Last month I took a whirlwind trip through northern India. I saw the sights in Delhi, visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise, explored Rajasthan, and went searching for tigers in Ranthambore National Park. It was an amazing experience, except for one thing: I only got to see a tiny part of the vast, diverse country that is India.
After my exciting albeit tiger-less safari in Ranthambore National Park, I headed back to Jaipur for a quick stop in Galta. Galta, a collection of 250-year-old temples, is on the outskirts of Jaipur’s city center, and is a peaceful haven from the chaotic Pink City.
To get to Galta I had to climb a hill with many switchbacks. Each one was home to a different kind of animal, be it dogs, pigs, cows, goats, or monkeys. When I reached the top, I found that the monkeys reigned supreme.
From the highest point on the hill, every step of my steep descent into the ravine of Galta was flanked by the simian creatures, some fighting, some playing, and some just staring off into space.
When I got all the way down to the bottom of the rock chasm, I felt like I had found Shangri-La (or its Indian equivalent). Hidden behind huge rocks was an enormous temple complex that looked like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. There were pools, temples, winding steps, arches, carvings, and everywhere monkeys. It was beautiful. And so peaceful. I had found my favorite place in Rajasthan. Well, so far.
Destination #6: Ajmer and Pushkar
The following day I found my not-so-favorite place in Rajasthan. Ajmer wasn’t so bad, but I couldn’t help but take it as an unfortunate omen when I stepped out of my taxi and my flip-flop landed right in a pile of fresh cow dung.
Scraping along the street, I made my way to the mosque, which is Ajmer’s biggest (and apparently only) attraction. The mosque complex was a curious one. In addition to the actual prayer spaces, it housed an entire market which seemed to specialize in beautiful flowers (used for religious purposes) as well as other every day goods. There were people everywhere, sitting, walking, standing, praying, bathing, and staring at the Western tourist, of course.
Following my visit to the mosque, I made my way back to the taxi and headed to Pushkar, the famous city on the lake.
Pushkar is known for its lakeside temples, including one of the only temples in India dedicated to Brahma. The lake is surrounded by ghats, or steps, that lead down to the water and allow the religious faithful (and hippie tourists on soul-searching missions) to perform rites and ablutions.
After a quick lunch at a hotel full of strung-out westerners (Pushkar is equally famous for its Western hippies), including a Frenchman in a leopard print Speedo and an English family that had just ‘adopted’ a street dog, I started walking around.
I quickly visited the Brahma temple, then meandered through the main street that winds around the lake. The road was flanked on both sides with tourist shops selling everything from patchouli oil to scarves, elephant statues to pillowcases. The occasional camel wandered by, but I mostly saw boho tourists.
The ghats were more interesting, and certainly more beautiful, than the street from which they descended. I tried to ignore the enterprising priests as they offered to walk me through a ritual (before asking for money, of course), and instead enjoyed the gorgeous lake views, the meandering cows, and the beautiful colors of Rajasthan.
Destination #7: Udaipur
Speaking of beautiful, my next destination was Udaipur, which was the most beautiful city I visited in Rajasthan.
From the gorgeous white marble of the Lake Palace to the stunning interiors of the City Palace to the amazing views from the Monsoon Palace, Udaipur dazzled me with its royal charm.
Despite there being many sights to see in Udaipur, I saw them all surprisingly quickly. I visited the aforementioned City and Monsoon palaces as well as another palace on Lake Pichola.
I went to the beautiful royal cenotaphs, the intricately carved Jagdish Temple, the city rose garden, the Garden of the Maids of Honor full of bright fuchsia bougainvillea, and the sunset point.
I saw the world’s largest turban in an old haveli that is now a museum.
I went to a local market where women were selling everything from miniature eggplants to brightly-colored spices.
I enjoyed German pastries and tea at Cafe Edelweiss, and I dined al fresco on the rooftop restaurant of several hotels. I relaxed. I fell in love with Udaipur.
Destinataion #8: Jodhpur
But alas, I had to move on. My next stop was Jodhpur, the Blue City.
Jodhpur was home to the most beautiful fort I saw in Rajasthan. Its high walls and carefully carved windows were stunning, and its opulently decorated rooms (some with giant Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling) ranged from gorgeous to a bit over-the-top (did I mention Christmas balls?).
Also in Jodhpur I visited the 20th century Art Deco palace, most of which is now a hotel. I went out to the monkey garden, complete with cenotaphs and a Wall of Heroes with plaster casts of humans, gods, and everything in between.
The most stunning monument in Jodhpur was the Jaswant Thada, a memorial made of bright white marble that was reminiscent of the Taj Mahal.
I liked it even more when I found a dog with eight adorable newborn puppies nearby, most of which were still wobbly when they walked. I wanted to take them all home. I took some pictures instead.
Destination #9: Jaisalmer
Moving on from Jodhpur, I spent a rickety night in a 3rd class carriage on a train to Jaisalmer. I arrived at 6am and went to my hotel, where the staff took me up to the roof deck and gave me tea and breakfast while I read partly by candle light, partly by the barely-there light of dawn.
As the sun rose, it illuminated the stunning Jaisalmer Fort. The golden sandstone walls glowed in the early light and I sat staring at it until the sun came up.
I had two objectives in Jaisalmer: to see the fort and to ride a camel. The latter came first. That afternoon I went into the Thar Desert with a group of people from my hotel. After visiting the royal cenotaphs and a stunning Jain temple, we drove an hour out into the desert to meet our camels.
Safely in the desert and just 65km from Pakistan, we met our camel guides and hopped on our trusty steeds. In my case, the trusty steed was a seven-year-old she-camel who was four months pregnant.
Our guides took us and our camels out into the sand dunes, where we walked around for awhile chasing beetles and waiting for the sunset. It was lovely, but I couldn’t help thinking that I never imagined there would be sand dunes in India.
My second goal was accomplished when I went to Jaisalmer Fort. The only fort to be inhabited by residents (and lots of tourists), Jaisalmer Fort was different from the others that I had seen.
I took a tour of the palace, which was built in a similar style to the one in Jodhpur Fort. From the rooftop I enjoyed the views over the Gold City, as Jaisalmer’s sandstone sprawl is affectionately named.
Alas, nothing gold can stay. From Jaisalmer I made my way back to Delhi, where I had a fleeting moment to visit the Purana Quila, one of Delhi’s earlier incarnations, before flying back to London (in business class, compliments of a double upgrade from BA!).
Arriving in London was reverse culture shock after being in India. I’m trying not to get too used to the UK, though, as I leave for India again this weekend!
After visiting the Golden Triangle, I ventured further into Rajasthan in search not of great palaces or towering forts, Buddhist enlightenment or Hindu gods, but of a rare beast that lives deep in the jungle. I was looking for a tiger.
My most recent adventure was a very last-minute trip to India. Two weeks before I left, I bought a plane ticket and wrangled a visa from the crazy India visa office in London. I spent a few hours one morning booking seven trains and three flights. I found hotels, packed, and made sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. With all that done, I jetted off to Delhi in a comfy seat on a 747 thanks to a last-minute upgrade from BA.