Thursday, December 13, 2018

Jaipur - forts and food

See the whole Photo gallery here.

We pick up drivers as we go, and they are a mixed bag. There is the good of supporting local drivers, but many of them have poor English. And they don’t necessarily know the local area well from a tourist point of view. Our driver today is the same one we had for our Shekhawati tour yesterday; he was rather taciturn, but a good driver, and the car has AC - important on these dusty roads, as Chris still has the cough he picked up in smoggy Delhi. When we arrive in Jaipur I have to direct him to the hotel using Google maps on my phone. So few drivers seem to use GPS, rather stopping as we near the destination to ask local bystanders for directions.

I have mapped a convenient shopping walk near to our hotel, and plan to do this while Chris rests. But he decides to come with me, and as this new city area is not so interesting for a non-shopper, we go into the old city instead. Starting at New Gate, we are on a road of local shops - textbooks and spectacles - but we are encouraged to venture into the back streets for the ‘silver market’. Bad idea - we are soon completely lost in tiny alleyways infested with loud, hooting and fast-travelling motorcycles, and it’s no fun being a pedestrian. Heading back to the main road, we try to spot the Pink City central landmark - the Hawa Mahal. But where is it? All is chaos. The large Badi Chopar square is a dug-up construction zone surrounded by tall hoardings, and the traffic is funnelled into one lane surrounding it, almost on top of the sidewalk shops and stalls. Turns out they are constructing the final stations of stage 1 of the new Metro project. Jaipur traffic is crazy at the best of times, and if any city needs a metro system it is Jaipur, but meanwhile - madness. Finally the familiar honeycomb of Hawa Mahal looms, we take a couple of quick photos, and get out of the chaos as quickly as we can.

I do manage a quick shop at the large Anokhi outlet here (some of my friends will know it’s one of my favourite shops in India), and we find an ‘English wine shop’ to buy a bottle of local wine to drink on our hotel room balcony, looking out on the hotels and tuk tuks across the street. It’s ok, but at $22 for the cheapest bottle, it’s hardly a bargain (good local whisky can be had for $12). At dinner in the rooftop Peacock restaurant we have Afghan tandoori chicken as respite from our recent vegetarian diet, it is delicious!

Musicians at the Peacock Restaurant (rooftop of Pearl Palace Hotel)
Only one day in Jaipur, so we ignore the great plans expounded to us by all the tuktuk drivers who would wish to spend the day escorting us to dozens of locations. First - Jantar Mantar and City Palace, and early in the morning it’s a quiet and relaxing drive to the old city, as shops are all closed.
Jantar Mantar, a garden full of amazing mathematical/astronomical instruments built in the early 18th C by a Rajput ruler, looks like a Bauhaus playground. It’s busy with mostly Indian tourists, but keeps us entertained for a couple of hours.

City Palace next-door looks like a film set, according to Chris, as if it’s constructed from plywood. We know it’s not, but this comment colours my perception, as do the numerous officious security guards checking tickets, are we walking in the right direction, forbidding photos, etc. Our favourite place - the large reception hall (Diwan-i-Am) is lined with images and fascinating stories of the Maharajahs (no photos!). We decide to forgo the (very pricy) tour of the Royal Apartments, still occupied by the erstwhile Maharaja's family and head to the Amber Fort, 11km north of the city.

Bauhaus sculpture garden at Jantar Mantar
City Palace, Jaipur - looking like a film set
Lovely Peacock Gate and lovely tourist at City Palace
The tuktuk drive out is fine, and we brave the walk up rather than wimp out with a jeep ride. I love this place, such a contrast to the Palace! Huge, solid, crumbling, rambling, with little signage, and is restored enough to be safe (by Indian standards!) but still quite crusty and very atmospheric in spite of hordes of visitors. It’s lovely to make your way to a remote pavilion, and spot over there a courtyard you haven’t seen, and like a treasure hunt find your way there. And there are the mosaics, the marble jaali (carved lattice screens) ... We stay until the sun is setting, then find another tuktuk to go home. The price seems to have gone up … and we can see why - the traffic through the old city is the worst yet!

Back at the hotel, we brave a 5-minute walk to the nearest Wine shop for some beer. ‘You just have to cross the main road and there it is’, we are told. Yes, well ... see story on DRIVING.

Labyrinthine Amber Fort
Gorgeous marble jaali

Away from it all in Kharwa

Today we drive to Kharwa Fort - we have decided on another out-of-the-way stay rather than brave the famous camel fair at Pushkar.  We will go via Kishangarh so that we can check out the lovely old hotel at the Phool Mahal Palace; encouraged by some Tripadvisor reviews, we plan to have lunch there before traveling south to the Kharwa Fort Homestay. We have become aware already that there are looming elections in Rajasthan, political rallies are numerous, and here is one on our way into Kishangarh. There is no traffic management for these large rallies, and the normally difficult roads become practically impassable. Many side street detours, and much loud horn blowing later, and we reach the Phool Mahal Palace. It is deserted, no-one even at reception. Finally the hotel manager appears, and looks nonplussed - Lunch? I’m sorry you would have to book and order ahead … Perhaps - a cup of coffee, and a sandwich? We gratefully accept, and he hurries off.
We wander round and explore the place, lovely setting and dining room - but it looks as if there are few if any visitors so the kitchen/dining area is not in action. After 30 minutes - instant coffee, and a grilled cucumber sandwich. It is not the guided tour of the palace that I had dreamed of, but we won’t starve!
Leaving Kishangarh, the traffic is even worse. It becomes obvious why larger vehicles take precedence - if not: gridlock. We finally reach Kharwa Fort mid-afternoon, and our very patient driver gets a tip for the Kishangarh hassle. Kharwa is a small village, quite close to the main road from Ajmer, and the industrial outskirts of Ajmer are creeping closer to this tiny rural place.
Waiting for cucumber sandwich at Phool Mahal, Kishangarh
Kharwa Fort
Our gorgeous room at Kharwa Fort Homestay

Wow! Kharwa Fort is interesting! It has been in the same family for five centuries - 18 generations, now divvied up into the private quarters of five brothers, and their families. Jyoti, our hostess, is married to one of the brothers, Shyam, and her sister and daughter are also visiting. It’s a real homestay - there is just one (enormous) guest room, with a temple behind where we can hear the singing and drumming of ceremony. We are invited to spend time with the family, taken to their farm, a short walk away, where villagers cultivate the fields as if nothing has changed in 500 years. We drink masala chai with sweet biscuits, and chat. They are an old aristocratic family with well-educated daughters who have professional city lives, and have no clear idea of how the ancient heritage will be managed into the future.

Later we share a drink (whisky and water) on the terrace with the old bloke. He is a big gruff fellow with giant Rajasthani moustache ,and seems to feel out of place in the contemporary world, with his modern women. I had expected an extensive apartment with a manservant and cook, but their quarters are modest and it is Jyoti in the kitchen. Quite a large space is sacrificed  for the homestay. Dinner is home cooked non-veg thali, and is delicious. And for breakfast  - anda bhurji (spicy scrambled eggs - my new favourite) with paratha and home-made pickles.
In the morning we explore the small village. The turbans here are the largest so far! Once again we are the only tourists and the centre of attention. It’s quite entertaining, at least for a short while, being the entertainment.
Kharwa village
Chris with friends - Kharwa
The old lady is blind - but insisted that we photograph her


Kharwa breakfast - anda bhurji with paratha and curd

* Disclaimer: I am a proud foodie! But almost never photograph food, too busy eating it ;)
As we are largely eating in tourist guest houses and hotels, it's quite hard to get anything really spicy. Rajasthani cuisine is in any case on the mild side for India. But you can always ask for pickles on the side. People seem quite amazed when we tell them that we love spicy (hot) food, and cook it for ourselves at home. Vegetarianism is very prevalent, being intrinsic to the Hindu religion, and restaurants that do serve meat often have non-veg meals relegated to a page at the back of the menu. Some places we stay are vegetarian only, although I understand that they can procure meat dishes if requested, as well as alcohol, although that's not on the menu either.

At the heritage stays, where it is a set menu for dinner, there are very tasty, fresh home-cooked meals - usually a dal and 2 or 3 veg dishes, one potato-based, sometimes a non-veg dish too, served with rice and roti. It's very difficult to fit in the dessert! While fruit platter with toast and eggs/omelettes are staples of the breakfast tables, it's definitely good to choose Indian breakfast if available. My favourite being stuffed paratha (flaky bread) with curd and pickle, but poha (savoury dish with flattened rice) and upma (savoury dish with semolina) are also delicious*. After large yummy breakfasts and in expectation of large yummy dinners, we mostly lunch on a lassi - plain sweet, mango or rosewater - the nicest we have is in Udapiur and is flavoured with cardamom.

While I like to believe I am a street food aficionado, here we largely avoid it - well, we are usually walking around so well-stuffed already. And we are wary of bugs, so prevalent here. On one of our last days I slip up and buy some food at the railway station. By the next day Chris is ill, and two days later so am I  :(

* Given the current baby boomer trend to refuse grandma and grandpa as honorifics, I decide that Chris and I will be Poha and Upma if the opportunity arises.

No comments: