By extending our stay in Agra we had thrown our plans in to a bit of disarray and after some uming and ahing we decided against booking more tickets to Varanassi, which had been a detour of our route in the first place. We continued on in to Rajasthan and caught an evening train from Agra to Jaipur. We ended up in executive chair class for this journey as they were the only seats that we could get at short notice. These seats were comfortable although the entire carriage had a well-worn feel to it and Caro had to remove her headrest because she couldn’t move it up from in between her shoulder blades. Tip: book your tickets in advance as they sell out quickly and being waitlisted can be pretty stressful when you are trying to book your onward journey. If you are completely relaxed about when you travel there are usually Tatkal tickets released the day before travel, and this is what we ended up with.
The journey was about 4 hours and we were fed twice, which seemed excessive. The quality of the food was mixed, and a general disappointment for James who counts plane food as one of his guilty pleasures, but it did include some excellent butterscotch ice cream. Upon arriving in Jaipur, we and the many other white people disembarking were instantly the target of hordes of rickshaw drivers. We managed to get a reasonable price from one chap who, once we were outside the station, passed us on to his brother. Rahul was a fun guy and chatted away on the way to our guesthouse before hitting us up about going on a tour of Jaipur the next day. Not wishing to make a snap decision, we left it with him that we would call to arrange.
We checked in to the Madhav Guesthouse, which was excellent, and did some research on Jaipur tours. From what Rahul had said it sounded as though his tour would cover all of the key sites and we liked the idea of taking a bit of a backseat for a day and being shown around. We organised for Rahul to collect us at 9am the next day and take us somewhere for breakfast. As we were getting a local insight in to the good places to eat, we were already feeling good about our decision to go on a tour. So we were slightly disappointed when we arrived and realised that the place that Rahul had taken us to, Indian Coffee House, is literally first on the list of places to eat in the Lonely Planet.The food was fine and the coffee good, although they don’t serve tea so Caro made do with water. This is when things started to play out a little differently than we had anticipated. Another chap joined us for breakfast and it turned out that he would be taking us on our tour, not Rahul, who was clearly the salesman of the team. Slightly perturbed but still optimistic we made our way to the Amber Fort, which was awesome. The fort looms above the city of Jaipur and is striking even from a distance.Our driver, Anuj, turned out to be exactly that, a driver and not a guide as we had expected. So, we ventured in to the Amber Fort alone. There is a small lake before the entrance and this absolutely reeks, so hold your breath and try and buy your tickets as quickly as possible. You then step through to a calm garden at the base of the Fort.From here the only way is up. We tramped up a fairly steep slope and a set of steps, sharing the way with a reasonable number of visitors and people selling souvenirs and snacks. We were glad that we had donned trainers and would recommend that others do likewise; the steps themselves are one thing but you also do a fair bit of walking up and down narrow marble staircases inside the fort that are fairly slippery. Even in trainers Caro managed to slide down one set of stairs.There is the option to get a lift up the hill in a truck from the town of Amber, which sits in the shadow of the fort, but really, we didn’t think that this was necessary, the climb is not that daunting. Apparently, the queues for the trucks can be quite lengthy in peak season so do plan ahead if you wish to take this option. It is also possible, unfortunately, to take an elephant ride up to the gates from Amber. Please don’t.At the top we stepped through the Sun Gate in to the first courtyard, Jalebi Chowk, located the ticket office and navigated our way through the wonderfully colourful group of women sitting on the steps to make our way in to the main part of the fort.We had been advised that an audio tour was a good idea and popped in to the small, sweltering office just at the top of the steps to rent a couple. They only had one so we had to share, which means that each of us now knows a small amount about completely different parts of the fort.We would definitely recommend getting an audio tour, preferably one each, because (a) it gives your visit structure and helps you navigate your way around and (b) it gives you a huge amount of information that you just don’t get from the signs. For example: the royal women’s dresses were often too heavy to walk in and they were therefore wheeled around in a type of wheel chair. Given that the fort is built on multiple levels this necessitated the building of an entire system of ramps to navigate the buildings. The uphill ramps are completed smooth, whereas the downhill ramps have grooves cut in them to provide friction and ensure the chairs didn’t escape and fly off at speed. Women in heavy dresses, therefore, only ever saw the fort in one direction. That’s really cool to know.Anuj had only given us 90 minutes to tour the fort which really wasn’t enough to do it justice, although we obviously didn’t realise this until we were in there. The audio tour alone would probably take over two hours if you listened to every section of it. Having said that, it was very very very hot and whilst we found it all fascinating we were also exhausted by the heat and Caro, who wasn’t yet feeling 100%, didn’t want to spend too long walking around in the sun.
The fort has huge amounts to offer and is well worth taking the time to really explore. We found ourselves peering through gratings at the inaccessible rooms beyond, it is a place to let your imagination run wild.
The beautifully preserved Palace of Mirrors is spectacular with its glittering reflective mosaics covering every wall and ceiling.
You have a pretty free rein to go wherever there isn’t a blocked door and we found that we had some areas or to ourselves. Beautiful gardens are a feature, including a lovely Mughal example that you can see through the windows overlooking the gate, although it is accompanied by the aforementioned toxic lake.
Of course, it wouldn’t be India if we didn’t see some misplaced livestock and we were joined by a large goat as we made our way out.
Our next stop was the recently restored stepwell, Panna Meena Baori, in the town of Amber. It is really cool, and we tried to get a photo on the steps but James was shouted at by the security guard when he attempted it.We made our way back to the main town of Jaipur via the Water Palace, which sounds fairly romantic and enticing and the photographs you see published of it certainly make it seem so.However, this is a perfect example of something that you have to make your peace with in India; there is rubbish absolutely everywhere and your enjoyment of some of the most beautiful places will be tarnished by it. Your experience standing on the shore looking out over the Water Palace is very different to looking at a picture.We had no desire to linger and Anuj took us back through the pink city, which is in fact orange because the sun has caused the paint to fade. We don’t actually have any photos of the pink city worth sharing because it is quite difficult to capture in a single picture but we would offer that it isn’t worth going out of your way to see the colour of the city alone. There are other reasons to go of course, the fort being one.
It is a common scam that drivers will take you to shops where they earn commission and you will be pressured in to buying vastly overpriced pashminas and jewellery. We had been very clear with Rahul at breakfast that we didn’t want to do any shopping at all and he had assured us that the place he was sending us to was a workshop where we could see the fabrics being made by hand and that there was absolutely no need to buy anything. This sounded fairly interesting and so we agreed. We were taken to a shop, nothing was made on site and, whilst they repeatedly said “no pressure”, they did not stop pushing products on us. We held firm and extricated ourselves as swiftly as possible from a very uncomfortable situation. Anuj then offered to take us to a jewellery shop which we firmly said that we did not want to do, so he took us back to our hotel. That was the end of our tour. We had essentially paid 800 rupees for an auto-rickshaw journey to the fort and the water palace, with a bonus awkward encounter thrown in. It took us a full 5 days to get ripped off in India.
Needless to say, we were feeling a bit put out but we had to chalk it up to experience and the highlight of the day, Amber Fort, had been well worth it. Moods were improved by the discovery of the rooftop garden at our hotel and James enjoying his first Indian beer.Our tour of the pink city hadn’t included anything more than a passing glimpse of the Old City and we set about rectifying this the next morning. Our first stop was the City Palace which dates from the early 18th Century and is still occupied by descendents of the royal family. You can look around the royal apartments for the extra fee of a guided tour but we settled with the basic INR500 ticket instead. For a seemingly small space there is huge amounts packed in to the City Palace, if you have a good guidebook to tell you where to go. The only downside for us was that there were large sections where we weren’t able to take pictures but we have provided them where possible.There is an excellent textile museum in the centre of the palace with examples of royal costume including nightgowns belonging to a particularly portly 18th Century maharaja. The armory lives up a set of stairs off the main courtyard and holds an unbelievable amount of weaponry as well as some fascinating paintings of battle scenes. The palace also plays host to two enormous silver water urns which were used to carry Ganges water when the maharaja travelled outside of India. They are supposed to be the largest sterling silver objects in the world.Next to the urns was a temporary exhibit about Holi, which had been celebrated a couple of days previously. The exhibit was interesting but what really tickled us was this request accompanying the braille translation.Tucked out of the way is the Pitam Niwas Chowk. This is a fairly ordinary courtyard with the exception of its four stunning gates representing the seasons: Lotus for summer, Peacock for autumn, Rose for winter and Green for spring.The most beautiful room is the Sabah Niwas, the throne room, which we were disappointed not to be allowed to photograph. The room is ornate and decadent and the walls are covered in portraits of many generations of maharajas. There was a cannon outside, so obviously it was time for a James-with-cannon picture.On our way back to the hotel we made our way through the Old City’s wonderful bazaars. The experience here was completely different to that of Delhi as Jaipur is so much cleaner and there are pavements, rather than taking your life in to your hands in amongst the rickshaws and scooters. Had we been looking to shop, the bazaars of the old city of Jaipur would definitely have been high up our list of destinations. As it was, simply wandering the streets was fun and our final impression of Jaipur was one of vibrant colours.