The Good Life With IQ

Jaipur: Our motorcycle tour kicks off

When we planned our two-week Rajasthan motorcycle tour, we made sure to be in Jaipur around Diwali time. The city is famous for its decorations during the ‘festival of lights’, and we weren’t disappointed.

The itinerary for our road trip through southern Rajasthan was Jaipur, Ranthambhore, Bundi, Chittorgarh and Udaipur, from 4 to 19 November, 2018. We initially toyed with the idea of hiring a motorcycle in Jaipur and returning it at the end of the journey in Udaipur. But I didn’t like the idea of doing such a long trip on an unfamiliar bike. So we decided to use my trusty old Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 instead, and shipped it to Jaipur (and back from Udaipur) just for our road trip. The shipping was a bit of a hassle, but the comfort of riding my own bike far outweighed any inconvenience.

Also read: The first stop on our motorcycle tour: A Ranthambhore safari experience

Landing in Jaipur

Our flight into Jaipur landed late in the morning. The plan was to head straight to the shipping company’s warehouse from the airport, and ride the bike to where we were staying. Our helpful hosts at the All Seasons Homestay had organized a car and driver for us, so we were hoping to get the bike and be at the homestay in time for lunch. But nothing is ever that simple, of course.

Getting the bike rolling takes some doing

It took us a while to get to the warehouse, with our driver Saddiq having to struggle with brilliantly vague directions by our contact at the warehouse. We finally had to use our GPS to get there, after which it took a while to unpack the bike, and get it ride-worthy. Luckily, it hadn’t been banged about too much in transit. But getting some fuel (the tank needed to be empty while shipping, for safety) presented us with some problems. It seems petrol pumps in Jaipur can’t sell you half a litre of petrol in a bottle for ‘security reasons’—even if you’ve run out of gas.

It seems petrol pumps in Jaipur can’t sell you half a bottle of petrol, for ‘security reasons’!

The prospect of having to push my bike to the closest petrol pump was not pleasant. So we asked one of the warehouse workers if we could buy some petrol off him instead. He kindly agreed, and siphoned some off from his own motorcycle’s tank—enough to get us to the pump. Finally tanked up, we headed off to our homestay—the missus and I on the bike, and the eternally helpful Saddiq in the car with our luggage.

Also read: 16 tips to stay safe and have fun on that awesome motorcycle tour

Jaipur - Picking up bike from the warehouse
Making sure the bike’s in riding condition
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We finally check in at All Seasons Homestay

About half an hour later, we finally rolled up to our homestay’s gate. We were about an hour late, but the helpful staff still managed to serve us up a lovely home-style Rajasthani lunch. Once we were nice and stuffed, we headed up to our room for a well-earned snooze.

The All Seasons Homestay is more like a homestay and guesthouse combined.

We soon discovered that All Seasons Homestay was actually more of a guesthouse. It was a homestay in theory—the family that ran it lived on the ground floor. But the rest of it was purpose-built for paying guests, with rows of very nice rooms on each floor above. It didn’t really have the same feel of being a guest in someone’s home. Still, the friendly hosts and communal dining room (and homely food) made up for that.

Staircase at All Seasons Homestay, Jaipur
The stairwell down from our floor at the homestay

Our first evening in Jaipur

We had decided that we wouldn’t do much that evening. Instead, we wanted to take stock and plan for the two days we were in Jaipur. And a good thing, too. While riding back from the warehouse, it had quickly become clear to me that my bike was being a bit cranky. It seemed to me that the attentions of a professional were needed (I suspected some disorder of the clutch plates). So after asking some biker contacts for reliable mechanics, I made an appointment with one for the next morning.

The ambience of Shikaar Bagh was lovely, but the food was quite ordinary, so we nursed our drinks instead.

That done, we headed out to dinner. We had heard a lot about Bar Palladio (not to be confused with the nearby Caffe Palladio) in the Narain Niwas hotel, so that’s where we went. Only to realize that it was—predictably, in hindsight—full. It was Sunday evening, after all. A bit disappointed, we ended up in the next door restaurant, Shikaar Bagh. The ambience was lovely overall, with everything lit up and decorated in anticipation of Diwali. Sadly, the food wasn’t anything special, so we grumpily nursed our drinks instead. Ah well.

List of things to do in Jaipur
A nice little list of things to do a friend had made for us. Very useful!
Illuminated arcade
The beautifully lit arcade of the Narain Niwas
Garden lights, Jaipur
Lights along the garden path
Vietnamese rolls, Jaipur
Trying some sort of Vietnamese rolls in Shikaar Bagh
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Also read: Eight great reasons why you should visit Rajasthan, the ‘land of kings’

Day 1 in Jaipur: An old city mechanic, spectacular views, and aching knees

The plan for our first full day in Jaipur was this: we get my bike fixed, after which we visit the Jaigarh and Nahargarh forts. It didn’t go quite according to plan. But we’re grateful it didn’t!

After a nice homely breakfast, we started up the bike and headed over to Rajasthan Auto Center, just inside the old city’s Sanganeri Gate. (Aside: They call the old city the ‘pink city’ because of the uniform colour scheme. It looked more like a rusty-peach colour to me, though.) The mechanic came highly recommended by a local lady biker, and he figured out that it would take a few hours to fix the problem (it was indeed the clutch plates). So we called Saddiq again and asked if he could drive us around instead. He couldn’t come himself, but he did send a colleague, Imran. So off we went, in direction Jaigarh Fort.

Heading up to Jaigarh

The route to Jaigarh took us through the old city, and we could see that preparations for Diwali were already in full swing. We couldn’t wait to see what it would look like at night! Meanwhile, we wound our way up the hill road that led to Jaigarh and Nahargarh. It turned out that they were on opposite ends of the same ridge, and one needed to turn right for Jaigarh at the top of the hill, and left for Nahargarh. We turned right.

Once we got to the top, the whole valley was spread out below us!

On the way up, we already had some hint of the incredible views from the top. And once we got up there, the whole valley and Amer town were spread out below. The fort itself was smallish, because it was part of the defences of the larger Amer Fort. But it had lots of interesting nooks and corners, a maze of corridors in its main palace complex, and a large Mughal-style garden. Sadly, the garden was cordoned off because a movie was being shot there.

From Jaigarh, we could also see the battlements on the hills across the valley from us, and wondered what the view would be like from up there. But more about that later.

Jaivan, Jaigarh’s pride and joy

In its heyday, Jaigarh is supposed to have had a huge cannon foundry. We still saw the massive Jaivan (‘arrow of victory’) cannon on display on its ramparts, supposedly the largest wheeled cannon ever made. So much so that they say it took four elephants just to turn it around. It seems to have been fired only once, as a test. Hmmm, I wonder why.

View of Jal Mahal from Jaigarh, Jaipur
A hazy view of the Jal Mahal lake palace in the distance
Wheeled cannon, Jaipur
The impressive Jaivan cannon
Amer fort battlements, Jaipur
The tempting-looking battlements on the opposite hill
Amer fort walls, Jaipur
More hilltop battlements
Screen window, Jaipur
An ornate filigreed screen window
Amer town
A view of Amer town, with Amber Palace in the foreground
Amer fort walls, Jaipur
These battlements would have looked better in the rains, when the hills are green
Pavilion and tree, Jaipur
A little pavilion with a tree for a companion
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Nahargarh in the midday heat

By the time we finished exploring most of Jaigarh, it had gotten quite hot. We weren’t really in the mood to look at Nahargarh as well, preferring to keep our memories of our earlier visit, when we had dinner on its ramparts. But we figured that, since we’d come all the way, we might as well. So we did.

It seems that the royal apartments in Nahargarh palace were designed so the king could visit any one of his wives without the others knowing.

Nahargarh turned out to be much more touristy than Jaigarh, with lots of people milling around, and various ‘attractions’ on offer. We weren’t in the mood for touristy things, so we took a break on a bench under a mango tree instead. Once we were a little rested, we headed off to the main Nahargarh palace. The small palace was probably designed by the king himself, because it had rows of separate apartments for his various wives, all connected to a hidden corridor. It seems this was so he could visit any one of his wives without the others knowing! Pretty sneaky…

Monkey business on the palace roof

Being on the other end of the ridge from Jaigarh, Nahargarh didn’t have a view of Amer. Instead, the larger city of Jaipur sprawled below. We made our way to the roof of the palace, and were treated to views of the city shimmering in the hazy air. We were also treated to views of a troop of rhesus macaques on the ramparts below. A large male also sat on the roof, watching his colleagues below, and pointedly ignored us.

The large male macaque sat on the roof watching his colleagues below, and ignoring us.

By the time we were done, it was quite late, and we were starving. Though Nahargarh had a food court, we decided to take our driver’s advice and eat in a little traditional restaurant in the town below. Until then, we took the edge off our hunger with a huge rice papad that we bought from an old lady at the entrance.

View of Jaipur
The view of Jaipur from the walls of Nahargarh
Entrance arch, Jaipur
The entrance to one of the queens’ apartments
Monkey, Nahargarh, Jaipur
A large male macaque ignores us and watches his colleagues below instead
View of Jal Mahal, Nahargarh, Jaipur
The Jal Mahal lake palace seen from Nahargarh
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Lunch and then home. Or so we thought.

We drove down into Amer town and through some little lanes and bylanes. Finally, we arrived at Chokha Amer, where, our driver assured us, we would get some nice traditional food. The place turned out to be quite modest, but clean and with a huge lawn. Instead of sitting inside, we asked them if they could set up a table for us under some trees. They happily obliged, and we happily settled down.

Our friendly server explained the contents of our thali to us: various kinds of dal and vegetables served with bati.

As we waited for our traditional thali, we chatted with the friendly staff and admired the view of the palace and the surrounding hills. I still nursed ambitions of climbing the high battlements we had first seen from Jaigarh, but we were already quite pooped. Anyway, the food came, and our friendly server explained everything to us. To put it briefly, it was various kinds of dal and vegetables served with batihard balls of whole-wheat bread. Needless to say, we tucked in and demolished most of our meal, but the servings were generous enough to defeat even our appetites.

Interesting cooking techniques, and an uptick in morale

After lunch, we were shown around the restaurant by our enthusiastic hosts. I even got to see the head cook baking bati the traditional way: in burning heaps of dried cow dung. I assumed the bati were wrapped in something before going into the burning dung, but I didn’t have the courage to ask.

That thali did wonders for our morale, because we suddenly started talking about climbing the battlements after all! The ones I was eyeing—beyond a little mosque further into the town—turned out to be almost inaccessible. So we ended up heading for the slightly lower ones that were just off the road back. I’m glad we did.

Minaret and fort walls, Amer, Jaipur
The inaccessible ramparts, with a mosque minaret in front
Pigeons, Amer, Jaipur
Pigeons on a room. The stairs beyond are the ones we ended up climbing
Cooking bati, Amer, Jaipur
The head cook bakes bati in heaps of burning cow dung. Yummy!

Up the ramparts of Amer

It was just after 4:00 PM that we started up the steep steps that led up the hill to the wall on top. Lunch had taken us a while, but had rejuvenated us enough to brave the climb. And what a climb it was! The steps were huge and tall, and we had to heave ourselves up each one. We weren’t as alone as we had expected, but all the groups of youngsters we encountered were having only slightly less trouble than us. That made us feel quite a bit better.

When we finally reached to top, the sun was slowly setting behind Jaigarh on the opposite hill.

Almost 45 minutes later—we needed to take lots of breaks—we were at the top. What a view! The town of Amer was spread out beneath us, and the true scale of Amber Palace was revealed. As we settled into one of the watchtowers, the sun slowly set behind Jaigarh on the opposite hill. I had hoped for a slightly better view of the sunset from the other wall, but this one was still pretty special.

Of memories and complaining knees

We spent a good hour up there, soaking up the view and enjoying the breeze. When the lights below slowly started coming on, we reluctantly started back down. But if we’d thought the climb up was tough, the climb down was excruciating! It took us just as long to get down, but by the time we got to road level, our leg muscles and knees were screaming. I carried the memory of that climb with me for the rest of our two-week trip, in the form of aching knees. But no permanent harm was done, and our other memories of the climb more than made up for the unpleasant ones.

Also read: Hyderabad itineraries, and things to do in the city

Rampart stairs, Amer, Jaipur
Halfway up the steep stairs
Amber Palace, Amer, Jaipur
The main gate of Amber Palace in the evening light
Fort walls, Amer, Jaipur
Almost at the top, with the town spilling out through the wall below
Fort walls, Amer, Jaipur
That’s a long way down!
Fort walls, Amer, Jaipur
The hills, the walls, the town and the evening light
Watctowers, Amer, Jaipur
One of the two watchtowers. We were in the other one.
Sunset, Amer, Jaipur
The sun sets behind Jaigarh, on the opposite hill
Amber Palace, Amer, Jaipur
Amber Palace, brilliantly lit up
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Back through the old city

After that climb, the thought of having to ride my bike back home from the mechanic wasn’t appealing. But it had to be done, so we drove back from Amer through the old city an to the mechanic. The decorations were almost ready, and the whole of the old city was lit up. We were definitely coming back to see this tomorrow!

The Diwali decorations were almost ready, and the entire city was lit up!

At the mechanic, everything was shipshape. It turned out that the problem wasn’t as bad as he had first supposed, so my wallet stayed heavier than expected. Riding back was still a massive pain, though. Jaipuri traffic is terrifying, I found, with no quarter given nor expected. By the time we got to our homestay, I had resolved not to ride in the city again, unless it was to get out of it.

Also read: Millennia back in time: The magnificent temples of Madurai and Tanjore in South India

Day 2 in Jaipur: A sprawling palace, and a sparkling pre-Diwali stroll

The next day, we wanted to explore Amber Palace. The previous evening’s exertions were still fresh in our mind, so we decided to call the reliable Saddiq again. Again, he sent a colleague in his place, and we retraced our route through the old city.

A quick tour of Amber Palace

When we got to Amer again, we decided against riding an elephant up to the main gate of Amber palace (we’re not very comfortable with the concept of animal rides anymore). Instead, our driver drove us up to the rear gate of the palace. On the way, we stopped at a lovely stepwell, where we took some nice photos and promptly got shouted at by a policeman. It seems I had unknowingly stepped onto a platform that had a temple underneath. I would’ve explained the concept of signboards to him, but I didn’t think it would do any good.

We should probably have gone in the afternoon, but we like our after-lunch nap too much!

Up in the palace, our guide—we had picked one up along the way, on the recommendation of our driver—systematically showed us around the huge palace. The experience was marred a bit by the milling crowds, sadly. We should probably have gone in the afternoon, but we like our post-lunch nap too much! Anyway, we still got to see lots of nice things: the massive courtyard with elephants parading in and out; the huge painted ganesh pol gate to the private quarters; ornate arched audience halls; the glittering sheesh mahal hall with its mirror-inlaid walls and ceiling; an immaculate little garden; and the discreet queens’ apartments arranged around a central pavilion. Again with a hidden corridor. Make of that what you will.

Some well-earned refreshment

Once we had seen what needed to be seen, we were in need of refreshment. We had noticed a signboard pointing to a little restaurant earlier, so we thought we’d take a look. 1135 AD—which is what it was called—was an evocative little space high on the walls opposite the main gate. It had both indoor and outdoor seating, and though it looked it bit run-down, it was all part of the atmosphere. It was too early for lunch, so we settled for a beer and plate of (vegetarian) kababs.

We were more interested in Anoki’s café than its boutique, but lots of other people were, too.

Back in town, we headed to Anokhi, a boutique selling traditional hand-dyed and hand-printed clothes. We were actually more interested in its organic café, but it turned out lots of other people were, too! After a 20-minute wait (during which we were thankful for our earlier plate of kababs), we were seated at a table with another couple—Russian, by the sound of the accent. We ordered some sandwiches, a salad, and a piece of pie for dessert, all of which were excellent. Then it was back home for the customary snooze.

Step well, Amber Palace, Jaipur
The step well, photographed from the offending platform
Courtyard, Amber Palace, Jaipur
The main gate and courtyard. We were up on those walls the previous evening!
Elephants
Elephants on their way down to pick up more visitors
Mahout, Amber Palace, Jaipur
A mahout counts his take
Main gate, Amber Palace, Jaipur
An elephant enters the main gate. We climbed those stairs in the background the previous evening.
Mahout
A mahout riding his elephant back-to-front, for some reason.
View of Jaigarh, Amber Palace, Jaipur
Jaigarh watches over Amber Palace
Ganesh Pol gate, Amber Palace, Jaipur
The ornately painted Ganesh Pol gate to the inner palace
arched hall, Amber Palace, Jaipur
The arched hall of the scribes
Sheesh mahal, Amber Palace, Jaipur
The walls and ceiling of the sparkling sheesh mahal
Restaurant, Amber Palace, Jaipur
One of the ornate tables at 1135 AD
Restaurant, Amber Palace, Jaipur
A well-deserved beer!
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A city decked up for Diwali

The plan for the evening was to do a bit of packing (since we were leaving the next morning) and then to head back to the old city for the Diwali experience. This time, we took an auto rickshaw, which expertly wove in and out of the traffic all the way to Sanganeri Gate. That’s where the Johari Bazaar market begins, and our plan was to follow it all the way down to Jaipur’s iconic landmark, the Hawa Mahal.

The old city really was decked up! Strings of lights were everywhere, and each shop had its own lighting. The larger ones even tried to outdo each other in putting up grand installations above their entrances. And everywhere were blaring music—if sometimes only advertising jingles—and enticing smells. We were very tempted to try some of the street food, but thought better of it because we were travelling the next day.

The Hawa Mahal in all its splendour

After some walking and gawking, we got to the Hawa Mahal. We had seen it during the day on our previous visit, and weren’t all that impressed. But that night, illuminated as it was, it was magical! We took some photos from the foot of the building, and then headed across the road for some more. Up a narrow flight of stairs opposite were a few cafés, probably better known for the view than for their food. That was fine with us.

Lights were everywhere, and even Jaigarh and Nahargarh were twinkling on their hilltops.

After some looking around, we found that the Tattoo Café had the best view, so we took a table on the rooftop and clicked away. After a while, we made some time for a basket of French fries, and finally settled down to soak everything in. Lights were everywhere, and even Jaigarh and Nahargarh were twinkling on their hilltop perches behind the Hawa Mahal. All was right with the world. And it wasn’t even Diwali yet, but the day before!

An adventure on the way back

Our ride back turned out to be a bit of an adventure. We walked back to Sanganeri Gate to try and get one of the many electric rickshaws we had seen earlier. No luck, especially since lots of strange traffic restrictions had been put in place by the police. We finally found a regular auto rickshaw willing to take us back, but we almost wished we hadn’t!

Our auto rickshaw driver drove like we were in an action movie!

This old chap drove his auto rickshaw like he was in an action movie, and we had our hearts in our mouths the entire time! He zoomed around traffic and through narrow lanes, screeched to a halt at the last second, and shouted at anyone who got in the way. Luckily, there was no incident, and we got back safe, if a little rattled. A nice homely meal in our homestay’s dining room soothed our nerves, though, and thus ended our last night in Jaipur.

Sanganeri Gate, Old City, Jaipur
Sanganeri Gate, all lit up, with the old city beyond
Johari Bazaar, Old City, Jaipur
A beautifully lit side street off Johari Bazaar
Johari Bazaar, Old City, Jaipur
Crowds and traffic in Johari Bazaar
Hawa Mahal, Old City, Jaipur
The magical Hawa Mahal, seen from below
Johari Bazaar, Old City, Jaipur
The sparkling Johari Bazaar, seen from the top
Hawa Mahal, Old City, Jaipur
Hawa Mahal, seen from the Tattoo Cafe

The next morning, we loaded everything on the bike (we had extra luggage carriers attached), and our road trip began in earnest. First stop: Ranthambhore!

Loaded motocycle, Jaipur
All set to hit the road to Ranthambhore!

Also read: Rajasthan on two wheels: Glimpses of Chittorgarh and Udaipur

IQ’s top tips for Jaipur

  • Jaipur is magical during Diwali, but that’s also when most tourists want to be there. Expect crowds.
  • Shikaar Bagh in the Narain Niwas hotel is a great place for a drink, but the food is mediocre.
  • Driving yourself in Jaipur isn’t recommended. The traffic is chaotic and the driving culture is terrifying. Also, watch out for traffic police trying to scam unsuspecting drivers.
  • Rajasthan is dry and dusty in winter, and the air is hazy, so landscape photographs don’t come out very well.
  • If you’re looking to take pictures of the fort walls from Jaigarh, the rains are a better time than during winter. The green hills contrast better with the brown walls.
  • If you’re in Amer at lunchtime, Chokha Amer is a nice place for some traditional Rajasthani food.
  • Even in winter, it gets hot during the day. The best time to see Jaigarh and Nahargarh is in the morning or evening.
  • Amber Palace is best seen in the afternoon, when there isn’t as much crowd.
  • The view from the hilltop battlements opposite Amber Palace is spectacular, but the climb up and down isn’t for the fainthearted.
  • The All Seasons Homestay is a nice combination of guesthouse and private residence. Rooms are very nice and reasonably priced. Add-ons like meals and laundry are a bit expensive, though.
  • If you need a car and driver in Jaipur, Saddiq is a great person to call. His number is +91 9829833465.

I took most of the photographs with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, using my new Tamron 18-400mm zoom lens (read my review). One or two were taken with my brilliant old Samsung Galaxy S5 phone. I took footage for the video (and some photographs) with my GoPro Hero5 action camera

In case you’re wondering how I took the videos while on the road… First, I tried strapping my GoPro Hero5 onto my helmet’s face guard with a few of these useful extra-long Velcro-type straps, but that threw my helmet’s balance off. So I alternated between strapping it onto my chest with an elastic chest harness, and mounting it on my bike’s crash guard with a handlebar mount. I used a protective case too, and strapped it in place, just in case. It doesn’t last too long on a single charge, so I had to take along an extra battery and an external charger. I used these high-speed SanDisk microSDXC memory cards for the hours of footage (Tip: You can use them for your phone too, and they come with an adapter to fit DSLRs and card readers).

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