We were leaving Udaipur and travelling north to Pushkar
. We woke early, jumped into an auto rickshaw
(motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) at 5am and made our way to the Udaipur train station. We had a chai
(tea) as we waited on the platform, boarded the train at 5.30am and set off at 6am for our long journey to Pushkar. We had a five and a half hour train trip to Ajmer and a 30 minute drive to Pushkar ahead of us.
We arrived at Ajmer station at 11.30am, jumped off the train, made our way through the crowded platform and shuffled shoulder to shoulder across the walkway to the car park. We found our taxi and headed off to Pushkar at 12pm. We drove through the mayhem and madness of midday traffic in Ajmer until the traffic began to subside and we began to climb the rugged Nag Pahar (Serpent Mountain) and begin our descent into Pushkar. The landscape was arid and barren, and it certainly felt like we’d entered the desert.
We arrived at New Park Hotel in Pushkar at 12.30pm. We went straight to the hotel restaurant and had a buffet lunch of rice,
dahl, aloo methi
(potatoes with fenugreek leaves), tomato curry, raita, gooseberry chutney, chapathis
(unleavened flat round wholemeal bread) and pappadums. It was very welcome, as we had been travelling for six and a half hours. Pushkar is a holy city and therefore alcohol free, so there would be no cold beers over the next two days. Our room was fantastic and had a sitting room with circular bay windows overlooking the arid landscape of Pushkar’s surrounding hills, so I couldn’t help but wonder how good it would have been to have sat down with a beer after our camel ride this afternoon…
We headed off on a camel safari at 4pm. One of the camels wasn’t happy about going, so the guides swapped him for Lucky Dada, and he was the camel I ended up with. Ren was on Raja. We sauntered through the outer streets of Pushkar as we made our way into the surrounding sandy desert that stretched to the hills. We were moving at a leisurely pace, so it was a fantastic way to get a feel for the life of local people who live on the outskirts of Pushkar. If I moved in my saddle
or adjusted my feet in the makeshift rope stirrups, Lucky Dada would slowly turn his head and look at me with one of his big eyes. He was almost asking if I was alright. I felt very comfortable, although a softer saddle would have been good. On our way up one of the small sandy lanes I noticed a small boy squatting on the side of the road doing a poo. When he saw me he waved happily.
I was leading the camel train (there were eight of us) when we came to a very small stream running through the desert. The guide leading my camel looked up at me and said “Hold on, he will jump.” I didn’t believe him until I found myself airborne, landing with a thud on the other side. Apparently Lucky Dada liked to jump over water, whereas the other camels preferred to walk straight through. All but Raja, that is. When Ren’s camel saw the stream he stopped in his tracks. Raja’s guide tried to coax him over, but he wasn’t interested. When two other guides tried to entice him over, he’d had enough. He started reversing backwards into a large thorn tree
on the side of the stream. I watched Ren slowly disappear into the sharp green branches. The guides were yelling but Raja was resolute – he was not crossing. By this stage Ren had disappeared entirely. Luckily the guides got him to drop into the dismount position, so Ren was able to scramble off. Apart from a few scratches and rips in her shirt, she was OK. We found out later that Raja was scared of water, so I’m not sure why they tried to make him cross the stream.
We continued roaming in the desert sand surrounding Pushkar until we came to a group of men making chai
for us over an open fire. We dismounted, freshened up with a hot chai
and biscuits (we’d been riding for an hour or so), and then sauntered back to Pushkar. After about 30 minutes we dismounted, said goodbye to our camels and headed into the streets of this fascinating little town.
We wandered through Pushkar’s laid back streets until we stopped at a small shop where men were cooking fresh sweets in large metal pans. We tried a malpua
(crispy fried doughy pancakes soaked in syrup), and it was
much sweeter than the one we had at Castle Bijaipur. We then walked to Sunset Cafe and Restaurant which overlooked Pushkar Lake. We sat outside and quenched our thirst. I opted for a salted lassi
(frothy yogurt and milk drink) and Ren went for a chocolate lassi
We decided to stay on for dinner, as the view of the lake and the street atmosphere was great. I had aloo jeera
(potatoes seasoned with cumin seeds) and plain naan
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) while Ren ordered a cheese and soy burger. I quietly asked the waiter if he sold beer, as I had heard some places did offer beer if you asked discretely. He shook his head and said it was not available, but he then leant closer and told me to order the “special” lassi
. It sounded very enticing, so I couldn’t resist. When he brought it to the table there was a slight tinge of green in the mixture, but it tasted like a banana lassi
. I’d obviously misunderstood him and thought nothing more about it. Besides, it tasted fantastic. We had breakfast at the same cafe the next day, so Ren decided to
ask what was in the “special” lassi
. The waiter smiled and went through the ingredients – yoghurt, banana, coconut powder, cashew nuts, salt, pepper and marijuana. When in Rome…
We walked back to the hotel around 9.30pm. A few of our fellow travellers were hatching a plan to scare Ren by creeping into our room and hiding under the bed. They quietly asked me to get her out of the room for a few minutes when we got back (and to leave the door unlocked so they could get in). I couldn’t resist setting them up, so we hatched our own plan. I walked up to the rooftop talking to myself while Ren waited in our room with the lights turned off. As they crept in Ren jumped them, and their screams woke the entire hotel complex.
The “special” lassi
worked a treat. I was in bed by 10pm, and it was one of the best night’s sleep I’d had since we’d been in India.
I woke at 6am and caught up on my travel notes. We were catching an overnight train to Delhi at 9pm, so we had the whole day to explore this fascinating town.
We walked into Pushkar around 8.30am and had breakfast at the Sunset Cafe and Restaurant. I had porridge, Ren had a banana pancake and we both shared a pot of masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea). It was a great start to the day. The desert morning air was very cold, but it warmed up considerably as the sun rose higher. We’d dropped into the Sikh Temple (Gurudwara) as we walked into Pushkar, and we had to remove our shoes. The marble floor was freezing and our body temperature dropped immediately, so the hot chai
was very welcome.
Our breakfast cafe was located close to the Jaipur Ghat on Pushkar Lake. There are around 52 ghats around the lake, so we decided to brave the touts and walk around its perimeter. It was only a 15 minute walk, and it gave us an insight into the significance of this town to those who broadly follow the Hindu philosophy. When we completed our circumnavigation of the lake, we put our shoes back on and headed back to the hotel for a well-earned shower. Cows wander freely around the concrete steps of the lake’s edge, so it was impossible to walk
barefoot without squelching through a few cowpats.
Our hotel was nestled at the base of the desert hills that surround Pushkar. I sat on our large balcony and enjoyed the incredible view while I caught up on my travel writing. We wandered back into the main township of Pushkar in the early afternoon and browsed the market stalls that line the narrow streets. We walked past Brahma Temple – the only one in the world – but we couldn’t enter. We headed back to the Sunset Cafe and Restaurant for lunch at 3.30pm. The day had heated up, so I ordered a salt lassi
and a lime soda
(fresh lime juice with soda water), while Ren had a banana shake and a mango juice. A beer would have been perfect! We shared aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) with naans
, and it was fantastic.
On the way back to the hotel I dropped into the Rajputhan Music House and picked up a shruti box (a keyless version of the harmonium which is hand-pumped to create the pulsating constant drone that is ubiquitous in traditional Indian music). I’d seen two vocalists in southern India using this small
wooden instrument to accompany their singing, and the sound had fascinated me. The shop owner was incredibly helpful. He could not use his legs, so he shuffled around on a small plastic stool using the strength of his arms. He showed me everything in his small shop as he packaged the shruti box. I almost bought an electronic tanpura for 5,000 rupees (AUD $100), but I had no room left in my pack.
I got back to the hotel at 5pm. We showered, organised our packs for the overnight train to Delhi and then headed out to dinner at the Hotel Master Paradise at 6.30pm. We shared a chana masala
(chickpea curry) with chapathis
, and it was sensational. I was still pretty thirsty, so I had a lime soda
and a pot of masala chai
. We walked back to New Park Hotel, grabbed our packs and caught a taxi to the Ajmer train station. We arrived at 9.30pm and the place was calm – nowhere near as crowded and manic as it had been the previous day when we arrived at midday. We waited on the platform until our train pulled in at 10.45pm. We jumped on,
made up our beds and settled in for the nine hour overnight trip to Delhi.
I typed until midnight and then found some room on my bottom bunk to lie down (I was sharing it with my shruti box and my laptop bag). At about 1am I sensed someone near me, and I woke to see a very large Indian guy standing in the darkened aisle about a metre from my face. He was staring into the six berth bunks opposite. He turned and stared at Ren’s bunk above mine and then fixed his gaze on me. He sat at the end of an empty bunk and continued staring at me. I initially thought it was his, but he made no attempt to lie down. He started twisting the rings on each of his fingers before throwing his head back and hitting his palms on his forehead. He didn’t make a sound, but he didn’t have to. He shook his clenched hands violently in front of his face then turned and stared at me. This went on for at least 30 minutes. I couldn’t work out if he wanted to steal my shruti box and laptop or just strangle
me with his bare hands. I waited and stared and he stared back. Eventually he stood up and walked off. I leant into the aisle and watched him vanish out of our carriage. I didn’t see him again. I slept on tenterhooks for the rest of the night, waking at the slightest movement or sound. When I relayed the saga to Ren in the morning, she thought he could have been praying. I wasn’t convinced. Who prays violently at 1am? SHE SAID...
It was going to be a long travel day – we were under strict instructions to be at our Udaipur hotel lobby at 5am. We caught auto rickshaws
(motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) to the train station and then boarded a train to Ajmer, from where we would continue on to Pushkar
The Udaipur station was full of sleeping bodies in the lobby area, and a few rugged up people stood on the platform watching us. Andrew had a platform chai
(tea), but I was watching my liquid consumption. It was still dark as we boarded the train at 6am. We had comfortable seats, but it was a packed train so we couldn't
spread out. I slept for the first two hours and only woke up to consume the snacks and delicious mango juice we had stocked up on. The comfortable seats had a down side I could never have predicted – I was lulled into a sleep like I normally am on anything that moves, so I couldn't catch up on any writing in those five hours!
We arrived in the city of Ajmer at about 11:30am and Ajmer station was packed to the max. The Indian train station experience is far from any other station experience I’ve ever had, and I had to keep my wits about me. It was crowded beyond belief with people travelling, but there were also the people offering/demanding to carry our bags, or provide us with transport, or sell us trinkets. I managed to stay firm but polite, and also managed the very difficult task of keeping up with the group.
Sadly there were also lots of beggars in the stations, and we had taken the position of not giving to beggars (Intrepid Travel are of the same thinking and so our group leader Mohsin has also asked the group not to do so).
It is quite straight forward (but still heartbreaking) when beggars directly ask for money and we politely say no; but the sneakier tactics were harder to navigate – such as appearing to be friendly and engaging us in conversation and then aggressively demanding money.
We caught taxis from Ajmer to our hotel in Pushkar. Even though it was only a 15km trip, it took 30 minutes to cross the spine of Nag Pahar (Serpent Mountain). We checked in at the New Park Hotel and had a buffet vegetarian lunch of aloo methi
(potatoes with fenugreek leaves), tomatoes curry (with weird pasta like things in it), a watery dhal, an amazing gooseberry chutney, curd, pappadums, rice and chapathis
(unleavened flat round wholemeal bread). The dessert of gulab jamun
(fried doughnut-like balls, soaked in spiced sugar syrup) wasn’t too sweet, so I quite liked it.
The New Park Hotel was a sprawling development. It looked like an upmarket apartment complex, and it had a fabulous 360 degree rooftop view. Even though it had been built in that curvy-walled art deco style (which is much loved in India), it was a new hotel and the rooms were fresh and very spacious.
Whenever we get the keys for our rooms at hotels, I always joke that our room will be the honeymoon suite...so imagine my surprise when we walked into a massive suite with a sitting area that had a 180 degree view of the rose gardens. I loved that we were on the very edge of Pushkar and the hotel was surrounded by extensive vegetable gardens, treed valleys and distant hills. However, it was bit of a pain that the walk into town took us 20 to 30 minutes (depending on how many cows I stopped to photograph).
When booking this trip, one of the things that had most excited me was the camel ride into the local desert area. Growing up in northern Nigeria, I was used to seeing camel caravans coming into town on market days, and I used to occasionally (only when I was running late!) take the forbidden shortcut through the camel market to junior high school. So I know that camels can be bad tempered, spitting, snorting, gas-emitting, smelly things... but yet, I was very much looking forward to riding one out to the desert!
In Rajasthan, the horse symbolises power, the elephant symbolises
good luck and the camel symbolises love. Yeah right! Whoever said that hadn’t met my ride Raja. Raja was a big boned seven year old boy, and when I sat on him I towered over the other camels. My cameleer was a chatty one, and I gathered that he lived 50km out of Pushkar and came into the city to look after his boss’ camels (who lived a block away from our hotel). We rode through the new town area of Pushkar and took a side laneway next to the Sikh temple, which led into the outskirts of town. I have written before about how we often had to share the road with cows, donkeys and dogs...and here we were riding camels through the traffic.
We rode out through small settlements on the edge of town into the starkly beautiful countryside which started out as rocky hills and gave way to desert sands. We came to a small stream that the four camels ahead of me either jumped or walked across, but as soon as Raja realised he was being walked towards the stream, he promptly put the brakes on and started backing into the closest thorn tree. Thorn
trees aren't that tall, so given I was on the back of a tall camel, I had to crouch down as much as I could, but I was still pretty much impaled onto the thorny branches of the thorn tree. The other cameleers came over to urge Raja to cross the stream, but the more they urged, the more he backed up into the tree. Paige was on the camel behind me and I could see that she was laughing so hard she looked like she may fall off her camel.
They finally managed to calm Raja enough to make him sit, and then proceeded to disentangle my shirt and the crocheted blanket on the saddle that were well and truly stuck to the thorn tree. The cameleers were looking at me very worriedly and seemed quite relieved that I wasn’t freaking out, and then urged me to gently jump off. Apparently Raja has a fear of water, and was walked the long way around so he didn't have to step into the stream. I doubled up with Hazel on her very obliging camel Lucky until we got to our rest stop. We stopped at a hill top where
there were a group of men huddled over a small fire. They brewed us glasses of chai
as the setting sun cast a golden glow on everything around us – it was all so peaceful and lovely! I cannot tell you how good that steaming hot glass of chai
tasted as we watched the sun setting over the dunes.
We were returning to town via a different (unwatery) route, so I was allowed back on Raja. He had been given the role of lead camel and behaved perfectly from then onwards, although every now and again he twisted his neck back and gave me a very curious look (which he hadn’t done on the way into the dunes). I didn't quite know what to make of it, and my cameleer’s English wasn’t good enough to explain it to me, so all he could do was giggle every time Raja fixed his one-eyed sideways gaze on me. Even though Raja had been pesky and I had a few scratches and a small cut on my back to show for it, the ride into the desert made me look at camels in a new light. When we stopped for tea, I
watched our camels closely - they were alert, playful, and had very distinct personalities. I now have a very big soft spot for them.
I should note that there were quite a few camel riding businesses operating in the area, and not all of them had very healthy camels. In fact, most of the camels around Pushkar were mangy and had sore feet. I was very relieved to see that the camels we used were well fed and watered, and given they lived near our hotel I could see that in between their rides to the dunes they were quite happily stabled in the shade.
The camels dropped us off on the outskirts of the old town, and Mohsin took us on a walking tour to check out Pushkar's main areas. Pushkar is one of India’s oldest and holiest cities, and it's also a market centre for many of the local village people – this is where the famous annual Camel Fair takes place. My first impressions of Pushkar were of old charming but dilapidated buildings, countless blue temples, a lovely but very crowded holy lake and bustling rooftop restaurants. I was also very aware that this city
seemed to draw western hippies like moths to a flame – it was like a 1960s time warp in both hippie fashion and hippie attitude. There was also a sizeable subculture of Jewish hippies, and we couldn’t quite work out why. Like any place that attracts hippies, Pushkar seemed quite flush with drugs. This was the first time in India we were openly offered hash on the streets - but quite ironically, alcohol and meat are forbidden in this holy town.
We walked the narrow road into the town, past the bazaar and through the many side streets full of shops. Apparently they have the cheapest clothes and jewellery in northern India, but I believe that you get what you pay for – most of the stuff looked pretty poor quality. We stopped at a shop selling all sort of sweets and desserts that were being cooked in large metal cauldrons full of hissing oil or bubbling syrup. We tried malpua
(crispy fried doughy pancakes soaked in syrup), which is a Pushkar speciality. We’d had this for dessert at the Castle Bijaipur, but this street version was much nicer. It was far too sweet to eat more than one
piece, but I have been craving this dessert ever since we had it!
We walked down to the holy Pushkar Lake. By now it was 6pm and we decided to stop at Sunset Restaurant at the eastern end of the lake for drinks – I ordered a chocolate lassi
(frothy yogurt and milk drink) and I will never be doing that again. Andrew had a salty lassi
, followed by a 'special' lassi
. Pushkar is a dry town and when Andrew asked the waiter about getting a beer, the guy responded by saying he recommended the 'special' lassi
. It didn't taste especially 'special', but we found out the next day it had marijuana, bananas, coconut powder, cashews and black pepper. It was clearly very very mildly 'special', as Andrew didn't feel a thing at the time (but he slept like a log that night!). 😊
A few of us stayed on and had dinner at the same place. I ordered the soybean and cheese burger – and I won't be doing that again either. Andrew enjoyed his aloo jeera
(potatoes seasoned with cumin seeds) and plain naan
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven). We then walked back
to our hotel, and by now the streets had really quietened down.
That evening there was a mischievous plot by Paige and the girls to get Andrew to take me up to the rooftop 'to look at the moon' while they snuck in and hid under the bed to scare me when we walked back in. But we went one better than that...Andrew pretended to take me up to the roof, while I hid in the sitting area of the suite. A few minutes later Paige, Hazel and Meg crept upstairs and tip-toed into our room, at which point I jumped out and scared the wits out of them. It was hilarious, but now Andrew and I had to watch our backs, as the next plan to scare us would be a very sneaky and dastardly one. 😄
The next morning we thought about waking up very early to hike up Ratnagiri hill to the Savitri Temple to watch the sunrise...but it was cold and my cough looked like it was making a comeback, so sadly for Andrew we decided not to go. I walked up to the rooftop at 7:20am to check out the sunrise, but it
was a bit washed out.
Our travelling group had been booked into two day rooms for the last day in Pushkar, as we weren't staying the night. We made multiple trips into town during the day, and our first trip was at 8am when we walked in for breakfast. The morning air was still quite brisk as the sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet. We stopped on the way to check out the large white Sikh Temple which was an extremely peaceful space. However we didn’t linger long as the marble floors were excruciatingly cold on our bare feet, and I started getting a coughing fit from the sudden drop in my body temperature.
We headed straight to Sunset Restaurant, as Andrew had spied porridge on the menu the night before. I had a banana pancake with honey, which was delicious. We also ordered a pot of masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea), which was a quick and delicious way to warm us up again.
We then checked out the early morning temple rituals around the lake. We took off our shoes, dodged all the cow and dog poo, and walked clockwise around the lake
past all 52 ghats
(sacred marble steps leading into the water). Some of the ghats
have particular significance – for example, Brahma bathed at the Brahma Ghat, Gandhi’s ashes were sprinkled at Gandhi Ghat, and Vishnu appeared at the Varah Ghat. These three ghats
had the most number of people bathing near them. And for no particular reason that I could see, the grey langur monkeys seemed to really love hanging around Gandhi Ghat.
I wasn’t quite sure what the protocol was for photos at the ghats
. Mohsin thought that if you were walking past along the lake, photos were fine, but if you were on the ghats
and women were bathing, photos would be disrespectful. I completely agreed with that assessment, but I think men bathing shouldn't be photographed either. Incidentally, there were groups of holy men dressed in orange robes who were more than happy to pose for photos... for a (considerable) price of course.
I loved taking in all the lively temples and numerous busy ghats
, and I loved watching the holy men, locals and pilgrims in and around the holy water of the lake. Hindu pilgrims come from all over India to bathe, be
blessed and to cleanse away their sins in this water. I think it is widely acknowledged that India is the epicentre of spirituality, and this was our first experience of one of India’s many many holy towns.
The only Brahma temple in the world is in Pushkar. The Holy Trinity of Hinduism has Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Brahma is the creator of the world, but a Hindu legend explains that there are so few temples devoted to him because he took a second wife, and his first wife cursed him with a curse that only the people of Pushkar would worship him. We walked up to the temple, but couldn’t go in at that particular time (and weren't inspired enough to come back later), so we spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the shops. The afternoon was getting warm and we realised we were quite thirsty, so we walked to Sunset Cafe and I ordered a banana shake and a mango juice, and Andrew had a salt lassi
and a lime soda
(fresh lime with soda water). We also had a fabulous lunch of aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) with naans
(incidentally, it was the
best aloo gobi
of the entire trip!). The rest of the afternoon was spent doing more browsing.
The only purchase made was a shruti box. Andrew had seen one being played at the Kathakali dance performance in Kochi, and had been looking for one ever since. We’d looked in Udaipur, but we didn’t buy one there as they were very overpriced (and at that point we weren’t entirely sure what it was called). A shruti box is based on the principles of a harmonium, but it has no keys. It produces a drone sound, and different notes are produced by manipulating little wooden flaps on the side. I was so happy that Andrew finally found one he liked, and also that the guy he bought it from was really lovely (unlike the ultra-pushy salesmen in Udaipur).
One of the buildings we passed on our walks between our hotel and the town centre was the Government Homeopathic Hospital. It was always packed and I was intrigued by it. I was very tempted to walk in and have a look around, but I thought that would have been a little inappropriate.
Pushkar is pretty enough in a certain light.
For the most part, I enjoyed our time in Pushkar. However, it isn’t a place that is easily likable, and I think any spirituality and character it once possessed has been totally tainted by fierce commerce and too many hippies. Its saving grace is that it has essentially managed to remain a small town. Walking around town was an eye opener, and it was lovely to hear the continuous melody of chanting and singing from the many temples that seemed to be around every corner. I also thoroughly enjoyed the camel ride and the sunset in the desert.
That evening we had an early dinner at the nearby Hotel Master Paradise. Andrew and I shared a chana masala
(chickpea curry) with chapathis
. We didn't want to have a big meal, as we were travelling on an overnight train that night.
We were bundled into two taxis that took us back to the Ajmer train station where we stood on the platform for about an hour, as the train was slightly delayed. Something I haven’t written about yet is the staring culture in India. People stare. It’s just what they do. It’s worst at train stations and
it was worse in the north than in the south. If I had a dollar for every person who wasn’t staring at us at the Ajmer station, I would have had about five dollars max. But in their defence, Meg had bought a hula-hoop and was trying it out – much to our amusement and clearly to the amusement of the rest of the people on the platform too.
We boarded the overnight train to Delhi at 10:45pm. This was our first overnight train in the north and it was as painless as the one we’d caught in the south. We were in second class 3AC sleeper again. There were triple bunks in the compartments and double bunks in the walkway – Andrew and I were happy to get the two double bunks again. The beds were padded with sheets, pillows and blankets provided, but I also had my own silk sleep sheet as I wasn’t entirely sure if the laundry is done after EVERY passenger. The train was clean enough, but I had read enough about Indian sleeper trains to ensure that we didn’t have any mouse-attracting food in our bags!
I wrote some notes, but predictably
I got very sleepy very quickly. I made sure all my bags were securely covered under my blanket, and settled into the sway of the upper bunk as the train picked up speed. We would be reaching Delhi in nine or so hours.
As I drifted off to sleep to the clickaty-clackty of the train, I thought back to our time in Rajasthan. I was so happy to have witnessed such a broad cross-section of Rajasthani life on this trip. While we only saw a small slice of all there is to see, I think the variety of places we travelled to gave us a real idea of what it means to be Rajasthani, and how that identity is defined by socioeconomic status, religion and caste.
We will disembark this overnight train in Delhi, the last stop on this trip.
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