In case I ever said anything about Mumbai being polluted and having bad air, I take everything back. Now that we’ve spent five days in Rajasthan, we can proudly announce Bikaner to be the most unbreathable place we’ve been to in India so far.
But let’s start at the start. Our flight to Jaipur was uneventful enough. Deepak insisted on driving us to the airport, and we survived the usual shenanigans of chaotic security checks, travelers cutting in line and middle aged men picking their noses with gusto in public. We arrived at our hotel (the Umaid Bhawan) quite early in the morning, and the place was very nice with a lovely rooftop.
We took off in a car to the City Palace, which wasn’t all that great, followed by the very nice Amber Fort, where we spent a long time wandering around. There was plenty of Western tourists and the appropriate number of touts and hawkers to match, but overall, it was a lot less hassle than we had anticipated. The weather was quite cool in the morning, but it got pretty warm later in the day. Jaipur really is quite nice, thanks to one of its founder, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), who according to our travel book was a bit of an urban planner and introduced some revolutionary ideas, namely hygiene, beauty and commerce. Of these, only the last one seems to have survived into the 21st century, but at least the wide roads of the old city are still pretty wide, the town is still mostly pink, making it almost possible to walk around relatively unscathed, at least in the morning.
Unfortunately, hygiene standards don’t seem to have been upgraded in the last 200 years, so there are plenty of open sewage canals, everybody is spitting and snotting everywhere (just like Mumbai, only more so), and an abundance of camel and cow shit takes care of the rest, not to mention the autorickshaws, which are (thankfully, slowly) replacing the bicycle rickshaws. Some of the sidestreets really are an incredible sight of disgusting filth. Nevertheless, Jaipur is a shopping heaven, at least in terms of quantity and curiosity; quality not so much, but we are almost used to that caveat by now. Even the hawkers and touts we could deal with, or maybe that’s because we had feared the worst and therefore immediately shut up anyone who got on our nerves too much too quickly.
We left for Bikaner by late afternoon the next day. We’ve know by now that train stations in India tend to be the cleaner parts of town, and at least when we are leaving a town, there’s less of a chance of getting hassled by some rickshaw driver about which country we are from, where we want to go, and that he will drive us anywhere we like. Of course, there’s still always someone who will try to lure us into his rickshaw back into town, even as he sees us walking fast and straight towards the station entrance. The train arrived 90mins late in Bikaner, but on the upside, we only had to stand in line for half an hour to fill out the application for seat reservations, which as usual required vital information such as our gender, age and address. Since the clerk was unusually slow even by local standards, the crowd got proportionally more pushy, as if rubbing belly against backpack could speed things up and as if ruthlessly cutting in line were a matter of spiritual pride and honor. When we told someone to back off, the helpfully happy and proud explanation was this is the system here.
Late as it was when we finally made it to Bikaner, the town came as a bit of a shock even to us jaded expats. The rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel was like cruising through a garbage can in a desert, which incidentally describes Bikaner quite well. The town is dusty as dusty can be and the rickshaw fumes eat at your eyes like little ants. Someone said traveling India is like traveling for Graduates (Thailand I guess being for amateurs), but at this point we are wondering whether it maybe isn’t more for the demented. Then again, as we now look at our pictures, the explanation is clear: all pictures lie, because they are never able to show the dust, and the stink, or record the cancerous coughing and yacking all around you. All the Rajasthan travel books show gorgeous colors, graceful women, majestic forts and beautiful landscapes, but the predominant impressions, at least this evening and most of the next day in Bikaner, are incredible dirt and filth, unbreathable air, and enormous pollution. If I had to go here in the summer, when it gets as hot as a frying pan, I’d shoot myself, even though there were a lot of gorgeous empty houses in Bikaner’s old city.
On the other hand, our hotel in Bikaner (Bhairon Vilas) was the best we’ve stayed at so far in India. The owner is a descendant of the Maharajas and of the Prime Minister of Bikaner, a young guy who decided that he likes restoring old furniture and stuff, so his hotel has a lot of character and is quite lovely. Maybe we should have stayed in the hotel all day, because there was a film crew doing some shoots of a traditional Rajasthani music and dance troupe, but we went to the fort instead, which was rather shabby.
We also went to a camel farm, which was a bit sad looking (although the two minute camel ride was surprisingly comfortable), and to the Karni Mata Temple in Doshnoke, where hundreds of unhealthy looking rats live in and run around in filth, enjoying being worshipped as the reincarnated relatives of the local villagers. There were a few equally scrubby looking Western tourists around, who may have thought this temple was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we kind of thought that it was … well, interesting, and sheer insanity.
Back in the hotel, the film shoot continued as we were having dinner. There was a British guy who had spent five days at the temple shooting a documentary and a female Spanish dope head who we speculated was doing the hotel owner. As they were finishing off a bottle of rum at the bar, three middle aged Germans talked loudly and waltzed right into the film set, twice. We briefly considered joining the bar, but then thought better of it, so we could get up in time the next day for our train to Jodhpur.
The train ride to our last stop was another 7 hour affair, but the 3AC class is comfortable enough and you get a pillow to sleep on. Our hotel wasn’t exactly nice or beautiful; in fact, it seemed to have on offer a large number of small imperfections. Some call that charming, we find it inexplicable, whether it’s the layer of oil swimming on top of the coffee, the curtain rods being installed in all manners crooked, the curtains being of wildly varying length, the hot shower being cold, the bed sheets missing, the paint being applied rather liberally at the wrong places (i.e. on the windows and lamps), etc. etc. In an effort to save electricity, the city shuts it down from 8am to 11am every morning, but at least it wasn’t as cold as Jaipur, and the roof top restaurant was actually quite nice (well, not the rooftop, nor the restaurant, but the view was). In terms of air quality, Jodhpur was only a marginal improvement over Bikaner, but the fort is high enough above the rest of the city that it was ok.
That fort was actually quite nice, even though one would have to be a real nut for armor and weaponry to appreciate a lot of the exhibition in these Rajasthani forts. It was the first such place that offered an audio tour (more expensive than a live guide; I guess they know how annoying those guides can be), and it was pretty well restored and preserved, with money from both the Getty Foundation and the UN. The tour was well done, although at the end they lost it a bit, when two female descendents of the Maharaja were asked to talk about their lives now. One was shamelessly promoting her publishing house, while the other was blubbering incoherently about how looking at the fort to her is like looking at a computer window and how she’s crying thinking about it and how it’s all for her family god.
Anyways, at that point my camera battery was empty and we were pretty exhausted after all this, so we just made a quick stop at the very decent Jaswant Thada memorial to Jaswant Singh II, and then took off to the airport. Arriving back in Mumbai, we had to yell at some tout as soon as we left the terminal, since he wouldn’t take our ignoring him at first and then saying no twice for an answer. Soon after that we took in some fresh Mumbai air, realizing that maybe this place isn’t so bad after all; there’s always worse, apparently.
We are still a bit puzzled about the great allure of Rajasthan to Western tourists. The British guy in Bikaner had told us about Peru, and slowly walking up the Andes or floating down the Amazon river sounds so much nicer right about now. We are also wondering whether we could possibly be the only Westerners prepared to tell the endless touts and hawkers and scammers to fuck off, because they obviously keep trying and sometimes seem genuinely surprised when we respond unkindly. Could we possibly be the only Westerners who are wondering what people must be smoking when they talk about spirituality here? We see a lot of in-your-face religiosity and a lot of praying and talk about god, yes. Everything seems religious here, but spiritual? Not so much. We can’t see much spirituality in driving like an ass, talking out of your ass, cutting in line like an ass, or feeding plastic garbage to your holy cow. Another one is warmth and hospitality. Getting asked literally fifty times a day which country we are from stops feeling warm and fuzzy real quick, as does getting stared at like a two-headed Martian in the zoo. The usual mix of having people bend over backwards to crawl up our ass on the one hand and getting scammed and taken for a ride on the other doesn’t help much either.