India by Rails, Part 1: Mumbai and Rajasthan

Rebecca and I spent 4 months in Thailand. Neither of us realized how much the country spoiled us.

Alongside its post-card perfect beaches, Thailand has clean and comfortable cities with all the stuff that a Westerner could want. That makes it quite different from India.

In my first post about India, I mentioned that my travelling friends all warned me beforehand how intense moving through India can be. That trip turned out to be absurdly comfortable, so I came away thinking that my travelling friends were full of crap. After all, I had seen Jiuzhaigou during a major Chinese holiday. I was ready for anything.

Oh how I’m blushing now.

After five weeks of touring India, I now wholeheartedly agree with the people who warned me.  I had more confused, exhausted, and unhealthy moments in India than I’ve had anywhere else.

That’s not to say I had a bad time. India deserves its place among the top tourist destinations on Earth. But it is not for amateurs.

Our very train-centric journey (frantically planned about a week in advance from a hostel in Penang) took us on a circuit starting in Mumbai and winding around north India’s tourist highlights. After all that, we capped off the trip with a nice long stay in Goa, a favorite from two years ago.

This post will cover the first two legs of that trip – The Maximum City, and the northern desert state of Rajasthan.

MUMBAI

We had a smooth Malindo Airlines flight from Bangkok to Mumbai. It dropped us down late at night, and we struggled a little to find a non-scammy taxi to our hotel.

For the first time we saw what might be my favorite thing about travelling here – the Public Court of Opinion on every street.

If you ever find yourself getting swindled in India, draw attention to yourself. People here seem to take a lot of pleasure in calling out cheats, and you’ll get to watch them shout down the guy who’s ripping you off.

In this case, our taxi-driver tried to rip us off to the tune of 10x what our cabfare should cost. An airport employee intervened out of the blue, chastising the con-artist and pointing us to the cheap prepaid taxis.

After that little headache we found Anjali Homestay, and despaired. A worker showed us to our room, and it was easily the worst room of any kind I’ve ever stayed in anywhere.

Our “private triple” was two thin mattresses on a cement floor, and one flopped on a countertop, with one end of it dangling into a sink. I opened a drawer and found a pile of used Q-tips. Worst of all, someone had recently painted the walls, so we spent the night breathing in fumes.

Satisfied customer!
Satisfied customer!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pretty comfortable bed if you don’t turn on its faucet.

Not a promising start. But it was 2AM, so we just had to suck it up.

The next morning we checked out at 7 and rushed to our next hotel, Hotel KumKum. The room was basic, but after Anjali we rejoiced to have it.

We spent a few days in Mumbai, exploring our immediate surroundings and getting ourselves prepped for the rest of our journey. We didn’t see many sites, except for the Gateway to India:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And of course we took in a Bollywood movie. We saw Action Jackson, and loved it. No need to understand Hindi at all.

actionjackson

 

Although I guess it’s one of Bollywood’s worst-reviewed movies of 2014.

Most of our time we spent at Vegland, an unbelievably good restaurant near our hotel that offered our South Indian favorites like dosa, vada, idly, and sambhar.

We did all of this under a cloud of suspense and anxiety, however, because of India’s system for distributing train tickets. Our whole itinerary hinged on us catching a train from Mumbai to Jaipur, but even on the day of departure we were still on India Railway’s “waiting list”. Up until 3 hours before we had to catch the train, in fact, we didn’t know if we could get on board.

But it came through! And we caught our train from Bombay Central Station to Jaipur Junction.

The ride went smoothly, but we did have a hilariously dishonest attendant waiting on us. We ordered some food from him, and when we paid for it he blatantly pocketed our change. Then, at the end of the trip, he asked us for a tip. We handed him a 100 rupee note (which an Indian friend told me is way too much), and he took that too. Then he smiled and said, “Okay, one more,” and hovered in the doorway. We said no. He smiled again, “Okay, okay. One more.” It was a long stand-off but we didn’t budge.

Oh well. Credit to the guy for trying. I’m sure it works often enough.

JAIPUR

Called “The Pink City” because of the faded sandstone masonry on its buildings, Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, and it had a lot of cool historical stuff on offer.

From our hotel we hired a guy to drive us around. He took us to see the Amber Fort, which was stunning. Muslim / Indian architecture set into the desert landscape:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Complete with gorgeous gardens:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ornate gateways:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And ceilings inlaid with blue glass:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Easily up there among the coolest sites I’ve ever visited.

From there we saw Royal Gatore, a subdued garden full of marble pagodas:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And after that the Water Palace, which nobody is allowed to set foot in:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then we ate and rested.

The next day we got out the door early-ish to check out the Hawa Mahal, an old palace with cool stained-glass windows:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then Jantar Mantar, a compound of gigantic, old astronomical instruments.

Think giant calendars:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Whatever this thing is  (I think it tracks constellations):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Other calendars designed to follow the 12 constellations of the Zodiac…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

… some having hilarious illustrations:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the centerpiece, an enormous sundial accurate within 2 seconds of the real time:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was here I got mobbed by some private-school boys out on a field trip:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bravest kid in the middle asked where I was from. “Nebraska,” I said. “You heard of it?”

He smirked. “Yeah, my dad works there, I go twice a year”

“Bullshit!” I said, and we all laughed.

After that we went to check out the old royal palace, seat of all of Rajasthan’s rajas. The centerpiece of it, the resplendent royal audience hall, did not allow any photos.

Having seen all that (with still many unseen things city), we went back to the hotel, and the next day got our train out to Jaisalmer.

JAISALMER

Jaisalmer is the “Gold City” to Jaipur’s Pink. It’s a small town in the extreme northeast, approaching the border with Pakistan.

The town centers around a massive historic fort. But unlike most forts in India, they call this one a “living fort”, meaning people still live and work there.

We stayed at Hotel Shreenath Palace, a bona fide 500 year-old building, owned by a delightful teacher named Omji. As you can see, it was definitely palatial:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For two days we window-shopped, took long walks, soaked in the city. Nice and pleasant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At 1 AM on our last night, we caught an outbound train to Agra.

We slept alright, except for an oncoming passenger who woke us up a couple times by turning on the cabin lights.

I also got to talking with our bunkmate, a telecommunications engineer who had just finished up a job near Pakistan. He had lots of little trivia about Indian companies and India travel – only later I found out that almost none of it was true. But whaddya gonna do?

I’ll cover the second half of our trip in the next post.