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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
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First Impressions of India

Written by Richard Pitwood. Uploaded 10 March 2006.

India, Country 15, Diary entry 28th Dec 2005 - 5th Jan 2006, Total distance in India: 7133km

The next in our series of articles by occasional guest writers is by Richard, Martin's brother, who joined the team for three weeks in northern India.

Delhi Red FortI deplaned, and met up with Martin, Maz and Alex, and her brother Damien who had arrived an hour before me. My first impression was that it was being somewhere grotty in the south of France, like Marseilles, as we drove through OK suburbs between the airport and Connaught Place. Following Lonely Planet's recommendations we tried a couple of the cheapie hotels, but they really were infra dig. It really makes you wonder who would want to sleep on grey sheets. Perhaps we're getting a bit old, I mean my attitude is still that a hotel room is for sleeping in so it doesn't matter what it's like, but there are limits. We ended up at an OK one called the Hotel Bright (black bright, ho ho) which in retrospect was the worst hotel we stayed in in India.

Damien and I felt no jet lag, probably too excited, so we went to Costa Coffee for some coffee. This was bizarre, after all we had not just travelled a quarter of the way round the world to go to some over-priced English coffee bar, but of course for the others it was a real treat to get a taste of home. It was spotlessly clean and the coffee was as you would expect.

Ten for that? You must be mad!In the afternoon we went to the Red Fort and Old Delhi. This opened my eyes to what India is really like. The route to Old Delhi took us alongside some real slums, where the buildings were clearly condemned, and it was absolutely filthy. This was my first ride in an auto-rickshaw. These are mopeds with a bench behind, all covered in a canvas hood. They are very manoeuvrable, they can slip between other traffic easily, and of course they do, making for a very scary ride. At least the first time it is scary. Your sense of danger diminishes with experience. The most unpleasant thing is the lungfuls of diesel exhaust as you are on the same level as bus and lorry exhausts, and you often end up stopped in queues right next to them.

The fort was impressive. It was the home of the Mughal (Muslim) rulers of India before the British came along and took over from them. Clearly a lot of money has been spent keeping the grass green around the palaces, and we didn't begrudge too much paying about 20 times more than the locals for the privilege of going in.

Jantar MantarMartin and I left after a couple of hours and went for a wander through Old Delhi. This was absolutely hectic. We got lost wandering around the incredibly narrow shop-lined alleys, all sorted by the kind of goods they sold, but we eventually found what we were looking for (a filter for Martin's camera).

We met back up at a pub near the hotel and went off for a rather good Indian meal. I mention food later on, but what immediately struck me was just how much like Indian food at home it was. Thereafter we went back to the pub, called the Pegasus, on Connaught Circus. This was an opportunity for Martin, Maz and Alex to celebrate their leaving the Muslim world with a few celebratory beers, but as we were to find at dawn every day for the rest of my time in India, a mosque is never very far away. It did nothing to endear us to Islam.

I woke bright and early despite the fact that I should have been jetlagged and with the noise of the traffic from downstairs decided I'd be better off going to look for breakfast. Upstairs from the Pegasus there is a cafe which seemed to be the only thing open at 8am so I had a rather nice buffet breakfast. The wheat-based products were rather better than the animal-based ones, but I could have had full English had I had the stomach for it. The pancake and maple syrup were good. By the time I returned Martin had woken and we all arranged to meet at the Costa Coffee on the next block. The other three never showed, so Martin and I went off by ourselves.

Humayun's TombWe set off with the intention of going to the Jantar Mantar but a rickshaw-wallah persuaded us he'd take us to Cottage Industries, the state-run (and fixed price) shop which I knew was nearby. I bought loads of rather expensive stuff - that's my souvenirs and presents out of the way.

We went back to the hotel via long way. Our rickshaw wallah had decide to wait for us and by this stage I had not learned to be assertive in my dealings with the locals who are well used to westerners unfamiliar with the hard sell. So he persuaded us he should take us to the 'Indian market', which was 'just round the corner'. Twenty minutes later somewhere in southern New Delhi we finally made him turn around and take us to the hotel.

Humayun's TombLater we walked to the Jantar Mantar. This is a large observatory built around 300 years ago. It plots eclipses and other things we didn't fully understand. It basically looks like a suburban lido with concrete steps and slopes around the place. The others decided not to bother, which was a wise decision, as we were stung by a guide, who, after he had shown us round, suggested we should pay him 200 rupees each. This was a salutary lesson, as never again did we take something and then ask the price afterwards. I think I ended up giving him 100 rupees for the two of us, but we should have beat him down to maybe 50 if we had had the life experience of India before.

Then to lunch at McDonalds: not the western treat you might imagine (hem hem). We had a choice of McMaharaja burger, which was a 99p chicken burger with tikka sauce from a bottle, or a McAloo. A potato burger, with fries as well. I ask you. Talking to middle-class Indians later on we discovered they only go there for the ice cream themselves.

Taj MahalLate afternoon we went to Humayun's tomb. He was one of the Moghuls and his was the first mausoleum to utilise the style that culminated in the Taj Mahal, so we were keen to see this for comparison. It was stunning. Once again a lot of money had been spent. In fact a lot of the money comes from Muslim charitable foundations. It's nice for us to see these things, and I dare say important for world heritage, but to see people literally living on the pavement outside made me question their priorities.

The next day we drove to Agra. There was a diversion on the way, taking us through a suburban slum. This was awful, like it could not get any dirtier than this. Imagine a scrap yard in England, with the dirt ground covered in bits of metal and oil, and everything filthy to the touch. Now replace the piles of car carcasses with huts made of corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. Now insert lots of people, livestock, occasional cafes with plastic patio chairs and tables outside, swarms of flies over the serving counters, and crank up the temperature to hot summer, and you now have the Slums of Delhi.

The countryside between Delhi and Agra was very suburban, as built up as south east England. There were not many private cars on the road - it was mostly lorries, shared transport and motorbikes.

Taj MahalAgra turned out to be filthy as well. Dinner was fantastic at a pavement cafe surrounded by open sewers - I kid not. India doesn't really smell all that bad, I guess because it is winter, but we were trying to be vegetarian as well, not knowing how well the meat had been cared for.

We visited the Taj Mahal. Now this was expensive. On the way through the park surrounding it on the west side we were collared by another guide, who we managed to beat down to a reasonable price for the five of us. In retrospect we didn't learn a great deal off him, we all having done a fair bit of homework beforehand. One advantage with having to pay the Western price is that you avoid the Indian queue. One advantage of the apartheid we were subjected to. The 750rp we spent also entitled us to some blue paper overshoes, so we didn't have to take our shoes off.

The Taj is stunning: completely symmetrical in the Persian style, cynical as I am I was impressed. It was just so huge as well as being beautiful. The Shah Jahan, another Moghul, was responsible for this one, a mausoleum for his widow Mumtaz. Indeed this was called the Mumtaz Mahal before we Brits came along and decided it should honour us instead of her (Taj Mahal = crown palace). We also helped save the Taj by replacing the golden pinnacles of the domes with brass ones, and removing the diamonds from inside the central domed ceiling, and safely taking it all back to England to turn them into Crown Jewels and the like. Hoorah for us.

Taj MahalThe Shah Jahan also laid the foundations for a black mahal on the opposite bank, but when he actually died the successors decided they couldn't possibly afford another one so they decided to bury him in a tomb next to Mumtaz, thus spoiling the symmetry of the building, but it is a lot more romantic.

I had never seen any view of the Taj other than the classic one from the gatehouse looking along the reflecting pool. People were queuing up to have their photo taken in the 'Diana seat' half way along the lake. One thing I had never noticed before is that the minarets lean outwards slightly.

Taj MahalEventide to a rooftop restaurant offering views of the Taj Mahal, which would have been good had it in any way been illuminated or even if Indian streetlights gave off enough residual light to light it indirectly. No it was invisible. It was a chilly affair, not long after we learned that this was the coldest winter in North India for 70 years, but being New Year's Eve we braved it out, despite the lack of woks full of coals that were placed at strategic places between the tables. They irritatingly ran out of beer at 11.40pm, only to magically find some at 12.15 for a table of teachers from London, so we joined them.

Not exactly an early start the next day. We decided to go to Ranthambhore National Park to bag us a tiger. The road out of Agra was narrow and really crowded with pedestrians. Agra was the filthiest and most crowded city I saw in India. Even crossing the Rajasthani border there was still plenty of agriculture, but also many brick kilns and people scratching at the surface of the soil to make bricks, which were piled up to dry in the sun. We started to see carts pulled by camels as well as the usual oxen.

Ranthambhore is miles off the main road, and it is only on the National Highways you ever get signposts in Roman script. My attempt to learn the Hindi alphabet certainly paid off. We camped in the car park of a hotel and had to pay 150rs for the privilege. Martin drew short straw to get up at 5am to get tickets.

As printed by a rubber stampMartin woke at 4.50am, hung around waiting for a guide to tell him we could go with his bus and then at 7.30 was told we were leaving in 2 minutes. We were none too pleased about this... 15 mins later after waking up and cleaning teeth we were in an open-top single decker bus, coats on against the cold. We picked up yon' posh folk from their fancy high falutin' hotels and went off to spot tigers. I know only leopards can be spotted, which perhaps explains why we didn't see one. We saw wild boar, deer, huge 'blue bull' antelope it sounded like, monkeys, cranes, ibises, ants, dust etc. It was really quite green and foresty, a bit like Provence. The safari took a good 3 hours but we saw no tigers. We saw freshly-minted tiger tracks but no tigers. We considered leaving bait in the form of a box of Frosties, but none were to hand, so I will have to find a clip-art tiger and Photoshop it into a picture I took of 'no tigers'.

Our first sight as we got back was the amusing scene of the hotel's security guard, an ex-sergeant-major type with handlebar moustache trying to chase a cow out of the grounds of the hotel. How the cow managed to negotiate the cattle grid at the gate we were not sure. Martin had a well deserved kip, others decided to go on that afternoon's hunt but Martin and I were fairly sure another 3 hrs in a bumpy bus would not get the result we desired (we were wrong, as it turned out) so decided to head for Pushkar. The best road seemed to be via Jaipur, so that is where we went next, so back we went along the single track road to the main road to Jaipur. The road quality seemed to be improving though we passed several wrecked lorries, some clearly because they were overloaded. There was a massive pile of broken marble sheets right in the middle of the road. Someone will be in trouble for that... I had heard many stories of Jaipur being a bit crap, but it was rather nicer than Agra or Delhi. Not as much rubbish on the streets and the sewers weren't so full. Perhaps because of the drier climate as we are getting to semi-arid areas now.

Monkeys at RanthambhoreWe think opinions we had received had been from travellers who had been mercilessly touted from the railway station. We had no such luxury, having to travel in an air-conditioned 4x4, thus insulating ourselves from the realities of backpackerdom.

Hawa Mahal, JaipurNight falls fast here, just before 6pm, so we were lucky to get here before having to risk Indian roads at night. For dinner we deliberately chose a platter of food we didn't recognise as it was South Indian. It turns out a dosa is a sort of south Indian pancake with grated veg in it, and rather nice. An idly is a dry saucer-shaped ball of fluff, about the consistency of sponge pudding and as tasty as sponge pudding with no sugar or treacle etc.

The begging is a bit more professional here with women proffering baby bottles suggesting you give them money for milk. Yeah right, and it's 50p for a cup of tea, guv, is it? Please please people send cash to Care International so you know the money is being spent wisely. I have been completely heartless and since the 2nd day I have been here have not given a single rupee to anyone, if the rickshaw wallah won't accept my offer I can always find one who will. It's a buyer's market, so stick to your guns even over 10 or 20 rupees. Otherwise you are helping cause hyperinflation.

Grammer lessonsJaipur was nicer than we expected. We spent the next morning looking round. We went up the minaret for 5 rupees and got some nice views of the city below. Then to the Hawa Mahal, where the ladies of the court used to dwell. This is an odd building: shaped like Krishna's crown, apparently, it is basically a courtyard with buildings around to the 1st storey, then 3 more storeys on the front made of lattice work, and only 1 room thick. This was so the ladies of the court could look down upon the crowds and processions without being seen, as they were in strict purdah. Or, more prosaically, imprisoned for life. One thing we missed was the Jantar Mantar. After spending a lot to visit the one in Delhi and not really being much wiser afterwards, we decided to give this one a miss.

Jaipur not warranting more than 20 hours of our time we pressed on to Pushkar. We were pleasantly surprised to find what pretty much amounted to a motorway, as we were now on the main Delhi-Bombay road. It was still unsafe to go over 50mph because of the erratic driving of the lorries, and the surface was not perfect, but it made a nice change from double-overtaking animal-drawn vehicles on single-lane roads.

Richard getting a 50 rupee haircutWith the exception of the tiger reserve, the landscape in India has been pretty much flat, so it was a pleasant change to have to cross a mountain pass to get from Ajmer on the main road up to Pushkar. The rocks are all painted with adverts for hotels, so we were expecting a fairly tourist place, and we were not disappointed.

Hanuman TempleI wanted to come to Pushkar to spot hippies, as part of my hobby of disparaging anybody who is different to me (after all, Britain built a great empire based on this policy), and I was not to be disappointed. We saw lots of beardy middle-aged westerners wearing ethnic garb, pasty American women in saris when most of the town-dwelling Indians wear shirt and trousers. Or saris.

Pushkar also specialises in touts trying to get you to part with some rupees in return for petals to throw into the lake. We had be quite rude with some people who would not leave us alone. The lake is surrounded by ghats (steps leading down below the waters edge), but we didn't see anyone actually bathing. It is winter after all.

Sikh gurdwaraThere are loads of temples here, as it is a pilgrimage town. Or vice versa. There is fairly uniquely one to Brahma, the top boss God, we saw one to Hanuman the monkey God, loads of others and a Sikh gurdwara, in which we had to cover our heads and remove our socks. I didn't discover anything about what they believe though.

There are monkeys in abundance as well as hippies and the usual cattle, pigs etc. There are many rooftop restaurants, specialties include middle-eastern cuisine, particularly Israeli, so we had falafels, fried aubergine, hummus and chips. This made change from usual dal and aloo matter and rotis. To be honest we were getting a tad fed up of veg curries all the time, for not wanting to trust the meat, so something exotic like this was quite welcome.

Bathing ghats at PushkarThe shops cater to the western visitor of lower taste than usual - tie-died t-shirts, posters with pixies or Bob Marley on etc as well as blue baby Krishnas and the usual tatty handicrafts like tablecloths etc.

The Brahma temple is busy and interesting. We managed once again to forego the purchase of a flower to offer Him, so I hope I don't get reincarnated and have to account for my lack of respect.

The hotel here was the best we had in India, and very reasonably priced. However they don't seem to realise it's better to close the door when it gets dark as the temperature drops to near freezing, so our rooms were freezing when we got back from an evening out. Pushkar is dry and meat and even egg-free so things wind up early here. Eggless pancakes for breakfast is interesting, but not enough so to keep us in Pushkar, so we were soon once again in the car pressing on towards the next destination: Jodhpur.

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Comment from Tall Eric
Nice blog entry. Paritcularly liked the description of the Delhi slums that started with the type of dirt ground you only find in scrap yards - how many times I have jumped off a stack of rusting cars only to fall into rank oily water and cut my hands on some unknown car part that was embedded in the mud? Lots.
10 Mar 2006 @ 13:41:18