Delhi is completely overwhelming; there is no getting around it! We fancy ourselves as a fairly well-travelled couple and have steadily been heading East for the past seven months and still nothing could have prepared us for arriving into this seething mass of people, traffic and colour!
Luckily for us a very kind Warmshowers host Jesim, arrived at the airport to take us under his wing and shelter us from the worst of the mayhem. We are eternally grateful, as we would never have survived navigating by ourselves with our bikes and luggage in tow around this city on the first day. Arriving into Jesim’s apartment was like arriving into a little oasis of calm in a sea of chaos. They live in a place called sector B that I can’t help but feel amused by as I feel like we have been transported into a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film! It was early, around 6am, when we stepped inside and we were soon introduced to the rest of the family; Jesim’s wife Mandira and his two very sleepy, very cute daughters; Hiya who is nine years old and Joya who is six. The family were all soon on their way to school and work and we crawled into bed for some rest. We only had a couple of nights with Jesim and Mandira before we had to leave and make our way to the airport again – this time to meet my parents! However, we will be back in a couple of weeks to spend more time with them.
Seeing my parents again after seven months was a very happy occasion! The family reunion was not complete yet however, and the following day André’s mum (Nancy) and her partner Gabe arrived – let the madness begin!
The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the name of an area in India, which has become very popular with tourists. Three cities make up the triangle, New Delhi with it’s numerous historical sights, Agra famous of course for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur (also named the pink city) in Rajasthan, which boasts the Amber Fort amongst other impressive architecture.
The first evening we all spent together in the city we met at the Red Fort to watch the ‘Light and Sound’ show that depicts the history of the city against the backdrop of the fort’s walls. It sounded exciting and a spectacle not to be missed, however it was neither of those things. The light show really lacked lights and at 90 mins long it definitely could have been cut down to at least 45mins! The show was not a hit with the folks! It was educational however, and at times so bad it was kind of funny! Getting to the Red Fort was in itself quite the ordeal! Having unwittingly left at rush hour we found the metro to be insane – not the sort of place you want to drag your parents into! The station was heaving and the trains were rammed, when we arrived at Chandni Chowk we all attempted to get off with my dad going into full policeman mode and holding back the crowds. However, in India no one waits patiently for everyone to disembark so eventually the tide of people broke through and André got swept back into the train and had to be pulled out by several onlookers! It was nuts!
Another way to get around the city, which is also lots of fun and by far our favourite transport mode (other than cycling of course) – is the Auto-Rickshaw (also known as the Tuk-Tuk in SE Asia)! It is cheap and when it’s rush hour in the city you need nerves of steel as the auto weaves in and out of traffic, stopping for no man. With the wind in your hair, bouncing about uncomfortably squished into the tiny back seat, it seems you are constantly mere millimetres away from a collision with something – be it, cow, pedestrian, another tuk-tuk, a moped laden with chickens, bus, or truck! It is an exhilarating experience and for most of us pretty enjoyable although I am not sure either of our mums would agree!
Chandni Chowk is an awful part of Delhi in my opinion and I have no idea why people visit it! I guess you could say the same of Oxford Street in London, but Chandni Chowk is Oxford Street on steroids minus the infrastructure and litter bins! It was a nightmare – a big heaving mess of pedestrians, traffic, cows, street vendors, tourists, rubbish and road works. And as if to make the chaos even worse they seemed to have dug up most of the road and pavement and then just decided to leave it at that! Avoiding that area of the city made the rest of our time in Delhi much more enjoyable.
We spent the next few days with my parents exploring some of the sights the city has to offer. We visited Qutb Minar, which is a UNESCO Word Heritage Site situated within a large park filled with various monuments and buildings – it is a quiet oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Minar itself is the second highest in India at 73 metres and is made from red sandstone and marble and covered in intricate carvings of verses from the Qur’an. Nearby to the Minar is the Iron Pillar of Delhi, which although not spectacular to look at, it is an architectural marvel. It is 7.21 metres high and said to weigh more than six tonnes. The pillar is a riddle to archeologists, historians and metallurgists alike as it is made from 98% wrought iron and has stood for more than 1,600 years without rusting or decomposing – quite the feat! It is such an incredible achievement to have forged this iron structure in the 4th century AD without any of the technology we have today that some people have proposed that aliens must have created it!
We also visited Humayun’s Tomb, which is a really beautiful structure that helped to inspire the Taj Mahal. Completed in 1572 the building was commissioned by Humayun’s widow Biga Begum, 14 years after he died. Almost 100 years later Shah Jahan (Humayun’s great-grandson) built the grand marbled-mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, in memory of his wife. The structure fell into disrepair but reopened in 2013 after six years of restoration works.
To get to Agra from Delhi we attempted to take a train, but this was perhaps a little ambitious for a group of newbies to the city – it turned into quite the adventure! The station in Delhi is extremely busy and chaotic, you can’t get close to the place in a taxi and can only really walk there whilst fending off the constant hassle from porters offering to carry your wheelie suitcases for you. Once inside we managed to identify our train number on the board only to discover that our train was delayed by 12 hours and was now departing at 2.30am!! I guess it will be difficult to complain next time I am grumbling about the London Bridge train being 15mins late again! After being advised to try and get on another train to Agra and wing it with the wrong tickets, we ran to the platform only to find this one too was running late but only by about 20mins. This gave us just enough time to look around us at the trains pulling into the station – which was unfortunate really as it had the effect of making my mum almost cry and myself, André and my dad double over in hysterics at the situation! Nearly every train looked like it was built in the ‘50s and had not been maintained since, they had bars across the windows and they were so full people were bursting out at the seams, with people hanging from the doors and sides of the trains. After we managed to stop laughing and calm my mum we decided to attempt other means to get to Agra. Arriving at the bus station we soon realized this was just as much of a disaster as the train and eventually we flagged down a dodgy looking bloke in a beat up mini-van who agreed to drive us to Agra for pretty cheap. He was far from a professional and seemed to be trying really hard not to fall asleep the entire journey and often took short cuts down the wrong way of the highway and would join the highway using the off-ramp whilst swerving to avoid on-coming traffic. Luckily my mum was asleep during most of the journey. In hindsight, I think perhaps I should have splurged on my parents just a little and spent a few more rupees in order to get them tickets for the fancier train; you live, you learn!
The main attraction in Agra is without a doubt the Taj Mahal. Sometimes a place has been so built up in your expectations, that you feel it can’t possibly live up to them and you will just end up feeling disappointed. This however did not happen at the Taj Mahal it was utterly breathtaking in both size and beauty. Even with a grey, cloudy day it was incredibly stunning, the stark and pristine white marble combined with the elegance of the mausoleum’s design makes it clear why it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. As mentioned before, the Shah Jahan built the Taj in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died. It is a mausoleum that contains both Mumtaz’s body and also the body of Shah Jahan, who was later buried alongside his wife. It took around 20,000 people 22 years to build the Taj and it was completed in 1653. It is estimated that it cost 32 million rupees at the time to build, which equates to over 1 billion US dollars today. There are lots of myths surrounding the Taj Mahal; apparently the Shah Jahan ordered all the workers’ hands to be cut off after the completion of the Taj Mahal so that no building as spectacular as the Taj could be built again. Another is that a black version of the Taj Mahal was intended to be built across the river however Shah Jahan exhausted his funds and therefore it never happened – these are both rumours however and many people think there is no truth in it.
To say I was nervous about taking my parents on a second attempt to travel by rail in India from Agra to Jaipur was an understatement! After the disaster that was the last attempt I hoped things would be smoother this time around. When we arrived at the station everything indicated that things were going to work out. The station was peaceful, with a small amount of people, in fact there were more monkeys than people, and the train was scheduled to be leaving on time! Hooray! This journey was great, people were all friendly, the seats were comfortable and we were served a tasty four-course meal! The only downside was that it was too dark to see any of the Indian countryside as we whizzed past.
Whilst in Jaipur we stayed in an interesting heritage hotel that started life as a fort it had beautiful gardens complete with peacocks! Whilst in Jaipur we met up with André’s Mom, Nancy and her partner, Gabe at the City Palace. The City Palace was built between 1729 – 1732 AD, and is still a royal residence meaning parts of it are closed off to the public. The most interesting parts of the complex are the four gates that make up the inner courtyard called Pitam Niwas Chowk. They are decorated to represent the four seasons and Hindu gods. The Northeast Peacock Gate (peacocks) represents autumn and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu; the Southwest Lotus Gate (flowers and petals) is summer and dedicated to Lord Shiva-Parvati; the Northwest Green Gate (waves) is spring and dedicated to Lord Ganesha and lastly the Rose Gate (flower pattern) is winter and dedicated to Goddess Devi. The Peacock Gate was in my opinion the most beautiful. In the private audience hall there are two huge sterling silver vessels (think giant jugs!). The Guinness Book of World Records records them as the world’s largest sterling silver vessels. They are 5.2 ft (1.6 metres) high and each one has the capacity of 4000 litres and weighs 750 lbs. They were made from 14000 melted silver coins without any soldering. The purpose of the jugs was so that the Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II could carry the water of the Ganges with him on his trip to England in 1901. He did not want to commit a religious sin by drinking English water so took his own!
Attached to the outside of the Palace complex is a structure called the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Breeze), which is basically a five-storey high screen wall. It was constructed in 1799 from red and pink sandstone and features 953 small windows decorated with intricate latticework – it is an incredibly ornate and beautiful building. The Hawa Mahal was built to ensure the royal ladies could adhere to strict ‘purdah’ (face cover) and not be seen at all whilst being able to observe everyday life or parades in the streets below. From the outside it has the appearance of a honeycomb within a beehive.
The most famous of sights in Jaipur however is The Amber Fort, unfortunately André was feeling too sick to visit so it was purely a Mason family day out. The weather was grey and rainy and the car journey was long but it was worth it as the fort was really spectacular. When it comes into view, the fort is a very formidable sight jutting out of the mountainside and looming over the lake. The Amber Fort is built from a combination of pale yellow and pink sandstone and white marble and is my favourite of the forts we visited in India. The fort has a number of gardens, courtyards and a beautifully embossed silver sheet temple doors. There is also a building called Jal Mandir which has multi-mirrored ceilings, with glass inlaid panels, coloured foil and paint which would all glitter brightly by candle light at night. It was intended to look like a starry night sky. On the way back to the hotel we passed by the beautiful, floating palace called Jal Mahal, which is situated in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. It is quite a mesmerizing sight.
The next stop on our trip was a small city called Bundi, which is off the beaten track a little and not visited by as many tourists. Bundi suddenly appears when you round a corner and you can see the city laid out before you. It is a beautiful view, the houses are all blue surrounding a small lake and a sprawling palace hangs above the city, with a fort perched even higher on the top of the hill. James Tod wrote about Bundi in his celebrated Annals and Antiguities of Rajastan (1829) “The coup d’oeil of the castellated palace of Bundi from which ever side you approach it, is perhaps the most striking in India.” We were told two different stories about why the houses are all blue, the first was that mosquitos don’t like the colour blue and the second was that it reflects the sunlight and makes the houses cooler! Whatever the reason it gives the city a calm and serene ambiance. The place was a breath of fresh air compared to the big, chaotic cities we had been in. Bundi had a much more laid-back atmosphere with small windy alleyways, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. And it is small and compact enough that you could explore the place easily by foot – although you have to be aware of the cow pats (right, mum?!).
The city has lots of spectacular and interesting sights to absorb that have barely any other tourists there – it is fantastic. The palace is a short walk up the hill from the city centre and it is very impressive, from above it looks like a hanging structure. It was built between 1607 and 1631 AD by Rao Raja Ratan Singh Hada and was a place of interest for Rudyard Kipling who wrote in 1899: “The Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace that men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men.” The palace is very ornate and is said to be one of the finest examples of Rajput architecture. There are sculpted elephants adorning the tops of pillars and doorways throughout the palace the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings from the Bundi School of Art. Murals depicting Lord Krishna’s life are particularly popular and some of the paintings are still in very good condition with vivid colours. At the top of the palace is an art gallery, garden and a courtyard offering spectacular views over the city. There is no railing or barrier so getting too close to the edge is not for the faint hearted, as it is quite a drop! My dad couldn’t get away quick enough.
A steep climb further up the hill from the palace brings you to Taragarh Fort. The fort overlooks the entire city and you get a great view of the palace from above. We had a guide for the walk up; he insisted he was necessary if only to fight off the killer monkeys that would otherwise attack us! He was an amusing guy but talked way too much! The fort was really dilapidated but was an interesting place to visit and it turned out that whilst at the top a monkey did charge us bearing its fangs, which was a little scary! Perhaps the guide was right after all!
Before leaving Bundi we took a trip out into the countryside to visit some pre-historic cave paintings that were rumoured to exist on a riverbank, an hour or so from Bundi. The trip was a bit of an adventure! Our driver had no idea where the caves were and was asking locals along the way, we got lost and it took a good few hours on terrible roads before we made it to the village. We then were led to the caves by a group of local guys who quadrupled in number on the short walk as more joined the gang. This place was definitely not on the tourist track. When we finally arrived at the caves we were shown the paintings and they were a little underwhelming at first glance, as a few were barely visible and not exactly the Sistine chapel! Nancy was not impressed and I think I was in trouble for dragging them all out there! These paintings have existed here for thousands of years, which is pretty incredible, and you can still make out the stick figures with bows and arrows and lots of animal drawings that look like buffalo. The parents saw the funny side eventually, I think, and enjoyed seeing a little bit of rural India.
The last afternoon in Bundi was spent looking around the step wells – in Hindi they are called Baori. Exactly as they sound, they are giant wells with steps that go down into the well so that you can collect water no matter how low or high the water level is. Bundi is the city of step wells with more than 50 in and around the city. Most were built in the 17th Century and acted as social areas for the townsfolk to gather, gossip and socialize. The most famous one is Rani ji Ki Baori, which was built in 1699 by Rani Natharati Ji – the shunned second wife of the king. It is 46 metres deep and incredibly beautiful and ornate, decorated with elephant stone carvings and complete with turtles swimming in the bottom! It is by far the most spectacular well I have ever seen. We also stopped to look at two step wells that sat opposite each other on either side of the road, they were less ornate and beautiful but they were completely symmetrical and the stairs looked like something from an M.C. Escher sketch – really incredible. We got to see some fantastic hidden gems of India and it is has been nice to be away from the really touristy areas.
The journey back to Delhi was long, but as we were in a comfortable car this time so it really wasn’t too bad. It was worse for André who was still feeling pretty unwell. When we arrived back into Delhi, there were armed police and military everywhere, and many of the roads were closed off. All this was in aid of President Obama’s visit to the capital for Republic Day, which seemed to have a mixed reception from the locals we spoke to. Some people seemed excited to have Obama in their country and others felt that the additional security was a large and unnecessary expense and as many businesses were forced to close, it was also an inconvenience. We just hoped the no-fly zone over the city wouldn’t have too big an impact on our flight to Goa the next day.
André, Nancy, Gabe and myself were all taking a flight to Goa but my parents were heading back home to England. Saying goodbye to my parents is always hard especially when I know it will be a while before I see them again. However, I am grateful we got to travel somewhere so different and experience a whole new culture together – it was quite the adventure!
Arriving into Goa it was clear from the moment we stepped off the plane that this was going to be very different from the past week travelling the Golden Triangle. For a start, when we left Delhi it was cold and rainy, but in Goa the sun was out and the sky was blue – it felt good to feel the warmth seep into our bones. The second thing we noticed was a change in pace, there were less people and less chaos, everything was slower. The scenery was also dramatically different with palm trees everywhere and a lot more greenery in general. Our time in Goa was short but sweet, it acted as a much-needed decompression after the mayhem of the Golden Triangle. We took a trip to see a spice plantation, which was interesting if a little touristy, and we visited a number of beautiful Portuguese churches in Old Goa – designated a UNESCO heritage site. The grandest of these churches is the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Completed in 1605 the church holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier, and is considered one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in India. However, we spent most of our time relaxing on the beach, soaking up the sun and swimming in the sea.
After arriving back into Delhi it was soon time to say goodbye to Nancy and Gabe as they were flying back to the cold Canadian winter! Thanks to both sets of folks for taking the plunge and travelling to India to see us. We are grateful for all the re-ups on our supplies and treats from home but mostly it was just nice to spend some time with you all.
We were staying with Jesim, Mandira, Hiya and Joya again and we were very happy to see them all. We needed some time to recover from our travels with the parents and their lovely home was the perfect place for us to recuperate. Our time in Delhi passed quickly and happily, we rested, ran errands and played with the girls as much as possible. The week also helped us to acclimatise to the city and life in India, we realised at some point that we no longer found the place so overwhelming and loud and we were less fazed by all the chaos. This is great, as it will hopefully prepare us for the road ahead to the Nepalese border. One thing we did learn during our stay was that we cannot cook rice! Only once were we asked to help with dinner, Mandira asked us to keep an eye on the rice and when she came down she seemed surprised at the state of it. We thought it seemed fine and that we had done an okay job however, this thought was quickly dispelled when Jesim arrived home from work and exclaimed ‘Mandira what have you done to the rice?!’ – we sheepishly owned up! Apparently you don’t ever stir rice and you just need to leave it to cook by itself without interfering with it. A good lesson and one I hope we remember! Delicious home-cooked Indian food, entertaining dinner parties and the general warmth of the family environment made it very difficult for us to leave the city, however the road was calling!
Back on two wheels
We were nervous about cycling out of the city as Delhi has a reputation the world over for being a crazy, chaotic city and we had no idea what to expect trying to navigate our way out of it. In the end it was not so bad, the only real problem we encountered was trying to cycle on the highway over a giant bridge to reach the outskirts of the city. We were chased and detained by several traffic guards, they were relentless in their determination to stop us cycling on the road stating it was unsafe. When we asked them what we should do as we had already made it so far and it was impossible to cross over to the other side due to large high metal barriers – their advice was to turn around and cycle back up the highway into four lanes of oncoming traffic with no hard shoulder – as if this wasn’t dangerous at all! We point blank refused and a frustrating stand off ensued. Eventually they called a tow truck, which arrived, loaded us and the bikes inside and then drove us across the bridge before ejecting us out back onto the side of the road. This all took a long time, which was irritating and unnecessary, but it ended well and was pretty amusing after some time had passed!
The next four days were spent making our way Northeast to the border with Nepal. Although the road was completely flat we felt utterly drained and exhausted during the ride. This was due to a combination of awful road surfaces with potholes that were often as wide as the road itself and the traffic. I cannot adequately convey the utter chaos and noise that you face cycling in this part of India – the honking of the cars, trucks and mopeds is constant and deafening and you need to be alert at all times to any number of crazy obstacles that might knock you clean off your bike. In the road at one time there is often, children, old people, cattle, goats, bicycles, mopeds, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks and buses and they are often coming at you in all directions.
It is not unusual or frowned upon to drive into oncoming traffic or to overtake when there is oncoming traffic, which results in forcing the oncoming traffic off of the road. The one positive from this experience is that we both feel we have become better cyclists, learning to weave through traffic, emergency stopping on a dime and expecting the unexpected have improved our cycling skill sets for sure.
A last minute tip from Jesim led to an unexpected and very pleasant cultural experience for us. We spent two nights of our trip staying in Gurudwaras. A Gurudwara is a place of worship for Sikhs, however people of all faiths are welcomed. The Gurudwara also doubles up as a kind of community centre, with a kitchen that feeds the local community for free and often there is temporary accommodation for travellers, people in need or visiting lecturers. Upon presenting ourselves at the Gurudwara both times we were greeted a little warily at first, the head Sikh would try and convince us to stay at a hotel instead but after explaining as best we could our trip and our budget they would welcome us inside. And after a short while we became very popular with hoards of visitors, we were even asked to stay longer! On both occasions the room was basic and we were also fed dinner and breakfast for free. The philosophy behind the community dinners is a really nice idea, everyone is served the same vegetarian meal and all people regardless of faith, wealth and social standing all sit together and eat. The idea is to try and banish distinctions between different people and promote inclusivity – what a great idea! Neither of us knew much about the Sikh religion so this gave us an opportunity to learn a little about it. André’s beard was very popular and helped integrate him easily into the Sikh fold and at the first Gurudwara the men were very keen to give him a turban! This was an interesting process to watch and very amusing for me. At the second Gurudwara we were invited to watch a Sikh film with the rest of the community, which would have been great apart from I was pestered so incessantly that I could barely watch a minute of the film without being bombarded with questions from the large group of kids and teenage boys that had surrounded me and kept inching closer and closer. It was very sweet but also very tiring – kids are exhausting!
The other two nights of the trip we were taken in by two farm owners, the first guy had grown up in Canada but was of Indian origin and was so excited to see André’s Canadian flag on the back of the bike that he stopped on the side of the road and invited us to stay at his place for the night. His name was Manni and he, his beautiful pregnant wife Samran, and his parents looked after us very well, spoiling us with dinner out, we also crashed an Indian wedding! We got to try sugar cane straight from the field (it was so tough it almost broke my teeth) and André even tried his hand at driving a tractor! We found out the next day that after being stopped and questioned by a police officer who fancied himself as a bit of a journalist and photographer we had made it into the local paper! The facts weren’t entirely right and a little bit of artistic license had been taken (unfortunately we don’t have any pamphlets that we distribute spreading the word of peace!) but it was fun for us to see ourselves in a Hindi newspaper!
Our last night in India was spent with a lovely and very kind young guy, called Honey, and his parents in their calm oasis of a house. They took us in, fed us the most delicious home-cooked meal and showed us around their farm, which is situated on the edge of a man-made lake. The best bit of the farm tour was getting to play with the baby goats – kids, who would have thought a baby goat could be so cute!
As we reached the border of Nepal I think we were both feeling relieved at the prospect of a break from the madness and looking forward to a little more peacefulness and greenery. However, despite the crazy, terrible roads and traffic we found India to be a place filled with colour, interesting sights (there is always an incredible photo opportunity) and kindness – even if it is not obviously apparent. India is like no where either of us have ever visited and I think at times we found it tiring, frustrating and more than a little daunting. People really stare at you and this takes a lot of time to get used to, often the staring doesn’t feel curious or friendly it can feel threatening especially when a crowd gathers. Having only travelled a tiny part of the country I am loath to make any sweeping generalisations, however here I go anyway! India seems like a country that has lost its way and is stuck, no longer sure how to move forward. Poverty is rife and there seems to be little investment in infrastructure. There is also a lot of negative press about women’s rights and other human rights abuses. We had a small insight into some of these issues whilst in the country and we were also lucky enough to hear some insightful political discussions and debates. We were in Delhi during the elections and we had the opportunity to meet a wide range of people from different backgrounds and with different views. I really hope that things may, given time and the right political climate, begin to change for the people of India.
After we have cycled through Nepal we will be cycling back into India to experience what the Northeast of the country has to offer and it will be interesting to see how it compares to the places we have been already. But until then we have Nepal and the Himalayas to look forward to.
For more photos on our time in India, click HERE