A Travellerspoint blog

Agra, the Taj Mahal and the "Money Shot"!

Agra (4/10/2007)

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The alarm goes off at 05:00 and I stagger out of bed, bleary eyed. It's time to catch the VERY "red-eye", 6:00 am express to Agra, home to the symbol of India - the Taj Mahal. As usual, we're met at the station by a young man bearing a sign with my mis-spelt name and pretty soon we're bundled into a taxi and ferried off to the "Royal Residency", yet another hotel in the final stages of construction.

I'm actually quite amazed at the number of permutations of mis-spelling my surname can generate. Normally, when people in Oz mis-spell "McDonald" they add another "a" to make it "MacDonald". But here in India I've observed the following combinations on the signs awaiting me at stations: "MacDonald", "McNonald", and here at Agra, I think, MacNdonld! But it doesn't end there - I observed a sign in our train carriage that assures you that the carriage was "Disinfested on the 12/5/2007" and the restaurant menu that proudly displays it's liquid refreshments under the heading of "Bavarages", or the hotel in Jaipur with the following signage: "Night Staying Facility"!

After freshening up, we take a taxi to the Taj. Now, the touts we've met so far in India have been pretty aggressive, but here in Agra they have reached a whole new level of obnoxiousness - probably due to sheer practise, I guess, given the number of visitors to the area. Our experiences in Jaipur were a good illustration of what to expect in the way of touts in India, as this was the only time there was no-one waiting at the station to ferry us off to the hotel: Six or seven touts, sniffing fresh "gringo" meat, surrounded us in a semi-circle at the station exit and tried to entice us to their hotel, assuring us that our current hotel either didn't exist or had lost our booking. This in turn attracted other touts and onlookers, and pretty soon a crowd has developed, being serviced by food-sellers, beggars, and other assorted cottage industries. If we had stayed in the same position long enough, I'm sure whole suburbs and city infrastructure would have sprung up around us!! Here in Agra, the approaches to the Taj Mahal are swarming with hawkers selling guide books, Taj Mahal snowdomes, leather whips (!) and other assorted junk. I steel myself and forge ahead to the entrance, trying not to look any of them in the eye!

Finally we're in, and there it is - what can I say? I've seen the Taj Mahal a million times in photos and books but nothing compares to seeing it in the flesh - a magnificent, symmetrical, white marble construction built by Shah Jahan in the 1630's as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Below is the "money shot" of the trip, yours truly sitting in front of the Taj. This photo will be added to the collection of me in front of the pyramids at Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the World Trade Center in New York. I would add more photos if I had more time and the internet connection was more reliable, but for now you will have to be content with this little morsel!

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The afternoon and night was fairly uneventful - we found a decent rooftop restaurant and kept on frequenting it for the remainder of our stay. We also visited an emporium that specialised in marble inlay work (the craftsmen being the descendents of those who built the Taj) and I was THIS close to buying, but my tightfisted Scottish blood got the better of me and I resisted!

Posted by scottness 07:22 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Jaipur - the "pink" city

Jaipur (3/10/2007)

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We start our day in Jaipur by making our way to the Old City, a rectangular grid of streets containing markets and tourist sites, all built in a distinctive orange-pink style. Because I've been concentrating on temples and forts, I realise I've hardly any shots of the bustling markets and bazaars, an integral part of all the towns we've visited. This seems as good a time as any to rectify the problem, and there's no shortage of material to shoot...

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(Recently I've found myself delaying the shot until there's at least one Rajasthani lady in the frame - the brilliance of their saris add an extra splash of colour to the picture!)

We eventually hunt down the Hawa Mahal, a palace famous for the windows that adorn its exterior. It's currently being renovated but the scaffolding make an interesting shot nevertheless:

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The rest of the afternoon is spent snaking our way through the city to Jaipur's Lake Palace and Monkey Temple, negotiating with a never-ending procession of touts and conmen.

That evening we decide to venture further afield to a bar mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide called "Steam". It's obviously located in the ritzier part of town as the taxi ride there has failed to dislodge any of my fillings on account of the roads being smoother! Eventually we pull up, pay the driver, and wander along a lengthy, dark driveway, the end of which is patrolled by an armed guard. Are we in the right place? Is this a bar, an embassy, or a military barracks? Our minds are put to rest when the sentry waves at us - "Please enter gentlemen. Welcome to the Rambagh!"

This is the Rambagh Hotel, the only 5-star hotel in Jaipur. "Steam" turns out to be a converted steam locomotive complete with dancefloor, bar and tables, but it's empty, so we walk along the tranquil, manicured lawns in the cool of the night until we reach the hotel, a palace of gleaming marble and crystal. The front lawn contains diners seated at small tables being served champagne by waiters wearing full Rajput regalia. The English style bar contains a marble fountain. For the first time since my arrival in India I'm feeling under-dressed!

We sit down and order beers and nibblies followed by Rajasthani specialties, the waiters answering to our every whim. I feel as though I've been transported back to the days of the Raj! The entire night sets me back about $AUS45.

Afterwards, we rickshaw it back to the chaos of the city centre. In one night we've experienced both extremes of India!

Posted by scottness 01:21 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

From Pushkar to Jaipur

Jaipur (2/10/2007)

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10 hours later and we've slept off those "special" lassis, so it's time to venture into town and see the sights by day.

Like Udaipur, Pushkar is a photographer's heaven, and the blue skies, green waters of the lake and whitewashed buildings make for some stunning shots (see below).

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These shots were taken from the ghats, or bathing areas, by the edge of the lake. We almost bypassed them totally as the touts who guarded this area were particularly aggressive, with Dean and their ringleader almost coming to fisticuffs! However, they dragged us in and we were well rewarded. We were both taken to the water's edge by our own personal guru, made to sit and recite a special mantra, and upon completion, throw a mixture of flower petals and spices into the lake. Our foreheads were daubed and a special string bracelet wrapped around our wrists, both of which seemed to give us special unlimited access to all the ghats - sort of like a Hindi nightclub stamp, I guess! It was all quite atmospheric until the spell was shattered by the guru asking for a donation that would grant us special favour with the Gods - I was informed that "$US100 is a quite typical donation". I settled for 100 rupees, and after some grumbling by the guru, we were on our way.

The Brahma temple was another highlight, being a brilliant shade of orange (see below).

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It was a mad rush back to the hotel (we got lost on the way) but we were soon station-bound and boarded the Ajmer-Jaipur express in Ajmer.

2 hours later and we arrive at Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. After freshening up we decide to hit the town for a bite to eat and drink, but because it's a public holiday it's a "dry-day", or alcohol free day. It looks like we won't be partying hard tonight! The ban doesn't seem to stop some people, however. After deciding upon a hotel on MI Road (the main thoroughfare) we notice a couple of locals drive up to the front door and, while still in the car, pull a bottle of scotch from a mini-bar fridge and pour (and scull) two very stiff drinks. Bleary-eyed, they stumble into the restaurant and take their places. Some people really know how to party!

We crash early. Tomorrow we attack Jaipur!

I'm travelling with Dean, who also has a blog...
http://dinofile.travellerspoint.com/

Posted by scottness 00:29 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Camel racing in Pushkar

Pushkar (1/10/2007)

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After 4 hours of fitful sleep I wake at 6:00 am, our overnighter only minutes away from Ajmer. Ajmer is the transit point for Pushkar, and after being greeted at the station by our driver, our minivan weaves its way out of Ajmer and into the surrounding hills, descending into the valley beyond. This is the setting for Pushkar, a small town situated on the shores of a picturesque lake. The town attracts tourists and pilgrims alike, and is famous for its Brahma temple, the only one of its kind in the world.

We're driven to the "Master Paradise" on the outskirts, and typical of a lot of the hotels we've visited, it's brand spanking new but with no connecting infrastructure to the rest of the town. In fact, the hotel itself is still incomplete, with a team of Bob the Builder clones drilling, banging and sawing from dawn to dusk! It's hard to take a nap under these circumstances so after a shower and breakfast we finalize the details of our pre-paid camel ride and while we wait, we update our blogs.

It's departure time and we inspect the means of transport. There are six of us in the group and our six camels are waiting, ready to spirit us off into the desert. Mine is a particularly frisky beast, and within ten minutes of climbing aboard, it's biting the backside of the camel in front! It receives a slap in the face as punishment, which makes me fairly nervous as a sedate camel is hard enough to stay mounted upon, let alone an irate one!

(Three hours of riding later and the base of my spine is red raw. To this day I've found sitting uncomfortable - each bump in a tuk-tuk (a small motorised taxi) makes me wince with pain. God knows how the 3-day camel trekkers manage!)

We stop at the half way point and watch the sun descend over the horizon. Strictly speaking it's not really desert with endless, rolling, white dunes (like Australia, it's more scrub-like) but what the hell...I'm living out my Lawrence of Arabia fantasy so leave me alone!

Upon return we bid our ships of the desert farewell and venture into town for a bite to eat. Due to its size the town is easy to navigate and we soon find a suitable restaurant/hotel that appears to be full of travellers. The town has a strict non-alcohol policy so we decide to make up for this by ordering two "special" lassis. I won't go into the details of what the "special" ingredient is, suffice it to say that within minutes our surroundings become markedly more surreal and our speech more animated and abstract. Lucky I only consumed a third of the glass, as navigating back to the hotel was difficult enough.

Talk about getting more "bhang" for your buck! (Sorry, a little Rajasthani in-joke there!)

I'm travelling with Dean, who also has a blog...
http://dinofile.travellerspoint.com/

Posted by scottness 10:32 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Udaipur - a trip highlight

Udaipur - Pushkar (30/9/2007)

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It soon became clear that Udaipur would become a highlight of my trip to India. The city is built around 2 picturesque lakes, one of which contains the Lake Palace, a glittering white construction that rises directly from the water. The town has a different feel to Jodhpur, with whitewashed buildings leaning over narrow, paved alleyways teeming with Vespas, rickshaws and humanity. From any good vantage point in the old part of town you can view the Palace on the lake, the sunlight glittering on the water. I've travelled throughout Europe and the town is (slightly) reminiscent of the medieval towns of Spain, but with a lake, and bazaars. Imagine an amalgam of Toledo, Geneva and Jodhpur - thats' Udaipur!

In short, it's a photographer's dream, and as you can imagine I put the engineers at Canon through their paces! The two shots below show the Lake Palace - the first from the City Palace and the second from the Mewar Haveli, a restaurant we happened to stumble across:

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We arrived at the City Palace at around 11:00 and were greeted by a young man eager to be our guide for the day. He proved to be very knowledgeable about the history of the palace and after the tour concluded offered to take us on a tour of the local artisans in the area. Having regretted not paying the original camera fee, I declined the offer and returned to the palace snapping crazily, making up for lost time. Dean and I arranged to meet in an hour.

One hour later and I'm standing at the Palace entrance, and no sign of Dean. Eventually he shows up on the rear seat of a moped being driven by our guide: "Hey Scotto, I've bought some works of art!".

As it turns out, in the 60 minutes I've left him alone, he's bought $750 worth of paintings by local artists. But this was just the start. In the next 3 hours I would follow him on a shopping frenzy through the streets of Udaipur, taking in products as diverse as camel-bone carvings, silver earrings, musk perfume, silk bedspreads and Indian style shirts. It appears that Udaipur has awakened Dean's inner shopping demon. The shot below records the earring leg of the journey:

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Dinner was at a restaurant overlooking a magnificent night view of the lake. The remainder of the evening was a mad rush to the station to catch the 12:30-0600 "red-eye" to Ajmer - the get off point for Pushkar.

Posted by scottness 02:31 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

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