudes…

 

And of course, I can’t forget about the friends we made in the desert

The most remarkable animals we saw in Rajasthan were the famed Demoiselle Cranes we saw outside of Udaipur.  These cranes are famous because they have the most difficult migration of any bird on earth.  Not only do they need to fly over the Himalayan mountains to get to their breeding grounds in India…but they get attacked and eaten by Golden Eagles along the way!  Don’t believe me?  Watch Planet Earth!   We watched the episode about Mountain Landscapes after we got home, just to see the cranes that we’d been lucky enough to see up close in Rajasthan!

Some Cautionary Tales

There are far more ups than downs visiting Rajasthan.  For Dave and I, the biggest downer was our driver, who was strange and actually pretty terrible at his job.  Look around for drivers that have good reviews before booking because you’ll be spending 35+ hours in a car with that person…and trust me…you don’t want a guy who plays the same 5 minute Ohm on repeat the entire time!  It can really ruin a trip!

Additionally…it’s a good idea to book ahead of time.  While it’s often better to book tours once you’re IN a country, you will be overwhelmed with the number of tour guides trying to sell you packages once you’re in New Delhi.  Many of them will lie to you to get your business (ours assured us that they were government run…they were not!) and they will all try and rip you off.  Check Trip Adviser before you get tied in with anyone in India.

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Also…make sure you’ll be being driven around in a decent car.  This was our driver and car…the driver was ok…the car was nice.  I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to spend 35 hours in something without proper suspension!

Aside from drivers…make sure to look around before buying things so you get a feel for what prices are in markets.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you their scarves are 100% anything…they are lovely, and I wouldn’t discourage you from buying 1 (or 3…), but I would caution you to limit how much you spend.  Most of the time, the Kashmir or Pashmina scarf they’re selling you is mostly silk or even polyester.

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And, of course, I highly recommend that you make purchases at places like Belissima…shops that specialize in art and textiles being made by people in need…This particular shop helps women who have been widowed or who were never married.  (it’s located in Jaisalmer fort…there are signs everywhere so it shouldn’t take long to find!!)

So there you have it…Rajasthan is chalk full of things for every type of tourist.  From gorgeous landscapes to intricate architecture, you’ll find something interesting at every stop you make.  If I could do things differently, I would have taken 3 of the days we had in New Delhi and added them to our time in Rajasthan so we could have seen Bikaner or Rathambore.  Perhaps some day I’ll get the chance…

A Night in the Thar Desert

We arrived in Jaisalmer at the end of January after a long 9 hour drive from Pushkar (all 9 hours were spent listening to a 5 minute ‘Om’ to Shiva….on repeat…) and were greeted by a truly unique city.  Located only  120 kilometers from Pakistan, Jaisalmer is a desert city, existing mostly as a base for people wanting to go on camel safaris in India’s Thar Desert.

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There are countless desert camps to choose from and many hotels in Jaisalmer offer discounted rooms for anyone booking a desert tour through them.  Our tour guide had booked ours ahead of time and I have to say that this was something he did right!   The camp where we stayed was very well run and the owner puts a lot of care into the quality of the experience he offers.  From beginning to end we loved our stay in the Thar desert!

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The Thar Desert

Camel rides to the desert camps are a quintessential part of the experience, and we met our camels (and their owners) on the side of the highway about 40 minutes away from the Pakistan border.  My camel’s name was Michael Jackson (probably because of his awesome hair!) and he was the sweetest thing!  Dave’s camel was a bit grumpy, but MJ loved being pet and he was very careful when letting me on and off, which is the most harrowing part of a camel-riding experience!

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Best desert picture, EVER!!!

We got to watch the sun set over the desert, while our guides laid in the sand.  It really was a beautiful way to spend some time and it exceeded my expectations.  Dave explored a bit and I hung out with Michael Jackson (I was worried I’d turn over a rock and a scorpion would try murdering me….Irrational?  Perhaps…)

We arrived at the camp and were very happy with our accommodations.  The tents were in better shape than a lot of the hotel rooms we’d seen.  It’s obvious that the owner of this camp takes a lot of pride in what he does.  He told us a few times how he built things a certain way so that they’d be made to last…he values quality and that was evident in all aspects of our camp experience!

Our evening was spent watching some traditional dances and listening to traditional Rajesthani music.  Once more, we were impressed!  I expected 2 or 3 songs and then for the musicians to move onto another camp…but they stayed the whole night!  We had hours of entertainment around a bonfire, under the desert sky!  Dinner was served and it was also traditional Rajesthani.  The whole experience felt very cultural, and although a lot of these types of things can sometimes feel a little kitsch,  somehow, this didn’t.

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I also got to put my photography skills to good use!  When they saw that I had a decent camera and that I liked taking photos, they asked if I wouldn’t mind taking some pictures of the camp for their future website.  These guys were so great, I gladly agreed to help out.  I just hope my photos do them justice!

We were sad to go the following morning, but before we left we were served some very tasty Aloo Parantha (a traditional Indian breakfast) and we learned later that the owner had even picked up some fresh fruit for Dave and I, in case we didn’t like the Indian breakfast!  So thoughtful!

We had such a great time in Jaisalmer!  I recommend the trip to anyone visiting Rajesthan!  It might be a bit of a drive but it is WELL worth it!!

Jaisalmer: The Crown Jewel of Rajesthan

Before I begin writing about Jaisalmer, I should explain why I have not yet written about the Taj Mahal or about our night in the desert.  I have realized that keeping up with writing everything is extremely difficult, so I’m saving my very specaial posts (such as the ones listed above) for when we’re back in China, and I have access to my laptop for proper editing and such…

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Discalaimer:  If you do not enjoy pictures of camels, my post about the desert may not be your cup of tea…

But until then, I have plenty of other things to write about!  So don’t worry, I haven’t given up yet!!

We spent 3 nights in Jaisalmer, making it the longest stay of our trip so far.  This is fortunate, because it happened to be the highlight of our Rajesthan tour!  In addition to our fabulous night in the desert, we also got to tour the city itself, and Jaisalmer Fort, which were both spectacular places to tour!

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A view of the Golden City rom its famed fort

The city of Jaisalmer is nicknamed ‘The Golden City’.  The reason: most of the buildings there are built of sandstone.  So, like the desert surrounding it, Jaisalmer has a golden glow for tourists to admire.

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Sandstone is also quite soft, as far as stones are concerned, so artists are able to carve intricate patterns into the walls of all the buildings.

The markets here are similar to all the others we’ve seen in India so far.  Here though, we were able to see the highly prestigious ‘National Egg Center’ and view a handicraft that has made Jaisalmer famous:  camel-leather bags.  The leather comes from camels that have died of natural causes, and there were a wide range of them to see.  Some were quite pretty.   I don’t know why I never thought to take any pictures…

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See here:  The National Egg Center

The fort was my favourite part of the city though, because it’s different from many others that we’ve seen.  This towering fortress is home to about 4000 people who own livestock (we saw cows goats and chickens…all within the fort walls) and set up all sorts of shops and restaurants for the tourists who visit.  One local business owner told us that Jaisalmer’s tourism industry is vital for about 70% of the population.  This fort is a big part of that industry.

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A view of the fort from the city

 

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citizens set up shop

We met some really fantastic people in Jaisalmer.  One man asked us if we needed directions and before we knew it, we were up in his inherited Haveli, which is a sort of mini-palace where royalty once lived.  For 6 generations, his family has had this haveli, and instead of charging tourists to come see it (which many locals do), he offers free tours and shows us the handicrafts that he sells for the women in small villages that surround Jaisalmer.  He sells everything at such a great price we bought some things we hadn’t planned on both for ourselves and as gifts.

Another woman was a true inspiration…

Many women in India lead difficult lives.  Traditionally, women were expected to throw themselves on their deceased husbands’ cremation fires because they could not be expected to live without them.  Today, this practice is banned, but widows are still very badly treated.  Because women are expected to stay home with children and to cook and clean, when their husbands (who are typically older than they are) die, they are left without the means to survive.  Bellisima is a company that helps those women as well as many other womens’ groups.  

They sell textiles, jewelery, scarves, trinkets and other souvenires to help women who are in need.  They also empower women to make their own income…even if that means using their limited free time to do so.

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And widows are not the only group of women who need help.  Women aren’t throwing themselves on funeral pyres anymore, but rape victims are often blamed for the crimes committed against them, and family shunning is common.  The woman we spoke to here had been disowned by her husband’s family because she wanted to use her education to help women in India.  Luckily, she married a man who supports her decision, allowing her to work hard and begin to change the mindset that women are second class citizens.

I purchased a scarf and Dave and I chose a beautiful table cloth that was hand stitched by local women.  It was more than we intended to spend that day, but this is the type of place that I want to support.  I can buy a scarf in any bazaar of any city, but to support a movement that is helping change India for the better…that’s a scarf I will wear with pride!

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Why not buy something beautiful and support a good cause all at once?  Above is one of many wall hangings you can purchase at Bellisima.  I didn’t get any photos of my scarf yet because it is still packed up…

This is our last night in Rajesthan, and tomorrow we’ll be heading to the beautiful beaches of Goa!  Before I go though, here’s a funny picture to finish my post with:  there was a cricket match playing in this shop…

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Thanks for stopping by!

Pilgrimage to Pushkar

Oh Rajesthan:  The contrast continues!

I am writing this post from the lobby of our hotel because the internet doesn’t work in our room (it also barely works here…I’ve resorted to typing this up in Wordpad and I plan to copy and paste it later).  The internet on our phones has been working beautifully, but I’m nearly out of data now so Wifi is becoming increasingly important.  It doesn’t seem that the hotels in India care to spend more than they have to on their guests, so the toilet paper provided is minimal, the internet is sketchy if it exists at all and the facilities in the rooms are minimal at best.  For anyone who isn’t well traveled, I can’t imagine India being a very enjoyable place.  For those of us who have stayed in the cockroach infested hostels of southern China though, it’s been bareable enough.  I’m happy to have read many blogs ahead of time and I came prepared with my hair dryer and we’ve been buying toilet paper in town when we start to run low.

 

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This is our 3rd stop in this desert province, and we are so far impressed by both its beauty and also by the unique characteristics that define each city.  Jaipur, the pink city, was buzzing with bazaars that are a clausterphobic’s nightmare.   Udaipur’s peaceful lake gives the city a much calmer feel, but as soon as you enter the street, you are once more overwhelmed by the shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers.  Pushkar, our current destination, is different yet.  It’s a sleepy town (as far as India’s concerned) and the fact that it is a pilgrimage destination gives both its cuisine and its tourists some different traits.

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On the surface, all Bazaars may look the same, but this was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen.  It was much more relaxed with a lot less traffic than others we’ve seen in India

Pushkar is one of 5 important pilgrimage sights in India (we’ll be visiting a second, Varinasi, later in our trip).  People travel here to see the holy lake where Brahma, a Hindu god, was said to drop a lotus flower (India’s national flower).  Some of Ghandi’s ashes were also scattered in this lake, so it is definitely an interesting little stop

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Pushkar Lake

People are far less pushy in Pushkar and many of the prices in the bazaar are fixed.   Even when prices aren’t stated right upfront, the barganing is way less brutal, so we did some clothes shopping while we were there.  Without rickshaws everywhere, it was a lot less stressfull here than it had been in Udaipur.  I don’t think we’d have wanted to do more than 1 day in Pushkar, but overall, the time we spent there was very much enjoyed.

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One aspect of Pushar though, was not quite to our taste, so to speak.  Because it is such a holy place, meat is non-existant there, and it was even impossible to get eggs.  This wasn’t too big of a deal for me, because my stomach took a turn for the worse in Udaipur and I was mostly just nibbling on french fries, but Dave wasn’t too pleased!  As I write this now, we are in Jaisalmer, and I have to admit that after nearly a week of strict vegetarian diet, Dave and I were very excited to order meat for dinner tonight!!

We did make some animal friends though, so that made up for the lacking diet…

My absolute favorite part of Pushkar though was neither the markets nor the lake.   Our hotel had a very special tenant that made my stay in this small city…

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A Great Dane with floppy ears and a sweet disposition

We called him Frankie because we didn’t know his actual name (or if he even had one…) and not only was he friendly and incredibly sweet, but he was also an excellent judge of character!  While he adored us, leaning up against me and always asking for more scratches… he HATED our driver, Prama.  We don’t like him either, and I think Frankie could sense that because as soon as Prama came near us, this loveable dog would start barking at him until he left.  This dog stole my heart…

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The best part was that Prama was terrified of this goofball!!!  Gawd I love Danes!!!!!

Tomorrow we head out on our desert safari!  I’m very much looking forward to writing about it!  Until then, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the beautiful Rajesthani countryside.

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We have seen SO MANY monkeys!  These are Black Monkeys: just 1 of 15 species of monkey found in India
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Our driver made himself useful today and took us to a migration sight for Demoiselle Cranes.  They spend 5 months away from their home, in Russia, and they’ve chosen this spot in Rhajesthan because Jaine Monks were feeding them regularly.  Today we saw about 1000 of these birds.

Internet permitting, I’ll be back upon our return from a night out in the desert!!!