Well, this blog post is far overdue, but I guess that is par for the course for me. I hope you enjoy.
We started our India travels in Delhi (as almost everyone does). Delhi really surpassed my expectations. Its a city that almost everyone who has visited talks trash about, but that I’ve found surprisingly charming. Yes, there are beggars, touts and trash everywhere. Yes, the cars drive like they are the only ones on the road, the buses don’t seem to see the cars and the Tuk-Tuk drivers seem to have a 6th, 7th and 8th sense about not being flattened by all the other traffic. Yes, its a HUGE city that is entirely too dangerous to navigate on foot. Yes, as a tourist you attract tones of (not always pleasant) attention. But honestly, who cares?
Its Delhi! And boy, you can say what you want about the various empires that ruled this land, but they knew how to show might in stone. And although until the British it was never the capital of any of the hundred ancient empires that ruled this part of the world, it was still important to most of them. It has shops that import goods from all over India. Clothing like you have never seen (but will as soon as I get back). Life size (and larger than life) statues of every Hindu god you have ever heard of. Food that makes almost all the ‘Indian’ food I’ve eaten back home need those quotation marks. Ancient monuments and modern masterpieces of architecture galore. Monkeys and parrots and mynah birds OH MY!
We were quite busy in Delhi, visiting multiple places a day almost every day we were there. I’m not going to use this blog to catalog EVERY site we visit (for that you’ll have to wait till I get my ‘map the ganges’ GIS project up and running), but I wanted to talk about a few of the places we’ve been.
First off, from our first little trip out of the Pahar Ganj area we stayed, the Jantar Mantra (but almost always called the ‘Jantar Mantar’, the Hindi equivalent of ‘Abracadabra’), an ancient observatory that was once in the hinterland, but now occupies a spot in what feels like the center of Delhi near Connaught Place. Built in 1724 (and restored in the early 1900s), the Jantar Mantar is an incredible collection of astrological observatories that look, to the untrained eye, like a series of incredible sculptures (or the craziest climbing jungle gym ever made). This site made a great first place to visit in Delhi. Its an island of calm in a sea of crazy. We got there early, and for the first twenty minutes or so we were only sharing the site with the parrots and the chipmunk looking things we have all around this area. A few more people did show up eventually, including a bunch of local college aged boys who proceeded to gleefully ignore the gates, chains and traffic cones set up to block people from climbing the instruments. Of course, towering over all of these ancient tools were giant apartment blocks and the ever-present Delhi smog.
The Jama Masjid, the Red Fort and the Mosques around Turkmen Gate were all amazing (and all busy and chaotic as well).
The title of ‘favorite site we visited in Delhi’ is tied between Hamuyans Tomb and the Purana Qila. The Old Fort is the only place we went in Delhi that gave SOME idea of what most ancient monuments in India probably looked like before the archeological survey turned them in to well-groomed parks. Although the main buildings are set in carefully tended grounds, the edges are still overgrown and wild, with the crumbling ruins of unidentified building dotting the area. We even found a place to climb the walls to get a view, and found a small cave so overgrown with spiderwebs even Emily wouldn’t go exploring. Hamuyans Tomb is a well tended garden, but since that is what it was designed as it works just fine. The building itself is one of the most imposing structures I have ever seen. Its quite literally breathtaking.
Although we had planned to stay in Delhi until we headed down to Agra the never ending hustle was getting us down, so we decided to take a quick trip to the mountains. We were thinking of taking a train to Haridwar and a bus up to Rishkesh, but a pair of brothers from South Africa suggested taking a ‘tourist’ bus directly to Rishkesh. Unfortunately, the bus ran its air conditioner non-stop the entire ride, keeping the air somewhere in the low 50s to high 40s. It was very VERY cold. So of course me and Emily both got a bit sick. That aside, Rishkesh was gorgeous. We stayed accross the Ganges near Lakshman Jula, and there are virtually no vehicles on this side. After the sounds of Delhi, I don’t think I’ll ever think of silence quite the same way again. The guest house we stayed at had a nearly western style mattress, food was super cheap everywhere and the Ganges itself was incredibly peaceful. Although we didn’t stay in an Ashram they all had posters up advertising what they offer. Rooms for under 200rs a night were common, including all the yoga/meditation/music classes you want. All in all Rishkesh struck me as a great place to toss your watch and calendar out and let the days flow by. We also went on an ‘elephant safari’ that turned out to be a jeep trip in to the hills NEAR the park with wild elephants, but not in it (the park was closed). I know the tour operators can’t control the park being closed, but letting us know what we were paying for would have been nice. Still, it was very very nice getting out of a city for a bit.
Next up was Agra. Since our first day here I had heard people talk about how aggressive the touts and junk-sellers were in Agra, and boy were they not kidding. You couldn’t go 50 feet without someone trying to sell you something. Luckily we found a driver we quite liked early on, and he gave us rides everywhere we wanted to go at almost totally reasonable prices. He also managed to find me an antique shop (a true rarity in India), albeit one with most items priced fairly far out of my available spending limit. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the stuff you can buy here if you have the cash. Anyone need an antique moghul shield made out of rhino skin and jade?
But of course, the real star of Agra isn’t the antique shops. Its the tombs. There is nothing I could say about the Taj Mahal that would add to the existing literature talking about it, but I will say that it lives up to (and exceeds) all the hype. In addition to the Taj we also visited some other amazing sites, including the Tomb of I’timād ud-Daulah, aka the ‘Baby Taj’. Although the sheer size and grandeur of the Taj Mahal is overwhelming, as far as intricacy goes I’m not sure if I have ever seen a building quite like this one. The amount of man-hours needed to create such a structure just boggles my mind. We also got to visit the Sloth Bear rescue facility run by Wildlife SOS, but I’m sure Emily will be writing a whole post on that soon.
After Agra it was a short (and bumpy) ride to Fatehpur Sikri where we decided to stay for a few days.
Fatehpur Sikri is quite an amazing site, a well preserved Moghul city on the hill, with a modern village still alive down below. It gives the best sense of the pomp and splendor of that time that I have seen so far. We spent a few days exploring the area, and another few too sick to do anything but feel wretched.
After Fatehpur Sikri it was on to the state I have most been looking forward to; Rajasthan!! The place of legendary cities, tales of bravery that make you question their validity, forts that tower over desert landscapes and the place that even Indians call ‘the real India’.
Our first stop in Rajasthan was the bird park at Bharatpur. Lots of websites had said the Monsoon was bad this year, so I figured there wouldn’t be too many birds. BOY was I wrong. There are huge regional variation in the monsoon rains, and Bharatpur got LOTS of rain this year. You could have swum the length of the park. Unfortunately for the town, many people canceled their trips when they heard about the lack of rain, but this was nice for us as we had the park virtually to ourselves (minus the hordes of Indian school-kids on one day).
As a day trip from Bharatpur we took a very long one hour bus ride to Deeg, an amazing water palace. Deeg is the first palace we visited that still had its original furnishings. BOY did these Maharajas know how to spend money.
In Bharatpur itself we stayed in a small homestay, where the best part about the place was the fact that all the meals were home-cooked by the owners wife. One night there was a festival and she gave us some of the food she had cooked for the family. I thought I knew what spicey was. I was wrong!
After Bharatpur we moved on to Sawai Madhopur and Rathambore National Park, one of the best places in India to see tigers. Due to recent problems with scalping they have made it so you have to buy tickets in person (with the line starting at 3am!!). So of course after two relatively expensive and hassle filled safaris, we didn’t see any tigers. We did see lots of other wildlife (including some nasty looking crocodiles), some incredible scenery and one of the nicest forts I’ve ever seen. Just outside of town there was an INCREDIBLE collapsing tomb that I really wanted to visit. It was about a one minute walk from the highway. When I asked a local if it was okay to walk up to it (not wanting to trespass or anything), he told me it was a ‘tiger house’ and that I couldn’t go there. I assumed he was either lying or simply wrong. After asking a few more people, it turns out the tigers regularly show up in town, and that one in particular loves to hang out in that tomb. Having to worry about wild tigers one minute walk from a major road is an interesting adjustment to have to make. All in all it was a great place to spend a few days.
After Rathambore it was on to Jaipur for Diwali, the Hindu ‘Festival of Lights’. Everyone says Jaipur is one of the best cities for Diwali, and although I don’t have a basis to judge it on its hard to disagree. It seemed like almost every building in town had LED lights strung up, and the fireworks didn’t stop for three solid days. And I mean that. 2AM? The sound of fireworks. 2PM? Yeah, same sound. You wouldn’t believe the intensity of fireworks they let children buy here. Even aside from the insanity of Diwali, Jaipur is an interesting town. The old city is one of the oldest master-planned communities in Asia, with wide streets that are now used as 165 lane highways (no, not really, that is just how people drive here….). It has a reputation as the place with the best shopping in India, but I think that is with the unspoken qualifier ‘if you are rich as hell and like fancy doo-dads’. The Hawa-Mahal is all its reputation would lead you to believe, and the monkey temple is interesting if nothing else (and a long long walk….). Personally I thought the best part of Jaipur was Diwali!
Well, that sums up our first month in India! I hope you enjoy the pictures!
I’ll try to update this blog more regularly, but man, I ALWAYS say that about blogs I start…..