The famed Golden Triangle is a popular tourist circuit made up of New Delhi and Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Jaipur in the neighbouring Rajasthan. We can now say we’ve hit all three of the triangle’s points.
As for an overall impression: the cities themselves leave much to be desired, though there are – without question – sights worth seeing. Again, the experience is what you make it.
I’m going to lump Jaipur and Agra together, as I realize I am lagging behind our actual whereabouts. I am writing this from McLeod Ganj, our final checkpoint before Jen and I travel from New Delhi back home to Canada in a few short days. Hard to believe I will soon have to wake up from this dream!
We’re becoming old pros at the overnight train business (I say this sarcastically, and you’ll see why later). I mentioned in an earlier post about how a deck of playing cards helped to bridge the language barrier between our Hindi-speaking cabin mates and us. We would later learn these men were all military officials on a non-negotiable movement order from the Indian army. How we discovered this is actually a pretty funny story…
When a ticket master comes to verify your train ticket, you are told to have photo ID on hand as confirmation of your identity. Fair enough. For whatever reason, though, one of our mates’ friends in the cabin adjacent to us had misplaced his license. All he had on his person was a passport photo – no name, no date, no nothing. I can tell you the ticket master had little sympathy for whatever explanation was offered up – tone transcends almost every language, after all. The men started rummaging through their bags and one produced the movement order papers, asking us in rather broken English, “Stapler, you have?” Not surprisingly, we didn’t. Maybe this is something to consider packing for my next round of international travel? I produced a paperclip from the bowels of my Mary Poppins camera bag, thinking it would do the trick, but instead they opted to try and glue the image to the page with toothpaste. A couple regular Indian MacGyvers.
We checked into our hotel (Navargagh Haveli) sometime after 5:00AM and fell quickly into a deep, hard sleep. The “beds” on the trains in India are only slightly more comfortable than sleeping on a row of plywood 2x4s, so anything with a little cushion is paradise in comparison.
Here we were, with two days to see… well, whatever there was to see. Because our hotel was pretty central to the main sights and sounds, we figured our most economical bet would be to hire tuk-tuk drivers. As the Indians say: “Not possible!” Why not? Because we Reimers have a “thing” with bad luck. Translation: on the two days we decide to visit Jaipur, every single tuk-tuk driver in the city went on a two-day strike. This was done in stubborn retaliation to a recent put-your-foot-down move by the Indian government, whose aim is to regulate (by way of handsome fines and punishments) drivers who try to over-charge customers and/or fail to use the fare calculator installed in all the government-owned rickshaws. I can’t imagine the pushback if something like this went down in Thailand…
So, we settled for a few days with Sunny – a chatty, single, and middle-aged Indian man who, when I asked what qualities he was looking for in his dream girl, responded with, “I will take anything. Anyone!” Men, I’m telling you…
Jaipur city is predominantly a business centre. I was somewhat dumbstruck to see a gleaming white Lacoste store next to a dilapidated automotive shop whose shutters were barely held by their hinges, the shop owner’s body barely held by his bones. Such is India, though: while the economic divide between rich and poor is vast, the two are often found side-by-side.
Of everything we took in on our two days, these were my personal favourites:
- Surya Mandir (Temple of the Sun God) – This is about an half hour’s drive outside of Jaipur, but a worthwhile uphill trek. The temple is maintained by an elderly couple that took a particular liking to Tom, enlisting him to carry buckets of water upstairs to offer to the monkeys as a cool-down drink after the stifling hot afternoon heat. There is heavy smog that sits permanently atop Jaipur city, but despite this you could still catch a bit of colour come sunset. Brave the compromised “trails” to trek further uphill if you want a nice view sandwiched between Jaipur and Galta.
- Jantar Mantar – This observatory was built in 1728 and was a collection of scientific oddities. We decided not to hire a guide – call me stubborn, but when someone starts breathing down your neck to hire them, you want only to do the opposite – so I can’t speak to the science behind what we saw, but it was interesting to read (and try to understand) the English translation of what each device was said to do and tell. I overheard someone explaining that a big determinant in arranged marriages is the compatibility of zodiac signs (something I’m starting to believe more and more…). A full zodiac “biography” can be gleaned simply by knowing the time, date, and location of your birth, linked to planetary alignments and all sorts of things that go way over my head. Next time, I’d probably swallow my pride and hire a government guide to help answer my ever-growing list of questions…
- Jaigarh Fort – What we originally planned as a trek up to the Amber fort (which, in actuality, is more of a palace and is a must-see, if only for the Jai Mandir, the ‘Hall of Victory’ glittering with mirrors and ornate gem-work), turned into a steep, uphill, make-your-calves-work-for-all-they’re-worth climb to Jaigarh Fort. You can indulge in an elephant ride up to the top – which, given Jen’s nasty cold, might not have been a bad idea – but we figured we’d walk alongside the never-tiring mountain goats. This fort-palace is an impressive display of Rajput architecture and the view from the watchtowers is unrivaled. A sweet, elderly guard was excited to test out his English and walk alongside us, gesturing at various halls where the royal family and other dignitaries would eat, sleep, and play.
On any drive through the city, you’ll inevitably be taken through the Pink City, an old area of town divided into rectangular squares, each one boasting a different local handicraft. This is said to be a shopper’s paradise, but we passed on the opportunity – a first for yours truly. We were anxious to get out of this strictly-business city.
On to point number three: Agra.
Having now covered Northern India from one end to the other, I have to say that Agra was the grimiest (in all forms of the word) of all the cities we visited. The garbage, the pollution, and the pushy, flippant attitude of almost every local we encountered left a sour, sulfur-y taste in my mouth. From my experience here, I got the impression that locals expect, not appreciate, your business. After all, if you’re coughing up nearly $20CAD to see the Taj Mahal, you must be filthy rich… right? Damn those World Wonders, being so wonderful and worldy…
We decided to splurge and see the Taj twice: once at sunset and again at sunrise. As was expected given the wet blanket of polluted air, the skies are pretty muted at both times of the day. I confess: I miss my Saskatchewan skies!
No matter the time of day, though, the Taj is a thing of beauty and the ultimate romantic gesture – the “Muslim jewel of India.” Emperor Shah Jhahan commissioned the mausoleum in memory of his third wife, who died during childbirth. The place is absolutely pristine (no cars are allowed within a certain distance of the Taj, as fumes were discoloring the exquisite marble exterior) and entering the mausoleum was a surprisingly moving experience… were it not for the Indian locals blatantly disregarding the rules and jumping over each other to try and take photographs that were “strictly prohibited.” In such a dark room, I’d be surprised if any of those photos turned out, anyway.
For that reason alone, I’d highly recommend sunrise over sunset. You beat the crowds, the heat, and the noise. It was a very serene (and early!) way to start the day. We entered through the East gate in the morning and were surprised to find a bustle of activity in the surrounding park: men walking their dogs, teenage boys doing a cardio workout, and little ones playing badminton. It was a pleasant surprise to see the locals indulging in a little fun; so often, the people here are made to work loveless, long hours.
Since you’re in Agra anyway, I’d suggest penciling in a few hours to explore the nearby Agra Fort, where the Mughal Emperor was actually exiled by his son and imprisoned in a room where he could see – but not experience – his magnificent creation. Again, go early to beat the crowds. I think I’ve already mentioned that May is a popular time for Southern Indians to holiday up to the North, so we were overwhelmed by swarms of people, crying babies, and “One photo you, please?”
In hindsight, I can understand why so many tourists hire a Delhi-based driver for quick day trips to both cities. If you are pressed for time, this might be your most effective and efficient option, rather than the training and hotel’ing approach we took.
As a bit of a teaser for my next post on Rishikesh, I can tell you our experience with Indian Railways has been… colourful, to say the least.
More to come!