Between Agra and Jaipur lies an extremely unusual abandoned fortified town, called Fatehpur Siri which (from Wikipedia) “served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. According to contemporary historians, [Emporer] Akbar took a great interest in the building of Fatehpur Sikri and probably also dictated its architectural style. Seeking to revive the splendours of Persian court ceremonial made famous by his ancestor Timur, Akbar planned the complex on Persian principles.”
Made of red sandstone, almost entirely, and with some extremely elaborate and impressive buildings, it is a slightly spooky place to visit. There are vast water baths, some still containing water but connecting them and running throughout the entire area are gullies that long ago, would direct the water flow from tank to tank. Some were still flowing a little but the tanks all seemed to have turned a slightly less appealing green.
It is rare that I find these abandoned places particularly interesting outside the obvious photographic opportunities but this was unusual. It was so well preserved - testament to the original builders - that it was almost impossibly not the imagine the original inhabitants pottering about in their robes and sandals - at least that‘s how I pictured them.
There were open courtyards, with overhanging roofs providing a little extra shade, wells and stables along with much darker, cooler chambers where the sunlight would cast concentrated beams on the floor.
Bharatpur is the home of Keoladeo, a wildlife sanctuary, mostly well known for the diversity of birds, from the enormous Painted Stork to the smaller but stunning array of kingfishers.
My parents, knowing Sarah’s Mum was coming out for a couple of weeks before Christmas, had sent a small care package out with her containing a pair of 1970‘s Carl Zeizz binoculars. A pair my Dad bought many years ago and we have all lusted after a pair just like his at some point. This year, my brothers and I all got a pair. Perfect timing. The MIL wasn’t too impressed with the extra weight she had to lug through Heathrow on top of the other stuff we’d asked her to bring out.
This park was fun. You hire a cycle rickshaw for about £2 and they have sharp eyes and know most of the animals. They will stop and point out even the well-camouflaged ones.
It was a welcome break from the city and town bedlam we had been in for the last few days and the rickety rickshaws rhythm was quite hypnotic. We all were close to dozing off as we headed back once the light had faded.
We had however, made it to the hotel only to be rather underwhelmed by the place. The swimming pool was about 6 inches deep and the water looked well on its way to being just like that of the ancient pools in Fatehpur Siri. Green. When we ordered 2 cokes and a sprite, they had lost the key to the store cupboard and had to literally break in through the locked door to get in. The rooms were a similar story with peeling paint, a lot of mosquitoes and questionable smells. It was not like other hotels though. The manager actually cared and we felt like they had either just bought a run down place, or were just closing up. However, we knew we had a belter of a hotel coming up in Ranthambhore so I rang them to see if we could make our way that evening. They had availability and we quietly explained to the hotel in Bharatpur that we were going to move on.
Our journey from Bharatpur was long - about 6 hours - and we arrived at approximately 11:30pm. On the way, when just heading off from Bharatpur, we asked the argumentative Mr Bharti (our driver) if we could stop for a loo break and maybe some food. He explained sternly that the road was not safe and we would only stop at midway. This worried me as midway would her been over 3 hours in and since only 20 minutes had past, I was already feeling like a brief stop would be convenient sooner than that! We were also, having missed lunch, keen to eat something so it was put upon me to ask - he wouldn’t answer to the ladies for some reason - “Can we stop before then as we’d all like something to eat?”. “No. Midway!” came the abrupt answer. We decided we were in for an uncomfortable journey.
Approximately 30 minutes later, Mr Bharty pulled over and started to slow down, we drove off the highway and into a service station. A service station called Mid Way. This was the main brand of reliable highway stops and much to our relief, it was open and serving food. We felt a little guilty because in true British fashion, we’d all been silently grumbling about Mr Bharty’s resistance to stopping for the last hour. All was forgiven.
A late arrival into Nahargarh - the ‘unusual’ hotel our travel agent had found. Built by a member of one of the Royal Families, it was only 10 years old but they had truly gone to town in a effort to make it at least look and feel original. Driving up to it, lit only by the car’s headlamps, it looked like a fortified town! We wanted to check in quickly and get to bed. This is not possible in India as they need a copy of every guest’s passport and then you have to write all the information they have just photocopied into another sheet of paper. Sometimes, for each guest. Information such as date off arrival in India, when you have just come from, where you go next, when you leave and in some cases, your Father’s name and address! None of this is computerised and takes forever but we got through it and were shown to our ridiculously palatial rooms and set our alarms for 6am to catch the first safari drive of our stay.
Safari is something I would do by choice on every holiday if we could afford it. I find the animals both fascinating - in their diversity of birds for example - and amusing at the same time in the case of the wild boar - I am virtually unable to watch a wild boar running through the grass, tail-up without picturing Timone and Pumba or at least hearing Hapuna Matata in my head.
One thing that never ceases to amaze is the varied but equally effective camouflage they all seem to possess. From owls that look like rocks, to the deer that when studying still can be surprisingly hard to spot. There were eagles, samba deer, smaller deer, owls, monks and a vast number of varied birds, some of whom would come and pitch on the jeep as we entered the park, stopping briefly to have our passports checked (again!!). They really love their bureaucracy in India!
However, there is one thing that people go to Ranthambhore to see and that’s tigers. Tigers are the animal to see in india and it was explained to us that as part of the ongoing and National campaign to save the tiger, such vast areas need to be cared for, many other animals are helps and saved along the way. In fact, it was also explained that the last ever legally hunted tiger in the 70’s in India was shot by none-other than our very own Lord of the faux-pas, Prince Philip. Typical!
We were very lucky. On our 2nd day, when Sue - Sarah’s Mum - had decided to stay in bed as she was feeling a little under the weather, we set off at 6am in a small jeep with an eccentric French man who’d booked 2 seats, one for him and one for his camera. His camera and an £11K massive telephoto lens. I felt very inadequate with my 1980’s manual olympus lens (I don’t need telephoto lenses for the work I photograph). Still… I was happy with what I got. This tiger’s name is Arrow Head - because of the marks by her eyes, looking like arrow tips. It was amazing to get this close to such a massive and powerful animal.
It was fantastic to have a couple of days out and a little off the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur tourist trail and seeing a tiger so close was absolutely wonderful. We had a great time in the more relaxing surroundings of the wildlife parks and prepared for the next leg of the trip. After a brief stop in Delhi, and saying an emotional goodbye to Sue, Sarah and I headed out to Jaisalmer with a flight and lengthy train journey ahead of us.