Hey guys, check out this amazing write-up of our Solo Travellers trip to Incredible India, by the lovely Kate Charlton.
I have arrived in Delhi. It’s Saturday morning, I’ve just come off an overnight flight and it is HOT. Befuddled by tiredness, and trying not to think too much about just how far from home I am, I make my way through Delhi airport and find that it really is true what they say about India and bureaucracy. I have to queue to show my passport, my visa (and obtaining that to start with was no mean feat), have my fingerprints taken and everything is thoroughly scrutinised. I then have it all stamped by an official, before I join a new queue to show all the stamps and paperwork to another official in order to be allowed out of the airport. I consider asking why, when the man over there just checked it all, but decide against it.
Outside the main doors I’m incredibly glad to see a driver holding a board with my name on it – he takes my bag, expresses surprise that that’s all there is (I’m just going to get all the smugness out of the way here – yes, I travelled for two and a half weeks on hand luggage. All 7kg-and-a-handbag of it.) We set off into the early city morning and I feel like I need several more sets of eyes to take everything in – the colour, the people, the buildings, the sheer, well, differentness of it all. We whiz past tuktuks, and entire families piled on motorcycles, carts stacked high being pushed or pulled by wiry little men, lush gardens, huge ornate buildings behind high walls, and stalls which appear to consist of a tarpaulin leaning on sticks.
Just as I’m getting used to it all and wondering how much further the hotel is, the car pulls up and what looks like a rather nondescript building in a busy street. How appearances can be deceptive! I had not one but two people to show me to my room – one to lead the way and one to carry my bag. My room had a bed so huge I could lie across it and not touch either side and buttons with which to call the concierge. My bathroom had not one but two showers. I certainly never wanted for fruit bowls, bottles of chilled water, plates of biscuits or newspapers as they all arrived over the course of the day. Feeling a bit overwhelmed with it all, I crash out.
That evening, and not for the first time on this trip, the mind-bogglingly huge gap between the well off and the incredibly dirt-poor in India was brought home to me. I was sitting waiting for the others to be ready, dressed for dinner and reading the Hindustan Times while eating some cumin biscuits which had just been brought for me, when I heard a noise outside and looked out. I realised some children were living under a plastic sheet. Kids, living in an alley, and their home was a bit of plastic. It makes you re-visit your priorities, I can tell you.
Early Sunday morning which you can tell because the traffic is moving, unlike every other day of the week or time of day. I have *never* seen traffic like I did in India. There might be two marked out lanes, but usually there would be at least three, if not four, actual streams of traffic, all weaving in, out and around each other jostling to be at the front. Indicators were almost universally replaced by the horn, as were brakes and, well, everything else. Indian traffic lights count down to a green light which doesn’t help; the shortest period of measurable time is that between a green light and the cacophony of honking (not to mention the jostling to the front – right of way is based on who got there first) beginning. Most, but by no means all, traffic went in a similar direction but should it be more convenient to travel on the wrong side of the road (as our tuk tuk did that evening) then so be it! Crossing the road on foot required a deep breath, sharp reflexes and the assumption that drivers will at least try to avoid you. The central reservations are usually full of people which makes the whole thing even more hair-raising as everyone is trying to change places with those going in the opposite direction, without anyone getting knocked off the island and into the traffic.
We all went out for lunch (very much pleased to see paneer – it’s one of my very favourite things but can be hard to find in Indian restaurants at home. Here there are always many forms of it to choose from, not to mention vegetarian food being as standard as meat dishes which was really good to see). Our first proper visit: Gandhi Smriti, formerly Birla House, where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. He stayed here when he visited Dehli and was shot on his way to offer evening prayers – the house and grounds are now a museum.
Sunday morning, and we’re off to Jama Masjid, a Mosque built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who got a fair amount of building work done, as he also had the Red Fort and Taj Mahal built) and which is big enough to accommodate 25,000 people. It’s very very hot and we women are required to wear very fetching (and very synthetic, thus adding to the general heat) smock dresses. We all also have to take off our shoes – I have tiny feet so after several attempts to walk in the one-size-fits-clown-feet slippers provided, I go barefoot which, given the heat, is less than ideal but more so than falling on my face. One thing that very quickly becomes apparent is our novelty value as foreigners – to start with I thought the people holding out their camera and gesturing wanted me to take a photo of them, but as soon as I nodded I was immediately surrounded by the entire group who all wanted a picture with me. It was the same for all the others in my group, and most odd. Is this how celebs feel? Our guide later explained that Indian tourists in Delhi may well have come from rural areas where they’ve never really seen white or black people before, so we were a novelty. My having red hair and freckles definitely seemed to be the cause of much staring, which is another thing: at home, we have it drilled into us from an early age that it’s rude to stare or point, but there’s none of that here. If someone wants a good look at you then they will, and they’ll probably point you out to their friends and family too.
Setting off for a rickshaw ride around the bazaars of Chadni Chowk, the busiest market area in Old Delhi, and the strength of the men who peddle us around these crowded lanes is seriously impressive. Raquel and I wedge ourselves in and, holding tight (no seatbelts!) as we jolt over a selection of Delhi’s potholes, we scoot past stalls selling drinks, cut fruit and scented flowers, metal workshops making everything and anything, and cart after cart of street foot which all smells amazing but I have no idea what any of it is. We rattle down alleyways filled with people studiously ignoring the staring tourists, and dodging carts and bicycles coming the other way. Despite the speed and lack of space, no-one ever seems to hit anything and there is certainly not the road rage that this would instill back home! One of our party was being hassled for money here, something I found very hard to say no to when I was so painfully aware of their poverty and my comparative wealth. On this occasion it was a woman asking, but often it was little children, filthy, barefoot and literally wearing rags; a Dickens novel made real. Awful as it was to see, the even sadder truth was that most of them are trafficked, abducted and/or drugged, and working for gangs. It would have been nice to think that a 10 rupee note was 10 pence to me but a meal to a starving child, but in reality the money would go to the gangmaster sitting round the corner in his expensive car. Having to say no and avoid even looking at them in order to be left alone (saying anything else or catching their eye was a fast route to being followed all the way down the street with several of them tugging your clothes) was just awful.
In the midday sun, we arrive at Humayun’s Tomb and I tell you something, they don’t half go in for a mausoleum here. Built in the 1500s for the second Mughal emperor and now a Unesco World Heritage site, it’s HUGE. It’s incredibly elegant and one of the first buildings (apparently) to be built of the sandstone that appears everywhere. It’s also set in beautiful quiet gardens where it was really rather nice to loiter in the shade and look at the little things – even the garden birds and plants are different here.
I had ideas of shopping in India being wonderfully cheap and in truth it was, compared to the UK, but I have no doubt that the prices we paid were often much higher than a local would have.
One of the clothes shops. Everything is stacked up, but the shopkeepers will happily pull all of it out to show you if you so much as show a passing interest. Not this colour, madam? No problem, we have 23 more to show you… Or how about a different style? A scarf? A dress? They must spend forever putting it all away again when browsing tourists leave. I can’t even remember how long we were in here – long enough for one of the shopkeepers to go and fetch us drinks, in a rather lower-rent version of the shopping scene from Pretty Woman.
We’re off to Agra, which means a very early start at Delhi station. It’s about 6 in the morning and the first two things that strike me is the sheer number of people sleeping just anywhere – you literally have to step over them as they sleep on the floor resting against any luggage they might have – and the big signs warning tourists never to accept food from anyone offering it as it could be drugged, thus enabling them to be robbed.
Our train has arrived! The sheer size of the Indian rail network is quickly made apparent – every few minutes huge trains rattle in and out on their way to seemingly every corner of the country on journeys that can take days rather than hours. There’s a long list of different classes (none of this Standard and First, there’s Air-conditioned 1st, 2nd and 3rd, non-air conditioned, chair class, executive chair class, sleeper…and that’s before you get to the variation of ladies only carriages) and, when a train arrives, the carriages with booked seats have a list slapped on them by the door showing all the passenger names for that car. We locate our name’s – executive chair class, darling – and hop in.
The clutter of Delhi, and people walking along the railway tracks, gives way to fields as we head away from the city, and I watch the sunrise over farm land. The light in India at sunrise and sunset is just stunning; it has an ethereal quality that bathes everything in a softly beautiful glow. The landscape is surprisingly green, given how hot it is. Through the dawn haze, labourers are ambling to work, livestock wander along and the world seems incredibly peaceful and calm. Gradually, however, the fields begin to fill with buildings again and we have arrived in Agra.
First stop, after dropping our bags at the hotel (and, in my case, a bit of sleep) is Agra Fort. A(nother) Unesco World Heritage site, and built (inevitably) of sandstone, it was the Mughal empire’s stronghold for the hundred years in which Agra was the capital of India. The scale of these forts is amazing, as is just how well they survive, considering they were built in the 1500s.
We’re inside the Musamman Burj, a tower built by Shah Jahan for one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal (for whom the Taj Mahal was also built). ‘Ornate’ doesn’t even begin to cover this, particularly when you consider that the pattern was made by taking semi-precious stones like carnelian, lapis lazuli and mother of pearl, carving them into the right shape of the flower petal or whatever, carving a hole into the marble the same shape and inlaying it. Every single tiny little piece must have taken an age.
We later went to a workshop where the work men are all descendants of the men who worked on the stone work for this and the Taj Mahal. It’s absolutely stunning and the skill that goes into making something so incredibly intricate is just, well, incredible.
Outside the Taj Mahal, having made it through security. Understandably they take this incredibly seriously but it does mean being x-rayed and frisked. And a ride in the world’s hottest bus (essentially an oven on wheels) as non-official vehicles aren’t allowed near it.
The first glimpse. It’s…amazing. I’ve seen lots of pictures – who hasn’t, particularly when the Princess of Wales parked her backside in front of it – but the reality is just breath-taking. What they don’t tell you, and it’s why you should visit at dawn or dusk, is that it sparkles. I’m not quite sure how or why, but it does and it’s…well, I think I’ve run out of words at this juncture. And talking of Diana, you can queue to have your photograph taken on The Diana Seat but you have to hand over a couple of hundred rupees for the privilege. India might be cheap (by Western standards), but you pay for everything…
As the famous story goes, the Taj Mahal was built for Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz. The others must have felt a bit short changed.
First day in Jaipur and we’re into the Pink City itself. This is the Palace of Winds, or Hawa Mahal, that allowed women of the royal palace to see street festivals going on outside without being seen themselves.
We found a fabulous scarf shop in the basement of one of the buildings along the street and went wandering along the road to find a sweet shop. I loved jalebi – which is, effectively, sugar in sweet batter deep fried in sugar and then covered in syrup – before I went but fresh ones are AMAZING. Indian sweets are delicious but so sugary that even looking at the display counter is enough to give you diabetes.
And that was it for Rajasthan – the following morning we flew back to Delhi where my fellow travellers headed home, and I settled in for a 6 hour lay-over before flying to Trivandrum for 5 days at a yoga retreat in Kovalam and then onto Mumbai…
Although I’m writing this nearly six months after I get home, I miss India so much it almost hurts. The people (yes there’s been rudeness from time to time but the vast majority I met showed nothing but friendliness and kindness, and I certainly never encountered any of the hassle that you hear of women getting), the idiosyncrasies, the noise, the beauty, the light, the food, the culture, the colour… I’ve been fortunate enough to visit lots of different places, but this country has really got under my skin, so much so that I’m already planning my return trip.
Hope you enjoyed reading this amazing account of our trip discovering Incredible India and many thanks to Kate Charlton for the write-up and photos!