Colourful. Noisy. Amazing. Frightening. Overwhelming. Awe inspiring. India is all these, and more.
The introduction to Lonely Planet India says that “one minute you’ll love India, and the next you’ll loathe it,” and I certainly agree. My experience of India is that it has to be battled against, and enjoyed despite everything, not because of. It is not a place where things come easily, nor is it relaxing. It was the most frustrating country we visited, the one that was the hardest work – but also very rewarding.
We flew into India after three days in Thailand, and I naively assumed that our experience there of heavy traffic and humid weather would well prepare me for India. It did not. Nothing, but nothing, can prepare you for India. My brother had attempted to warn us of this, and I in turn will do so for you: until you visit India, you cannot imagine what it will be like. You can try, but the reality is always more than you can possibly think it will be.
Delhi was a heaving mass of people, bikes, taxis, auto rickshaws, cows, goats and cars, all fighting for their square inch of space. We arrived during the festival of Dussehra, so the streets were full of small boys letting off firecrackers and statues of Durga being paraded. After a fifteen minute walk, I was ready to go back to our hotel and breathe.
The next day, fortified with the luxury of breakfast in bed, we first decided to book our train tickets for the rest of our onward journeys to Agra and Rajasthan. Actually finding the ticket reservation office at the main train station was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. We were consistently accosted by touts, trying to tell us the office had moved, or didn’t exist, and that we needed to go down the road, or over the street. We assiduously ignored everyone, but – much to my annoyance now, and despite what LP told us – we eventually did believe the guy who told us that a certain office in Connaught Place was where we needed to go. He even pointed it out to us on the LP map. Luckily, and this does give me some small grain of comfort, we didn’t take the auto rickshaw he offered – for this is the scam: one man tells you that you need to go somewhere else, and then his friend offers to drive – and instead walked to Connaught Place.
I am going to gloss over the next hour as it’s a frustration I prefer not to recall, but we eventually found ourselves back at the central railway station, finally locating the ticket office up a side flight of stairs. Then the second frustration of the day began: actually booking tickets using the ridiculously antiquated system of paper forms and assumed knowledge. There were two queues, both stretching round the room; no-one was completely sure which was which. Periodically we’d all stand up, and move one seat along closer to the ticket desks. It was hot, and irritating, even more so when an old man pushed in front of us. At the next shuffle I sat on his tunic on purpose so S could regain our proper seat. I am British and I know how to queue. Don’t mess with me.
Finally, we were in receipt of the tickets we needed and could move onto actual, y’know, fun stuff. So we thought we’d walk to Chandni Chowk. And this is where we learned one of the most important lessons relating to India: there is no such thing as a nice easy stroll in India. Our usual love of just walking around a city and taking in its sights had to be completely readjusted.
Chandni Chowk was a seething mass of people. Carried along by a human tide, I held onto my bag for dear life and attempted not to lose S. We were too nervous to dive off the main thoroughfare and attempt a walk in the medieval, winding lanes of the bazaar, and instead headed into a restaurant for what felt like a well deserved sit down and thali lunch.
The Red Fort was an oasis of calm after the hassles of the morning. Despite being asked on a regular basis to have my photograph taken with Indian families – who were incredibly lovely and respectful when asking me and made me feel like a celebrity – it was so peaceful strolling through the gardens and admiring the stunning Mughal architecture.
From Delhi, we travelled to Agra, to see something that had been a long-held travel dream of mine: the Taj Mahal. We got up at 5.30am to see the Taj in the morning light, separating into the male and female queues, the Indian and non Indian lines. Security was tight and our snacks were confiscated by an overly officious guard, but all this was forgotten the moment we walked through the gateway and saw the Taj for the first time. My words can’t do it justice, these photos barely do.
After a morning spent admiring the Taj from its grounds, we spent the rest of the day on our hotel’s rooftop restaurant, admiring it from the air.
Oh, and being interviewed for Indian TV!
Agra to Jaipur was our first experience of Indian trains, which are something which could have their own series of blog posts! A journey on a train is like an episode from a soap opera, with all kinds of things happening at once. Luckily we always managed to book a proper seat – I didn’t fancy battling third class with a large rucksack – and always were well prepared with water and snacks.
Jaipur is known as the ‘pink city’ (although I feel ‘orange’ would be more accurate) and the old inner part of it is full of winding streets, tiny shops and beautiful buildings.
We visited the Jantar Mantar, a stunning 18th century collection of astronomical instruments which are still incredibly accurate. We also saw an exquisite palace, with elaborate fretwork where the purdah’d wives could look out into the courtyard without prying eyes seeing them.
Jaipur was, however, the hardest place we visited for me to cope with, mostly due to the harassment I received there. It’s not something I want to do into too much detail about, as I don’t want it to overshadow the good experiences I had in India. But it’s also not something I can ignore: when you’re constantly being leered at by young men, and being talked about, and having your photo taken without consent – and this is while wearing modest clothes, being with a man and acknowledging all cultural sensitivities – it does somewhat ruin your day. A trip to the magnificent Amber Fort, where elephants lumbered up the drive and birds of prey soared over the rocky setting, was overshadowed by the frustrations that both S and I felt. By the end of the day, all I wanted to do was sit in my hotel room, in peace, far from prying eyes and wandering hands.
Our next stop, Pushkar, was much more agreeable. This Hindu holy town is set on a gorgeous lake and is full of temples.
It’s also full of monkeys.
This photo was taken just after we’d witnessed one of the Bandar log stealing this lady’s fruit!
Although we couldn’t afford a night here, we had the most amazing dinner at Inn Seventh Heaven, on its stunning rooftop terrace. When it’s time to pay, your money is sent over the edge of the terrace to the kitchens below.
We loved it so much that we came back the next morning to while away the time before our train to Udaipur, being deliciously lazy sipping juice and reading magazines in the sunshine.
Part two to follow… Udaipur, Jodhpur and Bikkaner.