Despite having travelled to a fair few countries before this trip, I was a little apprehensive about what lay ahead for India. I’d heard many horror stories beforehand but despite a 90 minute delay at Narita Airport, I arrived at my New Delhi hotel in the backpacker area of Paharganj relatively easily. That is apart from the pre-paid taxi getting a puncture on the way!!
My first full day began with a pre-paid rickshaw to Humayun’s Tomb (below) which was pretty interesting and after that was my first experience of being forced by the driver to visit a few shops. I wouldn’t actually have minded looking at a few things but it’s not so comfortable when the owners are following you throughout and giving the hard sell.
The driver eventually took me to Jama Masjid at a cheap price as he got paid for each customer he took to the shops. However I wasn’t allowed in as I had shorts on but I thought some guy was trying to scam me by charging me entry for a free place. I foolishly and blindsightedly tried to just walk in but the guy ran after me and caused a bit of a scene resulting in everyone looking at me. Not a good look in a country where the people tend to stare at you quite a bit!
Fortunately at the bottom of the steps leading to this mosque, I met a great kid who took me round to a side entrance where I was given something to wrap around my lower half. India’s largest mosque (below) was quite impressive inside though painful at times as my bare feet burned on the floor (despite a carpet later being rolling out for walking!) and the tower view did offer some lovely views of the area and beyond.
After that I walked for ages getting lost among the pandemonium of Chandni Chowk (below) which was full of street shops, tricycles, rickshaws, travellers, litter, touts, more touts and the king of the streets – the holy cow! It didn’t take too long before I got scammed. A kid rode me on his tricycle to Old Delhi station rather than New Delhi! You have to laugh at the cunningness of it all really!
The next day I took a very early morning Shatabdi Express train to Agra in the comfort of an air-conditioned carriage with free newspaper, water and a meal. Not bad for a two hour journey! As we pulled out of New Delhi station the Indian way of going to the toilet was confirmed to me as there were many boys squatting on the other tracks doing their business and using their left hand to clean up. Compulsive viewing!!
On arrival in Agra it was raining heavily. I promptly took an auto-rickshaw to Hotel Kamal where I paid RP250 (£3) for a room and went on the rooftop for my first view of the famous Taj Mahal. First on my itinerary though was Agra Fort (below) – a huge red sandstone palace and fort – from where I could also see the Taj Mahal. It was here that I had my first experience of Indian guys wanting their photo taken with me. The glare of their steely eyes for far too long can be quite intimidating at first but its something I got very used to and I can’t deny I didn’t like the attention a little!
Next, I walked up behind the Taj Mahal for the best free view of it.
I paid RP750 to go inside and it was very nice but having seen it so many times already that day from other angles I didn’t get any special feeling!
Temperatures that afternoon were at a peak of 42 degrees celsius and I posed for many photos with Indian males (both men and boys but never any females the whole time I was in the country!) and rarely got left alone from their interrogating questions in such heavy English accents.
It was raining again the following morning all the way from Agra to Fatephur Sikri. 80 minutes for RP22 (£0.27) on a rickety old bus with open windows and a leaking roof resulted in my backpack getting a bit of a soaking!
I walked down the major lane just to generally observe the way of life but as I got to the bottom of this hill the heavens opened up and it absolutely pelted it down flooding the place within seconds and I had to wade through a river of pee, poo, litter and mud with a huge group of kids in tow of the only white boy in the village at that moment!
I thought about giving up and moving on altogether when I got back to the hostel but luckily I didn’t. The rain cleared and I went sightseeing again to see some hugely impressive palace buildings. That was probably due to a lack of visitors and me having no knowledge or expectation of the place. I then walked on over to Jama Masjid where I had a quick look around the place while trying to fight off unwanted guides.
After lunch on the hotel rooftop with a load of other travellers I went to find Hiran Minar – a 21 metre tower featuring many stone representations of elephant tusks – amid old ruins of a nice looking place away from crowds. Mid-afternoon I had to take a horse-drawn cart to the bus stand but not alone as about 10 others crammed on to it. I was dropped off roadside in an area which was supposed to be the bus stand but was just the usual chaos.
Eventually after a nervous hour wait I hopped on a packed mini-bus where I had to stand up with my backpack at my feet and my ruck-sac on my front as the bus jinked its way through the traffic beeping its horn constantly in true Indian fashion. About an hour down the road I finally got a seat at the back by the window which was necessary for me as there was no air-conditioning!
Six of us were squeezed into the five spaces on the back row and the first few hours (six in total) were fine but the last couple really killed my backside! Still, I chose this cheap option (RP110/£1.40) and am still very glad that I did as you get to see and experience a lot more travelling this way rather than going by express air-con train or whatever.
Amber Fort was my destination the following morning via an early morning rickshaw just 11 km out of Jaipur. It looked quite impressive perched on top of a rocky hill but it did feel like walking around a building site at times! I resisted the temptation to ascend the climb to the fort on elephant as it was raining and I thought I may as well wait for a more glamorous setting for such a thing.
I was dropped off in Pink City after that when the regular downpour occurred as I made my way to the City Palace. I walked fairly aimlessly after that ignoring the many offers of rides and shop visits before I stumbled eventually upon Iswari Minar Swarga Sal, a tower offering 360 degree panoramic views of the old city.
The next day I was at a bit of a loose end before my train back to Delhi late afternoon. My expectations had been built up about Jaipur through word of mouth but the place didn’t really meet up to these so much. I’d had it with the tourist traps so I ambled round the neighbourhood near my hotel where I got involved in a bit of street cricket with the locals which attracted attention from all quarters whether it be street level or looking down from the upper floors of their apartments. My ability hadn’t changed as I bowled about three wides out of six and was bowled out first ball and a further two times in a solitary over!!
Rather than pay the RP535 for an air-con seat offered by the station ticket seller I opted instead for a RP104 (about £1.30!) non-aircon sleeper carriage which I was apprehensive about as I thought it could be an overcrowded sweatbox for the 5.5 hour journey back to Delhi. I was right but it was a memorable experience, and for me that is what travel is all about.
The trains in India are the longest I’ve ever seen stretching as far as the eye can see and full of freeloaders both inside and on the roof which means your seat may already be taken. Luckily I got on and my seat by the window was vacant which I was happy about as it meant lots of fresh air apart from the long stops at stations where it was very hot.
Following the usual delayed departure I eventually got back to my destination of Paharganj in New Delhi just before 1:00 am after about seven hours on board! After just six hours at the hotel I checked out and took a tricycle to Red Fort. Viewed from afar it looks quite nice but I didn’t think it was so impressive inside.
All-in-all India was a great experience for me but my lasting memories were not the mosques or forts but the overly congested mix of garbage, cows, goats, touts, ever-beeping transport, colourful clothing and the contrasting backgrounds of the rich and the very poor.
Admittedly, it was was rarely ever relaxing apart from when I was in my hotel rooms! I even annoyed myself at times with constant hard bargaining over such small amounts! Whilst I did engage in some lovely conversations with some nice natives (and fellow travellers too) it was quite tiring at times to be having conversations I didn’t always want to have. I was thankful to just survive the holiday without illness in any form and despite some of my negativity in this post I did overall enjoy the experience of India’s Golden Triangle.