I've been keeping an eye on the temperatures back home ahead of my impending return to Britain, and I saw that yesterday it reached the dizzying heights of 14C in London - the hottest day for 5 months I suspect. If its that temperature when I land back at Heathrow Airport on March 28th (British Airways permitting) I will be mighty relieved, as here in Jaipur it has today reached 38C. I am boiling, and even with the fans on in this internet room I feel like I'm being baked alive! This is by far the hottest I have felt in India, and I am looking forward to returning home to a comfortable temperature. I don't think I've felt 14C since the evenings in New Zealand, and that was way back in November!
We arrived here yesterday following a brisk 2.5 hour bus journey from Ajmer, near where we were staying in Pushkar. As ever the bus had no air-conditioning, but in a first for our trip in India we drove along a modern motorway, so there was plenty of wind passing through the bus. It made such a change to be driving along a smooth and straight road, and we made very few stops. We were lucky enough to get seats as not everybody on board got one, much to one man's frustration. Indians seem to get very angry quite easily as soon as the step aboard a bus. On a previous journey we saw a man ejected from our bus for trying to attack the driver (whilst we were stopped) and yesterday there was an awful lot of shouting going on between the conductor and a passenger. Once we got going though it all died down. Motorways in most part's of the world are the safest roads to travel on, but the Indian motorway certainly didn't feel safe, with driver's repeatedly cutting each other up and horns being used aplenty. At some points along the road the traffic police had erected metal boards to act as chicances and slow driver's down, but these were futile with everyone attempting to take them at full speed and nearly crashing as a result. Near the end of our journey a Muslim man boarded the bus and started shouting across everyone. For ages I thought he was preaching, but it soon conspired that he was simply trying to sell some crappy coloured biro pens. Quite how he talked about some pens for over five minutes I don't know.
As we exited the bus we were greeted by a flurry of rickshaw drivers, who quickly surrounded us on seeing we were white. There were also loads of beggars about, most commonly young women with children. Jaipur is notorious for them. It was all a bit chaotic, but I've found Jaipur in general to be one of the craziest cities I've ever seen. This place makes La Paz seem orderly. Jaipur is Rajasthan's state capital and largest city, with a population of 2.63 million. You wouldn't know it today but its apparently one of the world's greatest feats of town planning, with the old walled city the first fully planned city in India. We are staying just outside the old city, but our guide took us for an interesting, if exhaustingly long orientation walk round it last night. Jaipur has the nickname "The Pink City" because all the buildings in the old city are painted pink (like the colour of a clay tennis court). This harks back to 1867 when the decision was made to colour the city for the visit of Prince Albert, and locals have kept the tradition up ever since.
Our walk took us first past one of the main Hindu temple's in the city - the monkey temple, where people go to worship the Monkey God. I find it incomprehensible that in the 21st century well over a billion people on this planet worship something called the monkey god, but each to their own! We then passed through the main bazaar, which was a hive of activity. As we walked along we were constantly trailed by a group of turban wearing beggars, who appeared to be getting donations from every shop on the street. Our guide informed us that these were holy beggars and most shops offer them something every night. None of the locals donate to the women and children begging, but any man who dons a turban and looks a bit holy stands to make a packet from them!
The highlight of our walk was when we came across a holy proccession. It was typically chaotic, with the streets not being sealed off, and the parade members seemingly not all walking at the same pace, but it was quite a spectacle. A couple of nights ago was the Hindu new year, and March is the month when there are most festivals in India. This particular one was celebrating the birthday of one of Hinduism's 33 million Gods. There were bands playing, people dancing, floats and even elephants. It was all very lively in true Indian style.
This morning we caught a local bus, along with about 30 milk churns, out to the Amber Fort, which is situated up in the hills 14km north of Jaipur. This was the former residence of the Jaipur Maharaja before he decided to relocate his palace to the flat plains of present day Jaipur, so that his city could better expand. It was a brilliant sight from afar, and inside there were some lovely features including a breathtaking gate, but each fort and palace makes less and less impression on me! Its a good job we've left the Taj Mahal till last! The Amber Fort was teaming with tourists (and with it sellers and beggars), many of whom arrived from the packed coach park on the back of maltreated elephants. Its the first time I've really come across coach tours in India and they really are a sordid sight. Most of them seem to be Americans or British, and I just wonder what a vastly different impression of India they'll leave with having been escorted everywhere in luxury, away from the Indian riff-raff. I much prefer to travel on the local busses purely for the experience. Jaipur is the third city of the so called "Golden Triangle", which comprises the historic cities of Delhi, Agra and here, so its no wonder its awash with tourists.
There were less tourists though at the second palace of the day we visited - the Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace, which is in the centre of Jaipur. It was constructed in the 1860s to allow the Maharaja's women and concubines to gaze out upon everyday city life - they weren't allowed to leave the palace most days of the week. The building has a brilliant facade, and offered excellent views across the Pink City. It was well worth a visit despite the fact I've seen so many Indian palaces now! With the heat unbearable, and the fact Jaipur centre is absolutely crazy busy, not one of us wanted to visit the modern city palace where the current Maharaja lives. There was also the opportunity to visit the Jantar Mantar observatory, but I already visited the one in Delhi and this one is basically the same. So instead all of us are back at the hotel escaping the heat (and hassle) for the afternoon.
This evening we are all going to the modern looking city cinema to view a Bollywood film called "My Name is Khan", so that should be an experience and something I'll no doubt write about in my next blog. If I've chance I may get that next blog online tomorrow, but if not it could be a few days off. We are off to Bharatpur tomorrow, which is home to a world famous bird sanctuary, but we're only spending one night there before we depart to Agra - home of the Taj Mahal, where no doubt I'll have a busy couple of days.