Delhi – Sun 18th Dec 2016

Delhi – Sun 18th Dec 2016

Today we visited the Agra Fort, built by Akbar, the Murgal emperor who built Fatehur Sikri. Similarly to Amer Fort, it is both palace and fort, with part of the fort still being used by the Indian army.

Our guide paints a vivid picture of life in the palace during its heyday. Gardens, orchards, curtains, and women dressed in brightly coloured sarees. There is a marble room that once included perfumed water being pumped through to cool the air. During the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) the site took on its current style to include white marble like the Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan’s style) with the red sandstone like Fatehpur Sikri (Akbar’s style). Shah Jahan was later incarcerated by his power-hungry son, Aurangzeb, in a tower in the fort with a view of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of his wife. Was this compassionate of Aurangzeb, or torturous?

The palace had once housed the peacock throne which included, as an eye to the peacock, the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is now set in the Queen Mother’s crown and is part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. Which raises the question, should it be returned?

Afterwards, we take the Grand Trunk road, the longest road in India part of the way, then on to Delhi. On the way we pass Buddh International Grand Prix circuit, home to the Indian Grand Prix.

My trip is drawing to a close. Part of the group is continuing on to Kathmandu in Nepal and the American couple are off to Thailand and Cambodia to continue their year of travelling. I’m quite jealous! But I’m also keen to get to civilisation. I’m hoping I’ll find some in Australia! Just kidding, but I do want a wider selection of food, and not have this constant threat of a dodgy bottom end.

The roads are blocked for some unknown reason, but we eventually make it back. One more night in Delhi, and we have a curry at Spicy by Nature, then I fly to Sydney for Christmas with family and friends.

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Agra – Sat 17th Dec 2016

Agra – Sat 17th Dec 2016

Busy day today, so I take the second anti-bacterial tablet. Early bus trip to Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh province. I just love saying that word “Fatehpur Sikri”.

Built by Hindu ruler Akbar, who attempted to unite warring religions by accepting all religions in his philosophy Din-i Ilahi. His Palace includes a small, Islamic Palace for his Islamic wife, and medium sized Christian Palace for this Christian Portuguese wife from Goa (although it seems unclear whether she was really Christian or if this was just a PR stunt), and a huge palace for his Hindu wife. The temple shows example of Hindu and Islamic architecture, and the Christian palace is built in the shape of a cross.

From there we drive to the hotel, check in, then off to the Taj Mahal (Taj meaning crown, and Mahal meaning Palace). Like any major tourist attraction, there are hawkers and queues. But passing through the gate, the Taj Mahal opens up to us.

Married at 16, the Murgal Empress, Mumtaz Mahal gave birth to 14 children in 19 years before dying in childbirth aged 35. On her deathbed, she asked the Maharaja to prove his love for her to the world, so as a result he built this mausoleum. It is seen as an embodiment of undying love and marital devotion.

I took so many photos, and lots of videos, but it’s all the same subject, just from a different angle and as the light starts to set. So it wasn’t easy to whittle it down to just a few. There were a lot of Indian tourist as well, who wanted photos with us white tourists, which was a little weird, but kind of fun.

The American chap in our group commented that you don’t see such grandeur in death nowadays, to which I replied, “Wait until Trump dies”. 

I’m sure the Delhi Belly has now passed (which I attribute to the tablets) so out at dinner, I order a hot curry. I’ve not had a properly hot one yet. Weirdly, Chicken Tikka Masala is the hottest one. It’s very tasty and quite hot, but nothing special. So the waiter brings me a second one which is hotter and a good mix of flavour and heat. That’s what I was expecting all along.

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Karauli – Fri 16th Dec 2016

Karauli – Fri 16th Dec 2016

With a four hour bus trip ahead of us, I need loperamide. Stomach is very dodgy.

We eventually arrive at our lodgings, the royal palace of rural Karauli. First time I’ve ever stayed in a royal palace. It’s a beautiful, colonial building built in 1938 and set on large grounds. The foyer is elaborate and includes a stuffed tiger. The whole place includes lots of old taxidermy, photos, weapons and antiques. The large dining hall, and large courtyards make this an impressive building. It even has a full size billiard table! Although it does make me think that the fanciest places in India are those with the heaviest British influence. 

I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it to the City Palace http://www.karauli.com due to the havoc of the lower intestines. Which is a shame; as it is supposed to be stunning.

I meet the group and we walk through the town of Karouli, which is a beautiful and rustic village. But my guts are not well and I’m struggling! Karni takes us to a hindu ceremony at Madan Mohan, a 300 year old Hindu Temple to Lord Krishna. We watch a hindu ceremony which was special as this was not something we could have seen without a guide. Two men bang gongs, as the congregation chant, pray and bow. It’s a magical atmosphere that is added to by the monkeys running across the fibreglass roof. After the main ceremony, the young Hindu women sit around and sing together. Quite a beautiful moment.

Back to the hotel, one of the group offers me two anti-bacterial tablets. I took one that night, and one the next morning. Dinner again is dal and rice. The room I stayed in was marble, with beautiful old twin beds. Reminded me of the traditional place I stayed in Xitang in China.

Jaipur – Thurs 15th Dec 2016

Jaipur – Thurs 15th Dec 2016

The dreaded “Delhi Belly”, “Karachi Crouch” or “Montezuma’s Revenge” has kept me up almost the entire night, so when my 5am alarm goes off, I’m seriously contemplating cancelling the hot air ballooning trip.

But bleary-eyed, and feeling rough, we set out for a trip into the country-side. I thought we would fly over the old city, but it was just over fields and a small rural village, which was still very impressive and good fun!

Quick photo opportunity at Hawa Mahal, (the Wind Palace) the facade used by ladies of the palace to watch life on the streets without having to engage. I guess it’s the first form of government surveillance.

A drive through the Aravalli mountains, and we arrive at the Amer Fort. Perched on top of the hill, it is indeed beautiful and imposing, with the connecting Great Wall of outposts across the mountain range. But the walk up the hill is tough with stomach cramps. We meet our charismatic tour guide, Singh, who takes us around the fort. During the tour, he tells us an interesting story about why Ganesh has the head of an elephant. As the legend goes, he has a large head as he is wise and knowledgeable, he has large ears so he can listen and learn, and a wide mouth which represents the desire to enjoy life. 

Part fort, and part palace, my favourite part is the Sheesh Mahal or Palace of Mirrors. Coloured rugs were laid on the floor and the reflections caught in the mirrors. 

From the fort, we pay a quick visit to Jal Mahal (Water Palace) built as a summer palace on a local lake. 

From there we visit a jeweller to see how they cut and polish precious stones.

Back to hotel and I feel awful. I can only handle a simple meal of dal and rice and I’m off to bed.

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Jaipur – Wed 14th Dec 2016

Jaipur – Wed 14th Dec 2016

The alarm sounds at a bone rattling 04:30, and we bundle into cars to the train station for the 5 hour trip to Jaipur.

The train station was busy, fairly dirty and full of people sleeping on the floor covered in blankets, looking creepily like dead bodies. But at least the station had the familiar London Underground roundel signage. 

Our hotel is a beautiful old colonial style guest house, and I feel like wearing a white linen suit and drinking gin and tonic. 

We walk through town, past the world’s largest sundial, and visit Jaipur City Palace with Karni, our tour guide. He shows us some traditional clothes, polo outfits, and some other artefacts including a night-time polo ball made of metal frame with a candle and gyroscope inside to keep the candle upright.

The hall of public audience include the two largest silver water vessels in the world and a lovely chandelier which now seems to be a pigeon nest. Or perhaps it’s a palace for the pigeon royal family?

One of the courtyards to the palace (Pritam Niwas Chowk) includes four gates, one for each season. All gates are beautifully decorated, but my favourite is the peacock gate.

Afterwards, we visit a textile block printing factory. Amazingly laborious to hand print each colour of the design with a slightly larger version of a potato stamp.

Next door is the tailor, and my eyes light up! I could get a fancy, bright silk suit! Despite how obviously awesome this would look, I realise it might not get as much use as I hope. Such are the perils of having a boring office job, and not being the bon-vivant rock star. Anyway, I settle on a tailor-made pure silk shirt and a silk/cotton blend shirt, and some presents for family and friends.

Dinner is at a fancy touristy place with sitar and tabla players, a puppet show (where the puppets take off their heads) and ladies dancing while balancing bowls on their heads. I went to a similar thing in Ahmedabad with work when I visited last year. It was good fun.

And I ordered a whisky, chicken tandoori and veggie pakora. Seems like an inconsequential detail now, but let’s see where our story goes.

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New Delhi – Tues 13th Dec 2016

New Delhi – Tues 13th Dec 2016

Breakfast curry and coffee, and we catch the train with the group into Old Town. The train is very crowded (though not quite London crowded) but it is modern, clean and air conditioned. We walk through the streets, try a street samosa and visit Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India with capacity of 25,000 and built it the 15th century. I even spotted a couple of eagles perched in a tree by the southern gate.

Then on to the Sikh temple, Sis Ganj. We take our shoes off, cover our heads with bandanas (I can’t resist a bit of a snake dance) and wander into the prayer room via a foot bath. Inside the richly but garish temple is a golden shrine, rich red carpets and lots of sikhs in turbans, praying and donating money to the tune of a tabla and two harmonium players. People also volunteer to help prepare meals at the temple kitchen next door, which offer free food to anyone all day.

We catch rickshaws to Asia’s largest spice market, Khari Baoli, and buy some spice pouches.

Lunch is a Thali at a local place, where they only accept local credit cards, and not foreigners, which leaves me embarrassingly asking for donations from the tour group.

Metro home, then a car trip with some of the group to the site of Gandhi’s assassination,  Humayun’s Tomb, nearby Isa Khan Niazi’s Tomb and India Gate.

Mixed grill, beer and bed.

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New Delhi – Mon 12th Dec 2016

New Delhi – Mon 12th Dec 2016

Welcome back dear reader! It’s been a while! How are you? What have you been up to? Personally, I find myself sitting in a small coffee shop in Delhi, looking back on a busy year and looking forward to new and unknown adventures. And I’m reminded that I have a blog. So I should probably write some more!

It’s been a tough year for my Mum, having split from her partner of 10 years, and she’s been very down. I felt like she needed some support over Xmas, so thought I should visit. It’s such a long way, and visiting Australia isn’t that much of a holiday or adventure for me. It’s visiting family and friends which is great, but I also like to see something new. So I looked around for somewhere mid-way so I could stop for a few days and then continue on to Sydney. I was hoping for Mumbai or Ahmedabad to drop in on some work colleagues, but there were no onwards flights to Sydney. But Delhi fitted the bill, and allowed me the opportunity to do the “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra for the Taj Mahal.

My last day at work came after several very busy weeks, and coincided with our work Xmas party and a farewell house party organised by my good friend, Luigia. A few quick drinks at the work shindig, and some farewells to colleagues who are moving on, and I rush to make my way to Luigia’s. Great party with some lovely people, and some rockin’ Xmas tunes. The Shard even put on a light show for us, which was almost as impressive as our indoor fireworks.

Well, safe to say I woke up the next day with a nasty hangover, and I’d still yet to pack. I slowly sorted myself out, booked a cheap hotel at Heathrow and took the achingly long tube journey to a soulless, conference centre style hotel near the airport.

Up early and I’m away. London life, and particularly the last few weeks have been so busy, I’m feeling quite wound up and continually rushing. I haven’t really prepared for this trip, as I haven’t had the time, so that is making me anxious as well. I was able to get some Aussie dollars, but the Indian Rupee is restricted so I had no local currency on me. I foolishly thought it would be easy enough to get some at Delhi airport.

Booking confirmation didn’t include all the numbers needed to check in online, so my delayed check-in means I get a middle seat between a lady who really should have booked two seats and a well-meaning, friendly and chatty old man with broken English who liked to interrupt my movie to tell me he didn’t speak English very well. Ah, he was alright when we were chatting, but not while I was watching my movie and had to constantly rewind. Although he told me that it would be difficult to withdraw Indian money outside the airport, so advised me to try to get some before clearing customs.

Flight lands at Delhi airport; I’m tired and keen to meet my pick-up and get to the hotel quickly. I’m running on fast-paced London time, and have not yet adjusted to India-time. And I don’t mean the time zone. An airport official sends us to the wrong queue, so when I make it to the front of the wrong queue, I then join the back of the right queue. Once past, we’re sent to the wrong baggage collection. Over an hour wait for baggage, and I join the first queue for money exchange. They run out of money and shut down. It’s here I realise that they are limiting the amount of money that people can take out. Second place is currently shut while they reboot, as their system has crashed. Worried that it’s been about 1.5 hours since I landed, I think I’ll have to risk not getting money out, and find the pick-up driver I’d booked before they leave. Exiting customs there are hundreds of people holding placards for pick ups. I wander up and down for about 10 minutes and can’t find my name or travel company. Ok, I’ll have to get cash and a cab. The Cash Point (or ATM for Australian readers) has a maximum withdrawal 2,500 rupee. Ah, that’s empty. I join my third queue for money exchange. It’s seems they’re all on the same system and all rebooting. I see a single point of failure here (SPOF for you IT readers). Forty-five minutes in, the system is still not back, and they only now announce that they can’t accept cards. I hang my head in frustration. I’m getting used to India-time now. Another walk along the queue of pick-up placards and I finally find my guy! We walk to our taxi, and drive the 45 death-defying minutes to the hotel. It’s around 1:30am now and I check in and ask the concierge when I can withdraw money. He sends for one of the lads who drives me around the darkened streets of the neighbourhood lit by old shop signs and the eyes of lots of stray dogs. It’s grim, it’s impoverished, but it’s as expected. My search for money proves fruitless. Hmm, how prophetic.

Hotel room is very basic and I’m a little uncomfortable. Brain is still in London mode. I’m starting to think it might be good to adjust out of that London anxiety before I hit Sydney.

After a restless night, I have a breakfast curry and black coffee and continue my hunt for bank, ATM, or Money Exchange. I don’t want to look like an obvious tourist, so I don’t take a bag. Guided by a map on the back of the business card to the hotel, I set out with a spring in my step. However, my skin colour instantly gives me away, and draws the attention of every taxi and tuk-tuk driver.

I spend the majority of the day just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere of the streets and the markets. All the money exchanges are out of money, all the banks are closed, and whilst some ATMs are open and still employing security staff to overlook them, they have no money. It’s a nationwide problem at the moment, caused by the government trying to clamp down on corruption, refusing to accept older notes as legal tending, and replacing them with newer bank notes, that they can’t print quickly enough. This turns out to be an ongoing issue throughout the trip.

After chatting to a local in the street, I decide to walk into town. My skin colour attracts the attention of the tuk-tuk drivers who queue up to follow me down the road. A local notices my frustration and tells them to stop following me. I befriend Jad Prakash and we walk into town together, past a round-about and a temple to Hanuman, the monkey-god.

In town I pick up a free tourist map, and notice the only working ATM I’ve seen, with a huge queue of locals. I don’t have any cash, but I have my bank cards so I stop for a coffee, some crisps and some water, and kick off the blog again. On leaving the coffee shop, it seems the ATM has run out of cash and people are now shouting at each other. I think I’ll wait and hope the banks open tomorrow as promised.

Back at the hotel, I meet the others on the trip, a couple from Brisbane, Australia, a lady from Townsville, Australia, a couple from Boston USA, a lady from Georgia, and two young ladies from Sydney, fresh out of uni, and on their first trip outside Australia. And of course our guide, Karni from Rajasthan.

After the briefing, we go for a curry in a local restaurant, which wasn’t too bad, back to the hotel for a beer, then to bed!