We were met at Delhi airport by Randeep, who was to be our driver for the next 9 days. After the chaos and crowds of Mumbai, Delhi seemed surprisingly well laid out and organised - at least in the centre where there are some impressive government buildings and monuments. It seemed more like Washington DC or London than the India we had seen so far. Old Delhi, however, was as chaotic as Mumbai. We drove by the Thieves Market, where our driver said that if he left the car there for an hour, there would nothing but a shell left.
We planned on touring Rajasthan and the fort towns and then going to Varanasi. We soon learned that it takes at least twice as long to get anywhere by car in India compared to in Europe or North America, so we had to drop Varanasi from our plans.
On the outskirts of Delhi as we drove South we passed some areas of enormous office and residential development, with high end buildings. This is the hub of the new business world in much of India, other than the technology centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore, with many multinational companies represented.
The first night we stayed at Neemrana fort palace. It was recommended by a guide book and although above our general nightly budget was well worthwhile. It was a fascinating rambling maze of massive walls, doors, courtyards, balconies, pools and verandas perched on the edge of a hill overlooking plains, hills and some distant tall chimneys from brick works. The fort dates from the 1300's, though much has been renovated in more recent times. Our rooms were in the 14th century part, set off a courtyard, full of marble, nooks, crannies and old statues and carvings.
We could have stayed for days in Neemrana fort. It was so comfortable and interesting. But we had a long way to go (3,000 kilometers) and headed southwest into the desert area of Rajasthan. Soon we encountered camels pulling carts as a local form of transport. It is a little surprising to drive on a divided highway and suddenly have to swerve to avoid a camel running wild and out of control, chased by its driver across the traffic.
We stopped for the night in Bikamer, an old fort city, some way into the Thar Desert, the second largest desert in the world, divided between India and Pakistan. The next day we drove deep into the desert to Khuri, a small desert community SW of Jaisalmer, not far from the border with Pakistan.We rode camels for quite a way into the beautiful sand dunes and watched the shadows grow between the dunes while they turned a golden colour as the sun set. We had dinner in Khuri, then the 4 of us drove with an old local man by camel cart back into the dunes and slept the night in small tents.
I was expecting some sort of semi-permanent Bedouin style tent, maybe even with a nice old four-poster bed. Instead, we had tiny 2-man Walmart quality tents, rough blankets - and nothing else. The tent Sue and I had did not even have a fly-sheet and when I asked what happened if it rained, the driver looked at me strangely and said we were in the desert, it would not rain. Of course, a few hours later, Sue and I were sprayed by a mist of water as rain started to hit the gauzy tent material. You would think that fine sand would be soft, but it was the most uncomfortable night we have ever experienced and I was glad when daylight came and I could get up to watch the spectacular sunrise from the top of the dunes.
The whole camel and desert experience was great and we were very lucky to see the dunes in such ideal conditions. I was surprised to find that our camels were not the smelly, mean-spirited animals that I expected - but instead had very good temperaments and were fascinating to be around. Our rear-ends and hip joints were a bit sore from riding for hours with such an unusual motion, but we soon recovered.
We set off the following day into Jaisalmer, an old fort town dating from the 11th century, sitting on a hill in the middle of the desert. It is still inhabited and very alive. The buildings are generally in great conditition and very ornate. We spent a while wandering around the small alleyways and the girls managed some successful shopping in the tiny stores that were loaded with colourful wares.
As we drove further south we passed through tiny desert villages and scenery that were far more like what I would expect in Egypt than in India.
The drive became quite stressful. On one long road packed with buses and stone-laden trucks, there seemed to be some sort of macho game taking place. The objective seemed to be to drive head-on towards opposing traffic, down the centre of a one lane road, until finally swerving to just miss a massive collision. ( I just viewed a video Sue took at one point in our drive and still gasped when I saw how close we came to hitting a large truck). I suspect the winner is meant to be the one who swerves least and last - or not at all. Fortunately our driver didn't (usually) try to win, which we found to be a relief compared to previous drivers we have had.
We spent a night in Ranakpur, a hill station close to a tiger sanctuary area. The following day we passed through small villages up among the hills and enjoyed a beautiful drive to Udaipur. The scenery was a mix of windy roads, hills, streams, ponds, oak trees, palm trees, low rock walls, small fields with growing rice, oats and other crops. We saw goats, black-facedmonkeys and water buffalo driving wooden water wheels for irrigation. There were men in brilliantly coloured Rajisthani turbans with big moustaches and fine features; women wearing bright red, yellow, orange, green saris, stooped in fields or carrying on their heads large loads of straw, firewood or crops. We came upon trees laden with hundreds of hanging fruit-bats, suddenly arriving in crowded and noisy villages packed with people and all imaginable forms of transport.
Udaipur is famous for its old lake palaces and is meant to be very romantic. We only had a few hours in the city while the girls shopped and I did the "30-minute tourist" thing - quickly moving to different spots to see the sights and take photos.
We drove on to Pushkar - the second most sacred Hindu pilgrimage site in India - after Varanasi.It was another fascinating place. The old town surrounds a small lake - apparently created by an Indian god - in which pilgrims go to bathe from the ghats. Photography of the ghats or pilgrims is not allowed - which I fair enough - but it was a bit of a pity not to be able to share the sights as some of the scenes were very memorable.
We generally avoid direct photos of people, unless they invite us or the photo is indirect. Jessi and Kris both encourage this as they became very tired of people taking photos of them. Some people - locals and tourists - would come right up to them and take photos as if it was a normal thing to do. Some would ask if they could have their photos taken next to the girls. I thought it innocent enough at first - but apparently some local men like to take photos of western women so that they can tell stories about their new girlfriends.
The drive to Agra was on a surprisingly good 4-lane divided highway. We thought this would be a relief from the stress of overtaking on 2-lane roads. Soon wewere cruising quickly through moderate traffic - swerving and using all lanes and the shoulder to avoid the usual camels, cows, tractors pulling massive loads and women in saris holding babies with firewood stacks on their head walking across in front of us.... We even got used to trucks, cars and motorbikes driving against the flow in the slow lane. Then we found our winner of the all India not-exactly-safe driving award. For about 50 kilometers, every 5 minutes or so a large truck, bus or car would suddenly appear driving directly against us in the fast lane - for no apparent reason as traffic was flowing on the other side of the divided highway .........While I shouted and swore, our driver shook his head a little and calmly asked us if this happened in Canada.
We spent some time in the Red Fort in Agra, a huge place, part fort and part palace, dating from the 16th century. The king or moghul at some point apparently had 5,000 women in his harem. They were paid a salary and lived in little rooms in the fort. I am not quite sure how the moghul managed to spend much time with each of his harem ladies.It must have been hard to believe that you were his favourite when he only got to spend time with you once every 10 years or so ……..
We could see the Taj Mahal from the roof deck of our hotel (between the cell phone towers and buildings under construction) and it was impressive even from a distance. Sue had originally said that she was not interested in seeing the Taj Mahal as it is too touristy - but Jess insisted that it was one of the few things she really wanted to visit on the trip. I was definitely interested as Rohini's son had said that, touristy or not, it was really worth seeing.It was indeed magnificent - easily one of the most spectacular buildings I have ever seen and beautiful.It is far bigger than I expected and an incredible feat of workmanship.20,000+ people are meant to visit every day (except Friday when it is closed) and have done so for the last 22 years. My math says that this means that nearly 140 million people have visited the Taj Mahal. It was not really that crowded at the site, though the line to enter the mausoleum and see the tomb of Mumtaz, the wife of the moghul who had it built, was very long. The guy must have really liked this particular wife, who died young, as he built the Taj Mahal in her memory and for her eternal repose.
The following day we got up at 5:00am for the drive to Delhi and to catch our flight to Kathmandu. So that was it for our 3 weeks in India. It is an amazing country - the most varied and at times most overwhelming place I have been. We drove about 4,000 kilometers in India - across almost every type of road imaginable, through huge cities and tiny remote villages - and a lot in between. Driving (or being driven - since I never actually drove, even though I would love to have done so) can be pretty stressful, but is a great way to see, hear, smell, feel and, in some ways, understand the country.
India is changing incredibly rapidly. It can be bewildering to see the combination of a rapidly developing large middle class and the incredible influx of communication technology, all alongside the poverty in the cities and rural areas which remains enormous and widespread.
When we spent a night camping in the Thar desert near Khuri, our camel driver was a wizened, but probably only middle-aged, man who looked as if he had known nothing but camels and the desert for all of his life. We sat on his rough cart, drawn by his camel, as he took us through the dark to our camp spot among the dunes. We put up the small tents and settled into our night in the desert. The driver lay down underneath his cart with a rough blanket drawn over him - in a setting that seemed unchanged for thousands of years.. Then his cell phone rang and he started chatting away to someone….