Last month I started this article on India, and realized there was too much to talk about in one editorial. This month I am finishing my trip to the northern part of the country.
Making my way west, by train, I finally arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The city of Agra, in an effort to minimize pollution on its famous landmark, has banned vehicular traffic within one km of the complex.
The Taj took 12 years to build by 25,000 workers, at a cost of one and a quarter million US dollars, which in today's currency is over 70 million dollars. It is built of marble, each centimetre of which is inlaid with precious stones and gems. Inside the grand chamber are the tombs of the emperor and his wife.
I was eager to continue west, to what is affectionately known as the most beautiful part of India, Rajasthan. It was also an opportunity for me to travel to Ranthambore National Park, in search of Bengal tigers.
This area was a hunting lodge for the Hindu Kings or Maharajas, as they were known. It became a national park in 1973 and is home to roller birds and sandbar, which are Indian deer.
Although I did not see any tigers, I did have an opportunity to see a very rare, three-toed sloth bear, which few people have an opportunity to see.
I continued to Jaipur, also known as the pink city, as many of the buildings have been washed in a pale rose colour. I took a side trip into the mountains to visit the Tiger Fort, in an area which was once a dense jungle and has been occupied by many different rulers. The king who built the fort had nine wives, and constructed secret passageways so he could visit any one of them without the others being aware.
Along the colourful streets of Jaipur, tuk-tuks jostle for space amid elephants, while turbaned Elders rub shoulders with young people in jeans. All forms of transportation are found here, competing for a spot on the narrow streets.
One of the most breathtaking sights to visit in Jaipur, is the Amber fort. Built high on a mountain, the only means of transportation is by elephant, along cobbled pathways. The government imposes strict rules on the owners of elephants to ensure their safety and well-being. They are only allowed to make the trek three times a day.
One of the last sites in Jaipur I visited, was the Jantar Mantar Observatory, constructed in 1728 by the Maharaja of Jaipur. This is the best preserved example of the five observatories he built. The Maharaja was intrigued by the stars above, and spent many hours studying, charting and creating theories, many of which turned out to be true. The observatory is home to the largest sundial in the world, which is duly noted in the Guinness Book of Records
Rajasthan is indeed spectacular, and my visit to Jodhpur was no disappointment. I immediately went to visit the Mehrangarh Fort, certainly the most majestic of the Rajasthan forts, and a favourite of Rudyard Kipling. It was built in the mid-1400s and is made solely of sandstone.
I asked one of the guards how easy it was to tie his turban and he gave me a demonstration, explaining turbans are traditionally 9 metres or 30 feet long. This was the depth of the deepest wells in India, ensuring they would always be able to retrieve water.
The market in Jodhpur is amazing. Thousands of vendors sell everything from clothing to vegetables, and there's even a dentist who sees patients without appointments.
On the outskirts of Jodhpur stands one of the finest castles in the world, the Umald Bhavan Palace. It was commissioned in 1929 by the Maharaja, in an effort to create work for the starving population. Initially, it was a 347 room Palace, but after India's independence in 1947, part of it was turned into a hotel. Rooms start at a mere $3,000 a night, however, that does give guest access to the underground swimming pool.
The entire complex took three thousand men, 15 years to complete, which includes the laying of 12 km of railroad tracks, to bring transportation to the palace.
I continued my trek through Rajasthan to the city of Udaipur stopping at the famous Lake Palace Hotel, reachable only by boat. With a mere 11 suites, it is difficult to obtain a reservation, however, lunch in a fine private dining room is an experience not to be missed.
Another of the many highlights of my adventure in India was a visit to the northern border, where Tibet, Nepal and India come together. This region is known for its tigers.
Unfortunately, the day before I left Rajasthan, the airline I was travelling on, went out of business. I asked Munna if he was able to drive the 16 hours it would take us to get there. He agreed and we set off very early.
Driving in India is difficult at the best of times, but driving at night is one of the most harrowing experiences I have ever encountered.
We finally arrived and I was glad to be on solid ground. Of course, the best way to see tigers is from the back of an elephant. This is great for the first 20 minutes but after several hours it becomes quite uncomfortable. The wildlife is amazing, and well worth the journey to get there. In 1900 the tiger population in India numbered 40,000. By 1972, it had fallen to just under two thousand. The government immediately put a stop to the hunting of tigers, and today the population has increased to about 2,300.
Alas, I did not see any tigers, however, India is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. Amazing sights, fantastic food and wonderful people, make this a destination not to be missed.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com