Our pri­vate Ra­jasthan

Four for­eign ladies on the road in In­dia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

“Four for­eign ladies would like to come to din­ner,” our oblig­ing host shouts into the phone. That would be four for­eign lady mem­bers of a small Ade­laide Hills book club, on tour in Ra­jasthan in a big white van driven by the un­flap­pable Pawan, with his ever-alert side­kick Naren­dra rid­ing shot­gun.

Our ge­nial host at the Jas Vi­las haveli in Jaipur is book­ing a ta­ble at Bar Pal­la­dio Jaipur, the smartest restau­rant in town. We’re meant to be in Varanasi but a pea­souper blan­ket­ing much of north In­dia grounds flights in that di­rec­tion so ace Aber­crom­bie & Kent fixer Tej Kapoor hits the phone and re­jigs the itin­er­ary on the spot at Delhi air­port. Where we would have been with­out him is hard to say, but prob­a­bly doss­ing in a hor­rid ho­tel on the air­port road cry­ing into our duty-free gin. In­stead, here we are in Jaipur. There’s Margie with her selfie stick, al­most con­fis­cated at the Taj Ma­hal, and over­sized suit­case with re­tractable han­dle jammed in the ex­tended po­si­tion, caus­ing much con­ster­na­tion for Naren­dra when pack­ing the van. There’s old In­dia hand Trudy, trav­el­ling with sev­eral tons of cloth­ing for an or­phan­age where she spends part of the year, and Jac­inta, who works a sal­war kameez with aplomb but has packed no sen­si­ble shoes.

It’s a whistlestop tour but we want to see as much as pos­si­ble so opt to travel by road, stay­ing in fam­ily-run guest­houses and small palace ho­tels. The neatly turned out and al­ways oblig­ing Pawan and Naren­dra are on standby 24/7 and ar­rive promptly to de­liver us to Bar Pal­la­dio Jaipur in time for lemon­grass mar­ti­nis in a gar­den dot­ted with bra­ziers and gor­geous canopied love seats. The brain­child of New York-based fash­ion de­signer Marie-Anne Oude­jans, the in­te­ri­ors of this belved­ere­turned-restau­rant are sub­lime with deep blue walls, lush fres­coes and cus­tom-made cush­ions and table­ware.

It’s a tour high­light along with the Am­ber Fort and the City Palace, where the of­fi­cial pi­geon scarer, armed with a red flag and dis­play­ing very few teeth, makes a tidy profit pos­ing for pho­to­graphs with tourists (be sure to check out the palace’s lovely on-site bou­tique). We have a pot of As­sam in the Polo Bar at the stately Ram­bagh Palace, where the waiters wear jodh­purs and tweed jack­ets, and, aban­don­ing the selfie stick for a mo­ment, pose for a grainy pho­to­graph snapped by Tikam Chand near the Jalebi Chowk gate us­ing the 150-year-old wooden Carl Zeiss cam­era once owned by his grand­fa­ther, pho­tog­ra­pher to the ma­hara­jah.

And yes, there is some shop­ping, in great fab­ric ware­houses where quilts and cush­ions are stacked floor to rafter like colour­ful sky­scrapers, and a tire­less team of re­tail­ers is on hand to un­furl dusty bolts of fab­ric and prof­fer small cups of sweet tea.

We split our time be­tween the pretty Jas Vi­las and the next door Ho­tel Megh­ni­was, owned by Colonel Fateh Singh and his wife Indu. In a tiny re­cep­tion of­fice, lined with old-fash­ioned pi­geon­holes stuffed with big brass key rings, the dig­ni­fied Indu, swathed in the finest camel­coloured silk, in­scribes our names in a large ledger. The 1948 man­sion fea­tures hand­some mar­ble stair­cases and hand­painted friezes and in the pretty gue­strooms, with their stylish bed­spreads and quilts and a mea­sure of re­straint, we feel Indu’s el­e­gant hand at work. The beds are hard and the hot wa­ter un­pre­dictable but it’s ut­terly charm­ing, and we quickly fall un­der the Singhs’ Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel spell.

Ev­ery morn­ing large pails of milk, cream and yo­ghurt ar­rive on the early bus from Pushkar where the Singhs’ son runs a tented camp and or­ganic farm. While break­fast is be­ing pre­pared, the im­mac­u­lately at­tired colonel per­forms a puja-and-ex­er­cise combo in the pretty gar­den. The Singhs spend their days sit­ting on the lawn with their spaniel Benji lis­ten­ing to the tran­sis­tor ra­dio.

In the evening the bra­ziers are lit and drinks served by the pool, be­fore a gen­er­ous curry buf­fet is dis­pensed from great cop­per pots.

We hate to leave Jaipur but look for­ward to our day­long drive to Jodh­pur. The kitchen kindly packs boiled eggs and crack­ers and we stop for tea at a busy road­side cafe, care­fully se­lect­ing from a dizzy­ing ar­ray of blends, at var­i­ous price points de­pend­ing on the ex­otic­ness of the brew, only to dis­cover they are all dis­pensed from the same urn.

Jodh­pur is an im­pos­ing sight from the road, a walled me­dieval city hud­dled be­neath a mas­sive fort.

Pawan drops us on the edge of the old town (the lanes are far too nar­row for the big white van) and we pile all our lug­gage and shop­ping into two auto rick­shaws, be­fore dip­ping and weav­ing through dark and crowded streets pun­gent with a musky per­fume of min­gled cow dung, spices and rot­ting veg­eta­bles. Our ho­tel, Pal Haveli, is an an­cient palace with the fam­ily still in res­i­dence, screened from the hus­tle and bus­tle of the old town by thick but in­tri­cately carved stone screens, so that when we sit in our beds at dawn drink­ing tea with pow­dered milk we feel we could well be in pur­dah.

Gue­strooms are se­cured with slid­ing bolts and enor­mous locks and the list of ho­tel rules, sit­ting on the dress­ing ta­ble, must have been drafted in the 1960s; it for­bids all man­ner of long-for­got­ten in­frac­tions, in­clud­ing the “stor­ing of cinema films or any other ar­ti­cles of a com­bustible na­ture”.

The bar is stuffed with tro­phies and leop­ard skins, lamps are fash­ioned from ri­fles and bar stools from sad­dles. The rooftop restau­rant, serv­ing an ex­cel­lent veg­e­tar­ian thali, of­fers in­cred­i­ble views of the city and 1459built Mehran­garh Fort, beau­ti­fully lit at night, an as­ton­ish­ing ed­i­fice Kipling dubbed a work of gi­ants and an­gels. Ditto at Pal Haveli, where the steps to the restau­rant are so steep and widely spaced only a gi­ant could climb them with any­thing ap­proach­ing ease.

A visit to Jodh­pur’s hill­top fort is a high­light of any visit to Ra­jasthan (the au­dio tour is out­stand­ing). Be sure to find the “Med­i­ta­tion Room” where a raga mas­ter per­forms be­neath an or­nately carved canopy.

The drive to Udaipur high­lights the con­tra­dic­tions and con­trasts of a rapidly de­vel­op­ing In­dia, from brand spank­ing new six-lane mo­tor­ways, largely empty but for the oc­ca­sional cow or camel or a chap strolling along with

The view from Mehran­garh Fort to Jodh­pur, the Blue City of Ra­jasthan, top; Bar Pal­la­dio Jaipur, above

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