Monday, 10 December 2012

From the national capital to the Rajasthani capital

Sunday 18 November
We touch down in Delhi in the early hours. During the taxi ride to our guest house (at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, incidentally), we quickly familiarise ourselves with the Indian penchant for horn-blowing. In India, you honk to warn fellow drivers of your presence, you honk to tell them to get out of the way, you honk to say thank you, you honk to acknowledge someone else's honk. Or you honk just to pass the time of day. Or night. In short, honking is a fundament part of Indian etiquette.

Rikshaw ride on Chandni Chowk
After a short sleep, our driver and tour guide take us into the heart of Old Delhi. We visit India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, before embarking on a walking tour of the old town. Given our slightly jetlagged state, it's a stroke of luck that we are there on a Sunday. Otherwise the already bustling streets would be twice as busy. Old Delhi is extremely interesting assault on the senses. Although most traders are closed for the day, there is still plenty to observe. A rikshaw ride takes us along Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's main thoroughfare. Our rikshaw driver puts his back into it. Fifty rupees is the going rate - a pittence by Western standards.

New Delhi could not be more different. Wide, long avenues and imposing buildings. The Gate of India and the seat of government are impressive and imposing - both hallmarks of Lutyen's Delhi.

To experience something different, we ask our driver to take us to the Lotus Temple - an iconic building and calm, peaceful and welcoming venue, regardless of religious preference.

From a culinary perspective, we discover the delights of pav bhaji and the humble dosa - both at down-to-earth but reliable eateries just off Connaught Place.

Monday 19 November
Our driver takes us down the recently built Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Agra. The motorway is relatively deserted; apparently, the tolls are a little on the pricey side by local standards.

We are acutely aware of the difference in Indian and Western spending power throughout our India trip, not least in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. To put it mildly, Agra itself is a bit of a dive. We were warned of this before flying out to India, but nothing really prepares you for the reality. The comparative comfort of our hotel, set away from downtown Agra in its own self-containing gardens, only serves to reinforce this impression.

Part of Agra Fort
Although it was in the large cities of Delhi and Mumbai that we encountered child beggars, a noticeable lack of prosperity was evident in Agra compared to elsewhere. You and I might not call it "poverty" as such; most people, after all, seemed to be going about their business like in any other city. Our view was based, rather, on the local infrastructure such as roads, buildings, etc. Put simply, Agra looked in a shabby state. Apart from its obvious tourist attractions, the town seemed to have little going for it. Little wonder that the preferred backpacker option for Agra tends to be the daytrip from Delhi - much along the lines of: "get in and get out as quickly as possible".

In the late afternoon, we visit Agra Fort, before viewing one of the world's most famous buildings briefly at sunset from the northern side of the River Yamuna. We will visit it properly the next morning.

Tuesday 20 November
As birthday presents go, visiting the Taj Mahal has to be the best ever. All the superlatives you may have heard or read are true.

There it is
After leaving Agra behind, our driver begins the five-hour journey to Jaipur in Rajasthan. We break up this road trip with a detour to the abandoned city of Fatepur Sikri and a subsequent stop for lunch at a highway restaurant amply frequented by pink-skinned tourists such as us.

A word on our travel arrangements. During our time in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, we had asked a tour agency ("Delhi Magic") to arrange a driver and three different guides to show us around the three respective cities. As complete novices, we thought this level of organisation would offer us a gentle introduction to India before we were left to our own devices in Mumbai and Goa. Thankfully, this arrangement worked a treat. Our driver was excellent and the different guides were very professional and helpful, their knowledge of their respective stomping grounds proving indispensable on various occasions - especially when local hawkers and scam artists were on the prowl.

As in Delhi, our place of abode in Jaipur is an old heritage homestay converted into a guest house. The Barwara Kothi is a beautifully appointed address just outside the centre of town. Judging by the old photographs of maharajas and assorted polo champions on the walls of the staircase and dining room, the family who own and run the place boast their own fair share of Indian blue blood.

Wednesday 21 November
Our driver Mr Singh is a kindly, mellow soul. More importantly, he is very good at what he does. We feel totally at ease in the back seat of his Toyota Innova. This is not something to be taken for granted, given how frightening roads can be in India (e.g. cars randomly driving in the opposite direction, cyclists riding along the hard shoulder, cattle grazing on the edge of the road or crossing en mass...). The journey to Jaipur is unforgettable in that respect.
Jal Mahal

Although the capital of Rajasthan is a sprawling city of three million, it feels almost intimate. Spread out in a sensible grid system, the old town has surprisingly orderly appearance. One particular city-centre avenue even has diagonal parking along both its sides - reminiscent of numerous market towns in the UK. Although nicknamed the "Pink City", many of the old town's signature buildings are more reddish ocre than pink.

The Amber Fort proves memorable. This is followed by a visit to a Hindu temple, lunch opposite the (unfortunately inaccessible) Jal Mahal water palace, and an afternoon spent at, firstly, the Jantar Mantar Astronomical Observatory, and secondly, the impressive City Palace complex.

Jaipur is an attractive city and well worth a visit. Within a day, we merely skim the surface of what the place has to offer. If we ever return to India, we may well travel there again.

Thursday 22 November
What better way to celebrate Mrs Jones' birthday than with an hour-long elephant safari? I think it's safe to say that my wife was looking forward to riding on an elephant more than anything else on our holiday. Wish accomplished. This little extra was prepaid and included in the tour we had booked.

After the ride, we sit in the shade and eat an ample buffet spread laid out for us and other visitors. Then it's off to the airport, where we bid farewell to Mr Singh. Next stop Mumbai.

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