Journeying Northern India's Golden Triangle
Where: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Pushkar, Abhaneri. India, South Asia
When: December 2012—January 2013
What: Taj Mahal, Lotus Temple, Chatterpur Temple, Wind Palace, Abhaneri Step Well, Elephant village, Indian Railway, Red Fort, Baby Taj, Lotus Temple, Qutab Minar, Chatterpur Temple, Monkey Temple, Agra Fort.
How: Plane, Autorickshaw, Rickshaw, Elephant ride, Taxi, Indian Railways.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Powercuts leading to cold showers in our 4* hotel, a small cold - not bad all things considered and our driver Rameesh getting into a nasty brawl with another driver over a parking issue.
India is both better and worse than you expect it to be. I was labouring under the apprehension that perhaps India had only a certain side of it represented, that it had, perhaps, a different side to that shown in the western media. India is all the things you've seen, heard and thought - just magnified. India cubed. Any traveller new to India is bound to have a few burning concerns. India is definitely a country you spend weeks, if not months, researching and preparing for. India is like doing DIY - 90% preparation and 10% actual execution. Head into India blindly and do so at your peril. Firstly, there are the travel injections for Rabies, Hepatitis (A and B), Typhoid, Polio, Dipheria and Tetanus. These on their own will set you back a good few hundred pounds. Then there's the putting together of a really serious first aid kit with the all-important Immodium for the inevitable bout of 'Delhi belly'. Then there's all the anti-mosquito paraphernalia: wrist bands, lotions, plug-in repellents, nets to sleep in. Oh, not forgetting re-purchasing your entire travel wardrobe with the little mozzies in mind (white clothing, long sleeved tops and no shorts). Then there's the anti-malarial drugs which you need to take a fortnight before and a week after your trip to India. Luckily for us, India's Golden Triangle resides in the north, a region designated as 'little or no risk' by NHS Scotland's malaria map of India. Outside of health concerns, there's also the scams - which are amazing in their audacity (completely fake tourist offices!) Forewarned is definitely forearmed where India's concerned. All of these issues would put off most travellers, but this is India. India! It's beauty, colour, culture and world-renowned sights banish travel worries and keep 300,000 Britons being drawn to the country annually.
My advice is to make sure you pack the following items in your luggage: a scarf (for covering your nose and mouth when in particularly smelly areas or busy places. People also cough a lot in India - often directly into your face and no, they do not cover their mouths). This explains why I look like a Kashmiri assassin, with my chequered scarf, in most of the featured photographs. Also, take anti-bacterial hand gel - and plenty of it. I found myself using it obsessively on almost an hourly basis to avoid catching anything sinister from surfaces I had no other option but to touch. Finally, take the assertive and stubborn side of your personality with you, for reasons which I explore below...
This was intended to be a rail only adventure, a linking of the three key cities making up northern India's famed 'Golden Triangle'. However, the trip slid into a mixture of road and rail transportation as we tried to conquer the three locations: our first rail journey and, annoyingly interlinked, our second rail journey therefore, were cancelled because of "the weather up north". So, what do you do when your plans go awry at the first hurdle? Throw money at it, of course. You have hotels booked and plans made which are not flexible - this is the Achilles heal of any organised trip with an itinerary. The only thing which flexes is your credit card. You can do or achieve almost anything in India with a credit card. Money talks loud and clear out here.
India does a stunning line in Hindu temples, hilltop forts and riotous cultural colour. Interestingly, for the traveller with Western sensibilities, India also does a far less salubrious line in fetid open sewers, a culture where spitting publicly is clearly a national pastime, and where car horns compete in national championships along every road and alleyway imaginable. Indeed what appears to be a chaotic and aggressive over-use of the car horn is a misinterpretation: it is a replacement for the indicator and is rarely used in aggression. This has probably been compounded by the fact that the roads are so rammed with camel-drawn carts, peddled and auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, lorries and...herds of goats and cows that having wing mirrors is just not practical and so are kept inside or removed all together. Honking is polite in India - indeed, virtually all larger vehicles, decorated in elaborate colours and dangling tinsel, have 'blow horn' painted to the back of their trucks!
India had to contend with a very dark episode in its history which took place a week before our arrival and whose shock waves we felt throughout our stay. It involved the most brutal rape of a medical student by six men who used a fake bus to ensnare the victim. It highlighted the lack of safety for women in Delhi, but also across the country. Demonstrations, some violent, meant that metro stations were closed as were key parts of the capital. Riot vans and police cordons were in evidence across the city, although according to sensationalist coverage, demonstrations were taking place in other Indian cities. The day before we arrived, water cannons were used in central Delhi to calm the protesters. The scenes made international headlines and meant we could observe one of Delhi's tourist attractions, India Gate, from behind yellow Delhi Police barricades only. Large adverts were also prominent on billboards and advertising hoardings calling for the death penalty. You can see an example by clicking here.
India was full of surprises - how experienced you are as a traveller almost has no bearing on this. She has plenty of unexpected oddities for tourists to marvel at in delight and often in astonishment. There are the rickshaw drivers, the heroes of India who will take you on a cheap, short journey by pure brute peddle-power. They are at the bottom of the ladder, working harder than any other driver using other forms of transport. For this reason we made the rickshaw our transport of choice for small journeys and tipped heavily. It was not uncommon to see tired rickshaw drivers at roadsides dangling over the metal frames of their carts, asleep with flies buzzing around them. They have patched clothing and get treated like dirt in the 'every man for himself' road culture of India. They therefore quickly earned my infinite respect. Then there are poverty-related sights that make your jaw drop, like the girl ironing by the roadside...with an iron filled with hot coals! There are the fires scattered along roadsides, lit by the seemingly infinite number of homeless Indians as their only means of warmth. The police also lit them whilst on sentry duty at many of their road closure cordons. All of this and I haven't even mentioned the monkeys which jump and bound across rooftops, across car roofs and swing on electricity cables. Avoid the cows if you happen to be on a collision course with one of them - they head-butt you with their horns if you fail to move sidewards in time. Cows are considered holy in India - and it appears the cows know it! There are the power-cuts which happen intermittently at inopportune moments like when you are having a coffee in a coffee shop - even the hotels here have torches in all of the rooms. No one bats an eyelid when this happens - apart from people like me who are stunned that power is not maintained 24/7. There's the practise of drivers urinating everywhere along roadsides and into grass verges as there are very few public toilets. It is not uncommon to see this happening in the most conspicuous and busy of places.
The most bizarre phenomenon India had to throw at us was being asked by Indian and Bangladeshi tourists to have our photograph taken with them - I am assuming because we were white-skinned? Initially thinking they wanted us to take a photo of them, it soon became clear that 'of' was actually 'with' them. It was an episode which would happen at all of the great tourist sites we visited in northern India: the Taj Mahal at Agra, Amber fort outside Amber, the Red Fort in Delhi. I didn't know whether to be offended or flattered: it was odd, but fun and got us into basic conversations with people we wouldn't have otherwise spoken to. These things, and many more, make India a fascinating place to visit - and that's before you have even seen any of the actual sights: some of which would appear on any half-committed traveller's bucket list of things to see. India is a place where you get real visual value for money. Its major sights do not disappoint, but it is also the things you see and experience along the way that never fail to amaze - and stun. See India as two holidays in one, a sort of buy one get one free if you will. If my camera memory stick is anything to go by, India is a photographic feast for your lens. I took nearly one thousand photos - of which the ones below represent the best. Everything, everywhere in India is a photograph.
Delhi is a crazy place with stunning sights dotted all over the city. It is divided into Old and New Delhi - the former being a British creation in the days of the British Raj. To me, all of Delhi looked 'old'. I could see very little evidence of new anywhere, apart from your entrance into the country at the airport. Delhi is a microcosm of all of the significant issues that modern India faces: poverty, health, a creaking infrastructure, and traffic congestion. Indeed, the Delhi rush hour starts at about 7am and only fizzles out some twelve hours later. The first thing any visitor will notice, after making their way through the modern Indira Ghandi airport, is the predatory nature of taxi drivers and tourist scouts. They come out of nowhere, having lain in wait, and bombard you with prying questions about where you're from, where you're staying and for how long and how you intend to travel around. They are scouts for dubious travel agencies. Being British in India does not help: forget your British obligation to be polite to strangers. Tell them flat - you are not interested. Being brusque shakes them off quicker - just bear in mind that it will be something you will have to contend with scores of times during your stay. Half-way through the trip my Britishness finally wore off, resorting, as I did, to ignoring them outright. These predators operate mainly at Connaught Place and the Delhi railway stations - so prepare to have your patience tested to the limit at these places in particular. Poverty drives many to earn a living this way - even to lie to you by saying your train is cancelled or your hotel is burnt down so they can then 'recommend' a driver or hotel - for which they get commission. Ignore all unsolicited offers of help. While this may offend those just being friendly (and there are some), it does shield you from becoming embroiled in anything unsavoury with those with a more self-focused agenda. Some will start with the predator calling card of 'where are you from?' Others try to shake your hand or observe you taking photographs before telling you something interesting about the thing you've just photographed after which they shift the conversation onto other things. Ignore and walk.
With a limited time in the capital, and initially intimidated by Delhi's unique form of driving etiquette and demonstrations which had closed parts of the Delhi metro, we decided to hire a driver for the day. Not exactly intrepid travellers living on the edge, but arguably necessary - especially considering Delhi was decidedly cold with a chilly fog/smog haze hanging over the city. 'Raj' was assigned to us for eight hours, or two hundred kilometres - whichever was the greater, for the princely sum of £45. We simply told him where we wanted to go, and he took us, waiting in the car whilst we did our thing. We covered all of Delhi's sights in no time - and without freezing our socks off (I was already wearing two pairs). These included the absolutely necessary Red Fort, whose red walls stretched into the fog on the day we were there. The iconic Lotus Temple, with its white stone petals opening skyward, was a real treat - and absolutely rammed with tourists - mostly from other Asian countries. The Chatterpur Hindu temple was unlike anything I've seen architecturally before, and was on my must-see list. Opposite to which was a gigantic statue of one of the many Hindu gods. This was on a similar gigantic scale as the Hindu statue at Karol Bagh, which soars above a rail-track on stilts curving around the statue at chest height making it quite a unique sight to behold. The Qtub Minar was also rather stunning in its unusualness.
Our final morning in Delhi was spent rushing for the Taj Express train, due to leave New Delhi station at 6am. Our train did not feature on the departure board. It was cancelled and, tired and a little bewildered, we were left standing in the most challenging of circumstances I have experienced as a traveller so far. We had to step over bodies wrapped in blankets - these were not cold travellers keeping warm in the wait for a departure. These were the homeless of Delhi. It was 5am, dark and cold. Having just checked out of our hotel, we were stranded and vulnerable. Helpfully the international travel advice office on the station's first floor was not open. To cut a long story short, we ended up hiring a driver from Delhi Tours for around three hundred pounds. That was the most expensive train cancellation ever! Shared between two made the charge more palatable - and the cost meant we had a driver who would be at our beck and call for three days and who would also take us from Agra to Jaipur. This train, our tour operator reliably told us, would also be liable to cancellation and that we were, anyhow, not likely to get our requested seats on the waiting list for first class. Tired and anxious, we paid up. I couldn't help thinking that we'd sold out - the first sign of a problem and we bailed. This was now irretrievably not going to be a rail adventure across northern India. I knew that aspects of the operator's story rang true having learnt enough about how Indian railways worked from my online booking experience back in October. So, enter stage left, Rameesh, our driver... In the end he was such a nice man, and looked out for us to the extent that we were to tip him an extra 1000 Rupees (around £11) when we waved goodbye in Jaipur. He was chuffed to bits with his tip being a lot of money to an Indian living in India.
The wonderfully sculptural petal-like shapes of Delhi's Lotus Temple.
Scenes from outside of Delhi's iconic Red Fort, dating from the 17th Century.
The wonderful arches inside the Red Fort's Diwan-i-Am layer the light from outside.
A woman looks into the turquoise waters of the Lotus Temple.
Agra is about three hours' drive from Delhi, and holds much of the 'golden' in 'Golden Triangle' being home, as it is, to the world icon of the Taj Mahal. The Taj can, at some points in the year, be elusive. The smog that descends means that your hopes of capturing an amazing shot of the building may be dashed. Very luckily for us, the fog cleared by 2pm at just the point that we were about to leave the compound, having been there for three hours already. It was a case of taking the same photos we had tried previously but all over again! I am glad the fog lifted - to travel all the way to India and not be able to photograph what is arguably the world's most recognisable building, is a crying shame. The previous day we had tried to view the Taj from the top of a rooftop cafe in the Taj Gange area - a place where filthy dirt, a rancid stench, a menagerie of animals and humans all occupied the same narrow streets which had all manner of colour and life in them. The Taj was barely visible and no matter what camera setting was deployed, its white marble became indivisible from the low-lying mists.
A nice touch getting into India's treasured sights is that, although you pay twenty times the entrance fee compared to Indians themselves, you do get to go in using the 'high value' ticket queue which is essentially empty. This meant we skipped queues which were thousands of people long. In the case of the Lotus Temple in Delhi the entrance queue snaked for half a mile down the road. Paying more was infinitely better than waiting in these lines. It was at the Taj where we had another 'can we have our photograph taken with you' moments. I include this photograph below as it is a curious and, as yet, unexplained phenomenon. Quite why people want photos of random whites in their holiday snaps is beyond me. It did, however, quickly become wearing and on two occasions we declined. Down at the riverbank in Agra you will see a curious sight. The drying of different coloured sheets on the mud banks, when seen from afar look like a giant patchwork quilt. It is one of those sights which the native population does not appreciate but which the foreign eye does.
Despite its building of world-renown, Agra has just as many problems as Delhi. On our final morning we woke to what had been a major power outage in the city. This meant that our hotel room was cold and so was our shower! The hotel's back-up generator had also failed, meaning our final day at the hotel ended with us complaining to the manager - our point being that a hotel of that standing should have generators that work when the inevitable happens. We set off with Rameesh to conquer Jaipur, known as The Pink City and the final point in our Golden Triangle...
So this is what it's all about. The Taj Mahal - built to house the body of an emperor's wife after she'd died during giving birth to his eleventh child. Luckily for us, the sun finally burnt away the fog and mists which had hidden the building all morning. It's a mausoleum, not a mosque.
One of the striking and rather impressive red brick mosques which flank the Taj Mahal.
The colourful Mughal gardens in the grounds of Agra's Fort complex.
Rajasthan is India's largest region and known to be its most exuberant and colourful. We saw a lot in Rajasthan. Many of the places we visited in the region appeared to be in technicolour, as many of the photographs under this region's section will testify. An added bonus for travellers of this region is that Rajasthan is noticeably cheaper than Delhi and Agra - you do feel, for this reason and others, that this region is more local and less international - a cultural but provincial heartland. Our journey around Rajasthan took in the capital Jaipur, obviously, but also Abhaneri and Pushkar.
The road out of Agra was a tricky one. The powercut that gave us such a rude awakening was only the start. A truck had broken down at city limits and Rameesh spent twenty minutes painstakingly driving along the edges of the road. It was not the first time we were to find his driving skills to be excellent. What made it all the more daunting was the freezing fog which enveloped all that was more than five metres ahead. Travelling from Agra to Jaipur was also a journey from India's Uttar Pradesh region to Rajasthan region. The difference in the weather was startling. We were now shedding layers and the aforementioned fog was now a distant memory. Just before Jaipur was to reveal itself in all its pink glory, we stopped off a few kilometres outside of the city to visit the place known as the Monkey Temple. Monkeys, mainly Macaques, run wild in these abandoned temples set against glorious mountain ranges. We were also to witness Hindu holy bathing at the foot of a temple which was also part of the place. The Monkey Temple was a real delight on the road to Jaipur...
Jaipur was just as heaving as Agra and Delhi. On the border is the great Amber Fort and Lake Palace. Rickshaw rides to and from the Pink City allowed us to pick up a few choice items for home from the city's famous bazaar and a stop off at the chain which had become our second home: Cafe Coffee Day - a badly named coffee shop selling Western-style ground coffee for less than half the price back home. Jaipur is also famous for its elephants being home to Elephant Village, which has over one hundred elephants rescued from all over Rajasthan. We spent the best part of our third Jaipur day at Elephantastic. We rode an elephant called Birley, a 28 year old girl who was eight months pregnant, bareback initially, and then dressed as Maharajas in a mounted box with blankets and cushions. We trekked through a national park of India where we saw rescued tigers and antelopes. Painting an elephant was a relaxing way to pass an hour - just watch out for the elephant's tail which flicks the brush and paint pot out of your hand and all over your clothes. Luckily the paint washes out made, as it is, from purely natural compounds found in plants and stones. I also thought this would be a good place to tell the world about this website! As part of the day we ate, with a woman from the USA and another from Japan, at the home of Rahul, who runs Elephantastic. His mother cooked us amazing Indian vegetarian food and welcomed us into her home, which was also home to a rabbit called Chico - which had a taste for chapatis!
We finally got our chance to sample Indian Railways on the Shtbdi Express train back to Delhi - five hours in executive first class. Jaipur junction station was truly awful, arriving in plenty of time as we did, there was time to aclimatise to the chaos; the beggars, the pickpockets, the first class passengers, the disabled men with utterly unconvincing plastic feet, the endless spitting onto the track whilst waiting for the train - which seemed to be a national past time on this section of India's North Western Railway - to give it its full regional title. People walked across tracks, hung out of doors on moving trains, pulled carts of potato chips and luggage along platforms. It was chaotic. The security procedures on entrance to the station were dangerously inept: hundreds of people pushing through a scanner dating from the eighties - going through three, four at a time and all the while the thing was beeping and flashing alerting the overwhelmed guards that lots of metal objects were, indeed, present in the cases, bags, sacks and boxes piling through in to the station.
It was testing and a time to keep your belongings close. Very close. A drunk Indian wanders into my face then staggers off, drawing disapproving looks from other, more middle class, Indians waiting for the now delayed train on the first class section of the platform. Twenty minutes late and our battered and tired beast of a train lurched into the junction - and not a minute too soon as afternoon was quickly slipping into dusk; I did not fancy spending time in the dark at this station. After such inauspicious beginnings followed a reasonably uneventful journey onto Delhi, which included two meals which I opted to avoid; with no Delhi belly or Bombay bum after nine days in India I was not about to start taking risks now.
The wonderful Monkey Temple, home to scores of macaque monkeys which live and play in the abandoned temples. The surrounding mountain ranges make this a striking place to visit.
The Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. Buildings like this are responsible for the city's nick-name as 'The Pink City'. It is the icon of Jaipur and a real treat being, at it is, a truly unique building.
Amber Fort views with the defensive wall running up the mountainside.
At Elephantastic with rescued elephants painted with luminous paints made from natural compounds.
We were 95km outside of Jaipur in a place called Abhaneri and the location of the Escher-like Chand Baori Step Well. It was also a delight to have stopped off because we saw a little old man, wearing a white turban, sitting with a pottery wheel and making little clay cups (which we were later to discover are used as disposable Chai cups by street sellers the same way as paper cups in the West). We were taken to behind the hoarding where we chose two and paid twenty Rupees for two of them. I have no idea what I am going to use them for - perhaps tealight holders? Abhaneri village was also the place I bartered for two of the most amazingly tasty bananas I have ever had the joy to eat. Ten Rupees. A real treat was to see the women working in the mustard seed fields, their colourful dresses set brilliantly against the yellow flowers of the fields which they also shared with an equally colourful peacock.
The Chand Baori Step well which has put Abhaneri on the map. Its Escher-like shapes made this a frustrating thing to photograph.
The man with his pottery wheel makes small Chai drinking clay cups for for a living. We bought two for 20R!
We were sold a trip out to Pushkar, a town in central Rajasthan. A trip of 150km east of Jaipur and which features only nominally in the Rajasthan section of our lonely planet guide. We were looking around for a day trip to fill a void which had developed in our itinerary having visited so much of our intended sights on the way to Jaipur. So, to Pushkar we went. Here's a tip: don't pay your driver any of the tolls you will inevitably go through, insist on paying at the end. This will mean you are not in the position of having to add up a series of differing toll charges when it comes to settling your account at the end of the journey. Pay at the end and confirm this with your driver before setting off. There were protests as we travelled through Ajmer en-route to Pushkar. Roads were surprisingly good - newly laid, in fact, and the journey was smooth.
We took in views over the holy Ghat and across to Snake Mountain seen from the Lonely-Planet recommended 'Out of the Blue' rooftop cafe. The journey takes you through Kishangarh known for its marble and so named the marble city. Two warnings from Pushkar: do not take photographs of the Ghat and the religious bathers - it is considered deeply disrespectful. Even though we were not, this did not stop people shouting at us about being disrespectful. Get your photos more safely from a nearby rooftop cafe. Finally, do not accept flowers from anyone. On two occasions men tried to hand me flowers, claiming it was about religious respect. I found this insulting in itself - I do not show respect by wearing a flower. What rubbish. What these defenders of all that is holy do not tell you is that they then expect a charge for accepting their dead flowers. Tell them it is against your religion to wear their flower - that stumps them and tests just how tolerant they are of others' beliefs! They then generally do one, mumbling what I imagine is a rude word in Hindi. A word of note: having just Ranted about the absurdity of some around the Ghat, it is advisable to exercise maximum caution around sites of religious significance - particularly when you are visibly different from everyone else.
With the glorious Ghat view, the rooftop cafe and the bazaar (a bazaar with far fewer crazy motorbikes zooming down it than in Delhi and Agra) all done, not forgetting the jumping grey monkeys and head-butting cows, our time in the pilgrimage town was at an end. We opted not to tip the driver this time, pay back (pun intended) for his frequent attempts to sell us another trip and a visit to his family's shop to what became irritating levels.
The stunning view across the holy lake and across to Snake Mountain. I love the pastel blue hues of the buildings along the lakeside.
A view of the holy Ghat seen from across the waters - it is forbidden to photograph any of the bathers individually out of respect - hence this rather distant shot. Still, I think it looks great just as it is.
travel tips, links & resources
- Be prepared for the hundreds of hawkers and tourist scouts who will descend on you at busy tourist places trying to sell you anything from hotel stays to day trips. They are prepared to lie to you, also. Don't be too British and feel you have to talk to them back. Be dismissive and firm - otherwise they will never leave you alone.
- I personally avoided any street food and ate at clean-looking, higher-class restaurants. Doing so meant that I ended, after two weeks of Indian travel, with just a cold. Not bad going all things considered.
- Take hand gel with you - and plenty of it. It might lessen your chances of Delhi Belly.
- Check the weather forecast if you're planning on seeing Agra's Taj Mahal. You could be left disappointed if you visit on a smoggy day.
- Try to use rickshaw drivers for short trips around town. These are the heroes of India who will take you on cheap, short journeys by pure brute peddle-power. They live hard lives and desperately need your custom. Tip too!
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