Friday, 19 July 2013

India - Part1: The Golden Triangle

Needless to say, the Little India's of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore did not prepare us for what awaited in Delhi...

As the first part of my travels is effectively Sally's holiday she had decided to book a tour for our first week.  How good an idea this was became very quickly apparent.

Our driver, Ram, met us off the plane and took us the night time traffic to our hotel in the heart of Delhi.  No matter how many times you see images of this on television, it will never prepare you for the reality.  Traffic came from all sides, at all speeds, beeping a mass variety of horns.  The darkness made it seem as if was all coming from nowhere, but in effect isolated us from the reality of the next morning.  There appears to be no rules on the roads.  Just find a gap that your vehicle will fit into and beep your horn.  Priority is given to the larger or faster vehicle, so tuk-tuk's and mopeds just have to hope.  And there doesn't seem to be any reason to go the right way along the road either...  However, we soon had complete faith in Ram and (somewhat scarily) now view the chaos as being completely normal.  Although it may be best not to pay too much attention to it.

Our tour proper started the next day, visiting the Jama Majid (the largest mosque in India) and a rickshaw trip the the alleys of Old Delhi.  It was fascinating to get our first view of real India (citywise). The city was redesigned by the British with many open boulevards and roundabouts, large colonial palaces for the embassies and a vast presidential palace.  This didn't sit well with the tent villages set up on any flat ground large enough and slums set up in decaying buildings. Old Delhi by contrast was a hub-bub of activity, hawkers, tuk-tuks, people going about their business everywhere.  It made us want more, but it was not to be in Delhi.

Our our of the first day took us to Humayun's Tomb, a quite wonderful piece of architecture, and Qutub Minar, built by the first Mogul king on top of a Hindu temple.  We also saw Shakti Sthal, the cremation site of Gandhi after his assassination in 1948.  The memorial is simple, a fitting tribute.

The Gandhi Museum we saw the next day was not.  The ground floor was an endless chain of information boards, which seemed to have some time gaps and to which we were initially instructed to start at the end.  While informative is was a bit of an overload.  Upstairs however was bizarre...  They had set up interactive multimedia displays where buttons were pressed in increasingly novel ways to highlight Hindu beliefs and Gandhi's ideals (phrases highlighted in water by optic fibre - why?).  The most bewildering was a train where you could do a virtual trip from city to city, but only as an icon on a map.  I have no idea what knowledge they were trying to impart as the guide we had could not speak English well enough to enlighten us.

Our tour of Delhi ended with a walk around the Lodi Gardens.  At noon.  In 35 degree heat.  Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that...

The following day we travelled to Agra.  Our first trip on the open road.  The state people were living in in villages along the way makes me wonder if India is too large and too far gone to ever see Gandhi's dreams be realised.  In doing so though its character may be lost.

Agra is home to the very impressive Agra Fort, but also, and more importantly, the Taj Mahal.  Photographs do not do it justice..  It is simply breathtaking.  Every little detail is awe inspiring.  A true monument to love and devotion.

Our journey then took us to Jaipur, the Pink City - so named after the red sandstone that most of the old city is built from.  I must point out that our accommodation so far had been far from sparse, but we were left stunned by the home stay we had to ourselves in Jaipur.  A suite, with a lovely mezzanine level, the courtyard and staff at our beck and call!  Almost like royalty!  There were a few attractions to be guided around, and therefore more guides to be tipped, starting with the Amber Fort.

We had an elephant ride to the fort and felt the ugly side of tourism in India - hawkers hounding you all the way to the top with no possible escape, just trying to ignore them.  I know they are only trying to make a living, but they can really ruin a day!  The fort itself was beautiful enough to help us forget them in the end.  A trip to the Jantar Mantar observatory followed.  It is an ingenious if eccentric collection of instruments to tell the time and planetary positions, made to be walked all over.  A rest in the hotel was in order as the day was hot and we were to delve into the city that evening.  We were not prepared for the assault on our senses.  It was truly crazy.  Tuk-Tuks and motorbikes from all directions, horns blaring indiscriminately, hawkers everywhere touting business, the ful spectrum of colours in the market stalls, smells from the food stalls, spice merchants and open sewers - all bombarding you at once!  A hasty retreat was made after an hour to our oasis of tranquility.

The final stop of the first leg of India was Pushkar.  A holy city, believers of all religions can come here to be blessed and purified.  Being an atheist I was less than pleased at being coerced into said rituals and I was still wheedled out of a 'charitable donation'  and yet another tip...

It was, however, a good way to end our first week here as some of Gandhi's ashes were scattered in the lake.  I really must read more on this incredible man.

The next day we said goodbye to Ram and started our journey alone into India.  I highly recommend using a tour operator for a first foray into India.  We used India By Car & Driver ( who will cater to your every whim (and deal with any complaint about a hotel amazingly quickly!!)

Wow!  We did a lot in one week.  Time to chill out a bit...

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