Monday, May 2, 2011

Exploring forts and temples in the deserts of Rajasthan

Before leaving Udaipur we took our first luxury trip by renting a car with driver and A/C for the day. Things are so cheap here that it costs the same as it would to just rent a car in the US, and trust me, you need the driver because you don't want to drive in the madness here!

It took him 5 years to grow this awesome 'stache

We took it to visit the fort of Kumbhalgarh and the beautiful Jain temple of Ranakpur. It was only a 300kms loop (190miles) but with the shape of the roads it took all day.

One funny thing about renting these cars is that there is bullseye on it: a clear marking saying that it's a tourist car. When you drive through the country side and kids wave at you, it feels very presidential. :)

With the heat (remember, it's low season for a reason) the fort, lost in the middle of nowhere, is really impressive. Why would you settle down there? It's hot and dry. Sure you can view the valley all around and it's at the top of a hill, making it an ideal location to thwart attacks, but still... we've seen more welcoming settings.

The fort is imposing with its 39kms of walls and you can see, thanks to the many temples within it, that there at one point there was a lot of life there. We slowly and painstakingly made our way all the way to the top, taking in the different parts of the fort on the way, but the view from up there was pretty darn cool.

Since it's low season many of the tourists are actually Indians (some families and, for this fort, a bunch of military guys), and this is where we started experiencing a funny phenomenon. People love fair skin here (there are ads on TV about products to whiten one's skin), so we attract some attention. But they love Denise (and her hat) even more. This results in people regularly asking us to take photos with them. Judge for yourself.

I started taking photos of them too, but later gave up :)

Now here is something interesting I've noticed since then. When women want to be on a photo with Denise, they ask her directly and don't ask me. When it's men, they ask me if 'we' can take a photo with them (I know it's 'we' since they tell me they want Denise on the photo too if she doesn't automatically join). If there were any doubts left, we now know who's the pretty one!

After the fort was the fabulous white marble Jain temple of Ranakpur. Jains have built it in a remote area and have put a tremendous amount of work into it. It's clearly visible as the place is massive and made of entirely white intricately carved marble. There are hundreds of columns, all carved differently, and the ceilings and domes are quite a sight to see. We've seen many other Jain temples since then, and not one of them comes even close to the majesty of this one.

Do I look cool with the pants they lent me or what? (you can't get in with shorts)

That's just the bottom of the door

Even the ceilings are awesome

We're impressed!

This drive was also our first real encounter with the Rajasthan countryside and its poverty. It's quite impressive to see how little people live with. We had witnessed it in Peru already, but there's something about India, and the fact that even those small villages have beautifully dressed women and seem self sufficient that makes it different.

The next day we left Udaipur and the surrounding area, and made our way to Jodhpur, further north and closer to the Rajasthan desert. Since there are no trains for this stretch we took the bus. It was our first time taking a bus and trying to find one showed us that a lot of your comfort has to do with luck. All the travel shops around the city were touting the same 3 buses, dubbed as deluxe (even super deluxe sometimes) but without A/C. Every time we asked for a bus with A/C they said that there were none and that this was the only option. Doing the 7+ hours ride in a non-A/C bus with 40C temperatures (105F) didn't sound appealing at all (we've met many tourists who do it though... I guess we're getting bourgeois!) So we asked our hotel about it and they assured us they had a daytime bus, with A/C that we could book through them. We were dubious to say the least given how many scams are supposed to be going on, but since it was our hotel and they rely a lot on online reviews, we decided we could trust them and booked it. The bus ended up being comfortable and with A/C, as they promised, despite what all the "travel agents" were saying. Lesson learned: it doesn't hurt to shop around and ask your hotel.
Jodhpur was more of a gateway to the deeper desert city of Jaisalmer for us so we only spent a couple of full days there. It's called 'the blue city' and for a good reason. Many of the houses are painted blue with Indigo, which is supposed to keep them cool and to help keep pests away. It gives it a very unique and pretty look.

We visited the fort and palace there (the palace is often within the fort) and went through many courtyards and imposing walls.

It would be easy to miss this headstand

We finished on the fort walls which give a unique view on the whole city.

We then made our way down to the Jodhpur market where we did our first shopping. Given that our bags are already full and that we're traveling for a while we can't really buy anything but Denise had been looking for a pretty scarf so we randomly made our way to a shop where we met Pinto, the store owner. A lot of the people in the stores are usually pushy and display goods that are not what you really ask for. Pinto was different. He was short with a handsome smile and a very fun guy to haggle with. Now, I hate haggling and even if she's good at it Denise doesn't enjoy it either, but with Pinto we had a lot of fun, all of us with a big smile the whole time. I even ended up getting a scarf in the process and we left the store with cheap goods and a fun experience.

Jodhpur's market

Next up was Jaisalmer. This time around we ran into a small problem. The train was already completely full (and with our tight schedule we couldn't move stuff around) and there was not a single bus with A/C to be found (since there are trains, there are less buses). We ended up getting a car to drive us all the way there for a very good price. The car had A/C of course (see a pattern here?).
Jaisalmer is famous for its fort, which is still home of the old city, and the nearby desert, giving the perfect opportunity for camel rides. We found a nice hotel there with a very nice host (she cooked for us and the other french couple that was there on our first night).

We visited some more Jain temples within the fort, One of them (the nicest one) didn't open until 11am. Since we were early we waited for 10mins sitting in the shade nearby when a group of 6-7 women surrounded us (Denise...) and started talking to us about some prayer word we had to say every morning: "namo arihantanam". They chatted with us for a few mins, even asking about our religious beliefs and why we were visiting Jain temples, and then they left as quickly as they showed up, wishing us good luck.

In the afternoon we went on a jeep tour with the other couple with whom we made friends. The jeep tour was to visit some sights outside of the city, including another Jain temple. Now here is a funny story:
When we entered that temple outside of the city, we realized that there were people actually praying in it. As we were about to leave, the people inside recognized Denise. These were the same women that we met that morning! They invited us inside the temple and asked us to join them in their prayer, which we did. They were extremly welcoming. It was very fun and unexpected and was one of those moments for which you travel.

During the tour we also went to see some cenotaphs (tombs) in the middle of the desert, as well as a completeley deserted city.

The last stop was with the camels that were to take us to the sand dunes and leave us there for the sunset. It was still crazy hot out there, but the camel ride was the right length and the temperatures slowly declined from 'very hot' to 'very warm'. Something we had never thought about is how tall camels really are. Once you're on one of those guys, you're towering above everyone else. It is also not as bumpy as I expected, except when they started running (great fun).
We had fun in the dunes and we got to witness the beautiful sunset.

It was another excellent day and our last adventure in Rajasthan. After 10days there, we took the 16 hours train back to Delhi the next day.

Find more photos of Ranakpur here (map), and of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer here (map).

View India - Jodhpur, Jaisalmer in a larger map


  1. Great pictures and stories. btw, Vince congratulation on your English vocabulary I must say.

  2. The shot of you two with the camel in the foreground is fantastic.

  3. Love it. Hopefully, we'll catch up on our blog and post our pictures soon.

  4. great job on the photos and the vocabulary ;-)