UNESCO World Heritage Site

High above the Blue City near the entrance to the fort. You can see a hint of the blue on the buildings below.

Apparently Rajasthan has a thing for cities of color. First we had Jaipur, the Pink City. Then Jaisalmer, the Golden City. Now we’re in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second-largest city, and it’s known as the Blue City because of all the blue buildings. At first we didn’t get that because we just weren’t seeing any noticeable blue at all. It wasn’t like Jaipur where the pink just wasn’t that pink; we went into the old city and didn’t see blue at all.

If you hang in there, though, and really start wandering back into the warrens of the old city, suddenly blueness starts happening. And then more blue. Blue everywhere! It was really pretty nice. The pictures here don’t really capture it, and to some degree it only became obvious when we were up in the fort and could look down on the city; then in the older parts it was a sea of blue, but still the pictures don’t capture it. Take our world for it though; Jodhpur is worthy of its nickname as the Blue City.

More blue, though this doesn’t really do justice to the blue-ness we eventually found

And just a little more blue

Of course, there can be a downside to wandering around the back warrens of the old city. Jodhpur, like everywhere we’ve been in India so far at least, feels perfectly safe from a crime point of view (ignore the traffic, for now, the purposes of this discussion): people are friendly, curious about us, and there are always lots of people around. At one point as we were walking toward the fort we were on a narrow, winding lane that was nice as there was no room for traffic. A dog started barking at us which was unusual, insofar as there are lots of dogs here and they’re all pretty chill. This one was decidedly unhappy about us, though, perhaps because there were puppies nearby, so we quickly went past and left her behind. Not sixty seconds further up, though, another mean dog started growling at us, this time in front of us. Wait – narrow lane, no exit, mean dog barking and baring her teeth in front, mean dog barking and baring her teeth behind. Yikes!

As should be obvious, we escaped. When no humans appeared to save us – I saw some at some point, they were mostly just curious – I picked up a big rock and pretty much just scared the dog in back (who seemed slightly less dangerous) away by threatening her with it. She didn’t know that I don’t have such good aim these days, but it worked. And then we were back on the trail up to the fort.

Mehran Fort, looming over Jodhpur

What is there to do in Jodhpur? Well, as is the case with these big, older Rajasthani cities, there’s a big old fort, the former home of the royal family. Turns out there is a reason UNESCO named these forts collectively a World Heritage Site; they’re fabulous. This one was huge, a long climb up, imposing, and beautiful. Now to be honest there’s not a lot to do at your fourth fort (or whatever it is), but even by the fourth one they’re fascinating. Huge doors, massive sandstone buildings, intricate carvings – they have it all.

It was a long climb up to the fort. We discovered as we were leaving that there was a parking lot much, much closer to the entrance. The funny thing is that at that entrance you had to pay a fee to get in. If you walk up it seemed to be free. Good exercise and saved $10!

One strange thing about Jodhpur: the near-absence of cows. I can’t say there weren’t any, but after all the cows we saw on the streets of Jaipur, Pushkar, and Jaisalmer at some point we realized, “Wow, there just are almost no cows here.” Which, to be honest, makes walking on the streets a little less stressful; you don’t have to pay quite so much attention to what you might be stepping in…

Another thing worth noting about Jodhpur is that we’re here at the right time of year. As we’ve experienced throughout the two-plus weeks in India the weather is delightful: decidedly cool in the morning; warm and sunny in the afternoon, cooling again in the evening. It’s not always like this, though; like much of Rajasthan Jodhpur sits in a big desert and is incredibly hot during the summer. From April through June, when the modest rainy season cools things down a little, the average high is over 100 degrees. Some days, of course, are measurably hotter than average; the record high for May is 128 degrees. That will kill you. So we’re glad to be here during the (comparatively) cold season.

This is what getting ready for a bike ride is all about – just being lazy at the pool

Besides seeing Jodhpur and the fort, the main reason we’re here is to get ready for a Grasshopper Adventure group for a bike tour of Rajasthan. For the record, “getting ready” consists mostly of just resting, buying some bike shorts, and … resting. The tour actually started two days ago in Delhi but we arranged to just meet the group here. Their day in Delhi was just a walking tour; we’ve seen enough of Delhi and weren’t eager to go back there just to take an overnight (Indian) train down here. So pretty much as soon as I click on Publish someone is picking us up to drive two hours north to where the riding starts. Then it’s nine days on the road through parts of Rajasthan we would otherwise never, ever see, before arriving in Udaipur. We’re pretty excited!

All of which means that posts here might be a bit sparse over the next 10 days: I’ll be tired after long rides, and when others are selecting our lodging, particularly in the small places we bike through, Internet access may not be what we’d like. Stand by, then, and we’ll be back eventually.

Our hotel – a little local boutique place – had good food and great doors

Speaking of doors, this is one of the main doors at the fort that would be closed to outsiders. The big spikes on the door, one of which I’m holding, are to keep elephants from head-butting their way in.

More buildings at the fort

An entrance to the fort

The view over the city from the fort

And one last view

There was more to Jodhpur than just the fort. Here is mark in one of the main markets near the old city.

If Michigan has the world’s best tomatoes, Rajasthan has the world’s best carrots. We’ve tasted them in a number of the dishes here and they’re just better than anything anywhere else.

Even when not blue, there was a certain beauty to Jodhpur

Lunch everyday was a beautiful place just a block or so from our hotel called On the Rocks. Hands down the best food we’ve had in India and in a very pleasant setting. Marred only when I discovered that they were hiding the currency conversion scam, so I’ll have to dispute all three bills with Visa. What a pain!

A pleasant lunch at On the Rocks (before I learned about the scam). Note the wine glass on the inverted saucer. That’s not just me being weird – the tables are made of some sort of wicker that’s entirely uneven so the restaurant uses the saucers as coasters to provide a more stable base. Never seen that before!

And Mark at dinner in the courtyard of our hotel. Lovely!

Kids playing in front of some of the beautiful sandstone buildings of the Jaisalmer Fort that give the city the nickname the “Golden City”

Next stop on our tour of Rajasthan is Jaisalmer, a city of 78,000 people some 360 miles west of Jaipur, out in the Thar Desert. To get there we left Pushkar early, drove to Jaipur and then flew out west. While 360 miles might not seem like that long a drive, on Indian roads it would be a nightmare. So we flew.

One of the major tourist draws in Jaisalmer is to take an overnight camel trek into the desert. Having just come from the Arabian Peninsula, though, where they know a thing or two about deserts, we decided to pass on that. The other big thing, though, is the Jaisalmer Fort built in 1156. We’ve been seeing a bunch of forts here in India, and collectively several of the Jaisalmer forts are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This one was, by a wide margin, the best ever. Like many of the forts we’ve seen this one sits up on a hill overlooking the surrounding area, presumably a wise choice for security purposes. But unlike the other forts this one is still occupied and still a vibrant part of the city, with about a quarter of the city’s population living within the old walls. And on top of just the uniqueness of a fully occupied fort, the finely sculpted sandstone walls on many of the buildings are beautiful. The colors change subtly through the day as the sun moves through the sky, giving the city its well-deserved nickname as the Golden City.

Insanely beautiful buildings up in the fort

Unless you’re going out into the desert, the fort is about the only show in town. Mark went up there every day, as the views and colors and all that made walking around a joy. As I’m still nursing a twisted ankle I was lying low a bit and, having been up there once, mostly just hung around the hotel pool. That had its own little drama, as the hotel was making some adjustments to deal with all the pigeons – many dozens of pigeons, and all the bird shit they produce – that had been attracted in the year since it had opened. While we were there they started draping netting over the outdoor space to keep them out. Unfortunately, in the short term at least, they managed to trap a few dozen pigeons in the pool area so while I was trying to read they were increasingly, frantically trying to escape. I give the hotel credit for trying to find a solution but so far, at least, it sure wasn’t working.

The other fun part of Jaisalmer for us was finding a few genuine Indian restaurants. The Marriott that we were staying in was a 20-minute walk out of town but if you walked into town (or took a tuktuk, but we’d more typically walk in and ride back) there were a few havelis, smaller, cheaper, more local hotels, with rooftop restaurants serving great views of the fort and great meals. We tried three of them and they were all great if you like local Indian food, which we do. Oh, and cheap places serve cheap red wine that’s been chilled. I know it’s not proper but we love it.

Dinner at one of the havelis in Jaisalmer with a killer view of the fort at night. I wanted to take a picture with the food but every time the food actually comes we’re so excited we just dig in, forgetting about the need for photos.

Now, with a couple weeks in India under our belts, a few quick observations:

Currency Conversion Hell – Over the years we’ve been on this adventure we’ve learned of this Visa scam where they give you the “option” of making charges in your home currency or the local currency. If you choose your home currency Visa 1) uses a bad exchange rate; 2) adds up to five percent as a fee; and 3) still charges you a “foreign transaction fee” unless your card waives those (ours does). In other words, total and complete rip off. Here in India they use a particularly insidious version of the scam: they offer you the choice, you choose local currency, and they still charge you in USD with all the overcharges described here. Ultimately the credit card company will refund me the difference but each time I’m ripped off this way I have to file a claim with the credit card company, explain the issue, and submit my documentation. Total pain in the ass. I can’t believe that various consumer protection agencies allow this scam to persist.

A guard outside one of the intricately carved sandstone buildings

Smoking – Strange but true: there’s not a lot of smoking here. It took us a while to notice but at some point we realized that in any of a number of situations where in the rest of the non-U.S. world a group of guys would all be smoking, here they’re not. Sure, you see an occasional cigarette, but nothing like China and other developing countries.

Time Zone – India is ten-and-a-half hours in front of the East Coast. Totally confusing. Just try to keep in mind what time it is back in the U.S. From their perspective it makes total sense; they’re able to keep the whole country in a single time zone. But two weeks into our trip here and I’m still confused.

Exchange Rate – Speaking of confused, the exchange rate is roughly 65 Indian rupees to the U.S. dollar. Go ahead and take a restaurant bill and divide by 65 to see how much it costs.

The colors here are sometimes stunning. Despite the poverty and squalor and dirt, women here – like women everywhere in the world? – do what they can with jewelry and clothes to be beautiful.

Small Bills – And speaking of currency, you need small bills in India. Lots of small bills for tuktuk rides and tips and just everything. Go ahead and try to get them. ATMs only dispense large bills and when you try to exchange them for small bills … everybody else is hoarding their small bills. At the hotel here in Jaisalmer I went to the front desk to get change and it took them 15 minutes to find some.

Low Carbs? – Yeah, we try to eat a low-carb diet. Here in India that means no naan bread and no rice. It’s not ideal but it certainly works for us. But just try that in a restaurant. Every single time we eat they try to convince us you need bread and/or rice to eat Indian food. Every time we say that’s OK, we like it this way. And every single time they try to insist you can’t eat Indian food without naan or rice. Now, I love naan as much as anyone; it just makes me fat. The good news is that soon we’ll be on a Grasshopper Adventures bicycle tour. On those we have much less control over what we eat, so we’ll get some naan then.

Cows – Did I mention cows? Yeah, there are a lot of cows wandering around. A LOT.

OK, on to the pictures. If you’ve noticed a change in the artwork here, Mark has been taking a more active role in selecting and editing the pictures. The result is both more and better. And less work for me!

Mark loves cow pictures

And dog pictures

And if the scene includes fascinating buildings and a dog? Perfect!

Mark enjoying lunch at one of our favorite havelis

Speaking of the havelis. Well, Jaisalmer is known for their messenger bags made from local wild camels. This was the menu card at the little haveli where we ate twice, with a similar camel cover and a cool little thing to open or close it.

Jaisalmer is definitely colorful

Kids playing. The world over, no matter the level of poverty or wealth, no matter how clean or dirty, kids play. Find a relatively level plot of ground and they’re kicking a soccer ball. Not enough room? Fine, we’ll figure something else out.

Did I mention cows?

Colorful vegetable markets. And amazing vegetarian dishes in the restaurants.

I have to keep reminding myself that the swastika was a Hindu symbol long before the Nazis expropriated it

Just like in China, local kids LOVE to have their pictures taken with us

With me, too

Local color

Colorful in its own way

More of Jaisalmer Fort’s architecture

Oh, and they have cows wandering around here

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.