Indian Planes, Trains and Automobiles: A Tour Of Rajasthan and Gujarat

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I spend a fair amount of time visiting India and thought he would share my experiences of a 16-day family trip to Rajasthan and Gujarat, with his wife, Emma and their two children Josh, 9 and Ella 7 it was the children’s first visit. We visited several ancient cities and did four different safari trips. We travelled by train, plane, car and camel. Booking hotels, tours and trips was pretty straight forward and can be done online. There’s a huge amount to keep kids busy. Read about how we explored ancient desert forts, majastic lake palaces, saw wild lions in the and tracked tigers in the jungle then chilled on the island beaches of Diu. Josh and Ella reveal their favourites for each stop along the way. It was a great opportunity for us to meet the families of the people who work with us.

Arrived in Delhi two days before Christmas day, in the early hours and caught up on a few hours sleep in the Aero city, the hotel area just a few minutes from the airport. In the early afternoon we took a short flight to Jodhpur.

bst Jodhpur is best seen on foot. Ththis is the old paort of the city east of the fort.

Jodhpur – The Blue City

We landed in Jodhpur an old walled city, also known as the blue city, just on the edge of the Great Thar Desert. It’s famed for its beautiful old blue houses and the towering Meghreb fort, we only had a day in the city, we we would return in 3 days to stay longer (we wanted to get to Jaisalmer for Christmas day, but didn’t want to attempt the journey there in a day after 13 hours on a flight), so we headed for the fort where we spent half a day roaming the enormous palace and its elaborately decorated rooms viewing: mirrored reception rooms fearsome armour and weapons, courtyards and ramparts

giant ron cooking pots at the fort in Jodhpur
These have got tobe  some of the largest cooking pots in the world.

Top Tip: Don’t do what 99% of the visitors to the fort do and head back to the city the way you arrived. Instead stroll down behind the fort through the wonderful walled gardens to the bluest part of the old city several roads wind round to Sadar Market: exiting Fateh Pol follow Fateh Pol Rd, Ada Bazaar Rd, walk along Catla Chowk, Clock Tower Rd to the Clock Tower around which Sadar Market is laid out. The walk takes around 90-minutes and is pretty much downhill. Don’t rush it. Take in all the sights, sounds and smells as you pass through spice merchants, fruit and flower sellers, jewellery makers, cobblers and hardware peddlars. Stop for a bottle of ‘Fruit Beer’ as one of the many small shops, we weren’t too sure what it was. The glass bottles clear state: ‘No fruit content. No alcohol.’ But it tasted good.

 

Very exciting riding around Jodhpur in an auto rickshaw
Very exciting riding around Jodhpur in an auto rickshaw

A little hidden gem is Shri Mishrilal Hotel an unassuming small sweet shop, selling its famed Makhaniya lassi, delicious curd mixed with cardamom and saffron, topped with thick cream. It’s tucked away in the corner of one of the gates south of the clock tower. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the Clocktower.

We stayed at Devi Bhawan a small family run hotel on the outskirts of the city. the room are set around a beautiful garden – we paid £43/night for a huge room with three beds and a shaded terrace. The staff are exceptionally dedicated and friendly.

Pool at Devi Bhawan
Pool at Devi Bhawan

Josh and Ella’s favourite: riding in an auto-rickshaw, choosing the most menacing battle weapons in the palace’s armoury and swimming in the hotel’s pool.

 

Jaisalmer – Desert Adventure

Onto Jaisalmer another walled city famed for its hill-top sandstone fort. A taxi, from Jodhpur, will do the journey in 4.5 hours for around £45. But there are local buses that will take 5 hrs or the train rumbles into the city in 6 hours early at 6am and in the mid-afternoon. We stayed in the fort at Paradise Hotel for £30 a night, I have been staying here since my first trip to India in 1998. It’s run by Mr Chandra (aka Captain) whose camel once won ‘most beautiful camel’ in the annual Desert Festival. The rooms are beautifully painted in the local style. The best thing to do is to try to get yourself lost in the maze of narrow streets and alley ways at the top of the fort. You really won’t be lost for long as it’s quite small.

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When you think you’ve seen the views of the surrounding city from the ramparts stroll down to the lake and take a boat trip to see the lakeside temples. Josh and Ella’s highlight was feeding the catfish. We met Laxmi who makes our sari and cotton bags and visited the museum he curates. The Thar Desert Museum shows local traditional life and folklore around Jaisalmer through displays, photos and stories. It’s a small, but Laxmi has a real passion for the heritage for the people of the Thar desert. Scaramanga sources textiles, cotton and sari bags from Jaisalmer. Laxmi distributes cotton and sari to women in small communities around the city and they work from home to make the dust bags for our leather bags. There is a very good puppet show at the cultural centre just off the road between the fort and lake close to the lake every evening at 7pm

view from our room, whch was part of the fort wall
view from our room, whch was part of the fort wall

We spent our second day, Christmas Day, in Jaisalmer and it was excitingly different to spend it in the desert. Laxmi helped us organise an afternoon riding camels a short distance from the fort, ‘camel safaris’ or trips can be as long or as short as you want. Hotels can help organise them as can the many travel agents in town. We had Christmas day at Trio a fabulous open aired roof-top restaurant overlooking a havali and the fort.

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We had tea with the camel driver’s family in their traditional house. Then spent a couple of hours on camels roaming the sand dunes.

Josh and Ella’s favourite part: riding camels in the desert and jamming with the traditional band at Trio restaurant.

 

Jodhpur – the return

Bishnoi desert safari to see traditional rrural life and wildlife

We returned to Jodhpur Emma, Ella and Josh spent the day on a village safari visiting the Bishnoi, a traditional rural community just outside the city. They saw weaving, pottery and an opium drinking ceremony as well as deer and lots of birds. While Carl visited our regular suppliers to buy furniture and interiors. We booked the trip through Jaggi owner of Govind hotel ( http://www.govindhotel.com/ ). Josh and Ella joined in the vintage furniture buying after their trip.

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Udaipur – Lake Palaces and Melas

We moved onto Udaipur arguably one of the most romantic settings in India, the ancient white city is set around a series of shimmering lakes. City palace is a complex of 11 palaces, terraced gardens and temples perched high on a hill and needs a half a day to explore.

Chilling with a shadhu on the steps of Jagdish temple Udaipur, Rajasthan
Chilling with a shadhu on the steps of Jagdish temple Udaipur, Rajasthan

The Jagdish temple which is reached by a steep, elephant-flanked flight of steps, just 200m from the entrance to City palace and at the junction of several roads in the old city. Hitesh has been making our journals for 11 years and his store and workshop is just 20 second stroll from Jagdish Chowk. Everything can be done on foot. Like all bustling ancient cities, the best things to explore and see where you end up. My favourite area are the streets north of Gadiya Deeva Marg. Along the small winding streets are numerous jewellery makers workshops. If you have time stop and watch the jewellers making intricate pieces from gold, silver and precious stones. There’s a popular evening traditional dance show at the Bagore Ki haveli.

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Hitesh has been making  our handmade leather journals since we started in 2006. Josh and Ella we very excited at being able to take son, Chiki, to Shilpgram a model village with 20+ replica houses from across Rajasthan and Gujarat, where a mela (festival) was in full swing with hundreds and hundreds of performers from all over India. The highlight was watching the traditional dancers from Rajasthan.

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We stayed at the Jaiwana Haveli £50/night for a very large 3rd floor room with a huge terrace overlooking the lake (which the children were not allowed onto as it had a scarily low wall on both sides.   I have been staying here for 11 years and visit at least once a year. Owners Yash and Yogi are very welcoming hosts. Definitely one of the best lake views in the city, the rooms are immaculate and the service probably the best I’ve experienced in India.

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View of the City Palace from Jagmandir Island

 

Boats then continue onto Jagmandir Island, part of the royal palaces with imposing stone elephants, 17th-century towers and beautiful ornate gardens where you can stay for as long as you like before taking a boat back to the City Palace. The views of the city from the island at sunset are amazing. We left just before sunset, which depart just before sunset.

Josh and Ella’s highlights: The mela at Shilpgram and watching the classic bond film Octopussy, which was filmed in the city (many hotels and restaurants show it everynight).

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Sasan Gir – Lion Safari

We left Udaipur, early and headed to Sasan Gir, in Gujarat the home of Asia’s last remaining wild lions. It was a long road trip across the state border and across to western Gujarat. Being so far west and away from the main tourist centres means it does not get many western tourists and so people are surprised to hear there are still wild lions in India. The bumpy roads, dust and getting lost in several cities on the way were worth it when we entered the cool dense forests and jungle surrounding the national park.

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We woke just before dawn on New Year’s Day to start our safari with our driver and guide Manish. Although the lion population is growing their habitat is huge and safaris are strictly controlled to minimise their impact on the environment. Luckily, we were very lucky to see three lions drinking water from a pool mid-morning. The lions are in a very natural habitat that includes local villages with traditional buffalo and cow herders. Were told that lions have never killed any humans! Definitely at the top of our list of hidden India.

Three Asatic lions at Sasan Gir National Park

We stayed at United Vanvasco, for around £42 a night, in a jungle style cabin. It’s on the banks of the Hiran river just 10 minutes from the main town. We enjoyed a fabulous Indian New Year’s eve buffet.

Josh and Ella’s favourite: seeing the lions

Diu – Island getaway and deserted beaches

We left the lush jungle for 3 days of chilling on the sandy beaches of Diu just 2 hours from the lions. We were booked into Magico Do Mer ( http://www.magicodomar.com/ ) just yards from the beach. Just 10 traditional Gujarati style cottages nestle amongst the coconut palms and tropical trees. Diu, a tiny former Portuguese island colony, until 1971 is a real hidden gem due it its location on the east coast of Gujarat it tends to get missed as tourists travel between Mumbai and Rajasthan. It’s super chilled out. Fantastic deserted beaches, amazing colonial Portuguese architecture, freshly caught seafood and chilled Kingfisher beers. A perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of Rajasthan.

beaches of Diu - Magico Do Mer

 

Highlights of Diu include: the c16th Portuguese fort, part of which is strangely still a work prison! , wandering the old streets in Diu town amongst the faded pastel coloured colonial Portuguese buildings, fish curries and bottles of Kingfisher beer!

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The beaches are just amazing especially those of Ghoghola beach; which although part of the territory of Diu is on the mainland. Beautiful deserted sandy beaches stretch for miles and miles. The Christmas Mela (fair) was on and we spent every evening on the rides and eating Diu street food.

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Josh and Ella’s favourite: Eating fish and seafood curries and playing on the beaches. Try Apana on the Fort road. I first ate here 18 years ago and have been back several times. They also have rooms: http://www.apanahoteldiu.com/

Ranthambore  – Sleeper train to the tigers

After the beach we took our first sleeper from Mumbai to Sawai Madhopur, back in Rajasthan. A sleeper is a must if you have the time. It’s one of the best ways to really see India. We boarded in the evening, having booked our berths in 3AC class. We I tried you needed an Indian credit card and mobile number to register and book (we asked an Indian friend to book the tickets). We all had curry dinners brought to our carriage as part of the ticket price. Then settled down into our berths. 3AC meant three vertical berths on each side of a small screened section of a compartment. The AC refers to the carriage being heated in winter and cooled in the heat of summer. You also get blankets and bed linen. Tickets cost around £20 each for a 12-hour trip. Fellow Indian travellers are always keen to talk to you. It’s a great opportunity to talk to locals about India.

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Take an intercity sleeper train and watch India slip past from the comfort of your berth and chat to Indians about your experiences in India and their view of life. Book well in advance and ensure you have confirmed ticket. Bookings can be made online.

Sawai is the nearest village to Ranthambore National Park, a large wildlife reserve. It’s a former royal hunting ground and home to tigers, leopards and marsh crocodiles. Its landmarks include the imposing 10th-century Ranthambore Fort, on a hilltop, and the Ganesh Mandir temple.

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We had a trip booked for our 2nd day, so spent the 1st day exploring the hill Fort and the temple. Allow at least 3-4 hours. Both are in the park grounds and we saw lots of deer, crocodiles, monkeys and birds driving in and out. It’s a steep climb, but worth it. We were rewarded with fantastic views and lots of old temples. The next day we were up early and were picked up by our guide and driver in an open top jeep. After registering at the park gates we drove in and followed our designated route. Despite the expertise of our guide we didn’t see a tiger, but did hear a leopard very close by, saw several bears, crocs and deer again and so many birds. Josh and Ella were not too disappointed.

The cloest we got to seeing a tiger!
The cloest we got to seeing a tiger!

We stayed at the excellent Anuraga Palace Hotel (£70/ night), they managed the booking for the safari. We were given a large room for 4 as soon as we arrived at 6am. They serve a mighty breakfast which you’ll need if before of after the morning and mid-day safaris. They also serve an unexpected afternoon tea and biscuits around 4pm. Despite my best efforts it was too hard to book the safari myself. It seems that all the bookings are snapped up by the hotels, travel agents as soon as allocations are released. This meant we paid a hefty premium.

Josh and Ella’s favourite: sleeping on a train and seeing wild bears and crocodiles

Top Tip: if booking a tiger safari trip book through a reputable agent / hotel, check for reviews on Trip Adviser. Opt for an early morning trip as there’s a better chance of seeing tigers. If seeing a tiger is a must then book several trips over several days.

Delhi Delights

We rose early again the next day for our last trip into Delhi by train on the Hazrat Nizamuddin Jan Shatabdi Express, the super-fast intercity train service. Our last few hours were spent shopping in Delhi and seeing some of the sights of New Delhi.

If, like us, you have a very limited amount of shopping time in Delhi then here are three options:

  1. Pahar Ganj – the backpacker’s favourite haunt. Small shops line the main bazaar with dozens of small lanes lead off which are jammed packed with hundreds more even smaller shops. Definitely for the lower budget.
  2. Connaught Place aka CP, an old Victorian era circular parade of shops. These are pretty much all global and Indian branded fashion shops and restaurants. Nike, Apple, Polo Assn (a good store selling polo inspired clothes. CP has been given a new lease of life recently and is very popular with younger Indians, especially on a Sunday. Winter sales are on between December and February and prices are generally 50% lower than the UK.
  3. Khan Market – It’s very upmarket, with homewares stores like: Fab India, Anokhi, Vera Moda, Enfield Motorcycles and fashion stores too. It’s close to Sujan Singh Park, Delhi’s 1st apartment block. It has a fantastic array of restaurants and bars. Not to be confused with Khana Market (a huge market in Old Delhi).

Josh and Ella’s favourites: street food

Sari seller in a traditional Rajasthani market

Top 5 Hidden India

You don’t need to go off the beaten track to find hidden gems in India. Here are Carl’s

  1. Roaming the back-streets of Jodhpur as we walked back from the fort through the lower gates on the east side of the fort onto Danvir Shri Nathoji Marg, Fateh Pol Rd, Ada Bazaar Rd, then onto Clock Tower Rd.
  2. Who knew there were wild lions in India? (and always have been). Sasan Gir is the only place to see Asiatic lions in their natural habitat.
  3. Definitely off the tourist trail is a small former Portuguese colonial island of Diu. It has a quaint town centre and miles and miles of empty sandy beaches. It’s probably what Goa was like 30 years ago. A perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of other parts of India.
  4. Tucked just off the road that winds around the base of the fort in Jaisalmer is the Thar Heritage Museum near Gandhi Chowk, curated by Laxmi Khatri, who owns the Handicraft Emporium very close by. Laxmi is passionate about recording and documenting the groups in and around Jaisalmer and has been doing so for 30 years. Laxmi was one of our first suppliers and 11 years later is still making bags for us. He has a treasure trove of old and new local textiles, rugs and antiques from the surrounding area.
  5. Shri Mishrilal Hotel makers of the probably the best lassi in Rajasthan, if not all India! The lassi shop is tiny and easily missed. They do not seem to serve anything except its famed Makhaniya lassi. An essential rest stop from the desert heat. We visited after walking back from the fort.
  6. Visiting the Asiatic lions in Sasan Gir really was an experience of a lifetime. They cannot be seen anywhere else in Asia. Trips can be easily booked online.

Jodhpur also known as the blue city. Get lost in the winding streets and lanes below the fort

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