Normally I write my travel blog posts to include the entire trip. I’ve decided to separate India out into two parts, because otherwise it might have ended up too long and image intensive. The number of photos I took in India in February is the primary reason I haven’t gotten around to writing this up yet.
Originally, my family and I were meant to travel to India in August last year. I knew we needed visas, and had looked up how long it was meant to take to process them, but unfortunately I still didn’t manage to get our visas organised in time, so we didn’t go. At first I was really disappointed, but then my husband, Jeremy, found out the organisation he works for (Consumers International) was going to hold a conference in Delhi in February this year. Since that was the destination I wanted to go to, I jumped at the chance to go with him, so we only had to pay for my ticket, while our boys stayed at home and were well looked after.
Jeremy and I arrived in Delhi on February 22. The first things we saw on our drive from the airport were a pig, and many cows, on the roadside. People looked to be living in unfinished brick buildings, two or three stories high. Makeshift markets lined some of the streets. The traffic wasn’t as bad as I had been led to believe, and in fact I compared it with the traffic in Manila in the Philippines, and thought Manila was worse.
Our hotel was in the Rohini area, so not particularly close to any major sights. When we arrived, there was a security screening process, and then we were able to check-in and drop our bags. We hadn’t had lunch yet, so we had a look at the attached department store/mall, where I found wearing a singlet that exposed shoulders gained me a lot of uncomfortable stares from men. From then I concluded that I really ought to cover my arms as best as I could for the remainder of our time in India.
There wasn’t anywhere to eat there, so we just had some pastries and cake at the hotel’s deli area. For the afternoon, we checked the Internet, watched a little TV, and napped.
At around 6pm or so, we wandered over to a nearby shopping area called Metro Walk. This area was also cordoned off and we had to walk through separate security screening areas. We browsed the restaurants available, and settled on having dinner at the Blue Moon restro bar. Dinner included delicious navrattan korma, veg dum biryani with raita, and tandoori roti. I was expecting the roti to be the same as Malaysian roti, but it was actually more like chapati.
After we had our fill, we headed back to the hotel, hoping to rest, knowing we were headed to Agra the next day. We kept being interrupted by calls from Jeremy’s colleagues for work things and to let us know that actually we wouldn’t just be going to Agra for the day, but overnight, and so Jeremy and I thought perhaps instead of coming home with his colleagues on the Sunday, we could make our own way to Jaipur and back to Delhi.
Saturday February 23rd, 2013
We were up at 7am and headed to the hotel’s main restaurant for a buffet breakfast. One of the great things about this trip was that because Jeremy was there work, they paid for the accommodation and most of our meals. Of course, that meant we ate a lot more than we should have!
After breakfast, and checking out just for one night, leaving everything we didn’t need for the weekend behind, we met the Director General of Consumers International, Helen, and Jeremy’s colleague Satya (who is from India originally, but works with him in Malaysia). They were the only people who were coming with us to Agra, though I had initially thought there would be others. We left around 9:30am, which is really quite late for a trip to Agra.
I sat next to Helen on the drive to Agra. I really enjoyed talking to her. For most of the drive we saw a lot of animals beside the road. Cows, pigs, oxen, even a couple of elephants! The saddest part was seeing so many shanty villages, with homes built out of cow pats, makeshift tents, and grass huts. The poverty was very confronting.
We had a tea break on the side of the road at one point, trying Indian chai. It was sweet and delicious, and completely in the middle of nowhere.
Other things we passed included a giant statue of Krishna, in the area where it was believed Krishna grew up; palm trees growing along a narrow river; children playing on the road; and men peeing on the side of the road (I wish I didn’t see the one who turned around before pulling his pants up!)
We didn’t end up arriving in Agra until after 3pm, but I admired the sights as we drove past them, the different forts, the river, and of course the Taj Mahal. We ate a buffet lunch at around 3:30pm, before deciding how much time we had to see what we wanted to see. It was concluded that we only had enough time to see the Taj Mahal, and given that that was the entire reason I wanted to go to India in the first place, that’s where we ended up (fortunately everyone else wanted to see it as well).
Upon parking at the Taj Mahal, we were greeted by some people who wanted to drive us in a golf buggy to the gate, and since we were short on time, we went ahead with it. Satya was good to have with us to help translate things for us, especially with our driver. We were also given a guide for the Taj Mahal. He took us through and bought our tickets for us (a lot more expensive for us foreigners than it was for Satya) and then took us to the queue. The line for foreigners was very short compared to locals, and the lines for women (because they were separated further by gender) were the shortest. There were very few women at the Taj Mahal, and I was really surprised by the lack of white people. I figured this would be the most likely location to see white tourists, but I was wrong.
Our guide showed us the amazing entrance gate, and told us about the symmetry of the whole area. If you cut the place in half – the Taj Mahal itself, the wall that surrounds it, and consider the buildings on either side of the tomb, you would have two identical parts. We were also told that the king who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal had intended to have a black one on the opposite side of the river, which was meant to be his tomb, but that was stopped by one of his sons.
On the left of the Taj Mahal was a mosque, and this was the moment I realised how stupid I’d been to not have known that it was a Muslim structure. The design of the building should have made it obvious to me given how many mosques I have been to in South East Asia. The mirror of the mosque, on the right of the Taj Mahal, was a guesthouse.
A photographer joined us, wanting to take many pictures of us in various locations with the Taj Mahal, which would be ready for us to buy as we were leaving. We had perhaps too many photos taken, but it actually wasn’t that expensive compared to how much you can be charged for the same sort of thing at other places I’ve been.
To climb the steps to the Taj Mahal itself, and walk on the white marble, we had to put special socks over our shoes. It was really, really cool. I hadn’t known before visiting that it had been the tomb of a queen. I’d always assumed it was a palace, I guess. We got to see the foundation for the black Taj on the other side of the river, and our guide showed us how the architect had made the spires and optical illusion. All of the colours set into the white marble was carved out of precious stones.
If I had not been able to visit anything else in India, I really feel like the trip would have been worth it just to see this amazing building.
The sun was already setting while we were there, but I asked if we could still drive over to Agra Fort to get some photos before checking in to our hotel. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to photograph from the outside, but we did find out there was a “sound and light show” that would be on later that we could go to.
There was enough time for us to check in to our hotel, which was amusingly named the Raj Mahal, and drop our things, before we headed back to the Agra Fort. It was really dark walking through the fort to the sound and light show, which meant we didn’t get to see very much. That was a little disappointing. It was also cold, and rained a little during the show, which made a lot of people leave in the middle. It wasn’t really what I was expecting to be – mostly a monologue about the history of Agra and the Taj Mahal (with more about the king and his wife whom he’d built the Taj Mahal for), and lights over a few sections we were seated at. The history lesson was interesting, but I didn’t retain much of the information, unfortunately. At least it didn’t cost much to visit.
When we headed back to our hotel, we said goodbye to Helen and Satya, then Jeremy and I had a dinner of chicken tikka, rice, and papadoms, then it was off to bed.
Sunday February 24th, 2013
We got up at 6am because we had a lot of ground to cover. Satya had spoken to our driver from the previous day to organise a new driver for Jeremy and me. The cost of our driver and car was possibly more than it would have cost if we had organised it separately, but on the other hand, we were booking him for close to 18 hours (once you factor in how long it took us to get back to Delhi). Our driver ended up being late, so we still saw Satya in the morning before we left.
On our way to our first stop, we passed a number of people burning fires on the side of the road to keep warm. There were also a lot of people walking long distances, presumably into Agra for work or shopping. It was really eye-opening to see that there are so many people who live in India under conditions I’d have thought were long in the past. But I guess that’s why India is considered a third world country. With a population of over a billion people, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many of them everywhere.
We headed to Fatehpur Sikri, which is an old town, with a palace for a king who had 3 wives (1 Hindu, 1 Christian, and 1 Muslim). It also heralds having the largest gate in all of Asia.
Since we had so much we were going to fit in, we had to take a tuk tuk from the car park to the actual location of the site, and we were given a couple of guides to take us around. It was really early so hardly anyone else was there yet. Our main guide told us a lot about the area, and the mosque and tombs around it. He told us about a 40km tunnel that led from there to Agra, but it was no longer in use.
Then he took us to his little ‘stall’ of marble carvings, which we were told he had made himself and the money we used to buy anything from him would be given to his family, who live in the area. He was, most likely, lying, given that Jeremy later found much of the same sorts of things in a souvenir shop later, but we kind of felt obligated to get some things there anyway. There were a couple of things we got that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, though.
We left our main guide in the mosque area, and rejoined our guide from the tuk tuk. He took us to the palace grounds, where we had to pay an entrance fee, and then were told about the king and his wives. He had built different rooms for all of them, in separate areas, and they each had designs that matched their religions. Because, apparently, he loved his Hindu wife the most, she got the biggest room. The Muslim wife had the smallest one. It was all really cool, and I was glad I didn’t have to miss out on it like I thought I would.
As we left Fatehpur Sikri, we saw people travelling on carts pulled by camels and horses. We also saw some brick fields, where camels helped the workers. We hadn’t had breakfast yet so we asked our driver to stop somewhere we could eat. It was about 10am by then so it was more like a brunch. This is where Jeremy came across the souvenirs that looked like the ones the guide was selling us at Fatehpur Sikri.
We didn’t stop again after that until we got to Jaipur, except for briefly when we crossed the border between states. In Jaipur, we collected our guide for the day, who we were informed too late that we were expected to pay separately. Still, he ended up being a really good guide.
We drove past Hawa Mahal for some quick photos. Hawa Mahal is kind of like a fancy looking wall. I don’t really know how else to describe it.
Shortly afterwards, we arrived at City Palace. Here, our guide asked us what kind of tickets we wanted. If you’re willing to spend a lot of money (I can’t remember exactly how much, I think it was something like US$50-100), then you can have a tour of the palace where a royal family still lives. India is a democracy now, so this is how the royal family makes money. We were not interested in paying that much, and in any case, we didn’t really have the time to spare.
Our guide told us about how the colour of the paint on the walls signifies who is allowed where. Pink walls mean the public is welcome, whereas yellow is for the royal family only.
The main courtyard, which looks up at the palace, has four entrances, all beautifully decorated. My favourite was the entrance we were actually allowed to walk through, because of the peacocks.
There was a museum area, which we were allowed to go to, which featured a throne room, the walls of which were covered with painted portraits of all the past kings. We got to see some of the clothes that kings of past had worn — including a giant shirt that our guide said belonged to a king who was something like 2m tall and 3m wide (I can’t remember the exact size our guide told us). We were told about the difference between a rajah and a maharaja. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, so it really was the place for kings. This is where the maharajah — king of kings — ruled.
We were also taken to the royal armoury, which was impressive. They had some interesting weapons I had never seen before, as well as many old pistols and swords and such.
After our tour of the palace, we were taken to a fabric place we hadn’t actually asked to go, which was confusing given that we had specifically said where we had wanted to go. But I suppose even when you choose your destinations, they try and take you places you’ll buy things so they can take a commission. We were shown how they use vegetable dyes to print patterns on fabric, and then taken to look around their shop, hoping we’d buy something, even though they said no obligation. I ended up getting a kurta and pajama pant to go with it because I wanted some anyway and wasn’t sure if I’d have another opportunity to get some. It took a while to find something I liked though. I was going to get a sari, but decided it would be too much hassle for me to figure out how to wear it (even though they’d have taught me), especially when I wasn’t likely to have worn it very often. A kurta can be more casual, at least for me, and more easily worn.
Finally, our next stop was Jal Mahal, which was the sight I most wanted to see in Jaipur. Jal Mahal is a palace which is partially submerged underwater, in the middle of a lake. You can’t go over to it, but our guide told us there were plans to turn it into a hotel, which sounded really cool.
As we headed to our final stop in Jaipur, we passed more camels, and were taken to a gemstone jewellery shop. Yet another place they tried to sell us something we didn’t want. We managed to hold out here though. Jeremy showed them the blue topaz ring he got me on our honeymoon in Phuket in 2006 and said he’d bought it in Jaipur. The guy didn’t believe him, but amusingly thought it was only about 6 months old, rather than the nearly 7 years old it actually was.
Finally on our way to Amber Fort, we passed some of the elephants we could have chosen to ride on to the fort. We had opted not to because we’ve done elephant rides before, and again, were lacking time. But these elephants had beautifully painted faces, which I admired.
The walls guarding Amber Fort were long, and built over hills. We had to pass through one of them to get there.
Though I can’t really compare Jaipur’s Amber Fort to the Agra Fort, based on the limited parts we could see at night, I imagine that they were similar enough to not need to have visited both. I really loved exploring the fort, which was once home to another king with many wives.
As we wandered around, we had a few Indians ask to take photos with us, clearly excited to be seeing white people. I suppose now that they were tourists from other parts of India that don’t get white tourists, but at the time I also thought it was just because there weren’t even a whole lot of white tourists in Jaipur. The second lot seemed a little shifty to me and I worried that maybe Jeremy had been pick-pocketed, but fortunately that was not the case.
The fort was beautiful, enormous, and amazingly well built. It overlooked some beautiful gardens and you could see very far from its height. It was definitely a highlight of the trip.
As we left the fort and went to find out driver, we came across a goat, just standing there minding his own business. I don’t know why I found it so fascinating to see what I consider farm animals all over the place; maybe it was just because they weren’t on farms.
We gave our guide some money after that — he wanted more than Jeremy wanted to give, but Jeremy also didn’t have much money left in his wallet. After dropping our guide off, we had to stop at two different ATMs before Jeremy was able to find one he could get enough cash out to pay our driver once we got back to Delhi.
Then we asked to go somewhere for an early dinner, because we hadn’t eaten since brunch, and there probably wasn’t really going to be anywhere decent to stop on our drive back to Delhi.
I can’t remember specifically what we ordered for dinner, because I didn’t write it down, but it was more yummy Indian food. However, by this point, it was possible I had eaten more Indian food than my body could handle. The drive back to Delhi was the absolute worst part of the entire trip, and the food may have been partly to blame.
Jeremy didn’t have the same problem as me, though, so I suspect there was a combination of factors. I was seated directly behind the driver, and he couldn’t close his window the whole way. This meant that for the entire 7 hour drive — which could have taken half the time, if the traffic hadn’t been so terrible — I was breathing in the fumes of all the other cars and trucks on the road. I think how much the driver weaved between and around the many big trucks on the road also did a lot to make me feel sick.
Basically, without going into too much detail, I made the driver stop twice to experience two of the worst toilets I have used in my entire life. One did not have a cistern and therefore I had no idea how to get rid of the contents of it. I made Jeremy fetch me napkins because there was no toilet paper. The second one at least had a cistern, but again, no toilet paper — just a bucket of water to use… and it was a squat toilet. I really held out as long as I could — the last one was used when we were about an hour out of Delhi and I knew I couldn’t last that long.
We didn’t get back to our hotel until around 1am, but thankfully by then, my stomach felt a little more settled, and I was at least able to sleep through the night. I mention the sickness mainly as a warning — if you’re thinking of travelling to India and want to see these same sights, try not to rush through them like we had to. I don’t want you to suffer the same fate I did.