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India in a week

Day 1 Arrive Delhi

I arrive in Delhi to the shock that the airport, aside from some 70s-style carpets, is one of the nicest, most modern and cleanest I’ve seen in a long time. A cavernous arrival hall makes the place feel strangely empty and adds to the phased out feeling always brought on by an overnight flight.

The transfer guide is easy to find and I wait a few minutes before jumping in the car to the hotel. Not before hiking halfway across the airport and through the various car parks to where I’m parked.

The hotel is an unassuming place but the room is comfortable enough and wifi means I can call home.  Next door is a great restaurant with several food windows – order from the extensive menu and you get a ticket which you take to the window that specialises in your chosen dish. A couple of pounds gets me a wonderful dhosa masala – a type of pancake stuffed with onions and spices, served with a curried soup/sauce.

The welcome meeting takes place downstairs where we meet our guide for the next 6 days – Jeetu. At first a quiet talk becomes more confident as his professionalism & passion come out.

The group meets for the first time. Apart from me there are four  Australians; Andrea (BDM in Queensland and foodie, Amy (Flight Centre), Laura (Customer ops now product) & Libby (although she’s a Kiwi from Brighton – UK who’s moved to Sydney), three Canadians; Sarah, Melissa (Flight Centre – Canada) & Pascaline (Toronto office) plus another Brit – Jen from the Alton office.

Not the first time I’ve been in an all-female group so not phased by this. Plus the group seems to talk freely quite quickly, which is great.

It’s a short walk to the metro, then we are put through an airport-style security check where bags go through the scanner and we’re waved over by a beeping stick-thingy. Everyone gets through ok and we weave our way through the masses to the platform. Train on time, modern – only 15 years old. Interestingly, whilst women can travel on any of the carriages, the one at the front is not available to men – this carriage has more space and, at busy times can be a godsend I imagine. Good idea!

We emerge in Old Delhi and are immediately hit by the *Culture shock * I was expecting in India. The streets are absolutely heaving with bikes, tuk-tuks, rick-shaws, pedestrians. Everyone is carrying something or making something or selling something. Everyone knows where they are going and how they are getting there. It seems as though , at any moment, there will cease being enough space to pass as a group and the path will be blocked. Amazingly, there is always enough room, people are courteous although quick to move through if you are caught dawdling. Chai stalls make hot drinks for groups of men, we pass through the hardware district – you could probably build a tuk-tuk from scratch here – to the wedding card district – wedding season approaches and a street’s worth of trade is ,made from the creation and sale of wedding accoutrements.

Mosque The heavens open in the mosque and the courtyard is explored with wet (bare) feet and knees covered by a tasteful tablecloth hired for 100 rupees at the door. Photos cost to take here so we leave our cameras with Jeetu. The rain makes the pictures a little wasted here anyway.

Walking back through the narrow streets is an unforgettable experience, the smile on my face is only tempered by the lashing rain. Should have worn my flip flops not my trainers as  these are now utterly soaked. More of the same through the streets – so atmospheric – until we descend into an office off the street. Pleased to be out of the rain, we are suddenly plunged into arctic-type conditions. The famous Indian air-conditioning is on full so it’s great to move on and up to the Sikh temple – not before receiving a headscarf to cover our hair. A requirement in Sikh temples.

Another amazing experience – we first sit in on a service, quite calm, colourful but nothing shocking or too different. Other than the huge sabre hanging from several of the older gentlemen’s’ belts!

We continue through to the heart of the temple to find a large kitchen area where many people are helping in the preparation of countless chappatis – unleavened bread  - with the aid of a chapatti machine.

Enormous cauldrons of food bubble and sizzle as a chef stirs with what could be an oar. I flip chapatis for a few minutes, moving them from the cool end of the grill (the size of a snooker table) to the hot end and flipping as they puff up.

These are the volunteers, they file, with us, into a large hall where we sit cross-legged. The room holds 400 at my count. First Chai, then bread is served. We don’t eat but everyone else will – over and over again, the room will fill and new people will be fed. Free of charge. I wonder who does the dishes?

This evening we get a first sample of restaurant food in New Delhi. Great variety, mainly vegetarian dishes with incredible naan bread. We share – meaning I’ve eaten at least 8 different dishes here.

Day 2

Super early start to get on the train. Station really busy and the carriage is disapointingly familiar. Not like the trains we’ve seen on the TV. The view from the window is anything but familiar and a walk down the train shows how different it really is with the kitchen facilities in particular a stark contrast to back home.

Arriving at the station we’re greeted first by monkeys, then by beggars although I think it’s not as bad as I’ve been led to believe. This is by far India’s biggest tourist destination and there are so many sellers beggars but it seems well mannered to me at least.

Surprised by the hotel standard – very good – and well pleased with the a/c this time, it’s a great stop before we head off on our sightseeing.

Red Fort – views of Taj Mahal

First of many red-forts; the stone is quarried up near Jaipur. This one has a great view of the Taj and is our first glimpse of the world’s most photographed building. A great columned arcade at the front of the bukding where the public would come for an audience fills my imagination with what this building could have been like in its heyday.

After lunch we head on to the Taj, something that has been on my travel to-see list for a long time and does not disappoint. The group is buoyant and excited by the prospect of spending time at this iconic sight and we head from the carpark to the sight on a stretch golf cart.

We’re all amazed by the Taj and the feeling we get from seeing it. WE approach taking millions of photos, just as everybody else does. The strange thing is, it just doesn’t look real – you’ve seen so many pictures of it, so many times on the TV or postcards, and it is so symmetrical, unblemished and perfect.

The entrance buildings are huge and anywhere else would be a tourist attraction in their own right.

Tourists, mainly Indian, amass at the building itself. They are joyous and smiling. It’s hard to connect with the sad sad story behind the Taj Mahal until we’re back out and have a chance to sit an contemplate. As the sun goes down and the light changes, the colour of the white marble changes every minute. Parrots fly overhead, birds circle the minarets.

Dinner at the hotel is superb, great variety again. This time I go for a chicken Biryani, fragrant and full of flavour with a raita to go with it. Everyone is tired after such a great day – one that I won’t forget.

Day 3

Starting out on the drive to Karauli, how yesterday could be topped I’m not quite sure but just a short distance from Agra we stop off at the Mughal Kingdom of Fatehpur Sikri – where the guide is not available so we take an audio-tour. Our own mp3 player with headphones and a map.

Turns out, after several guided tours of various sites, this is a brilliant way of exploring under your own steam. I moved, alone, from shaded patch to shaded patch (the sun was out is force at this point) and the voiceover/music on the audio tour lent an atmosphere to the place. I could just imagine the scenes here as I explored the covered walkways and various arcades & mezzanines.

The red stone here is beautifully carved and the whole place is impressive in its layout, this is what I was looking for when visiting an old Indian building, tonnes of character but not too many other tourists. Standing at an open window-like space the views over the surrounding countryside where stunning and the breeze even more so.

We re-grouped as it seemed like re-surfacing from a dream and headed across the road to the mosque opposite.

This was a more lively place. Our shoes dispensed with, we hopped across the massive courtyard, our feet protected from the scorching stone by a strip of equally hot carpet, to a white marble building right in the middle. This was where the worship was taking place and we entered with trepidation. It felt like entering into someone’s house, intruding perhaps, but we were welcomed with the appropriated headgear and subsequently ignored as the worshipping continued around a central alter, housed in the a central structure within the building itself.  Tying string to the stonework and making a wish was the final action before returning to the outer corridor, blinking in the light. What just happened? This, again, was another fix of what we got in the Sikh temple, welcoming people, sharing their religion and culture, not hiding it away or shunning outsiders. It felt like a very Indian place and epitomizing the sentiments we would later experience a few more times before going home.

Emerging back into the courtyard, we explored the rest of the complex under the shadow of the massive/huge (mahoosive) entrance gate, much bigger than the one in Delhi and Persian in style. So impressive to see the high doors that would have made way for Elephants with royal palanquins and standards.

Back on the bus and on our way to Karauli. Arriving at the palace we were greeted with a very large, stuffed tiger!

We were also greeted by the latest in a long line of resident royalty at this particular palace who spent time talking to us about how the land was taken from his family shortly after independence and now they run as a hotel to keep the building alive. Still respected in the area, the family had several portraits of grandiose, former residents.

The room is very upmarket with wood furniture and a large bed but it is the central courtyard which is the star. With a raised platform, this is where G&Ts would be served before (and after) dinner later.

Before dinner we head out into Karauli and wander through the streets of the small town (pop. 80,000) to the old town, past a multitude of wood carvers, food sellers, weavers and fruit sellers. Out final destination is the Hindu Temple, up winding streets as twilight gathers.

Inside is an amazing sight – what feels like half the town is there, gathered in the large hall facing a decorative stage. Music is playing and there is some dancing, it’s a raucous and joyful atmosphere. We sit at the edge and are immersed in the throng of people. Soon, men appear on the stage and sound the gong. This signals the prayer and we move to the back of the hall. There is suddenly a complete change in the atmosphere which has become reverent with chanting. It ends with the crowd being sprayed with holy water and a circuit of the temple, which we also complete. Leaving  the hall and being reunited with our shoes night has now fallen. It feels a little unworldly, the impact is great, another taste of how important religion and community are inextricably linked in India.

Tuk-tuks back to the palace for a cold gin & tonic in the ornate courtyard, followed by a lovely outdoor meal and conversation in the open air.

Day 4

Long drive to Jaipur and a great lunch at the hotel.

Walk around old Jaipur – we get out of our minibus at the gateway to the old city and step out into what appears to be the middle of a roundabout. We enter the city not before moving, as one, into the traffic. Somehow we make it to the other sides and through the red-stone archway. We follow in single file along the raised walkway past countless shops and stalls. We stop to investigate fruit and spice stalls, colours and smells are vibrant and strong. We step off the walkway to avoid the chilli section as, according to Jeetu, the dust from the dried chillies would be too strong for us.

As darkness falls, we head out into the city to the Raj Mandir Cinema – a grand old interior greets us and we stock up on popcorn (50 rupees) ahead of our Bollywood movie (Phata Poster Nikhla Hero).

The atmosphere inside is unbelievable – more like a sports crowd than cinema audience and really improves the experience. In the end the film looks pretty average and half the group leave during the interval. We decide to catch up with them later.  The tunes are great, the sound in the cinema is awesome and the fact that we can’t understand the words doesn’t detract from it (it’s probably just as well judging by the reviews) so all in all a great experience.

Dinner in Jaipur after the film is quiet as it is late but good, again. Yet to get a bad meal on this trip.

Day 5

We start day 5 at Janta Manta and spend some time walking around the old observatory. The instruments here are house-sized and were constructed in the 18th century.  Angular structures show an ingenious mind but, somewhat surprisingly, also provide strikingly beautiful architectural structures.

The main attraction in Jaipur is the Amber Fort a huge structure, just outside the city. It’s amazing to watch a combination of monkeys and Elephants scaling the path the fort. Most intriguingly we Palace of Mirrors (Sheesh Mahal) is encrusted with thousands of small mirrored sections and, after dark, two strategically placed lanterns would reflect light around the room and veranda like a mirror ball. The upper storey, benefits from a water curtain which is made by passing a pipe above the main window which is pierced to let scented water create a waterfall across the opening. The water is scented by rose petals and, as any breeze gets through it cools the room and fills it with fragrance. This is how you’d want a palace to be when temperatures frequently get into the 40s in the summer!

Today we shop for good value jewels, silver and textiles. Others in the group visit a Guru (actually he comes to our hotel) and receive information packs about their future.

The last night is marked by a Rooftop Dinner – a great opportunity to sit outside for dinner. We’re the only party at dinner and we discuss highs and lows of the trip. There are many highs and I think we all try to come up with something to critique the trip but the positives are overwhelming and everyone is on a high.

Day 6

Free day – walk and shopping in Jaipur. Today includes the last proper meal (as we’ll be on the train later): Lunch at LMB. This is a veggie restaurant in the heart of old Jaipur with a deli/bakery at the front and a massively overstaffed restaurant at the back. I can’t resist a ‘royal thali’ consisting of 15 dishes each with a different spicing and flavour.

The train to Delhi is long but comfy and before too long we’re back at the Swati Deluxe and it’s 11pm. Various goodbyes are said and the rest of the group agree to meet up again in the morning. I’m super disappointed not to have time to do the Cookery Tour (Urban Adventure) as several of the group have pre-booked this. I can’t wait to get back and see my beautiful family – I can’t wait until the kids are old enough to travel on a trip like this.

 

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Fatephur Sikri
Fatephur Sikri
Food prep at Sikh Temple
Taj Mahal
Jaipur street scene
Bollywood movie
From £369pp exc flights
Trip type: 
Cultural
Adventure level: 
2. Gentle
Max group size: 
16

Golden Triangle

Asia, India | 9 days
Trip code: 
HHSN
Local market
The Golden Triangle is a classic introduction to India's three most popular cities; Delhi, Agra and Jaipur

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