Desert Dreams Part II: Western Rajasthan

The deeper you go into India’s desert state, the more rewarding the experience can be. From ancient cities to modern hangout spots to truly unique cultural experiences, there is a lot to see. If you missed it, make sure you check out the previous post in this series to see our top recommendations for eastern Rajasthan. For now, though, deeper into the desert!

West Rajasthan 1

Jodhpur contrasts to Jaipur in many ways, and in my opinion is preferable. Its extensive old city is painted various shades of deep blue, and wandering through the back alleyways is fascinating. There is excellent food to be found, and endless opportunities to see local life played out—incense burning on windowsills, flower offerings on doorsteps, children playing with cows in the street, and so on. The Blue City is perhaps even more impressive when viewed from above, either from a guesthouse rooftop or on the parapets of the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur’s location makes it a possible starting point for camel treks, for anywhere between an afternoon and a week.

West Rajasthan 2Even more famous for camel-related activities is Jaisalmer, further into the desert and another tourist hotspot. Known as the Gold City (notice a trend, yet?), Jaisalmer is famous for massively inflated prices—haggle like your life depends on it, and even after that plan on paying around three times as much as an item is actually worth. Better yet, just don’t buy anything. Still, the city has great architecture, and plenty of music and dance on offer (something it exports to the rest of the country). This is a place to see a lot of cultural variety, and get a really foreign feel for India. Just keep an eye on your wallet and think carefully before buying gifts for yourself or people back home—can you get this same item in another city? If so, it is almost guaranteed to be cheaper elsewhere.

West Rajasthan 3One last stop to consider on your Rajasthani adventure is Udaipur. Another city around a lake, Udaipur is a princely place that retains its relaxed character in contrast to somewhat overrun spots like Jaipur and Jaisalmer. It too has its share of impressive palaces and architecturally rich mansions, as well as enjoyable streets for walking. The surrounding hills are attractively green, and the size of the lake gives it a cooler atmosphere. There’s even some pop culture history here—the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy was filmed here, on an island in the lake and around the city. Many guesthouses have showings of the movie every night, so you’re sure to see Roger Moore in action if you haven’t yet.

Wherever you choose to go, Rajasthan is a romantic destination. It is easy to access from Delhi and Agra, and offers totally unique cultural experiences. This is the India that many first time visitors are looking to discover. Enjoy!

 

Desert Dreams Part 1: Eastern Rajasthan

East Rajasthan 1

Trips to India can vary widely depending on how much time you have available and how much off the beaten path you want to go. Most short visits include Delhi (the megacity capital, where most flights arrive, and a textbook example of the poverty and wealth that exist side by side across the country) and Agra (home to the Taj Mahal and a few other, less famous monuments). The third corner of the classic India-in-one-week triangle is the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, known for its camels, handicrafts, and colorful festivals. Finding your way in this expansive state can be difficult, be here are some pointers on what to see and what to pass on.

Jaipur is the easiest accessed of the Rajasthani cities via the traditional route. Known as the Pink City, it has a historic old city that is required by local law to be painted an odd shade of coral that dates back to the king’s decision to paint it that color in the 1800s. Jaipur has plentiful markets and some interesting architectural sites like the honeycombed Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the Jantar Mantar, an impressively accurate set of car and building-sized astronomy instruments. Nearby is the Amber Fort, a sprawlingly huge castle. While there is plenty of the local charm and color, you may find Jaipur overrun with tourists and those who make a living by taking advantage of them.

East Rajasthan 2For a much more laidback experience, hit up Pushkar. This much smaller town surrounds a small lake and is painted entirely in a pleasing pastel blue shade. Pushkar is a holy site and the destination for many religious pilgrimages, but also an important stop on the so-called Banana Pancake trail. Hippies are pilgrims too, in their own way. This ultra-chilled out place is a great spot to meet other travelers, eat Israeli food, drink bhang lassis (a canniboid extract legal in Rajasthan, surprisingly strong—be careful). A word of warning: don’t accept “free” flowers or assistance from anyone offering to help you do a puja (prayer) at the lakeside. You’re getting conned, and a large amount of money is going to be demanded.

East Rajasthan 3

Not far away is the town of Ajmer. Ajmer doesn’t have much going for it besides a massive Jain temple that is worth a stop as you transit to or from Pushkar. The Jain religion is similar to Buddhism in many ways, but predates it and generally has stricter rules relating to asceticism and purity. Their temples, however, are some of the most interesting in India. Ajmer’s is three stories tall, with a central hall that is filled floor to ceiling with a wood and gold models of religious figures and a fantasy city or heaven. There are elephants and angels and kings and mythological creatures and a whole paradise in miniature. The whole display is astoundingly large and intricate, and visitors can circle it on all three levels on walkways around the perimeter. There are even models hanging from the ceiling, of swans and flying boats. Jain’s definitely know how to build a temple.

This is only a few of the excellent places to visit around this colorful state. Rajasthan has a lot to offer—stay tuned for the second post in this series with more expert tips!