Our first 2 weeks in India were spent up north. We’re actually writing this in Goa as we didn’t really know how to write this post until now. It’s fair to say that our first 2 weeks in India were something we will never forget, and that sadly until we reached these lazy beaches we didn’t feel that us and India agreed 🙁
First stop Delhi…
We landed in Delhi in the early hours and were met by our pre-booked taxi to the hotel. Naively we thought we had booked a nice hotel in a nice area. The horror we felt as our taxi pulled into the street never quite left us the whole time we were in Delhi. The road in Parhar Ganj was rubbish and rubble strewn. Howling dogs roamed the empty night street. Our hotel room was pokey and very basic. The windows didn’t shut and the air con didn’t work. The toilet was rank and full of insects. Welcome to India!!
Next day we got up about midday, taking a deep breath went downstairs to go out and investigate. We didn’t get far. A rep from the company that provided our transfer was waiting for us to wake up. We were whisked on a ‘complementary’ trip to their office in another part of town, given coffee and taken to a really nice thali restaurant, offered a free accompanied tour of the local market, and then sold a very expensive organised trip for 2 weeks across northern India, finishing on the train to Goa. “I won’t let you down” promised Abid, the travel company owner. “After all we were there waiting for you at the airport as promised!”. Throughout our trip with his company he would regularly just say “don’t worry. It will be sorted”. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. We learned that asking a question would always get a “yes”. It took a while to work out when yes meant no, or I don’t know. The first day when we went on the market tour Abid told us not to worry about getting lost, that his man would follow us and make sure we never vote lost. It was spooky and strange, but he didn’t lose us.
The next morning the arrangements kicked into place and a lovely man called Raju came and picked us up at the hotel in a slightly decrepit car for a tour of Delhi. Like most Indian cars, white and battered. (see Pats previous post on the excitement of driving!). Delhi was not out cup of tea. We saw some great buildings but we also saw a lot of poverty, deprivation and rubbish strewn streets with buildings that were seemingly in a state of partial collapse. Everyone talks about the colour of India – however it seemed to us that that was solely coming from the women’s saris.
We were relived to head north for Shimla the next day on our tour. We were pleased that Raju was to be our driver for the next couple of weeks but more than a little dismayed that we would be spending so much time in the same car. Abid had promised aircon and a ‘good’ car. Sure it had a kind of aircon, but let’s just say plastic seats in a hot climate on long car journeys are not the thing! (and we won’t mention the smoking engine, or leaking gear box….)
Shimla was amazing. A sprawling hill town in the Himalayan foothills built on steep terracing, it was developed as the British summer capital – every summer they used to transfer everything to to the hills to escape the heat of Delhi. It took us nearly 10 hours in the car. Imagine that by horse and cart. Seeing very British buildings next to typical Indian dwellings was quite incongruous but it really had a charm of its own. The air was amazing, the views spectacular. We even visited the place where partition was agreed, we have photos of the table where the actual deal was sig ed. We could have spent far longer in Shimla.
We left Shimla to head to Chandighar (where there is a park made out of recycled goods and a Le Corbusier museum) on the Shimla to Kalka toy train – arguably one of the greatest train rides in the world. It was a spectacular route, snaking it’s way around the contours of the mountains. It took about 3 hours to do 30 miles!! Fantastic, but on the train Peg started to feel ill. Chandighar was a write off as it was spent in the hotel being very poorly with Delhi Belly. Instead of the park we saw the inside of an Indian hospital! Dosed with antibiotics we set off back to Delhi for a day to recover.
The next part of the trip was to Rajasthan and the city of Jaipur. The highlight was the amazing Amber Fort which overlooks the entire city. The views were fabulous and you could just imagine what the fort had been like in it’s heyday. It’s a huge city – about 3 million people – but a city of contrasts. Many parts were just like what we saw in Delhi; other bits were more modern with a nicer atmosphere. The old city is called The Pink City and it is stunning but also very bustling and claustrophobic with a lot of street hawkers. 2 nights was easily enough.
From Jaipur we spent 4 hours in the car getting to Agra. We were used to long car trips now, travelling through very similar countryside and similar towns, many of which depressed us with their grinding poverty. Although Peg would continue to be amazed at the fabulous and blingy clothes women were wearing, even when they seemed to be living on the streets. It’s fair to say in general most the men wore western dress, almost all the women traditional Indian.
Agra, the town, was more of the same. Once again, evenings spent in a soulless dining room of a hotel having despaired of wandering the streets, Peg still not feeling fully well. But this was all worth it for the Taj Mahal. A truly astounding building and probably the best we have ever seen. We found it hard to take our eyes off it and just sat in front of it gazing in wonder. It’s the whiteness of it – pure marble – against a brilliant blue sky. Close up its not so impressive but sitting around 200 yards in front, just majestic. We could have easily spent the whole day in the grounds just sitting there, looking at it. But they make sure you can’t by restricting food and water. Northern India had been expensive and eventful but the Taj was worth every penny.
And the train…..
Of course, no tour of India is complete without a journey on the railways. The rumours of complexity of buying tickets and understanding the 8 classes of travel are all true; It’s a minefield. We were dropped at Agra station and luckily got a porter – for 100 rupees (about £1.10), this frail looking man picked up both our rucksacks (one on his head) and strode lithely through the hordes to drop us exactly where our train carriage would come in. Abid had promised us that our ticket was in the best class and that our journey would be brilliant! The look of horror on our faces as we saw the small, shared, cramped cubicle which would be our home for the next 32 hours was, at least, not as intense as when we saw our hotel in Delhi. We were starting to get used to India. 😎