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Stumbling Along After a few years or travelling and then a couple years of settling down in Sweden, I'm back on the road. 7 mths or maybe forever, in South Africa, the Seychelles, India, Nepal, SE Asia...

Recap of our first week in India

INDIA | Friday, 28 February 2014 | Views [1050]

As with most people who first arrive in India, I was prepared to be blown away by bright colored Saris, spice-laden food and a culture as vibrant and rich as both. However, as with most people, upon arriving in Delhi my first thought was OH GOD GET ME OUT OF HERE!

A cluttered chaos of sounds, smells (some good, but most bad), honking horns, begging children, scamming tour agents and a chill that was amplified times 10 in our hotel room, Delhi was an assault to all my senses and a  jump into an ice bath of culture shock.  I have never been a fan of crowded cities, and have felt similarly disenchanted by Bangkok and Cairo. But I also knew that Delhi was a necessary stop, where we could recharge our batteries and get some much needed internet to plan our trip. I will say that the Red Fort, India Gate and Lotus temple were worth seeing, but a quick one day tour of the sights is more than enough. Like most big cities, the key is to take your time and explore, ignore the touristy sites and just spend your time exploring the city, small markets, shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and just getting lost in the city and seeing where it takes you. We unfortunately didn't have time or energy for that, and therefore used Delhi as a base to plan our trip and gain our bearings.  So, if you have more time, I'm sure Delhi has quite a lot to offer. We did have a bit of time to meet with a friend of a friend of Mikko's, and he took us to a great Raggae bar on the south side of town which had great music and dancing, delicious chicken strips and some overly priced rum and ginger ales.

We came to India with no real plans and just a loose idea of places we wanted to visit based on a 2 hr stint of internet research we crammed in between working 50 hr weeks and trying to tie up all our loose ends in Sweden. With an unspecified amount of time on our hands and bank accounts still fairly well stocked, we wanted to leave our plans open and just 'go with the flow'. Well our flow hit a dam. I was warned that tickets for trains need to be booked in advance, but thought surely there were ways around that. We wanted to spend  a couple weeks exploring Rajasthan by train and bus and sat down with a map to try and figure it all out. We checked erail.in for train availability and it said that we would need to wait 5 days to get a train out of Delhi to Bikaner, and the thought of 5 more days in Delhi was not appealing.

As with anyone staying in Paharganj, the crowded backpacker slum near the main baazar, we were constantly approached by tour operators offering a private car and driver tour around Rajasthan to avoid the hassle of trains and buses. We were skeptical at first, but after some research, it seemed like this could very well be our best option to get out of Delhi asap. While I had imagined long train rides with scenic views of the Rajasthani countryside, the reality is that you very rarely have a window seat, the trains are often delayed or canceled and you are a slave to their preset timetables and destinations. With a car and driver, we could stop where we wanted to stop, enjoy driving through the countryside and small villages and avoid dealing with overly aggressive rickshaw and taxi drivers at each destination we visited. After checking out a few and being less than impressed by the prices, we were approached by a tour agent from Invicta Tour N Travel. We were pleasantly surprised when the price was 10,000 rupees lower than the cheapest offer we'd heard and they had books and books filled with handwritten reviews from past customers. The total cost for car, driver, accommodation, all gas and taxes-tolls, tiger safari, elephant ride and overnight desert camel safari and train ticket to Mumbai was 27,300 rupees ($440) per person for 16 days. We took a day to think it over, and then decided to give in and book through them. So far, it looks like we made the right choice.

AGRA

We headed out to Agra with our driver Bisham - a man small in stature, but with the biggest, whitest smile almost always plastered on his face - early in the morning. The rain that had plagued us in Delhi was finally letting up, but the sky was thick with fog. We heard from Mikko's brothers that when they went to see the Taj Mahal the previous year, they couldn't even see the building because the fog was so thick. I spent the entire ride hoping that we would be spared that misfortune, but the more we drove the thicker the fog became. At one point the visibility was down to about 10 meters. Luckily as the afternoon hit, the sun finally burned away the last of the mist and by the time we got to Agra at around 3:00 in the afternoon the sky was clear and the sun was shining.

We decided to relax at the hotel, grab a bite to eat and head out to the Taj Mahal near sunset. We were a bit worried when we saw the huge line, but were quickly ushered to the empty tourist line where we got our ticket immediately, and then were given complimentary water and shoe covers for entering the mausoleum. I would strongly suggest going early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the light was great at sunset and there were not many foreign tourists. You pay about 20 times as much for a foreign ticket, but the perk is that you get to go to the front of all the lines.

This place was more beautiful than we had imagined. So, no matter how touristy it seems, it's worth a visit.

ENTERING RAJASTHAN

After the crowds and congestion (most of which was in my lungs due to all the smoke, smog and dust) in Delhi and Agra, once we rode between the two pillars marking the border of Rajasthan it felt like I could finally breathe both literally and figuratively. The world opened up into green fields dotted with the bright red, yellow and orange Saris worn by the women working in the fields. The countryside is village after small village with brightly colored markets, cows, goats and pigs, children playing in the streets, teenagers playing cricket with makeshift wickets and men chatting (and napping, lots of men napping) with cups of Masala chai in hand.

This was the India I had been waiting for. But, it wouldn't be fair to say that this is the real India. India is just as much the fancy suburbs, nightclubs, and high end fashion in Delhi as it is the filthy streets of Paharganj and the lazy countryside villages in Rajasthan. I appreciate all it's many parts, enjoy exploring and experiencing all it's different sides, but prefer the more laid back feel of Rajasthan to the suffocating chaos of Delhi.

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK

Shafi from Invicta told us that we would only need 1 night in Ranthambore, but excited by the idea of exploring the national park, we told him to book us in for 2. As soon as we pulled onto the main (and only) road with nothing but mostly run down hotels and some higher end resorts, we realized that he may have known what he was talking about. Turns out not only is there nothing to do in the area around Ranthambore, but you can only enter the park through one of the tiger safaris. We were booked for a tiger safari the next morning that would be finished by 10:30, so we told Bisham to cancel the second night and head straight to Jaipur after the safari was over.

Not much to say really about the park or the safari. We woke up at 5:45am for a 6:30 pick-up that eventually showed up around 7:15. We were the last ones to climb into the  canter (an open jeep that seats 20 people). It was freezing outside, and though we'd bundled up in anticipation, once the canter got moving down the road to the park we were borderline hypothermic. All the other guests had been given blankets by their hotel, but our hotel seemed to have thought that since we were from Sweden we would be fine without them.

The park was unexceptional, we saw boar and deer, a crocodile, stags, boars and more deers. But no tigers :(. Our tour guide didn't seem to be too worried about our disappointment, since he spent the majority of the tour faced backward looking at us or talking to the driver instead of trying to spot us a tiger.

JAIPUR

The pink city, Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan. The city got it's name from the pink color used on all the buildings in the old town. It has a couple million people and all the colors, sounds and smells that characterize an Indian city, but was noticeably more relaxed than Delhi. The Old City is filled with markets separated by the wares they sell (food, blue pottery (a local speciality), gems, fabric, kitchenware, etc). I read that Jaipur was a city struggling to keep up with it's growing population, but compared to what I'd seen elsewhere, it seemed to be doing alright.

Our hotel was 8km outside the city in Amer (Amber), a small town famous for it's palace and fort. The Amber Palace was by far one of the highlights. We took a 15 minute elephant ride up to the top. I was hesitant about the elephant ride, because I know that the animals are often abused and overworked. But some research showed that these elephants are well cared for. You can take a tour and see where the elephants live and how they are cared for through Elefantastic, an initiative started in 2012 by a veteran elephant driver to allow tourists to do more than just ride the elephants but learn about them and how they are taken care of. Once at the top, you can explore the many courtyards of the palace and enjoy the views of surrounding mountains and the fortress wall that snakes around them to protect the village nestled in the valley below.

Another highlight of Jaipur was the Peacock roof restaurant. Located in the new part of the city, it is brightly decorated with lights, plants, flowers and shrines, with a giant peacock canopy covering its lounge area. The food was great. Mikko had the Laal Mass, a deep red lamb curry that is the specialty of Rajasthan. The price was great, the service was great, the food was great. It was definitely worth the hassle we had to go through with Bisham to convince him to drive us the 35 minutes to get there.

Since I have been slacking on my blogging, this is all a bit rushed. But, I just wanted to give you all a little heads up on what we've been up to until now. I'm going to be better about writing posts and trying to fill them with more interesting stories and less rambling recaps.

Tags: forts, india, rajasthan, taj mahal

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