Into Rajasthan

One of our favourite films of all time is ‘The Fall’ (2006) by Indian director Tarsem Singh. It is a fairytale, dark at times, set in a California hospital in the early Twentieth Century where a little girl recovering from a broken arm befriends a bed-ridden, heart-broken stuntman who suffered a fall while shooting his last movie. Over a series of visits he narrates the story, as perceived by his damaged mind, of a group of heroes as they tackle a bunch of demons in an epic journey that chases across the earth. Storyline aside, what makes this movie really ring our bell is the vividly colourful cinematography with exotic shot locations from the best bits of our wonderful planet. Add to that a stunning soundtrack courtesy of Beethoven’s 7th ‘Allegretto’ and you have an all round excellent piece of movie entertainment. One location in the movie has more striking settings than any other; Rajasthan. From the moment we first watched ‘The Fall’ we set our hearts to one day go there and that day is upon us…

From Ellora a sixty-mile morning hop took us on to its sister cave complex at Ajanta. Excavated from the rock face, as at Ellora, these Buddhist caves were neither so beautifully formed nor intricate in detail. They were marvelous all the same as some had been abandoned part way through construction offering a better appreciation as to how they were formed and, where Ellora was a marvel of intricate rock carvings, the plainer walls of Ajanta supplied a canvas for some magnificent murals. The setting itself is also impressive, a deep canyon in the horseshoe bend of a river and what is really remarkable is that the entire Ajanta site was lost to history for a long time until one John Smith, a British officer, stumbled upon it all while out hunting tigers back in 1819.

Beyond Ajanta the highways both improved and gradually emptied of traffic and we began to once more to enjoy riding some great Indian roads that led us onwards and upwards to the northwest. At a halt for a few sips of water a little ‘scooty’ pulled up to check out why we had stopped. We got a massive thumbs-up from the rider, a tall, lanky guy with a big bushy beard wearing a pair of outrageous, bright red, balloon-legged pantaloons who told us he was an astrologer. His pillion, a reserved older gent in more somber dress, was content to greet us with big smiles. On learning of the magnitude of our travels to reach this very point on the road, they leapt off the scooter and, in a flurry of elbows, started rummaging around under the seat like a magician about to perform some trick. Rather than a rabbit but still with a ‘Hey Presto’ he produced a red and white chequered scarf. “Welcome to Rajasthan!” he beamed as he draped the scarf, a most precious gift, around my neck!

‘Ra-jas-than’, an evocative, exotic name; three syllables you could roll round your mouth all day and never tire of doing so. This ‘Land of the Kings’ is the largest state in all of India, its north and west dominated by the Thar Desert where India runs into Pakistan. To the east, Delhi and Agra await. The topography of the land is sprinkled with icing sugar palaces and laced with some of the most imposing fortresses and citadels on the planet. Add to this a clatter of brightly coloured cities and you have one of the most spectacular locations imaginable. Our introduction to Rajasthan was by one of her brightest pearls; the white city of Udaipur. We got off to a bad start when our pre-booked hotel turned out to be somewhat run-down. The ‘Wi-Fi all areas’ only worked in the grubby reception that doubled as a refuge for malingering overweight men and the ‘private on-site parking’ for the bikes was merely the busy street outside. A whiff of our room through the open door delivered an initial bouquet of ‘eau de pissoir’ closely followed by undertones of general damp and poor plumbing. The guy just shrugged when we declined his hostelry. Must happen a lot I guess.

Mother India, we have found likes to play with us children, jerking your chain to bring you down from time to time. But she also cuts you slack when you least expect it and heaps little uplifting jewels to brighten your spirit when most needed… I left Mags with the bikes and set off on a short, hot walk from the bad hotel to discover one of the most memorable places we have ever stayed: The Raj Palace Hotel. Monty, the young man on reception led me up a twisting flight of stairs and into a small maze of marble floored corridors that seemed to tunnel through beautiful scallop-nibbled archways. The bedroom portal led to a cool interior, the floor brilliantly lit by a rainbow of sunlight transmitted through a peacock array of coloured glass window panels. Mags fell in love with it on sight and I got extra brownie points for our deliverance.

The splendid Royal Palace in Udaipur was the first of our ‘Fall’ locations and to reach it we had to negotiate a tangle of twisting narrow lanes that led uphill to the entrance. The way was lined by a colourful commotion of tiny shop-fronts revealing dimly lit interiors stocked to the ceiling with of all kinds of wares. At the turn of a corner the sight of the Jagdish Temple burst out of the confusion and a broad flight of steps led to the entrance, flanked by a pair of marble elephants. The white of all this marble provided a perfect backdrop for outrageous colours from the legion of flower sellers at the base of the steps. Draped in vivid scarlet and saffron saris they made us feel like drab extras from a very different monochrome movie.

Our tour of the palace commenced with a visit to the museum where pride of place went to the little round glasses worn by Ben Kingsley in the movie ‘Gandhi’. The tour led on to the rooftop of the tall palace and the rewards for our ascent were views in over the city and out over the stunning Lake Pichola. There, like a couple of incongruous icebergs floating on a blue-grey ocean surrounded by scorched-desert mountains, lay the spectacular island hotels, one of which featured as another exotic movie location; this time for James Bond in ‘Octopussy.’ This all left me with the almost impossible task to compile a photo-gallery for Udaipur, a heftier task than even trying to capture it in these words.

Leaving Udaipur behind, the road continued north to exchange spectacular palaces for one of the most impressive castles we’ve ever set eyes on; the mighty Mehrangarh Fortress in Jodhpur. We took a room in an old Haveli, an exquisite merchant’s house built like a little palace from red sandstone with marble floors and a black and white chequered courtyard. But red is not the colour of Jodhpur for, as we knew from ‘The Fall’, Jophpur is indeed Rajasthan’s fabled ‘Blue City’. An early morning ascent led us through the narrow not-yet-bustling lanes that besiege the fortress, lapping its foundations on all sides. Our reward at the top of this ancient fort, which dates back to the late 1400’s, was complimented by the aerobatics of hundreds of Black Kites soaring high on the thermals off the walls that soar themselves 400-feet above the city below. Add to this, of course, the breathtaking views over the ‘Blue City’ itself and once again we are in a most magical place.

From Jodhpur we rode way out west out into the scrublands of the Thar Desert on tranquil empty roads, our only companions the odd camel or two munching on sun-scorched stilted trees along the way. Our destination was the smaller fortress of Jaisalmer, ‘The Amber City’ due to the golden sandstone used in its construction. While not so impressive as Udaipur or Jodhpur, we were to get to know Jaisalmer quite well as on arrival we found a dreaded spot of coolant dripping out the bottom of Maggie’s engine, a sure sign that the water pump seals were on their way out. This is a known problem on the F650GS and we were advised not to use the bike until it was sorted as it could lead to water ingress into the engine, turning the oil into cappuccino with potentially disastrous consequences.

The relatively inexpensive repair would take a whole day to effect but first we needed the parts shipped from the UK. We arranged a Fedex delivery to a friend of a friend in Delhi and decided to abandon the bikes in Jaisalmer, take the train to the capitol and while we were there organise our visas for Myanmar, next country on our trip. Boarding the 18-hour overnighter to Delhi, we had no idea of the fun and games ahead as the countryside around the big city would in a few days erupt into caste riots effectively barring our return to the bikes!  India was about to become Incredible again but this time for all the wrong reasons…

To access the accompanying photo-gallery for this blog, please click here: Rajasthan

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