Kaleidoscopic Rajasthan

April 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia, Culture

Beyond India’s popular Golden Triangle lies a calm desert terrain and a fairy-tale setting. Nellie Huang uncovers a mosaic of colors in the offbeat region of Rajasthan. Text by Nellie Huang (WildJunket).

With mystique and elegance, Rajasthan has the air of a dreamy Indian princess. It captivates with the old-world appeal of its ancient cities and the energy and fervor of its chaotic streets. There are few places quite as evocative as Rajasthan, the extensive region of Northwestern India bounded by the mystical Great Indian Desert on one end and the Aravalli mountain range on the other.

Legacies from the region’s prosperous past can be seen from its extravagant palaces, forts and temples – most of which are the country’s richest collections of architectural marvels. Backdropped by shimmering lake waters, giant sand dunes and the iridescent blue sky, the region’s natural beauty is unparalleled.

What makes Rajasthan such a compelling travel destination is its sense of authenticity: women adorn rainbow-colored saris and heavy silver anklets; while local men with swaggering moustaches and bulky orange and red turbans are seen carrying milk buckets on their heads. For many, Rajasthan epitomizes India
at its most exotic.

Pink Capital – Jaipur

Our journey begins in Jaipur, the chaotic capital of Rajasthan and the most visited city in the state. Rattling out of Delhi on a dusty sleeper train, my partner and I arrive in Jaipur at the wee hours of the morning in time to witness the city in a state of slumber. A moment like this is rare in Jaipur where chaos and mayhem are just part of their lifestyle.

As the third apex of India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ alongside Delhi and Agra, Jaipur has long been established on tourist itineraries. For first arrivals, Jaipur makes an excellent introduction to the region. As the first planned city in India and the capital of the royalty, it is home to the country’s most extravagant royal monuments. Although there are not many signs of prosperity on the streets of Jaipur these days, the ancient edifices remind us of its glorious past.

Amidst the raucous traffic, we hail a tuktuk – these three-wheelers are cheap, ubiquitous and supply a mild, pleasurable level of risk. Watching Jaipur swirl by, I soak in an inebriating mix of sounds, smells and sights. Deafening honks pierce through my ears and screeching halts send shudders through my body. My intrepid partner asks if he can try driving the tuktuk – resulting in a roar of laughter from our driver. Before handing over the ride, he says, “There are three things you need when you’re driving in India. Good brakes, good horn and…” he pauses for effect, “good luck!”

We weave our way into the old walled quarter of Pink City – a name given for good reason: its regal palaces, buildings and forts are splashed in pastel rose color, embellished with elaborate carvings. In the heart of it stands the emblematic City Palace, built by Jaipur’s first ruler, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, and served as a royal residence, even to this day. The labyrinth of courtyards, royal gardens and peacock-carved gates give a glimpse into the past. Rising from the center of the palace grounds is the Diwan-I-Khas, a marble floored chamber that houses the world’s largest sterling silver vessels.

Other sites worth visiting include the largest and best-preserved observatory, Jantar Mantar – a World Heritage Site packed full of insightful astronomical discoveries; and the nearby Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Wind. Its unique five-storey exterior is also akin to the honeycomb of the beehive with its 953 windows decorated with intricate latticework.

History aside, Jaipur is best known for having the best handicraft and textiles in India on offer. Whether you’re on the hunt for tie-dye, silk, rugs or jewelry, the jumble of bazaars scattered throughout the old walled city will not disappoint. Tripolia Bazaar is the best market to buy shimmering lac bangles, but its myriad of carpets, bags and handicraft might prove equally tempting.

Desert Charm – Jaisalmer

For the first-time visitor, Rajasthan’s human masses and hectic traffic can be overwhelming, especially so in the tourist-trodden trails around Jaipur. But once you escape beyond – into the remote areas of Rajasthan, it’s easy to appreciate its allure.

We head west towards the India-Pakistan border in search for a real taste of Rajasthan. Etched on the rim of the burnished Thar Desert is the far-flung town of Jaisalmer. From the distance, it looks like the middle of nowhere; but as I soon discover, Jaisalmer is vigorously alive. Ten paces inside the old city walls and I’m already falling for its understated charisma.

Most cities in Rajasthan are defined by colors; Jaisalmer is no exception – earning its title as the Golden City. It’s easy to see why: in the heart of town, a towering honey-colored fort rises from the baked desert sand, like a shimmering mirage. This is the world’s oldest inhabited fort, made up of a mishmash of havelis (Rajasthan-style mansions), temples and an impressive ancient castle. The Jaisalmer castle, with its 99 beautiful bastions, is built almost entirely from yellow sandstone and seems to shine from within when bathing in the afternoon sun.

A local tells me the best way to see the old town of Jaisalmer is on foot. We meander through lanes lined with antique shops and jewelry stores, constantly fending off gentle persuasions from merchants, “Madam, come and take a look at my store!” We barter for beaded necklaces and silver bracelets before sipping chai on a rooftop cafe. In Jaisalmer, our pace slows down to a languid rhythm as we soak in the city’s undercurrent.

On the outskirts of town, the golden brown Thar Desert beckons. We embark on an overnight camel safari to experience living with a nomadic tribe. Hopping onto a jeep, we first travel to the Bada Bagh, a series of honeycombed royal cenotaphs, and visit the Amar Sagar temple complex before meeting our guide Mohammed. He resembles an Arabic Bedouin – a scarf wrapped around his head, a full-body tunic draped over his shoulders and a weathered, tanned look to accompany it.

We ride our camels past a distant oasis, over rippling sand dunes to a thatched hut in the middle of the dessert. “Welcome to my house!” Mohammed says. The evening is spent hanging out with Mohammed’s children and observing his wife cook. After a delicious meal of rice, dal, potato chutney and rotis cooked on an open fire, we roll out our sleeping mats and watch the sky dance before us.
Considered inaccessible by most travelers only a few decades ago, tourism had come knocking on Jaisalmer’s doors only in recent years. While most visitors make it to the capital city of Jaipur, only the hardy traveler ventures as far as Jaisalmer—which is why it has retained its charm.

Lakeside Romance – Udaipur

Our journey culminates at the impossibly romantic lakeside town of Udaipur – affectionately known as the Paris of the East. Blending in with its rustic, dreamy charms, Udaipur’s haphazard undercurrents and occasional buzz give it added character.

Udaipur is a confection of white havelis and pale yellow palaces studded with turrets, cupolas and latticed balconies overlooking Lake Picchola and backdropped by the Aravalli Mountains. From afar, the whimsical buildings seemingly float on the lake, casting its shadows on the water surface.

In the midst of the lake rises the Taj Lake Palace, one of the top heritage hotels in Udaipur. Many hotels in Udaipur have been converted from old palaces and mansions, refurbished to give a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern-day luxury. The hotel spreads across a four-acre island – an almost surreal vision in white marble. It can only be reached by boat and entry is for hotel guests only.

Like other cities in Rajasthan, Udaipur’s old town is centered on its flamboyant City Palace. In contrast to other palaces in the region, this one has the grandest gates, biggest courtyards and plushest furnishings. Mural paintings and carvings are washed in bright blue and red, while arch-shaped windows wedged with stained glass project rainbow colors.

Tucked within the maze-like old town is the Jagdish Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. As the largest temple in the city, the three-storied temple is made up of beautifully carved pillars, decorated ceilings and painted walls. The spire of the main temple is around 79 feet high, dominating the skyline of Udaipur. At the foothills of the temple, we witness devout pilgrims sending their offerings in the form of bright pink jasmine flowers to Lord Vishnu.

It serves as a reminder that Rajasthan is a world in its own – religiously faithful, naturally raw and most of all, culturally rich. Amidst the towns and cities is a place full of character, pride and beauty, as anyone who roams the streets of Rajasthan will know. One day, Rajasthan’s secluded towns might be transformed into busy tourist hubs, and the tinge of authenticity will be gone. My own dream is that Rajasthan – India’s Kaleidoscopic Nation – stays still in time, and that the future waits just a bit longer to arrive.

If you are planning a visit to Asia, don’t forget to check out Unearthing Asia, the best Asia travel portal focusing on Lifestyle, Culture and Attractions all over Asia. We have got some of the best travel ideas and inspirations in the region of Asia, such as this list of must-try Malaysian foods.

About the Author. Nellie Huang is an atypical Asian who surprises herself with a crazy passion for travelling – from dipping in the Caribbean sea to venturing on Wildlife safaris in Africa. With an insatiable thirst for changes, she loves Life with a vengance and is always ready to take the plunge. Check out her site at WildJunket, the birthchild of all her adventures (and misadventures) around the world.

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Six Romantic Asian Backdrops

January 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Attractions, General Fun, Nature

There’s no doubt that Asian is the land of inspiration and romance. It has often been the place for honeymoons, destination weddings, one night stands and I don’t know specifically but I bet a handful of marriage proposals too! But where to go to find that spark that will make your heart skip a beat? Here are six great backdrops – but no matter where you go, be sure to head off the beaten path, walk a little further, and see if you can find that perfect spot to lose everyone else and maybe find yourself.

Photo credit - farbfilm

Photo credit - farbfilm

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I know what you’re thinking – how cliché. But try taking a sunset cruise along Halong Bay – it is one of those experiences that is hard to forget. The bay is one of Vietnam’s crowded UNESCO World Heritage sites, so why not book the junk boat that actually spends the night in the bay and get away from it all? The junk boat to Cat Ba Island is also nice and a little less overpopulated. You can get by in Halong Bay on the cheap, but don’t – spend that little bit extra and you’ll get a lot more for your money, particularly when it comes to excursions and anything out on the water.

Photo credit - nurpax

Photo credit - nurpax

Jeju Island, South Korea

One of the stops in this island will definitely make your heart skip a beat – and give you a good giggle in the process. Some things are “oh gads, only in Asia” and Jeju Loveland is one of them. It’s a theme park dedicated to sex. From the phallus gardens to the interactive exhibits (link is NSFW!), you and your lover will see in 3D every sexual position possible. Skip the kama sutra and see this stuff in action! Other than that, Jeju Island is a popular honeymoon spot for Koreans, so once you’ve had your laughs get out and explore the island’s other natural attractions. Hike towards the top of Sunrise Peak for a mesmerizing sunset, or head towards one of the many beautiful waterfalls adorning the island.

Photo credit - tboothhk

Photo credit - tboothhk

Stanley, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is great, but the hustle and bustle (not to mention the pollution) aren’t exactly romantic bliss. I prefer to cross the island and head to Stanley, a very quaint little fishing village. Spend a few hours exploring the markets, then sit and watch the sunset. It’s dreamy. Stanley has some excellent restaurants, including a few fabulous dim sum shops, so come hungry. There are some walking trails in the area and other little towns to explore, so you don’t have to spend your time confined in Stanley itself.

Photo credit - Dave B

Photo credit - Dave B

Siem Reap, Cambodia

So Siem Reap is no tourism secret – in fact, it’s so popular it is sinking back into the ground. Not cool. But hire an air conditioned van (or a tuk-tuk, if you prefer the wind in your hair and can stomach the bumpy roads) and go off exploring into the countryside. The Angkor Wat complex is absolutely massive and few tourists manage to get very far off the beaten path. It’s a shame because some of the temples are just as amazing and a sight less busy. Check out Banteay Srei, one of the more popular ones but still more quiet. The carvings in the stone are so intricate, you won’t believe it is stone. Inspiring.

Photo credit - ManojVasanth

Photo credit - ManojVasanth

Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

The state of Rajasthan in India is the country’s largest and has many unique sights to visit for romantic inspiration. From the Great Indian Desert to the hundreds of massive palaces and temples, you could spend weeks finding yourself in Rajasthan. I suggest a few special days in Jaipur, the state capital. It’s known as the pink city, and is one of India’s first planned cities. Because of this, I think, the views are just endless, from the Albert Hall Museum to the Jal Mahal or the Amber Fort. You’ll be blown away by the color and never look at the world the same. You don’t have to build your lover a temple, but you can take them to one.

Eastern and Oriental Express, Southeast Asia

Just saying the worlds orient express conjures up visions of sensual seduction while you glide across the rails. The reality is that while this is one of very few ultra-deluxe trains, there are more than one. But the Asian version is called the Eastern and Oriental Express and it has a number of routes between the cities of Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, and Chiang Mai. What better way to spend a romantic retreat than by tucking away into the luxury of this iconic train between visits to any of these classic Asian destinations?

About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.