India – Golden Triangle

Christmas in India. We knew we wanted to take a break from Germany’s frigid winter, and we had our sights set on India. Unbeknownst to us, during the winter months, India is plagued by fog, mist, overcast skies, and smog. While this makes for romantic backgrounds in our photos, it wrecked havoc on our train and plane schedules. But we were looking for some holiday cheer, so we did our best to overcome the unpredictable Indian clime.

First of all let us just say that we survived! India has the craziest traffic in the world, without a doubt. When driving through the cities, we had to share the streets with chickens, monkeys, dogs, sheep, cows, buffaloes, bears, donkeys, horses, camels, and even elephants! Now that’s just the animals. Then you have the pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, motorbikes, and various sorts of 2, 3, and more wheeled vehicles. On top of this add in non-operational traffic lights, thousands of horns all screaming at the same time, smog so thick that you feel a need to drive with headlights on, and police officers directing traffic while smoking a cigarette. Oh yeah, and the occasional pothole the size of the Grand Canyon.

India will definitely overload all 5 of your senses. Words and photos can never explain it well enough. Every blink of the eye seemed to draw our attention to another photo opportunity. With over 2,000 photos taken on this trip, we never even began to capture a visual image of all the amazing sites, people and places. They say that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but in India you have to make it 10,000. This is the kind of place that you have to experience for yourself to get a true feeling of what its really like.

The food was top notch, even at the street side open-air mud huts. We expected to be confronted with a case of “Delhi Belly” but some how managed to maintain normal internal operations. There were a few of the group members who were not so fortunate and fell victim to the tummy attackers.

The people were generally very nice and friendly. Many of the locals would stand around staring and smiling at us as if WE should be photographed for National Geographic. We expected to be constantly hassled by the beggars and hawkers, but they were actually much more tame than what we had prepared to face. The hawkers were at their best as we would board the bus when departing the main sites. They would suddenly surround the door in a swarm all selling the same items but competing for the best price.

Visually there was a great contrast from extreme poverty and garbage scattered throughout the streets to breathtaking palaces and temple complexes with intricate wood and stone carvings and inlays. From the Taj Mahal to the Ghats on the River Ganges to Chitwan National Park, we saw both extremes and everything in between.

Here are the day by day trip details:

Our itinerary deviated quite a bit from the written one, so we tried to account for all our time and the events as best as our memories would allow.

20 Dec, Day 0: We were greeted at at Delhi Airport by or tour leader, “Raj”, who is a very friendly native of Delhi. Raj escorted us to our hotel for some rest before starting our first day of the tour.

21 Dec, Day 1: Our first day started after breakfast with a tour around the capital city of Delhi. In Old Delhi we visited India’s largest mosque, Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque), and the Red Fort. In New Delhi we saw the fine colonial buildings (now Indian governmental departments) built by the British Raj in the early years of this century while India was still under British control. Just before the sun set, we made a mad dash to visit Qutb Minar, a 72.5 meter high exclamation point. Visitors have been forbidden from climbing the minaret since 1981, when dozens of school children were trampled to death during a power outage. It remains an astonishing sight to behold, especially as the sun was setting.

22 Dec, Day 2: We depart Delhi in the “early” morning (but were delayed by several hours due to fog) on a train to the Pink City of Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan. Built in the late 18th century, it was built of sandstone and painted pink at a later stage. We stayed in a heritage hotel (a former palace) and visited a cultural village that night. Becky, Cathy and Sara decided to get henna tattoos on their hands. Afterwards, we enjoyed watching ladies dance rhythmically while balancing heavy stacks of pots on their heads…quite a difficult feat to accomplish! We were then encouraged to gorge ourselves on plateful after plateful of unique Indian dishes….the group was amazed that Robby was able to eat as much as he did.

23 Dec, Day 3: We awoke to hop on the bus to visit Jaipur. We briefly stopped by Jaipur’s impressive landmark, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), before heading off to explore the Amber Palace, located only a few miles outside of the city. The Amber Palace is an imposing hilltop fort containing large courtyards and interiors with fine decorations such as inlaid alabaster panels and a Chamber of Mirrors. All of us had an early morning thrill riding elephants up the steep hill to the palace. Afterwards, Cathy read us excerpts from her Lonely Planet guide that made us feel ashamed of riding the elephants…it appears we were hood winked into believing that the elephants only take 4 trips up the hill a day before being set off in pastures to relax for the rest of the day…the elephants are definitely overworked and next time, we would opt to walk the hill. Nevertheless, the view from Amber Palace was amazing despite the early morning fog. It lifted as we were leaving to make our way to Jaipur’s City Palace.

The City Palace formally functioned as the residence of the Maharaja. It is now a museum containing rare manuscripts, paintings, royal garments and weapons. Next we headed over to the nearby observatory of Jai Singh. The observatory is an assembly of immense astronomical instruments made of marble and brass set in a pleasant garden. The rest of the day was spent enjoying “mandatory shopping” (carpets, pashminas, jewelry). Sara and Gail picked up spectacular souvenirs…Sara found magnificent Amethyst and Malachite rings while Gail bargained away for a baby blue sapphire pendent. We set off towards Agra later that afternoon, to arrive there just before midnight. The drive to Agra was one we will never forget because it was a VERY scary experience driving on Indian roads late at night as the fog enveloped us and ox-driven carts materialized suddenly out of nowhere.

24 Dec, Day 4: Christmas Eve was spent in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We collectively decided to sleep in and forego the “early morning sunrise” due to the heavy fog surrounding everything in the mornings. We start the morning at the red stoned Agra Fort of Akbar, whose mighty sandstone walls enclose the beautiful white marble Pearl Mosque and the palaces, halls, courtyards and fountains. It was here that the Shah Jahan spent his last years, imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb.

Next we crossed the river to visit the Taj Mahal. The Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan built this magnificent white marbled building in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631. Our group decided to take group photos set against the Taj which came out astonishingly well despite the fog. The Taj is serenely beautiful and never fails to amaze a first time visitor.

During lunch, we surprised Caroline with a birthday cake and presents. She was lucky enough to have visited the Taj on her birthday. She admitted that the group tour exceeded her initial expectations and seemed moved by our small gesture. After drinking a celebratory toast to Caroline, we headed out to the deserted ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, formally the capital of the Moghul Empire. This wonderfully preserved ‘ghost town’ was constructed by Emperor Akbar between 1570 and 1585 and reflects his ideals in art, religion and architecture. This impressive and well preserved citadel became his capital in 1571. The mosque, designed to hold ten thousand worshipers, the palaces, residences and halls of audience are made of decorative red sandstone. But this magnificence only lasted 14 years. In 1584 Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri to secure his outlying territories, leaving this city much as it appears today.

We arrived back to Agra in time to pack our bags in anticipation of our night train to Allahabad. However, much to the group’s chagrin, Raj informed us that due to fog (see the recurring theme here?) our train is delayed and we could expect to catch it in the morning. Our disgruntled group hit the hotel bar to drown our sorrows in a drink or two while Cathy danced a jig to bring everyone’s spirits up.

25 Dec, Day 5: (Christmas Day) Still no good news in the morning as we made our way to the train station to find out that the train would not arrive until 8pm (if it arrives at all!). We pushed to make our way towards Allahabad and ultimately Varanasi, as the River Ganges was a highlight that none of us were willing to miss. The whole day was spent on the road as we split ourselves up into two jeeps. It was an INSANE drive from Agra to Allahabad and after a while, we knew better than to try to be backseat drivers. In fact, it was preferable to bury ourselves in books or conversation than to actually watch our crazy driver’s maneuvering antics. We arrive to Allahabad and the journey is still not over as we had to board a bus for a mad dash to Varanasi. We arrived at 4 am in the holy city on the River Ganges and happily heard that the day was free for us to do as we please.

26 Dec, Day 6: Robby refused to let us sleep more than a few hours and by 8 am, we were up and about. We broke away from the group to do some independent exploration. Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in India and stands at the center of the Hindu Universe. The city lives and breathes Hinduism. We spent the whole day walking along the some 3 miles of Ghats (steps leading down to the water) on the River Ganges, snapping photos, buying souvenirs, getting a massage, witnessing the traditional cremations on the “Burning Ghat’s” waterfront, and taking a $1 boat ride back to our starting point. Just before dawn, we met up with the group and visited the famous Golden Temple, then took a boat out on the Ganges to witness the Ghats by night, complete with some local deep-fried snacks (Samosas), floating candles down the river, viewing the nonstop operation of the “Burning Ghat”, watching the nightly riverfront religious musical performance, and Robby taking a turn at rowing the boat while the group laughed at his poor performance. The night was spent congratulating Raj on his 34th birthday as we enjoyed a wonderful meal together. Raj had pre-ordered sumptuous roasted chicken, which we ravenously devoured as it was served.

27 Dec, Day 7: Concluding the India leg of the tour, we boarded our bus for an early departure towards Nepal. It was a spectacular drive across the northern plains, passing through a few towns and lots of pretty Indian villages. At the Indian border we had to leave our bus and walk across through customs and immigration to Nepal. Once in Nepal, we entered the Terai, the narrow plain running along the southern breadth of the country and stayed the night at a hotel near the city of Sunauli.

(The next 7 days of the trip were spent in Nepal.)

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