Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Arriving in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur)

Delhi, Agra and Jaipur: 14/09/16 - 22/09/16

A crazy culture shock and our arrival into New Delhi

We took an 8 hour, fairly uneventful plane journey from Amsterdam to New Delhi, which was the first stop on our tour of Asia. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect as I'd never visited this part of the world before. Bob had been about 5 years ago with college, but only to the south, so wanted to experience a bit more. The standard Indian visa allows 30 days in the country so that's what we stuck to. We quickly learnt during our travels that we're pretty bad at planning but we had a vague idea of our plan for India (not really knowing how to travel in between or where to stay), and it went a bit like: 

New Delhi
Agra and Taj Mahal
Kerala (Fort Cochin)

We were pretty good at sticking to this, and visited all of these places eventually but added a quick stop in Mumbai in between Jaipur and Goa. So this post will be about the first week and a half that we spent in the north of India, which were very busy, crazy and eventful. 

Landing in New Delhi and adjusting to the madness

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Crazy Delhi!

We booked a cheap hostel before we landed in Delhi so we could throw our bags in first thing and not have the stress of not knowing where we were staying. After what was maybe 2 hours trying to get through immigration in the airport, we took a taxi through the city and ended up in the narrowest, busiest, cramped road I've ever been on. You could just get the taxi through the mounds of tuk-tuks, stalls and people pushing their way through the street. Our hostel was at the end of a narrow side road that the taxi couldn't get down, so we had to make our way past the many eyes staring at us, past the rankest smelling open public toilet and down to the hostel. The place itself was nice and the room was surprisingly quiet for the road we'd just walked down. We settled down and tried to get our bearings (which didn't really work) and decided we needed some food. 

We were a bit reluctant to leave the hotel, because the mix of heat, noise and smells was somewhat overpowering for our first impression. However, we made our way back down the alley and towards a restaurant. We had to jump over potholes, dogs and people but eventually found somewhere to eat. It was our first authentic Indian curry and it was pretty good! After food, we decided to get back to the hostel and work out what we were going to do for the next month. 

We quickly learnt that most people who approach you/you talk to are trying to sell you something. We spoke to a few people who were just genuinely interested in talking but about 90% of the time they had something to sell. Our first experience was this was with the hostel owner, who was nice, but seemed to get more annoyed with us as we didn't want to book his tour of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. We also didn't want to buy the travel guide he offered us as, even though it would have been useful, it would have been hard lugging around a huge travel book. We did use this book to plan some more of India though, as we decided the best option was to get trains between cities (seemed safest, cheapest and quickest (after flying)).

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Getting ready for the Taj in Delhi
As we didn't have a lot of time in India, we decided to only spend a few days in the first 3 cities. We started with 3 days in Delhi, and on our second day there went to work out how to book a train. Luckily the train station was a stones throw away from our hostel. We crossed the insanely manic main road (by following a local, which is a very useful strategy we have adopted for crossing roads) and arrived at the station. We had read that touts are very common, taking you somewhere to buy a ticket which is just a tour operator who will charge you double the price. I didn't know how common this would be, but the first person to approach us outside the train station tried to stop us from entering without a ticket, although we knew that the only place to buy legitimate tickets was inside. We didn't listen to him, and managed to find the 'foreign' ticket office to get our train. We bought our ticket to Agra, and also to Jaipur.

No automatic alt text available.After sorting the next week out, we went on to see a bit more of Delhi. We had no idea where to start, but ended up on Connaught Roundabout, which we heard was a tourist sight. Like the rest of the city, it was crazy busy and full of sellers. We also got approached a lot by people telling us we shouldn't walk there because of pick pockets, so eventually we ended up in a restaurant. The food was overpriced but tasty (not the best start to our budget!!). After this we wanted to see if we could get a map of the area. We were taken to an 'information point' which was actually a tour agency. We were given a map but also a lot of information we didn't really want about an expensive tour around the city we didn't really want to do, so we took the map and ran. 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, outdoorThe next day we decided to do some tourist things. We saw a beautiful fort (the first of many in India) and also got a tuk-tuk to the India Gate, a huge gate in the middle of a roundabout. We knew it was free entry, but were given an India flag by some women who then demanded money from us. We were able to slip away when another group of tourists arrived. After looking at the gate for a bit we (by we, I mean Bob) decided to have a walk to the government buildings. I like a good walk but it was insane heat, middle of the day, and what looked like a never ending road. We went ahead anyway, and just about made it through the park to the end. After having another look, we hopped in another tuk-tuk to go back and prepare for the Agra trip.

Arriving in Agra and wanting to leave

The train journey to Agra was pretty uneventful, but a nice introduction to the Indian train system. It only took a couple of hours and we arrive late afternoon, hoping to just stay for a couple of nights to see the great Taj. We had booked a hostel, which we found down a dusty, unpaved side street. Our first, and overall impressions of Agra weren't very good. I would only recommend Agra for the Taj Mahal, and if you do stay, make sure you stay in a nice hotel outside of town, or stay for just one night. It is an interesting way to experience the culture, but is also very loud, dirty and full of touts (although we did expect this a bit). 

The tuk-tuk driver was the first bad experience we'd had in India - he asked us if we wanted a tour around Agra after seeing the Taj the next day. We planned to get up at about 5am to get to Taj early and not be too hot walking around. He said he'd take us to some forts at about 11am until maybe 6pm. We didn't particularly want to do this (spend extra money) as we knew we'd also be tired after seeing the main event. He was so insistent and said we could think about it and tell us the next day. The next day, when we were back from the Taj, he came up to our room and to cut a long story short, demanded money from us for 'wasting his time' although we'd never agreed to a tour. We gave him a couple of quid but were very annoyed (especially as he'd woken us up) and let him know we were annoyed. Moral: if you don't want to do something, say no!! Not maybe. 

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The most beautiful view

Anyway, that bad experience aside - the Taj was insanely beautiful. The first night in Agra we went up to the hostel's rooftop restaurant and the view was amazing. We were right next to the Taj and the view of the the rooftops, monkeys jumping over them and Taj was spectacular (see photo!). We'd also just come back from a quick walk around the local area (dusty and manic, and we nearly go attacked by monkeys) and it was nice to be above it and out of the craziness! 

The next day we got up crazy early to see the Taj. This was the first place we were told it was a 'must see' at sunrise. That's only applicable for about 2% of the places we've been to where we were told this. The Taj shouldn't be included in the sunrise group, just because everybody else is told this and the queue at this time is huge and there was no way we could even see the sunrise. However, I do recommend arriving early just because the temperature is so much cooler and it's easier to walk around the grounds. As expected, it was full of tourists, but that didn't really take away from how beautiful it is! I didn't want to leave, and we walked around for maybe 2 or 3 hours. It was even nice to just sit and people watch. 
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We only needed the day at the Taj, and didn't do much for the rest of the day (except eat the best damn poached eggs I've had on this whole trip). We slept, were bothered by tuk-tuk drivers and ate again at the beautiful restaurant. Although that was the only good part of the hostel, as I'm pretty sure the bed was made from concrete slabs and the toilet was nearly non-existent. We were sad to leave the Taj, but happy to leave Agra. 

Finishing the North in Jaipur

We left fairly early for our 7hr train journey to Jaipur (again, easing ourselves into getting the sleeping train). It was comfortable, and on it we met an American lady and her Indian guide (Dev). They were very interesting to talk to, and as they hadn't got a hostel booked, we shared a tuk-tuk to our hostel so they could book something. Obviously we chose the cheapest hostel (3GBP for a double room) so they stayed at a nice place around the corner. After dropping our bags into the room which was overloaded with cockroaches and ants, and another concrete bed, we met them again for some lunch. 

I felt sorry for the American because again, we had a very insistent tuk-tuk driver. After he dropped us he kept asking us and the lady about tours. We had learnt from our Agra mistake so said no, but she wanted a tour and had difficulty shrugging him off. We've found in Asia that all drivers want you to decide your itinerary for your time in whichever city and book it with them. The driver followed her to the hotel (so he knew where she was staying) and then picked us all up for a tour as she finally gave in and accepted he would drive us around. 

He did take us to a nice restaurant, and the woman was nice enough to pay for the car (I apologise for calling her 'American' and 'Woman' but I've forgotten her name and I feel bad about it!!). We also went to a temple with them which was very interesting. We watched a ceremony and then had a little chat with the Hare Krishna leader afterwards, which was organized by Dev. It was interesting to learn a bit about a new religion, although he did ask us who we should love, and when the American answered 'family' he disagreed, saying we should always love and put God first (which I didn't totally agree with). He also played us a recording of a woman reciting Steve Job's 'last words'. I don't know if they actually were his last words, but it was all about not putting money first and even though he had lots of money he wasn't happy as he didn't have love. I have since looked this up, and found his last words were 'Oh wow, oh wow oh wow', although there are some theories on the internet he did actually spout an essay about the wrong pursuit of wealth. Who knows really. 

We left the American and her driver at the temple, as she wanted to go shopping and we fancied sleeping. We were also meeting my Welsh ex-colleague Rhiannon the next day so were looking forward to that! We met her at her (swanky) hotel the next day, after we tried and failed to book train tickets (such a long story, but as we were travelling a long way and weren't booking far ahead, we pretty much had to come back the next day and hope there was a train out - luckily there was). We then tried to walk to Rhiannon's hotel but failed at that too, only getting halfway before hitting a busy highway. We then had our first experience of a rickshaw (a man on a peddle bike pushing us in some seats - an interesting concept). We met for dinner and sat for ages talking and it was nice to catch up! We also planned to do a tourist-tour of the city the next day. 

Photos of a Jaipur day out (feat. Rhiannon): 

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Image may contain: sky and outdoorImage may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoorWe met Shakeer the driver the next day, by coincidence, outside Rhiannon's hotel after having breakfast. We were asking around for the cost of a tour for a day, and luckily we found him. He took us around for about 15GBP for all 3 of us, and it was such a great day. He was so funny and knowledgeable, and although we were dubious about getting a non-touting taxi driver, he was great! All drivers are given commission by shops to take tourists there, and it was the same with Shakeer, but we didn't feel forced to buy stuff and got free tea! We also only went to maybe 2 shops and had the rest of the day doing things we wanted. We started with a tour of a couple of the forts and temples. We went to a quiet little temple outside of the tourist zone, which was really nice to walk round, and also saw a floating palace in a lake. After this we went to see some elephants. I'm always a bit worried that elephants in tour zones aren't looked after, as you see a lot about their mistreatment (especially with rides). However, we didn't have to ride them and the owner of the sanctuary limits the rides as elephants only need so much exercise. We instead fed them, which was nice!

Rhiannon was then travelling onto the north, and we were planning our trip down south, so took the next day to do that.  After a lot of confusion about getting either a 35 hour train, or 2 17 hour trains with 12 hrs in Mumbai, we settled on the latter and got some sleep for the long journey ahead!! 

Whew - that took a while to write. Anyway, our introduction to India was crazy but set us up for the rest of the trip. We were thrown in at the deep end a bit and it started out a bit stressful, but as time went on it got a lot easier! 

Ciao, Sarah :)

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