November 17 to 29
The plan: Joining an Exodus tour which would cover Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi and Delhi. I shall leave the tour in Varanasi and go back via Bodhgaya, where the Buddha receiced enlightenment and Lucknow, where my father was born. Three overnight train journeys, one with Exodus and two on the way back from Bodhgaya.
Arrived at Delhi Airport to discover that one of the bank desks in the arrivals hall had run out of money, while the other had a long queue and strict conditions on what it would change. I had been forewarned by Exodus of the withdrawal of 500 and 1000 rupee notes which caused the problem. Eventually obtained a 2000 rupee note for £25 + $6. I thought I might not be able to buy a metro ticket with this note, so asked at the airport bookshop how much I would need to spend to get change. The answer was 500 rupees. I wished later that I had spent longer in choosing a book to buy rather than which crisps to make up the amount.
The metro journey to Karol Bagh, with two plastic counters instead of tickets and two changes of train was OK. The hotel was not far away, but the maze of streets so confusing that it was worth taking a tuk-tuk, and even the driver had to stop a couple of times to ask the way. I did not go out again, but ate one of the packets of crisps for supper. The tour leader AJ rang my room to tell me the meeting time for the next morning had been put back half an hour.
Met the leader and three other members of the group, then drove to the airport to collect the others before continuing to Jaipur, the only place where we stay more than one night. We seemed to drive around for ages before finding the hotel, and decided that, because of delays at the airport, we would eat there rather than go out to a restaurant. I kept the cost down by having a lassi for lunch en route and a fruit and tomato salad for dinner. The wifi does not work, even in reception.
More driving around, with photo opportunities. The main sight of the morning was the Amber Fort, on the ridge of hills, part of an 18-km city wall. One of our group elected to ride up by camel, the rest walked. AJ advised us not to buy from souvenir sellers; instead, he would show us some of their goods in the bus as we prepared to leave, when the prices would be more reasonable. I spent 100 rupees on a neck purse to replace the one I lost in Cambodia.
We then visited a handicrafts enterprise, base for a cottage industry producing block-printed textiles and carpets. We were shown demonstrations of the techniques, then taken to the carpets showroom for snacks and sales pitch. One couple bought a carpet, packed in a small carrying case; others bought scarves etc. in the textiles shop, where I was tempted but resisted.
Then it was time for more sightseeing: the observatory, with huge stone sundials and other instruments, still used for casting horoscopes. We checked our watches against the sundial (the shadow in the centre of the picture below) allowing for the 11 minutes between local time and official time.
A short walk took us to the City Palace, which has just welcomed the new Maharajah, aged 18, following the death of his grandfather. A small museum told us the history of polo and pyjamas.
Back to the hotel, and then out to dinner, to the Green Pigeon restaurant, with entertainment from two women dancers with fire on their heads, and home again. A lot of driving!
On to tiger country, where Indians as well as foreign tourists go in the hope of seeing one. After lunchtime snacks in the garden of our new hotel, we boarded a canter, a cross between a jeep and an open bus, for the first game drive, and were lucky enough to see one, a three year old tigress called Arrowhead, strolling around close by. There was another sighting later on, when she was lying down and quite well camouflaged, but that involved standing on a seat when parked on a steep hill, and I left it for others to spot her. Evening entertainment in the garden, with a typical Rajasthan dancer (male) who got us all dancing with him in the end.
Dinner was a buffet, good value at 500 rupees though I had to borrow 120 to pay the bill the next morning. Then AJ gave me some rupees for pounds on the bus.
A most attractive hotel, but still no wifi.
Our second game drive. No tigers, but we observed a stag taking a mud bath in the lake, monkeys jumping around in the trees, a kingfisher and an eagle. This bird kindly posed for us on the frame of the vehicle. Back at 10:15 for a very good Indian breakfast buffet and to collect packed lunches for the journey. Mine would be a packed dinner.
On the way to Agra, stopped at Akbah’s fort. His three wives each had a separate palace – a single room for his Turkish queen, a whole quadrangle with its own kitchen and temple for the Hindu queen who gave him a son, and a neat, well-proportioned building for his Christian queen. That’s the one I want. Shades of Goldilocks.
On arrival in Agra, half of us opted to go to the hotel, the others to eat out. With the joy of a working wifi connection, I caught up on the blog.
Visited the Taj Mahal and said Morning Prayer in a quiet corner of the gardens, next to a banyan tree almost as big as the one in the game park.
Then to a workshop where they used the same techniques, and the same secret glue, to inlay chips of semiprecious stone into marble making floral designs, some quite beautiful but I am not carrying a marble tabletop back to England with me! You can get some idea of the style from this photo of the gatehouse.
After lunch, to the Red Fort, Akbar’s palace enlarged by his successors and now 75% army.
One of the emperors – I think, the one who built the Taj Mahal – was imprisoned here by one of his sons. (This is what I remember of AJ’s account, plus subsequent reading of the novel Delhi which I bought at the airport on arrival; the emperor in question also figures in The Twentieth Wife, recommend pre-tour reading, and in its sequel which I could not get on the Kindle.) Not a bad place to be under house arrest. He had his own mosque, and could look out through a window towards the tomb of his beloved.
Then to catch the overnight train. The berth was harder and narrower than on the trains in Vietnam, but I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.
Arrived in Varanasi at about 5:30, hanging around hotel reception waiting for the rooms to be ready. The hotel is beautiful, but the surrounding area not very interesting – actually it probably is, but when I asked where it was good to walk in our free time, I got a negative answer. AJ has organised three trips: one this afternoon for a prayer ceremony, tomorrow morning a boat trip on the Ganges, and tomorrow afternoon to Sarnath where the Buddha preached his first sermon.
The first two trips both involved going to one of the main ghats (steps going down to the river where things happen). This afternoon we travelled by tuk-tuk, and I had to close my eyes as the driver wove through the traffic into the narrowest of spaces, sounding his horn all the time, like everyone else. He collided with two other vehicles but no one seemed bothered. It was scary and noisy, and I was relieved when we got out and walked the rest of the way. AJ had arranged a rooftop space where we could watch the Hare Krishna musicians and dancers representing the three rivers, waiting for sunset and the start of the fire ceremonies. He also distributed some Indian street food – samosas, pakoras, etc. – which I enjoyed.
The journey back was a little bit calmer. There seemed to be less traffic, and the tuk-tuk did not collide with anything. We had a peaceful supper in the hotel, after a long day.
Down to the Ganges again, this time by bus as there was less traffic so early in the morning – we left the hotel at 5. The boat ride gave us a good view of the ghats, and an opportunity to light our own little boats with oil lamps and place them in the river as a memorial for family or friends.
The inevitable “shopping boat” appeared, but AJ handles them really well, and on this occasion I bought postcards. (I now wish I had bought some in Angkor Wat.) The voyage finished by the “burning ghat” where photographs are not allowed. We then walked through the alleys of the Old Town, stopping at a stall where most people tried real Indian Chai in clay pots. The milk was heated with the tea and spices and had a wrinkled skin, which would have put me off even if I liked tea. I have missed the lack of town walks in India, and enjoyed this one.
At 12 we were off again, to Sarnath: first to a very big Buddha statue replicating one that had been destroyed – I do not remember where; then an Archaeological Museum; next to a Jain Temple where we heard about the exemplary lives of Jain prophets some of whom do not wear clothes; and finally to another Buddhist site, from a revival group, built around a cutting from a cutting from the original bodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha received enlightenment: a good place to pray for peace.
In Sarnath I unexpectedly achieve my goal of buying a singing bowl, very much cheaper than I expected and giving me change for one of my old 500 rupee notes. AJ then changed the last one, so all my money is OK.
While I caught the trains I had already paid for and kept to the hotel bookings I had made, I did not feel up to going to Bodhgaya (which made me pleased that I had visited a major Buddha site in Sarnath). To my disappointment, I did not even get to church in Lucknow on Advent Sunday – I might have managed this if my Googling had cast any light on which churches still had services and when, as opposed to which ones to visit for their architectural and/or historical significance.
The hotels were simple but adequate, and the rooms nicely decorated. I wasn’t eating, apart from rehydration salts which had enough sugar to make me feel I was taking in some energy. I read the book about Delhi I had bought on arrival in order to get change – interesting historical insights, some told from opposing viewpoints, wrote a blog post about Indian trains, bought an Indian adaptor as the one I had brought with me didn’t work, and charged up my three devices for the return flight. I looked at souvenirs at the airport for my last 1100 rupees, but swapped them at Thomas Cook for a £10 note instead. And so, bye-bye Delhi, bye-bye India.