After an early start from Agra, we were delighted to learn our train to Jaipur was running on time (whohoo!). Another service due to leave around the same time was running a cool five hours behind. We reached Jaipur around lunchtime and for the first time walked to our next accommodation.
Hostel life in Jaipur
Even though we love Airbnb, we’re starting to crave the company of some other foreigners. Blame our extraversion and our love to chat, but after getting a taste of camaraderie in Agra we were itching to meet some other westerners. We booked a private room at a youth hostel with a handful of dorms and hoped to find people.
The hostel itself was tidy enough and helped us stick to our budget. However, we didn’t consider the time of year we have arrived. School holidays are about to start for the summer and it is hot, hot, hot with the mercury reaching above 40 degrees every day. No-one else is visiting here! (Not true, but it’s certainly not peak season…). Our hostel has been pretty quiet, but it’s been OK as we’ve discovered Jaipurians love to chat!
Finding our bearings in Jaipur
Of most importance, and the first thing we do in every destination was to do a reconnaissance walk. We always look for ATMs, supermarkets, chai, and food. Lucky for us we have a great local eatery with a friendly and helpful staff, our favourite bank just 250 meters down the road and something that passes as a supermarket just around the corner. We even have a local joint for our evening roadside chai.
The Pink City
Once we’re comfortable about feeding ourselves we widen the net. To mark our one month anniversary in India we ventured into the old city, locally known as the Pink City due to its terracotta colour. The city is the first planned city in India and is a few of my favourite things; flat, sectioned into blocks, shady, and lively.
Planned to impress Prince Albert on his royal visit to India in 1876, the city is still the same colour after a law was passed the following year, stating that all buildings within the city may only be painted ‘jaipur pink’.
Breakfast, accusations and a roadside chat
Before getting to the Pink City we had hoped for a cheap breakfast at the hostel. We headed downstairs, ready to eat, only to find the cook had not shown up! It was about 8am at this point, and in our experience, most restaurants don’t open until around 10am. We were unsure about our local street food vendor for breakfast and we were pretty hangry. Lucky for us, there was a restaurant about a 15-minute walk down the road.
On route we had a number of people offer us rickshaw rides (as usual) but one guy got pretty upset at us. We were talking, he pulled in front of us and I waved my hand and said: “No, thank you”. He replied with “Why do white people not trust us?!”
About 30 minutes later we escaped the conversation about how we are all people, and therefore are the same, but how we do business and live our lives is a little different. A hungry Andrew (not to be messed with) got a little feisty when he accused us of “not learning about the Indian way”. Andrew quickly pointed out that we had spent much of our time in Indian family homes, to do exactly that. He quickly backed down and commended us for “being different” to the rest of the tourists.
Our friend Malik and our new names
We spent our first day walking the streets of the old city, enjoying how easy they are to navigate before heading in the wrong direction and getting ourselves a little lost. We wandered into a colony (I would call it a suburb, but the locals called it a colony) which was predominantly Muslim and made a new friend, Malik.
Malik is our age, and grew up in the colony, going to school just down the road. We were invited for tea at his parent’s place, but he let us know it would have to be at a later date. It turned out he was running late for work, but couldn’t resist stopping to chat with us. We walked him to his bus stop and he told us we needed new names, as our English ones were too hard. He suggested Sultana for Andrew and Mumtaz for me, both Islamic names. The legend goes that they were a pair of royals who were deeply in love.
India is a small place, especially Jaipur
We spent more time pounding the pavement before grabbing a rickshaw home. We talk to a lot of drivers while we’re out and about, so many in fact, that we don’t often realise if we’ve spoken to the same person twice. Often they’ll ask us about where we come from, or what our names are. We are polite enough but won’t stop.
Our rickshaw driver turns around to us while we’re on route back to the hostel and says ‘So, you’re from New Zealand?’. I couldn’t believe it! “How did you know?” I asked. He laughed and said, “We spoke earlier….”. Then he commented, “India is a small place!”. We laughed and it was the start of some awesome banter.
We enjoyed an afternoon out of the sun and did some planning for our next destination before venturing out again for an evening at the Birla Mandir. The last Birla Mandir we visited was in Kolkata, and while this one was just as impressive we made the choice to just look from the outside. It was the first Hindu temple I had seen with stained glass windows. Very beautiful!
After a wander in the dark, we made the call to stay safe and picked up a rickshaw. The rickshaw home was hectic – the driver got lost and was mad when we wouldn’t pay him more than the agreed fare (always, always agree a fair up front).
We did some research and found that Jaipur offers a pass for a bunch of attractions at a reduced price, similar to tickets you can buy in big European and American cities, so went ahead and picked up a couple for around $20NZ each and got our ‘tourist’ on.
Using our tickets we spent time wandering the Albert Museum first. It’s a gorgeous building that includes a mix of Northern Indian and British styles. Opened in 1887 it contains an eclectic mix of interesting art and artifacts, including exhibits on turbans and yoga positions, alongside those on pottery and weapons. There is even a room of impressive carpets to view. Quite a random collection, but fun to look around all the same.
After a quick coffee stop, we grabbed a rickshaw to the Hawa Mahal, Jaipur’s crowning jewel and a good navigation point within the Pink City. Constructed in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh the five-storey palace enabled the ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city while in the comfort and privacy of their own space.
While stunning to look at, and fun to poke around in, the cramped staircases and hallways on the Hawa Mahal made us grateful it was not the height of tourist season as there were already a lot of sweaty bodies pressed against us in some parts, especially at the smallest, and highest platform on the fifth storey.
From the top of the Hawa Mahal we spotted a good looking cafe that was hidden above some shops on the next street over. We made a bee-line there and quickly made friends with two travelers from London, who were 6 weeks through a 12-week journey around India. We chatted a while and shared stories. They’ll be back in London when we make it to the UK, so we might even make a night of it and go for a beer.
After the hottest part of the afternoon passed, and our tummies were full, we wandered to the Jantar Matar, a local observatory that resembles a collection of huge and somewhat random sculptures. Built in 1728 it recently went under some big refurbishment to ensure all the instruments are in good working order.
We made the mistake of not hiring a guide, so the science and math of all the instruments was a little lost on us, but they were impressive to look at nonetheless. We even spotted a fellow kiwi in his All Blacks singlet looking a little…warm.
Another helpful navigational point in the Pink City is the Iswari Minar, a tower erected in the 1740s by Jai Singh II’s son and successor Iswari. From the tower, you will get some excellent views of the city, as long as you can cope with the ‘stairs’ that take you up and down. Rather than actual stairs, a ramp has been built and small raised ridges stop you from slipping or falling, at least on your way up. On the way down the jandles came off and the steps became small.
Uber and Rickshaws
We were quickly ready to see some friendly faces and fill our tummies, so a quick uber ride to our local restaurant, Aviday, saw us right. Uber is relatively new in Jaipur and is currently offering rides up to 6kms for 49 rupees (about $1.25 NZ). This has proved a very cost-effective way of covering middle distance trips (around the 5km mark). Otherwise, we are getting pretty good at negotiating rates with local drivers, to ensure we get somewhere between the local price and the tourist price for our rides.
Composite pass day two
The composite ticket gives you access to 8 sights over a 48 hour period. After a long rest, we got up early and made our way to the Amber fort. It turned out to be one of the most stunning views in Jaipur. Like many things in India, this fort has a lot of names, Amer Fort, Amer Palace, Amber Palace. Anyway, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. This place was pretty incredible!
Amber Palace / Fort
Built in a blend of Hindu and Muslim styles, the palace is made up of four huge stories. To enter you must get up the hill, which we chose to walk. Others hire the services of elephants to transport them past the beggers and touts on the way.
Once you’re in there are many things to see. While we enjoyed the architecture we may have again benefited from the use of a guide. We overheard guides sharing some of the interesting stuff that you just don’t read in the Lonely Planet guide.
After wandering all the nooks and crevices of the palace on all four stories and checking out the connected Jiagarh fort, which overlooks the palace, we made our way back towards central Jaipur. On the way, we spotted some camels, and we made a brief stop at the Jai Mahal, or water palace.
It’s origins are uncertain and no-one knows much about it now either. Once you could take a boat out on the lake to see the detailing on the outside of the structure but word is that work is now being done to convert this into a restaurant! It was a pretty sight and its fun to imagine living in the middle of a lake all the same.
After lots of walking, we needed some lunch, so back into the Pink City we went for paneer masala, roti and lassi. We’ve got the food thing pretty much down pat.
For our last adventure, we picked an uber to the Nahargarh fort. After having such a great time at the Amber fort our hopes were high. Nahargarh fort is also visible from lots of places in the city, including our hostel, so we were excited about the view. What we thought was a 4km ride turned into a 15km ride, winding up a small and twisted road. The fort, when we arrived, was quiet, and empty bar a few people working at the gate and a couple rickshaw drivers.
We wandered around the grounds and appreciated the view for a while but were pretty disappointed by the whole space. We ended up deciding to call it a day.
Unable to find the short way down the hill and into the city we reluctantly went and spoke to the rickshaw drivers. The price they wanted was crazy high, and they wouldn’t budge. When we wouldn’t agree to their price we told them we would walk, and so we did. After a couple of attempts to offer us their lower (but still too high) price, by following us, we kept walking.
The big walk
Pride comes before a fall. After walking for about 20 minutes in the heat we ran out of water. We quickly started to regret our decision. At one point a car pulled up and stopped near us. Eight huge guys got out we both suddenly thought of the worst thing that could happen to us (raped, robbed, killed….). Lucky for us, the guys only wanted our photo. We got away OK, but really, we learned that we had made a stupid decision.
We kept walking. When another rickshaw driver came across us, offering ‘help’ we almost jumped into his rickshaw, until he mentioned his price. 300 rupees, no way!
Finally, when a fourth rickshaw driver saw us, stopped and laughed at us for walking so far. He agreed to give us the Indian price and we made it down the hill safely. Riding the rickshaw down gave us a good wakeup call as to how much further we still had to walk. In hindsight, we should have paid the initial guys their offer of 300 rupees and be done with it.
Still alive to tell the tale
Safe and sound, and only a little sunburnt we made it back to the hostel. After rehydrating ourselves we had a nap and congratulated one another on a big walk and not dying. Then we agreed to no more dangerous situations. Pinky promise.
A roadside meal and a sweet goodbye
To celebrate we went to our guy for chai, and watched as he cooked for the locals who visited him. There was only one dish to choose from, a stuffed fried bread served with curd and pickle. He was delighted when we agreed to eat one and presented it to us very proudly. The food was so good we went back for breakfast the following day.
Friday, our last day in the city, was an admin day. Laundry, bookings, research and writing from the comfort of our air conditioned room. Then dinner at our local indoor restaurant and some sweet goodbyes.
33 days, 6 cities, 3 trains, 1 bus and about 100 cups of chai and we are ready to leave the heat of India. We feel like we could come back soon. There is plenty more to see, do and experience, but for now, we’re pleased to be heading to Nepal.
Alavida India, until next time!