Wednesday, November 29, 2017

India 2017 November 5-21

In early 2016 we visited India for the first time and you can read that travel blog here.  I must confess that I did not think we would ever go back.  However at a veteran's lunch at the UUSC in May 2017 I met Mary Rossi who is Australia’s #1 luxury travel specialist.  She told me she had been on luxury tours to over 70 locations so I naturally asked her which place would she put top of her list.  I was surprised when she replied Rajasthan but that night I said to my wife guess where we are going.  Martin Randall Tours had “Painted Palaces of Rajasthan Tour” in November 2017 and as we had enjoyed their previous tour I made the booking.  We flew Air India again (A brand new 787 Dreamliner for you skeptics) direct to Delhi.  The Indian Met office has an AQI (Air Quality Index) ranging from 0 (perfect) to 500 (unbreathable) and the reading for Delhi was 487.  I have been in Beijing in December but this was really bad.  It looked like a dense fog out of the window and the schools were all closed.  Luckily all that was planned for Delhi was a visit to the National Museum’s impressive and well-displayed collection of miniature paintings where we were introduced to the Mughal and Rajput traditions.

We were a band of 11 travellers and 3 guides: Caroline Simpson, who was an excellent tour manager, Dr Giles Tillotson, the mandatory academic who was on our previous trip, and Narendra Singh who was the mandatory Indian guide and who proved invaluable in negotiating visits to places banned to tourist groups.

Our first trip was flying to Jodhpur.  Unfortunately because of the pollution one runway was closed and all international flights were given priority meant we sat for 2.5 hours in the plane on the runway before finally arriving at Hotel RAAS in Jodhpur, including a rickshaw ride for the final 10 minutes.  The hotel was terrific and had a magnificent views of the Mehrangarh Fort. Described by Kipling as the ‘work of angels, fairies and giants’, it was built in 1459 and has some of the most imposing fortifications in the world. The outlook of the Fort is over the buildings of the lively Old City painted in a variety of blues, originally the colour denoting the homes of Brahmins.  A Bollywood movie was being made at the fort with costumed extras, horses, and camels wandering around.  The piece de resistance was a dinner outside in the Chokelao Garden of the Fort followed by a 15 minute firework display.  I like travelling 5 star.

After two nights in Jodhpur we took the coach to Naguar, stopping at Mandore (cenotaphs) and Khimsar Fort for lunch on the way.  At Naguar we stayed at the Ranvas Hotel for two nights which is located inside the amazing Ahhichatragarh Fort.  (Ahhi = cobra, chatra = umbrella, garh = fort or the Fort of the hooded cobra),  The Fort is huge and Giles has been a major force in getting the Fort renovated.  Again the highlight of the stay was a dinner in the Bakht Singh Courtyard.  10 men had spent 2 hours each lighting 1000 oil lamps.  It made for a truly impressive and unforgettable dinner spectacle.

Then it was on to Bikaner, home of the Narenda Bhawan hotel and Junagarh Fort.  On the way there we stopped at the Karni Mata Temple.  The temple is famous for the approximately 25,000 black rats that live, and are revered in, the temple. You could say at this point our group divided.  Three of the tourists including yours truly did the tour in bare feet gingerly stepping over the rats while the other eight, including my wife, stopped at the entrance and immediately headed for nearest exit.

By now I was now getting used to 5 star hotels and decided that eating in their courtyards on our occasional free nights was the way to go.  Our first stop in Bikaner was the Sadul Singh museum.  Gradually it began to dawn on methat Rajasthan suffered from a slight wealth inequality.  The population is Rajasthan is around 75 million.  It was formed by combining 19 Rajput or Maharajah principalities.  Each of the Rajput families comprise say 100 people at most.  So we are not talking about the top 1% but the top 0.003% owing say over 50% of the wealth.  From the museums we could see the top 0.003% really lived the life of Riley.  Polo, annual trips to London, Rolls Royce cars by the dozen, private planes, etc.  Still as most of the 5 star hotels are conversions from their palaces why worry.

The Junagadh Fort dates from 1588, it displays a variety of painting styles, from traditional Rajput motifs to early 20th-cent. depictions of trains. The Monsoon Palace has some highly unusual paintings of rain clouds and lightning, while the Diwan-i-Khas, the hall of private audience, is profusely decorated with gold leaf.  Again we were among the 1% of tourists especially allowed to go to the Phool Mahal, the oldest part of the palace..

After two days in Bikarner we headed to Mandawa where we some painted havelis (merchants’ mansions), which go back to the 18th century. We stayed outside Mandawa in the Vivaana hotel which is another meticulously restored Haveli.  Not quite a palace but well on the way.

We then had a four-hour coach journey to Jaipur driving through the scenic Aravalli range.. First we stopped outside of Jaipur at the dramatically located site of Galta outside features temples, leisure pavilions, sacred water spring and tanks all of which are falling into disrepair and becoming home to 100s of monkeys.  It was a steep climb to the top so as my hip was playing up so I took a motorcycle taxi up and down.  Best 300 rupiahs (A$7.50) I ever invested.  Jaipur is known at the Pink city. 

We stayed at the Trident Hotel in Jaipur where for the first time in 10 days we encountered other tourist groups.  However I will always have a soft spot for this hotel because on my birthday (16 November) when I returned to my room in the evening it was filled with balloons and towels folded into the shapes of swans and elephants. 

We visited the City Palace starting with the Jantar Mantar, the 1730s observatory is equipped with massive astronomical instruments that are astonishingly accurate. Again a massive palace with a terrific art gallery.  The following day we went outside Jaipur to Amer and visited the 18th-cent. Amber Palace, again huge, again at the top of the hill, and with mirrored chambers, latticed windows, and carved alabaster.  For lunch we went out in the country  to Dera Amer where not only were we met by elephants we had what was the best curry of the trip.  Even Narendra gave it the thumbs up.  We finished back in Amer at the Anokhi Museum where Vivienne did some serious shopping.

We flew back to Delhi the next day.  Thankfully the AQI was down to around 200 so the flight was on time the air partially breathable. 

In summary, unbelievable income equality but the palaces are magnificent.  Giles did a great job with his lectures and again the Martin Randall organisation is superb and their tours are highly recommended.  We did eat a lot of curries but I managed to sneak in two pizzas and a terrific duck ravioli at the Leela Ambiance cooked by a wonderful chef Leidy Liz Levitan.  My tip for India is 5 star or nothing.  For some reason I was one of the few on the trip who did not suffer from Delhi Belly but then any bugs in my system would be poisoned by the alcohol.

Chris Golis Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence website: Linkedin: Email: mobile: +61-418-222219

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