364 days without a hitch, and the start of the journey home… Damn it, spoke too soon!
The plan, which didn’t even sound great on paper, was to get up at some ungodly early hour (again), and be driven to the first train (again), and arrive back in Delhi for some final afternoon sight-seeing. Unfortunately, it all fell apart at the first hurdle, with the taxi not actually picking us up.
Maybe it was all the relaxation over the past few days, maybe we’ve become seasoned travellers, or maybe we knew it was pretty much out of our hands, but we were surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing. A phone call to the travel agent, and another taxi was organised, this time, all the way back to Delhi (a stonking 9 hour drive!) Still, we had time to have one last wander around Rishikesh before spending the afternoon, and most of the evening in the back of a taxi, listening to the almost constant beeping horn, and weaving in and out of the cows traffic. On the bright side, by the time the taxi driver had asked half of Delhi where our hotel was, we were glad we had spent most of the evening in a taxi, as the hotel wasn’t really up to much (although the cockroaches seemed to like it…). Still, we were back on schedule!
Rishikesh is a world famous yoga and general chill-out centre (even the Beatles spent time here), so it seems fitting to add a massage and yoga to the list of trip activities. Now, the massages you get in Thailand are the kind you’re probably aware of, having your muscles pummelled and rubbed leaving you hopefully in less pain than when you started. The Indians have a different idea of what a massage is, starting of with what can only be described as a warm butter rub down, followed by some privacy invading spreading of the butter, and then an odd sand bath to get you clean again. I think Caroline went through the same thing, but the whole massage subject was never spoken of again.
Yoga, on the other hand was quite enjoyable, and to think some people consider this exercise. We were even relieved of the responsibility of deciding when to breathe, as the instructor tells you when! There was a lot of sitting, and pulling your legs into weird positions, with the instructor constantly asking if I was ok (maybe he thought it would actually be too much exercise for me…), and then finished off by a lie down. So relaxing was this lie down and chant, that I swear it’s the closest I’ve been to consciously falling asleep.
Two showers later, and still smelling of that weird butter, we wandered off to the northern parts of Rishikesh, to see if the peddlers of tat had anything worthy of filling our bags with. Satisfied with a couple of back scratchers, we crossed yet another monkey-lined bridge, and explored.
It’s obvious to see that India doesn’t have a trade descriptions act. Our hotel was optimistically called the Ganga Beach Resort, and after a walk down the very steep hillside the hotel is perched on we could not find anything resembling a beach – not that you’d actually want to step into the churning grey water of the Ganges (apparently down river there is 150 times the safe level of bacteria).
Finding a 10 minute gap between the torrential downpours, we walked down to the town, although after a few days in India we’re now used to the cows in the streets, it was funny to see them queued up in the covered car park sheltering from the rain, and I don’t think it’s ever possible to get used to the resulting “messages” on the streets. Rishikesh has a fortunately sturdy foot bridge across the Ganges, and as such gets used by everything, from the odd tourists like us to locals aimlessly wandering (how come so many Indians do that?) to motorbikes, monkeys and even cows.
Temple fatigue has truly set in (it’s easy to tell – I took no photos!), so we rested in cafes, including one with an odd bloke dusted in flour sitting on a raised chair outside his cafe, greeting patrons. If only the waiters were quite as friendly! With that, the heavens re-opened, nothing to it but to return back to the hotel and do what Rishikesh is all about, chill out and be at one. The tuktuk driver had other ideas, thinking we didn’t need to be dropped off at the hotel as we’d enjoy the walk down the steep hill – don’t worry though, I had my revenge!
The good thing about having a travel agent book everything for your 10 days in India is obvious: you don’t have to do it yourself. The flip side is that you don’t get much say in when your train leaves, which in this case was about 5 am. The hotel guy reckoned we needed to get a taxi by 4 am, and although we thought an hour was a tad too much time we duly stumbled down to reception, only to find the same guy still asleep. After another half hour kip we easily caught the train, and even had a sunrise as the train left.
With a few hours to kill in Delhi before the next train we wandered markets and came to the realisation that even if you get the sellers to drop their prices to reasonable levels, the merchandise isn’t amazing, and we may have difficulty refilling our bags after posting so much back, and disposing of our now very tired looking clothes.
It was dark before we arrived in Rishikesh, a village we were told was at the source of the Ganges (Ganga) River, but going by the size and ferocity, there’s a lot more river before it. The village is also a world famous Yoga centre, not that we needed any help to relax after such an early start!
Amiritsar in the Punjab region is the spiritual home to the Sikh faith, a recent religion created from a bit of Hindu and a bit of Islam. The religion has lots of nice bits like equality for all, belief in an honest days work, no idol worshipping and generally being at peace (not too sure where the Sikh warriors with big knives fit into all that…). The Golden Temple is the holy site for Sikhs, a temple set in a lake and and covered in 750kg of gold. There was an awfully long queue on the pilgrims bridge to the temple, and we weren’t sure if we were actually allowed to get that close, so we made do with walking around the edge of the lake wearing our orange head covers whilst Sikhs bathed in the holy lake. The Sikhs have been a persecuted bunch, from being gunned down by the British for a peaceful protest during the Indian fight for independence to their own government bombing their temple in 1984, killing quite a few Sikhs. They did have vengeance though; the Prime Minister who ordered the attack happened to have two Sikh bodyguards who murdered her as a result (you’d think she would have seen that one coming…).
The heat was really getting to us, and along with most of the other westerners in Amiritsar, we found refuge in a the only air-con restaurant in town. There was just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the gaudy Hindu Mata temple, complete with a bizarre fairground haunted-house type walk, crawl and wade past various Hindu icons.
We were then off to the India-Pakistan border to see the closing of the gates ceremony. There were parties on both sides of the gate, as if each was trying to prove they were the more fun place to be, and as it got going the crowds from each side shouted slogans and made us wonder if there was going to be a riot (of which the Indians seem to have quite a lot…). Closing time came, and with a lot of guard’s feet stamping, leg shaking and shenanigans that could have inspired the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks, the two countries exchanged dirty looks and slammed the gates to nearly off their hinges.
Built as a mausoleum for his third wife, the love of his life, who died whilst giving birth to his 14th child, Emperor Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal was destined to be a highlight of our trip to India. There are some things that you have to see for yourself because photos just don’t do them justice, the Taj Mahal is one of those things. Upon entering the walled defences, the first glimpse of the magnificent, shiny marble building is breathtaking. Not only was it a work of love (twenty two years in the making), it is a work of art and genious, symmetrical in as many ways as possible. There was even meant to be a matching black marble Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river for the king to be buried in, but his son decided his dad was being a fool spending too much money, and instead placed him next to the queen inside the white Taj, destroying the symmetry of it all.
We may not have got up early enough to see the Taj at sunrise but I still think it was worth the early start since as we were leaving (9am-ish) the sun was already becoming fiendishly hot and the crowds were beginning to swarm!
Several hours later we were back in Delhi, this time in the suburb of New Delhi which was a world away from the Old Delhi we had experienced two days ago. Suddenly there was order, wide roads and pavements, well kept parks and fancy buildings. Finally we could see the influence of the good old Brits and their empiring days.
We boarded our train bound for Amiritsar and found something that the Indians do far better than the Brits. Our ten pound, five hour train journey included being served with a whole manner of free meals from afternoon tea, dinner and ice-cream. It felt like we were travelling in style, I think British rail should take note!
Side two of the golden triangle completed, and we’re in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Alas, it’s a Friday though and the Taj Mahal is closed, could be as it’s got a Mosque, but I reckon it’s so the marble tourist tat sellers can rope you in. Our guide took us around the Agra Fort, home to the king of the day, and similar to the Jaipur fort, with it’s various concubine passageways and public dispute courts. The Agra fort also has a couple of marble thrones overlooking the river, so we had a rest and felt like kings for a few minutes.
As a consolation for not being able to go to the real Taj Mahal today, we visited the Mini Taj, another mausoleum in Agra in a similar style to the Taj Mahal, just smaller, and the resting place of some relative to the queen in the big version. There’s obviously something about that family and big graves!
There was a definite feeling of us being in Agra during the off season. The restaurants were empty, with one owner even showing us a window through to his kitchen to prove how clean it was, but all it did was scare us slightly and made us move on to the next place.
Chaos only starts to describe Delhi’s roads, horns are permanantly beeping, for no particular reason or effect. The drive on the left rule seems to just be a suggestion, as do most other traffic rules. Two lanes become three or four when human, horse or ox pulled karts need to be passed. Cows nonchalantly chew the cud in the central reservations of motorways, or when they’re not slowly wandering across lanes of swerving cars and trucks, take a nap in the middle of the road (yes, motorway traffic deftly avoids peacefully sleeping cows…). It’s easy to see why when you rent a car, you also get a driver included, and from the back of our air-conditioned cocoon we watched in awe as the cows, monkeys, pigs, camels, multi-coloured overladen trucks and buses with people on top go by.
The first part of our Indian tour is the golden triangle, Delhi to Jaipur then Agra to see the Taj Mahal and back to Delhi. Jaipur is home to the Amber Palace, a 500 year old sprawling palace that puts most British palaces to shame. Amongst other features were hammocks in every conceivable place, and an elaborate system to ensure that no two of the kings 12 wives or hundreds of concubines visited him at the same time. It was obviously difficult to entertain oneself in the days before TV!
After a delicious Indian lunch (i.e. curry), where we learnt not to order so much just because it’s cheap and tasty, we headed for the present day king’s palace. As we reached the gate, a little turban clad man whipped the top off a straw basket to reveal a cobra, and played his flute to charm the snake. He beckoned us closer, saying that the snake wasn’t poisonous. Closer up, the snake didn’t look so charmed at all, in fact he looked quite irate, proved as he lashed out at the charmer as I walked away.
Jaipur’s streets were still Delhi-esque, but the hotel proved to be a little oasis. Marble floors and a bizarre array of rooms, corridors, and roof-top dining gave the place character. As we sipped our beers, a safe 3 floors above the muddy noise filled streets, we watched monkeys leaping between buildings, pinching laundry as they went. This is more like the India we expected!
So many people had warned us about the culture shock we should expect from India that we felt we were prepared. However, I don’t think you can ever be prepared for Delhi and today we found ourselves slap bang in the middle of the ‘real’ Delhi. We emerged from our hotel this morning and weren’t sure if we had inadvertantly walked into a war zone or the aftermath of an earthquake. The streets were filled with rubble and rubbish, many buildings were just shells and the people looked just as dazed and confused as we felt. On top of all that a mist, or smog, hung over the city which made us wonder if all this was a dream.
After wandering around aimlessly for a bit, wondering where on earth we were, we caught an autorickshaw to what we hoped would be ‘civilisation’. We found the Indian equivalent of Starbucks and planned our next move over coffee.
That move involved a travel agent, a substantial amount of money and a promise that the next ten days were accounted for! With just half a day to explore Delhi, we began with the surreal experience of the metro, think London underground but with security scanners, frisk searches and then queues for the push into sardine formation on the train.
Alighting from the train we had no clues as in which way to go in search of the red fort (I know we’re freshies but I swear there is no order, rhyme or reason to this city!) so we just followed the crowds and hoped for the best. Luckily our plan worked, the red fort was in sight (it was just as well that the red fort was unmissable – being big and red and all).
I’ve read somewhere that India is an assault on the senses and the short walk to the fort had them all (I will spare you the graphic and mind scarring details)
The red fort itself was a bit of a dreach and dismal affair, not helped by the rain, our jet lag and the fact that we didn’t understand what we were looking at. It was also very unnerving to be so openly stared at and followed around, we were even asked several times if we would mind having our photos taken.
It wasn’t long before we had had enough and so returned to the metro to make our way back to the hotel for a bit of a snooze. By the time we exited the underground station the monsoon rain had begun in earnest. We seemed to spend hours wading around in dirty puddles and streams up and down various back street alleys, in serious danger of losing our rag (especially when a ‘helpful’ local felt the need to point out to us that it was the rainy season!) before we finally found our hotel. A beer, a curry and some serious sleep and we will be ready to brave Delhi again in the morning.
A day of airports and flights was not going to be the most exciting, but at least all the flight times were civilised, and allowed us to have a breakfast before heading off. Pretty much the main excitement of the trip was forcing ourselves to spend some tax refund money at Singapore airport (Caroline got stamps, I got blank DVDs, the sunglasses with built in camera and MP3 player were a tad too expensive). That, along with having front row seats on the plane to Delhi with lots of legroom and fancy on demand flight entertainment, only unusual as it’s the first Singapore Airlines flight where the TV worked.
We’d arranged to be picked up from the airport by our hotel, but then so had everyone else, which meant there were hundreds of notices with names on, except ours. An hour later we’d worked out there was another exit, found our lift to the hotel, and either we were very tired, or there was a rather large elephant walking down the motorway. What does India have in store for us?