Rajasthan 'road movie' will assault your senses
An Indian journey which includes the white city of Udaipur, the blue city of Jodhpur and a visit to Rajasthan's pink capital of Jaipur.
By Alex Finer
As he nonchalantly swerved out of the path of lorries coming over the brow of a hill on the wrong side of the dual carriageway, it was clear that our driver was key to surviving this 1,700-mile journey around Rajasthan.
Even travelling into town from the airport, Sonu manoeuvred the leather-seated 4x4 Ford Endeavour carrying me, my wife and daughter around the cows - sacred animals to Hindus - that wandered all over the highway.
Defined by the colour of the houses, our Indian journey included the white city of Udaipur on Lake Pichola, the blue city of Jodhpur, golden Jaisalmer near the Pakistan border, via a safari camp at Osian to Rajasthan's pink capital of Jaipur.
There was also a side-trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal before the final leg to Delhi - no wonder I felt like I was in a road movie.
And what a road movie it proved to be.
Labourers squatted next to the traffic, with paintbrushes or carpentry tools, waiting to be hired for a day's work. A barber offered a wet shave in a roadside chair, while merchants had sacks of marigolds and stalls piled with vegetables for sale.
Gypsies wove baskets beside their makeshift beds, cooking pots and children. Pigs snuffled in open sewers. It was Slumdog Millionaire, devoid of romance.
The soundtrack was one of horns - blaring from dilapidated buses, tractors, cars, scooters and auto-rickshaws. The noise was not a frustrated expression of road rage, but rather a co-operative venture in which each vehicle gave notice of its presence and announced its intentions. As the brightly-painted lorries exhorted on their tailgates, "Blow Horn".
The Shiv Niwas hotel within the City Palace walls in Udaipur offered us welcome respite, and a tour of the palace illuminated the past glories of a royal lineage dating back to the 16th century.
We visited other palaces on a boat ride, watched washerwomen at work on the lakeside steps and spotted black-faced monkeys on rooftops in the bazaar.
By the time we reached Jodhpur, I was more than ready for a swim in the hotel pool.
The Mehrangarh Fort dominates the city with a bird's eye view of the blue-wash houses and cobweb of streets. Now a museum, it is full of artefacts from the Marwar dynasty, from lice combs and ladies' dumbbells to howdahs (elephant seats) and highly-prized miniature paintings.
Incongruously, there are Dutch tiles on the walls, traded from the camel caravans on their way back East from Europe.
Sonu expertly ferried us between markets and palaces and restaurants, and an optician where my wife's sunglasses were repaired with a smile and without charge. All too soon, on we went across increasingly flat, sandy terrain to Jaisalmer.
We stayed in the Mandir Palace hotel, built over centuries in elaborately-carved golden sandstone. We bought cotton shirts and yoga trousers made to measure in three hours, haggled over a painted window shutter, had an authentic oily Ayurvedic massage and enjoyed local curries at the Trio restaurant with its view over the ramparts of the fort.
"You forgot something," said a man crossing our path, pointing behind us as we picked our way through a backstreet.
We turned, concerned for a moment, before he continued: "My shop!"
We grinned, but stuck to our plan to visit the ornate merchant havelis (mansions) reflecting the earlier prosperity of this oasis town.
At Sam, further into the Thar Desert, we rode camels (mine was called Michael Jackson) as the sun set and shadows lengthened over the sand dunes. Some bold travellers took extended camel safaris, comforted by cookies and drinks made of the local bhang (marijuana) recommended by the 'government authorised' vendor in the bazaar in town.
Back on the road, heading towards the eastern edge of the desert, we passed Indian troops moving in the other direction towards the Pakistan border. There was little else moving apart from antelope.
Near Osian, we met Bishnoi villagers in their mud huts on a foray by jeep from the safari camp where we spent the night in a luxurious tent with ensuite bathroom.
After a nine-hour drive, we reached Jaipur, population 2.5 million. Early the following morning, Sonu drove us to Dera Amer where, like some colonial Viceroy, I took a pre-breakfast ramble among cacti and parakeets atop a painted elephant - which eats 300kg of grass and drinks 200 litres of water a day.
We eat more modest quantities of cereal, croissants and eggs cooked to order outdoors beside the polo pitch.
The day continued with a tour of the 11th-century Amber Fort, and then a 15th-century palace inside the 7.5-mile perimeter defensive wall and watchtowers that form a serrated edge to the surrounding hills. This was where the Kachwaha royal family lived until Jai Singh II founded - and gave his name to - Jaipur.
The present maharaja, Harrow-educated, lives in the palace in the heart of the city. There's a fascinating open-air observatory with outsize astronomical instruments in the grounds.
A textile museum has polo memorabilia of his father, who died playing the game at Cirencester, and the block-printed and gold-braided clothing of earlier maharajas.
You can shop till you drop in a dozen different markets around town. If depressed by the price of old silver and gold jewellery at Chameliwala Market, have a drink at the rooftop Kotki restaurant where the internet connection costs just 20 rupees (25p) for half an hour.
I also enjoyed a free peek at the pink flowerpot reliefs in the art-deco foyer of the Raj Mandir cinema, where the latest Bollywood films play four times a day.
Sonu was, as always, on time for the penultimate stage of our journey. I lost count of the number of dead dogs on the road to Agra, and the white chimneys of brick kilns flashing past began to resemble temple spires.
Perhaps by then I had overdosed on fairytale palaces and majestic forts, for I felt distinctly underwhelmed en route to Fatehpur Sikri. Built for a Mughal king in 1570, and then abandoned by him in 1585 for no generally accepted reason, I wondered in a philistine moment whether he, too, simply didn't like the architecture.
It was hard, however, not to be impressed by the symmetry and perfect proportions of the Taj Mahal, even when viewed through a cold December fog. Its white marble had an ethereal, weightless appearance, as if it could float off at any moment.
As for Sonu, he was pale with the concentration of negotiating five lines of traffic squeezed into three lanes by the time we finally reach Delhi.
Not even that final tortuous drive through New Year's Eve traffic seemed to ruffle him. You'll find the roads of Rajasthan almost relaxing with Sonu as your driver, but tip well: he deserves it.
Key facts: Rajasthan, India
:: Best for: Maharajas' palaces, fairytale forts, shopping in bazaars.
:: Time to go: Post-monsoon, between October and March.
:: Don't miss: Boat ride at Udaipur, camel ride at Jaisalmer.
:: Need to know: Cows have the right of way. Drink bottled water only.
:: Don't forget: Suncream, sweater (for evenings), a sense of adventure.
Alex Finer was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers the 'Essence of Rajasthan' 15-day journey via Delhi, Jaipur, Nimaj, Osian, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Devigarh and Mumbai, from Â£3,495 per person, incl return flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, private car and driver, guide and admittance to all sites.
Regional departures from Manchester and Glasgow start from around Â£75.
A&K is supporting the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from October 10 entitled: 'Maharajah: the Splendour of India's Royal Courts', with a private view for invited guests only on October 21. See www.vam.ac.uk for more details.
A&K Reservations: 0845 618 2214 and www.abercrombiekent.co.uk.