Rough riders on budget trail
FROM here on,'' said our driver, Amar Singh, pointing to the road sign that announced the state of Rajasthan, ''the road . . . is . . . very . . .'' But just then we lurched violently to one side and into a pothole which illustrated his point before he could finish. ''Bad,'' he said.
Ten days in the Golden Triangle on the way back to Hong Kong had been impossible to book in England. ''No, not that Golden Triangle,'' I would say, but not before provincial travel agents were already tapping their earnest way through directories to finda late-availability drug-running package to Burma.
Ten minutes of haggling by a New Delhi travel agent had produced car, driver and five-star accommodation in the other Golden Triangle (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra) at an indecently cheap rate.
The road to Jaipur, though its surface is execrable, is long, straight as a Roman road and rather beautiful, fringed with eucalyptus trees and maize the greener for the monsoon.
This bucolic idyll is the acceptable face of the Indian countryside, viewed from the comfort of an air-conditioned car. But in a country where the suspension of the visitor with Delhi Belly has to be stronger than that of the beaten-up thing you are travelling in, it is wiser to concentrate on children frolicking in a roadside pond rather than speculate on the percentage of everyday effluent that lies beneath the surface of what triples up as everyone's swimming pool, drinking fountain and lavatory.
It is 200 kilometres from Delhi to Jaipur. Despite a 6 am start and an open road afforded by the truck strike, the journey took seven hours. Our progress was impeded by the presence of the ubiquitous sacred cow, which holds carte blanche in India to freelance over all aspects of the infrastructure, staring out with placid vacancy at yet another multiple pile-up she has just caused.
She was sitting in the middle of the road (perhaps having come out in sympathy with the truck drivers) when we finally reached Jaipur. At first blush it is a chaotic city where roundabouts are a here-we-go-round-the-mulberry-bush of camels, cars, cows and bicycles, and where traffic lights are a frivolous piece of modern municipal art.
At literally second blush, for Jaipur means Pink City, the colour of its uniform sandstone buildings (pink in the sun, red in the rain, resplendent in any light) is ethereally beautiful; the all-pervasive scent of warm spices that flavours your memory ofthe city.
One of the most striking sights in Jaipur is that of invariably beautiful women coming in from the desert and dressed in swathes of fluorescent orange silk and day-glo pink and green cotton to mark themselves out against the camouflage of the sand.
The Rambagh Palace Hotel is the finest that Jaipur can offer. It was once the home of the Maharajah, who now lives in the city (having, like Queen Elizabeth, been kicked on to the Civil List and forced to open up his house to the public).
Within the grounds was all-faded grandeur and browsing peacocks on the lawn.
Jaipur and its environs is full of old forts and guides who will bore you, at the drop of a yashmak, about the colour of the Maharani's toenails in the 12th century and what they did for air-conditioning.
Over to the second side of the Golden Triangle in Uttar Pradesh is Fatehpur Sikri, the deserted city built by the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great and Politically Correct: much loved for his tolerance of all religions, he ingeniously incorporated their symbols into the intricate architecture. An eerie immediacy about the forsaken city somehow evokes the presence of its long-dead population.
If any other city in the world could boast the Taj Mahal instead of Agra, the building would still be astonishing. That it was built in the middle of the 16th century and in the fabulous chaos that is India is almost incredible.
The Taj Mahal is most beautiful seen in extremes of light and darkness. At night it scintillates with semi-precious stones and glows translucently at sunset or in the early dawn (we missed the latter due to fort fatigue).
It is definitely seen to its best advantage without the inhibiting presence of the over-familiar guide, who will make it his business to mar your appreciation of its beauty with a harangue of non sequiturs linking the sublime with the absurd with the pedestrian. How the Taj was built as a monument to Shah Jihan's love for his wife; how Mumtaz was not her real name but another which takes at least a minute to recite; how many cubits long her tomb is.
And, of course, how she died in her 14th experience of childbirth; how Great Prince Halibut of Britain loved Agra . . . and finally, how (our guide being in league with Mr Singh for backhanders) we could not fully appreciate the beauty of the building if we did not visit a mosaic and/or carpet factory which worked genuine pieces of the Taj into exportable table tops.
Just then, the monsoon broke with spectacular eclat; we had obviously incurred the wrath of Mr Singh, and probably the gods, for failing to succumb to emotional blackmail and visit yet another carpet factory.
Did sir and madam wish to see a fort, please? Suddenly the prospect of another fly-killing competition in the back of Mr Singh's Ambassador had become rather glamorous.
Northern India is not wish-you-were-here territory, but it is a fascinating experience.
How to get there Air India flies Hong Kong to Delhi every Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Cost: $4,250 return.