Agra

Agra, India

Let’s be honest about it, Agra sucks. When you plan to visit the tourist epicentre of India, you know it’s going to suck, and it does — badly. But the Taj Mahal, oh the Taj Mahal. What a magnificent sight. I don’t need to tell you that, though, everyone knows it and for good reason. So fine is the experience that it makes the lobotomy of visiting Agra absolutely worth it. Pushy touts and drivers are sure to pepper any destination in India but only in Agra is your suffering truly insured by a guarantee of brilliance. A brilliance that only the grand mausoleum and towering minarets of the Taj can afford.

The Uttar Pradesh tourism board have chosen not to light the Taj at night and I thought this a good thing. A sight such as this deserves the full illumination of daylight and no amount of incandescence could do it justice. Even for those game enough to arrive at sunrise, trying to avoid the crowds at the Taj is a futile effort. We, the tourist horde, number so many here that it’s packed throughout visiting hours. Fortunately no concentration of people is capable of detracting from the supernatural beauty of the grounds, especially at dawn. A box ticked, I left happy.

The next morning, I was halfway through an uninspired bowl of muesli when I began to feel my stomach tighten. Groaning, I took immediate survey of the nearest lavatory. A storm was brewing and my suffering was assured. It is an exceptionally dark experience to be sick while travelling alone and, as intense stomach pain gave way to a volcanic fever, I sat in the lobby of a nondescript hotel being steadily reduced to a whimpering shell of a man. Rakesh, the owner of the hotel and a man I had just met, showed me what felt at the time to be an immense level of humanity. Perhaps concerned I’d scare off his guests with my leper-like demeanour, he offered me a room and some blankets to lie down with and even a lassi to settle my temperature free of charge. Later, he sent one of his employees along with me to load up on prescription drugs before my train to Varanasi. Pale and emaciated, I shook his hand as one might an old friend. Sometimes even the smallest act of charity can make the unbearable seem markedly less so.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise
A glimpse back at the entrance to the Taj Mahal's grounds. Visitors can be seen pouring in and jostling for position in the iconic photo spot
A closeup of the intricate marble carvings inside the grand mausoleum of the Taj Mahal A rare moment of solitude in a corner of the grounds of the Taj Mahal

Jaipur

Jaipur, India

In a state crowded with strongholds big and small, Amer fort of Jaipur is without a doubt the crown jewel. Its walls erupt from steep crags and march tirelessly through the surrounding hills, sparing none their presence. An elephant of questionable treatment carts patrons up the punishing climb to the forts internal complex. Though it is bursting with visitors from near and far, the vast grounds treat any guest with a little perseverance to short moments of solitude in which to take in the spectacular sunset over the city below.

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, home to over 6 million people and the renown pink city: a neighborhood constructed entirely of pink stone. It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as pink would look if it was brown. Muddled in with the marketplaces and city gates is Jantar Mantar, an eclectic collection of astronomical instruments constructed in the 1700s by Jai Singh II, a king of the time whom harbored a great love of the sciences. While impressive in size, they remained cryptic as to how one might use them to measure anything astronomical. Instead they provided me with a measurement of my own ignorance, which was considerable.

At Jaigarh fort, visitors peruse the once thriving cannon forge. It was here that Jaivana was built, at the time the worlds largest wheel-mounted cannon. Evidence of a medieval arms race, it rivals a bus in size and was fired just once with half of the designed gun-powder. The cannonball flew 35 kilometers afield, an impressive distance that confirmed how utterly useless it would be in an actual conflict.

The brilliant facade of the Hawa Mahal, built so women of the royal household could peer down at the streets below and remain unseen. A prime example of Jaipur's iconic 'pink'
Jal Mahal, a water palace in the middle of Man Sagar lake A thali (indian set meal) to conquer them all is served at Rainbow restaurant in the Old City of Jaipur
Internal courtyard of the Amer fort
Outer gardens at the base of Amer fort Visitors gaze out at the outer walls of Amer from atop Jaigarh fort
The colourful Rajasthani state flag blows in the wind above Jaigarh fort's watchtower
A Jeep employed to scale the heights of Jaigarh fort sits in the afternoon sun Sunlight floods through the exquisite carvings high in the Amer fort palace
Jaivana, at the time the worlds largest wheel-mounted cannon, sits at the topmost lookout of Jaigarh fort

Udaipur

Udaipur, India

In Udaipur, locals proudly tell you you’re in the Venice of the East. You might feel incredulous to such claims at first but its peaceful character grows on you. Honeymooners flock for the romance and it’s no small achievement that a city of half a million people feels positively tranquil.

Since the city featured in the 1983 Bond film “Octopussy”, all the guest houses in Udaipur screen it every night. Every night, it seems, except for the night I actually wanted to watch it. On that night, of course, it was nowhere to be found. A small matter when the evening spectacle from the waterfront is so dazzling. Gazing out upon its expansive surface, it’s hard to imagine the lake dries up entirely during the summer months.

Inside the wonderfully antiquated Lal Ghat guest house I met Rosie, a British expat and antiques dealer running her own guest house in town. She tells me over chai that tourist numbers are down this season. A confusing trend indeed when the setting is so sublime.

City Palace lights up at dusk. Built slowly over a 400 year period, the palace complex is still owned by the Mewar royal family
An inner courtyard of the City Palace View from the rooftop of the Lal Ghat guest house: Lake Pichola at dawn
Elephant sculptures welcome visitors to the Jag Mandir, a palace built on an island in Lake Pichola
Anything from doorways to mudguards can and will be decorative in India, this charming gate to a small, residential hindu temple is no exception Waterfront of the Lal Ghat guest house. Lal Ghat is one of the oldest guest houses still operating in Udaipur

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, India

I left Jaisalmer with a bad taste in my mouth. The town is laid back and its fort unique in being inhabited but the blend of tourism on offer left me feeling morally compromised. The lonely planet devotes an entire page to the Jaisalmer camel safari, billing it as the essential experience of any visit. Upon arrival you are strongly encouraged to take part by hoteliers, travel agents and other tourists. Since the entry made its way onto those fabled pages, however, the golden age has long passed. Tourism has been magnified so intensely here that the once barren dunes have been filled with luxury guest houses, touts and beggars. With more than 300 tour operators active during the season, groups are carted 45 minutes out of town by jeep in order to escape the crowds. What is sold as a guided tour through the wilderness is, in actual fact, a brisk trot through a commercial wind-farm, abound with barren farmland and powerlines.

Not to discount the valiant efforts of the guides themselves. The gentleman tasked with leading our group was a charismatic individual, talented in camel-wrangling and conjuring 5-star dishes with nothing but a sand-covered pan, some rocks and loose bric-a-brac for firewood. We’re half way through the first day when we learn the money we’ve paid to be there goes to the camel owner, not the guide. The man toiling in the 30-degree heat in front of us earns almost nothing except for the tips from his guests. I begin to feel a little sick. He details his schedule: a 7-day work week with 1 nights break a month to visit his family far afield. I wonder how one could possibly maintain a sense of humour and jest with tourists day-in, day-out without a single day to themselves.

Ten years of drought in Jaisalmer has left many in need of work, often with no other option than to break stones for a living. In these conditions, even a job with no break at all becomes preferable. The camel owners pay the guides a pittance to prevent them from gaining enough purchasing power to afford camels of their own. Our guide tells us that, even with tips, everything he earns must go to his family in order for them to survive. Despite his strong determination, the chances of him working his way out of this situation are slim. To further complicate the matter he is unable to read or write. Though I understand it’s supporting a line of work that he sees as an improvement, I begin to wish I hadn’t agreed to the trek at all.

Later that night, my mind began to wander. It occurred to me that his story might be a fabrication. That perhaps this was a common tale given to foreigners to pull heartstrings and turn a higher tip. I then began to examine other aspects of the tour with the same suspicion: How much of this was set up? Paranoia gripped me and it was evident to my companions that I’d mentally checked out for the evening.

In India you are constantly faced with a barrage of individuals intent on getting something from you and in these conditions the mind begins to frustrate over what’s true and what isn’t. Human nature drives you to believe while the cynicism earned through each uncovered ruse urges you to doubt. It can be hard to strike a balance. The next day we dismount our camels for the last time and I slip the guide a tip, resigned to the fact that I will never know the truth one way or another.

The fort at Jaisalmer is a fascinating window into a time where, generally, forts were inhabited by the local population. Cramped alleyways teeming with life. I was blown away to see open sewers still in use, and even more surprised at what it said about me that I'd never seen such a thing before
The infamous government authorised bhang shop at the fort entrance sells all manner of psychoactive concoctions The faithful worship at a Jain temple within the fort walls
A statue inside one of the many Jain temples of the Jaisalmer fort Nearby Thar desert. After appealing to the government over severe droughts, the local populace were provided with an extensive windfarm which powers pumps to draw drinking water from the ground
A door rests in the sun outside a small farming village in the Thar desert
A noble, well-behaved bunch of camels employed to carry our sorry selves through the desert for 2 days Desert grub: A makeshift hob of rocks and loose driftwood

Jodhpur

Jodhpur, India

Feeling pretty equanimous from ten days of silent meditation, I arrived into Jodhpurs surging clocktower square prepared for reentry into the cultural onslaught of India. The first glimpse of Mehrangarh fort was jaw-dropping. Emerging seamlessly from the bedrock below, it towers over the blue city assuring all who gaze up at it that this is a fort that is not to be fucked with. I could almost taste the resignation an invading army might feel after first sight of it.

Sitting in a strategic trade route near the center of the arid state of Rajasthan, industry has blossomed in Jodhpur over the past 20 years. From textiles & furniture to the discovery of oil nearby, the blue city has begun to suffer from its own success. Explosive population growth has spilled out into the surrounding desert and locals complain they’ve traded a lack of work for a lack of oxygen. This much is clear to see in the thick, brown haze hugging the horizon. It seems begrudgingly accepted that this is the face of progress in India.

Despite rapid change, the blue city has retained its charm. While originally the symbol of a Brahmins home, blue house paint is now employed by residents of all persuasions and the effect makes for a skyline colourful like no other. A labyrinth of streets and alleyways provide a distinctly Indian experience that must be walked to be felt while Mehrangarh fort attracts a throng of visitors with its exquisite interior palace, fierce battlements and sheer scale.

A wall of Mehrangarh fort juts out infront of the hazy blue city at sunrise
Antiquated cannons stand atop Mehrangarh fort while the Umaid Bhawan Palace (still operated by the royal family) stands in the distance A view of the Chamunda Devi, a Hindu temple inside Mehrangarh fort
Sun rises through the haze over Jodhpur. As seen from the fort entrance
We found these three friendly characters practicing yoga on a hill high above the fort at sunrise. The man furthest to the right proudly informed us that he held the title of Jodhpur strongman in 2012 The rear side of Mehrangarh fort at sunrise

On the left, we found these three friendly characters practicing yoga on a hill high above the fort at sunrise. The man furthest to the right proudly informed us that he held the title of "Jodhpur strongman" in 2012. On the right, the rear side of Mehrangarh fort at sunrise.