Originally Published: 12th March 2008
And so our young adventurers arrive in Rajasthan.
Mighty Rajasthan! That difficult, troublesome place that had filled other travellers with tales of woe and terror. “Don’t go!” They had whispered, fear permeating their tones. “There are a many great dangers there!”
Our heroes, cautious but resolute, moved tentatively across the border and into Udaipur, the mystical City by the Lake. Stepping out of the railway station they were hit with two clear and immediate thoughts. The first was that of the cold. A harsh, biting cold that burrowed it’s way through the fabric of their clothes and into their skin, augmented by the omnipresent breeze.
The second was the legions of rickshaw drivers. These were the men they had been cautioned against. Men who would take you to unknown, unwanted places, who would take all of your gold as payment. They approached slowly, circling, assessing. The wary wanderers consulted their mystical text: ‘Thou should pay no more than 70 pieces of silver for travel to the lake,’ it read.
Steeled with this knowledge, they approached one of the drivers, their confident stride belied their apprehension. “Sir, how much for transport to the lake?” They asked, fearing the worst.
“70 rupees.” Came the reply. “I’ll take you direct.”
And then they realised: All the prophecies were false. All of them.
One thing that we’ve learnt from this trip is never believe anything anyone tells you. Go find out for yourself. We heard so many bad things about Rajasthan that we almost didn’t go. In fact, the thing that made us leave more than the (generally non-existent) hassle, was the cold. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Udaipur was where Octopussy was filmed, and boy don’t the bars and restaurants know it. Every other place had nightly showings of this seminal Bond movie, but we didn’t come halfway around the world to watch James Bond, so we avoided it, preferring instead to take in the chilled lakeside atmosphere. We did see the Rolls Royce Phantom II that was used in it, though, as it forms part of the Maharajah’s private collection of vintage cars which were on display at a local museum. Vintage cars are cool, and we never realised.
While in Udaipur we decided it would be fun to take some cookery lessons and learn how to cook Indian food properly, the way we had it at our homestays. It was really interesting to learn how to make proper curry (and not the overcooked, oversauced curry we get in so many of the tourist restaurants) and we got a bunch of notes so we don’t forget before we get home. We’ll gladly share the knowledge (and a meal) with anyone who wants to know the secrets.
Next was the beautiful fort at Ranakpur, then Jodhpur, but the only thing that we did there was drop a bunch of money on flights to the Andaman Islands. We missed the warmth. Rajasthan gets COLD at night, and nowhere we stayed had proper heating. It would mean missing the Taj Mahal, but when asked if it was worth seeing, most travellers kinda shrugged and said ‘it was okaaaaay.’ For a must see place, they didn’t really convince us that we must see it. So, sun and sea and sand won out. Nothing else happened in Jodhpur, so we’ll skip the rest of it and get to Jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer has one of the most beautiful forts I have ever seen (admittedly, I have limited experience of impressive forts, but it’s prettier than Warwick Castle). The 99 sandy yellow bastions emerging from a large mound in the desert, protecting the bustling little town that exists inside. Climbing up through the fortress entrance, with the large walls looming overhead, is exhilarating and the small, maze-like stone walkways and hidden Jain temples with their intricate carvings just add to the peaceful, timeless atmosphere.
Of course, the city now extends well beyond the fortress walls and we had been warned by the Lonely Planet not to stay within the walls because, sadly, the sandstone is being eroded by bad plumbing from the hotels and restaurants. Interestingly, though, we met a reporter from the BBC World Service who was investigating this, as there are rumours that this isn’t true at all, and that there are sinister political motives for getting all the tourists to stop staying in the fort. If they can convince Lonely Planet, they can convince anyone cause if The Bible says not to stay there, that is The Word, and it must be obeyed.
But the most impressive thing about Jaisalmer is that Simon had his first gig as a singer! Oh yes, friends, he is stepping out from the shadow of his drum kit and assuming centre stage! After hearing me rehearsing in our hotel room, some of the staff asked if I’d be willing to play a few songs on the rooftop terrace. Who could resist? This was my first time playing live in front of complete strangers, but it seemed to go pretty well. Chilling out under the starry skies with the fort in the background and a roaring fire in the foreground was a pretty special setting.
Then it was time for the camels. Everyone who comes to Jaisalmer goes on a camel safari, and so did we. It was…interesting. It really doesn’t take long for the novelty of riding a camel to wear off and the flat, dusty desert was exceedingly hot during the day, making the journey quite tough going. By the evening we were pretty beat up, but we had arrived at a stretch of magnificent, untouched sand dunes, where we were to camp for the night. While our guide prepared our meal and night fell, we went out wandering on these amazing natural creations and Simon did the compulsory rolling down the side of one of them (thanks to Jason and Dan for making it obligatory). We ate around the fire then went to bed under a most magnificent canvas of stars.
Back to Jaisalmer the next day, then onwards to Delhi on a 20 hour train ride to catch our flight to the Andaman Islands…
The Andamans are a group of islands about 1000km East of India in the Bay of Bengal, but more importantly, they’re South which means they’re warm. They are also beautiful, with long stretches of white sandy beach lapped by the clearest ocean that we’ve ever seen. We stayed on Havelock, which is where most of the tourists go, and it was serene, covered with dense jungle and only a single track road along the coast. Traffic was minimal and everything about it was totally chilled out. A perfect antidote to the hectic pace of mainland India.
We spent the first few days relaxing by the beach, enjoying the warm sun by day and the wonderful stars by night, then we decided it was time to learn how to scuba dive. The Andaman’s have a reputation as an amazing diving spot and they had some pretty decent looking dive schools, so we took the plunge (forgive the pun) and oh my god it was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.
We did two dives a day over three days. The first was spent in shallow water, learning the basics. The second we spent going for a swim and we saw a sea turtle. The wonderful thing about marine life is that it hasn’t learned to fear humans yet so we were all able to get real close, and this old turtle (must have been 2 and a half feet long) just carried on snuffling in the coral for food as we all circled around it to get a closer look. It was so graceful and looked so peaceful and, after a few minutes, it turned towards some of our group, paused while we separated to let it pass, then slowly swam off into the distance. We all had to pause for a moment to take it all in. It was incredible.
Days two and three were more of the same, but in different spots. The colours and variety of fish and coral life was immense, and the feeling of weightlessness under the water is so liberating. Granted, you’re carrying a bloody great tank on your mouth and breathing through a chunk of plastic, but when you see all the little fishes you totally forget. They just absorb your attention so fully with their grace and beauty. One of our spots was out in the open ocean, where the visibility was about 30 metres and in every direction stretched acres of coral. It was so other worldly that it’s almost impossible to describe. Definitely a highlight of the trip so far, and we are now both certified scuba divers, which is also tops.
A few more days of chilling, another gig round the campfire for Simon, then it was back to Delhi and on to Nepal, where we are now.
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