North India Revealed
India or more specifically as the trip was billed “North India Revealed” was a fascinating insight into a beautiful and intriguing region of this amazing country. Contrasts abound and were found in plenty between great beauty and ugliness. As such it is easy to form and develop strong opinions about many different aspects, sometimes simultaneously. It is impossible to visit this region / country without being moved emotionally and intellectually.
My notes on this trips are under the following headings and you may wish to scroll down to read what appeals most to you or simply to just take a gentle read as you prefer
1) Introduction/ Background
My inspiration for this holiday was to push the boat out on something new, to explore something different. My latest three holidays were in Gambia, Tunisia and Morocco. Those that know me well will also know that I spent 18 years working and living in different African countries (Nigeria, Zambia, Democratic!! Congo, South Africa) plus holidays in neighbouring countries. There was also 2 backpacking holidays to South East Asia. I have learnt over the years, that I don’t enjoy retracing my steps as some holidaymakers do. Too much of a hamster and an exercise in silliness when one considers the number of countries in the world compared with what visited. My new found bucket list requires at least one new country visited per annum and preferably two. With that I consider india and Gambia as part of my 2016 “bucket list”. The other main reason for selecting India was that it is a major country in world population terms (nearly 1 in five of world population) and has a fascinating history over the centuries.
Selecting “Intrepid” as a tour group was based on less reason but did include its reputation: good reviews in general and with India, small group size (we were 9 in number and max is normally 14/15) and that this trip covered a good sample of destinations within the Northern region. I did consider going solo as on my last 3 trips but frankly I had come to the view that travelling with a diverse group of strangers was preferable to solo bringing with it the opportunity for friendship and shared experiences.
The trip itself started off officially at 6pm on a Wednesday evening at a hotel in Delhi (day 1 in the tables below) and finished on day 22 although we returned to Delhi on day 21 about midday. The 21 nights were enjoyed between 11 different locations (first and last at the same hotel) and 3 different overnight trains. The package price included bed and travel between the towns / cities and an energetic enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide.
I will return to India in the future, perhaps not to most places on our itinerary although Jasailmer remains a personal favourite. The reason being the size, beauty and diversity of this country.
We started in Delhi (one night “1n”), then westwards by overnight train (1n) to Jaisalmer for a desert camp (1n) then Jaisalmer for Christmas (2n). Then we started eastwards roughly to the blue city of Jodhpur (2n) by train, then air con bus to Udaipur (3n) on its man made lakes, train to the holy town of Pushkar (2n) for New Year then local bus to the pink city of Jaipur (2n), local bus to the nature park at Bharatpur (1n) and private bus to the Taj Mahal at Agra (1n) then overnight train (1n) to holy city of Varanasi (2n) on the Ganges and then westwards again to Delhi by overnight train (1n) to Delhi for last night (1n). That’s 11 stopovers plus 3 overnight trains which is indicative of the delightful pace of the wonderful adventure.
Buildings: Ornate (Palaces), Defensive (Castle / Forts), Religious (Temples / Mosques), and other sights. City Name first.
Delhi Humayun’s Tomb.
Visited before start of official tour, this was my introduction to the creative imagination of Indian Building skills. The surrounding wall hides most of the Tomb and upon entering the walled garden………. suddenly “it” appears as if floating above the symmetrical gardens. Built mid 16th century by the first wife, and herself Persian for her husband, the Mughal emperor Humayun it provides inspiration for the later Taj Mahal. Islamic geometry (reliance upon the number eight and with inlays of white marble and sandstone.
Delhi Street tour / City Metro
On the first day of our official tour we gathered in hotel lobby before being led through the choked bustling chaotic street traffic to the metro. Wow. It was busy and we were just in time for rush hour. Baggage had to be security checked through and my pocket knife (corkscrew/bottle opener just in case) caused not a blimmer (new word!) on the screen.
Big sign warned “No Crackers” and my thought went to some friends before it was pointed out that this referred to firecrackers. As a group of 9 plus Guide we tried to board the first of frequent service but to no avail: it was too full for all. Carriages looked full and we were not too assertive. This was unlike Newcastle’s metro by a million miles but similar to rush hour London tube. We split into 3 groups and managed to board the next train.
A couple stops later we got off and started our walking tour of old Delhi. Two buildings are commented on specifically below but the over riding impact of broken pavements, chaotic overhead cabling, multiple small businesses and shops, street traders cycle rickshaws, poverty, noise, hand carts, narrow side streets to infinity concealing a multitude of people and activities. It was different and so very wonderful.
We tasted our first cup of Masala tea, a brew and it is indeed brewed of milky sugary tea which is on paper as I type the words an affront to my taste buds as here in the UK I like my tea when drunk (as in to drink!) as tea. In the hands of these specialist brewers and combined with masala it takes on a new life of a powerful non alcoholic “shot” of life and energy. It quickly became something to look out for over the next 3 weeks and was the first prompt that our taste buds were to be tantalised and excited. Masala by the way includes Cardamom Cloves Cinnamon Ginger
Down a shadowy (as in “not in sunshine” as opposed to shady but not the seedier kind of shady) street we stopped for mid morning snacks of fried pancakes made India style with various fillings served on circular trays called Talis with various condiments of fire and sweet enhancers. A simple inexpensive delight.
Delhi Big mosque: Jama Masjid
An island of spiritual peace separated by imposing walls from the traffic madness without. Built between 1644 and 1658 of sandstone and white marble. It is also India’s largest mosque holding upwards of 25,000.
Sikh Temple: Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib
Was built in 1783 to commemorate the beheading of the 9th Sikh guru for failing to convert to Islam. Of special note here was the scale of charitable work being done in terms of preparation of food for the feeding of the poor. Large vats bubbling away to industrial scale food production. Followers sitting on the ground to rhythymic chanting whilst TV screens provided a translation of blood laden verses.
Jaisalmer aka Golden City
After 18 hours or thereabouts aboard our first India train we disembarked to the chaos of the rail station at Jaisalmer. We were at the start of a seasonal 2 week closedown of schools neatly coinciding with Christmas holidays. In the mid day heat the fort town emerged above us imposing in its historic grandeur with its golden coloured hill which matched its own brickwork.
Founded back in and around 1156 it sat upon the Silk Road (or that tapestry of roads). It thrived from initial looting by its leaders, then trade, before becoming strategically isolated following partition with Pakistan. Outside the walls is a busy city of twisting roads built around the homes and businesses rather than the other way round. Inside the walls is a sinewy narrowing walk uphill past a total of three imposing defensive gates in addition to the external gates, channelling any attackers who might have broken through the outside walls into ever narrower channels exposed to ramparts above.
Our guest house was near the top of the inside of this bastion looking out on the town below and the bush scrub start of the desert beyond. It remains my favourite city on this trip perhaps because my imagination allowed me to dream of having arrived here after a long tiring journey. Hot water came from a log fire outside my room where I was entertained by scenic views. Narrow steep dark cool stairwells took one from ground floor to bright sunshine on top floor in daytime and starry nights after sundown. Food was delightfully fresh and full of flavour revitalising our tired tastebuds after our journey. It remains a perfect spot for creative relaxation or meditation upon ones own life or whatever
Jaisalmer Jain temples
Below the guest house in the narrow spaghetti strand streets designed not just to confuse tourists but also to play havoc on any invaders are the Jain temples with intricate detailed carvings in large numbers. The coolness of the temples fostering a higher level of spiritual contemplation no doubt.
Jodhpur aka Blue City
An early morning air conditioned train journey took us from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur (duration per my notes of about 6 hours)
Blue was traditionally used to identify Brahmins being the priestly caste within Hinduism and perhaps also due to the insect repelling attributes of the paint, the colour gained popularity. However its is the magnificent Mehrangarh fort towering above the city and already built on top of a most naturally defensive rock outcrop that grabs the attention. The fort dates from 1459 and follows a relocation by the rulers from another defensive area. Jodhpur rests proudly upon the trade route between Delhi and Gujurat and has prospered over the centuries from trade in sandalwood, opium, dates and copper.
Jodhpur: Mehrangarh Fort & Palace
The rocky hill itself is said o tower 120metres above the city skyline and the battlements a further 6m to 36m on top of that and as the rock itself was used in the walls it conveys the impression of all being carved from an even larger rock.
The palace itself consists of a series of courtyards surrounded by beautifully carved walls and windows with the latter being designed to conceal the person inside. The network of room and corridors weave through the imposing Palace with frequent low doorways encouraging a more submissive posture. The impact upon the British colonials would have been massive because here were palaces as impressive in wealth and power as anything back in their home country and here in India there were so many like here in Jodhpur
Jodhpur Village Crafts
By jeep the next day we were off to see the neighbouring villages and a selection of Crafts. Pottery and traditional home stops were less than impressive and the output of my grain grinding was pathetic. Domestic appliances in our western kitchens and supermarkets have removed the drudgery and time intensive nature of so much food preparation. The stop that did appeal was the carpet weaving and having explained us the skills of his work, displayed the pictures of Richard Gere and Prince Charles who appeared as former customers with more smiles than even a lovely cup of masala could reasonably encourage, I bought a rug and I love it totally. Delivered seamlessly by post to arrive at my home with tax postage included, this was clearly a display of experienced logistics. Yes it would have been cheaper to take with me which I might have down if trip direction reversed and if Jodhpur near final stages.
An earlyish start by Tuc Tuc to the bus station of semi chaos before we headed off on an air-conditioned journey arriving about lunchtime at what was yet another beautiful city. It was one of our group who noted and photoed but sensitively restrained from telling us till after we had arrived that the brake light warning was on for most if not all the journey. As the latter part of our trip was mainly downhill, I sincerely hope that it was nothing to do with faulty brakes. Because of my blissful ignorance I was happy to focus on the multitude of marble dealers along the road side for many miles before Udaipur. Its not as if there was lots of activity but it seemed as if entire mountains of marble had been carved and were awaiting customers.
It is said that Colonel James Tod who worked with the East India Company had described Udaipur as the “most romantic spot on the continent of India” and he probably had something there before tourism and not just western tourism too off. It seems that every human is trying to sell you something and even causal glances in shop windows prompts an eager “friend of the craftsman” to sell you something. That is what make the carpet man on the Jodhpur village tour so appealing as I felt I was avoiding the middlemen and their charges.
The other most appealing aspect of this city was the absence of cow poo and the neatness of the greenery and flowerbeds at roundabouts. Just when I was developing a new skill of cow poo avoidance that here, there was rare need.
Twisting narrow bustling colourful noisy streets added a gentle charm to the rupee grabbing commercial activities.
Udaipur: Monsoon Palace
An evening trip by tuc tuc to the base of the Monsoon Palace where government vehicles ferry people to the top (tuc tuc charge plus entrance charge plus car ferrying charge) took us to the top of the hill where once was a beautiful palace designed to avoid the humidity below. Despite two lots of government charges the Palace itself was getting no obvious renovations and even less maintenance. It may have been nice not to pestered by someone selling cool drinks or ice-cream but there was a cruel illogicality to the absence of money making opportunities from what was a beautiful setting.
Udaipur City Palace
The main Palace itself on the shore of the lake Pichola below stretches nearly a kilometre including its gardens. The Palace itself is said to be 244 metres long (I read that bit) with construction starting in 1599. Getting there early morning (close to 9) allowed missing of the seasonal crowds and allowed better opportunity to pass along quite a few narrow corridors and stairwells at a relaxed pace. Views of the town and the lake were beautiful, the courtyards captivating in their cool charm. The size of the building, level of decorations, quality of craftsmanship stunning.
Train journey to Moslem city of Ajmer followed by private car to Pushkar a very important religious (Hinduism) centre because of its Brahma temple (very few worldwide) as the god was cursed by a goddess for marrying a mortal. Similarity with ancient Greek and Roman God culture and gods meddling with us mortals.
Our hotel was a 20-25 minute walk from the centre which featured a near circular lake surrounded by a multitude of temples (ghats) and a tourist street that had more in common with Khao san road of Banghok. Every bit of tourist tat was on sale besides moneychangers, eateries, clothing, tea shops, accommodation, groups of cows (sometimes a few short of a herd), single cows, paired cows and several day time drug-zonked tourists. The city also has a reputation of being the drug capital of India.
For New Years our group split with some hoping that the city would have a special western style festive and a few of us returning to hotel. There an Indian majority group of revellers led by energetic male with male dancing to a sound system that was working beyond design, blew up, replaced by cars and then by new sound system. The 2 parts of our group rejoined for the final bye byes to 2016 to raucous fireworks heading up and beyond lighting the sky in a wonderful cascade of swirling darting and collapsing colours and boom-boom sounds. I still recall a rocket falling on its side, pointing at me as ……. By which time I had runaway. Perhaps thats why some folk are so safety conscious with fireworks.
Jaipur aka Pink City
Private car back over the hill to Ajmer before flagging down a “local bus” as had been arranged, causing a repositioning of several locals as all of the seats in the main part of the bus were full (we were 10) and they were relocated with upset looks to the front partly partitioned section of the bus as they were said to be not travelling the full way.
The road to Jaipur was motorway busy and impressive improvement to prior roads. At one stage the driver signalled the conductor who was not doing much for most of the journey and whilst the driver shifted to the left of his seat, the conductor from a self made perch above slipped into the driving seat without missing a beat. The driver needed a pee and stopping the bus might have encouraged other bladder weakies to get off whereas with this little maneover the driver slipped off into bushes at a toll stop before re-emerging to take the wheel again. No loss to journey time.
Jaipur Amber Fort.
Similar to that of Jodhpur in terms of formidable visual statement of strength although lacking the substantial rocky base at Jodhpur: Instead, the fort had captured the natural hills. Both make Jaisalmer seems puny in comparison, In my opinion both Jodhpur and Amber fort were equally impressive in terms of conveyance of Royal Power in terms of accessing both on foot. All designed to leave one in a sense of awe.
Jaipur Lake palace
So pretty nestling on the lake and supposedly temporarily caught up in a legal squabble on ownership.
Fascinating to imagine the creative minds and intricate measurements required in the building of this astonomer’s playground.
Jaipur Walking tour.
We went, we walked saw smelt tasted and then there was a shop with nowt but Bangles and then another bangle shop and another all with floor to ceiling of every possible imaginable colour and kaleidoscopic pattern.
Jaipur Bollywood movie
They justly have a reputation for entertainment and the giant meringue shaped, shocking pink ceiling was just so different to utilitarian cinemas here in UK. Three generation families pully tugging shoving each other as they attempted to get in their seats by start of movie. Then the cheering clapping as the movie progressed and every emotion was displayed visually and effectively and as a consequence celebrated by the audience. The actual movie was Dangal about a wrestling family with daughters who take the sport with gusto and predicable twists and turns before 1 went on to win a gold medal in the commonwealth games for India. Subtle message of equality disguised within a movie and contrasting with newspaper reports in and around the time of vicious attacks upon young women for daring to wear jeans followed support of such behaviour from various political folk and then more evidence of change happening within society.
The Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur represents some of the best and worst of this holiday. Human goodness and creativity in the form of Guides versus Government extraction of tourist money with little visible return. At Park entry point I was led to a run down antiquated display by a government Game guy, received a brief introduction and an offer that I could hire him, a cycle rickshaw and pay the tourist fee. If I was a group of four I might see a benefit for the entourage but it was just a money extracting exercise. I counteracted this by finding a cycle rickshaw bloke with good English and both an interest and knowledge (one without the other is useless) of birds. Two jobs for the price of one fee plus the entry fee of course.
The birdlife was fantastic as was the Guide’s enthusiasm and professionalism. The Python, lizard and hyenas a bonus
Birlife included Shrikes, Kingfishers, Eagles, Owls, Storks, Drongos, Sparrows, Pea-hens & Peacocks, Francolins, Herons, Shovellers, Pigeons, Cormorants Will add more details shortly
Agra Taj Mahal
Its busy touristy and rather well organised in parts and maddening chaos in others. The entry was fine, the walk up in a calming garden area but the majestic beauty is hidden until one enters through the archway when this beauty blossoms forth. One of the minarets was under scaffolding denting its perfection but the buildings are truly a work of love.
Through the gardens and up to the mausoleum itself, the queue splitting into shorter one for high pay foreigners and a longer queue for Indians. Then with a merging of both queues it became one big squash of all as we endured pushing shoving to gain entrance to first room. Another big squash as we pushed were pushed into the central mausoleum itself and the river of folk pushes its way round in a clockwise direction like a mindless ritual. Step aside from the river of humanity and admire the artwork in a badly lit setting. The scale of intricate carving inlay work and use of gentle colours was spellbinding. The actual mausoleum is below and not accessibly by public but what was here was a powerful symbol of the passion behind this most famous of buildings. Out of the mausoleum and around the interior rooms anticlockwise to the rear of the building before emerging into daylight. The two mosques on either side are beautiful in their own right but dwarfed in beauty by the centre piece.
Built by Shah Jahan between 1632 and 1640 for the main building and approx. 1653 for the entire complex, following the death of his 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal giving birth to their 14th child.
Poet Rabindranath described it as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity” whilst Kipling as the “embodiment of all things pure”. The husband Shah Jahan wins my prize for describing it as that it made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”
Agra Baby Taj or Itimad-ud-Daulah
Predating the Taj and built as mausoleum for a Persian nobleman grandfather to Mumtaz Mahal who herself was the object of love behind the Taj. Combining the Humayun of Delhi and this, one can see where the conceptual inspiration came from but not the leap in inspirational creativity
Agra Red Fort
After the delights of Jodhpur and Jaipur this was less impressive although I would revise that view if seeing in reverse. Two aspects struck my mind. Secondly (in importance) was the reception area for visitors seeking audience with the Emperor. Most impressive was the accommodation area allocated to Shah Jahan by his son after he was overthrown. Its like a posh prison but afforded great views towards the Taj subject to fog which was prevalent in winter time. That must have been frustrating for Shah Jahan
Varanasi a very Holy City
The river runs mightily and the river marks on the steps and concrete banks along the city side show the variations in river height. The city itself runs on an energy of pilgrims inspired by the importance of the meeting of this city and river. It is a city to stop and think awhile as the emotions of the living fulfilling important rituals mingle with the smoky fires of the newly dead. The city back streets throng with life and trade and humanity making a living. The markets hum with activity and trade and all the time the people are on the ever restless ebb and flow, just like their riverine neighbour.
The Blue Lassi would be a very non descript building were it not for the activities within where a range of the most most delicious lassis were prepared to order in front of you or at least in the space which overlooked the street. Just relaxing and joking about monkeys jostling for some of the ingredients there was a chanting and a street clearing as a body was carried on a litter followed by chanting mourners. About 10 minutes later, another and then the same again. All on their way towards the nearby river for cremation. The proximity of life and death so intertwined and in contract to western culture. I like it and am moved emotionally
I have included a few pictures of menus as an example of choice and price (From Hotel Perfect), the food tastes so much better than here in the UK. I suspect it’s the freshness of the ingredients, the liveliness of the spices and yes the setting. Its also well known that most Indian food in UK was targets at satisfying tastebuds here. So of course it will be different.
Fruit has so much more flavour as one might expect.
Train station food was divided between the lifeless officially provided, the home brought flavoursome and real and the platform fried spicy and warming particularly on chilly mornings. Samoosas of varying sizes and shapes filled nearly always with vegetable mix.
This is the only country I have visited where catering for the meat eater seems like an afterthought as the effort is towards a wide range of vegetarian dishes.
Pizza was a safe alternative to the never ending mainstream normal food of the country
Go forth, experiment and enjoy as I did.
Personally speaking and for when I return
No meat: ever although Fish Tandoori at Jodhpur was wonderful.
If I see lots of tourist will ask for “Indian style” for which they will return the flavour thereby avoiding blandness which occurs only where tourists gather in throngs
Do not look at insides of kitchens. Have worked a holiday job in an Irish kitchen (1978) and hygiene standards were far higher then.
Bottled water widely available priced from R15 /litre at street to R30 depending on location
Kingfisher Beer green label at 4% alcohol approx. and red (premium) at 4.8% were cool refreshing and did the required. Prices December 2016 were from 160 rupees (£2/650 ml bottle) to 250 rupees. Kingfisher has a range of Beer flavours perhaps in Delhi etc. Alcohol is not available in every Indian state or town eg Pushkar officially at least.
Sula produce about 2 dozen varieties of wine. I saw only a red and white on my excursions and drank a cabernet shiraz on Christmas day (available in bottle stores at 400 rupees for half bottle and R800 for 750m)l was reasonable drinking wine although overpriced. Restaurant prices would double the above taking a bottle to £20 for which Id reckon uk comparable outside London of £12-14. Good experience to try something overpriced but interesting flavour.
Bottle soft drinks R30-R50: quite standard range
Lassi :Great tasting yoghurt based drink with wide variety flavours: of fruits (seasonal) nuts (eg pistachios) spices (eg saffron) added making this one of delights of the holiday. Prices varied depending on quality from R20 to R100.
The following table summarises the main types of transport utilsed during the trip:
London Underground. Heathrow T4, Jet airlines 8.5 hrs direct to Delhi
Jet airlines arrival midday. Intrepid transport to hotel Delhi
Tuc-Tuc for own sightseeing. Tour starts 6pm
Delhi metro, Walking tour,Taxi, Overnight train (18hrs) to Jaisalmer.
Arrival Jaisalmer, Jeep, Camel (3hrs) to Desert camp.
Camel (1hr), Jeep to Jaisalmer, Walking tour.
Train to Jodhpur, Tuc-Tuc, Walking tour.
Jeep tour of villages
Air-con bus to Udaipur, Tuc-Tuc, Boat tour of lake.walking tour
Tuc-Tuc, Jeep to top Monsoon Palace
Tuc-Tuc, Train to Ajmer, Car to Pushkar, walking tour
Car to Ajmer, Bus to Jaipur, Tuc-Tuc, walking tour
Tuc-Tuc for day sightseeing
Tuc-Tuc, Bus to Bharatpur, Cycle rickshaw (Bird park)
Private Bus to Agra, Electric bus (at Taj)
Tuc-Tuc & Cycle rickshaw for sightseeing, private Bus, Overnight train (12hrs official time!!) to Varanasi. walking tour.
Tuc-Tuc, Cycle rickshaws
Morning and sunset boat tours, Cycle rickshaw
Tuc-Tuc, overnight train to Delhi (15hrs)
arrival by train in Delhi, private Car
Hotel taxi to airport, Jet airlines to Heathrow (9.5hrs), Underground, East Coast
Fri 13 th
Arrival Newcastle, Taxi home 2am
The following is my personal assessment of the accommodation with "5" representing my minimum requirement and "10" a maximum" having regard to my assessment of what I was paying for in the Intrepid description and my own personal needs.
All accommodation made me feel personally safe although cleanliness and hot water functionality (the Intrepid website warned on the water), were less than desirable.
Hotel Perfect, Delhi
Same for 2nd night
Deepak Rest House, Jaisalmer
Same for 2nd night
Jagat Vila, Jodhpur
Same for 2nd night
Hotel Narayan Niwas, Udaipur
Same for 2nd night
Same for 3rd night
Hotel New Park, Pushkar
same for 2nd night
Hoel Utsav Niwas, Jaipur
Same for 2nd night
Birders Inn, Bharatpur
Hotel Karan Vilas, Agra
Hotel Haifa, Varanasi
Same for 2nd night
Hotel Perfect, Delhi
same for 2nd night
Travelling homeward till 2am