Incredible India

Trip Start Dec 08, 2010
1
74
88
Trip End Oct 22, 2011


Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines
shadow

Flag of India  ,
Sunday, September 11, 2011

From many people who had been to India before I had heard it's the most difficult country to travel, a love or hate relationship, stories about the Delhi belly and so forth. For a bit of luxury, since I arrived at night, I had booked an airport pickup in advance. It took me a time to find my pickup, I even ran open-eyed in the tourist trap of a guy waiting outside, offering you to call your hotel. When you give him the number he dials his mate's number, who is telling you the hotel is booked out, but of course he can help with a new hotel, which is even better... You know all that, and still you go along, it certainly happened to me a number of times - because not everything and everybody can be a scam – or so you think. A pity, because it makes you doubt in a many situations where people are just plain friendly - but this is of course not just an Indian phenomenon.

But here I walked away and minutes later I was on my way to downtown. Even though I did not see that much, it looked much better than I had expected; except for a dirty, hungry mom with her child begging for money at the crossroads – the people sleeping in the big pipes next to the road I had not seen of course. I remember the big roads and never ending circles of the government district, until all of the sudden we went into a small street, cramped with rickshaws, tourists, cows, cars, mopeds, beggars and Indians of every colour - the road dirty as can be. We had arrived in Pahar Ganhj, the backpacker hole, were I had booked a hotel. I was glad that the hotel - a very basic joint - had a restaurant, ordered my first thali and an ice-cold Kingfisher and watched some TV. The Indian hockey team had just won the Asian title against archrival Pakistan and players, politicians and showbiz-people were on all the news discussing whether the team should get paid more - THE evening news on all station - until a government minister stepped in to stop the crisis.

The next morning, after a simple breakfast on the hotel roof amidst dirt and old stuff, but with a good view over the roofs of Delhi, seeing the Connor Square in the back, it took me quite some time to head down and throw myself at the Delhi experience. For the first time on my travels I felt uneasy being on my own; seeing and smelling everything around me, the constant touts trying to sell you everything, or just wanting to chat with you in the hope to get something - because nothing is for free.

It took me a time to get used to what I saw, people doing everything on the street, sleeping, and peeing, even shitting‌, intermingled with cow shit. But I must say that at no point I felt in any danger, just being stared at or a good target to earn the daily bread. Until I arrived in Udaipur, until I realized that certain things in India you just have to get along with, and others are just part of Delhi or any other mega polis - and remembered the words of a friend: "Delhi is a shithole - get out of it as soon as you can".

While I agree to leave it as soon as possible after arrival, the city certainly has its attractions. The second day I booked a city tour, hoping to meet up with some other tourists. Tourists they were, but I was well surprised to see that it was only Indian tourists - but in the end a memorable experience.

Most of them were middleclass families from the South that could afford a vacation, they welcomed me on the bus and wanted to know what I was doing and thinking of their country - and so we toured the many attractions - India Gate, the huge Parliament in the huge government district built by the British, the Lotus temple, the Indira Ghandi museum, the Ghandi memorial, and the Qu'a tower – an ancient Muslim minaret. With one Indian guy I went afterwards to Akshardham, the world’s largest Hindu temple completely decorated with carved stones and built only in 2000 by 7000 artisans, to see a light and sound show about the three gods, Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer or transformer. Stunning the show, and even more so the building. The security protocol to enter was quite hard, as I was told especially since a terrorist attack a couple years back.

All in all, military and police presence in the capital, especially around the monuments and train and metro, was high, since a bombing of the high court had just happened.

Day two I made the second mistake, buying train tickets in the hotel. But not only did I pay a lot - I didn't make the train. I asked at check-out which train station to go to. Old Delhi was the answer, so I made my way. The station was the dirtiest and fullest I had ever seen, plus my first encounter with Indian trains. Huge queues in front of the ticket window; people carrying everything on their heads, sleeping on the platform, eating, sitting down wherever there is place....and spitting, Indians love to spit. They chew their paan – a betel leaf extract - and dark red coloured paste, which they regularly spit out wherever they are. At first I wondered what the red spots on walls, in corners etc. could be, but I soon realized. Even the mouth looks reddish – simple to spot a paan user.

I was the only foreigner as far as I could see and no sign of my train yet. I asked around but nobody could help, until I finally found an official employee, who told me I was at the wrong station.Of course the rickshaw overcharged me, and when I finally got to the other station in the thick Delhi traffic the train was long gone...another 200 rupees to get back and I hated the city right now.

But instead I went to the official ticket counter for tourists, according to the guidebook a favourite spot for scams. But nothing happened to me; I got a ticket to Jaipur two days after. Enough time to visit the Red Fort the next day, one of the biggest Mogul forts in Rajasthan and Delhi. While the walls are quite impressive, the inner part is rather disappointing. So afterwards I took a rickshaw driver for a tour though the old city centre. The traffic was like a beehive, cars, rickshaws, bikes and motorbikes all trying to make their way, blocking each other, moving forward, while continuously honking and shouting – sheer madness compared to our traffic, but quite awesome to see and experience. We went to the spice wholesale market, a building cramped with small shops, wonderful smells of masalas, chillies and many unknown spices. The guide took me up the stairs - I thought I was being mugged at every corner - but from the roof we had a wonderful view over bustling Old Delhi. Later we passed though the small side streets of the different markets, cloth, saris, gems and so on, went to a little Jain temple before heading to the big Jami Masjid mosque, the largest Indian mosque with place for 25,000 people. I hadn't realized that that there would be so many Muslims in India, but especially here in the north, there are more than the average 15%.

The train to Jaipur was really comfortable, I had a seat in the AC car, I didn't dare to take a seat in the 3rd class compartment on iron seats, open windows and cramped with people.

I love the feeling when you get to a new city, everything is new and you have no idea where to go to. So I took a rickshaw and went to a nearby hotel, had a lunch on the rooftop terrace and went for rickshaw tour of the city. We went to the xxx full of monkeys, and of course I did the tourist programs. A little guy "showed" me around, but mainly was there to sell me some peanuts for the monkeys and to protect me – as apparently they occasionally bite. I didn’t figure out if they would have bitten without being offered peanuts, but this little guy “protected” me from them. Then it was to the next stop, xxx palace and a couple of cenotaphs. The highlight was definitely the city centre, due to its red brick buildings called “red city”. I visited the Hawa Mahal, the palace of the winds, a beautiful palace.

From Jaipur I continued on to the “white city” Udaipur - probably my favourite city in India. I arrived at night and got lucky to get the right rickshaw driver to take me to a hotel. The hotel was excellent, clean and the owner a really cool guy, giving us lots of tips. But the best was a roof terrace with an awesome view over the Pichola Lake. And I met some people that I would spend almost the rest of my trip; Anton from England as well as Lee and Oriana, a French-English couple.

Udaipur is a relaxed village, beautifully set and for an Indian city very clean. People are very relaxed, of course everybody wants to sell you something, but when you decline they are ok with it. Above the city thrones the palace of the Maharashtra, now part museum, part luxury hotel, with really nice pieces of art inside. Udaipur is known for the rickshaw and boat chase in Bond's Octopussy, a film which runs in almost every bar.

One day I took a rickshaw to tour some the surrounding area, cenotaphs (burial buildings) of former Maharashtra’s, some more temples with perfect views of the lake and city as well as the local market, where I loved the spices, fruit and vegetables, but even more the people in their colourful, different dresses. At night we went for to a local “club” – a mix of modern Indians and tourist to taste a bhang lassi, I had no idea what it was, but decided to try. I recognized immediately, and it was quite good – some cities in Rajasthan allow the sale of this “spice” for religious reasons.

The highlight of the stay was definitely Sashi’s cooking class, something I had enjoyed already in the rest of Asia. But here it was more authentically, instead of visiting a cooking school we cooked in the kitchen of Sashi, it was a superb experience and while we were preparing all the wonderful dishes she explained us a lot about today’s India. Of course we started of with a chai, but his was by far the best chai I had tried. The second dish we cooked were pakoras, vegetables and potatoes in a gram flour batter, which became my favourite street food afterwards, and eaten with various sauces and XXX. Sashi is a widowed woman, who belongs to the Brahman caste, originally from a small village in Rajasthan. She explained us how the deeply rooted the caste system still is in the Indian society, especially in the villages and small towns, limiting the everyday decisions one can take. The middle-class society has left the system behind, as officially India as a whole, but in many places the tradition still continues. After the death of her husband she had to mourn for months, weeping with other women regularly. Even now, years after, she is only allowed to wear certain colours, wear certain jewellery, all because of the behavioural rules for every caste and depending also on the women’s status, whether unmarried, widowed or married. Against all odds she took up teaching foreigners to cook, something for which she is still rejected by her late husband’s family, but quite successful in what she does. She learned English on the way and has a gift of explaining the Indian cuisine and the right amount of spices and ingredients to be used. After we had finished cooking we prepared all the dishes for our final meal, a true feast: different masalas (sauces on a tomato/onion basis) with vegetables, potatoes or paneer (like cream cheese), biryani (rice with vegetables), (vegetables with rice), chapattis, naans, parathas, curd, raita (yogurt cream) and daal (lentil stew). What a treat to my taste buds and a point to how excellent veggie food can be.

After a couple of days relaxing and chilling, getting to know a bit of the surroundings of Udaipur, but spending much time reading and chatting, with a chai or a beer on the hotel roof, I parted with Anton to Jaisalmer for a quest to make a camel safari. The hotel manager had a cousin and booked ahead, so we were all set. The bus ride was terrible, 10 hours in a dirty and smelling sleeper bus, in a cabin only big enough for me that I had to share with my backpack. Plus the "excellent" road conditions, holes everywhere.

While English is the official language, not everyone is speaking it. Of course everyone involved in the tourist industry speaks English, but apart from that there is quite a large amount which does not understand you, especially in the smaller cities and not belonging to the rising middle class.

One of the highlights of the Indian experience was to see the dresses, both of men and women. Apparently, a trained eye can see quite a bit from the dresses, jewellery and hair-cut & colour, of course the religion, but also the caste one belongs to, the marital status etc. But especially the saris were amazing, in every colour. One big difference to western clothing is that the neck is always covered while the belly is shown. But next to that other traditional clothing and jewellery, the different men’s clothing were beautiful and so different.

Our host Meeru was a bit of a talker, but on the nice side. He told us stories, organized our trip, offered us opium to eat and supplied us with beer - even though officially he couldn't sell and all liquor stores were already closed, but in India there is always a way. The next day we explored the “golden citya city with a magnificent golden fort on the nearby hill. All buildings of the old city were made out of golden sandstone. However, the fort is endangered due to sewage water spilling and making the ground tumble. We bought us a safari outfit, with turban and long pants before having a last nice meal.

By jeep we where brought away from Jaisalmer and its hundreds of wind engines to the start of the Thar Desert. We met our two guides and camels, packed up and set of; a funny feeling to be on this bumpy animal, especially while it gets up. As their legs bend like a folding ruler, you are thrown back and forth - having to cling on to it. At first it is quite an experience, but after a couple of hours it got quite annoying. I heard that from most of the boys, while ladies seem to have less of a problem. Sometimes we asked to walk our camels instead of riding them.

At noon we would search for a tree to give us some shadow in the heat and unsaddled the camels - who could wander of with their legs tied - while our guides made chai, cooked lunch and we rested until the sun wasn't at its highest anymore. We had chosen for the superior food, adding some fruits and veggies to the rice & chapatti mix, and the food was actually excellent. Plates were washed with sand and a bit of water - as clean as necessary.

The desert was actually green, the rainy season had just passed; grass, brushes and other greens were all over the place - heaven for the camels for a quick bite to eat all around, but also hell for them, as flies were everywhere. At dawn we would camp in sand dunes, where the guides would find a safe place away from scorpions and snakes. First the camels were unsaddled, and then we would look for firewood and certain branches used for a camel fire. The animals loved to sit down and wallow in the smoke of the fire, as they got rid of all their flies. Then it was first a chai and afterwards dinner. At eight we were ready to go to bed. On a sand dune, looking at the bright night sky - quite romantic if it weren't for the nasty dung beetles, that would panic us all night, because of the smell of the camel blankets we were sleeping on. So we passed three days, seeing the Pakistani border at night - in fact all the windmills are to generate light for it - without shower, and we really liked it. But after three nights we also had enough, Anton had even booked for 7 days, but decided to head back with me. To our surprise we met Lee & Oriana in the jeep that took us back to Meeru's place.

We spent another day there, hanging out, and having an excellent Tandoori chicken on the rooftop terrace, before we left for a Durga Puja festival in the area, a major Hindu five-day festival. The big festival was in fact a small party, but it was awesome. Kids were dancing while beating two sticks, something we would see at many places over the duration of the festival. The people were so nice, inviting us to watch and even asked Oriana to participate. That is what I love about India...

From Jaisalmer Anton and me took the next day a bus to Jodhpur. We had passed the outskirts of the city on the bus ride to Jaisalmer and it looked horrible, so I had planned only a short stay. But when we got there we were quickly enchanted by its charms. Jodhpur – the blue city – has a towering fort high above the city.

In the rickshaw to our Haveli – an old patronage house – we met Nadine. Each of us had an own room, the building was beautifully decorated with wooden carvings. At night we met with Oriana and Lee at the clock tower, the central point of the city. We decided to splash out for dinner – at least for Indian standards – and went for the nicest restaurant, overlooking the old centre, the clock tower and the lit fort as a beautiful backdrop. And the price was well worth it, we had excellent food, masalas, Tandoori chicken and chapattis.

The next day we visited the Umaid Bhawan palace, one of the largest private residences, today part museum, luxury hotel and still seat of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The palace was built in the 1920s to employ starving workers during a recession. After walking though the huge gardens, we returned to the centre for a stroll through the maze of small streets of the old, stopping at street vendors for some Indian sweets or Pakora – veggies and potatoes fried in a chickpea breading until you finally get to the part where the houses are actually blue. We climbed the steep streets up to the fort, which apparently has never been taken. Beautiful views over the city and marvellous architecture in the fort were the reward. Afterwards we treated ourselves to the Jodhpur specialty – Saffron Lassi – and indeed excellent, we had many more.

At night we had a special task – find a bar. Most people we asked would look at us like extraterrestrials: A bar? Here? No way! But after many attempts we finally found one, in the cellar of a hotel, dark, smoky, but they did serve beers and played some music, until the bar closed and we were kicked out at 11 at night.

The day after we wanted to get away from the city hustle and went to Mandor gardens, the ancient seat of a Rajasthan dynasty. Instead of taking a rickshaw we decided to take a local bus, for 2 rupees (around 5 cents), chatting to students and others on the way. The park itself is full of cenotaphs (burial temples), families where strolling alongside and we relaxed on a bench doing people watching. The park was full of monkeys, and we watched a couple of guys feeding them. We were almost ready to leave, when we discovered some guys feeding fish with chapatti dough – to get good karma - and they showed us some temples with the highlight an underground temple where we had to crawl in through a tiny tunnel and exit the other way – excellent.

Originally I wanted to continue to Varanasi, but trains were fully booked and I didn’t want to risk missing my flight to meet my parents in Jordan, so I decided to skip the Ghats – burning houses – and holy city along the Ganges and instead continue with Nadine to Agra. We arrived late at night and choose a hotel close to the Taj Mahal, with a stunning view from the rooftop terrace. Especially with Agra I had no idea how many people live in this city, from the dimensions it seems to be the size of a German mid-size town – let’s say Lübeck – with 200 or 250 thousand inhabitants. But Agra has 2 million inhabitants, which tells you something about how many people are cramped in the small buildings.

Next day it was an early start to be first in line once the Taj opens its gates at 7 am. Walking through the entrance gate, we had our first view of the Taj, the well known postcard view of the gardens with the Taj in the background. On pictures the building looked magnificent, but in reality it is even more astonishing. White marble, beautiful inlay carvings – the building almost glows – a perfect romantic place. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built in 1648 by Shah Jahan to commemorate the death of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal; too bad only he did witness the construction only from his cell of the Agra fort, after being overthrown by his son. We spent much time marvelling at the building from all possible angles. The building is mainly made from marble but 28 different jewels from all over Asia have been used in the inlays. Legend has that the Shah had the right hands of all 20000 workers chopped of, so that they could never create a more beautiful building. It is flanked by a mosque and a rest house.

After a lunch in a quiet backyard restaurant, we spent the afternoon with a rickshaw tour of the rest of Agra, quite an ugly city and with 2 million inhabitants far bigger than I imagined. We got another view from the other side of the Yamuna River while relaxing with a chai in the garden, were legend says that a black Taj was planned as a mausoleum for the Shah. We saw a burning Ghat - where corpses are burnt and their ashes dispersed in the holy waters - from the distance, as the Yamuna River is one of the holiest rivers after the Ganges. And we visited the Baby Taj, the predecessor of the Taj Mahal, much smaller but with even more beautiful marble inlay carvings.

As I had a day left I went back to Jaipur instead of spending some more days in Delhi, to meet up with Kabir and found out that Lee and Oriana were also in town. In my favourite hotel I couldn’t get a room, so I was driven a bit away into a not so nice area of town – again being the only foreigner. During the day I visited the xxx palace and strolled around the old city centre, watching a parade by the Rajasthan xxx and enjoying the city a lot more than the previous time. And I did the one thing I still had not done so far: watch a Bollywood movie. Jaipur was the perfect spot as it has apparently one of the most beautiful movie theatres in all of India, the Raj Mandir. It certainly was a beautiful building, but the movie was even better. Even though it was in Hindu you could understand every bit of the storyline, but I missed a bit more of singing and dancing. People were constantly clapping, laughing and booing. At night I met with Kabir, Lee, Oriana and some more Indians and backpackers for some of modern India – a drink in a nice coffee place followed by a lunch on a rooftop terrace of an Indie club.

The next day, after a big breakfast, I took the bus back to Delhi. Originally a five hour trip I ended up in Delhi at 10 o’clock at night. No idea were to go to – the backpacker district was too far away for my 5 o’clock flight the next morning – I took a rickshaw and ended up paying 30 dollars for that night – by far the most expensive night in India, even though I spent only 3 hours in the hotel. By taxi to the airport the next morning and of to Jordan to meet my parents…

All in all India was a spectacular experience and the four weeks in Rajasthan make me want to explore other parts of the country – Kerala and the south, Darjeeling, Varanasi and most of all the north around Kashmir and its capital Amritsar, by many that I met described as the highlight of their trip.

After the initial shock and getting used to the dirtiness, open sewers, huge crowds and the traffic it was a really nice experience – especially in the smaller cities. I must admit that I had a prejudice about Indians – created by the working relationship at my previous job – but of course the people where much different then expected. First of all, in such a huge country all kinds of people exist, and many living of the tourist are quite obnoxious. But the majority of people I have met are really nice; especially those that do not want to sell anything to you. In many places and on many occasions I was invited for a Chai, something very normal and a gesture that you are welcome. It is of course rude to turn down such an invitation, but since Chai became my favourite drink in India, luckily I never had to do so.
Slideshow Report as Spam

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: