We have just returned from our morning trip to the Taj Mahal. Our guide told us that Taj means crown and Mahal translates as palace, and without having seen too many palaces, there is no doubt that this is the crown jewel of all palaces.
We left the hotel at 6am as we were told it is best seen at sunrise or sunset. We didn’t quite make it in time for the exact sunrise, but we got a pretty spectacular view. Quite worth being awake at 4.30am!
We will be heading to the Red Fort in about 10 minutes so once we’ve accumulated some more photo’s you will all see a bombardment of spectacular snaps (most of which you will have seen before, but they serve to prove that we were actually there!)
Upon visiting a place, people are often asked to describe that place in one word. I’m afraid one word is simply not enough to describe the chaos, the colour, the people, the sounds, the smells, the country, the cities, the buildings nor the bizarre local customs of India.
Nor would it be fair to attempt to describe this country in just one word. We have spent a mere 7 days touring the popular destinations of just a handful of the northern cities. You cannot describe what a curry is like when you have only braved a chicken korma. Neither would I do it’s subject any justice, and just as you cannot intimate the subtle and intricate differences of their culinary staple in one bleat of your tongue, neither can you give fair insight into a foreign country in just one word.
The best I can do is to describe our first day in India, and to say that our taster of India thus far has been thrilling; and I mean that in every which way it can possibly be understood without any further context.
We arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport nearly a week ago and after the anti-climax of a mundane security and visa check, and following the anti-drama of waiting for our luggage on the world’s most disappointing carousel (sorry, no horses or candy floss), and after we had exchanged our money and stepped out into the stifling heat of New Delhi, the realisation of where we were and what we were doing hit home like an unexpected punt to the crown jewels.
It did not take long for us to be hounded by overly-eager locals who may or may not have had a legitimate vehicle, never mind an actual taxi, in which to take us into New Delhi, as they were claiming. One enthusiastic chap even followed us all the way down to the metro station, such was his desperation for a fare. He seemed to get bored eventually, and either he realised we were not going to be his fare-maiden today or he was spooked by the metro representative who approached us and asked us with sincerity where it was we were hoping to go.
We did not realise until very recently-having had time to reflect- but that was perhaps as good an example of the disparity in treatment by locals to white tourists (or Westerners, as we’ve become collectively known). One man obtrusively annoying you into a taxi; another man wholeheartedly trying to assist two lost souls in a foreign city.
And assist he did. For 80 rupees a-piece he provided us with two single tickets to New Delhi via the underground (which like London’s system, eventually becomes overground). But the adventure did not stop there. Yes, there is more.
The station closest to our hotel, based on the address on our tour voucher, was Karol Bagh (Bart Simpson yelling aye Ka-rull Baa! was the first image in my head…dunno about you). The ticket we had- which was in fact not a ticket but a coin-sized plastic button that you flash over the barriers in much the same way as an oyster-card- only got us as far as New Delhi, where we were told we needed to buy another ticket to Karol Bagh via a change at Rajiv Chowk. Still with me? Good.
Why we couldn’t buy just one ticket to Karol Bagh taking into account these two changes, I do not know and after a half-hearted attempt to ask why we conceded to the lower depths of the underground (which is guarded by stationed security scanners that would not look out of place across the road at the airport). Myself and the baggage (no, not Jo!) made it through unscathed and without further probing, allowing us to find our platform.
The train was very clean, in fact the entirety of the metro facilities were modern and welcoming to Western eyes. We were two of perhaps 5 people in our carriage, and finally allowing our luggage to dismount ourselves we sat down, relived to have negotiated our first hurdle.
However the hurdle was soon replaced by a pole-vault when we arrived at New Delhi metro station, and we both felt severely lacking in a sufficient length of pole to vault this particular challenge. Think of London’s underground during rush-hour and add another train-load of people. No five train loads of people. The scenes were chaotic and the lines for what we could only second-guess were ticket offices in what we could only desperately assume was the right line for Karol Bagh, were not as much ‘lines’ as a scene from a small tent at Glastonbury which is the venue for a not-so-secret gig by Pink Floyd.
After much pushing and shoving, mainly on the part of our 75 litre rucksacks, we purchased tickets for Karol Bagh. But we were forced to stand in befuddlement as one train after another went by, already full to the brim, and watched as a carriage-worth of locals flooded onto the train that was already bursting it’s banks. It was like watching a scene from a Bollywood Harry Potter remake, as people somehow simply disappeared into the masses of muggles (Moghuls is perhaps more apt here?).
We eventually managed to force our way onto a train and with no room to move, became very aware that the only white people on the train were feeling the eyes of the entire carriage.
It was quite an unnerving experience and we were both extremely relieved to step off the train at our destination. I was not relived though, to find that my ticket-coin was missing and I was even less excited by the prospect of having to try and explain the situation to the ticket office. Eventually I bought a new ticket for 80 rupees- about 3 times the amount I paid for the original ticket from New Delhi- and we cleared the barrier. But there was even more fun.
Yes we had arrived at Karol Bagh but we would not feel comfortable until we found the hotel. We realised it said Pillar 88 on the address, and as the metro line ran straight overhead of the busy dual-carriage way, we assumed it must be relating to the large and numerous structures holding it up. We were currently standing in front of Pillar 102 so we descended the road in search of the legendary 88.
We eventually came to Pillar 88 and whilst there seemed to be a hotel just off the road, the doorman confirmed that it was not TJS Grand. He directed us down a dusty street, fully occupied by men, women, children, rickshaw drivers and people selling various items. Having refused many approaches for fares, we were eventually offered a free ride by a local who told us the hotel was very close. His condition was that ‘when’ we wanted to take a trip into Connaught Place and the city centre, we come back to him and him only. He pointed to the corner on which he usually waits, but…there were a lot of corners, and with the sole intention of finding our room and passing out, I felt a tinge of guilt that I would not be using his services following this kind gesture.
The hotel was okay. Nothing marvellous about it but the room was plenty enough for the two of us. I cannot say the bathroom was the most appealing of sanctuaries in which to cleanse ourselves, so I will not say it. But we could finally breathe the biggest sigh of relief of the day and the fact that we were in our hotel with all our belongings and with all ourselves, was mission accomplished.
We met later that evening with the tour guide and the rest of the group, but I will not step on the toes of my next post; that would be rude.
However I would like to come back to that word thrilling that sprang to mind in the opening paragraphs. It was a thrill. The whole process of getting from A-B in a completely alien city was a huge thrill; somewhat of a buzz. It was both terrifying and joyous. The people both brusque and generous. The city itself both electrifying yet soulless. The thrill was neither bad nor good. It was simply a thrill and already I felt it was an experience worth doing for that reason. You don’t quite know what to expect and the reality is so far from what you could possibly have predicted, but it is (what I feel) helps to define this place. From what I have seen so far, India is a country of contrasts and I am still trying to find out if that’s good or bad.
The evening we enjoyed with the Indian family in my last post, we all agreed was a special and surprising event in our itinerary. Our second full day of the tour (our first in Agra) was voted the best so far and I spent that night in bed wondering how it could be topped. Friday 2nd March came along and gave it a damn good go.
Our morning routine was altered to the relief of all, with our guide Yash pushing back departure time to his “favoured” 9am, which was great, if you were able to fill those extra hours with sleep. I was not so lucky, and my laborious battle with the sleep-demons continued. We enjoyed a plate filled with enough breakfast for three, courtesy of the buffet, somehow forgetting that it’s okay to go back and get a second helping. Somewhere deep in our psyche, we’re constantly reminded at all-you-can-eat buffets that somehow THE FOOD WILL RUN OUT!!
Suitably stuffed we left the Royal Residency Hotel at 9am(ish) and after a brief(ish) stop for cash at an ATM, we hit the road to Bharatpur which was the humble setting of our next hotel. The reason we were held up by the ATM was because none of us Westerners could figure out how to work these alien and futuristic objects. We knew we wanted money, yet we could not tell it in the correct language that this is what we wanted. I left my card in that machine for at least 3 minutes and nothing, nada, nip. I even stood quietly and patiently, like a good Britisher should. That was until our interpreter and tour babysitter, Yash kindly translated that you need only place the card in the machine for a matter of seconds before withdrawing. After that it was a like the finale of Crystal Maze and the vestibule was a snow-globe of millions of falling rupees (disclaimer: that last sentence may or may not be true depending on your gullibility).
We were not on the road for long before we made our first stop, this one in the name of tourism himself. We stopped near a town called Sikri which was home to another fort, much like the one we had seen the day before in Agra. In fact it was kept by the same Moghul emperor who ruled in the Agra Fort, and it was made of the same red sandstone of its nearby brother. Jo observed as we entered through its gate that it owned a certain Chinese charm, stating that it looked a lot like the terracotta clad structures of the ancient Orient. Our guide later confirmed that it had indeed been designed and built with this Chinese style in mind and as he said so, it took all my mortal energy not to acknowledge Jo’s smug-little-mug which I knew was currently beaming my way .
Again, the fort was overly impressive and it is an astounding feat that was achieved. Even more remarkable is not only their penchant for bold, imposing structures but for the fine detail of palace ceilings and the symmetry which greets you at every turn.
We left the fort and I spent the next couple of minutes looking back on this monument and thinking how well preserved it was. In fact I was amazed at the amount of palaces, mosques, temples and other historic sites in India that looked completely untouched by time. And where parts of walls and sentry towers surrounding the fort looked tattered and in ruins, it was not too difficult to imagine it in its entirety. That is one of the great things about this country; not only does it remember its past but it is tireless in its attempts to preserve it too.
It was a couple of hours before we reached our hotel, and with just a few minutes before it came into sight we were told by Yash that he had booked this hotel as somewhat of a treat for us. The hotel had been converted from its original use as a palace and we could not help but agree once it came into view that this was a special place. You walked through the lobby into an inner square where you could sit and relax and the rooms were situated around this square on all sides. Ours, like every most likely, enjoyed a balcony which overlooked far-reaching views of… well not a lot really. Mostly barren land and some trees in the distance, but a balcony is always nice!
Dumping our luggage in our rooms, we had a lunch buffet (buffets we were getting very used to by now) and took up the offer of a visit to a bird sanctuary not far from the hotel. The coach took us to the sanctuary and cycle rikshaws did the rest, taking us through the national park which was home to over 230 species of bird and other animals: cow, deer, antelope, turtles, storks and snakes (I was adamant I saw a tiger but apparently that was “silly”).
The ride was pleasant, and occasionally we would disembark to take some still snapshots of nearby wildlife, and our guide would offer his binoculars so we could see those more elusive creatures. Jess, a fellow Britisher, commented that the trees, the greenery and the lakes on either side reminded her of certain parts of England and I had to agree. It was a little reminder of home, another place where we like to preserve and maintain (unless we can gain permission for a multi-storey car park or a Tesco Express).
Later that evening we again met for dinner, but not before myself, Jo, Chris, Jess and Yash indulged ourselves in a little late night cricket. It wasn’t quite England vs India, but let’s say it was, and let’s say we won. We decided to declare after a modest innings when Chris’ skills got the better of him and we received less than favourable looks from staff members for hitting a window. Time for tea!
We were served a set menu and whilst I can’t recall the name of the dish I know it was spicy. Not quite as spicy as some previous meals which made me think I was starting to build up something of a tolerance for Indian food. After the meal we all sought to extend the night’s conversation and company, and Yash complimented our desire with a bottle of rum. With no mixer to accompany it, we began in hardy bloke-ish tones to swig the stuff straight from the glass. After a few sips this bravery began to fade and we introduced water and before long the chivalry had vanished completely when Jo had to fetch two bottles of Coke to sweeten the spirit. I might have discovered a new found-tolerance for spicy food, but I am afraid I could not say the same regarding my tolerance for rum.
One or two people drifted off to bed as the hours lengthened but most of us hardened types (ahem) stayed up long into the night talking, laughing and exchanging stories. Whilst the sight-seeing might not have topped the heady heights of Thursday’s Taj and Agra Fort, I feel the group bonded as closely that day as it ever did. It’s hard to imagine when you take off on a backpacking adventure, who you’ll meet and who you’ll get along with. You don’t realise how much fun you’ll have with people you’ve known only 3 days. But I guess buffets and bottles of rum are useful ingredients, and whilst such times cannot be preserved in the same way as India’s great monuments, I have plenty of memories that will do just fine.
Pulling ourselves out of bed the next morning was not exactly easy; the excessive amount of rum and whiskey we consumed the night before ensured that. The quantity and the quality I should add. You know waking up is never going to be easy when you’ve swuggled down a bottle of McVernon’s Finest Scotch.
The hangover staved off long enough to allow us to say one more round of goodbyes to those that were leaving for Delhi. After the bus had pulled away and after breakfast was generously tucked away we began our scheduled day of…well, nothing. And it was nice to have nothing to do. Even nicer not to see anymore palaces (a sentiment that only lasted till Udaipur). The day therefore will not command much page-time. I will only mark it as the day I finally got ill. It was not so much a case of Delhi-Belly but more a need for a Jaipur-Diaper (Yes, that should rhyme).
That night I was to wake in fits and starts and bits and parts with gut wrenching stomach cramps. Very intermittent but very powerful whilst simultaneously keeping my fitness up by having me run to the bathroom every half an hour. I bet you wish I hadn’t devoted much page-time to this now eh?
The next day our tour guide Yash was back from Delhi, complete with train tickets from Jaipur to Udaipur: the man’s home city and current palace of residence. Sorry, that should be place. Or maybe palace. We’ll wait and see. This was not the best day to experience my maiden voyage on India’s famous railway network yet there was nothing to be done. Feeling no better, we boarded the train aoround 2.30, arriving in Udaipur at approximately 10.30 and with 8 hours of tremendously horrendous backwards and forward, side-to-side train movement in less than comfortable “recliner” seats.
However the journey was made all the while once we had ridden auto-rikshaws to our palace of residence, left our bags to our rooms and took to the roof-terrace to witness one of the most spectacular views in my eyes’ entire career of sight-seeing. This was at 11’oclock at night, yet half the city was visibly lit up with their identical twins twinkling back at them thanks to the surrounding lakes. Yet whilst it was the most breath-taking sight of our travels so far, I could not shake the bite and twinge of my aching stomach as well as toilet-bowl withdrawal symptoms. In my condition, it was not safe to be away from a bathroom for too long.
I’d like to say things improved when I awoke that morning, but it didn’t. Firstly, I felt worse and secondly you actually need to have slept in order to awake and I managed no such thing. The cramps intensified and the in the safest analogy conceivable by my imagination, the 1500 meter pace-setters reached their final 100 meter sprint, meaning my visits to the bathroom became much more frequent.
With the Ned Flanders euphemisms out of the way, I tried my best to stomach a breakfast but got as far as a piece of warm bread used to pass as toast and a glass of Diarolyte. After that, despite the fun and games that had been planned for the 8 of us that day, I went skulking back to bed. It was the safest place and after barely an hour’s sleep I needed to recuperate (I’ll by pass it here, but my next post will be a one-off investigative-critique into the bizarre dream I had while Jo and co. were out. It involved Denton Drive, Nick Meagan, Mike Craven and zombies).
Not wanting to miss out on the entire day, I pulled myself out of bed long enough to enjoy a boat ride through Udaipur which was more than worth getting up for. It was all I could manage though, and it took every inch of strength (okay, the one inch of strength) in my body to climb the stair to my room where I was out of breath to the same degree as if I’d completed 10 laps of a football pitch. I was completely shocked at how weak I was and any notion I had of getting better appeared dashed in that moment (dash, sprint, run all seem to be used in much the wrong context here).
The next day was Holi, a Hindu festival of colour and water that was one of the major reasons we decided to come to Udaipur in the first place. Luckily, I had a much better night sleep than the one before and whilst the cramps were still lingering, the sprints had finally finished the race and I was feeling a lot more refreshed and energetic.
And so began a wonderful if not brutal day of rubbing brightly coloured powder into each other’s clothes, faces, hair and anywhere else that happened to be on show. The festival is linked to another celebration which took place the day before: something about a woman who was burnt because of a demon…I think. Maybe the demon never called her back. With spring replacing winter, the colour is applied with the idea that when you come to wash it off, you will have to wash with the strength of a thousand elephants because the stuff just does not come out! Having to scrub that hard, the troubles or sins of winter are scrubbed off and a clean slate is offered for spring.
We were lucky enough to celebrate the festival with some of Yash’s friends and family and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say how grateful we are for the experience. Except for Jo maybe, who looked ready to take her ball and go home after being (quite honestly) harshly hit with water several times. Having survived the festival, it is much easier to look back and go: “Ahhhh yes, Holi, what a lovely time we all had”. Which we did. For the most part.
The following day the group that had survived gradually started to drift off and leave in a bid to re-join their original paths. We happened to be staying in India the longest, and as we had not booked any hotels or trains in advance we decided that we liked this city, this Venice of the East so much that we stayed as long as we could. We had a fantastic week in what is a beautiful city. It did not have quite the same appearance or feel as the other major cities we had visited. The narrow, windy and often steep roads stirred up images of an Italian city suburb and the vast surrounding waters and screensaver mountain images gave it a unique feeling.
Amongst all these were your typical Indian palaces, temples and monuments, but after a good week’s separation from sight-seeing we felt ready to give them another chance at making “us” work (for the kids). The City Palace was grand yet was certainly not built with the 6ft plus tourist in mind; its narrow and low ceilinged passages were not the easiest to negotiate. Anyone over 6”4 probably shouldn’t bother. It looks nice from the outside too.
We visited a park and a zoo on our second to last day which does not command much page-time other than Jo being scarily followed and asked for photos on more than one occasion. They didn’t seem interested in this tall, dark haired, pale skinned creature, which when put like that, I don’t blame them for. We also later visited the Monsoon palace, located upon the highest mountain in the region. We went just before sunset so that we could see the yellow sun going down over this stunning city and despite the windy and perilous route to the top, it afforded some amazing views which I hope you’ll find in the photo album I’ll upload in about a year.
The next day, Tuesday 13th March, we said our farewells to Udaipur as we had booked a sleeper train to take us to Delhi for our flight to Bangkok the day after. The train experience I will save for another post my dear reader but I will sign off with a few final thoughts on our time in India. At least I will try and offer you some final thoughts, because whilst you are in India, you are constantly re-evaluating your thoughts on the country. Just when you feel over-awed by the country’s beautiful and masterfully engineered palaces and monuments, you are suddenly shaken into fury and annoyance by the major cities’ constant natter. The country suddenly becomes an inconvenience and you forget why you are there. But just an uncomfortable 8 hour train ride of stomach cramps away and you find yourself once again, prisoner to the incredible ambition and natural beauty of some place unexpected.
There is no doubt that we enjoyed our 2 week stint there but we came to the mutual conclusion that –maybe Udaipur aside- we would not willingly come back to India. The feeling of vulnerability at almost every turn, the staring, penetrative eyes of the crowded metro, the battle and the physical effort that accompanies each day ensures that a two week stay feels more like a 2 month slog. I will remember the very good of India, for there was much good in it and I feel if we had stayed any longer we may have relinquished these warm memories in place of a cold resentment. In that sense, we very much glad to have loved and left India.
The Amber Fort, Jaipur
City Palace, Udaipur