Monday, December 28, 2009

Back on the Road: Agra to Jaipur

Having gotten into the early-to-rise rhythm with our previous day's dawn visit to the Taj Mahal, we had the bikes packed and out in the street in front of the Shanti Lodge by 8AM.  We got the sense that cycling out of Agra wouldn't be quite the death match that Delhi was, so we decided to try riding out of town on our own.
  I had an Agra city map we picked up in Delhi folded into my map holder, and it actually served quite well, augmented with just a couple of prompts from well-meaning passers-by.  The  
tangle of streets around Taj Ganj gave way to some broad signed avenues that offered easy riding even at rush hour.  But then the route closed back down to market streets and multiple railway crossings as we purposely diverged from the most direct route to our day's destination at Batephur to follow a smaller highway that would take us through Fatehpur Sikri for a lunch stop.

The road to Fatehpur Sikri gave us a first taste of what cycling India might be like away from the national highway system.  The bumpy two-laner with no shoulder required us to constantly watch the surface for holes and obstructions as well as look ahead for overtaking traffic aimed directly towards us - most typically a careening bus with its horn blaring (thanks for the heads up...).  After only 20 km or so, however, the country road gave way to a new expressway, barely a year old, that was more worthy of this route's official designation as "NH 11", and sporting the four lanes and wide shoulders we'd been introduced to on NH 2 from Delhi.  And here, away from the big cities, we encountered much less of the hazardous contra-flow traffic that made the Delhi-Agra ride so nerve-wracking.

In late morning we crossed the line into the State of Rajasthan and stopped for a photo, then just a few klicks later we pulled off the expressway and on down the old Agra road that runs past the fort at Fatehpur Sikri.  Though everyone raves about this World Heritage site, we knew we wouldn't be able to do it justice and still make another 30km to our day's goal at the town of Bharatpur, so we chose to treat it as just a lunch stop - though Kate did get waylaid for a bit of souvenir shopping in the nearby tourist ghetto.

Bharatpur is at the edge of Keoladeo National Park, a wildlife sanctuary that draws serious birders from all over the world.  However, Rajasthan is in the midst of multiyear drought, and with no water in the sanctuary's lake, there was plenty of availability at our first choice of accommodation, the Birder's Inn, where we procured an amazingly palatial room - all marble, painted ceilings and a huge bed - at the budget price of 2150 Rs.  And it was nice indeed to have such a comfortable spot to hang out, because something I'd had for lunch in Fatehpur Sikri put me out of commission for the entire following day.  After dealing with various and sundry tummy rumblings for the previous two weeks this was our first true encounter with the fabled Delhi Belly.

So after the enforced extra rest day at the Birder's Inn - Kate took a sunset rickshaw ride through the sanctuary and I made a lightning run to a nearby internet shop - I tanked myself up on Lomotil and we got back out on the highway bright and early for a run to our next stop at the town of Mahwah.  On this stretch we were well into the margins of the Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide and most online sources, which only cover legit tourist destinations, but local intelligence had confirmed the existence of an RTDC-run (Indian Government) "Midway Hotel" in Mahwah.  

The 63km ride was substantially similar to our approach into Bharatpur, a smooth new 4 lane expressway cutting through the mustard fields and shaded by eucalyptus.  If anything, the traffic was even lighter out here and we encountered fewer of the crazy town crossroad scenes as the new highway tends to take a wide bypass around the towns themselves.  At the outskirts of Mahwah we began to see signs for the "Mahwah Midway Hotel", and we wisely stuck to the bypass rather than venturing into town.  We finally encountered the hotel at the far western edge of Mahwah, though something seemed amiss, since the substantial white edifice we saw didn't match our expectations of a dowdy government-run institution.

It turns out that the "Midway" moniker is a rather generic term in Indian English that applies to traveler's outposts - restaurants, hotels or resorts - that are along otherwise empty sections of a highway somewhere between major cities.  It turned out that the "RTDC Midway" we were looking for was in fact half a klick back into Mahwah town - and did indeed turn out to be what we'd expected: a dusty, down-at-the-heels guest-house run by a lackadaisical troupe of government employees-for-life.  (It's virtually impossible to be fired from a government job in India.)

So we chose the big white hotel on the highway and for 300 Rs (plus a mysterious 200 Rs baksheesh to the smarmy manager for rustling up real mattresses) we had a perfectly adequate room for the night - despite the weird circular bed constructed from a concrete slab.  This place's true raison d'ĂȘtre was luring tour bus passengers in for overpriced lunches and a pass through their vast gift shop, so it turned out we were the only actual overnight guests in the hotel.  Still nursing my tender gut, I passed on dinner, but Kate dove into a generous thali - which came back in the middle of the night to deliver up her very own case of Delhi Belly.

Breakfast in the expansive garden the next day was a nice starter, but we still weren't the happiest of campers when we climbed back on the bikes for the day's run to a spot just short of the town of Dausa, where a tip in the cycling blog published by Hendrik Jan Rogge on had cued us to the existence of a somewhat mysterious "palace hotel on a lake".  But sure enough, after only 50km we saw the signs for the Umaid Lake Palace Hotel, turning down the long drive to find a 4-story red sandstone palace built in Mughal style at the edge of a (currently dry) lake, with Indian families recreating under tents on the manicured grounds, taking camel rides past the Taj-like reflecting pool with actual operating fountains.  A bit of negotiating finagled us a discount to 1800 Rs. for a top-floor room with a sunset-view balcony - though like a lot of these places, Umaid Lake Palace manages to get you in the end with their exorbitant markups on the food.

It was good once again to have found such a comfortable spot, because that evening the scratchy throat and sniffles I'd had since we landed in Delhi finally blossomed into a full fledged headcold with fever and an unstoppable hacking cough.  (That at least partially explained the severe bonk I'd experienced the day before, which I'd attributed to a substandard lunch of a handful of cookies and a banana.) Thus ensued an another rest day off the bikes, though without the consolation of a nearby national park for Kate.  Nevertheless, she'd done her own course of Lomotil and gamely amused herself with walks around the countryside and explorations through the hotel's nearly complete bookshelf of Penguin classics.  

A day of horizontality and a handful of Tylenols put me back in shape for the final 70km run into Jaipur which consisted of more of the same expressway cycling but with a noticeable uptick in traffic.  We've also seen a lot more camel-powered vehicles as we've headed west: usually a single-axled wooden cart with balloon tires carrying an impossible-looking load of straw, grain or even bricks, hitched to a stoic-looking beast plodding along the highway shoulder at a respectable 6 km/hour.  But sometimes the load and driver are bundled up together atop the camel, or occasionally we'll even see a single bareback rider trotting or galloping down the highway on his steed, the camel clearly enjoying a moment of unburdened freedom (and these work-beasts are always he-camels.)

We've realised that the best food along the highway is from the flashier roadside daubas that seem to be patronised by prosperous Indian families with white SUVs parked out front.  But today we stupidly passed up a couple of these and had to settle for a somewhat less savoury and more fly-specked establishment in the industrial suburbs of Jaipur, which didn't much help my still tender stomach (Kate wisely stuck to bananas.)  Along this same stretch of highway we began to see stone-yards where teams of (usually) young men are working away carving the sandstone railings, screens, and archways that are ubiquitous in the local architecture.  At first we saw only one or two, with the boys squatting over 2-inch thick slabs of pink stone with a chisel and a hammer.  It seems impossible that these intricate carvings were all being done by hand, but when we stopped to investigate they told us that no power tools were being used in the process; certainly none were in evidence in the workshops except for large saws and the lathes used for turning columns.  The occasional stone-yards gave way to a long section of the road where carving in sandstone as well as marble was the only business being done at all; in between workshops whose yards were filled with panels, columns, religious sculptures and even entire chatris we could see the industrial-scale cutting operations where huge raw boulders were being sawn into workable pieces.  On this section of the highway an additional hazard for us was dodging the big yellow mobile cranes trundling up and down the road to and from the cutters - without regard to traffic direction, of course - with huge chunks of stone swinging from their gantries.  

A few klicks east of Jaipur the nice federally-built NH 11 expressway took a bypass to the south towards Kota and we were immediately dumped out onto an inauspicious 2-lane local artery littered with rubble, potholes and trash and filled with a honking maelstrom of vehicles punctuated by wandering cows.  We'd been warned several times about Jaipur's infamous gridlock, so we thought we were pretty clever to arrive on a Sunday afternoon.  But as we rode a winding route over the hill into town - the first actual grade we've had to climb on this trip - and freewheeled into the city proper we realised that we weren't by any means going to escape Jaipur's Delhi-class traffic nightmare.  This was also the first place we encountered really aggressive street kids, who started out their wheedling for rupees while we were stuck at a stoplight and ended up grabbing at the panniers until we had to threaten bodily retaliation.

Fortunately we had decent Jaipur city maps, and after only one wrong turn arrived at our destination, the Jaipur Inn, a quirky establishment just a few blocks west of the ancient walls of the Pink City.  We rolled off Jaipur's gritty and chaotic streets through a set of high gates and into a peaceful enclosed garden and patio area.  We'd phoned ahead to ensure availability and our host Pushpendra came down to welcome us and offer us their unique Treetop Room, an octagonal glass-sided bedroom cantilevered out over the patio and reached by an iron spiral staircase.  He assured us that the bikes would be safe from theft parked in the patio, but also suggested a further "anti-fiddling" measure we'd never thought of: cover the bikes with a bunjee-secured tarp (actually just one of their large tablecloths) to reduce the temptation to curious eyes of a pair of American mt. bikes.  We had a look at their 5th-floor rooftop cafe, sporting great views of Jaipur and dominated by a wild pair of guest-room towers that double as billboards - in fact, these were the landmarks that originally zeroed us in on the hotel.

Like Delhi, Jaipur just doesn't seem to be a city suited to pleasurable strolling, and somewhat daunted by the prospect of venturing forth to find a good restaurant after a challenging day of cycling we instead opted for dinner at the hotel's simple cafe.  Our sightseeing and logistical planning tasks can wait for tomorrow.