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North India - The whistlestop tour of the golden triangle

Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur...from warmth to bitter cold and men who sells zips on trains!

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

So with a heavy heart we left our friends in Goa...back to Margao train station to face the normal chaos we had grown accustomed to when travelling in India. Thankfully we already had our ticket but as soon as we arrived, we realised that our train was showing as 4 hours late...wounder!!!

Our attempts to get Dave onto our train were unsuccessful so we said goodbye to Dave who was on the next train after ours and agreed to meet up at the other end. Our train finally comes and we fight through the crowds, dodge the families with what looks like their entire worldly belongings set out on the platform and weave through the food hawkers and bundle ourselves onto our designated coach...and we're on! Phew! So far so good!

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Settled in our cabin this would be home for the next 28 hours...or maybe not! Somewhere along the route, I'm not sure at which point, it seemed that everyone knew that this 'express' train was no longer going to be doing much in the way of expressing itself to Delhi. I'm still flummoxed as to how they knew (as there was no announcement to say so) but they did; every Indian on that train knew though nobody could tell us how much of a delay we could expect! We had no idea how long this train journey would end up taking so we had no choice but to just accept that it will take as long as it takes!

Our train cabin 'roomies' were an older Indian couple, who spoke very little English so despite a couple of confused attempts at making chit chat, conversation was a little thin on the ground which was a real shame especially as this was becoming an epic journey! And in fact, come to think of it, they didn’t talk to each other all that often either, nor did they read a book or occupy themselves with anything. They simply sat and chilled, ate or slept. Staggering! They must have been bored to tears!

But come to think of it, in nearly every train journey we had taken in our time in India, it was very rare to see the locals entertaining themselves with books or papers. They seemed to have an amazing ability to just sit and be still no matter what length of journey!

As we headed further north, the landscape started to change. We noticed fields that reminded us of England and we noticed areas which had denser populations and families literally living next to the tracks in small one room houses, some of them in no more than a simple shack. As we got closer and closer to Delhi, we saw that people seemed to be dressed in heavier clothes; we knew that it was colder in the northern areas but nothing prepared us for the reality of it. By the time we were getting ready for our 2nd night’s sleep on the train, our cabin started to get really cold and we were rubbing our hands to keep warm (Dave was in a train just behind us and he said that the non AC train was even colder due to all the windows not shutting properly and him not having any blanket! He actually lost the feeling in his feet during his journey!).

We were about 30 hours into the journey and naturally by then we were starting to get a bit of cabin fever. Our eyes had gone blurry from hours upon hours reading of our books and we were running out of movie on the netbook (I think we'd have gone stir crazy without the movies!) ; even conversation was starting to running dry...we surely hadn’t got long to go now?!?!??
Time seemed to stand still for a long time, and after a 2nd night on the train, over 2000 miles covered, and if you count the initial 4 hour delay...it was nearly 40 hours later when we finally stepped off our train in Delhi!

We arrived into Delhi at about 7am as the day was just beginning. As we stepped off the train we were hit by the cold like a slap in the face! It was FREEZING!!! We were a few kilometers from where we needed to be so it was a taxi or a rickshaw ride away. With the cold biting away at us we were intent on getting a taxi with 4 doors to keep the cold at bay but it was not to be so we piled our backpacks into a little open sided rickshaw and braved the elements! It was a low point in our Indian rickshaw experiences to say the least! We had trousers on and long sleeved tops but nothing like what the temperatures required and still donning our flip flops the cold numbed our sad little exposed toes in minutes!

So got to the main bazaar street to where most of the backpacker hotels were and tried to find a room. Thankfully we found one without too much difficulty and to look at it was pure luxury compared to anything else we had stayed in in India, but like us it was not quite so equipped for the cold and didn’t have any heaters. Favouring a quality mattress and upmarket décor we simply decided that we would don some elaborous sleep wear at night. It was not a pretty sight I can tell you! (both of us opting to be fully clothed, me donning two pairs of trousers and hat and gloves to bed!). We soon warmed up and the joy of having a big and soft mattress made it all worthwhile!

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We had a couple of days in Delhi before we were due to meet up with Dave and Suza to head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which gave us time to apply for our tourist visa for Thailand so we spent our time taking in some sights around Connaught Square and doing some shopping. Being back in a bustling Indian city after such a long time in Goa was a rush to the senses and seeing the bustling market stalls and rickshaws flying past was like seeing an old friend (perhaps as we knew it was our last week in India it made us a little nostalgic too). People had warned us about Delhi saying it would be a shock, but for us it wasn’t so. I think once we had come through Mumbai back in September and seen many chaotic towns and cities along our travels, this was no big deal. In fact, parts of the city such as Connaught Square with grand colonial style buildings, expensive restaurants and the little park in the centre we really liked!

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Soon it was time to head to Agra. We agreed to try and get the 11:30am train from New Delhi train station and to meet Dave and Suza on the platform. We got there ready for the journey, wrapped up in as much clothing as possible. I felt a bit like a stuffed toy but determined not to let the cold dampen my excitement of seeing one of the wonders of the world. The journey wasn’t supposed to take too long but again once onboard we experienced delays and to make things worse, as we got closer to our destination, it got colder still. But we kept our spirits up as J and I spent the time getting acquainted with Suza.
As per the normal rule of thumb on the trains, we had a plethora of chai and coffee wallers coming up and down the train, people selling samosas, veg cutlets, biryani’s, crisps, biscuits, water, cans of coke, sprite….and even a few people trying to sell us zips. Yes, zips! A very niche market but these guys would have every size zip you could imagine! Not the whole zip though, just the bit that goes up and down. The zip man looked at each of us and pointed out any old looking zip on a jacket or bag and suggested that it needed replacing. 10 out of 10 for originality, but I didn’t see him make any sales, poor bloke!
We eventually rolled up at Agra in the afternoon, again the train having been delayed on route and we went in search of a room. We had heard that Agra wasn’t much to look at and as we walked through the town, we could see why. For a place which has such an amazing sight as the Taj Mahal, the surrounding town was a bit of a hole!

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The guest houses were also pretty basic and pretty cold too but we got something that was clean and with a hot shower though again we found that it was impossible to get a room with heating. It was getting so cold now that were wearing practically everything we could get on. Five layers of clothes and still the cold was getting through! We really couldn’t believe our bad luck and was astonished as to how cold it was. The restaurants were mainly outdoors but thankfully ours had a little fire lit to keep us warm when we ate and even better they had Galaxy branded hot chocolate which went down a treat! Result!

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We asked the locals if these temperatures were normal and they said that every year from during the first two weeks of Jan, they have a very cold spell after which time it goes back to reasonable temperatures where you can wear simply a t-shirt or shirt. It was just our luck that we were travelling the north from 5th to 11th Jan (or perhaps just terrible planning on our part)!

So that evening we kept it simple and decided that a rickshaw to our chosen restaurant would be all the wandering about we wanted to do. The restaurant was recommended in our guide book but a few kilometres away so it meant another freezing rickshaw ride! All four of us piled in (j up front with the driver) we headed off. As the rickshaw gained speed the wind really started coming in hard on our faces, coupled with the heavy blanket of mist which made visibility almost impossible; we started to wonder if this was such a good idea! Thankfully our rickshaw driver knew the roads like the back of his hand and got us there in one piece! And despite the numbness in our hands and feet, the trip was worth it as the food that night was really good and well worth going out of our way to get there.

That night it was a challenge to keep warm in bed and again wrapped up for the long cold night ahead! It was becoming a source of humour as we’d be once again donning our hats and gloves for bedtime!

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The next morning, hesitant that the fog and mist would make our visit to the Taj Mahal a disappointment, we decided to not go there too early and hope the skies would clear. Decked out in our multiple layers we took the short walk to the entrance. Looking around for where to purchase tickets, we discovered that the ticket office was some 2km up the road. Why they decided that was a good idea I’ll never know! So bemused, we all made the journey up the road to get our tickets. The only good thing of it being that it got the blood circulating and I think for a moment there I actually started to get some feeling back in my toes! Thankfully the way back was made easier by the free electric bus they had to ferry customers back to the gates and grateful for this small mercy we hopped on!

We agreed for a local guy to be our tour guide, a humorous chap who was quite likeable. Once through the gates, and the Taj was in view we saw that it was shrouded by mist, we were a little disappointed but our guide continued on giving us various snippets of interesting information such as:

  • The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal after she died in childbirth with their 14th child.
  • Apart from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
  • The Taj Mahal build costs in today’s money about US $100 million. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to complete. The grave of Mumtaz Mahal is located at the lower chamber, while the grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later.
  • Four minarets rising to a height of 162.5 feet surround the 213 feet high central dome.
  • The four minarets of the Taj Mahal were built at a 2-degree angle so that in the face of any natural calamity like earthquake the minarets surrounding the dome would not fall and destroy the dome but would fall away from it.

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By the time we walked halfway through the beautiful gardens of the Taj, the skies cleared up and before us was the glistening white structure in all its glory with beautiful blue skies behind it. Glimmering in the sun, it stopped us all in our tracks; amazed and in awe. This was certainly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and would totally recommend anyone to go and see it. Well worth the entrance fee!

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We felt glad we had made the effort to visit and afterwards while munching on some tasty samosas from a street vendor we headed to ‘Happy Day coffee Day’ shops (J's favourite coffee shop!) to get some tea and coffee to warm us up. It was just outside there that I bought a little key ring from a local boy who was making silly faces through the window, including his personal favourite pose the 'inside out eyelid pose'. That alone was worth a souvenir purchase!

With no time to loose (and no reason to stick around in Agra) it was back to the train station once again to get the train to Jaipur. Again, more delays (which was apparently due to the cold and mist) we stood on the cold platform while sun set. We waited on the platform, getting progressively colder as the minutes turned to hours; our hope and circulation draining away with each passing minute. We met another couple from Norway on the platform and befriended them. They had not long started their India journey and were somewhat shell shocked at their experience so far…a feeling I remember only too well when we first got to India! So we invited them to stick with us as we waited patiently and it chatting to them helped the time to pass. We also made friends with a little Indian girl of maybe 8 or 9 who was clearly a street child, giving her what sweets and snacks we had and any loose change. Wearing a raggedy dress and no shoes, she was upbeat and skipping about despite the bitter cold.

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Eventually our train did come and we hopped on and found a carriage and in the process met a lovely young Australian girl who was travelling solo. At only 18 years old I was impressed with her courage, but I suspected that it was more her sweetness and naivety which made it easier for her. With her tales of endless male attention and invites to drink chai and swap numbers we could see that it was water off a ducks back to her. We’d heard many a story from other lone female travellers about being harassed and groped and we worried about her and tried to warn her to be a little more cautious. Anyway for this trip, we all had each other which was good because a 4 hour journey turned into 6 and with the onset of night, the temperatures dropped again and we were huddled up to each other to try and keep warm. Everyone shared stories, played cards while also sharing snacks, spare jumpers, scarves and the sleeping bag which we draped across everyone. And as the night wore on and we got progressivley colder and more hungry, we realised that this was the first time we’d been on an Indian train but had seen no chai wallers or food wallers. It broke all the laws of Indian train transportation!!! Having had no dinner, we were all starving so when we pulled into a station, the lads all jumped off the train in a mad dash to find some sort of food for us. Not knowing how long they had, it was a race against time but they came back with an assortment of snacks for the group just as the train started to pull out of the station! They guys were legands that night! What should have been a miserable journey turned out to be a good laugh and one which we'll always remember fondly.

We arrived into Jaipur at about 3am and we all said our goodbyes to our Auzzie friend who was staying on. So me, J, Dave, Suza and our two new Norwegian friends made our way out of the train station. Opting to walk rather than get a rickshaw (not sure why we did that…I really don’t!) we started to walk towards the road which we read had a few hotels. The walk, though not really far felt much further, perhaps due to us being tired and cold; passed through the main highway. It was on this walk that I started to notice how many people were sleeping rough under the raised carriageway. Under the haze of the street lamps, there were a sea of sleeping bodies hidden underneath blankets and I was amazed at how many people were there, young and old and over the two days that we spent in Jaipur this was something I saw again in street doorways and pavements. I asked a local rickshaw driver why this was, and he said that people from the surrounding poor farms, come to Jaipur hoping to find work but many are forced to sleep rough as they have no-where else to go. It was sad to see and something which stuck with me about Jaipur.

On a happier note, it was Dave’s birthday while we were there and we planned on spending our day doing some sight-seeing followed by dinner in the revolving restaurant that evening. We met up for breakfast at the local ‘Happy Day Coffee and made plans for the day. It was here that we met a local guide who was more than a little charismatic! He offered to show us around in his rickshaw for the afternoon for a reasonable price and despite the aroma of booze on his breath (I know…perhaps this is a bad idea!?!) , we agreed to take a chance on it and see what the amusing man could show us.
His first job for him was to take us to a good restaurant for the birthday boy’s birthday lunch, and on route he stopped off to buy Dave some birthday flowers! How kind!

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His first task started off well as we dined on some very tasty food in a very pleasant looking restaurant, toasting to Dave's birthday, munching on some very nice tandoori chicken and rice. That said, just as we were finishing up, our drunk guide staggered into the dining room smoking a cigarette much to the annoyance of the restaurant manager. Stinking of booze and smoking out the restaurant, we suggested he should extinguish it, and he did….right in the mint dip on our table. Shocked and nearly speechless we realised that he was not just drunk but rude too! Embarrassed and bemused, we told him to wait outside before he caused any more trouble. Back in the rickshaw, we wondered if we should cut this guy loose; and by the time we got to the pink city, his drunken slurring and pushy ways were really starting to becoming too much to we said a curt goodbye there...with him behind us slurring something about "f**king tourists!" I guess there was no love lost there! As J put it, there is only one word for that guy….”RAGGO!”

With him out of the way, we could start to enjoy our day and took a slow walk round the pink city and into the palace grounds. The streets of Jaipur were hectic and somewhat in your face, but as we got closer to the palace everything became much calmer and even more so once in the palace grounds. It was outside the palace that was saw a snake charmer; the one and only time we had seen one in the four months we had spent in India! The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the palace grounds, enjoying the peace and serenity.

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The evening arrangements were to head to the well-known revolving restaurant near by. Me and J headed there via the coffee shop where we had a chocolate birthday cake reserved for Dave’s birthday. We arrived at the restaurant and went to the bar to wait for the others, where we enjoyed some cocktails and masala peanuts (and Dave and J favourite appetizer). The meal in the restaurant was really great. A totally veggie place that did really tasty dishes, with night views over the city and an in house band playing, it was a great setting. The band played an Indian happy birthday song for Dave and the restaurant staff brought out the cake with a candle lit on top. A nice touch for his birthday meal!

With a new dawn, it was time to get back on the road once more. We said goodbye to Dave and Suza and headed back to the train station for our final Indian train journey. I would like to say that it was on time, but yet again it wasn’t (it turned out that a strike as well as the cold front was the cause of all these recent train delays; which made sense as the previous 4 months train travel had been pretty much on schedule) and so because we had a flight to Thailand to catch the following day we decided to scrap the train and get a bus to Delhi instead. Pushing past the masses in the train station, we saw the counter for the refunds and the people in a scrum to get to the front. Never one to find an orderly queue in India, the only way to get service is to adopt the attitude, 'when in Rome, do as Romans do'. So we waded through and pushed and shoved and elbowed our way along with everyone else fighting to get service at the counter. Madness! It was in this scrum/queue that J was told by a local that he didn’t have a right to be at the front of the so called queue because he wasn’t Indian! Determined not to be put off, J stood his ground and we managed to get our refund. The good news is that the bus we got left on time and got to Delhi in reasonable time and in the process we didn’t freeze to death so we were two happy bunnies!

Even in the airport the following day, we witnessed the funny ways of Indian people. Waiting in a queue (a proper queue, one person in front of another) in WH Smiths (yes they do have them in Delhi airport!), we saw an Indian guy look at the queue, and then look at the cashiers. Then deciding that the queue didn’t apply to him, he just jumped to the nearest cashier and tried to pay. It was hilarious to watch as he was promptly told by the cashier to get to the back of the queue. He looking totally confused and bemused but not deterred, he decided to just try another cashier and then another, before eventually admitting defeat and joining the back of the queue! It was like watching a fish out of water and made us laugh as our parting observation of India!

Our 4 months in India had come to an end. It had flown by and it brought with it a myriad of experiences and memories, good and bad but most definitely worth taking time out to explore. A country of contrasts is the best way to describe India, with so many situations you could easily discover a world of opposites…the contrasts of wealth and poverty living together in Mumbai, politeness and generosity of the lovely families we met on the trains compared to the rudeness of the scamming rickshaw drivers in Mysore, the serene peaceful beauty of the Keralan backwaters and unbearable noise pollution of the chorus of horns honking main towns and cities; honesty and corruption living in apparent harmony everywhere we went; the examples are endless. India is a place where you go to discover their culture, good and bad, like it or lump it; and despite the challenges that we faced we look back with smiles, remember the funny stories that shaped our journey and are glad we experienced it all.

Posted by Eveness 09:13 Archived in India Tagged train delhi jaipur taj_mahal agra cold rickshaw tour_guide snake_charmer

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