We walk out the door right on time, 5:45AM, and are met by our guide. We climb into a hotel provided golf cart/club car along with another couple and head for the World Heritage Site, theTaj Mahal... the unbelievable white marble tomb built by Emporer Saah Jahn for his third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Our guide has already purchased our tickets, 1,500 rupees or $30, and we are among the first through the gate when it opens at 6AM. Security is tight with scanners and a hand body search. Ladies are segregated and examined behind a bamboo screen.
From here, we will let our photos tell the story of our visit to the Taj Mahal at sunrise along with a few captions for the pictures. The one thing that must be told is that before the British came and took over, the ceilings inside the Taj’s rooms were covered in gold leaf and semi-precious stones. We are told that the British set fires inside the various rooms to melt the gold leaf and then pried out the stones. Those ceiling are now just white plaster.
The visit is everything Carolyn hoped for. We spend some time just sitting at the back (river side) of the Taj Mahal on the balcony over looking the Yamuna River watching the egerts fishing from the sand bars and enjoying the view of the Agra Fort in the distance. Was the effort to get here worth it....that would be a YES!.
By 8AM we are back at the hotel and head for breakfast. We have agreed to a 9:15AM pickup time and, once loaded, we are off on the day long drive to Jaipur. It is a good thing we do not know just what a beating this 288km drive will be.
We thread our way out of town on this Monday morning with the streets teaming with people and all the various conveyance previously described. We cannot begin to adequately describe the chaos and filth of this place so we will let our photos do the talking.
No more than 10-15km out of town, we come to a road intersection shaped like a # sign. We are heading north on the right hand down stroke. The left hand down stroke is a 1/4 mile to our left and is a train track with, when we arrive, a stopped train blocking both east-west roads. The roads are all two, "ha-ha", lanes wide with bar ditches on both sides. Traffic, consisting mostly of large trucks, has come to a complete halt where the north-south bound road and the two east-west bound roads meet. It is grid lock with everyone jostling for position and with many vehicles facing the wrong way for their lane. The concept of a lane of traffic is foreign to India. It takes 45 minutes to work our way through this mess and we are not really sure what broke the log jam and got us moving but once free we move right along and pick up a four lane divided toll highway after another five kilometers.
Now here is another adventure in driving. This is a toll road but is not limited access so the locals use it as they see fit. The opposing lanes are divided by an impassable median with concrete curbs and wire fencing. There are very few breaks in this median and those that do exist are several kilometers or more apart and mostly formed from the barrier having been destroyed by the locals. So, human nature being what it is, we are constantly meeting traffic coming our way on the wrong side of the road. Oh, they are nice enough to continually flash their lights but the oncoming cars clearly expect to be given room in which to drive on the wrong side of the road; none of this driving down and finding the next break in the median for them!
Our next Indian traffic adventure comes at a toll plaza. Traffic is heavy, mostly trucks, and is backed up 10 -15 units deep at all toll booths. Now, one must understand that you don’t just get in line as you approach and wait your turn. No, everyone jams up as tight as possible, like sand in an hour glass, and then tries to squeeze into a booth as they creep forward. This is bad enough, but the booth Rishi is heading for is suddenly closed with 5-6 trucks and cars already committed to use it. They just shut it down and walk away!! After much backing and filling, laying on of the horns, hand gestures, and conversations in multiple languages this mess also gets sorted out and we make it through after paying our toll. This took another 45 minutes. of course there are the camels using the toll road also!
By now, it is late morning and we stop at the beautiful hill top city of Fatehpur Sikri, a World Heritage Site, started in 1571 by Emperor Akbar. He built this city on the site where his future son was predicted to be born. Entrance to the site is a very organized with a car park and a bus stop with buses running continuously. Rishi has arranged a guide for us who joins us at the car park and with a minimum of fuss we board the CNG powered shuttle bus for the ride from the parking area up to the entrance gate. It is midday and out of the shade, the sun is bright and hot. We get the usual genealogy of the ruler who built this city and learn that it was only occupied for 14 years as the lake that had been the water supply dried up. We visit the grand audience hall, the small palaces of two of the wives, one Muslim, one Catholic and the main palace of the emperor and the third wife who was Hindu and provided the only son. Again we find a shady spot to people watch. As usual there are many Indian families dressed to the nines exploring their heritage and it is quite a show. It is all interesting and the city is beautifully restored, but to Dick these forts of red sandstone are beginning to all look the same. This also happens with the temples in Southeast Asia and castles and churches in Europe, but Carolyn is happy!
Fortunately, the downhill bus is waiting at the entrance to the mosque where our interest and desire give out. After a few pictures of the mosque area, we climb on and find a seat. A miracle! The bus is now full and we wonder why we do not start. It is a matter of definition. The seats are full so to us the bus is full. We have the 36 people the bus is designed to carry. We are FULL. NOT!!! As we sit there, more and more people climb on. Whole families including kids and grandma climb on. We take it in stride and Dick befriends a small child sitting across from him along with its father, mother and three siblings. Smiles and finger shakes illicit a grin and then a smile. Standing by Dick, in the aisle, is a beautiful girl of around 16 who speaks English. Her father tolerates a little small talk about where we are from before we arrive back at the parking area. We both attempt to count the people as they get off and agree that there were about 60 people crammed on the bus. At least we only had a five minute ride once we got started!!
Returning to the parking area, Dick pays our guide a 500 rupees ($10) tip and we head out down the road toward Jaipur. The highway quality varies from four lane divided with the berm median, as described earlier, to a two lane, very rough and worn blacktop. It switches back and forth as we go and is usually roughest going through the small towns where the traffic increases from heavy to chaotic with pedestrians, animals (yes, herds of camels!), carts, bicycles and motorbikes fighting for space on the road.
Around 2PM Rishi pulls into a roadside restaurant for his lunch. He has previously asked us if we want to eat but we have brought lunch from the hotel. He indicates we should go in and sit down and that he will not be long. Drivers, in our experience, always head somewhere other than where we are directed for food, toilets and other services. We go in and find an open air, completely empty restaurant area that reminds us of a large Mexican restaurant. A man comes out from the back and invites us to sit. He brings us menus but we tell him we just want something to drink. Carolyn orders a coke and Dick orders a beer. The beer turns out to be a large Kingfisher, the local Indian brew, and quite good. We break out our sandwiches and the man brings us two plates which is certainly not necessary but very nice. The bill for the drinks is 375 rupees and we pay him 500 ($10). Rishi is waiting as we walk out and we load up and head out.
Mid afternoon we turn of the main road and head to the small village of Abhaneri. Here we visit the Chand Baorior, the 9th century step well. It is 100 feet deep and 35 meters on each side. There are 3500 steps scaling 13 stories...the perfect symmetry is a delight to behold. We are escorted around the well by a local who in broken English explains points of interest around the site. Dick gives him a small tip for his effort and we head to the Harshat Mata Temple across the street. This 10th century temple is still an active place of worship for the locals and though it is mostly in ruins we can still see the detail of the stone work.
The rest of the trip to our hotel in Jaipur is uneventful if constantly cheating accident and death can be called uneventful. We continue to experience cars and trucks on the wrong side of the road, yes that truck is driving on our side
of the divided highway, flashing his lights to let us know that he is going the wrong way, aggressive drivers and the constant honking of horns. Evidently, you can’t pass a car without blowing your horn from 50 yards back to some point in front of them. This is just for the normal, uncontested passing situation. For one where you are asking them to move over or are defending your own space the honking is virtually constant. The funny thing is that the horns are high pitched and tinny sounding. We would love to have a deeply noted, 18-wheeler air horn and see what that would do to our driver’s opponents.
The many villages we pass through are a trip in themselves. The main street is lined with many stalls/stands loaded with fresh bright colored produce both fruits and vegetables. There are also small stalls of every other commerce needed to make a village work. The stalls are all crowded with people shopping and talking. It is really quite a show! Between that and the traffic dance we are enthralled!
Our hotel is on the east side of Jaipur, before driving through the tunnel into Jaipur proper. We turn left and then left again through the usual chaotic congestion of an Indian town. Trash is everywhere as are buildings in semi-ruin. This is the location where we see a camel pulling a dump truck along the street. We can only hope that it is the local tow service taking the truck in for repair!
While driving through this mess, we suddenly turn left into the Oberoi Rajvilas Hotel, rated one of the best in the world. As with all the other hotels, we are stopped by uniformed guards, the hood is opened, the back of the vehicle and its contents, our luggage, inspected and a mirrored roller run under the car from all sides and ends. Satisfied that we are not carrying and IED or car bomb, they check our names off of an expected arrivals guest list and the gate is opened.
We proceed up a beautifully landscaped drive into a 32 acre oasis of luxury and calm. As usual we are met by a liveried doorman dressed in the costume of the area. This is usually white pants, tight in the leg, a white or black jacket, red cummerbund with sash and turban. Invariably, the man has a magnificent mustache and, usually, a gloriously trimmed and formed beard. We are greeted by name as our doors are opened, checked off a list and escorted into the hotel. By now we are confident that our luggage will appear in our room within a very short time. Check-in here as elsewhere is conducted in our room. We are escorted to club car golf cart and driven to our room, #130. The rooms that we see are all built as four to a unit opening off of a courtyard with a flowing fountain. Our room is large and comfortable with king bed, desk, comfortable window seat and large bath and dressing area. The bath has a waterfall shower and glass walls with a locked door opening onto an enclosed garden area. It feels like you are showering outdoors.
It has been a long day and we are very tired. We get cleaned up, mix a rum and coke from the room bar and relax. The dining room is al fresco and it is too warm for us to eat in the open air. The daily temperatures are running in the low 100s and by dinner time they are still in the mid-90s. For the natives, a fan makes this comfortable and perhaps we could learn also, "but not today." We finally order club sandwiches, a wonderful homemade tomato basil soup and a delicious cream camel from room service, mix a second cocktail, eat and go to bed.