“Nothing can possibly prepare you for the journey ahead. India will impress, bewilder, fascinate, depress, thrill, frustrate, inspire and amaze you.”
These are words provided by TDactive before we left on our Indian adventure recently and never could so many verbs have more accurately described what we experienced!
We have used Travel Department on many occasions in the past and have memories of wonderful holidays, in China and South Africa particularly, and more recently a short trip to Salamanca. But this is the first time that Graham and I used TDactive Holidays, the company’s active holiday division, and so with four good friends (pictured below) we decided to venture to India with them.
We were pre-warned that we needed to be patient (as things don’t work the way they do at home or don’t work at all!); be open-minded (as India would test your tolerance, so the more flexible you are, the better it will be); and lastly, don’t worry about understanding the phenomenon that is India, a country with over a billion people and a momentum all of its own!
How right they were!
What to expect
It is not called an adventure holiday for nothing and it was certainly a very active one.
We were in 6 different locations in the course of our 16 days and we had a number of very early morning starts to ensure we enjoyed the best experiences.
We travelled on foot, on a bicycle around Old Delhi, by auto-rickshaw, jeep, bus, tram, train (including an overnighter which was a wholly different experience) and even an internal flight.
India is a vast country and we only touched on a part of it known as the Golden Triangle, finishing on the East Coast in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), an eye-opener in itself.
We did all the usual sights in the Indian capital such as a tour of the British colonial buildings designed by noted architect Edwin Lutyens, India Gate, the tombs of Mahatma Gandhi and the Mughal Emperor Humayun (below), and Qutub Minar, India’s tallest brick minaret.
But the real highlight for us and our friends was an early morning cycle around Old Delhi.
Cycling around the old city was absolutely mind-blowing. As we navigated through backstreets at 5.30am, we got to see the city wake up. We avoided dogs, people, cows (below), auto-rickshaws, other cyclists, motor bikes and a few cars as we took in the early morning business around us.
Highlights were watching men at work (above) making kulcha (a mildly leavened flatbread), visiting a spice market and drinking chai from its highest point and generally peeping in on the lives of its people. We were fascinated by some of the workers showering for the entire twenty minutes we were there (below), but our guide explained that the spices would burn their skin if not washed off thoroughly (never mind the lingering smell) and this was a daily ritual.
We also visited a Sikh temple which was a place of sanctuary for those in need and where a community kitchen, manned by volunteers, feeds thousands of people for free every day irrespective of their faith and religion (below).
Our journey back, cycling through the crowded city and crossing a major intersection was hair-raising to say the least, but also exhilarating. What you have to understand is that nobody obeys any rules of the road, not even on major roads. The city is a cacophony of noise, as horns are beeped incessantly and indiscriminately. It is obviously essential that you are confident enough on a bike, but our guide led the way and his helper looked after the stragglers and soon we were beeping our horns with the best of them. There are no pictures of this as we were too busy trying to stay alive!
It was not difficult to fall in love with the Pink City, so called because of its trademark red-washed buildings.
The people are friendly; the city is beautiful. We packed a huge amount into our two days here. Our jeep-ride up to Amber Palace took place during a festival so it was busy. And there is so much to see there that you need a couple of hours at least.
And we trekked up to Amber Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the following day. Yes, you need runners, but if you are relatively fit, it is no problem.
We fitted in some shopping, of course; most of the men purchased shirts with block-print fabrics and then went to a local festival (where all the local dignitaries gathered), which involved a dramatic re-enactment of Indian myth (pictured below) culminating in the burning of a ginormous effigy.
A trip to see a Bollywood movie in a most beautiful cinema (below) was rather special as was our first auto rickshaw ride where Jan, Sara and I managed to get lost. It is OK, we were found again.
We also visited City Palace, an example of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture, home of the royal family of Jaipur. In fact, some of their descendants still live in a part of it. There was plenty to see here, including a throne room with portraits of the former rulers and a brief bio of each of them.
Nearby is Janta Mantar observatory which has the world’s largest stone sundial and plenty of interesting astronomy instruments.
While in Jaipur we stayed in a beautiful guest house (home-stay) – Ikaki Niwas – where the hosts displayed all the best of Indian hospitality.
On our way to Agra, we stopped at the Chand Baori, one of the world’s largest stepwells, with over 3,500 steps arranged in perfect symmetry and built to tackle the scarcity of water over a thousand years ago.
Our afternoon stop was at Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO world heritage site, a fortified city which was the capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Akbar. It has beautiful pavilions and palaces.
Though Agra is a dismal place, our stay there was not. It is home to the majestic Taj Mahal and the visit to this world-famous landmark exceeded all expectations. Shah Jahan built it in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal as a symbol of their love. It is an architectural marvel and was undoubtedly one of the major highlights of our trip. It certainly justified the 4 30 am wake-up call to ensure we were first in the queue to enter at 6.30am!
We later visited a Bear Rescue Camp, then the spectacular Agra Fort (built in the 11th century and site of the Indian Rebellion of 1857) and finished a busy day by visiting ‘Sheroes Hangout’, a community hub and café run by women disfigured by acid attacks, where we heard how they survived and how the perpetrators are being punished.
If any of you are on Instagram you can see more pics in my highlights of India. And if you know anyone who might be interested, please share.
From Agra, we travelled to Khajuraho (the fourth of our six stop-overs) on the next stage of our trip, to be covered in Part 2 of this blog. I also have a post ready to publish on how to avoid Delhi Belly and another one on what to pack, so stay tuned.