Monday morning brought with it a whole new set of problems. For one Gurgaon as everyone is aware is a good 30-40 kms outside the nation's capital depending on which part of Delhi you measure from. The previous night when I had driven down along with BM from Rohini West, I'd been remotely aware that it was far far away but the true magnitude of the distance was apparent only when I set out the next day. Waking up very late at 8, I hastily packed up from BM's flat and left for Delhi. I know I just spent half a day in Gurgaon but expressed below are my brutally honest impressions for which I offer no apologies
- There are two sides to this so called cosmopolitan city - one: wide main roads, tall and mean state-of-the-art skyscrapers, chic call centre chicks - two: narrow and filthy by lanes, foul mouthed pedestrians and lousy public transport system. For short distances, there are six seaters and cycle rickshaws but for long distance there are only rundown private buses.
- In Gurgaon, private bus services are the absolute pits. The drivers initially just refuse to move till the bus is jam packed with capacity more than double of what it was built for. And then when the bus finally moves, every passenger (and that includes atheists and agnosts) turns to the Good Lord in the hope that he/she will reach the destination safely.
- In Gurgaon, private bus drivers do not know why bus stops were ever built. They stop only at signals and the final destination. So if u are lucky enough to have your bus stop near a signal, so be it.
- In Gurgaon buses, everything except parents and girlfriends are up for sale courtesy persistent hawkers. I resisted the temptation to listen to those wonderful sales pitches for the first 20 mts but soon boredom took over and I managed to get conned into buying a keychain cum knife and a spring balance for a princely sum of Rs 5. I was also tempted to buy a cure-all pellet made from banana skin that was presumably the ingenuous quack's one shot solution for ulcer, cancer and constipation amongst others but the man just refused to budge from his initial price of Rs 10 per pack and I was way too proud to buy something where I had been unable to even bring down the price by 50p.
When I finally reached ISBT it was a quarter to 11 and most of the daily Delhi Darshan buses run by private operators had left. The best they could arrange was for me to join the tour post lunch opposite the Red Fort. Left with a couple of hours to while away, I went book shopping and bought another Paulo Coelho for my return journey. A random check at the Railway counter gave me the shock news that Udaipur station had been closed since the day before due to gauge conversion forcing me to rework my plans. I booked my ticket for Jaipur by the late evening train which also meant that I'd miss Pranav's reception. At around 1 pm, I joined the sight seeing tour and just as luck would have it, since it was a Monday, the guide announced that the Red Fort would be closed. Nothing could have been more disappointing but I spent the rest of the afternoon with the party that included six garrulous Marathis from Pune, a couple of Turks, a genial Yank from Colorado Greg and a family of 7 from Chandigarh visiting places like Raj Ghat, Bahai temple, Lakshminarayan temple, ISKON Mandir, Qutub Minar and India Gate. The lone bright spot in the whole afternoon was the interesting commentary provided all along by our guide Rahul who kept switching between Hindi and a strange language that sounded so much like Lilliputian though later found to be English. When we returned to base at Paharganj at around half past 6, I had to withdraw some money from the ATM and it was then that I realised that for all the hype surrounding these big names, there was hardly a single ICICI or CITI ATM to be seen. If there were two brands that were ubiquitous then it was SBI and surprisingly, UTI. Good job Madhur and Shweta ;-) Money in hand, I returned to New Delhi station only to be told that there was a third station - Old Delhi from where trains to Jaipur departed. Damnit..Why on earth does a city need 3 Railway stations ?
The train to Jaipur left Delhi on time and unfortunately for me reached on time too. I had slept fitfully the whole night in the stupid 2nd class sleeper bunk wary that I had to get down at 4:30 am on Tuesday. However I need not have worried since a whole troupe of 50 odd NCC cadets from some school got in it at Jaipur and shook me awake. Backpack and camera (can be equated with the kavach kundalam of Karna) in place, I checked into the Railway dormitory. The bugger at the counter could clearly see that I wanted to hit the sack and cunningly (or so I think) mentioned that dorms and single bedrooms were full and only double bedrooms were available. I paid up the Rs 300, went to the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation office in the station, woke up the clerk at 4:45 am, reserved a seat for myself in the daily sight seeing tour and came back to the room only to doze off within a couple of minutes. At half past eight, the tourist bus with an eclectic mix of a couple of dashing Frenchmen, 4 introverted Japanese, a Korean, two Australians, a North Indian couple and the lone wolf set out to explore the charms of the Pink City. Unlike the placement brochures of B schools which show an unbelievably beautiful campus, tourist brochures about Rajasthan and Jaipur aren't far from the truth. Amer Palace and Fort situated on the outskirts of the city was a very beautiful place and the trip would have been all the more enjoyable had I read up a little bit on the history of the time period. However the desi guide with his rustic Hinglish more than made up for it by reeling out names and dates and stats. Other highlights of the morning were the visit to the City Palace and Museum and the amazing Jantar Mantar or observatory (much better than Delhi's since all 16 instruments actually worked here). It was during the morning trip that I got pally with the guide and discovered that though he had a regular job, he sometimes agreed to work for RTDC simply because the tips from foreigners on a good day were to the tune of 20$ to 50 Euros. Curiously enough, most of the full time guides seemed to be extremely conversant in atleast three languages - French, Spanish and Japanese. It was also at Jaipur that I had to face the harsh reality that my French was not abysmal but abysmal ^ gazillion. After another pointless attempt at conversation in French with my fellow bus mates, I resolved to unlearn everything I knew (which wasn't much) and learn it all again properly or never ever remember that I had grappled with the language for 2 good years. The afternoon was spent in visiting the more popular forts in the city namely Jaigarh and Nahargarh besides the ethereal Hawa Mahal and when we returned at 7, it was a day well spent.
Since time was limited and there were lotsa places I wanted to visit, I had mentally planned to travel every night but to my chagrin found that bus services to Ajmer and Pushkar were available only during the day. My double room at the station had to be vacated at 5 am on Wednesday and so again I was turned out to the streets till 9 when the bus would actually depart. So for a good 4 hours with the temperature at 7-8 degrees, I was wandering around like a nomad. Thankfully the 3 hour journey to Ajmer ensured that I caught up with sleep and on the way, we had an early lunch at a roadside dhaaba where food looked so inedible that I limited myself to my routine diet of biscuits and Sprite. We reached Pushkar at around 1 pm and the van was parked at the foot of the hill from where we had to trudge up. Now Pushkar's only claim to fame is that it houses the only temple for Lord Brahma in the country. This temple is rumored to be the second richest temple in India after Tirupati but it definitely did not appear so. The temple itself was dilapidated and there was not even a pujari. After hastily paying my respects to the deity, I decided to utilise the 1.5 hrs given by our guide to explore the surroundings. There were a couple of lakes and a few smaller temples too but other than that nothing of architectural interest. However when I chatted up with a local tea shop owner, I was in for some real surprises. After some healthy bonding, he revealed that 80% of Pushkar's population was floating with most of them being foreign tourists, of which almost 70% were Israelis. Everything seemed to now fall in place for I remembered that in the long stretch from downhill to the temple there had been atleast 15-20 Internet Cafes with boards in a strange language. When I finally got into one, even the keyboard was in Hebrew. I also found from our guide that at Pushkar, rooms were available anywhere from Rs 150 to Rs 600 a night and in the moderate to lower priced range, even grass was on the house…Wowwwww... This was one place which seemed to know wot to do to make its foreign clientele happy. Besides this, Pushkar had some really amazing handicraft shops. Of course, there were three prices - the real one, one for Indian tourists and one for foreigners. After a lot of haggling, I bought a couple of exquisite jholnas and some incense. Shopping done I returned to base camp and at around 3:30 we left for Ajmer. Reaching there at 4, I got my first rude jolt for the day when I was simply asked to get down and tour the city by myself. It seems there wasn't much to see except that world famous Dargah where the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Persia was buried. Left with no alternate choice, I disembarked and got onto a tonga cart to reach the proper city. I then checked with a few locals who reconfirmed that there was indeed nothing else noteworthy in the place. Booking my tickets to Udaipur by the night bus and with a couple of hours to kill, I watched Kisna in Ajmer's fanciest theatre. More about the movie in a separate review if possible.