#3 India (North)

#3 India (North)

India continued…

For those of you who are interested to hear about our travels in India and haven’t read the first post (South India) please do so as it provides some broader context for this 2nd instalment.

Northern India was very different to what we experienced in the South, emphasising the diversity of this fascinating country. In general it was much hotter, dryer, dirtier and smellier (both good and bad smells, but often the later) but also had amazing forts, history and culture.

We started in Agra as no travel to India would be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal, right? Unfortunately on the flight to New Delhi we read that the Taj Mahal was closed on the day we were going to be there (Friday) – yes, a massive oversight on our behalf (perhaps Karma for buying a set of Taj Mahal cards in Goa pre-empting the visit). As disappointing as this was we managed to view it from a range of vantage points around the town, just not from within the gates. We couldn’t argue with the reason for closure and were happy to hear that it is still an operating mosque, only open to Muslims for prayer on Fridays. We then visited the Agra Fort in the afternoon, which was very impressive and interesting. It was a long weekend in India due to the Holi festival so we had to stop for many selfies with local tourists – we were just as much the attraction for them as the fort was.

Agra as a town was a depressing place and we were grateful to leave early Saturday morning even without entering the Taj Mahal grounds. It is a very dirty, smelly town that we got a bad vibe from. The rickshaw drivers will exploit tourists to their limits – unfortunately no matter how they treat tourists the Taj Mahal will continue to draw numbers in, so they use this to their advantage by dragging you to hotels (for commission), restaurants (for a free meal) and souvenir shops (again for commission, regardless of whether anything was purchased). This is common practice across all of India but seemed to be exacerbated in Agra.

This ended up being all we saw of Utter Pradesh (a very large state in northern India). We were familiar with this province from our tour in Mumbai where we were informed of the many men that travel from the north to work in Mumbai. They move for the job opportunities of the big city but end up working 364 days of the year (with only Holi festival off) and only returning home once every 1-2 years. This is a massive commitment to financially provide for their families, in hope of sending their children to school. We were told that up to 60% of men travel for work. This theme of sacrifice that we saw and heard so much of in India is both sad and touching.

The train to our next destination (Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan) was about 2hrs-delayed meaning it was unlikely that we would be able to get on an afternoon safari in Ranthambore National Park (NP) and potentially sight a Bengal Tiger. We caught a rickshaw directly to the ticket office. If you can imagine a 10mx8m room with 6 “lines” of Indians yelling at the top of the lungs and pushing to get in front of the next to buy tickets – this is what it took to get on a safari. Luckily I meet a local tourist who spoke English and informed me to write our names and vehicle preference on a piece of paper. He then got to the front, negotiated on our behalf and managed to get us on a Gypsy (6-seater jeep). Outside we found our rickshaw driver, along with our belongings and made plans to be picked up in 5mins from our hotel. Some things when travelling just seem to fall into place – this was a prime example.

We went to zone 8 of the Ranthambore NP which lead us high up into the hills and offered amazing view out over the plains and surrounding area. We saw many deer and birds but unfortunately no tigers. At the end of the tour the driver and guide quietly mentioned that we should get to the ticket office early the next morning and request zones 3 and 4.

On their advice we were up nice and early. It was 4:50am, rain was starting to come down and there was a large crowd outside the ticket office ready to surge as soon as the gates opened. I spoke with the only other westerners I could see in the crowd (3 South Africans), gave them the run down on how it worked and prepared myself for the impending hustle and bustle. Through teamwork we managed to get to the front of the line and hand over our pieces of paper but were repeatedly told that zones 1-5 were sold out. The South African trio, who turned out to be travel journalists on a TV show, had also been told to target zones 3-5. One of them gifted his hat and after about 1.5hrs of negotiating, system outages and at times having no idea whether we were going to get on a tour we had our own Gypsy and access to zone 5 (for a slightly higher price). This part of the NP was very different to what we had seen the day prior. In addition there were many lakes filled with crocodiles eating breakfast and then basking in the sun, Kingfisher birds, fighting deer, monkeys and then in the final 10 minutes, as we were exiting the Park, there was a female Bengal Tiger sitting about 10m off the dirt track. It was absolutely amazing to see a Tiger in its natural habitat, our mission was complete.

We caught an evening train to Jodhpur on 2nd class reserved (not as fancy as it sounds). This was our first time experiencing a seated only class and an experience it was. Being the end of a 4-day long weekend the train was packed to the point that I thought we weren’t going to be able to get on (even though we had a ticket) before it pulled away from the platform. As the only westerners in the carriage we quickly drew attention and were helped by passengers to get to our seats (which were reluctantly given up upon us showing our ticket) as we squeezed through small openings with our backpacks. Seated we could observe the craziness of the carriage which was bulging at its seams. Every inch of floor space with taken up with bodies or belongings. Thankfully when we passed through Jaipur (the capital of Rajasthan province) almost the entire carriage departed and it refilled to more of a suitable western standard. We conversed with those around us and kept a keen eye on the cricket (Australia vs. India in the 20-20 World Cup). We also managed to be the spark for a heated debate between 2 other passengers about whether or not tourists only came to visit India because it was cheap to travel around. This provided entertainment for the entire carriage.

Arriving in Jodhpur we caught a rickshaw to our hostel, ate some delicious (yet super spicy) Rajasthan food at a local restaurant and watched the dying overs of the cricket. The next morning we awoke to a different town. The narrow streets in the old town were abuzz with business, trading and crazy local traffic. The old town is nestled below the amazing and magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, which towers above the city. We spent a few days exploring the narrow streets, visiting key sites of importance and learning about the interesting history of the area. Unfortunately the exploring for myself was limited due to gastro, which naturally took its toll. That said we loved the town, which was generally less touristy than others we had visited, perhaps due to the rising summer temperatures which halts tourism. Charlotte made friends with a lovely Chinese lady from Beijing and together they explored the Mehrangarh Fort. Everyone was super lovely in the town and even rickshaw drivers weren’t out to get tourists, which was a pleasant change. Having mostly recovered, yet still low on energy we took our scheduled train onto Jaisalmer, our last stop in Rajasthan.

Arriving at around 11:30pm we were greeted at the train station by a friendly and smiling man named Gaji. We had been recommended his hotel from the hostel owner in Jodphur, who arranged a price we couldn’t refuse. Gaji’s hotel and restaurant turned out to be a killer find. With the number 1 restaurant in town we were able to sit on the roof top terrace, replace much-needed calories with delicious food and take in the panoramic view of the Jaisalmer Fort. In Jaisalmer we spent most of our time in the Fort – which is unique as it is the largest lived in fort in the world, with a number of the cities population residing within its walls.

Jaisalmer is the most western town in Rajasthan, close to the Pakistan border. Situated in the Thar Desert it is famous for it’s overnight camel safaris. This was an amazing experience which involved riding a camel out into the desert, eating food cooked over the fire, drinking a pre ordered beer that was delivered to us and then sleeping under the stars before returning back to the city the following day. Riding a camel was interesting and the standing up/ sitting down process required considerable concentration to not go tumbling over the front. As much as we would have loved to go for more than one night the near 40-degree days prohibited this. Perhaps a blessing in disguise as after a couple of hours on the camel I was ready to hop down, bringing back painful memories of hip-opening yoga classes in Goa! Being out in the middle of the dunes, with no one else in sit was an awesome experience only topped by an amazing sunset and sky full of stars.

All over India, but in the North in particular, animals and people alike share the streets. When we first arrived passing cows, dogs, goats and sometimes pigs roaming and defecating in the streets was a bit overwhelming and sometimes disgusting. However after a while when it became a bit more normal, we actually saw the beauty in it. Hinduism celebrates animals and all of life and here people and animals were all living together in harmony and respect, the dogs especially happy to roam freely yet still receive much love from humans.

With our brief but amazing Rajasthan experience at an end it was now time to head back to New Delhi so the EPIC Adventure could continue into Nepal. After the 20-hour train ride we had 6 hours to rest in a cheap airport hotel before an early international flight. Charlotte woke about 1am with bad gastro, which made for an interesting morning. Just as the Indian adventure started in Sri Lanka it looked as though it was going to continue into Nepal.