Date: October/November 2008
Places visited: Agra, Ramathra, Rathambore, Jaipur, Udaipur, Shimla, Delhi
Overall impression: Where do I start? Overwhelming is the best word. India challenges all senses; sights, sounds and smells and also some sensibilities. It was one of my most memorable trips with images and impressions that will stay with me for a long time.
Agra: A visit to the Taj Mahal is a must for any trip to India. Our guide picked us up at the crack of dawn so we could view it in the early morning light, and it was magical. There is always something special about seeing a place that you have seen so many pictures of, and it doesn’t disappoint. Agra is
also the place where we encountered the most aggressive beggars, and it was a bit like running the gauntlet the last couple of hundred feet, as cars are no longer allowed to drive any closer. When travelling you may often have an amount in mind that you want to spend per night for hotel. Mix it up by splurging for something really special some places, and go for something more modest in other places. Agra was one of our splurges, as we stayed at the beautiful Oberoi Hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal from our hotel room. In the afternoon we saw a demonstration of marble craftsmanship, which is still done with the same tools as when the Taj Mahal was built, and, I suspect, by descendent of some of the same families. We got to try our hand at it, and I can tell you it is very difficult. This demonstration was naturally followed by a trip to the showroom, where you can buy any number of marble object inlaid with stones. We walked in with the idea of buying a small platter as a memento, but, an hour and 4 cups of tea later, we walked out with a 4 by 6 foot marble coffee table with inlaid stones! Talk about impulse buying. It was extremely heavy, but the price included shipment by air to Vancouver, where it now takes pride of place on our patio and gets used to the rain. From Agra we drove 26 miles to visit Fatehpur Sikri, a World Heritage site. It was built over a 15 year period in the late 15 hundreds by the Mughal ruler Akbar as the new capital city, but was abandoned after only a dozen years, when the capital was moved to Lahore in what is now Pakistan. Left behind are wonderful examples of Mughal architecture built of marble and red stone.
Ramathra: From Fatehpur Sikri it was a long day’s drive before we reached the
Ramathra Fort, a century’s old Rajput hill fort still owned by the original rajah’s family and now converted to welcome guests. We stayed in one of the 6 luxury tents inside the fort’s wall. This is a complete change of pace from Agra, as you are in the middle of the peaceful countryside. The owners, a husband and wife, treat you like their private guests and invited us for pre dinner drinks in the garden followed by dinner served under the stars. They will take you on jeep safaris in the countryside or on a boat ride on the nearby Kalisil Lake where you can bird watch, search for crocodile dens and possible crocodile sightings. The remoteness of the fort gives you the ability to walk in the countryside and to learn first hand about village life. It was all a very nice break from the busy urban areas. Since our visit, the fort has completed luxurious bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and private balconies in the fort itself where you can enjoy views of the countryside and incredible sunsets.
Ranthambore: From Ramathra we drove to Ranthambore National Park where we stayed in an old hunting lodge full of pictures of tiger hunts from previous times. The park covers over 400 square kilometers of rolling hills, grassland, bush and woods, rivers and lakes. It is very picturesque and is accentuated by the ruins of palaces and forts in these once royal hunting reserves. We went out on a couple game viewing drives and saw many animals, but not the tigers for which the park is so famous. The closest we came was to hear them and to see fresh footprints, and even that was pretty exciting.
Jaipur: From Ranthambore came another 4 hour drive to Jaipur. Again the drive went through countryside and villages, and the beasts of burden changed from horses and cattle to camels. Jaipur, also know as the pink city, is definitely worth a visit. We started our tour with a visit to the Amber Fort, a classic Rajistani palace with huge ramparts and watchtowers. Outside the gates we saw our first snake charmer, so of course we had to stop and watch. He asked if I would like to hold the snake, as a joke I found out later. Anyway I did it as the accompanying photo can attest to. We entered the gates of the fort in style on the back of an elephant which was an interesting experience, but those wooden platforms on top of the elephant are definitely not built for comfort. We also visited the City Palace and the Hawa Mahal also known as Palace of the Winds, a very unusual five story pink structure with over 100 windows hidden behind latticework. It is actually more of a facade than a complete building as there is not much behind it and it was built to allow the women of the palace to view the busy bazaar below without being seen. Next we entered the grounds of the Jantar Mantar, which at first sight looks like a garden with very modern sculptures. It is however the largest stone observatory in the world, built in the earlier part of the 17 hundreds with a collection of architectural astronomical instruments which still provides accurate information. The sun dial for example still provides time to an accuracy of 2 seconds.
No city tour is complete without being taken to a market of some kind. One of the ones we visited in Jaipur was a cooperative where you could see and also participate in how carpets and batik cloths were made from beginning to end. We succumbed to temptation once again and bought a carpet and my husband left Jaipur with 2 new pairs of pants and 6 new shirts. He picked out the materials in the morning, and they were delivered fully finished to our hotel later in the day, incredible.
Udaipur: From Jaipur we flew to Udaipur where we stayed at the Lake Palace. Again, this is one of those places where it is worth spending a bit more on the accommodation. Imagine arriving at the hotel by private boat, to a red carpet going up the marble stairs with an attendant holding a bejeweled umbrella over you to protect you from the sun. Well it had shiny stones so dream with me. As you enter the front doors rose petals descent on you from above. Over the top? Definitely, but fun being treated like royalty for a few moments. My husband’s imaginations were more in the secret agent line as one of the 007 movies was shot there.
Shimla: From Udaipur we flew back to Delhi and began our 8 hour long drive to the old British hill station Shimla. And what a drive it was. Getting out of Delhi was quite something. The traffic jams are unbelievable with 4 to 5 lines trying to squeeze into lines made for 3. Add to that, regular scooters, 3 wheeled auto scooters made for 4 passengers on which we counted up to 10 people on more than one occasion. Then there are the goats, cows, camels and in one memorable intersection a white stallion running the red light at full gallop and rearing in the middle of the intersection. All traffic rules in India seem to be optional guidelines including, believe it or not, driving the wrong way on the freeway. So after 8 hours drive and many hairpin turns in the dark in the mountains we arrived at our hotel built in the grand style of some of our old CP hotels. Shimla is where the British colonial government moved to in the summer, and we saw a plaque that said that during the British rule, one fifth of the world’s population was ruled for five months of the years from this little town! It still has a lot of very British looking houses, churches, schools and gardens in addition to the incredible mountain views. It was a lovely place to walk around in.
After a couple of days in Shimla, we drove to the local airport which is located on top of a mountain that they have leveled out sufficiently for a plane to land. We were supposed to fly back to Delhi, but the one daily flight was cancelled, so again we made the trek back by car to Delhi with our driver who fortunately was still with us. After another day in Delhi we flew back to Canada having had an incredible vacation that we feel much richer for having experienced.
Guides: This tour was just for my husband and me to the places that were of interest to us, and it was completely organized before leaving home. We were met with local drivers and guides in every place, and we felt completely safe and well looked after. If feasible, I would really recommend travelling this way, as it adds a whole additional dimension. We learned about their families, their hopes for their children, religious beliefs and political views and it was a very enriching experience.
Duty free: Items made in developing countries, such as India, can be brought into Canada duty free. As these rules can change, it is best to confirm this before you travel if you plan to make major purchases, or like us, didn’t plan to but did it anyway.
Street vendors and beggars: They can be very persistent. Our Canadian politeness worked against us because once you have responded to a simple “hello”, or “where are you from”, it was really hard to get rid of them. Our guides told us that the best way is to not respond at all and not even make eye contact. That turned out to be quite effective.
Flights: We travelled from Vancouver via Hong Kong both ways but on the return trip we overnighted at the new airport hotel in Hong Kong. It is very convenient, and a good place to break up what is otherwise a very long journey.
Best Time to Travel: Anytime from October to February but November is probably the best time.
Things to buy: Silk, carpets, jewellery, handicrafts