Early in the morning we were picked up by our driver for the next 8 days – Prakesh. The first leg of our exploration took in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, capital city of Rajasthan. First though, was the small matter of a 3.5 hour drive. This was by far the longest we’ve been in a car for some months, and God is it a miserable way to travel distance, especially in India. The aircon was cranked up, but the Sun beats down on you and you emerge slightly sweaty and dazed from any journey. Our first leg was relatively smooth on a virtually deserted dual carriageway connecting Delhi with Agra. Prakesh informed us that you couldn’t go above 80kmph on it or you were likely to suffer burst tyres. Fun.
Anyway, once we had arrived at our Agra hotel, showered and lunched we headed to the Taj Mahal, one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’. Despite the crowds and our slightly obsequious guide, this is a wonder that lives up to it’s name. Genuinely beautiful and moving, my only regret is that we weren’t able to visit at sunset. One of the impressive things about the Taj is the lengths to which the local government have gone to preserve it. Motor vehicles (with very few exceptions) aren’t allowed within 1km of it and noxious industry has been severely curtailed within 50km. While I wonder the overall effect on the local economy, there is no doubt that this makes for a more peaceful and cleaner environment, particularly notable when compared to Delhi.
Agra fort was gridlocked with traffic, so we took a pass and headed to our hotel. The next morning we were heading for Japiur, via Fatehpur Sikri. Apparently this possesses the largest gate in the world. Either way, it’s an attractive sandstone fort on a hillside, with a mosque and a tomb built in. We said goodbye to our local guide and headed back to the car for the drive to Japiur.
Jaipur is known as the ‘Pink City’, a naming trend that we found repeated throughout Rajasthan. In the old town all the buildings are painted a uniform pink – although in reality this is a more russet/brown colour. After a stop by the Palace of the Winds in the Old City, we headed out to Amber Fort just outside the city.
Slowly, but surely, we were both getting a bit more comfortable with India. The noise and the heat, while intense, were no longer oppressive. The hawkers remained an irritation, but were easily dismissed (apart from the snake charmers who still freaked me out). An elephant ride up to the main fort entrance was utterly ridiculous. We had a racing elephant, who was keen to demonstrate his aggressive overtaking skills, despite our assurance that we were impressed. The fort itself is spectacular and was everything the Red Fort was not, well maintained and informative.
After this, we headed to the Japiur city astronomical observatory, or Jantar Mantar as locals call it (and our new guide reminded us at least 5 times). This could be confused for an avant-garde sculpture garden, but contained huge instruments for the measurement of the movements of the Sun and Stars – including the world’s largest sundial.