Tag Archives: Adventures in Asia

Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 1

Today on the blog, we’re exploring the Thar Desert.

Isn’t that an amazing name? It’s a place in the far northwestern corner of India, in the state of Rajasthan, not far from the international border with Pakistan. The major centre is Jaisalmer, a small city that boasts a spectacular fort. Jaisalmer also the jumping-off point for camel treks into the desert — the main reason to come here as a tourist, and the focus of my visit.

The fort at sunset

The fort at sunset

Getting There

First, a note about the weather. As I said, this is a desert. We visited in late February, when the average high is 29 degrees C (84 F) but it gets down close to freezing at night. November is comparable; December and January are a bit cooler. I would not advise visiting in any other month, because that sun is fierce!

Getting to Jaisalmer can be a little tricky, as we found. There’s only one train, a long overnight trek from the nearest city (Jodhpur), and it often books up early. All the dates we wanted were full. Besides, my travelling companion and I had taken trains in India already, but the longest ride was 8 hours (for a supposed 6-hour trip) and that was long enough for us. You can also take a bus to Jaisalmer, but we decided that was definitely too much roughing it. On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge on a very fancy train tour — the Palace on Wheels — which was out of our price range.

So we ended up hiring a car, which in India comes with a driver. (You do not want to drive yourself on Indian roads, trust me.) It’s not prohibitively expensive for Westerners — we paid about 2500 rupees a day, which sounds like a lot until you realize it’s only $40 USD!

The road to Jaisalmer

Tumbleweeds, anyone?

The road from Jodhpur is a quiet two-lane highway full of potholes, rolling through a dry, dusty landscape. It is not quite desert, more what’s known as “semi-arid”, and reminded me of nothing so much as the Wild West: sparse trees, little ground cover, muted greens and tans, ramshackle roadside shops. The villages we saw were a mix of boxy desert architecture and tiny round thatch-roofed huts — this is a poor area of India, and it shows. But we also spotted “desert haveli resorts” advertising stays in “huts”…and, somewhat less obscene, wind turbines. Animal sightings included a lot of cows with humps on their backs — no, not camels, although we saw those too — plus wild antelope and peacocks (this is their natural habitat…who knew?).

As the cows indicate, Rajasthan is heavily Hindu, with a minority of tribal peoples who live nomadic lifestyles — easily recognizable by their turbans and long robes. The political power was held by city-states ruled by maharajas…until the British came.

Side Note: Women in Rajasthan

If you’re a woman traveller, especially one with light hair, be wary. I’m female and strawberry blonde. My travelling companion was male and we went everywhere together, but I still got many stares and the occasional comment. If travelling without a man, I’d advise being very careful.

Wearing an approximation of local clothing may help somewhat. I often wore loose Indian-style pants and a tunic with a scarf thrown over the shoulders from front to back, an ensemble known as salwar kameez or informally as a “Punjabi suit”. Bonus: the fabrics are very thin and the cut is loose, both ideal for the climate. If you wear Western-style clothing, choose styles that are loose and offer good coverage.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back). You can't see my practical trail-running shoes.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back); the hat is not but is essential for pale skin with sun like this! You can’t see my practical trail-running shoes.

As for the life of a local woman…Rajasthan is not the best place to be female. It’s known as a backwards state even within India, with a high number of child brides and the lowest level of female literacy in the country.

If you start your travels in Delhi, you’ll see women wearing Western clothing, working (but not in customer service jobs that involve interacting with the public), studying, driving their own motor scooters, and walking around freely.

But as you travel farther west in Rajasthan, all of this shifts. Driving through small towns on the highway, we saw very few women out in public, and those few wore sheer veils over their faces (they’re not Muslim, but I guess it’s a similar idea). Even in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur, women in Western clothing are rare, and as soon as evening falls there are no women on the streets.

I’m far from an expert, but from what I’ve read and seen, and from conversations I’ve had in India, women’s rights and equality are progressing slowly, unevenly, and with many setbacks…but they are progressing. For example, there’s a new program to recruit women to be firefighters.

But back to the topic at hand.

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Narrow street in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City, for the sandstone that the spectacular central fort and most of the buildings are made of. It’s a small city of 80,000, engaged mostly in the tourism industry. As a Westerner, wandering around the city on foot is quite safe…it has a small-town feel with a medieval flavour. You’ll be dodging mopeds and cows, but the traffic isn’t heavy or fast. Besides, by the time you reach Jaisalmer you’ll already have worked your way through New Delhi and several other cities in Rajasthan, so you’ll be well prepared.

Rajasthani textiles, Jaisalmer

Rajasthan is famous for its rich food and textiles. Another thing you can get in Jaisalmer only: bhang lassis. A lassi is a cold drink akin to a milkshake; in most of northern India it’s based on yogurt (often flavoured with  mango), but here it’s based on buttermilk with chopped pistachios on top (recipe here). Bhang is marijuana, prepared in a drink. In Jaisalmer it’s legal to sell to foreigners from a government-authorized shop…and you’ll see a certain brand of traveller come here precisely for that experience.

A few words of warning, though. First, it’s not easy to tell which shop is the government-authorized one (there are several competitors). Second, not long after this lassi experience I got diarrhea that wouldn’t go away and eventually, days later, landed me in hospital for dehydration. I can’t point to the lassi as the culprit — there are too many factors — but I would not be surprised.

The Fort

Jaisalmer Fort 1

The fort itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is geared towards tourism, full of restaurants, guesthouses, and textiles stalls catering to Westerners. But unlike the other famous Rajasthani forts, it’s also home to several thousand locals — it’s been more or less continuously occupied since its construction over 800 years ago, though it has changed hands several times and the rajas who built it rule no more.

However, the fort is in danger. Its sewage system is leaking into the foundations, a problem made worse by the increasing number of guesthouses and other establishments within the fort’s walls. Increased rainfall in the region and seismic activity may also be weakening the fort’s already shaky foundations. (For more information, see this article at Smithsonian.com.) So if you want to visit, consider staying at a guesthouse outside the fort, as we did…and consider going sooner rather than later!

The fort includes a museum, which we did not visit because our time in Jaisalmer was so limited — we were there mostly for the camel tour — and because we’d already visited several similar museums in other cities. Instead we poked around the main square and streets nearby, admired the incredibly intricate stonework, and had dinner on a veranda to watch the failing light turn the fort’s walls to gold. I mean, just look at this:

Jaisalmer fort at sunset

Jaisalmer fort detail

The ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (taxis) in front, and textiles for sale behind

This is getting long, so I’ll close here. Tune in next time for the Thar Desert camel trek and sleeping out among the sand dunes!

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A Fantasy Short Story Inspired by Rajasthan, India

Last month, Turtleduck Press released this anthology:

Under Her Protection edited by Siri Paulson

My contribution (besides editing the anthology) was a story about a maidservant and an inventor, set in a fantasy/clockpunk version of Mughal-era India. I spent six weeks in India last year and fell in love with…well, many things, but especially the historical architecture. So writing about it was a no-brainer. And as a bonus, that means I can put up related photos…

The story opens at Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), a fortified palace in Rajasthan, which looks like this. Click to enlarge any of the photos (all copyright 2013 Siri Paulson).

Amber or Amer Fort

Amber or Amer Fort

Gateway in Amer Fort

Gateway in Amber Fort

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Exploring Jodhpur, The Blue City

Click to enlarge!

The Blue City. Click to enlarge!

It’s time for another travel post! I love sharing these with you because it means I get to go over my photos and reminisce. Hope you guys enjoy them too.

Today I’m revisiting Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. It’s known as the Blue City…for obvious reasons. (The state of Rajasthan also has a Pink City (Jaipur), a Golden City (Jaisalmer), and unofficially a White City (Udaipur).) And yes, the riding pants are named after the city.

My travelling companion and I took the train from Jaipur, sharing a compartment with an elderly woman, her daughter-in-law, and her young grandson. We were glad to be with them because the stop announcements were nonexistent, even in Hindi. Signs in the stations are generally in both Hindi and English, so you can get on the right train at the right platform, you just can’t necessarily get off at the right stop unless you happen to spot the sign going by.

View from the train

View of rural Rajasthan from the train — looks pretty dry, doesn’t it?

A man from our hotel met us at the train station. We almost walked right past him because we’d gotten so used to ignoring people trying to sell us stuff. (Later, back in New Delhi, we projected such an air of being experienced travellers, or something, that nobody at the station even bothered to approach us.)

We’d been travelling through some very intense places for the past week, so we spent our first day in the Blue City just relaxing at the hotel. Like many hotels in Rajasthan, it had an open-air restaurant on the roof — obviously this is a place that doesn’t get rained on much!

Both our room and the restaurant had nice wicker furniture, but the hotel wifi was stronger in the restaurant, so we spent a lot of time upstairs, hiding in the shade from the intense semi-desert sun.

We did leave the hotel to go to dinner down the street. On the way we found dodgy sidewalks, lots of motorbikes, and the alarming fact that after dark, all the local women disappear off the streets. I didn’t notice at first, but every single person we interacted with in public throughout northern India — at hotels, at restaurants, in stores — was male.

(Rajasthan is known as a backwards state, even for India…and it gets more so the farther in you go. Just as a surface example, we hadn’t seen any women in Western clothing after leaving New Delhi and Agra, larger cities where women have more freedom. In fact, we started seeing women with veils over their faces — not opaque veils but sheer ones that matched their saris. This part of India is heavily Hindu and partly tribal, so it’s not a Muslim thing, but I bet it comes from the same impulses.)

The next day we set out to explore the fort (of course). Jodhpur is dominated by Mehrangargh Fort, dating to the 15th century and every inch a fortress. I mean, just look at this:

Mehrangarh Fort, Jaipur

(Lots more pictures behind the jump!)

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Touring the Forts and Palaces of Jaipur, India

Amber or Amer Fort

Amber or Amer Fort

Picture a city in the dry lands of northwest India, surrounded by arid hills. This was once a land of many warring cities led by rajahs — hence the name of the state, Rajasthan — and they’ve left their mark.

Each city has a fortified palace, sometimes several. Most are in excellent condition, preserved by the dry air. They are empty of furnishings, but they look as if their owners have just moved out and may yet return.

In the meantime, they are a favourite haunt of tourists, both local and international. (Read my post on the best of Rajasthan for more.)

Jaipur, the Pink City, location of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rajasthan. For one thing, it’s the closest to New Delhi. For another, the city and its surroundings are host to not one but seven forts and palaces…

(Click through for lots more photos!)

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The Best of Rajasthan, India

One of the most popular tourist destinations in India is the state of Rajasthan. Fortified palaces, arid landscapes, rich curries…all conveniently close to the capital of New Delhi, where most international travellers first arrive. I spent six weeks in India last year, with a good chunk of that in Rajasthan — and I still just scratched the surface of what this state has to offer.

Arch in Udaipur

Arch in Udaipur

Here, then, are the do-not-miss experiences:

1. Trains

Riding the train in India is quite the experience — it is by turns exciting, confusing, stressful, and fun. (For more, see Guide to Train Travel in India.) But if you’re going to do it, Rajasthan is the place to do it in. Most of the major cities are a reasonable six-hour ride apart, with signage and announcements in English as well as Hindi.

If you’re really pressed for time, try riding the Golden Triangle — New Delhi to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) to Jaipur (which will give you a quick glimpse of Rajasthan) and back to Delhi. These are all fairly short rides, with no worries about security on overnight trains, and you’ll get a little taste of the vast Indian train system.

2. Forts

The forts of Rajasthan deserve their own post. For now, I’ll just say that if you love old architecture or are a history buff, these are not to be missed. (For a quick primer on Indian forts, see Visiting the Red Fort in New Delhi.)

There are many fine forts (really fortified palaces) to visit, each with unique charm and character. If I had to pick two to recommend, it would be Amber Fort near Jaipur, with its gorgeous surroundings, many courtyards, and beautiful decor…

Amer Fort near Jaipur

…and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, with its towering walls, intricate detailing, and museum showcasing items from the time of the rajahs (most of the other forts are simply empty):

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Did I mention this was my favourite part of Rajasthan?

More pictures after the jump…

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Me and the Taj Mahal

This week I’m back to travel blogging. I’d like to tell you about one of the most amazing experiences from my three months in Asia — visiting the Taj Mahal.

Of course, I’d seen the Taj Mahal in photos many times over. But seeing it in person, actually being there, took my breath away. It left such a deep impression that the only way I can convey the experience is through a story…

(And my own photos. Click to enlarge.)

You wake to darkness, well before dawn. The rickshaw driver you hired yesterday, a small imp of a man named Shabbu, told you that dawn was the best time to go. So here you are, getting dressed in the dark and stumbling downstairs in the pitch-black guesthouse because the power is out, again. It’s February and cold. You’re wearing all your clothes.

Shabbu drives you through streets empty of traffic, but not of people. Early-rising locals drift through the predawn mists, wrapped in odds and ends of shawls. There is an echoing absence of sound, of the constant honking you’ve grown to expect in your short time in India. It looks like the apocalypse.

Shabbu lets you out near the great walls that surround the gardens. You cannot see the Taj Mahal beyond, only the lineup, other foreigners waiting. The line is long and dawn is coming. You start to worry about missing the moment of greatest beauty.

Finally you reach the head of the line. There is a security patdown — segregated by gender — and then a scanner for your bags. You have your small laptop with you, unwilling to leave it in your room at the guesthouse. They explain you can’t bring it in. Only the camera. There are lockers down the road. You’re turned away.

You panic. Stress turns to tears. But you go, as you must. The lockers are guarded, after a fashion, and you leave the bag because there is nothing else to be done.

Back at the gates, the lineup has dissipated, everyone already inside. You push through, cross the outer courtyard, pass through the immense gatehouse, and catch your first sight of the Taj Mahal.

And nothing else matters.

Taj Mahal 4

It emerges from the dawn mist, pearly pink and ethereal, almost shimmering.

You lose all your words.

You’ve rented an audioguide but you can’t listen, eventually turning it off. All you can do is drift closer, speechless, eyes fixed on the most perfect, beautiful, glorious building you’ve ever seen.

Taj Mahal 3

There are other people around, other buildings in the complex, reflecting pools along the long straight path from the gatehouse, but they don’t matter.

It takes you a long time to reach the Taj Mahal. You keep stopping to gaze, to take pictures. Finally you reach the base of the marble pedestal upon which it sits. You don slippers they give you to protect the marble.

(Indian visitors ascend the pedestal a different way. Slippers aren’t included in their — much cheaper — entrance fee, and they must pay separately if they wish to go up. This is a little alienating, this segregation, though it makes sense that they’re charged so much less. Westerners are unbelievably wealthy in comparison.)

Taj Mahal 6

Up close, the building is even more beautiful. The curve of the arches is perfection itself, but now you can see that each arch is lined with Arabic writing inlaid in the very marble. You can’t imagine the level of skill required. The arches soar higher than you expected, but the building itself is smaller.

Taj Mahal 5

You enter the building.

It’s immediately clear that this is a tomb. The interior is a small octagonal room, full of hushed echoes. At the very centre, protected by a marble screen, sits the cenotaph or “empty tomb” of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman beloved of the emperor Shah Jahan, for whom all this was built.

Beside her cenotaph sits the emperor’s — the only thing that disturbs the precise symmetry of the garden and the building. (In the tradition of the Mughal Empire, their bodies lie in an underground crypt where they will not be seen.)

Outside once more, you circle the building on the marble pedestal.

Taj Mahal 8

It is symmetrical, identical in all four directions, down to the slender minarets on each corner of the pedestal. On the far side you discover the Yamuna River, still hazy with morning mist.

Taj Mahal 7

You linger still, because now you discover something else. The Taj Mahal changes as the light shifts. You circle it watching the shadows in the arches, watching the marble change to golden yellow and then pure white as the sun rises overhead.

Taj Mahal 9

The dawn crowd has dissipated and the tour buses on day trips from Delhi are arriving by the time you finally tear yourself away. You walk away slowly, still half dreaming, glancing repeatedly over your shoulder to catch a few last precious glimpses.

Taj Mahal 1

You will never forget.

If you liked this post, you can find more tales and photos from my travels here.

Top 3 Sights in New Delhi

I haven’t done a travel post in a while — high time to fix that! This week I’m sharing my favourite sights in New Delhi, the capital of India.

(ROW80 update at bottom of post.)

New Delhi is the first stop for most tourists to India. It’s teeming with people, dirty, poor, chaotic, but vividly alive and more modern in some ways than you might think. (Read more about my impressions of Delhi.)

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

And the best sights are…

3. Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid in Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, in Old Delhi

If you want a sense of Delhi life in times past, head to Old Delhi. You’ll be buffeted by the teeming foot traffic (and cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws and carts), you’ll have trouble crossing the road, and you’ll be dismayed by the poverty. But many of those things are true of Delhi in general…and Old Delhi is less thronged by tourists, and those trying to make a buck off them, than popular areas such as Connaught Place and Palika Bazaar. You might also get to practice your haggling skills.

Bonus: if you’re inclined, you can visit the great Jama Masjid (mosque) at the centre of the bazaar. You don’t have to be Muslim to enter the courtyard, and the architecture is beautiful.

2. The Qutab Minar

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

This was actually my favourite place in Delhi, but only because I went at the exact right time. If you go, go at dusk — the most atmospheric time of day. The Qutab Minar is a minaret (prayer tower) that dates from the twelfth century, one of the oldest surviving structures in Delhi.

It stands in the ruins of a contemporary mosque, which itself was built on the ruins of an eighth-century fort. The mosque was constructed with materials from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples, and parts of statues and other stonework from these temples can still be seen in the ruined walls of the mosque. If this sounds like your kind of thing, don’t miss it!

1. The Red Fort

Arches in the Hall of Public Audience

Arches in the open-air Hall of Public Audience

If you like old architecture and/or history, or you just want to get a quick sense of one of the major forces that shaped India, the Red Fort is a great place to start. Built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire — for the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal — it’s an impressive show of power.

It’s also beautiful, featuring red sandstone, arches, marble, and peaceful green gardens…which are in short supply in Delhi, so enjoy them while you’re here. Though it’s called a fort, it was also the emperor’s palace (sadly, no furnishings remain). There are many similar fort-palaces throughout northern India, so if you’re inclined to explore, the Red Fort will give you a good grounding. (I’ve written more about the Red Fort — with lots more pictures — here. I’ll talk about some of the other fort-palaces in a future post.)

Honorable Mention: The National Museum

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

If it’s a rainy or unpleasantly hot day, consider visiting the National Museum. It’s not very large, not at all interactive, and the signage isn’t great (bring a guidebook and/or rent an audioguide so you know what you’re looking at). But it does have good collections of:

  • sculptures and woodcarvings from all over India
  • weird and wonderful musical instruments, and related items like masks used in dancing
  • textiles

Bonus: afterwards you can wander up and down the Rajpath, a massive avenue built by the British in a fervor of Paris-envy.

Your turn! If you’ve been to India, what were your favourite (or at least memorable) things about New Delhi?

If you liked this post, you can read more about my travels here.

ROW80 Check-In

I’m not counting blog posts in my ROW80 goals, so the above doesn’t count. So far this week I’ve managed 1 hour of writing…in which I finished a serial short story. Better, I was quite pleased with how the ending turned out — it’s my first attempt at a serial, and I’m a pantser — so that’s a win already.

Next up: either some flash fiction or an attempt to dive back into a novel edit.

I’ve reduced my goal from 5 hours a week to 3, for reasons discussed here, so I’m aiming for 2 more hours this week.