Rajasthan Pt. III:
Picking up where we left you hanging, which means us awaking in Udaipur and catching a bus to Mt. Abu, which took around 5-6 hours, meaning we arrived in the mountains just before dark. After signing up for a next-day tour of the town (through the state government), we then wandered through the streets for a bit until we found our hotel, one guide-listed but that offered daily nature hikes through the surrounding wilderness. We had a tasty Gujarati thali for dinner, with heaps of vegetables that were nicely spiced (getting genuinely "spicy" food can sometimes be difficult, since Indians don't seem to believe that we want things hot), and then crash-landed back at our hotel, since our tour was all-day and started around 9 am (which is early for us). As it happened there was only one other foreign tourist couple (on a bus packed with Indian tourists), who were also from America, so that made all the endless (and unnecessary in our minds) Hindu temple visits, plus a few stops at gardens and such run by an international new-age sect (cult) based in Mt. Abu, a bit more enjoyable, though fortunately there were a couple genuine highlights as well.
The four of us got dressed up in traditional Rajasthani outfits for an impromptu photo shoot at the top of Rajasthan's highest peak (of course they had costumes ready for all the Indian tourists that come through - which was great, because we got to pay their price of 10 Rs. instead of the Western tourist price of 100 Rs.), which was all-the-more hilarious because of the Indians all wanting to pose with us (in their street clothes) for the typical camera-phone photos and such. We also saw the amazing Jain temple complex, just as spectacular as the one at Ranakpur, though here a pair of temples dripped with intricate carvings, and the entryway to one was filled with a procession of elephant statues. No cameras were allowed in, so the few shots we snuck hardly do it justice, but the Jains definitely employed the finest artisans possibly available, since the attention to detail (ceilings, columns, archways, etc.) is omnipresent and overwhelming. Fortunately that was the last real stop, so were able to bail out of the bus in the main marketplace, skipping (another) lookout point. The next morning we took a 4-hour nature hike, that obviously stretched into the afternoon, and although we really didn't see any animals, we did spot some bear poo, climb up some steep hills for some spectacular views of the town, and at one point Anderson climbed through a 60-foot cave, avoiding a bat halfway through, to come out on the other side of a ridge. It was a bit claustrophobic at times, but the hardest part was just the slow task of inching one's body through the rather small exit way at the end of the cave!
We spent most of the rest of the day hanging out with our cohorts from America (we met another guy coincidentally from Oregon on the nature hike), and then that night watched a bit of "Dhoom 2" on VCD, before the constant skipping prematurely ended our viewing. How Indian!
From Mt. Abu then we journeyed to Jaisalmer, which meant we had to arise in the dark in order to catch the once-daily bus, which left Abu road at 7:30 am. However, that meant we had to take the 6 am bus down the mountain, which was a great stomach-churning way to start the day! Eleven hot, brutal, and stop-filled hours later, we finally arrived in Jaisalmer, more worn out than we could have possibly anticipated. Riding a bus all day through Rajasthan, even in March (before summer truly arrives), was oppressive at best, with things being quite cramped at times, and of course with all the usual staring we were definitely the featured "program on TV" (what we say when all the too-bored Indians simply stare at us, in silence, for hours). That's pretty normal by now, since cultural and social norms here are so drastically different than our own...
Jaisalmer is a fort-town, on the far western-edge of Rajasthan, closer to the Pakistani border than to any other city within India. It is desolate in a relaxing sort of way, once you ignore the heat and smelly streets, but much of India is blessed with things like that this time of year! The fort was quite impressive, towering over the town like a golden beacon, due to the yellow-gold sandstone used in its construction. The fort walls themselves are unfortunately literally falling apart, due to pressure on the ancient sanitation system, which is so severe now that Jaisalmer is one of the 100-most-endangered ancient cultural sites in the world. The big shame is that most of the inhabitants don't seem to be aware, or even to care, since the inner-fort area is still certainly lived-in, and filled with the usual variety of restaurants, hotels, lodges, handicraft shops, etc. We did what we could, staying outside the fort, and not buying anything while we were site seeing within it, but it's rather depressing that things are only going to continue to get worse, despite the conservation efforts, both local and international.
The highlight of the fort, however, was the audio-tour-enabled palace, which featured a variety of impressive mahals, as well as many still-intact impenetrable defences. Equally impressive, if not more so, was the complex of 8 Jain temples near the palace (and therefore within the fort walls). Many of the temples were actually interconnected, so there were numerous stairways and pathways connecting them together, and since they were also built out of the same golden sandstone, they also had an amazing glow to them, made even more impressive by the fine carvings and designs. These were also the only Jain temples (vs. Ranakpur & Mt. Abu) that allowed photography, so were able to make up for those previous photographic injustices just fine! These temples were also active, which was pretty interesting, so there were Jain priests (complete with face masks to avoid inhaling any bugs) engaged in their daily prayers and rituals while we were wandering about. One temple in particular was filled with bats, at least 100 or so were living in the back sections, taking their mid-day snooze hanging from the ornate ceilings! Jaisalmer also had some nice shopping, particularly for traditional Rajasthani goods, such as mirror-worked blankets and wall-hangings, so we did spend much of one afternoon engaged in some enjoyable (and beneficial to our wallet) haggling. The price of virtually everything in India is up for discussion, even where it says "fixed price," which does take a while to get used to, but particularly when you are buying any type of quantity, it is very foolish to not negotiate the price, since for Western tourists the true retail price (Indian price) is often doubled or tripled.
After just a few days in Jaisalmer we departed to Jodhpur, postponing our planned camel safari because the heat was simply too intense, not just for we humans but also for the camels, so that from Jaisalmer 1-day tours were pretty much all that were available.
Jodhpur is also known for its fort, called Mehrangarh, which like Jaisalmer's overlooks the rest of the town and surrounding hills. However, we postponed that until our final day, first spending some much-needed time at the internet, uploading around 1000 photos, thankfully on the fastest internet connection we have found yet, a true DSL connection, so that our uploading time was cut down to only 1/3 of what it usually takes. We also wandered through the local zoo and gardens, and ran unexpectedly right into a crazy street festival and parade. The roads were blocked off for it, and tractors pulled "floats" full of people and blasting music from speakers, plus there were Indian marching bands (Indian because they lacked organization and were rather chaotic...), food vendors, camels and horses with riders, and of course spectators lined the packed streets, making the parade's speed not much more than a crawl. We also managed to lose (or have stolen, we'll never really know) our wallet, after purchasing some ice cream bars it was not to be seen again, but worse things have happened than losing 1500 Rs. ($35) - we were rather ecstatic that it was just the wallet and not our camera or our bag!
The Jodhpur fort was definitely overly-tourist-friendly, in addition to the audio-tour (which was very informative and enjoyable - it made the fort come alive as opposed to just being a mostly abandoned complex) there was also the most Westernized gift shop we have seen since Europe, with ridiculous prices to match (and there they were definitely NOT negotiable). The fort also provided excellent views over the city, much of which is painted, as is traditional by now, a light-blue color, chosen mostly to minimize heat from the sun, but also to repel mosquitoes. The magnitude of the blue isn't apparent at all from just walking the streets, some buildings are painted, but many are not, but once you are high up within the fort, the surrounding hills seem to scream out with the color.
From Jodhpur it was a 4.5 hour bus ride to Ajmer, the nearest major town to Pushkar, but we stayed there for one night in order to see the town's sites, which were pretty impressive. The solitary 12th-century Jain Red Temple was impressive, not-so-much for its carvings, which were only outside and pretty standard, but rather for the elaborate miniature recreation inside of the ancient Jain vision of the world. Basically a giant toy model, with mountains, people, plenty of animals, plus large flying elephants, peacocks, and swans, the fact that they are all made out of solid gold is pretty mind-boggling. The whole display is maybe 30 meters long, and 10 meters across (or so), which is pretty ridiculously large, and it is also 2-stories high, so that all the flying animals hang well above the golden cities beneath them. Ajmer is also home to one of India's holiest Muslim sites, the Dargah, the tomb of one of the most revered Sufi saints. To enter our heads had to covered, but although it is a holy place it also borders on a carnival, with so many people there to pray, celebrate, cry, relax, listen to music, etc. that it definitely has a spiritual-party atmosphere, as contradictory as such a statement might sound, after all, India thrives on its constant diversity. So we got touched by a holy cloth, got hassled by numerous "priests" for money, baksheesh, alms, etc., got an English explanation of the Holy Koran, and also sat and listened to some live music for a while, which consisted of a drummer and a singing harmonium player (instrument somewhat like a keyboard/accordion hybrid). There was also an ancient mosque, of which the outer walls were crumbling away, but the interior was still surprisingly intact, with majestic high walls completely covered in carvings from the Koran. There an all-too-common occurrence happened, where an Indian attempts to befriend us so that they can converse in English with us, which is fine and all, but can be frustrating when we are trying to stick to a time schedule, and frankly after 5 months (almost) in India, we've long ago realized we cannot chat with everyone, take tea with everyone, entertain everyone, etc., but it is still a fine line since we are international ambassadors for our country (and the West in general), so we have to avoid coming off as rude or impolite, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be. Plus, the unfortunate bottom line is that at least 90% of the people that approach us, due so solely out of the hopes of getting our rupees, whether through begging, their "uncle's shop," or whatever scam/ploy they may be trying to run on unsuspecting tourists. The truly tiring part is that every last Indian assumes we are ignorant and have no clue about these goings-on, or what the real prices are, so with every rickshaw (just as an example), we have to first hear their ridiculously inflated "tourist price," before we can get them down to something reasonable. With rickshaws, it SHOULD cost 3.5 - 5 Rs./km... so that most rides within any city should be 20 Rs. But they will sometimes start as high as 100 Rs., and act like that is not insulting to our intelligence. So often we have to chat with 3 or more drivers just to find one who is grounded in reality, before we even start the real haggling (to get their starting offer of 30 Rs. down to the 10-15 Rs. it ought to be). Sometimes such haggling is fun and enjoyable, but other times it is pointlessly redundant, but that's just all part of "the game" here. And the price we as Westerners pay to travel India, live for $10/day/person, etc. So it all evens out, just India taxes you in ways we would have never expected.
Even religion is not exempted, and is actually one of the main forms of tourist tip-offs, as even just yesterday near the Gandhi Ghat (here in Pushkar), where Gandhi's ashes were placed in the holy water here, a "helpful" man who wouldn't stop following us around, trying to show us what to do (as though walking down to a bathing ghat is somehow difficult of beyond our comprehension), tried to get baksheesh "for Krishna" out of us, to the tune of $10 U.S. Or "as you like," but when we liked nothing (since he hadn't done anything, really, and certainly nothing we had asked for!), he told us to "get of here," as though it were his ghat or something! Pretty ridiculous really, but every day in India (honestly, and at least once a day, if not numerous times), something that we would describe as "ridiculous" like that occurs. At least the flowers that we were placing in the lake, from the Brahma Temple, were genuinely on donation only!
Back to Ajmer, after our site seeing we then caught a bus to Pushkar, which was only about a 20 minute ride, just 11 km around/through a mountain, and after a bit of wandering the dark streets of Pushkar, and looking at a few hotels, we settled at Hotel Narayan, which was recommended to us by our Israeli friends Mohran & Liat. Because there are so many Israeli travelers in India, there is an extensive word-of-mouth network of chill lodges/hotels etc., and because Israeli's are notoriously good bargainers (matching, or at least almost matching, the Indians at their game), prices are usually cheaper, so whenever we see signs in Hebrew we know that is usually a good thing! It is really quite impressive just how many Israeli's there are traveling, most around our age, or younger, having recently served their mandatory military service and looking for a relaxing escape afterwards. We've heard estimates that as much as 20% of Israel's population is currently traveling the world (at all times), something the United States is embarrassingly far behind in. Maybe you, dear reader, should do your part do rectify the situation!
Anyways, to wrap this up before your eyes fall out, we are now obviously in Pushkar, which is a great place to relax, as well as shop. A holy city, with a holy lake at the city center, Pushkar is also very tourist friendly, with a large bazaar, and many affordable and tasty places to eat. We have two meals so far at a buffet in town that is quite good, and we also had our best pizza yet in India here (so often a pizza would be good, but they only use plain tomato sauce, so it tastes painfully bland). Anderson finally took some sitar lessons, and although he enjoyed them now is not the time, it has been decided, to buy an instrument, since hauling it around Nepal would prove to be a tortuous task. So perhaps in Varanasi, where we have gotten some recommendations on good teachers...
Our current itinerary, has, of course changed, but for the next 3 days we are going to go on a camel safari in the surrounding desert, starting tomorrow morning at 10 am, returning on the evening of the 3rd day. Every place in Pushkar offers camel safaris, but we got a great recommendation from the Americans we met in Mt. Abu (thanks Joshua & Lark!), whom by sheer coincidence we ran into again here in Pushkar, on their last night (and our first night) here. After that we will probably swing through Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and then quickly head to Nepal, for around a month, to take advantage of the too-short prime season there. Once May hits the monsoon season will be starting, which limits visibility and can block roads and mountain passes, though it is not until June when the worst weather hits. So we'll have at least half of April's pristine weather, and then a few weeks in May when things will still be nice, before we then return to India (renewing our multiple-entry visas at the border). We are not sure how long we'll remain the second time around, the absolute latest is Aug. 27, when our visa expires, but odds are we will not stay quite that long, since the desire to get to Thailand can be quite strong at times!
Hope all is well, and we'll deeply inhale some camel farts for the rest of you!