Every day, the mail express train Ranikhet Express covers 1,263km from Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert to Kathgodam in the foothills of the Himalayas. The express train was also our most convenient way to go from the Golden City of Jaisalmer to Ajmer, where we would transfer to the sacred city of Pushkar. Worrying that sleeper seats would sold out days before we arrived in India, we purchased our train tickets and seat reservations days before we departed for our journey. Like many fellow travelers, we had a hard time trying to register at the official Indian Railways website. We had no choice but to buy the tickets through an online agent. We chose 12go.asia after some online research. The ride on Ranikhet Express was our first train experience in India. We weren’t sure about the validity of our reservations until half an hour before the train departed, when our seat assignments finally appeared on the official website.
The 12-hour train journey was rather smooth. We met a local couple from Bangalore. They had just finished touring Rajasthan and were heading to Jaipur for their return flight down south. We four shared a First Class compartment for 12 hours until we got off at Ajmer. In the compartment, we locked the door, took off the lights, and wrapped ourselves in our own cocoon liners beneath sheets provided by the train. Not sure if it was the rumbling noise or the steady movement of the train, we felt a little sleepy and soon fell asleep.
The manager 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel arranged us free transport to the railway station. We arrived at the station about half an hour before departure.
Our online seat numbers finally came out when we arrived at the station. We were a little excited as it was our first time to take the train in India.
The train seemed infinite at both ends. But first we had to find our 1A car. We met a young local couple who were looking for the same car as ours (it turned out that they were sharing the same compartment with us). It took us a while to find the right car.
At about 12:30am, we finally settled at our compartment. It was a First Class 1A car, with four beds in each compartment. We took up the beds at one side, and the young local couple took up the opposite side.
The train car was neat and quiet. We were ready to get some rest during the 12-hour train ride.
The Ranikhet Express ran at an average speed of 42km/h. The journey was rather smooth and we arrived at our destination Ajmer Junction in approximately 12 hours since we left Jaisalmer.
We had some sleep during the night. In the morning, a young hawker came to our compartment to offer breakfast. We asked for two cups of chai tea to start our day.
We arrived at Ajmer Junction 15 minutes later than scheduled. Our “12-hour roommate” bid us farewell before heading back into the train, while we looked for the station exit.
Outside of Ajmer Station, we met the driver from our hotel in Pushkar. Soon we embarked on our half hour journey from Ajmer to Pushkar, the thousand-year-old sacred city for Hindu pilgrims.
13km separated Ajmer with the peaceful sacred city of Pushkar.
We left Ajmer and entered Pushkar Valley in the Aravalli Mountains. Before leaving Ajmer, our eyes were caught by a group of people carried religious or ceremonial tools heading uphill.
In early afternoon, we finally arrived at Inn Seventh Heaven.
Inn Seventh Heaven centers around a refreshing courtyard.
Our spacious room at Inn Seventh Heaven turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Outside the window, a festive ceremony was taking place across the street.
After settling in, we walked up to the rooftop terrace of Inn Seventh Heaven.
Relaxing seating were provided all over the common areas of the hotel.
On the top floor, a spiral staircase led us to the rooftop restaurant.
A rooftop restaurant in the midst of the sacred Pushkar was the perfect place to chill out and do nothing.
As no meat was allowed in Pushkar, we had a hearty vegetarian lunch before heading out to the sacred lake.
DAY 4 (4/5): DESERT HERITAGE, Hotel Nachana Haveli and Thar Heritage Museum, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.27
From our guidebook we picked Saffron Restaurant for lunch. Situated on the leafy rooftop of Nachna Haveli Hotel, Saffron Restaurant offers an atmospheric venue away from the busy lanes of Jaisalmer. The building complex is owned by the Nachna family. They are direct descendants of Maharawal Jaisal, the founder of Jaisalmer. The Nachna Haveli was partially converted into a heritage hotel in 1996.
We entered the Nachna Haveli Hotel through a elegant gateway.
Beyond the gate, we arrived at a sleepy and lush green courtyard.
Comfortable seating adjacent to the courtyard offers visitors and guests a great place to escape from the afternoon heat.
We were told to go upstairs to the roof for the Saffron Restaurant.
Compared to the dusty and often busy street outside, the leafy and tranquil rooftop of Saffron Restaurant felt like a paradise to us.
At Saffron, it was a big surprise to find that film shooting was going on at part of the rooftop. It was a scene of causal talk between a mother and daughter while hanging the laundry.
After lunch, we went to check out the guidebook recommended handicraft shop Desert Handicrafts Emporium.
Desert Handicrafts Emporium is owned by LN Khatri, a knowledgeable historian and folklorist of the Thar region.
After purchasing two embroidered pieces, Mr. Khatri led us to his Thar Heritage Museum. With a decent collection of artefacts and antiques from various desert villages.
One of the most interesting display was a Gyan Chaupar (meaning ‘Game of Knowledge) game, which sometimes can be referred as the Snake and Ladder game. The game has been around in India since the 2nd century. It is a game that involves educating people about religious vice and virtue.
Displays at the Thar Heritage Museum are grouped in such a way that visitors can easily learn about the specific life and work of various kinds of people in the Thar Desert.
Opium was popular in Rajasthan in the old days. Khatri’s museum designates a corner to display the artefacts used for opium smoking.
Mr. Khatri’s father was actually a ghee collector in the Thar Desert. A number of old ghee containers are on display.
The displayed items in the museum reflect a bygone era of the Thar Desert.
Embroideries with gold and silver threads are popular in villages of the Thar Desert.
Vintage black and white photographs in the museum convey a romantic sense of the bygone Rajasthan.
Mr. Khatri was kind to show us around and talked about the highlights of his collection. The visit offered us a thorough glimpse of what life was like back in old Rajasthan.
Standing on the Trikuta Hill, the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer has withstood the sandstorms and wind of the Thar Desert for 800 years. Bathed in a honey glow under the setting desert sun, visitors often describe the Golden City of Jaisalmer as the picture-perfect castle of A Thousand and One Night. The spectacular Jaisalmer was once a significant trading city frequented by camel caravans on the ancient Silk Road. Today it is an UNESCO World Heritage site and the westernmost destination for visitors coming to Rajasthan. Beyond the desert to the west is the Indian border with Pakistan. Many come to Jaisalmer by the 18-hour train service from Delhi to cover the 780km distance. We chose to take a flight from Delhi to Jodhpur, and then a hired car from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. After a brief stop at Osian, by the time we reached our hotel at Jaisalmer it was already after dark.
We checked in at First Gate Home-Fusion, a historical haveli converted hotel, at around 19:30.
Our pleasant room was on the upper floor with a pleasant balcony.
After checking in, we went up to the rooftop restaurant at our hotel.
Situated near the first gate of the fort, the rooftop restaurant of our hotel offers gorgeous views of the iconic fort.
Specialized in Indian and Italian cuisine, we ordered a combination of both for our first dinner at Jaisalmer.
From the balcony of our hotel room, we patiently waited for the sunrise at the east horizon.
Below our balcony was a quiet side street of small guest houses.
On the street, dogs, cows and local residents passed by our balcony every so often.
From the balcony we enjoyed the spectacular sunrise for two days in a row.
For two days in a row we witnessed the same little girl fed the street dogs while on her way to school.
Soon after sunrise, locals in colourful dresses came out to clean the street.
At the other side of the balcony, we also enjoyed a splendid view of the fort.
Under the rising sun, the yellow sandstone of the fort was illuminated in a golden glow.
Sunlight penetrated into our room through a tiny window.
Outside our room, sunlight also spilled into the hallway through high windows.
After breakfast, it was time for us to step out and explore the magnificent Jaisalmer.
It was dark by the time we left Mehrangarh Fort. We turned our gaze from the fort to the cityscape below us. We saw countless festive lights flickering in different parts of the old city, as if a citywide party awaited for our return. At the centre of Old Jodhpur, the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower was bathed in colourful lighting like a rainbow popsicle. We followed a winding footpath going downhill, hoping to get back to the old town in time for dinner at the rooftop restaurant at Pal Haveli. Before supper, we still had one more destination to go which was the vibrant Sadar Market at the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower.
It was getting dark when we began to walk down from Mehrangarh Fort. From afar, the clock tower in colourful lights was highly visible and served as a destination landmark to guide us for the walk.
Mehrangarh Fort looked majestic under the evening flood lights.
The path soon led us into small streets at the foothills below the fort.
It was dinner time and most shops were about to close.
We walked by many homes with their doors kept opened. From time to time, we could hear laughter of families from inside their homes.
In Jodhpur, there was a common way in which the street vendors decorate their store with bags of chips and snacks in different colourful packaging hanging vertically around the front edge of the roof. It was very eye-catching.
We kept on walking downhill and hoped that we would soon reach the Sadar Market and Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower. Behind us, the massive Mehrangarh Fort provided a mysterious background.
Soon we reached the bottom of the hill in the streets of Gulab Sagar,
It was dinner time for many families, and even bedtime for this puppy on a motorbike.
Near Sadar Market or Clock Tower Market, we passed by a small Hindu shrine along the main commercial street.
A beautiful gateway welcomed us into the vibrant Sadar Market. The market was named after Maharaja Sardar Singh, who built the market and the clock tower during his reign from 1880 to 1911.
Built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in the late 19th century, the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower is one the most iconic monuments of old Jodhpur.
Sadar Market is one of the busiest place in Jodhpur where locals and tourists come to shop for handicrafts, souvenirs, spices, fresh produce, textiles, jewellery and clothing.
At Sadar Market, our target was to check out MV Spices Shop.
Established by Mohan Lal Verhomal years ago, MV Spices is a renowned spices shop recommended by many guidebooks and foreign media. Today, the spices shop is managed by the friendly daughters of Mohan Lal Verhomal. After a cup of chai tea and a good chat with one of the daughters, we bought a pack of Maharaja curry, and also spices to make chai tea and chicken tikka masala.
After a quick visit of Sadar Market, we returned to our hotel Pal Haveli.
We climbed up to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Indique for dinner.
Indique is a popular rooftop restaurant in Old Jodhpur, serving decent Indian food with magnificent views of the old city.
We enjoyed the distant view of Mehrangarh Fort at one side of the rooftop. During dinner, it was a surprise to see a small firework in front of the fort. It came in a split second. We couldn’t react quick enough to capture the moment with our camera. The scene could only live in our memory.
At the other side of the rooftop restaurant, we could look down to the vibrant Sadar Market and the colourful Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower.
Haveli in India refers to a large historical mansion built by a wealthy merchant over a century ago. Designed to impress both the residents and outside spectators, these buildings usually come with ornate carvings, beautiful frescoes, intricate window screens, and an airy courtyard or lightwell. While many have been fallen into disrepair over the years, some havelis have survived into modern times and become valuable heritage buildings. Rajasthan has some of the most famous and well preserved havelis in India, and some of which have been converted into museums or hotels. Situated in the old city near the Gulab Sagar Reservoir and Clock Tower Market, the beautiful Pal Haveli was our hotel in Jodhpur. Owned by the Pal Family, the two-hundred-year-old haveli was the place where we first experienced the historical sense and beauty of the Medieval Jodhpur. Antique housewares, paintings, textiles and furniture offered a charming ambience. From the rooftop restaurant, views of the busy Clock Tower Market and the majestic Mehrangart Fort were breathtaking. Outside the hotel, the market streets and square near the Clock Tower dominated the street scenes.
Just a stone throw away stood a simple omelette shop that has been frequented by foreign tourists ever since Lonely Planet named the local eatery as the famous “Omelette Shop” in 1999. Since then, this simple eatery has been elevated into legendary status among foreign tourists. The life of Ramkishan Gawlani the owner has been completely transformed ever since. According to an interview with Reuters, Ramkishan Gawlani was used to be poor and drank all day. For 24 years he cooked meat, rice, lentils and sometimes omelette. After Lonely Planet’s listing however, his business boomed dramatically with tourists all over the world come to him for omelettes. He gave up the other options in his menu and became an omelette specialist. Just a decade after the listing, he was cracking 1000 eggs a day and earned much respect in the city of Jodhpur. Interestingly, the famous omelette man is in fact a vegan and has not eaten an egg for years. His story reflects an interesting phenomenon about the tourist and guidebook industry. According to Reuters, Lonely Planet has sold over a million guidebooks on India from 1981 to 2007, and has inevitably bringing tourists to the same hotels and restaurants throughout the years, and has created tension and jealousy among businesses, such as the hostile feelings of the other omelette shop owners towards Ramkishan Gawlani. For us, we did visit the famous Omelette Shop for our first meal in Rajasthan because of its convenient location. While not as legendary one might imagine, Ramkishan Gawlani ‘s omelettes were indeed delightful and convenient for us.
We arrived at Pal Haveli hotel straight from the airport in early afternoon.
Through the grand entrance, we entered into the main arrival courtyard of the hotel.
On the roof, Indique Restaurant is a well known establishment with good food and great views of the old Jodhpur.
The hotel reception lobby is situated right at the courtyard.
Despite its modest size, the reception lobby of Pal Haveli is decently decorated with traditional furniture and antiques.
Even the light switches reflect the long history of the building.
Our room was located right by the courtyard.
Inside the room, walls were decorated with traditional miniature paintings.
Just a stone throw away, the legendary Omelette Shop was busy serving foreign tourists.
Stacks of eggs and signs of “Lonely Planet” and “Tripadvisor” suggested we had come to the “right” place, but not one of the imitated ones.
Ramkishan Gawlaniwas busy making omelettes at the stove.
Made with several eggs, mayo, cheese, spices and bread, we tried the tasty Alibaba Omelette.
Near the Omelette Shop was the entrance into the Sardar Market or the Clock Tower Market.
Across the street from the Omelette Shop, we could see the side facade of our hotel Pal Haveli.
Dozens of tuk tuks or auto rickshaws await for tourists at the heart of the old city across the street from the Omelette Shop.
After a few rounds of bargaining, we hired one of the passing auto rickshaw for Mehrangarh Fort, the single most iconic sight of the city of Jodhpur.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to another misty and rainy morning in Ainokura. It was time for us to move on. In order to catch a direct bus to Shin-Takaoka Station (新高岡駅), we had to catch the 7:45 bus from Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop. Before breakfast, we took a final stroll around the village. Walking around the tranquil rice paddies and fields of drying reed, and breathing in the moist mountain air fixed with the fragrance of the woods and soil gave us a peaceful finale of our sojourn in the Japanese Alps. The breakfast at the minshuku was once again a hearty feast of small dishes in the traditional dining hall. After breakfast, the minshuku owner gave us a ride out to the Ainokuraguchi bus stop, sparing us for braving the elements with our backpacks.
The hour long bus journey north to Shin-Takaoka was as peaceful as our stay at Ainokura. Only four passengers including us were on the bus. The bus took us past the villages and towns in Toyama, including Johana Station (城端駅) where most buses throughout the day would end the journey for tourists to transfer for a local train. Soon our bus went up the expressway over to the city of Takaoka.
From Shin-Takaoka, it was just a 15 minute train ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) to Kanazawa (金沢), our final stop of this Japan trip before heading back to Tokyo. We felt a bit strange stepping out of the modern Kanazawa Train Station after staying several days in the mountains and countryside. Designed by architect Ryuzo Shirae in 2005, the century old train station of Kanazawa received a modern makeover, including a wooden gate inspired by a traditional Japanese torii. We took one of the many buses leaving the station for Omicho Market (近江町市場) at the city centre. Our hotel was just a block away from the famous market. With a small ground floor cafe, the sleek and modern Pacific Hotel was like a world away from the Gassho-style thatched roof minshuku of Ainokura.
We woke up to another wet day in the mountain village of Ainokura in Gokayama.
Before breakfast, we made a final stroll around the tranquil rice paddies of Ainokura.
Passing by the fields of drying reed reminded us the traditional way of living in Ainokura is still going strong.
Breakfast at Gassho Minshuku Nakaya (合掌民宿なかや) was again a delightful feast for us.
It was very kind for the owner of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya to drive us out to Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop in the rain.
The bus ride to Shin-Takaoka took a little over an hour.
Opened in 2015, the Shin-Takaoka Station (新高岡駅) in Takaoka (高岡) is a modern interchange station for the Hokuriku Shinkansen high speed railway.
There are Hokuriku Shinkansen high speed trains coming from Tokyo stopping at Shin-Takaoka on the way to Kanazawa.
In less than 15 minutes, we arrived at Kanazawa Station.
The wooden torii gate at Kanazawa welcome every visitors entering the city by train.
The modern and clean Pacific Hotel near Omicho Market offered us a comfortable resting place for our stay in Kanazawa.
A small reception counter of Pacific Hotel also doubles as a coffee bar.
* * *
CHUBU (中部地方) 2018, Japan, 2018.05.25 – 06.03
Day 1: Tokyo (東京)
1.1 TSUKIJI OUTER MARKET (築地場外市場)
1.2 TSUKIJI INNER MARKET (築地中央卸売市場)
1.3 MORI ART MUSEUM (森美術館), 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT & CAFE KITSUNE
Day 2: Matsumoto (松本)& Kamikochi (上高地)
2.1 MATSUMOTO CASTLE (松本城), Matsumoto (松本)
2.2 “ALL ABOUT MY LOVE”, Yayoi Kusama’s Exhibition at Matsumoto City Museum of Art (松本市美術館), Matsumoto (松本)
2.3 MATSUMOTO PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (まつもと市民芸術館), Matsumoto (松本)
2.4 FROM MATSUMOTO (松本) TO KAMIKOCHI (上高地)
2.5 ARRIVAL IN KAMIKOCHI (上高地), Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園)
Day 3: Kamikochi (上高地)
3.1 MORNING WALK IN KAMIKOCHI (上高地), Nagano Prefecture (長野県)
3.2 DAKESAWA HIKE (岳沢), Kamikochi (上高地)
Day 4: Kamikochi (上高地) & Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
4.1 TAISHO POND (大正池), Kamikochi (上高地)
4.2 RETREAT IN THE JAPANESE ALPS, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
4.3 MOMENTS OF ESCAPE, Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
Day 5: Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.1 CITY IN THE MOUNTAINS, Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.2 HIDA BEEF (飛騨牛), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.3 SAKE (日本酒) BREWERIES, Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.4 YOSHIJIMA HOUSE (吉島家住宅), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.5 HIGASHIYAMA WALKING COURSE (東山遊歩道), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
Day 6: Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Shirakawa-go (白川郷) & Ainokura (相倉)
6.1 MIYAGAWA MORNING MARKET (宮川朝市), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県)
6.2 OGIMACHI IN THE RAIN, Shirakawa-go (白川郷), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県)
6.3 SOBA, TEMPLE & LOOKOUT, Shirakawa-go (白川郷)
6.4 RAINY AFTERNOON IN AINOKURA (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山)
6.5 GASSHO MINSHUKU, FLOWER BEDS & RICE PADDY FIELDS, Ainokura (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山)
6.6 CROAKING FROGS AND MOONLIGHT REFLECTIONS, Gokayama (五箇山)
Day 7: Kanazawa (金沢)
7.1 DEPARTURE IN THE RAIN, Ainokura (相倉) to Kanazawa (金沢)
7.2 A SEAFOOD PARADISE – OMICHO MARKET (近江町市場)
7.3 D T Suzuki Museum (鈴木大拙館)
7.4 Kenroku-en Garden (兼六園)
7.5 Oyama Shrine (尾山神社) and Nagamachi Samurai District (長町)
7.6 Nomura Samurai House (武家屋敷跡 野村家), Nagamachi Samurai District (長町)
7.7 Sushi Ippei (一平鮨), Katamachi (片町)
Day 8: Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture (金沢, 石川県)
8.1 Iki Iki Tei (いきいき亭) and Higashide Coffee (東出珈琲店), Omicho Market (近江町市場)
8.2 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (21世紀美術館)
8.3 Kazuemachi District (主計町茶屋街)
8.4 Higashi Chaya District (東山ひがし茶屋街)
8.5 Kaga Yuzen Toro Nagashi (加賀友禅燈ろう流し), Asano River (浅野川)
8.6 AFTERMATH OF KAGA YUZEN TORO NAGASHI (加賀友禅燈ろう流し)
Day 9 & 10: Tokyo (東京)
9.1 Marunouchi (丸の内) & Nihonbashi (日本橋)
10.1 OEDO ANTIQUE MARKET (大江戸骨董市), Tokyo Forum (東京国際フォーラム)
10.2 FARMER’S MARKET, United Nations University (東京国連大学), Aoyama (青山)
DAY 6 (5/6): GASSHO MINSHUKU, FLOWER BEDS & RICE PADDY FIELDS, Ainokura (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山), Nanto (南砺市), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
The idea of staying a night in a traditional gassho-zukuri house prompted us to come all the way to Ainokura, the remotest of the three UNESCO World Heritage villages in the Japanese Alps. A few centuries-old gassho-zukuri houses in Ainokura have been converted into minshuku (民宿) or Japanese style bed-and-breakfast. A typical minshuku stay offers a Japanese tatami room, as well as dinner and breakfast served in a traditional dining room around an Irori (囲炉裏) hearth. Based on online reviews and guidebook recommendations, we booked our stay at Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, a 350-year old gassho-zukuri located near the end of the village. The interior of the house was as expected full of wooden panels, tatami flooring and timber lattices. The bathroom and toilets were clean and modern, while the dining room and its Irori hearth provided a feature for all visitors.
Outside of the minshuku, gassho-zukuri houses scattered along the few winding paths and surrounded by patches of terracing flower beds and rice paddy fields. Historically, Ainokura was self sustained not by farming, but by making traditional paper and raising silkworm. Since the decline of silkworm raising in the 1950s, some fields of mulberry trees uphill from the village were converted into agricultural fields for vegetables and rice paddy. Today, rice paddy fields dominate the scenery of Ainokura. As the most important staple food in Asia, rice cultivation represents the lifeline for many nations, including Japan. Apart from rice fields, small beds of colourful flowers can be found all over the village. Flowers are planted adjacent to rice terraces, or along winding paths, or in front of village homes, leaving touches of lovely colours among the lush green palette, even in the greyest rainy day.
Gassho Minshuku Nakaya is a well-preserved 350-year-old gassho-zukuri house in the UNESCO World Heritage village.
The thatched roof and timber wall panels of the minshuku look just like other traditional farm houses in the village.
Just like any typical Japanese house, there is a decent entrance vestibule at the Gassho Minshuku Nakaya.
The guest area is limited at the ground floor only, with traditional tatami bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom.
In the dining room above the Irori (囲炉裏) hearth, a jizaikagi (自在鉤) or free hook is attached to the beam structure of the house.
Our room was a Japanese style tatami room with traditional decorations.
Upon arrival, we were given green tea and snacks.
Outside of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, lovely flowers could be found in many fields and flower beds.
One of the most impressive flower beds we saw was just opposite to the front door of our minshuku.
The small flowers in front of Minshuku Yomoshiro present a subtle beauty.
Colourful flowers along the village paths lighted up the scenery in a rainy day.
We found some of the most impressive flowers at the terracing flower beds in the midst of the lush green rice paddy fields.
And more flowers…
Late May. Rice seedlings had just planted not long ago. Rows of footprints were visible in the rice paddy fields.
It was a pleasure to get so close to the rice paddy.
At the end of Ainokura near Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, we found some larger rice fields with beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains.
After spending time to photograph the rice fields, it was about time for dinner.