With Ed still AWOL in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Cindy and I took some time to explore some of India’s ancient cities in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. While I usually spend my time trying to escape other tourists, there are some busy places on earth that shouldn’t be missed.
India’s train network is one valuable legacy of the colonial period and gave us a convenient, comfortable and relatively safe way to travel. Having secured ourselves an itinerary of train tickets which sampled the range of classes available we took our comfortable Coach Class seats on the early morning train to Jaipur and off we went.
This first journey dispelled any misconceptions I might have had about train travel in India being some crazy Developing World experience. Absent were the passengers sitting on the roof and hanging out the doors. Shortly after leaving New Delhi station we were served bottled water, individual tea thermoses and then a breakfast which included bread, juice, veggie fritters and even some chips! It outdid British trolley service for sure.
After leaving the dusty city behind we chugged through the surprisingly green countryside, flat fields with trees and some rolling hills on the horizon. I didn’t know what to expect but it was very scenic!
In Jaipur the heat seemed even more intense than in Delhi, clocking around 38 degrees. After leaving our bags in a relatively fancy hostel we caught a tuk-tuk to the centre to explore. First stop was the Indian Coffee House as the promise of real coffee could not be passed up. Then we went for a wander through the pinkish orange streets of the historical centre. Many of the buildings are constructed from the region’s famous pink sandstone (or painted in matching tones), edged with white detailing, and the effect is quite impressive.
The Hawa Mahal palace is a highlight of Jaipur, with its 5 nested storeys of surprisingly delicate lattice-windowed alcoves. Built at the turn of the 18th century, it allowed the ladies of the royal household to watch what was happening down below in the streets while still maintaining purdah. Its viewpoints give excellent views in all directions over the city to the hills beyond, although we were quickly discovering that it is impossible to get a photo of anything in India without at least 5 people in the frame!
The following day we decided to visit the Amber (pronounced ‘Amer’) Fort outside the city, but were determined not to succumb to the easy option of taking a tuk-tuk tour as we had read that there was a bus which was about 100 times cheaper and would no doubt be a more interesting experience (!). Having identified the nearest bus stop and the required bus number we dutifully waited while a stream of buses with other numbers (or no numbers) came and went and an even larger stream of tuk-tuks stopped to offer us a lift. Eventually we decided the best tactic was just to get on a bus heading roughly the right direction and hope someone would take pity on us and direct us to another bus. Or something. And it worked!
The Amber Fort was astonishing in its size and position. This fortified palace of the maharajas was built in the 16th century and occupies a hilltop, fronted by a lake with ornate garden, with fortress walls running along the ridgetops to enclose the surrounding area. After a hot climb up the zigzag stairway we spent the morning exploring the palace’s ornate courtyards of sandstone and white marble, inlaid with mirrors and precious stones and embellished with decorative archways and latticed windows.
The next day I was reluctant to leave Jaipur as after less than a week in India I had already contracted Delhi Belly and did not want to be parted from our air conditioned bathroom! However I eventually summoned the courage to brave the bumpy rickshaw ride to the station and we boarded our next train to Agra.
The city of Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, and we had mentally prepared ourselves for a bit of a gruelling time in tourist land. However we were both very keen to see this fabled landmark and so arrived with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The Taj Mahal opens with sunrise and we were determined to be near the front to get a glimpse (and a photo!) before the entire complex was filled with tourists. Arriving 1 1/2 hours before opening found us sipping milky Nescafe at the very front of the queue, and half an hour later the line of people stretched out of sight behind us.
I knew the Taj Mahal would be beautiful, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so breathtakingly peaceful in the soft dawn light. The white marble has a warmth to it which is complemented by the calligraphy and inset stone decoration to create an elegant, gentle beauty. Walking towards it through the formal gardens and past the reflecting ponds you get a surprising sense of calm despite the crush of the queue outside. Indeed we got a bit of a shock when we looked back from our reverie and saw the ridiculously huge mass of people who had by now entered behind us and we queuing at the best photo spots!
After watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal mosque and the monkeys stretch out for a hectic day’s sunbathing and begging for snacks, we retreated to a nearby hotel rooftop for a cup of tea and a new viewing angle. It’s hard to believe that the Taj Mahal was built just as a mausoleum by emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife. The building only contains their 2 graves, surrounded by an incredibly intricate octagonal screen carved from a single block of marble.
Later we visited the impressive Agra Fort, another sandstone and marble bastion where the Shah was imprisoned by his son and condemned only to view his architectural masterpiece in the distance.
From Agra we took our first night train, to Khajuraho. We were travelling ‘3AC’ class, meaning triple bunks with air con, and having top bunks opposite each we settled in, curled around our belongings, for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
Khajuraho is home to a fantastic set of Hindu and Jain temples famous for their intricate stone carvings. We were only spending the day here and catching another night train to Varanasi in the evening so our hosts in Agra had kindly contacted their friends’ hotel in Khajuraho to arrange for us to leave our bags there during the day. When we arrived we were plied with tea, offered use of a shower and given plenty of advice for what to see and we felt bad that we weren’t staying longer!
On the way into town from the train station we drove through green fields and stands of trees. We were amused but slightly dismayed to be told by our driver: “You are very welcome to our village of Khajuraho… It is a small village, very traditional, not too many tourists… Here is the domestic air terminal… Over there they are building the international airport…”.
The temples were spectacular, covered in carvings inside and out. Nymphs, elephants and Hindu gods were the most common images but the stone masons clearly had vivid imaginations as there were plenty of creative sexual situations portrayed as well! Anyone for an erotic headstand?:
We spent a while wandering in the gardens admiring the different temples. Then it was time to head back to the station for a night in Sleeper class. Again we were on the top bunks and I would say that despite a number of warnings about it being less safe we had no problems although the bunks were noticeably less comfy! In the morning the bunks folded into bench seats and we took our places as the train stopped alongside another, very crowded one for a delay. When it became clear that neither train was going anywhere the standing passengers from the other train piled onto ours to sit down for a while. It was pretty entertaining when the other train’s whistle finally went and everyone had to try to get off our train and back onto theirs while it pulled away! Finally we moved again but only to stop a few kilometres further on. We waited a while but everyone was jumping off and so we followed suit and walked the short distance along the tracks to Varanasi Junction.