Wednesday, 30 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Jewels of Jaipur

After fueling with an early breakfast of porridge with banana and a chai, slapping on copious amounts of sunblock and my trusty travel hat then loading up with water, the sights of Jaipur were waiting to be explored.

I think India has chai (tea) in its arteries and veins. Here chai is never called "chai tea", which basically means "tea tea", and so you will often see it listed as/ask for in English "Masala tea". It's fragrant, incredibly delicious and likely addictive (I'm starting to lose count of how much I've drank). If you want "typical" tea simply ask for "tray tea" or "English tea" although places with a menu usually make the distinction for you. The exquisite taste and insanely cheap cost will certainly make you lament why you pay what you do for so-called chai lattes back home.

I stopped by Jaipur's distinctive landmark Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) on my way to Amber Fort. Rising 5 storeys and looking a lot like honeycomb, this pink Palace was constructed by a Maharaja for the females of the royal household to watch the "buzz" and bustle of city life. Interestingly it's actually only 1 room deep. Whilst I didn't go inside, you can make your way to the top for the views and there's also a museum.

Amber was the former capital of the state and the formidable landmark of Amber (Amer) Fort, that most people "know" Jaipur for, is actually on the outskirts of Jaipur on the hillside. Built from pale yellow & pink sandstone and white marble, this ginormous magnificent fort is divided into 4 main sections, each with a courtyard. I spent over 2 hours here downing 2L of water, getting some bloody fantastic Nat Geo-esque photos (in my mind anyway) and still didn't see it all!

You have several options are getting up to the fort from the road if you don't want to trudge up there by foot but want to make a quick getaway from the snake charmers who are looking to make a quick few rupees by allowing you to pose with them and their cobras. To be honest, one of the ones I saw couldn't have looked any less interested and seemed to go to sleep. If snakes had ears I'd have placed bets on it wearing ear plugs. Now I love snakes but aren't these snakes also venomous??? Apparently not because, as I found out afterwards, they've had their fangs removed which didn't sit too well with me. Return jeep rides are cheap but of course most people opt for riding up on an elephant. I envisioned myself on the back of one being unable to say anything other than "by Jove!" like a British toff minus a Manificent-Men-in-their-Flying-Machines style handlebar moustache. I also forgot to pack my pith helmet. Damn! Jeep sufficed. I did however find out that each elephant only makes 5 journeys up to the fort, always returns empty and then is rested for the remainder of the day.

Depending on your ride up to the fort you enter Jaleb Chowk (the main courtyard) through one of two gates, Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) via elephant or Chand Pol (Moon Gate) from the jeep car park. You are about to bear witness to some stunning architecture so have your camera(s) ready. Highlights included: the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) with the tops of the columns carved in the shape of elephant heads and the Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) with a beautiful multi-mirrored ceiling. Of course the views from the fort aren't too bad either and you might also see some pesky monkeys running around.

An attempted autorickshaw ride to the observatory, Jantar Mantar, ended up with some miscommunication somewhere along the way and being taken to the City Palace. Whilst it looked impressive, it wasn't where I wanted to be and so after some pretty hard haggling with a different driver, once I remembered that actual name of the observatory, off we set. It was actually just around the corner although he claimed it was "5km". Yeah right, I don't run long distance for nothing pal. If, like me, you're a bit of a Science nerd or you have an interest in astronomy, cosmology and even astrology then Jantar Mantar is a must see. This remarkable observatory, constructed in 1728 by Jai Singh, includes instruments to forecast the weather and eclipses, measure the zodiac star clusters and the intensity of the coming monsoon. Upon first entering you could be forgiven for thinking it was merely a collection of bizarre sculptures. Singh built 5 observatories in total and this is the largest and best preserved. Others are located in Delhi, Ujjain and Varanasi but there is no trace of the 5th. The most striking instrument in the grounds is the massive sundial with a staircase running to the top. Known as Brihat Samrat Yantra it is still used by astrologers.

I increased my liquid intake in the form of the lemony soft drink Limca and buying two more bottles of water it was time to get out of the searing heat and the hustle & bustle of Jaipur. After a quick bite to eat of a mint leaf stuffed chapati, I was in the back of a car with free transport to the Kerala Ayurveda Kendra for an Ayurvedic massage and hot herb treatment. In total, after tip, it cost me less than $30 and it was just what I needed. Be prepared to remove all your clothing however and have either a male (for males) or female (for females) therapist take a piece of gauzy material and make you a pseudo loin cloth-thong. I kid you not. It is the only thing you will have covering yourself during your treatment and it is undone and then removed for glute treatment/post treatment removal of excess oil. You start face up and the therapist works their magic with lovely aromatic heated oil which is poured onto you (or at least in the basic full body treatment I had, it's the sirodhara that is where the oil is streamed onto your forehead). It is very professional and a full body treatment is exactly just that (except for the groin area obviously). Feel fee to tell your therapist if there's a particular area you want focus on, pressure (they will all check in periodically) or if you are not comfortable with certain areas of the body being treated. Not everyone is comfortable being so exposed. After a 50 minute or so massage I was then pounded with this small heated sack full of herbs. Sounds somewhat barbaric but it was amazing. I left there feeling like a million dollars and well anyone who is willing to treat my dreadful runner's feet deserves a tip! The oils they use also made my hair feel and look amazing, even after a shower. Make sure you shower too, you'll fry in the sun with all that oil on your skin.....

Despite feeling incredibly relaxed and that I could nap, I decided that I should join the masses and go see a Bollywood movie at the Raj Mandir theatre. It is apparently the place to see a Bollywood movie in India. What an absolute blast. They sold popcorn and even had an intermission. Did I understand any of it? Well certainly not the Hindi being spoken (although they would occasionally throw in English words and sentences) but it wasn't hard to get the jist of what was going on. Boy from one background meets girl from another background. They fall in love. Her parents are against it. He wins them over. He has some weird relationship with his dad,who seems to be angry all the time about something. But thankfully everything works out in the end after a bunch of sexual innuendo and lots of dancing and singing. Inexplicably the men also grab their crotches Michael Jackson style... A lot. What actually surprised me about the movie "Two States" was they actually showed the young couple in bed together more than once and she was often wearing skimpy clothing and/or very Western fashion. People in the audience clapped and cheered at certain parts and you couldn't help but get wrapped up in it all. It was a spectacle like no other. I loved it! Tickets were only 150 rupees and popcorn was 50 rupees. Bargain!

Still, I have a sneaky suspicion that Bollywood won't feature in any Western movie any time soon. Shame. 

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