Having booked a trip to India a few months in advance, my friend Emma and I were surprised that even on the day before we flew, we couldn’t quite believe that we were going. A destination that we had both wanted to go to for countless years, but neither fully believing it would happen. But go we did, a long flight to Muscat (where I felt an increasing desire to see more of Oman than just the airport – views of the terrain could be glanced from the plane door), and then a further flight to Delhi. The long and tiring journey certainly didn’t prepare me for the hustle and bustle of the city!
The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was a first insight into the traffic in Delhi, and drivers’ incessant use of the horn, apparently used to alert the world to their existence than to highlight an error in someone’s driving ability! I wondered how I’d ever sleep through the noise, but it is incredible how quickly you get used to it, and come to appreciate it when attempting not to get run over when crossing a road… We were joining an Intrepid Travel tour group, and with only a couple of hours to spare before our introduction meeting, we took to the hotel roof terrace for drinks and a view of our first sunset.
Delhi & Jaipur
The first full day in Delhi started with a metro journey. The women in the group decided to stay with the rest of the men, and I almost instantly regretted this decision. Even as a hardened Londoner, I found the crowds to be intense and intimidating and so I opted for the women’s carriage for remaining journeys, and I’d certainly recommend anyone else travelling to do the same – why pass up a half empty carriage if you don’t need to? From the metro we walked to the Jami Masjid mosque. Built over 300 years ago and able to accommodate 25,000 worshipers, this was our first taste of history and architecture – the main façade is beautiful with classic Islamic arches and design –in a calm and peaceful oasis, surrounded by the noise of the city.
From here, a very busy walk through local markets, including separate areas for fireworks, clothing, and spices, and a pit-stop to try gulab jamun – delicious little cakes covered in syrup – which soon became a post-dinner staple! The markets were in small streets barely wide enough for a rickshaw, let alone people carrying large sacks of goods, bicycles, mopeds, and cars, in two-way traffic -not getting run over was the aim of the game! We stopped at Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib, a Sikh temple where we learned about the religion, enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection, and saw the kitchen that caters for thousands of people a day for free, us included – best free food I’ve ever eaten, and some of the best food I had all trip! We were certainly more than welcome to eat here, although being the first to arrive for lunch did lead to some of the workers to simply stop and watch us (struggle with one hand) eat.
After spending a fair amount of time walking the streets of Delhi, a few of us decided to take a detour to the Jantar Mantar observatory. Jantar Mantar is unlike any observatory that I would conjure in the imagination, with vast outside instruments. Built in 1724, Jantar Mantar was clearly designed for use in a different time, when not surrounded by buildings, and the sky not obscured by smog!
The amount of rubbish in Delhi is extreme and all the more noticeable in the early hours when there are few people around. Juddering out of Delhi train station, the levels of rubbish increase more and more before breaking out in to endless slums. Some of the slum dwellings appear to be made of scraps, at some points making them indecipherable from the rubbish itself, whereas others were quite pleasing to the eye, and I found myself wondering if a small one up, one down, connected with a simple ladder, ought to be enough for everyone. It’s a weird mix of feelings, seeing the slums: feeling sad for the people living there, feeling bad for comparing their situations to my own in London, (when it’s clearly impossible to start to compare), and feeling angry toward the judgemental comments coming from the people sitting behind me. One thing that did strike me, was the sense of community that seemed apparent – people talking to each other, sitting together around a fire, shopping in small local shops, going about their lives regardless of the conditions. From famously grumpy and unfriendly London, where I don’t even know the names of my neighbours, I realised that we could well learn a lot from those in the slums.
The next day saw a full day in Jaipur, and a morning at the Amber Fort. A short climb up the steps, surrounded by magnificent views, and trying to avoid being trampled by elephants – nothing quite like suddenly being between an elephant, and an even larger wall! Our fabulous guide for the week, Chandra, took us around the fort and through the four courtyards, all of which were spectacular. The most enchanting of which had a superbly manicured garden, and a building covered in mirrors and decoration, which would have been spectacular when lit by candles. The only problem for tourists when visiting forts and palaces in India (and no doubt other countries) is the level of imagination required for seeing them as they would have been back in the day: extravagant carpets, different curtains or drapes for the different seasons, lighting, royalty and their staff, people playing games… While the buildings themselves are beautiful, I’m sure the sites are nothing in comparison to what they were.
From Jaipur we headed to the town of Karauli, where we were staying in a heritage property, a summer palace of the local royal family that doubles up as a glorious hotel. The contrast with Delhi to a small town such as Karauli was vast – here the people in the streets would smile and wave to us as we drove past, clearly intrigued as to our sudden appearance, it felt far friendlier than the chaos of Delhi.
After relaxing in the courtyard of the summer palace, we travelled through the town by camel cart to a palace that is not often frequented by tourists. The palace was beautiful, and we were the only people there, making it more special, particularly being able to enjoy the sunset from the roof and watching the monkeys running over the rooftops of nearby buildings. Following the palace, Chandra took us to a temple to see and learn about Hinduism – it certainly felt as though we were intruding on people’s personal space, watching them go about their own personal routines, but they didn’t appear to mind our presence, and it certainly gave an insight in to the religion. The route back to our home for the night was beautiful – the sun had set, candles lit small shop fronts, music was playing, and people were going about their evenings as we slowly moved through the town. Back at the summer palace, we enjoyed the courtyard with drinks, henna, and dinner al fresco, but the true highlight was our own personal fireworks display, and our first experience of fireworks being let off a few metres from our feet!
After a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted city, we continued on to Agra for the eagerly anticipated visit to the Taj Mahal. Road signs showing the way were our first sign that we were close and the excitement started to build, and after dropping bags off at the hotel, we headed straight there. A long stretch of road which heads downhill to the complex gave our first view of the top of the dome, and it finally hit me that I was going to see the Taj Mahal, a building that does not fail to meet (and even exceeds) expectations. The first view of the building comes in classic architectural fashion, framed by the entrance of the west gate, accentuating its beauty in the late afternoon light. My time at the Taj Mahal was split between feeling rather awe-struck at its beauty, having photos taken as well as taking photos of others, and striving for the perfect picture of the Taj itself. You could easily spend a whole afternoon here, breathing it all in, people watching, interacting with other people (families were keen to have photos taken with various members of our group), and simply enjoying the beautiful surroundings. The inside of the Taj itself is exceptionally crowded and it’s difficult to take it all in as you gradually get moved through the main room, it’s also incredibly hot, and so was a relief to get back outside again. When it came to be time to leave, I really didn’t want to; although fairly busy with tourists, the gardens, buildings and symmetry of the complex lead to a sense of tranquillity, especially in comparison to our days in Delhi.
Our final day saw us arriving back in Delhi after a 5 hour journey. Our afternoon was free to do as we wished, and so a break-away group headed to Akshardham Temple, a new yet beautiful place. It’s not permitted to take photographs at Akshardham Temple, which means you can focus entirely on where you are, drinking it all in, and thankfully without a selfie stick in sight! As with the Taj Mahal, this is another place where you could easily spend a whole afternoon, sitting, thinking and watching the world go by. A little out of the way, but definitely worth the journey across the city to spend some time in peace, away from the hustle of the city.
We were lucky that our final night in India coincided with the first night of Diwali. Cue firecrackers in the street, explosions everywhere, and our very own fireworks display on the top of a hotel, again with huge fireworks set off a few metres from our feet, and embers falling on our heads! Diwali was all fun and games until the next morning when we witnessed the smog that had descended on the city. I’d started to get used to my lungs feeling full of pollution, but this was unlike anything I’d seen before – maybe 10-15 metres of visibility, and once back in the UK, it was clear that the smog was showing no signs of lifting. We were lucky that we could leave the pollution behind, but I did feel bad for those living in the city, breathing in the pollution year round.
My first foray in to India, and my first trip to Asia after 10 years has certainly left me wanting more. I now have a ‘short’ list (as long as my arm) of places to explore next, and I’m sure I’ll be travelling east again before I know it!
Details and Hints
Delhi metro is efficient, although I would recommend women travel in the women only carriage where possible, although this is mainly because it is just more pleasant rather than necessarily safer – why wedge yourself in somewhere when you could have endless room elsewhere?!
For smaller journeys, tuk-tuks are reasonably fast (when you consider that there is traffic everywhere!), cheap, and frankly a lot of fun (though one is a squeeze for three people, as we often found)!
We travelled by train from Delhi to Jaipur, a comfortable journey with food and drink included – we had our tickets booked in advance, and this certainly seemed worthwhile.
It helps to have small notes on you at all times for tips for porters, toilet attendants etc.
All hotels stayed in were clean, comfortable and friendly:
Hotel Kyron, Delhi
Hotel Arya Niwas, Jaipur
Bhanwar Vilas Palace, Karauli
Hotel Pushp Villa, Agra
Intrepid Tour – Golden Triangle. My second tour holiday, and highly recommended. Excellent value for money, a great balance of free and organised time, and like-minded travel companions.