When Chengdu has a low pollution day, the entire city looks sparkling, sunny, and new. It’s like putting on glasses and, finally, seeing buildings in the distance with a clarity that you forgot the atmosphere was capable of.
In my last post, I wrote about visiting Delhi and how the city reeked of exhaust fumes and noise. This caused a friend to write to me, “I enjoyed your blog post about India– not as romantic as the movies make it seem? I’m thinking of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… and you’re saying it’s a bit more Slumdog Millionaire?”
And for that, I have to apologize. India is a fascinating country and my two plus weeks there were full of enchanting flavors, beautiful people, and the clear night sky all wrapped into one intoxicating trip. But Delhi? There is no way I can even feign love of that city.
Fortunately, I did not have to spend long in Delhi. The day after I arrived, we took off, in a private bus, bound for the city of Mandawa. We arrived late, pulling up to a gorgeous haveli. Up until this point, I did not realize how utterly spoiled I would feel on this tour. The staff of the haveli performed a puppet show for us after which we ate a buffet dinner on the roof, staying up late to share drinks and stories.
I stayed on the roof after the others had departed for bed, peering up to look at how the dust of the day had settled fast away and the stars twinkled magically in the sky. I promised myself that I would wake early to see the sunrise.
The next morning, I did exactly that, but felt a bit disappointed that the sun rose surrounded by a cloud of dust. No matter. Breakfast was served and I drank my first of the few hundred chai teas I would have during my time there. Then, with all group members gathered together, we went on a walking tour of the small city.
The morning was a blur of dusty roads and bright faces. Before I knew it, we were off again, this time, headed for Bikaner, Mandawa fading fast from the rear windows of our bus.
When we arrived in Bikaner, we checked in at the adorable Bhairon Vilas Hotel. This hotel boasted amazing rooftops views, a small shop, an eclectic bar—complete with Harsh—the hotel owner manning the bar most nights, and an adorable coffee/tea shop. We scarcely had time to poke around the hotel before our tour guide Raghu grabbed tuk-tuks. We took a dusty ride to the city center and then went on a walking door, running into boys playing cricket, men sporting incredibly-lengthed mustaches, and ending the day drinking an incredible small cup of chai cooked on a pan in the street.
As evening fell, we walked back to tuk-tuks and zipped back to our hotel. Some group members headed out to eat, but others—myself included—stayed behind to write, to read, and to climb up to the rooftops and stare at the stars. By night, Harsh’s bar was abuzz as members of our tour ordered drinks and danced to the random music from Harsh’s laptop.
The next day, we woke up early to see the Junagarh Fort. The fort was built in the 1500s and we spent a good hour wandering through it. Although its red exterior and ornate interior were beautiful, having such a late night before really made it hard for me to enjoy the fort as much as I could have. Fortunately, this was the first of many forts we would see. In other countries, you might tour castles or churches. In India, you tour forts.
After ample time to rest and recover from the previous evening, we spent the afternoon at a camel breeding farm, watching as the herds were driven back into the farm from a day grazing. Seeing hundreds of well-trained camels was pretty surreal. By that time, the sun was hot in the sky. We finished off our trip by trying camel-milk ice cream.
That night was another one of drinks, dancing, and star-gazing, but—intent on beating the sun up—I went to bed early. Then next morning I did, indeed, rise before dawn. Again, I stood on the roof for an hour or two, freezing and trying to discern the changing intensity of light in the sky. When everyone was awake, we ate breakfast, packed our bags, and said goodbye to Harsh and his hotel.
We were headed next to the city of Jodhpur, but before we got too far out of town, we made a stop at the Deshnoke Rat Temple. This temple was something I had read about. I had originally been a little nervous about the aspect of wandering around this house for roughly 25 thousand tiny, beady-eyed rodents without shoes, but Raghu bought us all pairs of socks. The temple was not wall-to-wall with rats as I had expected, but after stepping in one too many puddles on the floor, I cannot say I was sorry to go. After leaving the temple, we stopped by a little shop, washed our feet and re-shoed, and drank yet another cup of chai.
Jodhpur is known as India’s blue city, a nickname, like so many of India’s nicknames, derived from the exterior of the buildings. Upon arriving in the blue city, we wasted no time before making our way to the Sardar Market. As I wandered the stalls, I spoke with Indian men on holiday, dodged cows drudging through the street, and took pictures of the spices in every scent and color. This was the India I had dreamt of!
The next day, we stopped by the Mehrangarh Fort, my favorite fort of our tour. Perched high above the city of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh offered marvelous views of the city’s brilliant blue walls. The fort itself was again ornate and, with the sun climbing into the bright Indian sky, the fort became the perfect backdrop for a photo session with fellow travelers.