If you have your own wheels or, more likely, a car with a driver, you can plan a few stops on the very long journey from Agra to Jaipur. The first of these should be Fatehpur Sikri: An ancient fortified city, built in the sixteenth century by the Mughal emperor Akbar and short-lived capital of that empire. The big, beautiful mosque is still in use while the rest of the city is empty and open to visitors.
It’s advisable to hire a guide as the history is very interesting and each building, most adorned with intricate stone carvings, had their own purpose and significance. Since our guide at the Taj Mahal had been really bad and we didn’t want to repeat the experience we went alone. After eavesdropping on other groups and their guides though, we regretted that decision.
Still, the old city is stunning and very intriguing, and you can wander around and enter all the buildings as you please. Everything has been built with red stones and adorned with fantastic stone carvings and sometimes paintings. It’s simply beautiful and, what a relief, not crowded at all.
The mosque is just a short walk on the paved road outside the walled city. Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that you have to pay another fee to go there, that’s not true. The mosque is huge and very busy, with people and goats everywhere from the big front steps that lead up to the entrance to the courtyard with its various tombs.
Abhaneri: A Stepwell
Further west direction Jaipur is Abhaneri, a small village with a huge stepwell, the Chand Baori. When we visited, the entrance was free but that might have changed by now. Either way, it is definitely worth a visit. If you travel through Rajasthan and Delhi, you will most likely come across a few stepwells, like the beautifully restored one in Jodhpur or Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi. But they don’t come even close to the one in Abhaneri: It’s wide and deep and on all four sides perfectly symmetrical steps lead down to the water – really impressive.
& An Old Temple
Across from the stepwell, there’s an old Hindu temple, or what remains of it. Apparently, it was destroyed hundreds of years ago by the Mughals and resentment still sits deep with the villagers. Despite the destruction, the temple is still in use and the stone carvings, although worn by the passing of time, tell of another masterpiece.
No matter what you think of today’s India – you have to admit that at one point in time, they knew how to make the most astonishing buildings, palaces, and forts. I’m often asking myself if I’ve ever been to a country with as many old buildings as beautiful and impressive (in terms of size as well as craftsmanship) as you can find in India and I’m really not sure if I have.
In Jaipur, there are two main sights: The so-called pink city which is the old city center with its huge bazar and some amazing, wonderfully decorated buildings, and then there’s the fort, a bit outside the city, in the small town of Amber (or Amer).
As with most sights, it’s best to visit the fort before noon to beat the worst crowds. In January, the nights are cold and in the mornings the air is heavy and thick with smoke from burnt coal. The smog, irrespective of the city’s boundaries, envelops the whole region and the short and steep but otherwise easy climb to the fort’s entrance becomes a very exhausting one.
In the rather small courtyard just past the first entrance to the fort, elephants are led around in circles, waiting for tourists who can’t resist an elephant ride. I don’t know what conditions the animals live in, but I have my doubts about how good they are kept and would never recommend paying money to keep that business going.
Exploring the Fort
As with Fatehpur Sikri, the fun in Amber fort lies in being able to explore everything by yourself. You’ve guessed it: that’s what makes these places so much cooler and more memorable than the Taj Mahal. Again, we didn’t hire a guide, so I didn’t get much about the history of the place and the purpose of the different buildings and sections of the fort. However, it gave us the freedom to just go wherever we wanted, which was amazing. Amber fort is huge, has several courtyards, and, standing majestically on a hill, offers great views from the rampart and the windows of rooms on all sides. It’s worth spending a few hours exploring the place.
Block Printing Museum in Amber
If you have spare time after the fort, I highly recommend the block printing museum in Amber town. It’s located in an old, wonderfully restored Haveli, a traditional townhouse or mansion of wealthy families. The entrance is only Rs. 80 and the museum has good, details exhibitions on the different aspects of block printing as well as many finely printed fabrics from different parts of India.
You can also watch how the intricate patterns are chiseled from teak wood and then printed on fabric – you can even have a go at it yourself. The art of block printing is disappearing; it’s a handicraft which is time-consuming, requires years of practice and is therefore much more expensive than machine-printing. However, in recent years young artist have re-discovered this beautiful traditional art and are now reviving it.
Pink City: Shopping Paradise
Jaipur’s walled city center, the Pink City, really is pink (kind of – it’s terracotta colored) and a consists mainly of an enormous market. We had lunch at the Ganesh Restaurant on top of the old city wall which serves amazing cashew curry and has good views of the bustling market and streets below.
In Jaipur, you can shop for hours on end. The market is big, and the shop owners are only too happy to show you everything they have, lay it out for you, and find exactly what you want if they see you’re not happy with the choices. But despite the endless offer, shopping in India is not easy, it’s in fact very time consuming.
Bargaining in India
Wherever you are, even if you’re just passing by a shop, the salesmen (yes, men. Always, with very, very few exceptions) will ask you three questions: Where you’re from, for how long you’ve already been in India and for how long you’re planning to stay.
The information you give influences the price: Prices will be higher if you answer you’re from Switzerland than if you say you’re from Spain. If you’ve just arrived in India and only stay for a short time, they know that a) you probably don’t know how to bargain Indian style yet and b) that your budget is most likely considerably higher than that of someone who’s traveling for several months. And don’t expect to dodge the questions by saying you don’t speak English. The salesmen are all multilingual, whatever your language, they speak it. So, your answers paint a picture of your economic situation and establish an initial price.
Then, if you decide to maybe buy something, you have to see what the shop has to offer while having a chat with the salesman and sipping masala chai. Then bargain. Don’t show too much interest: You don’t really want that scarf, it looks nice, sure, but you’ve seen a nicer one in a different shop. Really. Bargain some more, walk away if necessary. Then go to the next shop and repeat the whole procedure. Then go to another one. Maybe return to the first one, bargain again.
If you’re tired, get a coffee or a cold soda at a café opposite Hawa Mahal. There, you can appreciate the stunning building while recovering from heavy bargaining and gaining strength for the next round.