All posts for the month December, 2017

Street scene in Jaipur, the Pink City

Starting from our stay in Ranthambore we are spending most of our time in India in the state of Rajasthan. Located in the northwestern part of the country, Rajasthan is India’s largest state, accounting for over 10 percent of the landmass. Now that we have those tigers out of the way our first urban stop is the capital Jaipur and, with a little over three million people, the state’s largest city. Supposedly a major tourist destination (though we didn’t see a lot of western tourists), it is the home of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The city dates from 1727 when Jai Singh II, after whom the city is named, moved his capital here from nearby Amber. For our admittedly limited purposes here the next important thing that happened in Jaipur was in 1876 when, in anticipation of a visit from the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – Sawai Ram Singh I ordered the city’s buildings painted pink. The order remains in effect in the old city, thus explaining why Jaipur is sometimes known as the Pink City.

One of the gates into the old city. That’s definitely as pink as you’ll find here.

I like pink so my hopes were high. Only to be crushed. By my standards “pink” would be an overstatement. More kind of a faded, dirty, peeling, crusty salmon maybe, with lots of brown smudges. After I got over my disappointment I could find a certain attractiveness to the city, but I would definitely not call it pink.

I have to admit that I’m surprised at just how dirty, squalid even, we are finding these Indian cities. I mean, we’ve been to India before and we know it’s poor. I’ve read Katherine Boo’s stunning Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her National Book Award-winning masterpiece on poverty in Mumbai. But somehow it seems as though I’ve read a lot over the last few years about how India is finally booming. And after the time we’ve spent in China, where huge cities have sparkling parks and beautiful transit systems, I was expecting a little less of, well, the filth and a little more sparkle. There’s not a lot of sparkle to be found. Stories of a resurgent India are likely true, but from such a low base. In fact, according to the World Bank India’s per capita income is just $6,490 compared to China’s $15,500. Thus the squalor we find here versus the clean parks in China.

The Pink City didn’t quite live up to its billing as far as I was concerned

Once you start to accept Jaipur on its own terms though – no pink, no sparkle – you can start to appreciate its own beauty interesting qualities. The first big site to visit is the Amer Fort, about seven miles outside of Jaipur and the region’s original capital. One of Jaipur’s two UNESCO sites, the “fort” – it’s really a palace – is laid out in four sectors, each with its own courtyard. As we experienced in both Delhi and Agra, the palace here again reminds you that there was once a lot of wealth and power in these places. Beautiful carved sandstone, marble, lattice-work windows (so the women could see out but others couldn’t see in…), mirrored walls and ceilings – this place has it all.

Mark and me outside the Amer Fort. We had a driver take us out there and he just couldn’t believe that we wanted to walk up to the fort, to experience the normal entrance, rather than being driven up.

The next big site was the City Palace, the home of Jaipur’s Maharajas from the 18th century on. Interestingly, and unlike most historic royal palaces we see, this one is still occupied, and still occupied by the royal family. Even though there isn’t a royal family. Royals were eliminated in India in 1947 when the country gained independence, though royal titles were retained until constitutional changes were imposed in 1970. The Maharaja of Jaipur kept his home, though, kept living here, and people kept calling him the Maharaja or King. When he died in 2011 his adopted son – his grandson in truth – ascended to the no-longer throne and is now called the King, even though he has no formal role.

Padmanabh Singh, the King of Jaipur. This is just a picture from the Internet; we didn’t actually see him.

Oh, and there is a bit of scandal here. The current king, Padmanabh Singh, is the son of the old king’s daughter, his only child. Expected to marry into royalty of some sort, though, she married a commoner and, worse yet, the son of one of the king’s staff people. Imagine the horror; apparently people really were aghast. Not to worry, though; the marriage didn’t do so well and once the commoner was out of the picture the king formally adopted his grandson so he could ascend to the pretend throne.

At any rate, we shelled out big bucks – something like $30 each – for a tour of the palace. That’s really quite unlike us, as we usually don’t like tours. In this case it was the only way to see the inside of the palace – the part that’s not currently lived in, at least – and it was worth it. Nothing earth shattering or anything, but lots of pretty stuff and a better understanding of how all that royal stuff works around here.

There was one last site to visit, right near the City Palace, called the Jantar Mantar. It’s a collection of 19 architectural astronomical instruments built by Jaipur’s founder Jai Singh II and is Jaipur’s other UNESCO site. The various instruments include the world’s largest sundial, a device so accurate that it supposedly indicates the time to within two seconds. Of course, as Mark points out, our AppleWatches are exactly correct, so what’s the big deal? To be honest, I just don’t have much of a scientific bent about me so I really didn’t get much sense of what it was all about. To a junior astronomer, though, it must be a pretty interesting place.

So that was Jaipur. Not as pink as I’d hoped but a tasty treat once you get over the dirt and honking and all that. And surprisingly picturesque, we discovered, as we went through all the photos we’d taken.

Mark in one of the rooms of the City Palace open to private tours

The peacock is India’s national bird. This is one of the entrances to one of the courtyards in the City Palace.

The view out over Jaipur from atop the City Palace

Colorful guards

Here we are hanging out in one of the comfy rooms of the Palace

Some of the courtyards in the City Palace. In the background you can see Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh II’s collection of astronomical instruments; the tall angled thing near the top center is the world’s largest sundial.

Mark’s selfie atop the City Palace

Here I am at Amer Fort

I wasn’t alone clambering around up there

Amer Fort

Just a couple of Indians hanging out

A classic Jaipur site is the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds. It was built with 953 small windows, each decorated with latticework so the women of the palace could see out without others seeing them.

The streets of Jaipur were never dull

Just a crowded side street

Traffic in India everywhere is crazy. Something about sharing the road with every type of vehicle and animal imaginable.

Including, in Rajasthan at least, camel-powered vehicles

Markets share the streets, too

One of many, many monkeys you see in Jaipur

Walking toward the old city we passed this parking lot jam full of scooters caked in dust, suggesting they’d been there a long time. We had no idea why they were just seemingly abandoned there.

Oh, and Mark got a haircut there, too; the young kid in the center was particularly excited about this strange white guy. Along with a head massage and face massage it came to $7.

Arrowhead, in all her majesty

From Agra we took a train to a little town called Sawai Madhopur, just outside the Ranthambhore National Park. Or at least, the plan was to take a train to Sawai Madhopur. The problem was that it was a connecting train, first from Agra to Mathura, then on to Sawai Madhopur. When we got to the train station, though, our train was delayed by at least an hour, meaning that we would miss the connection. “What should we do?” we asked an official. He suggested we hire a taxi to Mathura; if we left right away we’d get there in time to catch the train. “Can we get a refund on this leg of the journey?” No. Oh, and if the car gets stuck in traffic – by no means an impossibility in India – then we’ll miss that train, too, and be no closer to our destination.

Pretty much all the trains through here were late

So for $25 we hired a taxi and made it to the train with only a couple minutes to spare. Except that train was an hour late. Until it was 90 minutes late. And 15 or 20 minutes after that schedule, eventually our train showed up. Our experience from Delhi to Agra had been so good – train on time, comfortable seats – but this one, not so good. Essentially every train out of Mathura was late, some up to three or four hours late. And when we did get onboard it was definitely not as comfortable as the train from Delhi either. Mark has found the process of buying tickets online incredibly frustrating (one site he went to asked “What train do you want?”, rather than where you are going from or to, as though of course everyone knows the name of the train), and then this. First lesson, then, about traveling in India by train: don’t do a journey requiring a connection.

These are definitely not Japanese trains. Fortunately, the first class cars are *slightly* nicer than this. Not that much, though.

OK, so eventually we made it to Sawai Madhopur and caught a tuktuk to our resort. We were splurging to stay at an Oberoi, a very upscale place so surely this would work, right? Not so much. The security guard at the gate checked his list, and there was no Mark Sullivan scheduled to arrive that day. How could that be? Mark checked his confirmation email – he’s learned to keep those well-filed and accessible – and it sure seemed we had a reservation. They checked again and still nothing. Eventually we worked with the manager and she said they would honor the reservation we had even though they couldn’t find it in their system. Nice of her, particularly since our credit card had already been charged for the stay! But it would take 30 or 40 minutes to get the room ready, not something I was too happy about after our lousy journey.

Finally we got to our room, and a day or two later learned what had happened. Turns out there was another Mark Sullivan scheduled to arrive that day but he had rescheduled to arrive two days later. Somehow they either deleted our reservation or moved both of them; either way, that explained why they didn’t have us on their list the day of our arrival. If the resort had been full, we’d have really been in a pickle. Fortunately, though, it all worked out. We got to meet the other Mark Sullivan and had a fun 15-minute chat about all the Johns and Dans and Corneliuses in the family. Better yet, when we checked in they had told us our package included not just breakfast but free dinner and half-priced cocktails at happy hour. “Really?” we asked. “We don’t remember that on the reservation.” Yes, we were told, that was the package. In retrospect, we suspect that the other Mark Sullivan’s package included all that and by the time they figured it out they were too embarrassed to tell us we’d have to start paying full price. All in all their mistake worked out pretty well for us. The only downside was the way staff have been trained to pounce the second you move to make sure that you never have to pour water or wine or serve yourself food or … anything. Definitely a little annoying but if that’s all you have to complain about you’re probably doing fine.

Mark Sullivan on the left and … Mark Sullivan on the right!

Ok, now we can get to the tigers. The only reason tourists would ever go to Sawai Madhopur is because of the proximity to Ranthambhore and the tiger reserve. The reserve was created in 1973 when Prime Minister Gandhi recognized that India’s famous Bengal tigers needed protection from hunting and poaching. This was one of the earliest reserves created but even so the number of tigers is relatively small, maybe 65 or so, though that is a considerable increase over the 25 or so tigers there as recently as 2005. Ranthambhore is considered a good place to see tigers, though, as the deciduous forest in the park makes spotting them much easier than in the rain forests further south. Still, they estimate only a one-in-five chance of seeing a tiger in any one outing.

We got lucky. On our first morning we were paired with a friendly British couple who were on their third and last outing; they were leaving after lunch. They had been out twice the day before and saw a fleeting leopard but no tigers. So we’re bouncing around the reserve in a jeep with a driver and guide, stopping here, listening, watching, stopping, and so on. Suddenly after perhaps 90 minutes there she was, a beautiful three-and-a-half year old tiger out marking her territory and rubbing herself on trees, trying to attract a male while keeping other lady tigers away. She took little notice of us as she’s learned the jeeps are no danger. She’s not tame or anything close to it, though; the guide was clear that she’d eat us if we got out of the jeep and she happened to be hungry.


Leaving her smell on trees in case there are any guys around looking for a good time

So for 10 minutes or even longer we watched as she wandered around. If she wanted to go where our jeep was sitting we moved the jeep. Simply put, she was magnificent, the colors, the paws, the fur, the eyes; just an incredible animal. Eventually she went deeper into the woods then, but those 10 minutes were pretty phenomenal. It’s worth noting that while tigers are the main draw, they were by no means the only wildlife we saw on our three-hour mini-safari: there were spotted deer, wild boars, a mongoose, a sloth bear, plum-headed parakeets, peacocks, lots of monkeys, even crocodiles. And we haven’t even gotten to Africa yet!

Lots of these plum-headed parakeets in the woods

We could have gone out on more rides (if we wanted to pay for them, of course) but beyond the expense we just figured why? Given the one-in-five odds of seeing a tiger, another trip would likely have been disappointing and anticlimactic. So instead we spent the next full day just hanging around the beautiful resort. At one point in the afternoon after I’d done my chores (laundry, some tax stuff, time on the treadmill) I was lying on a lounge chair outside our room. The trees were lush, the bougainvilleas vibrant, birds were chirping, the laundry was drying in the breeze, and I was reading my Lenin biography while listening to Chopin. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

From here, then, it’s back on a train and on to Jaipur, known as the Pink City and capital of Rajasthan. Back to real India!

Just a shot of one of the “workers” at the train station

Once they let us in, the grounds of the hotel were beautiful

They even keep their own elephant around just for fun

A sloth bear crossing our little road

Untold numbers of these rhesus macaques out there

A wild boar mama cleaning her young ‘un

Crocodiles out there, too. We decided not to go for a dip.

That’s the head of a cute little owl peeking at us

A tree full of bats they call flying foxes

There is apparently a famous picture from Ranthambhore of a tiger sleeping in the windows of that building across the lake

More pictures of Arrowhead

She was incredible

You’ll probably recognize both the people and the building behind them

It was almost embarrassing; I’ve traveled the world, been to India twice, but never been to the Taj Mahal. We had to correct that. And here’s a warning: it is every bit as beautiful as I’d heard. You’re going to see a lot of pictures here.

Beyond seeing the Taj Mahal I had a hope coming here. Compared to Delhi, I figured, with its teeming millions of people, Agra and its mere 1.6 million people I thought might be a little easier. Wrong! The streets are crazy crowded and busy; you can’t figure out if it’s more important to keep your eyes up on the traffic or down to avoid the cow, dog, and sheep shit. The constant harassment asking if you want a ride or to shop or whatever just grates on your nerves. And the air seemed at least as bad as in Delhi, to me at least. In other words no let up on the chaos and intensity.

Once you get past all that, though, the Taj Mahal is seriously beautiful. After taking the train down from Delhi – surprisingly comfortable and almost shockingly on time – we decided to hit the site first thing in the morning. As in getting there before sunrise. It meant an early alarm and a cold tuktuk ride in the dark. Then confusion as to just where we were supposed to get tickets and queue up and all that. A frustrating lack of accessible information. And then when going through security they confiscated my little flashlight, saying it was against the rules because someone flash light on the building. We get here in the dark but I can’t take a flashlight? And you’re afraid of this little three-inch flashlight? Have you noticed that cell phones pretty much all have flashlights these days too? They weren’t really into discussing the fine points of their policy so I lost a cool flashlight given to me by Mark’s brother in Bali. Sad.

The Taj Mahal in early morning light and fog

This was all starting off on the wrong foot. I was perhaps more than a little crabby at that point. (And heading out before breakfast is never a good strategy for me….) But wow, once you see the Taj Mahal in that early morning light, you get over those annoyances really quickly. The main building was built between 1632 and 1643, commissioned by Shah Jahan – ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1658, when he was overthrown by his son (kids these days!) – as a mausoleum for his favorite wife who died in childbirth. She survived the first 13 babies but that 14th did her in.

The building is constructed of white marble from Rajasthan (the neighboring Indian state where we’ll be spending most of our time in country) along with 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones from all across Asia. It is believed that some 20 thousand artisans worked on the project which, in today’s currency, cost something like $800 million or more. Alas, however, contrary to myths I’ve heard many times, there appears to be no truth to the rumors of the death or dismemberment of the thousands of people who worked on the monument. Just stories made up to make it seem a little more romantic, I guess.

The view a little later in the morning as some of the fog had burned off

There’s not much to add about our time there except that it was every bit as beautiful as I could have hoped. And seeing it near sunrise was ideal; the lighting and relative lack of crowds made it perfect. Our timing was fortunate, too; the next morning was much foggier and we likely wouldn’t have had an experience anything like we did. Late the next day, though, we went to the Agra Fort, from which there is a fabulous view of the Taj, and where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for the last eight years of his life. Jahan had a perfect few of the Taj Mahal and one can just imagine his son saying “There – look at how you wasted my inheritance!” At any rate, Mark remembered the incredible view from the Agra Fort from his visit here in 1993 and couldn’t wait to see it again. He’ll have to keep waiting, though – the fog/smog was so intense you could only see the very faintest of outlines of the building. So not everything worked perfectly for us.

If you have the time – and we have lots of time – there’s more to see in Agra than just the Taj Mahal. As noted above, we spent one afternoon at the Agra Fort, home of the Mughal emperors from 1556 to 1658 when they shifted the capital to Delhi. While it’s called a fort it is really a walled city with palaces and mosques and towers and gardens and all that kind of stuff. Definitely worth a stop, particularly – I can only presume – if the air is clear enough to see across to the Taj Mahal. Even without that it is interesting, as we saw in the Red Fort in Delhi, the wealth and power of the Mughal dynasty.

The interior of the Hall of Private Audiences is dominated by this carved stone central column, built all of a single piece, connecting to narrow bridges. Atop the plinth, Akbar the Great is said to have debated scholars and ministers who stood at the ends of the bridges.

And we made a day trip out of Agra as well, some 25 miles southwest to Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. Built by Akbar the Great, son of the Humayun whose tomb we saw in Delhi (and grandfather to Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal), who ruled the empire from 1556 to 1605, it was abandoned soon after it was finished due to exhaustion of the water supply. One might expect he’d have thought of that earlier.

Mark at Fatehpur Sikri

Tombs in Jama Masjid, the mosque next to the ancient city

At any rate, the ruins are impressive. There’s a great and massive mosque complex and then the remains of the imperial city, all of which are fun to poke around in. After, of course, you work your way past the constant barrage of locals telling you to go here, to come with them, to look at their shop or goods, to buy stuff. After you’re done with that, though – and when you think you’re done, you’re not; there are more – it is all just more evidence that this empire about which I knew little (and still know little) was a big deal.

I loved this view of the intricate carving that’s just all over these ruins

Thus we made good use of our three-night stop in Agra. I can finally check off that big item on my to-do list (really only the Pyramids are left) and we can move on to Rajasthan.

More pictures of us at the Taj

This is a side building near the Taj Mahal, thought to have been built mostly just to balance the very similar building, a mosque, built on the other side of the Taj Mahal

Me, with the mosque in the background

The entrance to the Jama Masjid, the mosque associated with Fatehpur Sikri, was an impressive climb up steep stairs

So steep, in fact, that goats were more common than people

Here I am, inside a doorway in the mosque complex

Mark loved this sign at the Agra Fort. They didn’t seem to be doing a lot of business.

Meanwhile the streets of Agra were bustling, dirty, lively, congested … almost impossible to describe

Oddly, we saw a few goats like this wearing sweaters. Or pajamas. Or something.

I saved the best for last. On our first afternoon in Agra we walked on an almost desolate road that ran alongside the Taj Mahal. This guy was meditating in front of the tree.