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Taj Mahal
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Road scene, just try to imagine the accompanying noises and smells
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Camels at the brick works
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Silk printing shop in Jaipur
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Ness in the middle of Jaipur's busy town centre
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Jaipur town centre
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Rajasthani singers and musicians

After an early breakfast we meet our driver, Babu Lal, and our guide, “Raji”, and drive towards the Taj Mahal. We have to park some way off and take a little battery-generated car up to the entrance. There aren’t many people at all. A few postcard sellers and a few Indian tourists. Good we came so early.

Inside we first go through a large courtyard with gardens, surrounded by wells and pavilions in red sandstone. We approach the Taj Mahal through a red sandstone gate topped by twenty-two mini turrets, one for each year it took to construct the Taj Mahal. The morning is very hazy, which adds a bit to the atmosphere. We walk up to the Taj Mahal itself through the gardens, with some great views. Inside we see the two tombs (the actual tombs are on the floor below) and then wander around it and gradually back to the car.

The majority of the small group of visitors are Indian, with a few westerners and group of Tibetan monks. For such a renowned monument it leaves me rather indifferent. We head back to the hotel and settle up with our guide, having ensured that he didn’t take us to any more “factories”, i.e. gift shops!

Then it’s time to head for Jaipur. On the way out of Agra we manage to find the small statue of Gandhi by a cross-roads, for a picture. We tell Mr. Lal not to go via Fatehpur Sikri. It would have simply been another fort, and a longer journey. Instead we want to have some more time to spend in Jaipur.

It’s about 200kms, 4½ hours, to Jaipur. The long drive takes us past an incredible variety of Indian roadside life and even only a few hours later it is impossible to remember it in sequence.

In the towns we passed row upon row of little workshops – bicycle tyres, scooter repairs, metal bashers, etc. Fruit, veg and spice merchants, either a little shop with a variety of goods or simply a hand-drawn cart with the seller squatting on top, sat between his wares. I remember seeing two little kids screaming and laughing as they were rolling around on a filthy heap of garbage. In the towns the traffic is intense and chaotic, lots of tooting and bikes, scooters, bicycle rickshaws and motorised ones, and cars, knackered trucks and school buses all competing for road space. Quite how they manage not to drive into each other is a mystery. There are shops selling sweets in strings of plastic sachets and many small shops and stands where some cooking is done, no idea exactly what. And emaciated cows wander and sit everywhere, sometimes in the middle of the road. There are piles of scrap, rubbish, tyres, bricks, big brown mud patties (for building I think) scattered here and there. In each town the centre always has a busy bustling market with stalls and carts selling all kinds of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Lots of oversized purple and white radishes, chillies, oranges, apples, bananas, garlands of yellow mustard flowers, sacks of spices, etc. It’s a confusing mixture of smells too. Exhaust fumes and oil, mixed with smells of animals and dung, cooking fires and spices, with exhaust fumes holding the upper hand. The people are a rich mixture too. Poor labourers and lots of people who seem to sit around, alone or in groups, seemingly without any purpose. Early during the day I could see people sat around outside their shops intently reading the newspaper, often several people reading together. A mixture of traditional Indian dress and more western clothes. The most common garb consists of trousers, shirt and tank-tops for men, and colourful sarees for women. Not many women in the towns though, they seemed to be more in the fields and walking along the roads well outside the towns.

The road from Agra passes Fatehpur Sikri in the distance. We can see the fort in the hazy distance. The fortress wall is close to the road. Outside the towns the road is tree-lined, with fields on either side. We pass large swathes of mustard fields. Here and there small groups of women are working in the fields. Between Agra and Fatehpur Sikri a succession of boys with dancing bears, spread out at intervals of a few minutes, try to catch our attention. They force the bears to stand as the car approaches but we whiz past them. There are many small “restaurants” by the roadside where a few Indians lounge around on seats which look like a bed-frame. They either sit or lie on them. The traffic, outside the towns, consists of trucks and buses, and a variety of vehicles such as motorised rickshaws with exposed engines, rickshaws carrying up to 12-15 people, in a car which would barely fit the two of us, camel-drawn carts, etc. We pass several broken down trucks, the most common cause being either over-turned or a broken axle. Quite a few trucks we see are sagging perilously, a miracle they’re moving at all. Some trucks and carts are laden with gigantic loads of straw, wood, whatever, held together with huge white canvases.

We trundle along. Well, we’re actually one of the fastest vehicles, doing around 70-80km/h, only overtaken by modern landcruisers which seem to fly by. The landscape rolls by and we pass small towns from time to time. We settle into a pleasant monotony, just watching India as it passes by all around us. I try to take a few pictures from the car and once or twice ask Mr. Lal to stop, e.g. at the state border with Rajasthan.

We both nod off for short spells. Gradually the landscape gets drier and there appear some low hills on either side. At around noon we stop for a drink and a snack. The place has the usual gift shop and we ignore it and simply have two teas and two samosas and buy a packet of pistachio nuts. While waiting for Lal to finish his lunch with some other drivers, the “doorman” gives us a sob story trying to beg some money. I give him Rs.10 for opening the car doors.

We get to Jaipur at around 2.30pm. Lal has suggested a visit to the cotton and silk printing factory where his “brother” works. We were expecting another hard sell but at least this time it is pleasant and preceded by a demonstration. Lengths of cloth are printed with wooden blocks with colour made from various substances (onions for grey). Then it’s into the shop for the tourist treatment. We had already made our minds up to buy something here and after a selection of “bed spreads” is shown to us we pick a dark mauve/maroon one. But that wasn’t enough and we’re then invited to try on “Maharajah” outfits. The whole thing is comical, especially the trouble my chap goes through to squeeze me into an outfit which is clearly too small. Ness has better luck with the saree and looks the part, including a spot on her forehead. But we resist buying anything else. Pashminas, shawls, shirts, everything is tried on us but eventually they get the idea. Before we leave I take a few pictures of the whole group and promise to send them copies (see card).

Then it’s on to our hotel. Jaipur lies on a hill, which we climbed as we entered the town. There are ruined mughal buildings on the outskirts. We then pass through the slums and shanties and see real utter abject poverty, of the kind usually only seen on news reports and aid appeals. On one side of the road is a muslim area, which looks poor but at least resembles a town or market of some sort. On the other side of the road are long rows of makeshift tents, as primitive as anything, and stretches of very poor housing lie behind them. The people squatting on the ground look totally destitute and extremely dirty. There is nothing here. No shops, no stalls, just people squatting, here and there a cooking fire. Total squalor.

We drive through the centre of town towards our hotel and pass along the main bazaar street. This is extremely lively and colourful, but it’s quite impossible to stop anywhere. Shops on either side sell all kinds of food, spices, trinkets, wares. Traffic is mad, cyclists, scooters, motorists, etc. all narrowly missing each other, or sometimes clipping each other. I saw two white faces, a young couple wandering along the bazaar, but otherwise only Indians.

Our hotel is not far from the centre, another Mansingh hotel. We arrange with Mr. Lal to pick us up at 8pm for a “typical Rajasthani evening with dancing”. We know what to expect, but why not? It gives us plenty of time to freshen up a bit and go for a walk in town.

We decide to get a motorised rickshaw from the hotel to the Ajmeri gate, from where we can walk through the main streets of the bazaar. We only just fit in the rickshaw. It weaves through the traffic. This is fun! At last we get to leave the confines of the guide and our chauffeur-driven car. Our rickshaw driver happily carries on past where we wanted to go but at least it’s through the bazaar towards the central square. But when he turns into a side street we ask, well… command, him to stop. He was going to ferry us straight into another emporium. Then we walk through the bazaar back in the direction of our hotel.

We stand out. Indians are looking at us as if we’re Martians. Fortunately not that many people hassle us, but we’re having to look all around us to avoid unwarranted attention. The smells are now so much more noticeable, walking along the colonnaded pavement, shops on our right, and the traffic is separated from us by rows of bicycles, cows, foul-looking stagnant pools of grey scummy water, and vegetable stalls. We pass all kinds of shops, selling electrical goods, papers, lots of chillies, spices, cobblers and various workshops. I’d love to snap away with the camera but am too wary, so just end up taking one or two pictures. Crossing the main square is a tricky affair, having to weave between the traffic while pushing past Indians trying to sell us anything, rickshaw rides, etc. Hearts are racing and this is a bit more like the excitement and colour we came to find.

We’re both very wary and just glad it’s daylight. But it’s fading and we should get back before it gets too dark. After passing a gate we need to head down Mirza Ismail road, but it’s so busy and there are no signs, it’s difficult to be certain. Fortunately we spot a policeman (first Indian we meet who is taller than me!) who confirms which road we need. A little boy with his bike rickshaw offers to drive us for Rs.5. The policeman seems to tell the boy off, or at least advise him that he should charge more. The boy then makes it Rs.10. We hardly fit into the bike, which leans perilously on my side. The boy has to work hard to get it going and needs help from the policeman to make it across the busy junction. Our hotel is further down M.I. road than I remembered and it’s just as well we took the bike rickshaw. I give the boy Rs.20 in the absence of anything smaller than Rs.10 notes.

We’re both ready for a drink… shock, horror – there are signs in the hotel saying 29/11-1/12 are dry days! So we settle for a lime soda and then relax for a bit in our room and get ready for dinner. From our room we can hear and see music and dancing in the garden below. It looks like a “typical Rajasthani evening” (for tourists). At 8pm we meet Mr. Lal who asks whether we want to go out or stay at the hotel for the Rajasthani evening. It is clear that he would rather we stay at the hotel, which we do. Dinner is the buffet in the garden while there is a half-hearted Rajasthani show on, with only a few diners in the audience. We finish our dinner early and are back in our room before 10pm where we at last have time to catch up on our diaries, and now I’m off to bed!