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Last night, after supper in a deserted restaurant with the Backstreet Boys playing at full volume (the only non-screechy music I've heard for three and a half months - except for the Eagles - and we've had the whole album played eight times in a week, I think) we went to a craft emporium but I'm too intimidated to buy gemstones by carat and that was all the crafts they were selling. There was a small boy stringing beads, a slightly disturbing reminder of the child labour that goes on here.
We arranged for a car to take us out to Amber, about eight miles away, to see the Palace there. It's visible from the town, and is a lovely pale yellow building on a hill. We drove out of town, nicely sealed from the dust and various sellers by the cave-like Ambassador taxi. Like almost every car we've seen recently, this one had a lucky Hindu swastika painted on the bonnet in red nail varnish. It was a pretty one with curved ends and decorated with dots, and looked much more like the Isle of Man symbol than the nazi one. A tractor went past covered from big wheels to front wheels and all over the top in a solid-looking cloak of gold, blue and red tinsel. Along this street yesterday we saw a sign proclaiming the 'Fruitful Institute of Commerce and Maths' but I couldn't see it today. I'm still impressed by the oldness of the city and its ancient decorations; even the tiniest of shops have crenelated battlements, driftwood-like shutters or carved stone screens instead of windows.
Jaipur still looks orange rather than pink, but some of the shutters on the shops were a pale, faded pink so maybe that counts. The landscape took on a pale shade too as we left the city and drove out into the desert-like outskirts. We passed a palace sitting in a lake, the arches at the bottom of the four circular corner turrets sitting in the water and making little windows to the other side of the lake. Our driver said he'd stop for us to take a photo on the way back. The road out to Amber was long, wide and traffic-free, something we haven't seen for months. The stony landscapes around were full of bright purple and pink flowers that might have been bourganvillia, not that I know what it looks like, but that's how I imagine it. Just before we reached the palace, a man stood at the side of the road with a pair of elephants: a beautifully-painted giant lady and her son, two year-old Gorry. Our driver stopped and I went to take a photo. The elephant man told me to come and stroke the elephants, and I couldn't resit: they were every bit as hairy as the ones in Angkor. The baby had a good sniff of me with his trunk, tried to knock me over and then undid my shoelaces which was very cute and surprisingly dextrous.
We could have ridden an elephant up to the palace but we weren't sure we'd have time: thirty minutes versus five in the car, so we opted for the quicker one this time. I haven't given up all hope of riding an elephant yet! The way up was through lovely cobbled streets and tiny windy passages and the driver asked only once if we wanted to stop for a guide and left it at that, ensuring his tip! He left us at the gates and we walked up the ramp to the palace. There was a nice view of Amber/Tiger Fort on the next hill up, but we're quite forted-out at the moment and were happy just to see the palace. The elephants that brought people up the hill were all lined up inside the entrance, painted with green and blue flowers and wearing red cloths under their passenger platforms. The men driving the elephants were similarly dressed in finery with red turbans and long white robes, but that seems normal attire for Rajasthan so far.
The palace was typical of the sorts of thing we've seen recently, with lovely paintings on the outside walls, plenty of perforated stone screens, domes and curves and a lot of space. What I liked most though was the opportunity to explore completely freely (one of the benefits of not having a guide) and being able to take random passage after random staircase and get completely lost. This is one of the reasons I'm so totally hopeless at the computer games where you have to run around spooky places kiling people because I'm so easily distracted by a cool-looking doorway or a secret tunnel. And anyway, it's scary thinking someone's creeping up on you trying to kill you.
We explored just about every one of the six storeys, I climbed almost every staircase, even the ones that just led to an edge, and I used a torch to make sure I wasn't missing anything. A lot of the palace had the air of being abandoned and unexplored, with piles of rubble where a ceiling had finally given in and some rooms full of dusty, carved wooden doors in piles, and there were dark tunnels sometimes it smelled of mould. One of the things that struck me most were the palace loos - small rooms at the end of twisty passages that had double walls and a hole in the floor. These places, four hundred years old, were more sanitary and civilised than almost anything we've seen in India so far, and I wonder what's happened to the country. I think the people who built these palaces and lived in those times would be disappointed now.
There were green parrots on the walls and pigeons cooing inside cool, shady halls. We saw the Glass Palace, a huge room covered inside and out with a mosaic of curved dark mirror fragments. There were stained glass windows here too, and a million tiny reflections looked back at us from every angle. It was a really, really nice way to spend the morning. On the way back, we stopped to take a photo of the palace in the lake and then we were taken back to the hotel. We checked out of our room and spent a couple of hours in the garden eating lunch and feeding the more adventurous chipmonks from our knees. They were very cute to watch and it was lovely just being able to relax. Our train was due to leave at 2.10 and even though we were expecting it to be late (it's the same one that was five hours late on Sunday) we had to get there on time.
The train actually was five hours late again, and we phoned the guesthouse in Jodhpur to let them know that we wouldn't be arriving until about 2am rather than the 9pm they were expecting. Then we sat and sat and read for a bit. When the train finally turned up our berths were filthy, with rubbish, wet and muddy blankets strewn everywhere, apple cores and nut shells in the seat pockets and the little terracotta chai cups on the floor. (The earthenware cups are one thing I do like about India. The government introduced them in a bid to cut down on plastic waste: the tiny unglazed fired pots are only used once, supposedly sterile because they've come straight from a kiln and disintegrate to dust on the streets when they break. It's a good idea.)
We had the space to ourselves, however, and that was the only good thing. There was a couple next to us with a screaming baby and it wouldn't stop even after they hit it, shook it, slapped its head, bounced it fiercely up and down and sang an amusing version of baa-baa baa-baa bli-ek shep, if-ya-ah-neh-wah. They walked it up and down the carriage too so that everyone felt the benefit of its laboured breathing, wheezing and screams. At about midnight it seemed to calm down a bit and we got some sleep.
When the train arrived in Jodhpur a man met Mikey on the platform by name and took us to his white, quilted PVC-upholstered auto-rickshaw. He drove us down a maze of streets almost too narrow for the vehicle and swerved round dogs sleeping in the road that were too tired to get out of the way. I was surprised by how many people were sitting on the floors of their shops chatting to one another with all the lights on. The owner of the guesthouse met us wearing only his boxer shorts and took us up to our room. This place was a tiny haveli, a traditional Rajasthan house, with waist-high steps up to our room. Even at 3am we were able to appreciate its beauty, and spent a few minutes exploring. It was probably three rooms once, and it had a gallery with a little stone balustrade at regular ceiling heights, but the beams were about six feet higher than that. The ceiling was panelled in dark wood, the same material as the several doors, cupboards and windows, all of which had panes of stained glass in them. The bathroom was at the end of a corridor created on the balcony by a reed screen, and it had a large, black tiled bath at one end. The room had a large double bed, a matress on the floor for sitting in, ornaments, book cases and a couple of jars containing plasic tigers wired together and hanging from a tree, and three doors at the far end of the room that opened onto the street, three floors below. Another room behind the bed had nothing in it except shuttered alcoves. It was wonderful! We set the alarm for quite late and had a very good night's sleep despite the chanting, the drums and the bendy music playing in the next street.
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