Updated: Mar 29, 2019
This trip took place in August and September 2007. It was at the tail end of the rainy season and there were still occasional (very) heavy storms in the northern lowlands. Humidity was a problem - temperatures were constantly between 30-40 C°. It was, in general, a pretty good time to go though - shoulder season, low tourist numbers in most places and no need to book ahead. Very little has changed in India in the intervening years in terms of what you will experience as a budget traveller. It's still a mostly safe country, it's still a bargain (although perhaps slightly less of one) and it's still a maddening, frustrating, dazzling and indescribably visceral experience: an attack on the senses indeed - every single one of them. India is a country which has a lasting impact on you, and is probably the most life-changing country there is to visit. I haven't been back since I went there eleven years ago, although I have been to the "India lite" country at its southern tip, Sri Lanka. (Another blog...) In the four or five weeks my girlfriend at the time and I had, we chose to divide the holiday between the heat of the plains and the cool of the mountains: the first part in Delhi, Agra and the cities of Rajasthan, and the second, a journey through the Himalaya foothills - winding up through Chandigarh to Shimla, then a loop through Himachal Pradesh and the Spitti Valley to Manali, before descending via Dharamshala to Delhi and flying home. It was, in its way, a classic trip - and one I'd very highly recommend, especially if you, like me, are a first-time visitor to India.
Getting to Delhi
India still isn't a straightforward country to go to; you need a visa. And it's not one you can just get over the counter or on arrival. We had to post our passports to a friend living in Warsaw (we live in Poland) and then get her to take them in person to the Indian Consulate. 220zł ($70) each: relatively pricey too. We then had to go back a week or so later to pick them up, also in person. As we were flying from Warsaw to India with Finnair (2200zł or $700 return), we killed two birds with one stone by picking the passports up the day before we were due to fly and decided to meet a friend for a night out there. We started the trip one Friday in the middle of August. An express train to Warsaw and a taxi to the Indian consulate to pick up the passports and visas in the generous window alloted between 4.30 and 5pm. I'd been sweating a bit that we wouldn't be granted them for some reason but we were swiftly in and out of the building and ready to enjoy a night out in the Polish capital. Flight next day at 10am, Warsaw-Helsinki, then a quick turnaround before boarding the Helsinki-Delhi flight. Clear mostly and good view of the Baltic Sea, which you fly over in about five minutes. Finland looks like a huge expanse of trees and lakes from above, which I suppose it is on the ground. Very pleasant. I read in an in-flight magazine that there's a lake for every Finn, which I think may be an exaggeration, but not much of one. The flight to Delhi took about six and a half hours. This, compared to some of the longer trips I've done recently, pales somewhat, but for some reason in those days I got very nervous flying so it felt a lot longer. Fairly featureless countries (from above) flown over during daylight - European Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. We'd probably have caught a bit of the western Himalyas, but we were flying towards the darkness and caught up with it at some point before we reached them. We did see what remains of the Aral Sea though - a huge, endless expanse of what look like dry mudflats, bordering on desert - I would never have worked out exactly what they were if not for the in-flight map. A sad sight - I remembered pictures of stranded boats in the midst of nothing - truly surreal. A monument to Soviet Russia if ever there was one. We arrived in Delhi at 11.30pm after coming through some extreme turbulence. The plane seemed to take a lifetime to descend, and we were jolted heavily a few times - the sight of forked lightning outside the window did not help my fear of flying. As we landed, the outside temperature was recorded at 30 degrees celsius. I think I'd have been happy if had been -30C - I was just happy to get out of there.
Delhi: wall of heat
I've never been hit by such a wall of heat, at night. Within seconds I was sweating profusely and my shirt was sticking to me. Bags were thankfully there when we came to collect them, which seems to be a blessing these days, especially when you have a connecting flight. As soon as we stepped out of arrivals, we were mobbed. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, beggars. We made straight for the taxi rank and I was determined to get straight out and to the hotel with the minimum of fuss. Of couse, we were in a pretty bad position arriving so late, and in hindsight we should have had a pre-paid cab, but I thought it would be easier and cheaper just to grab a cab outside the airport and go. We tried to do this, but were for some reason led away from the main rank and to a smaller car park, where, after some negotiating, we agreed a price of 350 rupees (about $10) to be taken to our pre-booked hotel in northern Delhi. I was a bit suspicious because there were two guys in the car, so before getting in I made a show of taking the number plate, just in case. The 'fixer', for want of a better word, was kind of friendly, but soon started asking a lot of questions - the kind of questions intended to find out how much of a naive sap you are and how much money can be extorted. ('Is this your first time in this country" is an obvious giveaway when they want to do this). Stupidly though I said yes to this and other questions I should have said no to, and suddenly they had the upper hand. "Do you know exactly where we are going?" I asked. "We can show you on the map if you like." "Oh sir, you know, Delhi is a very big city, we can show you a better hotel if you want, it's closer," to which we obviously said no and then "but sir, it's our responsibility to take you to a good hotel where it's safe" - no, it's ok, we have a nice, safe hotel booked already. "Ok, but at least let us take you to the tourist office where we can check if your reservation is ok" - no, just take us to our hotel. and so on, until eventually they demand double the amount of money originally agreed to take us to where we we want to go because "it's further than we thought". Absolute nightmare, and a good lesson - never get into an unmarked taxi at an airport. One interesting thing about the taxi journey though was seeing how much traffic there was in Delhi at that time of night - like rush hour in Krakow. Oh, that and a couple of lumbering elephants on a roundabout.
Keeping it Civil (Lines)
We eventually got dropped outside a hotel in a run-down backpackers' area (thankfully central) called Paharganj. Hotel Singh. We obviously had severe reservations about staying there, as the drivers would get a commission and although we hadn't spent more than the stipulated 350 rupees to get there, we didn't want to be fleeced here. After some haggling (which caused some of the onlooking staff to stare at us with disapproval), we got a room for 1000 rupees a night. Not too bad, considering. The room was fine, a/c and decent bathroom, but we kept getting bothered every five minutes by waiters outside the door asking us if we wanted a drink, bellboys with towels and even some guy wanting to sell us excursions to Nepal! It was 2am. Eventually we were left alone and able to sleep fitfully in the humid room. Next day we awoke to light drizzle, and as I stepped outside onto the pavement, I was almost run over by a bicycle. Several rickshaws and auto-rickshaws stopped to ask for business and three beggars pursued me for petty cash. It took me five minutes to cross the road and get to a stall selling water, and a further five minutes to get back again. Needless to say, we checked out of Hotel Singh straight after getting my free ten minutes on the internet and discovering Newcastle had fought out drab nil-niller with Villa. After strolling around Paharganj for a few minutes, we were convinced we had to get out and stay somewhere less fraught and tourist-trappish; you couldn't walk five steps without someone saying "Hello my friend...how long have you been in India...where are you going next?" We took an auto-rickshaw out of there, and to a neighbourhood north of the charmingly English sounding Civil Lines which was called Majnu ka Tilla. This was where we originally wanted to be, and turned out to be exactly what we wanted. It's a Tibetan refugee colony and hippy backpacker haven. We headed for 'our' hotel,the well-recommended, inexpensive and friendly Wongdhen House, but it was unfortunately booked out and we ended up in a place a little more unkempt but equally friendly, called Peace House. Despite the odd cockroach wondering around the bathroom, it was fine. Certainly at the price of $10 for a private room. The ambiance of the area was great, and best of all there was a fantastic Tibetan/Chinese restaurant there which sold outstanding food for very little indeed. A terrace which looked out over the river Yamuna and some cows grazing on the rubbish dumps there (it wasn't the most pastoral of views after all), which was the icing on the cake.
Getting around: the road caste system
We took the opportunity to explore Delhi on day two, having acclimatised and found our Indian feet a bit. Not least working out how much taxi and rickshaw fares should be, and which ones are safe. Delhi is a huge sprawling mess. It's all of humanity thrown up into the air and landed in one place. We took a cycle rickshaw from our Tibetan refuge to the metro station, ten minutes distant, and passed by Hindu temples, mosques, Tibetan shanty shacks, market stalls, roadside food vendors and various other random things; cows, strolling down the road lazily as if they were in some Herefordshire field, stray dogs, homeless people kipping by the side of the road and countless rickshaws of all shapes and sizes, mostly chugging haphazardly from left to right across the lanes. The method of driving is insane. Basically, the rules of the road come down to survival of the fittest. There seems to be a pecking order well and truly in place, as in all aspects of Indian society, whereby biggest and meanest wins; smallest and slowest loses. Trucks are on top of the pile, followed by buses, then mini-buses, large, luxury cars, smaller, smarter cars, large, old bangers, small, old bangers, auto-rickshaws and finally rickshaws and poor old cyclists at the bottom of the pile. I would never contemplate doing a cycle trip here. Someone in your way? Would it hurt them more than you in the event of a crash? No problem! Just blare the horn loudly and accelerate until said obstruction makes way. Job done. We came to the metro station, and, feeling a a few pangs of guilt at seeing our driver sweating profusely at the effort of cycling us there (my bulk in 35 degree heat and 90% humidity would be a test for Lance Armstrong), we gave him a modest 20 rupee tip. Well, it would buy him lunch. he seemed pleased at such generosity.
The Metro system in Delhi is great. Modern, clean, air-conditioned and cheap. It's also surprisingly uncrowded, probably because everyone has to do a security check before stepping down the escalators and it would take ages if it was rush hour. The terrorist threat here must be very real though - the dispute over Kashmir still rumbles on. When we surfaced, we were in a Connaught Place. New Delhi as it would like to be seen - cosmopolitan, upmarket, smart and trendy. All office blocks, clothes shops, coffee shops and jewellery boutiques. A good place to see the 'New' Delhi; there seem to be few. Also though, it's a bit dull. It was choked with traffic, and the prospect of finding our way around the huge city with a barely adequate map in searing heat soon had me cursing. Compared to Old Delhi, this was like stepping into a different world though, and brought home the rich/poor gap sharply. We were soon accosted by someone purporting to help us, the pretext being that he'd find us a map; we found ourselves two minutes later in a travel shop, sat in front of a sharp-talking young Delhi-ite with a plan and just the right tourist package for us to see the best of northern India in two weeks. I baulked at this, but he was persistent. As a sweetener, he offered to give us a bargain offer of an afternoon excursion with one of his drivers around Delhi to see the sights for 300 rupees ($8). The plan in his mind was that this would so impress us that we'd sign up to be taken around Rajastan by this driver for the next two weeks. I readily agreed to the bargain sweetener and we 'did' the Delhi sights.
'Doing' Delhi's sights
The sights of Delhi are many, probably the most impressive of which is the Raj-era Red Fort (which we'd seen the previous night in an exhilerating sound and light show but which I'd carelessly fallen asleep during). Its ochre-red sandstone date from the mid-17th century, and it hardly seems to have dated at all. It's probably Delhi's singular most important and arresting monument, and it's worth devoting a couple of hours at least to wander its fortifications and see one or two of the several museums inside. Signage there wasn't great though so if you're pushed for time, seeing the external construction itself is enough. It is at its best at sunset, when the redness of the walls is at its most beautiful. Also, once inside, many areas are controlled by the Indian army and are inaccessible to tourists, so be prepared to be stopped several times by officious and unfriendly authority.
The India Gate (an Arc de Triomphe lookalike), was more or less ticked off our itinerary in a perfunctory way, and although the brickwork is quite impressive, it's too much of a clone to be very impressive. However, the parks surrounding it were extremely nice and worth lazing around in for a while. One, called Lodhi Gardens, contained an incredible Mughal-era mausoleum which was neither labelled or signposted, and seemed to be a bit of a gem of a find since no one appeared to be paying it too much attention. Its crumbling stonework, though, was over three hundred years old, and the sense of history in this quiet, unassuming park was tangible. Very much one worth seeking out. Another monument I'll certainly never forget is Qutb Minar (India's biggest mosque, and the world's tallest mosque made of bricks). It impressed me very much and is obviously a very important shrine and place of worship to Delhi's remaining Muslims - those who stayed after the country was brutally divided into India and east and west Pakistan in 1947. It's a very odd-looking mosque, reminiscent of some of the tapering pillars that you see in parts of central Asia. Design on the 400 year old exterior is exqusitely detailed and the whole thing has been painstakingly restored in recent years. A definite must-see.
The National Museum was our final stop on the whistle-stop half-day bargain bin tour of Delhi. We went prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon there, and we did. Every room has stunning pieces from the long and varied history of the places that make up modern India. Exquisite statues, fine cavings, breath-taking jewellery. These did not disappoint. Everything is helpfully labelled. We took the audio tour too, which added a little to our understanding of what we were seeing. There's no story here, though, no coherent connections between the pieces that tell a story of India and/or its peoples. This is an art gallery with a historical perspective. Also conspicuous by its absence was acknowledgment of Islamic art in India's artistic history: a clue to the way the Hindu-majority Indians think of their northern and western neighbours.
It was all very pleasant, and a nice, relaxing way to see the city with an informed guide. Unfortunately, he was incredibly hard to understand because of his accent, and most of what he said related to something being "very, very expensive". I encountered a new and cunning way to raise/extort money in one of the parks; an aged, smiling man came up to me and introduced himself, shaking hands and being very pleasant, before stating that he was a teacher at an orphanage, and could I please donate some money. Ok, I said, pulling out my wallet, here's 100 rupees.."oh, sir, could you just sign this please? It's just for our records - your name, your address and how much you wish to donate. (as I'm scribbling down my name) ah! I see you're English. We've had some very generous English tourists here today (I scan the list and see a minimum of 2000 rupees by every name)..but it's entirely down to you how much you wish to donate". I quickly thought about this and then came to the conclusion: If everyone gave you 2000 rupees, you could start your own orphanage you lying git. He of course accepted my donation but declined to thank me for it. Back to the holiday salesman. Well, he did his best trying to persuade us to accept his offer, including telling us that we would lose our bags if we travelled by bus or train, we might crash or be murdered (ok the last one isn't true), but we didn't succumb and managed to escape his shop, wallets intact. His offer wasn't too extortionate, but certainly no bargain, and we thought we'd travel like the natives to Agra the next day, and for the rest of the trip - by bus. Oh, how I came to regret that choice..more of that later.
Agra - maddening beauty
"The greatest monument to love ever built", according to Rudyard Kipling. "A teardrop on the face of eternity", according to some Indian poet. Can you tell what it is yet? If you hadn't guessed, it's the Taj Mahal. There is no doubt that it is stunningly pretty, from the outside at least, even when you get close up to it. Over 350 years old and it could have been built yesterday. The marble carvings on the outside are pristine, it shimmers bright white in the dawn light, reflecting wonderfully in the long pool of water that runs for a hundred metres in front of it. You can't stop staring at it and taking pictures of it the entire time you are there. If you can get a shot of it without other tourists getting in the way of course. It truly is an architectural wonder, one of the most incredible follies you will ever see. But, as you get up to it and go inside, you think it is going to be equally awesome. There has to be some divine revelation here, something utterly fantastic and mind blowing. But, there isn't. There's nothing inside. At all. Except a lot of people milling around, looking vaguely disappointed. It's hardly big enough to swing a cat. That because It's basically a mausoleum, a simple Hindu shrine, with little or no decoration, painting or pattern. You just walk in and you're out after about a minute (and half of that is spent shaking off some pernicious tout who wants to describe to you in detail the type of cement used to stick the bricks together for a small fee). Slightly disappointing. I wouldn't have been so unimpressed except it cost 1000 Rupees to get in for foreigners (20 for Indians - my Indian impression did not go down well with the ticket salesman). That's about $20 compared to 10 cents, and an indication of a double-tier pricing system operating at many tourist attractions in India which hardly represents relative earnings.
There is more to Agra than the Taj Mahal, but not much more. We had taken an auto-rickshaw around town the previous day to see the sights, the most impressive of which was called the Red Fort, which was a pretty impressive place and well worth a look around. The Very similar to the identically-named Red Fort in Delhi, both have the same Mughal architecture, structure, nomenclature etc. However Agra Fort is better preserved, and more accessible (as large parts of Delhi Red Fort are held by the Indian Army). I loved strolling its shady stone tunnels and ramparts and taking shots of some beautiful ornate brickwork, not least because it was out of the heat of the sun and away from the touts and hassle on the streets. Another very good idea if you have a bit of time is to cross the river Yamuna that runs through the city (you'll need a rickshaw) and get a view of the Taj Mahal with the river in the foreground. Not only is it much quieter and are you able to take much prettier pictures of the Taj unimpeded by other tourists (sunset is the best time), but you are also likely to meet some interesting 'characters', hippies, and other local types hopeful, no doubt, of getting a few rupees in exchange for an 'authentic' picture of them in front of the Taj Mahal. Our rickshaw driver at the end of the day of course tried to drag us round various jewellery and clothes shops which we certainly did not want to be dragged around, which was a shame as he'd done an otherwise sterling job.
The main problem with Agra is that it's probably the biggest tourist trap in the world. And if it isn't, I have no wish to visit somewhere which is a bigger one. I've seen many more since of course, but there is nowhere quite as sad and desperate as Agra for the sheer number of people on the make from common-a-garden beggars to hawkers, touts, various types of salesmen and rip-off artists, hoteliers, restaurateurs and downright scammers who'd you have to sidestep every minute that you step outside in the city. The town surrounding one of the modern seven wonders of the world is predictably impoverished, so it doesn't make up for it. It's hassle from beginning to end, and, were it not for the unquestionable (external) magnificence of the Taj Mahal, and the impressive Red Fort, I would steer well clear. As it is, I'd advise to try to keep it to a minimum: one or two nights maximum and you'll see what's necessary. Then make for the hills. We did our best to have a nice time though, got a room with a Taj View for less than $10 each, a roof top cafe from which you could enjoy a candle-lit dinner or early dawn breakfast and chilled out whenever possible away from the crowds. But it's basically impossible to feel chilled out in Agra, and it was for the sake of our ever-fraying nerves that we left for Jaipur the next day.
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This blog is part of a series of five on northern India. To see the second part, on some of the great fortress cities of Rajasthan, please go here:
Part 2/5: Jaipur, Pushkar, Chittorghar & Bundhi