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Spotting Leopards

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jawai » Chandravati - 25 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

Our plans to visit Jawai changed a couple of times - or rather the place at which we’d be staying changed. Originally, Lajpal had arranged for us to stay at a new guesthouse owned by a friend of a friend, but it turned out that it wouldn’t be finished in time. Then we were going to stay at an inexpensive hotel that Lajpal had been told about.

Then, we had that party with Khuman at Mount Abu – and everything changed.

Khuman, it transpired, had been to school with someone who lived at Castle Bera, a heritage pile in the heart of Jawai’s leopard country, which he’d converted into a guest-house. So, a short phone call to that old school chum, Winku – and Castle Bera (with the compliments of its proprietor) it would be. Proof, if proof was needed, that it’s not always what you know...!

The area called Jawai surrounds a vast reservoir created when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur built a dam across the Jawai River in the late-1950s. The lake, when full, now covers an area of over 400 square kilometres and is the main water supply for Jodhpur city. If you’re looking for it on a map, draw lines south from Jodhpur, north-west from Udaipur and north-east from Mount Abu; where they cross is more or less the place.

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The waters of the lake are filled with fish and, inevitably, crocodiles and many species of birds find a home here. Surrounding the lake is some fantastic scenery, arid but dramatic in parts. Jagged, weather-worn, sand-coloured hills contrast with huge outcrops of rounded, grey, boulder-like hills and plains of low-growing thorn scrub. Parts are verdant, productive agricultural land. Parts are dry, sandy terrain with little but scrub, cactus and stunted bare-leaved trees. Lajpal has interests with a partner in a plot of land here, currently being farmed, but with plans to construct a small hotel among the intriguing huge rocks. The region is home to a considerable number of leopards, 60 or so at last count, and this has lead to a growth in tourism over the past ten years or so. It’s still only visited by those ‘in the know’, however.

Castle Bera is a huge, family-owned heritage property, part of which is run as a guest-house, with only a handful of its many rooms available to fortunate guests. While simple and not in any way luxurious, it’s full of character with pictures of past family members and distinguished guests lining the walls and memorabilia from bygone times decorating the comfortable rooms.

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Part of the complex is still occupied by other members of the family whose quarters are guarded by a very large and vociferous Saint Bernard dog, a rarity in this hot country. The part available to guests is ably run by the diminutive and utterly charming Thakur Baljeet Singh (known to friends and guests alike as ‘Winku’); his command of the English language is excellent and his hospitality is legendary. The food and service from a friendly resident staff are both excellent.

And so it was that Lajpal and I were welcomed at this fascinating place, our home for only two nights but with so much activity that it felt considerably longer.

We arrived from Abu Road late on Tuesday afternoon and were almost immediately whisked away by Winku in his own jeep for a ‘safari’ in the surrounding countryside, the first of several searches for elusive leopards.

Our first stop was a part of the reservoir with particularly fine views across the water to islands and hills beyond. It was still hot, even at 5.00p.m., so crocodiles and most birdlife were conspicuous by their absence. After, while we enjoyed the ride, we encountered an unusual sight of two Grey Francolin squabbling violently, and waited patiently near several rocky areas where leopards were known to live, but failed to spot that one difficult-to-see creature.

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We returned in time for dinner, to be taken ‘en famille’ at a large dining table in a lovely room, with drinks beforehand in an adjoining green and tranquil garden. Unfortunately, I had a temperature resulting from a raging sore throat (suspected airline malady!), which saw me take to my bed with pills, but no dinner.

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Fortunately, as Wednesday morning dawned, I was well enough to take the 6.00a.m. safari, again with Winku himself at the wheel. Our route took us to a particular rocky hill, where we waited quietly and patiently in that peculiar grey gloom before dawn – you know, that near darkness most of us only see if answering a call of nature in the early hours.

Shortly, a good 100 metres away on top of a large, round rock, a small shape appeared – a leopard cub, followed by a second. They played together for some minutes before eventually disappearing. The accompanying grainy photograph was the best I could do, given the distance and lack of light!

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We continued our drive in an unsuccessful search for more, our only consolation being a variety of small birds – Bay-backed Shrikes, Red-vented Bulbuls, an occasional pretty little Prinia, familiar Eurasian Collared Doves, and numerous unidentified ‘LBJs’ (that’s ‘little brown jobs’ to the non-birdwatchers among you).

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Later, we went to visit Lajpal’s piece of land. Since my visit last year ('Rocks and mountains' blog), his partner had invested in a water tank the size of a swimming pool on the site. The farmer employed by them to care for the site, was pleased to partly fill it from time to time from the land’s two deep wells using a pump and pipes previously supplied to him. It would require a costly filtration plant for it to be swum in, but its surround provided us with a good viewpoint to the hills and rocks of the area.

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Satisfied that all was well, we retraced our steps to the shores of the reservoir, where we’d arranged to meet one of my new Facebook friends, Pareekshit, who’d driven on his motorbike from his home some miles away, just to meet me. It transpired that he’s actually still a shy student and not the professional graphic designer and photographer to which his Facebook page aspires! However, he is a very able and keen photographer. Together with his pillion passenger and another friend who happened to be nearby, he showed us one of the best places to see water birds. Pareekshit is the one on the far left of this photo; my dear friend Lajpal is on the far right.

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Here, Great White Pelicans, Woolly-necked Storks, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilts galore, and a multitude of ducks and waders had gathered in the shallows, a lovely sight.

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After I’d taken some shots of the birds, Pareekshit bid farewell and we returned to Castle Bera – just in time for another safari!

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This time, our luck was in. After a half-hour drive, a female leopard was spotted on the skyline. She walked downhill to conceal herself behind a rock. A group of peacocks kept a wary eye on her, giving us a good clue to her position. All we could see was the top of her head, her ears and eyes. Her camouflage was amazing, so much so that I’ve had to circle her for you on the accompanying photograph.

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She later moved position, giving us a much clearer view.

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As night drew in, the light faded, the leopard yawned and sauntered off into the rocks, unseen once again.

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Our search for more continued. As night fell, high-powered lights were used in a vain attempt to pick out the glint of eyes among the scrub and rocks. We eventually admitted defeat and returned to the hotel for drinks in the garden and dinner in that pleasant room with a couple of other British guests.

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Next morning, we set off even earlier than usual, around 5.30a.m., this time in a larger vehicle driven by one of Winku’s experienced drivers. We took a route not often followed by visitors, into an area heavily covered by scrub and trees, described by the driver as ‘jungle’. We encountered only one other jeep, also one of Winku’s.

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Our route took us over and onto the gigantic rocks themselves, bumping and zigzagging our way in four-wheel drive to the foot of a large hill. Leopards - and sloth bears too - had been seen here on several recent occasions. Our driver spent a long time scanning the rocks from a variety of positions - atop a nearby rock, standing up in the jeep, squatting alongside it – all, alas, to no avail. Bagheera and Baloo (the Hindi names for leopard and bear used in The Jungle Book and still called thus by our driver today) were not at home. Wildlife never appears on cue!

We returned to Bera through the jungle, spying female Nilgai (Blue Bull), the largest Asian antelope, on the way.

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Then, our cases re-packed, we conveyed our gratitude to Winku for his very generous hospitality, left an equally generous tip in the staff ‘tip box’, and boarded Lajpal’s car for the journey back to his temporary home in Abu Road. Traffic is never good in India, but here there were very few vehicles - just an occasional lorry and overloaded taxi - but lots of shepherds with sheep and cows.

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Rajshri and Dhruvi were very pleased to see us after our nights away. It had been intended that I spend my last night at Lajpal’s apartment, but he and Rajshri felt I’d be more comfortable at a nearby hotel rather than in their spare room. Although the hotel was more suited to Indian visitors – I was one of only a handful of foreigners to stay there each year – it did prove convenient, as we had a small dinner party for some of Lajpal’s colleagues, friends and wives in its garden that same evening.

When Lajpal was still studying, his aspiration was always to become a government officer and he would know when he’d ‘made it’ because he’d then be driven around in one of those big white jeep-type vehicles with a flashing blue light on top. It became a form of encouragement from me for him to do well in his exams; I was always telling him that I would one day sit beside him in a car with a flashing blue light on top. Today, I visited one of his offices, met his boss and fellow workers – and rode with him in his white car with a flashing blue light on top! It was a proud moment.

Next day, we drove out to a place called Chandravati (say: chaan-dra-wot-ee) at the edge of the town of Abu Road. It was a new discovery for Lajpal as well as for me, even though Lajpal said his ancestry can be traced back to the Parmara dynasty which once ruled here.

Fragments of ninth to fifteenth century ruins are all that remain of what must have been an impressive city, attacked and sacked several times in its heyday. In the early 1820s, the first European visitors found many remarkable white marble temples and beautifully-carved statues here. By the 1870s, when excavations were conducted, little was left, most of the best materials having been carried off to help construct temples and other buildings in distant places. Other monuments were destroyed during construction of the railway and extension of Abu Road’s industrial area. What’s left is miserable, litter-strewn, unloved and seldom visited.

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There’s a huge museum building at the site, waiting for someone, some day, to clear up the mess and present the ruins in a meaningful way. We located a caretaker, who opened up part of the museum to show us some of the dusty sculptures that had been identified and mounted on plinths. He also showed us a giant water vessel believed to be 1,000 years old.

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‘Interesting but depressing’ is how I’d sum up Chandravati.

We returned to Lajpal’s apartment and enjoyed one of Rajshri’s splendid lunches together before my taxi arrived for the five-hour ride to my next destination, Jodhpur. There, I’ll continue my adventures alone until meeting up with Lajpal and his little family once again in Jaipur for the festival of Holi in about three weeks’ time.

Accommodation:
Castle Bera, Via Jawai Bandh, Dist: Pali, Bera, Rajasthan 306126 Tel: +91 98298 77787
Contact: Thakur Baljeet Singh Bera (aka: Winku) or his son Yaduveer (Tell them Khuman's friend Mike sent you!)

This is a simple and intimate heritage building with excellent service and food. Deservedly awarded TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence every year since 2015, you're sure of a warm welcome here.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:58 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan bera sadri jawai chandravati Comments (1)

Keep Simaling

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Mount Abu 21 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

I’m always discovering new things about my beloved India. I wasn’t previously aware, for example, that many Indian people don’t know the actual date on which they were born. Until just three or four years ago, there was no official registration of births, so some children were given notional birthdays. A friend here has his birthday on 4th January. He was the fourth child born to his parents. His siblings’ birthdays are on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January.

Some people have two birthdays – one on the notional or actual date and one on a memorable religious date. My good friend Khuman had one of his birthdays a couple of days ago, on Maha Shivrati (a lunar festival in remembrance of the powerful god Shiva). His actual date of birth is not until ten days or so later. He celebrates both, of course.

Anyhow, back to places I’ve been before that I visited again this week:

Udaipur

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While Lajpal, Chotu and I dined at our friend Vijendra’s Vintage Lounge Restaurant and discussed the dubious merits of corruption (some claim to believe there is good corruption as well as bad. I say: corruption is corruption!), a meeting of high-ranking officials was being held at Udaipur’s huge Radisson Hotel to discuss tax reforms throughout India. From our elevated position above Lake Fateh Sagar, we could see the hotel a mile or more away, illuminated brightly and with lasers pointing skywards like searchlights in the night-time darkness.

As we enjoyed a final beer, the meeting seemed to finish as, even this far away, we could hear incredibly loud music and, soon after, we saw the lights of a ministerial motorcade beating a hasty retreat!

Sadri

Next morning, Lajpal and I also beat a retreat from Udaipur. We headed northwards, sometimes on good roads, sometimes on very poor ones. Parched sand and thorn scrub on either side were familiar sights. Our journey was often delayed near tribal villages by herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds dressed in white with distinctive red turbans. Our destination for the night was his home town of Sadri.

Here, Lajpal has a small house, which he built just a few years ago, primarily for his parents to live in. His postings as a government employee could take him and his wife and daughter to almost anywhere in Rajasthan, but he comes here as frequently as possible. Apart from two comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, there’s a kitchen and a dining and lounge area. There’s also an independent apartment on the top floor that’s just been let to a professional couple and provides a small income.

It was good to see Ranveer and Gajendra, his father and mother, again. Lajpal’s lovely wife Rajshri and their energetic three-year-old daughter Dhruvi were there too. They’re always so welcoming and we know one another so well that there's no longer any formality. I feel like I'm just another member of their family. Needless to say, I took far too many photos of Dhruvi with her parents and grandparents.

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After settling in, we left the ladies to prepare dinner, and took a short excursion to the Ranakpur Dam just a few kilometres away. I spent parts of several previous holidays at the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat near the Jain temples of Ranakpur (so many in fact that it felt like coming home each time). However, for some strange reason, I’d never seen the nearby Dam, which is concealed up a track between large trees and colourful shrubs. This new discovery, a high stone dam holding back an expanse of water to supply the increasing needs of the Sadri area, attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. We didn’t spot any crocodiles, although they're known to be there in good numbers. Never before have I seen so many cormorants in one place at a time, however - I guess the lake holds a plentiful supply of fish.

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As the sun dropped beneath the hills to the west, a shepherd gathered his small flock of goats and sheep, a young girl in tribal clothes came to view this European stranger, and small flocks of white egrets, long-billed storks, noisy parakeets and unidentifiable birds silhouetted high in the sky made their way to night-time roosts .

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We returned to a delicious evening meal prepared by the two ladies. After all these years, I do still find it a little uncomfortable that the men eat alone, served each course by the women of the house. Tonight, Ranveer, Lajpal and I enjoyed dinner seated on comfortable chairs at a table. Gajendra and Rajshri ate theirs afterwards, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. That’s how it is...

Monday dawned warm and sunny – this weather’s becoming boring: cloudless blue skies from dawn at 7.00a.m. to sunset at 7.00p.m, refreshing mornings and evenings, hot (30C+) by noon... day after day after day. I’d happily be bored with this for a few months each year, away from the cold and gloomy short days of winter that I've come to hate so much in the UK.

Mount Abu

Bidding farewell to Ranveer and Gajendra, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into Lajpal’s little car and retraced our steps three hours southwards, to the hill station of Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a thriving resort, with palm trees and greenery among huge boulder-like rocks, reached by a good road, 25km or so above the town of Abu Road. Langur Monkeys, revered by Hindus, sit on their backsides like little old men, by the roadside or in the trees, hoping for offerings from passing visitors. The road snakes its way up and around dozens of bends, with much honking of horns so typical of this country, to a height of about 1,200 metres.

The town’s proximity to the ‘dry’ state of Gujarat makes it a popular holiday and weekend place for Gujarati families, who come to enjoy its mild climate, its scenery and its many hotels, restaurants and bars, the latter in particular!

For similar reasons, Lajpal, currently a commercial tax officer specialising in evasion, is stationed at Abu Road. It’s a very convenient location for stopping vehicles entering Rajasthan from Gujarat and checking paperwork to confirm correct state tax payments on the goods they’re carrying (and for fining the vehicle owners if they’ve tried to evade any tax). I find it interesting that there's virtually no corruption involved in this; systems have been made very transparent in this particular government department. In complete contrast, however, the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is renowned for bribery. I witnessed this for myself at a vehicle checkpoint on a major highway that carries many hundreds of heavy lorries. Almost every lorry was brought to a halt in both directions, ostensibly to check licences and vehicle roadworthiness. Not one of them was checked - not a single one! Every driver simply held a 100 or 200 Rupee note out of his window. Every note was eagerly pocketed by uniformed RTO officers. This was just one checkpoint of hundreds around the country. It's alleged publicly that the millions of Rupees collected each and every day find their way up the chain to the very top government minister, percentages being siphoned off by equally corrupt officials along the way.

However, what did I do at Mount Abu this year?

We were only staying for one night, but it proved to be a particularly memorable one. Khuman, Lajpal’s uncle and the Thakur (feudal lord) of the town of Gundoj, was there to greet me on arrival at Akhey Vilas, the small guesthouse run by his youngest son, Shivendra (aka Shibu). Hitesh, a long-term friend, who manages the premises was there too. Unfortunately, Shibu was away in Delhi (he also escorts French tour groups) and his wife Devendra was at her father’s home in Jodhpur. I hope to catch up with both of them later in my travels. Meanwhile, until the sun went down, it was great just to enjoy the views and birds in this simple hotel's grounds.

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Khuman had kindly organised a special welcome dinner for me. As night fell, and with it the temperature (down to about 20C, which felt cooler as there was a stiff breeze), the staff collected firewood and lit a brazier. We gathered around it, joined by Devendra’s cousin with her husband, general manager of a local hotel. Course after course arrived, accompanied by whisky supplied by Lajpal. We’d stopped to buy a bottle on the way at an ‘English Wine Shop’ – the shop wasn’t English and didn’t sell wine, English or otherwise, just beer and alcohol; it’s the strange name by which government-controlled liquor shops are known hereabouts.

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At the end of our ninth (or was it the tenth?) course of tasty vegetarian and 'non-veg' (i.e. meat) dishes, a huge sponge cake arrived. It was covered in cream, decorated with all sorts of sliced fresh fruit, topped with a brightly burning firework and adorned with a hand-iced plaque saying: ‘HAPPY ARRIVAL. KEEP SIMALING’. It was a very kind thought and kept us ‘simaling’ for quite a while after the delicious cake had been consumed.

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Next morning, Lajpal and I took an hour’s pre-breakfast walk around parts of the resort I hadn’t seen before. At 7.30a.m., it was cool and very quiet. Bird calls were almost all we could hear. Very few people were on the streets; those who were swept the dust from one place to another with swishing brooms or cleared yesterday's litter into little piles and set light to it, the pungent smoke swirling skywards and scenting the air all around. I was surprised to find a regiment of Gurkha Rifles here and an enormous Air Force Station too – probably something to do with signals or communications; this is certainly no place for an aircraft runway.

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Then, it was back down to Abu Road, bidding farewell to Khuman, who I hope to see again in Jaipur for the Holi festival, if he’s able to get away. We dropped Rajshri and Dhruvi at their apartment, before continuing to Jawai in search of the leopards for which that area is becoming known.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:49 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan sadri mt_abu Comments (1)

Not again?

Asia » India » Rajasthan - 17 February to 16 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

Not India again?

Rajasthan, again?

Don't you have anywhere else to go?

Well, yes, I do. Like most inveterate travellers, I have a bucket list - but, alas, not enough years to visit every country on it before I kick it (the bucket that is, not the list)! So, while I hope to put a line through at least some places on that list in the future, I'll stick with a familiar one in the meantime.

I've mentioned before that, in a past life, I'd been fortunate to visit quite a few places around the globe - and even more fortunate that most of those visits were made at someone else's expense, including several trips to India! I enjoyed all of them. However, there are some that I enjoyed more than others and India happens to be at the very top of that list. So, India it will be - again!

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The Rajputs of Rajasthan in miniature. I think I recognise some of these in real life!

India's not like home. It wouldn't be so much fun if it was just like clean and tidy Blighty, would it? It's overcrowded and poverty is obvious. It struggles with things like rubbish disposal, sewage and hygiene. Animals wander at will. Bureaucracy drives you mad. Traffic is a nightmare and road conditions are awful.

Put all its apparent deficiencies to one side, or at least learn to tolerate them as I do, and you'll have a more positive view of what is a truly fascinating, wonderful, vibrant country. Its culture is richer and more varied than any other I've visited. Its people are happy, proud and generous. Its traditions, religions, myths and legends are bewildering. Its architecture is stunning. Its food is terrific. It's a place where you can eat, sleep and be merry for relatively little money. Colour, noise and smells are all around you from the moment you step off your sanitised aircraft. There's a photograph waiting around every corner. There's nowhere else quite like it. It's magic, and I love it.

And why Rajasthan? There are so many reasons to visit this, India's largest state. It has all the above with historic cities in abundance, palaces, desert, wildlife and traditions that remain firmly fixed in days gone by, despite improvements in living standards and literacy and a growing Western influence. It's where I have many friends, both new and old, with whom I look forward to spending time. It's where I've been to nearly all the tourist sights in most of the villages, towns and cities included on this year's itinerary, but I haven't previously explored as far off the beaten track as I'll be doing this time.

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The spice(s) of life

So, what do the next four weeks actually hold?

First stop will be Udaipur - a short breather in this city of lakes will include a dawn walk to ghats (religious bathing places) on the far side of Lake Pichola.

A week with my dear friend Lajpal, including a few days with his lovely wife Rajshri and their delightful daughter Dhruvi, follows. We'll spend a night with his parents, Gajendra and Ranveer, at his house in Sadri, another with his uncle Khuman at his cousin Shibu's hotel in Mount Abu, and two nights trying to find elusive leopards at Jawai, where Lajpal and a business partner have a plot of land.

Then, it's off on my own, first to Jodhpur, where I'll spend a day with the Bishnoi tribe, known for strict conservation of trees and wildlife and for their pottery and weaving skills. I'll stop off at Khichan, where I spent a few hours watching thousands of Demoiselle Cranes last year, and where, this year, I've arranged to meet one of the top men in the organisation which funded a feeding station to attract and protect them during their migration; I'll also visit some of the town's ancient havelis (wealthy merchants' mansions), which I missed last time.

The following week will be spent at Jaisalmer seeking out groups of musicians and others in a previously undocumented artists' colony. I'll also journey into the Thar Desert to find (hopefully) the endangered Great Indian Bustard, and I'll spend time meeting residents of the city's wonderful golden fort on the hill.

Finally, an overnight train journey will take me eastwards to the state capital of Jaipur for a week's stay, meeting up with Facebook friends with whom I shared insufficient time last year and, most importantly, spending two or three days with members of Lajpal and Rajshri's families. While there, I plan to invest in some new glasses (using my NHS optician's prescription of course). I'll also celebrate the colourful festival of Holi, for which I've packed old clothes - the coloured powders that everyone throws at everyone else is bound to get everywhere!

This promises to be a month of many new discoveries.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:13 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur udaipur jodhpur rajasthan jaisalmer khichan sadri jawai mt_abu Comments (1)

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