Late in July, my husband and I, together with our friends from the UK and their two children, headed to North India. We met at Delhi International Airport, ready for 2 weeks in Rajasthan, the largest state in India. Lots of people hire drivers, but we did it DIY and travelled by train.
Luckily, I had booked a mini van for the six of us to get to our first hotel, the City Star, in the Paharganj area near New Delhi Railway Station. Our first impression of Delhi was, “Help! What are we doing here?”
There were cars and tuk tuks everywhere, with horns blaring constantly, smoggy sky, and so much rubbish lying around. As we were all tired that first evening, we ate in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant.
And this was the point at which I fell in love with proper Indian food.
To the sound of the traffic and horns, we tasted the most amazing garlic naan. It just melted in your mouth and dripped with fresh garlic and butter—a perfect accompaniment to the tasty vegetarian curries we ordered. We washed it all down with an Indian beer or two.
Day 2: Delhi
We had one full day in Delhi. We spent it wandering around the Red Fort. The fort was constructed in 1639 by the fifth Mughal Emperor as the palace of his fortified capital, Shahjahanabad. The Red Fort was aptly named because the walls were made of red sandstone.
To escape the heat and humidity we headed to the colonial-style Imperial Hotel after the fort. It was very posh and in complete contrast to some of the areas we passed through on the way there. Travel that day was by local tuk tuks, and we survived! They squeeze themselves in between the smallest of gaps in the traffic. And on the odd occasion, I did fear for my arms and legs—you didn’t want anything sticking out of the tuk tuk!
Day 3: Agra
The next day was a very early start to head to Agra. This was the first of many early starts on this trip.
After a tuk tuk ride to the train station, we boarded the train to Agra. It turned out to be the nicest train we were going to take on that trip—in an air-conditioned chair carriage. Our friends had pre-booked all our trains back in the UK.
On this train we had food—fruit juice, chickpea curry, chapatti, and bread and jam. On arrival in Agra, it was back into a tuk tuk and on to the Sai Palace Hotel.
So, it turned out that Agra was my least favourite place in India and the Sai Palace my least favourite hotel during our 2 weeks in Rajasthan. But at the grand total of 140 RMB per room for two nights, we couldn’t complain too much. The hotel offered a glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop.
That afternoon we splashed out and hired a driver and mini van to take us around. We visited some of the local sites: Agra Red Fort, which was better than the one in Delhi; Itimad-UdDaulah, which was a mini version of the Taj Mahal and was actually built before the main Taj Mahal; and the Mehtab Bagh Gardens, where we had a view of the side of the Taj Mahal.
The highlight of this afternoon, however, was the food. At a restaurant called Thaaliwala, we ate a selection of dishes including paneer butter masala, dal makhani, mutter mushrooms, and yummy garlic naan.
Day 4: Agra
We got up at 5 a.m. planning to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, but we didn’t quite make it. What they don’t tell you there, until you have paid and lined up next to rusty bars, is that you can’t take rucksacks in with you. So after a trek to find the locker room, we had already wasted over half an hour. Finally we were in, and there in front of us was the Taj Mahal.
I stood there looking at it waiting for a big wow moment, but that never happened. Whilst it is an amazing place, it just didn’t live up to the expectations I had from looking at pictures.
The Taj Mahal was built in 1632–1653 by Shan Jahan for his third wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. He didn’t get to see it finished as his son imprisoned him in the Red Fort for eight years. He only saw it out of his window. However, later that afternoon I was wowed.
We travelled out of Agra for about an hour to Fatehpur Sikri, a once fortified city that was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571–1585, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. In the city, the emperor built three different palaces for each of his three wives. They differed due to the wives’ different religions—one Christian, one Hindu, and one Muslim. To me, this place was better than the Taj Mahal because of the huge scale of the city, the different architecture of the buildings, and the fact that it was not inhabited for very long.
Today we also went back to the same restaurant as the day before, and it was just as yum. Of course, we had more garlic naan.
Day 5: Jaipur
From Agra we headed to Jaipur, with another early start. On the train we had AC sleeper seats which can be adjusted to sleep or sit in. This journey took almost six hours but passed surprisingly quickly. Before we knew it, we were in Jaipur and riding tuk tuks to the Madhav Guest House. Here began our few days in this very vibrant and chaotic city. Jaipur is the capital and largest city in Rajasthan; it is also know as the ‘Pink City of India’.
We spent our first day in Jaipur wandering around. There was lots of traffic, constant horns, camels, and lots of rubbish laying around. At times it was very smelly due to the open-air men’s urinals. We also found the tuk tuk drivers very pushy in Jaipur.
The other problem here was the flooding. We got the odd huge downpour. And even only after 10 minutes of rain, a lot of the roads would be flooded, mainly due to the poor drainage. This created a few detours on our walks.
In the middle of Jaipur is a walled area called the Old Pink City, named because of the colour of the buildings. This area has different streets that have all the same shops—so a street with book shops, one with shoes, one with clothes, etc. That evening we ate at a well-known vegetarian restaurant, LMB, for various curries and some Indian sweets. This restaurant began in 1954 and originally served no dishes containing garlic or onion, but they do now.
Day 6: Jaipur
The following day in Jaipur delivered one of my highlights of our 2 weeks in Rajasthan. We took a trip to the cinema to see an Indian film called ‘Dishoom’. The Raj Mandir cinema was built in the 1950s. From the outside it looked like a giant, pink cream cake. The foyer looked like a cross between a temple and Disneyland. The film was mainly in Hindi, with the odd English sentence thrown in. We were very unsure of the plot, but that didn’t make any difference; we still all really enjoyed it. The funniest bit was that every time a main character appeared on the screen, the whole audience cheered and clapped.
I had never been to a cinema where there was such a cheerful and happy atmosphere.
That afternoon, we went to see Hawa Mahal, otherwise known as the Palace of Winds. A pink sandstone building built in 1799 that looks a little like honeycomb from the outside. This is where the ladies of the royal household would sit and watch city life go by.
Day 7: Jodhpur
From Jaipur we headed to Jodhpur; the day began with another very early start. We were now slowly getting the hang of these early starts. We left at 6 a.m. from Jaipur to Jodhpur in a sleeper carriage. During our 2 weeks in Rajasthan, we travelled on a lot of trains. They were actually a lot better than I expected, with the sounds of someone walking up and down the train calling, “Chai”, an Indian spiced milk tea.
There were no people sitting on the roof or hanging out of the windows like I saw on TV. We had booked our tickets in advance, so we all had seats. At times they weren’t the cleanest but they were reasonably comfortable.
Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan. It is a popular tourist destination with many palaces, forts, and temples. Located near the Thar Desert, Jodhpur is known as the ‘Blue City’, as a number of the houses are painted blue. We were told that it was because this colour repels the mosquitoes. Here we stayed at the Lotus Guest House.
I liked Jodhpur as a city.
It was hard to navigate due to floods around our hotel; but once you were in the old city area, the narrow lanes with some lovely buildings were interesting to wander around. It was here, in a restaurant called Nirvana, that I had the best curry I have ever eaten: pindi chana with chickpeas and pomegranate and garlic naan of course. This beautiful restaurant was a converted temple with 150-year-old Ramayana wall paintings.
That afternoon we wandered the streets and found a building that wasn’t in the guidebook. It was a stepwell—a very deep pool with steps carved into the walls on all sides, designed to store water used for irrigation in years gone by.
Day 8: Jodhpur
On the second day in this city, we visited the Mehrangarh Fort. Set on a hill overlooking the city, this is one of the largest forts in India. It was stunning to look at from below and offered great views from the top. The walk up there was quite hot, but definitely worth it. You can always take a tuk tuk to the top.
The foundation of the fort was laid by Rao Jodha in 1459 and had since then been added to by various rulers. It was a stunning fort with beautiful architecture. That evening, as per the evening before, we sat in at a rooftop restaurant eating curry and garlic naan with a view of the lit up fort.
Day 9: Jaisalmer
After a couple of nights in Jodhpur, we got back onto the train, this being the earliest start yet at 5.20 a.m. Luckily, we had sleeper seats for napping before getting in Jaisalmer six hours later.
Jaisalmer is nicknamed the ‘Golden City’ and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main feature of the town is the fort, which contains the palace and Jain temples. The fort is one of the most preserved fortified cities in the world. It was founded in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal and reinforced by subsequent rulers over the years.
The town is in the heart of the Thar Desert, but the most amazing bit of this city was the ornate and carved buildings. Here the heat was completely different. The humidity was gone, and it was just a very dry 40˚C.
All we managed to do that first day there was eat yummy food and have a little wander around. For lunch, we went to a restaurant called Saffron in a hotel and house where the local royal family lived. Here we shared various pakora with vegetable, egg, and paneer. That evening we walked up to the fort area, an impressive sight that looked like a massive sand castle. Inside the fort were narrow, twisty lanes where people still lived. The day’s dinner wasn’t worth mentioning, but the exciting bit was the huge bats flying around.
Day 10: Jaisalmer
We then had two full days in Jaisalmer, which we spent wandering around the narrow lanes of the fort area, looking at the amazing buildings and architecture. We explored a few Jain temples dating from the 15th and 16th centuries; these featured a lot of very intricate carvings inside. Outside the fort were traditional haveli buildings. They were almost fairytale-like with their carved walls, stone doorways, jali screens, balconies, and turrets. A lot of these were built with sandstone. Haveli is a generic term used for traditional townhouses and mansions in India. Our hotel was actually a haveli-style building with stone walls inside.
One evening there, we went to an outside restaurant called Desert Boy’s Dhani to have more yummy food: dal makhani, garlicky lahsun chatni, a rice-based dish called masala khichri, and of course garlic naan. The excitement that evening was the darkening sky as we were almost finished eating. We were thinking rain; all the restaurant staff was clearing things away. But it wasn’t rain, it was a sand storm! We all ran inside for cover. Luckily, it didn’t last too long.
Day 11: Jaisalmer
Our second day in Jaisalmer took us out to the desert. This started with a stop at ‘Barabag’, a cemetery for old royals dating back 800 years. Some of the tombs were Hindu style and some Muslim style. Then we travelled on to a 250-year-old Jain temple, Amarsagar.
Next stop was Kuldhara, a deserted village that had been empty for 200 years. There used to be 5,000 people from the Brahmin caste living there, but someone from the Maraghul caste wanted to marry the daughter of a Brahmin. They didn’t want this, so all the villagers left overnight.
We continued through the desert to a place where we took a 45-minute camel ride, stopping just before the thunder, lightening, and rain. After that, we enjoyed the food our tour guide had cooked for us on an open fire—rice, chapattis, and a cabbage and potato stew. In true traditional style, we ate with our fingers, which was not so easy to do. We journeyed back to Jaisalmer across the desert in an old van in torrential rain and thunder.
The next day we were due to leave Jaisalmer on the train back to Delhi. So before that, we headed back to the restaurant called Saffron to fill up on food and naan in preparation for the sleeper train. We ate paneer butter masala; the paneer in India is far better than anywhere else. We also ate dum aloo kashmiri (potato barrels filled with dried fruits), vegetable makhanwala, vegetable dopiaza, vegetable pakora, and of course garlic naan.
Day 12: Train to Delhi
At 5 a.m., we got on the 19-hour sleeper train back to Delhi. Surprisingly, it went very quickly. We slept some and before we knew it, we were back in Delhi coming to the end of our 2 weeks in Rajasthan.
The following day we packed our bags with enough time for a meal at our hotel, accompanied with garlic naan of course. That evening we said goodbye to my husband as he flew back to Hong Kong. The rest of us, now five, would fly down to Kerala, but that’s another story.
Overall, the trip had its ups and downs. I was not impressed with Delhi or Agra, but the places got better as we went along on our 2 weeks in Rajasthan adventure. I liked Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, especially the amazing architecture. Luckily, none of us got food poisoning, but we ate vegetarian and were careful where we ate.
The train travel and the food was very cheap; as well as the hotels we stayed at with prices like 140 RMB for two nights for two people and 160 RMB each for the 19-hour sleeper train.
The fun parts were trying to get six people and six cases into two tuk tuks—not always the most comfortable journey. The cinema was a very entertaining experience.
And the moment when none of us were quite sure what to say was as we walked towards our guest house in Agra and three donkeys walked out of the entrance. We all looked at each other as if to say, “Did we really just see that?” It turned out that the donkeys had been delivering building materials into the hotel.
The highlight overall, though, was definitely the food and the garlic naan.
Trip taken July 2016