Co-founder Sam gives his insider tips on travelling around Rajasthan. From turban tying, to kite flying to staying in castles, here he tells us more about his favourite experiences.
“We’ve stumbled onto yet another film set”, Tracey said as every imaginable cliché of rural Rajasthani life wondered into view: from veiled women in gorgeous bright saris, to tall handsome men in striking turbans with terrific moustaches, camels, cows, bejewelled gypsies in roadside shacks, bullock carts, exotic looking tribal dusty villages and chai wallahs.
It’s surprisingly easy, in Rajasthan, to escape the developed cities and discover rural India, a place imbued with ancient traditions and culture. On previous visits, I had got quite caught up in the hectic cities and the major sites, but with a bit of ETG style and guidance, my family and I got plenty of peaceful rural exploration in and the trip was so much more enjoyable for that.
I’ve put together my top 5 experiences and as you’ll see they are quite heavily tilted towards escaping the high concentration of tourists at major sites. Not that I didn’t really enjoy the famous forts and palaces – they truly are out of this world: but the off then beaten track experiences in Rajasthan are simply incredible.
Castle Bijaipur is quite literally a converted castle in a tiny little town in southern Rajasthan. It’s a fairly simple hotel and the staff are all local, so there is no hotel school slickness here; it’s all the better for it in my opinion. The rooms were comfortable on the inside and the hotel is quite strikingly beautiful on the out. The best thing about the castle stay is exploring locally: we loved just walking around the area, borrowing bikes and getting further afield.
Kite flying in Jaipur.
You know those surreal moments when travelling when you find yourself doing something so far removed from your normal life that it seems almost unbelievable? Well kite flying on the roof of a beautiful haveli (noble mansion) in the old town in Jaipur was certainly one of those. Competitive kite flying is a sport and an extremely popular hobby here. Anonymous participants fly their kites high above the town, attempting to slice through the string of other kites and cut them down, until they own the sky around their own rooftop. I soon got the bug and tried to cut and jab as my own kite soared, a tiny spec in the sky. Just as I thought I was getting quite good, a vicious blue kite cut me down in my prime.
I haven’t even mentioned the tastiest pakoras I have ever eaten, serviced with tea as a snack as we chatted and absorbed the early evening rooftop atmosphere.
Overlanding in the Thar Desert
I’d heard quite a lot about the ‘safaris’ from Jodphur, off into the Thar desert to see the black buck antelope and the ‘Bishnoi’ people, the so called ‘first ecologists of the world’: a semi religious grouping of people following a prophet whose fifteenth century teachings were indeed remarkably ahead of their time in ecological terms. These trips are usually involved visiting a Bhramin village and taking part or observing a local opium ceremony. I’d heard that though the trips from the legendary Rohetgahr hotel were decent, the majority of the ‘safaris’ from Jodphur were pretty dreadful. We’d heard about a company trying to do it very differently and we weren’t disappointed.
The full day trip really blew us away and the highlight was surely getting involved in cooking our own millet roti breads on a village fire. Delicious and lots of fun too – there’s no better way to make connections with people across language barriers than by sharing some cooking and eating. The food was interesting too, as it tasted very different from anything we’d eaten at any hotel – much more earthy and to my relief, far more healthy feeling.
Of course, we explored the Bishnoi villages, with their warm welcome and were blown away by their way of life. It didn’t feel in any way intrusive for them or that we were part of some kind of conveyor belt. It was natural and relaxed and the whole day really told us a story. I’m not going into too much detail, as we’ll include it for every client visiting Jodphur and I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
I haven’t ridden a horse since I got chucked off when I was 8 and I wasn’t about to start in the inhospitable terrain of rural Rajasthan. My Kiwi wife however, had no such qualms. She hadn’t ridden for 20 years, but was a proficient rider in her time so she got back in the saddle in Rajasthan and the experience was the absolute highlight of her holiday. She said the Marwari horse, a rare breed of horse from the Jodphur region with distinctive ears and a graceful gait, was lovely to ride. The experience of riding out across the timeless landscape was absolutely magical.
Cycling in Jaipur
You don’t have to get right out into the countryside to get off the beaten track in India and Jaipur is a classic case in point. In recent times, a plethora of walking tours around the old city have sprung up, with varying degrees of quality and we did a superb arts and crafts tour around the old commercial centres, still involved in production for the trade. As a tourist, it was a joy to be in place where no one had any interest in selling you anything! But the experience that really blew me away was the cycling tour.
I had never imagined I’d be happily cycling around Jaipur, but after a nervous few moments wondering how to avoid a cow and a load of honking cars, I got used to the flow and indeed found it gentler and more relaxed than my London commute. Certainly in London, I don’t have a helpful guide watching my back. Aside from the pleasure of acquiring a new skill in Indian cycling, the major joy was the street food and snacks we had along the way. From kicking off with a Lassi from the famous Jaipur Lassi Wallah, to a chai on the rooftops, a pakora from a street restaurant and then a local breakfast in a famous eatery, I was glad I hadn’t eaten beforehand.
To see how the above experiences could fit into your India holiday, have a look at the following itineraries:
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