Travel Dates: December 10-18, 2016
Our journey through the mayhem and magic of India continued into the unknown. This was my first time visiting Jodhpur and Varanasi, and I was excited to cover new ground.
After a six hour drive, navigating around cows and occasional oncoming traffic (in our lane), we arrived in beautiful Jodhpur. With a population under one million, Jodhpur is a relatively small city in India. After Mumbai, Delhi, and Jaipur, we needed a break from the chaos, and we found it here.
Entering the city walls we found an extremely charming old town. Winding walkways and narrow roads discourage overcrowding and traffic. Mehrangarh, an awe-inspiring 15th century fort, sits atop a sandstone hill 400 feet above the city. Like the Acropolis of Athens you can’t help but stare in wonder.
Our journey through India was arranged by Amit Sankhala (solid first name) and his team at Encounters Asia. We had the inside scoop and fantastic local guides everywhere we went. The accommodations they arranged in Jodhpur, starting with RAAS, were some of our favorites. RAAS is a boutique hotel that fuses modern and ancient styles and is located smack dab in the center of Jodhpur. It was a tranquil oasis in the city. And the views of Mehrangarh Fort from the hotel were stunning.
Upon arrival, we met our extraordinary local guide Kuldeep. We spent hours exploring the fort, old town, walking the alleyways, trying local sweets from street vendors, and visiting local merchants where we bought rugs and textiles for our future home (wherever it may be!). Called the “Sun City” for the pleasant weather it receives year-round and the “Blue City” for the blue colored houses that decorate the city, Jodhpur was a highlight of India for us.
After a busy day in the city, we ventured deep into the countryside. For the next two nights we stayed at Mihir Garh, a hotel in the middle of the desert of Rajasthan. It was nighttime when we arrived and the drive was a bit nerve-racking as there were no paved roads, no signs, no streetlights, no cell service, and our driver wasn’t sure where we were heading. But, alas, we stumbled upon the palace in the desert. Walking in we felt transported back in time. Candlelit steps led into a courtyard where local musicians played traditional music on a harmonium and tabla. Built by a local couple, they wanted guests to experience traditional India outside the city. They employed hundreds of local artisans to build the property and now to run it. That first night we had the place all to ourselves. We sat down to a candlelit dinner for two, with live musicians playing, and ate one of the best Indian meals of our trip. Their concept was a home run in our book.
We spent the next couple days exploring the surroundings and visiting local villages. Our first stop was a Bishnoi village. The Bishnoi are a religious sect dating back to the 15th century. Their founder prescribed 29 principles for healthy, balanced living that survive to this day. Many of them are focused on preserving the environment (not killing animals, nurturing their land), maintaining good basic health (eating vegetarian), and social behavior. They were extremely peaceful and kind people, and the effects of their lifestyle were evident by the healthy, active 75 year old patriarch and matriarch. Our second stop was at a Brahman house, where we participated in an opium tea ceremony! Unfortunately, it was highly diluted stuff so the effects were imperceptible…though I do swear I felt a little more relaxed 🙂
Accommodations: Lake Palace Hotel
From Jodhpur, we drove five hours to Udaipur. From lakes in the midst of sandy terrain to green forested hills, the city is enchanting, one of the most beautiful cities in world.
In the lakes, or by their edges, are palaces straight out of fairy tales. Lake Palace, the most iconic of them all, was our home for the next few days. When India gained independence in 1947, many of the historical palaces were converted into hotels or tourist sites in order to pay for upkeep and encourage tourism. Lake Palace was built in the 1743 as the summer home for Maharana Jagat Singh. It’s a marble wonder of the world, an island palace rising out of the middle of the lake. From the moment you step on the speed boat that transfers you to the hotel, you’re treated like royalty. When you walk off the boat, rose petals are thrown down from the roof. Once inside, you’re surrounded by colorful marble, beautiful open courtyards with lily ponds, and serene views of the surrounding lake. To be honest, it can feel a little over the top, but pretty awesome for a couple days.
We spent the day touring the city with our entertaining guide Nitu. We visited the city palace, watched the sunset on the lake, and did some shopping for local fabrics. At night we enjoyed eating, relaxing, and watching local artists perform at Lake Palace.
Accommodations: Gateway Hotel Ganges
Our next step took us far away, both in terms of location and comfort zone. Flying into India, you feel like you’ve landed on another planet. Varanasi takes it to a whole new level. If you’re looking for peace or comfort, stay far away from Varanasi. But, if you’re looking for a deep cultural and spiritual experience, this is an amazing place to find it.
Varanasi (or Banaras or Kashi) is the spiritual capital of Hinduism. Located on the banks of the Ganges, it’s said that dying in Varanasi brings salvation. Millions visit the city every year to bathe in the Ganges and participate in the countless religious ceremonies that take place throughout the city every day.
There’s so much to see in this city: boating down the Ganges to witness cremation ceremonies, sacred fires lighting up the night sky…to viewing the incredible sunrise and sunset prayer ceremonies on the banks of the river. From wandering through alleyways to visit a fraction of the city’s temples…to taking a night tour of after-dark rituals (including to an Aghroi temple whose followers smear cremation ashes all over their bodies and use human bones for jewelry). Our guide Jeremy, a Minnesotan who moved here over ten years ago, treated us like old friends and gave us an incredible inside look at the city. We slept little and moved from one adventure to the next. But we left this place feeling so energized. There’s a powerful energy here. Our visit to Varanasi was experientially off the charts…a perfect way to end our journey through India.