After a relatively ho hum experience in Pushkar, we were excited to be heading to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.
Located in the Golden Triangle along with Agra and Delhi, Jaipur is a staple in the tourist circuit. And it's easy to see why. With all the conveniences of any other big city, and all the charm of an ancient town, Jaipur is a bustling mix of old and new.
We were delighted to check in at our wonderful home for the next 5 days, Atithi Guesthouse. Our room was enormous, with plenty of room to unpack our bags, and the shower was so hot that I actually had trouble standing under - not the problem you normally have with showers in India!
After a quick decompression, we headed out for some lunch. I did some preliminary googling for what was in the area, and found a place to eat nearby - The Grand Kebab. We wandered off, keeping our eyes peeled for a kebab shop. We eventually found it - inside the Radisson... Whoops. What followed was probably the most expensive meal we've eaten in India, and it wasn't even kebabs.
Before we knew it, we'd agreed to a 12 course set menu. We had 4 types of starters, 4 mains, and 4 desserts. An hour later, $60 poorer, and slightly shellshocked, we rolled out of the restaurant, vowing never to eat again. While the food was interesting, it didn't feature as a culinary highlight - although it certainly was an interesting accidental experience!
Albert Hall Museum
Feeling a little jaded after a pretty busy past couple of weeks, bouncing around Rajasthan, we took it easy on our first day in Jaipur. After a leisurely start to the day, we headed to the Albert Hall Museum.
Built in 1887, this stunning building was originally planned to be a town hall, but instead became the state museum of Rajasthan. As we walked towards it, we were amazed to see the whole building completely covered with pigeons. On closer inspection, we realised that the whole front of the building is completely covered in bird seed where locals and tourists alike feed the pigeons to ensure insta-worthy photos. Occasionally, something would spook them, and the sight of all the birds flying was pretty cool!
We paid for our tickets and an audio tour (naturally), and headed in to check out both the architecture and the exhibits. Interestingly, given Jaipur's firm spot on the tourist trail and the high volume of europeans we've seen in the city, Zev and I yet again found ourselves as exhibit number one. It was a little frustrating constantly turning around to find someone posing with you without saying anything while their friend snapped pictures, or (possibly even more annoying), tapping us on the shoulder (interrupting our sacred audio tours no less!) to ask for selfies. I still don't understand why people want pictures with strangers they don't know, and I have no idea what they do with them. Do they show their friends? Are their friends impressed? WHY????????
Anyway, the museum itself was pretty cool, with some impressive displays of carpets, weapons, jewellery, and even (perhaps morally questionably) a mummy.
Thoroughly exhausted from our action packed day of one attraction, we retreated to the guesthouse to make a plan of attack for the rest of our time in Jaipur.
Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort and Jal Mahal
Day two was set to be a big day in Jaipur - we were heading out to see the three forts and the water palace.
The tuk tuk driver who drove us to our guesthouse on our first day in Jaipur arrived at 9am to pick us up, and we told him where we wanted to go. He told us we were being too ambitious, and suggested that we go to Amber and Jaigarh, stopping for photos at the water palace on the way. That sounded like a fine plan to us, so we set off.
Immediately he began making suggestions for other places that we should go to see, including one of the many elephant 'sanctuaries' in Jaipur. We declined, explaining that we didn't want to see any elephants, and that we'd been to elephant sanctuaries before. Not to be deterred, he started talking about a village between Jaipur and Agra that we must visit, and how he could drive us there in his car, and then take us to Agra after. Again, we declined, really just wanting to get through the day.
Half an hour later, we wound down the mountain side to the jaw dropping sight of Amber and Jaigarh Forts, perched on the hilltop overlooking the road.
After some obligatory roadside photos, we started the climb to the fort. We'd read online that you could ride an elephant to the top (and apparently most tourists do - it's 'not to be missed'), so we mentally prepared ourselves for seeing some pretty unhappy pachyderms. We were delighted to avoid seeing a single elephant the whole day - after our recent desert experience, it was a huge relief.
We had to do some detective work to find the ticket counter, but soon enough, we were heading up the stairs into the palace. First stop: audio tours. But they were SOLD OUT!!! We were devastated, and took some time to gather ourselves before carrying on...
We took in the Diwan-i-Aam, or Hall of Public Audience, where the Raja would sit and host meetings with the public.
Passing through the beautiful Ganesh Pol gate, adorned with carvings and mosaics, we entered the private quarters of the Maharaja. The courtyard contains a spectacular garden, with two beautifully decorated buildings on either side.
On the left is Jai Mandir, or Sheesh Mahal, the mirror palace. The whole building is covered in glass and mirrors, designed to reflect the candlelight at night. Even during the day, the building was breathtaking.
Opposite Jai Mandir is Sukh Niwas or Sukh Mihal, the hall of pleasure (so who knows what went on in there). Built of sandalwood and marble, these rooms even had piped water running through them into the fountain in the centre of the courtyard.
The final section of the fort is the zenana complex, or the women's quarters. While this area was pretty plain, seemingly having not been particularly well preserved or restored, it was fun getting lost wandering through the maze of hallways and staircases.
Having finished at Amber Fort, we walked further up the hill to Jaigarh Fort. It was now close to lunchtime, and temperatures were hitting the high 30s. The 15 minute uphill climb to the next fort was soul crushing, but when we reached the top, the views made it worth it.
In contrast to Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort appears to have been left largely to its own devices, and seems to have fallen into disrepair. Despite being around 150 years younger than Amber Fort (in fact built in 1726 to protect and defend Amber Fort), it certainly looked a little worse for wear.
For me, the highlight was definitely walking around the walls and enjoying the spectacular views of the countryside, and the aerial views of Amber Fort. For Zev, I think the highlight might have been seeing the world's largest cannon on wheels.
It was hard to be enthusiastic about much in the searing heat, so it wasn't long before we admitted defeat, and found our way back down the hill to meet up with our tuk tuk driver.
Jal Mahal, and frustrating disagreements
We climbed in and asked to head back to the guesthouse, via a stop at Jal Mahal, the water palace, for a few quick photos.
While the palace isn't open to visitors, its setting in the middle of Man Sagar Lake certainly makes it worthy of a photo stop. This incredible palace looks like a single storey, but in fact it's five storeys - but four of them are hidden underwater!
While Zev jumped out to take some photos, I opted to stay in the tuk tuk to hide from the heat. Our driver turned to me. I present a (paraphrased) transcript of our exchange:
Driver: When you’re done here, I’ll take you to a shop to….
Sam (interrupting): No thank you, we don’t want to go shopping, we just want to go back to the hotel thanks.
D: No, I’m telling you that I’ll take you…
S (again, interrupting): No, I’m telling YOU that we’re NOT going shopping, we’re going back to our hotel.
D: It’s important to get some things to take home with you.
S: We don’t have any room in our bags, and we don’t want to buy anything. I don’t want to have an argument with you about it, we’re not going shopping.
D: You could buy me a present.
S: WHY would I want to buy you a present? We're not going.
D: Why not?
S: BECAUSE I SAID SO!
D: I think you should ask your husband.
S (feminist rage shooting flames out my eyes which I use to burn my bra): I don’t need to ask my husband anything. We’re going back to the hotel.
S (calling to Zev): Come on, we’re going!
S (muttering under my breath): This guy’s trying to take us to a shop, and had the audacity to tell me I had to ask you if we would go. I’m going to kill him.
D (to Zev): I’ll take you to a shop on the way home….
Zev (interrupting): No thank you, straight back to the hotel please.
The driver fell into a sullen silence, before taking us home via the most possible traffic, visibly aiming for every pothole he could. As soon as we pulled up outside the hotel, I got out and left Zev to pay because I was so annoyed I knew I’d probably start a fight with him. To his credit, even though he knew he clearly wasn’t going to get any more money out of us (despite continuing to try to convince Zev to go out with him again the next day), he only overcharged us slightly…
On our third day in Jaipur, we took a cooking course. We arrived to house of the instructor and were greeted by the sight of a truly enormous dog – Don, the Great Dane! We headed downstairs to meet our instructor, Lokesh. It turned out Zev and I were the only ones booked in for the day, so it ended up being a private lesson. We spent a few minutes chatting (he used to be a chef in hotels around India and the UAE), and then we got into it.
We learnt all sorts of great local dishes, starting with masala chai, and ending with rice pudding. Over the course of 2 hours, we cooked and tested until we felt sick! At the end of the lesson, we went upstairs to the dining room to eat ‘lunch’, which we had cooked (really, it was Lokesh who did almost all of the prepwork and cooking, but we got to get hands on, so it felt like we contributed a bit). Sadly by this point we were so full that we could hardly eat another bite, so Lokesh and his wife graciously packed up all the food for us to take with us. As we were eating and packing, we got chatting about travelling around India, and their planned trip to Europe next month. We ended up staying an hour and a half longer than our lesson, chatting and sharing stories. While the cooking lesson itself was fantastic, the whole experience was great, and a definite trip highlight.
The Pink City
Having had a reasonably laid back day with our cooking lesson, we headed out to tackle the hustle and bustle of the walled historic centre.
The Pink City is a bit of a misnomer. Although most of buildings in the walled part of town are painted pink (which is really more of a peach), this wasn't always the case.
The city was founded in 1727 by Maharaj Jai Singh II in response to a growing population and increased water scarcity at nearby Amber Fort. He had travelled extensively, and brought ideas back, particularly from Europe, to incorporate into his new city. Jaipur became India's first 'planned' city.
The city was laid out in a grid, and surrounded by large fortified walls with seven large entry gates. With his sights set on making Jaipur a trade centre, Maharaj Jai Singh II approached the best tradespeople and businesses in Rajasthan, offering them incentives to move to Jaipur.
It worked, and Jaipur thrived.
In 1876, the Prince of Wales visited, so the whole city was painted pink (the colour of hospitality) to celebrate. Since then, the city has spread far beyond the walls, and as a result, only a small percentage of the city is actually painted pink.
Our first stop within the walls was the City Palace, home to the Rajasthan royal family. While they no longer reside here full time, they do spend some time here. Much like Buckingham Palace, you can tell if the royal family is home by the presence of a quarter flag above the Rajasthani flag on the main flag pole.
After picking up our audio tour (thankfully there were some left!), we toured the palace. It was incredibly busy, and so loud that in places I couldn't even hear the audio, but we did manage to find pockets of calm amidst the chaos.
My favourite part of the tour was the photography and painting exhibition. There was no one else in there (it was hidden behind uninviting doors), and displayed examples of historic art and maps, and a really interesting room of self portrait photographs taken by a previous ruler.
Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)
With our City Palace quota filled, we headed around the corner to check out the equally famous Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. By this time it was a little after lunch, and the heat was climbing. It was pushing 40 degrees C, and even the shortest of walks was a struggle.
Nonetheless we stopped on the street side to admire the facade. Built of red and pink sandstone, the palace was built in a beehive-like lattice style to allow royal women to observe life on the streets below without being seen.
We made our way around to the back (which is confusingly actually the front - the street side view is actually the back of the palace), and entered the palace. Disappointingly, the palace is now largely a facade, with nothing behind it. The only real benefit to entering the palace was the great views from the top of the building.
Dangerously approaching melting point, we stopped for some refreshingly cold iced tea before continuing on to our final stop for the day.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Zev was in heaven at Jantar Mantar. Translating to 'calculating instrument;, Jantar Mantar is a collection of nineteen astronomical instruments, including the world's largest stone sundial, completed in 1734.
Even with the help of a pretty great audio tour, in which a grandfather explains each of the instruments to his granddaughter, it was all still pretty lost on me (although I'm going to blame the heat for a portion of my struggle with brain-based activities). Despite this, the instruments were incredibly beautiful, and choosing to look at them as immense sculptures helped to keep my enjoyment levels up.
By the time we were done at Jantar Mantar, the heat had won. We retired to the guesthouse for the afternoon, too tired to move!
Le Tour de India Cycle Tour
With our last day in Jaipur, we decided to be brave and go on a bicycle tour. For once, the traffic wasn't the most terrifying thing we'd have to brave. We had to meet at the rendezvous point at 7am. UGH.
We dragged ourselves out of bed and ubered to the meeting point. There, we found out we were to be the only two on the tour, so we had two guides, Umesh and Valen, all to ourselves.
The first stop on the tour was the most famous lassi walla in Jaipur, where we stopped for delicious breakfast lassis out of terracotta cups. Apparently the terracotta cups help to keep the drink cool, and contribute to the flavour of the lassi. Weirdly, the cups were disposable, so it was a little strange throwing our terracotta cups in the bin when we finished.
Back on the bikes, we headed through the walls to the old city, and navigated the back alleys to an old haveli. Here, Umesh explained the history of Jaipur (his description, along with what we learnt at the city palace, combined to give us the overview I wrote above), and showed us one of the old mansion houses owned by a family that had worked as cart makers. The descendants of the original owners still lived in the house.
From there, we headed to a nearby flower market, and Umesh took us around, showing us the stalls and taking us to a temple.
On our way to the next food stop, we found ourselves caught up in a Jain parade. Detouring slightly, we ended up on a nearby rooftop, eating pakoda (deep fried potato coated with chickpea flower) and sipping chai. Here, we found out that Umesh and Valen are both pretty impressive athletes, with a pretty healthy competition with each other as to who's the best! They had a great rapport with each other, and were really fun and funny to be around.
Soon, we saddled up again, and wound through the back alleys once more. We stopped so that Umesh could explain that the city used to be divided into 'areas' or streets based on what the shops sold, but now, most of the shops had closed. One street that remained was 'snack street', where we stopped to sample some treats.
Soon enough, we were back at Albert Hall Museum, where our tour was due to finish. The surrounding streets were closed for the Rajasthan Festival, commemorating the anniversary of the founding of Rajasthan, but we managed to find the driver who had come to pick up the bikes. We spent about another 10 minutes hanging out with Umesh and Valen, before bidding them a very fond farewell and heading back to the guesthouse, tired but very happy.
Today, we jumped on a train to Agra, and said goodbye to Rajasthan, where we've been for the last 3.5 weeks. It;s been a wild ride, and has definitely left us with some lasting memories! We're excited to be striking out into new parts of the country though, and can't wait to see what our remaining month in India will bring!
Lots of love,
S & Z