India: Rajasthan, Agra, and Delhi

Each time I return from a trip, I hate sharing the details of it. Selfishly, I want to keep it to myself. I want to retain the lasting bits of my experiences and keep them tucked away for only myself to enjoy. This is probably why I try to keep an unspoken rule with myself when I travel in regards to social media; one picture a day at the most, more of a “hey, I’m still alive and enjoying myself” kind of post (hi, mom). I know people who flood their instagrams, facebooks, and snapchats with images throughout their travels and it always leaves me to wonder whether they were so busy trying to capture the moment and share it with the world that they missed the best part: living the moment and sucking it all in.

Eventually, I get around to wanting to share my stories. This typically happens after a couple of weeks go by and I’m ready to start reminding myself of the details of my travels. Little things that slip away, but come back when prompted with a question or when trying to explain a certain place or thing. Again, selfish. The sharing is probably more for myself than it is for others, but I figure it’s a win-win; no harm, no foul.

So now that the obligatory window has passed, I’m ready to share.

In May, I boarded a plane to New Delhi with a nice extended layover in London. I’m still shocked that I managed to grab this ticket for 40,000 SkyMiles with Delta, flying Virgin Atlantic. I’m even more shocked that I got it with the long layover I was hunting for.

PS: I’m a big fan of taking advantage of long layovers on international flights. I basically got a freebie day in London to explore before hopping back on board, falling asleep, and waking up in Delhi. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

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Our plane landed around 10:45am and the light at the end of my long days (yes, days) of travel was a coffee shop. I’m pretty sure I killed my coffee in record time, though I should have savored my ice remnants more. Come to discover, this coffee shop will be one of the only places on the rest of the trip to have ice (oh, how I missed ice and cold drinks in general on this trip).

A couple of quick notes about traveling to/from India:

  • Visas are  required and are available on arrival for US Citizens. It was fast and easy to manage. You just apply no less than 4 days before your arrival date, pay the fee online, and get your approval form via email to print out and bring with you. Make sure you print this out; you’re going to need it to show to the airline when you check in for your flight.
  • Print out your return flight information. They require it to even walk through the door of the airport in Delhi. You’ll then go through about 7 additional screenings and security checkpoints. One more before getting your boarding pass and checking your bag, another at the customs line, again at the TSA line after customs, when you get to your gated area, when you scan your boarding pass to get on the plane, right before you enter the plane, then once more when you are inside of the plane and flight attendants are directing you to your seat. I now understand the allure of those neck holders for passports and tickets.
  • Use Cleartrip to book your overnight (at the very least) trains in advance.  Definitely do this if you’re gonna be bougie like me and want a sleeper car with A/C, and a locking door (so you can actually sleep). When the weeks got closer to the actual travel days, selections became a lot more limited–and by limited I mean there weren’t any AC1 cars left for the taking. There’s a lot of talk going around about how one should really ride the train like a local: in general class, or the sleeper car, but a 14 hour overnight train ride just isn’t one of those moments. At least not for this girl. {shout out to seat61 for helping me navigate the muddy waters that are train travel in India LIKE A BOSS}

Back to our arrival; India: Day One. When I say the heat punched me in the face, I mean it. This was a full throttle, MMA fighter punch. I don’t think I ever got quite comfortable with it. Even in the evening, it was suffocating.

I had a friend of a friend, Karan, who I linked up with before the trip and so we were heading to his place to drop off our things and explore a little of Delhi. We had our first train to catch that later that night so we planned on taking in a bit of the city before leaving. When our taxi dropped us of, Karan’s wife, Divya, greeted us and welcomed us into their family home. They live there together, but his parents are also on the same property. This is pretty common . The house was large with multiple floors and a little apartment on the roof that was set aside for guests to use.

On Divya’s suggestion, we wanted to check out an area called Hauz Khas Village that was nearby. We took an overpriced tuktuk over and got our first real taste of India. After walking through, we decided to go to a restaurant named Social, which was also suggested by Divya. Let me just say this: if you find yourself in New Delhi anytime soon, do yourself a favor and EAT HERE. This was one of my favorite meals on the trip. Indian style tapas that will make your mouth happy.  I promise.

 

Did I mention they have a rooftop? With misters? And fans? Well, they do. The roof also overlooks old tombs in the area that sit by a lake, so there’s a nice view with music playing and I didn’t feel at all like I was in what is considered to be one of the busiest, most chaotic cities in the world. (That would happen later, at the train station.)

One of the most daunting things for me on this trip was all of the train travel that we would be doing. Six trains, 15 days. I think it all started when one of my so-called “friends” showed me a video of people trying to board a train in India and the complete disarray that ensues. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We were covering a large span of area in a fairly short amount of time. We weren’t staying anywhere more than 2 days, traversing a total of 14,945 miles across 14 days. Trains were a necessary evil.

THEY STARE AS YOU COME, THEY STARE AS YOU GO. Be prepared for stares. I mean really prepared. The train station that our train to Bikaner originated at was a bit off the beaten path and so no one was sure what to expect. There was one point when our driver was lost and I decided we were in the Indian equivalent of ghetto. Eventually, we turned around and found the train station on the other side of the street. Let me just say, there were not good vibes happening when we were driving through there. The train station wasn’t much better, but there was a different hustle to it. The minute that we stepped out of the taxi and walked toward the station, people were looking at us. There wasn’t a foreigner in sight. We were like unicorns, and this was just the beginning.

Not knowing what to expect, we arrived at the station with a good amount of time to spare. This station was empty of any type of signage that would possibly direct you to knowing what platform to go to, so after a minute of searching, I asked the security guy and he let us know which platform our train would be arriving at. We made moves in that direction, stares all along the way.

If life has taught me anything so far, its to surround yourself with certain people. In this case, I chose the nicest looking family on the platform and surrounded myself with them. They were intrigued by us, and quite possibly giggling quietly thinking about what we were getting ourselves into, since they kept looking over and smiling as if there was an inside joke that we were on the outside of. When the train arrived, they made sure to point it out in a way of confirming this was “the one”. I has already confirmed this on my own given the parade of people running toward it as it came rolling in. Something I quickly learned about the trains here is that there is absolutely no order to the cars, really. Your AC1 or AC2 car could be at the front, back, or anywhere in between the train. Some stops at the station are quick-2 minutes, or so- and you’ve got to get on as people are getting off and as the entire platform is also trying to get on. The best option that I could figure is that if you stand in the middle of the platform, you have time to spot what cars are on the front end as the train rolls in (and start walking in that direction if you spot yours), or start jogging toward the back once the train stops and you see your car hasn’t presented itself yet. This was the method we went with for the remainder of the trip, but I’m open to other ideas.

In Bikaner, we were staying at Vijay guesthouse which, side note, is an awesome place to stay. The proprietors son, Hittu, picked us up from the station to bring us to where we would be staying for the next two nights. Once again, the heat was surprising. At around 110 degrees fahrenheit,  it was going to take some getting used to. We were, after all, in the desert. And even though we are Florida girls, this kind of dry heat was kicking our asses. Thankfully, because we are Florida girls, we all own Froggers and packed those with us like the wonderful gems that they are.

We decided that we would head over to Deshnok Temple that evening. In case you haven’t heard of it, Deshnok Temple (also known as Karni Mata or Rat temple) is located on the outskirts of Bikaner. Its claim to fame is that it houses close to 20,000 black rats within its walls, all of whom are said to be Karni Mata’s males children reincarnated. There are also five white rats in the mix. These white rats are especially holy (they are said to be Karni Mata herself and her four sons) and are supposed to bring great luck if you are able to come across one while at the temple. We saw two. Between that sighting and two rats running across my feet (another lucky blessing), things were looking good for us.

ProTip: Go to temples in the evening, if you can. Oftentimes, this means that you’ll be able to see prayer which can be a special experience to witness.

Bikaner is also home to gorgeous Royal Cenotaphs. These tomb-like monuments date back to the 1600s with their intricate detail and hand painted ceilings and left me awestruck. The level of construction never ceases to amaze me.

 

There’s also a large fort to see while you are here. If you have some extra time, I suggest taking a look. It’s going to cost you to get in, but that’s true of basically every place worth seeing  (if you have a student id, you get a deep discount). Soon enough, our time in Bikaner was coming to an end and it was time to face our second train ride of the trip.

Hittu was dropping us off so we had him help us navigate figuring out platforms, etc. Luckily, this station had much better signage indicating where to go. Unluckily, our train was severely delayed. Hittu offered to show us a few other places in town to kill some time, which ended up being a good thing since the train didn’t end up arriving until hours after it was supposed to. Our next stop was Jaisalmer. Only a 5 hour train, but the delay meant arriving close to 2am. Our gracious host at the guesthouse we stayed at arranged for an early morning pickup from the station and we managed to get to bed somewhere around 4am.

I’m just going to put this out there. Jaisalmer was the hottest place of the entire trip. It was a steady 120 degrees, reaching a peak of 128 degrees when we were, of course, on a camel riding into the desert for an overnight safari. I was beginning to doubt the white rat luck.

Fifu, our host at Hotel Fifu (another great place with clean, cold rooms), was incredibly kind and arranged our breakfast to be delivered to our rooms so we could rest before heading out for the aforementioned camel safari. Honestly, he was a bit worried for us. The heat was extreme for him, and he was local. He brought us 6 liters of water just with breakfast that we were to start drinking to stay hydrated. This was undoubtedly one of those times where the pedialyte powders we brought were going to come to good use. I drank more water in a day while I was in India than I do in a week back home.

CAMEL RIDING IS HARD WORK. After an hour drive deeper into the desert, we got to meet our camels Raju, Johnny, and Rocket. It was time to load up and head out. We had a wonderful “camel man” named Saliem who was our guide and caretaker for the entirety of our time in the desert. While I’m pretty sure it only took us 45 minutes to get to our final spot for the evening, it felt like hours. Brutal, brutal hours.

When we got to our final location for the evening, the sun was starting to set and it was time to get dinner started. Saliem got to work building one of the quickest fires I’ve ever witnessed and had hot chai ready for us to sip while we enjoyed the view. Dinner was cooking in the background and we were all just happy that the sun was going to hide out for the night so it could cool down. Too bad I didn’t know at the time that the moon can also burn, and that it would be somewhere around 3am before the breeze started to cool enough to enjoy it.

An early morning ride back meant avoiding the heat of the sun. Better circumstances for all involved. Plus no one really slept that night in the desert, and a nap at Fifu was in order. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes.

Our next stopover was in Jodhpur. Our train was cancelled, so we ended up getting a driver to take us from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, which is close to a five hour drive. I’m not going to linger on Jodhpur. To me, it was a necessary stopover since there isn’t a train from Jaisalmer directly to Udaipur and we wanted to stop at Ranakpur, which is situated between Jodhpur and Udaipur. Everything I read alluded to Jodhpur being relaxing and peaceful. It wasn’t. This was one of the sketchier cities we visited and left a lot to be desired. There was a pool at the hotel we were at and that was best part of Jodhpur. A pool.

Moving on.

We took another car to Ranakpur on our way to Udaipur the next day. It was amazing to see the topography changing as we moved out of the desert and into more mountainous terrain. The drive took us through some wonderful small villages and after a couple of hours, we reached the Jain temples in Ranakpur. This was an absolute highlight of the trip. The main temple is just incredible. Completed in 1497, after 50 years of construction and made fully out of marble, there are 1444 columns inside. No two columns are alike, and all are carved top to bottom. The end result is truly magnificent. I don’t think the pictures even come close to doing it justice.

The road from Ranakpur to Udaipur is simply stunning. Small villages are scattered about as you make your way down the mountain’s edge. Mothers are walking with their children while simultaneously balancing jugs of water on their heads, as men are farming the fields. You can tell this is an area of lush greenery during the wet season with so much still flourishing in the heart of the dry months.

Do yourself a favor and add this route to your travel plans immediately, if it doesn’t exist already. You will not be disappointed. It’s about an hour and a half away from Udaipur, so it’s a manageable day trip, assuming that’s your preference.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur. Yes. That’s a palace that is in the middle of a lake. And you can stay there. Excited yet?

You should be.

I’m not even exaggerating in the slightest when I say there were flower petals floating around us upon our arrival. We were given a tour before being shown to our rooms, which faced the city palace, another incredible complex that was the winter home for the former maharaja. You may recognize the Lake Palace from its cameo in one of the older Bond films, Octopussy.

We were only staying for one night, but they were generous enough to allow us a late checkout at 4pm the following day, allowing us to relax and soak up all of the goodness there. This is another one of those situations where a picture does no justice. I had a hard time capturing the feels the palace gave. Maybe you can tell by the smile on my face?

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This was the only city I really wished we had allowed ourselves an extra night in. The temperatures were much lower, and Udaipur offered a gentle lakeside retreat. It has been called the “Venice of the East” and I realize why.

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I don’t know how this hasn’t come up yet, but people will want you take pictures with them. Early on, they’d ask, but by the time we got to bigger cities like Jaipur, there was no permission requested and people are not as sly as they think. If you allowed a picture, there was a domino effect; an onslaught of people wanting a picture too. By the end, it was difficult to not be aggravated by it. Between people asking for pictures or people trying to “help” you out in exchange for money, or just following you while simultaneously begging, it was hard to just enjoy the moment and take it all in. There was all of this noise, and you could not tune it out.  The only reprieve we had from this was when we were in Udaipur.

There was another overnight train to catch, and by this time I was able to easily navigate the station and locate our car. We were on our way to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

There’s a lot to do in Jaipur. I wasn’t much into shopping on this trip, since I’m not into being harassed. Everything was pretty cheap in quality too, unless you went to a proper store. If you are looking for home goods then a stop at Rajasthali would be advised. I picked up a great rug there that I had shipped back to the states inexpensively.

If I had to put together a short list of places to go in Jaipur based on my itinerary it would include a stop at:

  • Lassiwala for a traditional lassi.  Go for the plain and make sure you go to the real Lassiwala since there are a lot of impostors. The one you want says “since 1944” on their sign.
  • Birla Temple Built entirely of marble, this temple has a more modern feel. We made it here for 7pm prayer, which was really enjoyable. You aren’t allowed to take any pictures at this temple, and while people were, I wanted to be respectful, so you’ll have to rely on some google images instead.
  • The Amber Fort This massive structure takes a good third of the day to get to and explore. We spent about two hours wandering the grounds.
  • Monkey Temple There are a lot of monkeys. They are sneaky. Watch your stuff. This was also the only place we encountered a snake charmer on the whole trip. It’s a little seedy, so trust your gut. We didn’t get too far before we ended up turning around, but I got some of my favorite photos of the trip while we were here.
  • Four Seasons Two words; Crispy. Corn. This vegetarian restaurant was one of my favorite restaurants on our travels. They had a ton to choose from, the portions weren’t overwhelming (we shared a few items), and it was really inexpensive. My meal cost around $6 including drinks.

We went to other places while in Jaipur, but for me, these were the most memorable.

I had decided that we should drive from Jaipur to Agra so we could make two stops along the way. The first, at Chand Baori where the worlds deepest stair well exists, and the second at Fatehpur Sikri, a complex of temples and monuments that also include’s one of India’s largest mosques (Jama Masjid). Neither of these were long stops and both are free, regardless of what random people try to tell you.

Agra’s only saving grace is the Taj Mahal. We didn’t go to Agra fort, because at this point in the trip they were all starting to look the same. We stayed two nights. Not because you need to stay for that long, but because we wanted to be able to see the sunrise and the sunset at the Taj. In hindsight, we probably could have seen sunset and gotten the next train back to Delhi. It was my second least favorite city we went to; I won’t be rushing back anytime soon.

Sunrise was at 5:30am so we got a tuktuk to the East Gate (make sure you specify which gate you want) to purchase our tickets. Since motorized vehicles aren’t allowed within a certain distance, there are lots of people trying to get you to pay for a pedicab to the main entry, but if you wait for a few minutes there are free electric shuttles that will take you. You can also always walk too. They were paving the road and walkway when we were there, which will make for a much nicer walk. Right now its mainly mixture of dirt and asphalt.

Seeing the Taj Mahal is everything you think it’s going to be and more. I’m glad we went so early. Even in the off season, it was the most crowded monument we had been to yet. The ivory white tomb came into view as we rounded the walkway. It was immense. We were still a good distance from it and yet its presence was undeniable. This air of calmness enveloped the grounds and I felt like I could have stayed there forever, breathing it all in.

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I entered the tomb and instantly I was overwhelmed by the peace I felt in the space. The inner walls are around 82ft high with a center dome embellished with a sun pattern. Once again I had a “wow” moment, thinking about how it was built in 1643 without any modern conveniences. The rear of the Taj Mahal overlooks the Yamuna River and offers a momentary sanctum for your mind to rest. 2016-05-25_152155000_64744_iOS

 

 

We were ready for food and decided to over to the Oberoi Hotel to get breakfast. After basking in the light of the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi was exactly what we needed. The perfectly manicured grounds were a sight for sore, trash-ridden eyes. This was Agra’s Lake Palace.

Breakfast was delicious and everything smelled so lovely that I didn’t want to leave and go to our hotel.  I promised myself that if I ever returned to Agra, a stay at the Oberoi would be necessary. Though, I don’t envision going back anytime soon. Not to Agra.

I had read that the best place to see the sunset with the a view of the Taj Mahal was the Shanti Lodge Hotel Rooftop. There was a restaurant at the top that, after walking through a dingy alleyway and up 4 flights of stairs and past the kitchen, I decided not to eat. I ordered a beer instead. There were surprisingly few people here. After reading a few reviews, everything indicated that the rooftop gets pretty crowded, but we sat right down at a table in the far corner, closest to the edge. While the atmosphere at the Shanti Lodge isn’t anything to write home about, the view could not be beat. When you find yourself questioning whether to walk down the alley (and you will) to get to the entrance of the hotel, just put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Oh, and make sure you eat something before you go.

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Surprise! Our train to Delhi was delayed. Of course, up until we arrived at the station, everything indicated that it would be running on time, but I didn’t even mind because this was the last train we’d be taking on our trip. What I did mind was the lady in purple who would not stop staring at me. I decided she was looking for a staring contest. Game on.

I must have made her uncomfortable with all of the staring (hmm) I was doing, since she eventually ruffled and stopped. By this point in the trip, with less than 24 hours to go, I was not taking kindly to the staring, picture requests, or general harassment that we experienced daily. I was really looking forward to meeting up with Hittu in Delhi before he left to head North, since we didn’t get pestered nearly as much when he was with us. It was also fortunate that we were able to see our friend we made from our first stop in Bikaner before our last stop in Delhi. Full circle. All of my trips have a way of doing this; more on that some other time.

My Delhi experience at the beginning of my trip was completely different from my Delhi experience at the end of my trip. When I left the first time, I was a little meh on New Delhi. There wasn’t anything really striking about it to me. When we came back, this changed. Hittu picked us up from the train station. This time the station was in the center of the city, just near Connaught Place. Our first stop was to a Sikh temple, where any religious background is welcome to attend. This temple also has a large kitchen where volunteers work day and night preparing meals non stop for anyone who wants one. tons of people were in the kitchen preparing chapati, rice, and dal. I asked how many people they feed a day and they told me, thousands.

 

In the middle of Delhi is a sanctuary called Lodhi Gardens. This sprawling park contains mixed architecture that includes mosques and tombs as well as quiet walkways to escape from the buzz of the city. It wouldn’t be a trip to Delhi without a stop at the India Gate. This memorial honors 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives during the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Standing at 138 feet tall, it’s hard to miss when driving through the city.

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Karan and Divya were gracious enough to allow us to rest at their house again on our final night and suggested that we check out a restaurant called Depot29 for our final meal. It’s a good thing we followed their advice. Depot29 is where Indian and Mexican meet and have tasty baby root vegetable tacos that I could eat for days. There was also an incredible mushroom burger with truffle oil that I’m still thinking about. Downstairs, there was live music playing that was wafting into the room. Food + music = my happy place.

Our early flight caused us to have to get back at a decent hour to finish packing up. We said our goodbyes and got back to our room as I contemplated my journey so far. I loved my time in India, but I was ready to move on to the next leg of this adventure: Jordan.

 

 

 

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14 thoughts on “India: Rajasthan, Agra, and Delhi

  1. […] I was dreading the security line at Heathrow, so imagine my delight when we got there and there was no line. None. There were two people in front of us, and so we breezed through with little effort and a some time to spare. Just enough time, it turns out, to change back into comfy plane clothes and settle into our seats for the 9.5 hour flight to India. […]

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  2. Being an Indian. I loved how you described our culture. 🙂
    It loved reading your post.
    I am new at this place. I would love if you can have a look at my first post. If you enjoy, follow for more and I will surely follow you back!

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  3. Did you visit the Jal Mahal in Jaipur? It’s an exquisite beauty. I really agree with you, in the line where you said people try to share the moment so much that they forget to live it. Really hope you enjoyed your trip. Plus, if you don’t mind, could you give my posts a read? I’m quite new and would love some feedback 🙂

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