Journeying Northern India's Golden Triangle
Where: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Pushkar, Abhaneri. India, 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.
Country counter: +1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Powercuts leading to cold showers and darkness; cancelled train services; our driver becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with another driver; invasive hawkers and scouts; tense exchanges at religious sites; answering interminable questions like "where you from?"
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, likely 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 princely sum. Then there's the putting together of a really serious first aid kit with the all-important medications 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. 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 are also the scams - which are both amazing in their audacity and creativity (completely fake tourist offices!) Forewarned is definitely forearmed where India's concerned. All of these issues would deter some travellers, but India's beauty, colour, culture and world-renowned sights banish travel worries for many and lure 300,000 Britons to the country annually.
India is full of surprises and how experienced you think you are as a traveller has almost no bearing on your preparedness for what this country will throw at you. Firstly 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 poorly in the 'every man for himself' road culture of India. They quickly, therefore, earned my undying respect. Then there are poverty-related sights that make your jaw drop, like the little girl I spotted ironing by the roadside using an iron filled with hot coals. Then there are the fires scattered along roadsides, lit by a seemingly infinite number of homeless Indians as their only means of warmth enveloping everything in a smoke-choking haze. Then there are the monkeys which jump and bound across rooftops, on car roofs and swing on electricity cables above your head; they are a law unto themselves. You also need to look out for the cows which think nothing of head-butting you with their impressive horns if you dare to fail to move aside in a timely manner. Cows are considered holy in India and it appears the cows have embraced their holy status with gusto and absolute conviction. Steer clear of the cows. Then there are the ubiquitous power-cuts which happen intermittently at the most inopportune moments like when you are enjoying your coffee in a coffee shop. Indeed, even the hotels provide patrons with torches in all of the rooms. There's also the practise of drivers urinating everywhere along roadsides and into grass verges. It is not uncommon to see this happening in the most conspicuous and busy of places. 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 you will ever travel along to see who can beep the loudest and for the longest. India is as confronting as it is colourful.
Indeed, India had to contend with a very dark episode in its history which took place a week before our arrival the shock waves of which 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 their 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 local news coverage, demonstrations were taking place in other Indian cities. The day before we arrived, water cannons were used in central Delhi to quell the protests. 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.
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 because we were white-skinned. Initially thinking they wanted us to take a photo of them, it soon emerged that 'of' was actually 'with'. This was an experience which would repeat itself at many of the most popular tourist sites we visited: the Taj Mahal at Agra, Amber fort outside Amber and the Red Fort in Delhi. I didn't know whether to be offended or flattered: it was certainly strange, but fun and did mean we became engaged in brief conversations with people we wouldn't otherwise have spoken to. It is nevertheless a glimpse into the minds of ordinary Indians and their perception of Westerners.
This was intended to railway adventure, a linking of the three key cities making up northern India's famed 'Golden Triangle' using Indian Railways. However, the trip rapidly collapsed into a mixture of road and rail transportation as we dedicated ourselves to conquering the three locations we had set out to visit on our planned itinerary: our first rail trip and onward therefore journey were supposedly 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. It is the predicament of any traveller with hotels booked and an itinerary which isn't particularly flexible. It is the Achilles heal of an organised trip like ours; there was simply too much at stake to miss our onward trip. The only thing which flexes is your credit card. You can do or achieve almost anything in India - provided you have the money to make it happen. There are many language spoken in India but the language which unites all is the language of money.
For all of its problems the fact remains that India is the reason travel was invented. It is a bewildering, fascinating, disgusting, magical, frantic, mystical place. It is impossible for me to add all of my favourite photographs below simply because there are just too many.
Delhi is a crazy place with stunning sights peppered 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 our 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 begins to fizzle 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, to bombard you with prying questions about where you're from, where you're staying, for how long and how you intend to travel around. Being British in India does not help: forget your human obligation to be oh-so polite to strangers. Tell them assertively evaporated, 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 replacement driver or alternative hotel for which they receive commission. Ignore all unsolicited offers of help. While this may offend those just being friendly (and it is important to stress that there are some), it does prevent you from becoming embroiled in something more sinister with those harbouring a more self-centred agenda. Some will start with the predator calling card of "Where are you from?" Others try to shake your hand or patiently 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 violent 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 a complete necessity - especially considering Delhi was decidedly cold with a foggy 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 checked off the most obligatory sights on the tourist trail. 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), the iconic Lotus Temple, with its white stone petals opening skyward, the Chatterpur Hindu temple, unlike anything I've seen architecturally before with its gigantic Hindu gods and the Qtub Minar.
Our final morning in Delhi was spent rushing for the Taj Express train, due to leave New Delhi station at at un-Godly 6am. In hindsight booking such an early train was an error. Arriving tired and a little bewildered in the smoggy darkness of Delhi we espied that our train did not feature on the departure board. It was cancelled and, tired and a little unsettled, we were left standing in the most challenging of circumstances I have experienced as a traveller so: we had to step over bodies wrapped in blankets - these were not cold travellers keeping warm in the wait for a departure but the homeless of Delhi. It was 5am, freezing and somewhat eerie. Having just checked out of the relatively comfortable hotel, we suddenly found ourselves stranded and, I have to admit, entirely vulnerable. Helpfully the international travel advice office on the station's first floor was closed. To cut a long story short, we ended up hiring a driver from Delhi Tours for a not insignificant sum. This, indeed, was turning out to be the most expensive train cancellation ever. Shared between two made this unforeseen expense a little more palatable. It also bestowed additional luxury and convenience, which, having experienced India on the ground, I was secretly very grateful for. It meant we had a driver who would be at our beck and call for three days and who would also be taking us from the mighty 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 at the first sign of a problem. 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. So, enter stage left, Rameesh, our driver... In the end he was such an incredible 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 to him in Jaipur. He was completely thrilled with his tip being, as it was, quite a substantial sum of moneyto 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.
The incredible Chattarpur Ka Mandir Hindu Temple.
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 the epithet '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 upon the city of Agra means that your hopes of capturing an incredible shot of the building may be dashed. We awoke to a smoggy Agra, entering the compound of the Taj Mahal at around 10am. Very luckily for us, the fog cleared somewhat by early afternoon at just the point that we were about to leave, having done our best with adjusting camera settings in the hope of capturing this most elusive of Indian buildings. I am glad the fog lifted because, to travel all the way to India and not be able to photograph what is arguably the world's most famous building, would have been an utter tragedy. The previous day we had tried to view the Taj from roof of a cafe in the Taj Gange area of the city - a place where filthy dirt, a rancid stench, a menagerie of animals and humans all occupied the same narrow streets. The Taj was barely visible and no matter which camera setting were employed, its white marble became indivisible from the low-lying mists which had enveloped it.
A nice touch getting into India's treasured sights is that, although you pay twenty times the entrance fee compared to Indian citizens 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 and snaked around corners and up side streets. Paying more was infinitely preferable to waiting in such lines.
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 such standing should have generators that work when the inevitable happens. We set off with Rameesh to conquer Jaipur, which goes by the epithet The Pink City...
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.
Travelling from Agra to Jaipur was also a journey from India's Uttar Pradesh region to Rajasthan region. Rajasthan is India's largest region and known to be its most exuberant and colourful. Many of the places we visited in the region appeared to be in vivid technicolour. This region is noticeably cheaper than Delhi and Agra. 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 a sign of things to come. A truck had broken down at city limits and Rameesh spent twenty minutes painstakingly and precariously driving along the edges of the road. It was not the first time we were to find his driving skills to be - thankfully - excellent. What made it all the more daunting was the freezing fog which reduced visibility to five metres. As we pressed further to wards Rajasthan, we left the smog of Agra behind and now found ourselves shedding layers. Just before Jaipur was to reveal itself in all its pink glory, we pulled over just outside of the city to visit the place known as the Monkey Temple where Macaques run wild in abandoned temples set amid a dramatic mountainous landscape. We were also to witness Hindu holy bathing at the foot of the temple.
Just outside of the city limits 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 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 briefly through a national park of India where we saw rescued tigers and antelopes. Painting an elephant was a relaxing way to pass an hour or so but, all the while, watching out for the elephant's tail which took to flicking the brush and paint pot out of my hands. As part of the experience we were invited into the home of Rahul - the manager of Elephantastic - for supper. His mother had prepared an amazing Indian vegetarian meal (India is an incredible place for vegetarians). We shared our meal, briefly, with a small rabbit called Chico - a rabbit with a fondness for chapatis.
It was in Jaipur that we finally got our chance to experience Indian Railways embarking, as we did, the Shtbdi Express train back to Delhi - a mere five hours in Eecutive First Class. Jaipur Junction station was a torrid, awful affair. 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 ill-fitting plastic feet, the endless spitting onto the track whilst waiting for the train. People walked across tracks, hung out of doors on moving trains, pulled carts of potato chips and luggage along platforms. It was a frenetic and crazy place. It was testing time and one where I kept my valuables close. Very close. A drunk guy wandered into my face then staggered off, drawing disapproving looks from other, more upwardly mobile, Indians waiting for the inevitably delayed train on the First Class area of the platform. Twenty minutes later and our battered, tired beast of a train lurched into the junction - and not a minute too soon; afternoon was quickly slipping into dusk and we did not fancy spending any time in the dark at this station. After such inauspicious beginnings followed a reasonably uneventful journey on to Delhi. We were the recipients of 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 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 Chai cups. For reasons lost in the mists of time I bought two of these Chai cups. Abhaneri village was also the place I bartered for two of the most amazingly tasty bananas I have ever had the joy to consume. 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. But we didn't stop off here for cups or for bananas. We were here to see the incredible Chand Baori Step Well - an architectural marvel which looks not unlike an Escher painting.
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 featured 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 en-route to Jaipur. So, to Pushkar we went.
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 took us through Kishangarh known mostly for its marble and so unsurprisingly goes by the epithet The Marble City. Two warnings from Pushkar: do not take photographs of the Ghat and the religious bathers - it is considered deeply, deeply disrespectful. Even though we were not, this did not stop people verbally abusing us. The fact is, any kind of photography is difficult in these kinds of places. Get your photos safely from a nearby rooftop cafe. With the glorious Ghat view, the rooftop cafe and the bazaar all done, not forgetting the jumping grey monkeys and head-butting cows included, our time in the pilgrimage town of Pushkar was at an end.
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
- Ensure your vaccinations are up to date. India is not a place where you would want to become sick.
- 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.
- 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), and anti-bacterial hand gel. 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Consider mosquitoes when packing your luggage: think of packing white clothing, long sleeved tops and light trousers in particular.
- If you embark upon a trip don't pay your driver any of the tolls along the way. Insist instead on paying everything at the very end in one transaction. 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 bill at the end of the journey. Pay at the end and confirm this with your driver before setting off.
- Finally, do not accept flowers from anyone. On two occasions men tried to hand me flowers, claiming it was about showing religious respect. It was, of course, another swindle.
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