There is a point when you are driving on the NH 8 and you notice that the highway is running parallel to the Aravalli Range. Past the hustle of Delhi, and then across Gurgaon, when the tall buildings disappear and the sky suddenly seems never ending, you marvel at the hills riding alongside you on the road.
Driving on the highway is liberating, very different from driving in the city; the roads are wide, emptier.
And there was a thrill in the air, of a new adventure, the excitement of this not so regular road trip, and the prospect of experiencing the three Js of the timeless “Land of Maharajas”, Rajasthan.
Kesariya baalima, aawo ji, padhaaro maare desh.
The thing is, you HAVE to experience Rajasthan by travelling on its roads. Even as we drove through Pali, you see shades of the sky you might not have seen before. When you are driving through Jaisalmer, you have to feel the isolation as you cannot see another man for miles and miles together. When you are taking tunnels cut between two mountains, you have to appreciate the terrain. All the three cities we visited were completely different experiences - different pace, different feel and different colors.
The Golden City, Jaisalmer
Even as you are driving towards Jaisalmer, you figure out why it is called the Golden City. As far as your eyes can go, you see arid land that almost reflects the sun, and contrasts beautifully with the blue sky. The city is sprawled at the foot of the splendid Jaisalmer Fort, which stands in time with the Thar desert all around it.
When in the city...
- Explore the Jaisalmer Fort. Walk all around the fortress and see the intricate carvings done in yellow sandstone. There are exhibits inside that you should check out if you are keen, but do not miss going atop and taking in the view.
- While coming down, explore the nooks and corners of the fort which are inhabited by the descendants of the workforce of the once rulers. Look for cafes that are set inside the fort and enjoy some pakodas and coffee with a view.
- Visit the temples inside the fort. There are Jain temples with beautiful stonework, Laxminath temple, and a Hanuman temple.
- Have some stellar coffee at Kuku Coffee Shop.
- See the havelis that the wealthy merchants built years ago.
- Have a laugh at these displays.
- At night, behold the golden beauty basking in yellow light, shining like a jewel atop the city.
Outside the city, near the village Kanoi, is the other part of Jaisalmer that one must experience - the stay in the desert. Book yourself a luxury tent, and trust me when I say it, it IS luxurious.
- It's a package deal that includes the whole cultural experience that they offer which is great, starting from the traditional welcome, to the folk night and food.
- But more than anything, they take you across the Sam Sand Dunes. On a camel.
- Sit in the desert, watch the sun set as the wind blows across your face. I remember chuckling at the fact that in an hourglass, sand marks the passing of time, and yet sitting here with the same sand all around me, I had a sense of time coming to a stand still.
- At night, ask the staff of the dessert camp to arrange a private bonfire for you out in the sand, all under a canopy of countless stars. Take a couple of beers, and an amazing playlist.
The Blue City, Jodhpur
Winding through blue lanes and streets, getting a peek into old houses that still tell a tale, coming across a hidden cafe all lit up, or climbing up three flights of stairs to get a view of the royal Mehrangarh Fort, this and more is what Jodhpur is about.
When in the city...
- Just like Jaisalmer, the city center of Jodhpur needs to be explored on foot. Explore thoroughly the market and the cafes around the Clock Tower.
- Eat the Alibaba omelette at the very famous and old Omelette Shop made by a very warm owner and cook.
- Visit the Toor Ji Ka Jhalra, the stepwell that has been restored by the Raas hotel. Sit on one of the stairs at night, climb up, climb down, and just be careful not to fall.
- And after visiting the step well, go to the Stepwell Cafe right next to it for a hot cup of tea, and the beautiful ambiance.
- Drive to the 'Mandore gardens' to admire the beautifully carved, temples and memorials that house figurines and statues of various Hindu deities.
- On your way back from Mandore Gardens, visit the Bal Samand Lake Palace. With its lush green lawns, birds chirping everywhere, and the breathtaking view from the palace, this one will stay with you long after you leave Rajasthan. Something about the peacocks bouncing around in abundance just made my heart jump with joy.
- Mehrangarh Fort is one of the largest forts of India, and one of the most striking. Everything from the entryway to the Chamunda Devi Temple inside the fort is well preserved and worth enjoying slowly. There is an aged painting at the entryway of the fort, that of Shiv Baraat, which held my attention with its details.
- Mehrangarh fort is a treasure trove of a fine museums, galleries, and palaces inside it. From Sheesha Mahal, to the Pearl Palace, to the collection of mythological paintings, palanquins, armory and inlaid doors, there is just so much to keep you captivated here. The architecture and the decor is quite stunning of course.
The Pink City, Jaipur
For some reason, each time I have been to Jaipur, I have started off my visit with a hello to Hawa Mahal, no matter what hour it is. Hello, old friend, remember me? Jaipur has a way of making you feel a part of the city. The marketplaces are familiar, the forts are timeless, the food is always delicious, and you are always, always welcome.
When in the city...
- Visit the whole host of forts and palaces. Enjoy the amazing views from Jaigarh Fort, appreciate the construct of the fortress, and check out Jaivana, once the largest cannon on wheels.
- From there head to the Amer Fort. Here, take your time. Once the capital, the fort and the palaces within now offer a spectacular view of the life that the rulers had lived, and in what splendor! The Sheesh Mahal, the courtyards, the gardens, everything is quite captivating. After your whole tour of the fort, stay for the light and sound show. This one you don't want to miss, trust me. And book the Hindi one for the amazing feels.
- Head for dinner to Handi Restaurant afterwards. Have the Junglee Maas for starters, and the Laal Maas for mains. Period. Keep 3-4 bottles of water with you, or a lot of gur. You have been warned!
- Keep one day for Jantar Mantar, City Palace, and Nahargarh Fort the last for the evening because trust me, you want to go here for the view that the Padao Cafe offers. Grab a beer, sit back, and watch the city lights twinkling all around.
- Albert Hall Museum is one of my favorite places in Jaipur. Housing a rich collection of everything that recites history, the place will give you a window to paintings, pottery, crystals, sculptures, metalwork, armory, and so on. And it's lit beautifully at night, so try and catch a glimpse if you are passing by.
- I usually keep the final day for a quick visit to Hawa Mahal. End where you begin eh?
- And the mad, mad shopping I do at Bapu Bazaar, and Johari Bazaar. Quilts, quilted jackets, jootis, trinkets, leheriya chunnis, bandhani sarees, fabrics, block printed kurtas! Uff!
- And on the way out of the city, do yourselves a favor and grab some delectable pyaaz kachori & mirchi badas from Rawat Sweets. Seriously, get ten and take them for your family!
As I was driving back home, I was already thinking about the next time I will visit.