Part 1  – The North


The road past the border is smooth and surprisingly quiet.  We stop at the Grand Hotel, a basic but relatively cheap hotel.

Since Martin had not had any beer since leaving China about a month ago, we decide to sit in the garden conservatory and have a small snack and a few Kingfisher beers.  I think he deserves it for getting us this far!  Although after just a couple he seems quite tipsy……….

We decide to go for a stroll but find crossing the street is difficult.  The achievement of not getting run over by the hundreds of motorbikes, rickshaws, cars and cycles, hurtling down the road in all directions is quite a feat.  We have an ice-cream each and retreat back to the hotel where we have a delicious spicy Tandoori chicken, rice and veg.

5th December

Today is tour day,  we leave in our air-conditioned taxi along with an older couple from Bangalore.

Our first stop is the Indo-Pak border closing ceremony which has been held each day at sunset since 1959.  As we approach the border there are large crowds of people everywhere racing to get a good seat.   There is a separate queue for men and women as everyone is searched before entry and I chat with the lady who tells me she was a school teacher from the age of 17 and is now retired along with her husband as she ‘wants to enjoy life now, although loved being a teacher’.

As we have foreign passports, we are allowed in through the VIP entrance and the Indian lady continues ahead into the crowd to find her husband. We take our seat on some steps (not so VIP), but much less crowded than the rest of the arena.   There are some extremely tall guards which we assume must have been on the job requirement list as they all seem huge.  On the Indian side, there are crowds of girls and women dancing to the loud party music, including the famous Jai Ho.  On the Pakistani side, there is also music, but no dancing and the women and men are separated into two areas within the stadium.

We see each side competing with the other by kicking their legs as high as possible in the air.  First out are two female soldiers, impeccably dressed in light green uniforms, who start off the proceedings with a fast march to the gateway, accompanied by shouting and cheering from the crowd.  More soldiers march down to the gate in pairs, their opposite numbers on the Pakistani side doing the same, dressed in black uniforms.

The Indian side has a guy with a mike gearing up the crowd into frenzy!  There is more marching and competitions of which side can hold a sound wave for the longest.  Both sides, including the patriotic crowds, try to outdo each other-it’s an amazing sight!  Finally there is the lowering of the flags, the gates open and a guard from each side shakes hands for a second, and then the gates close!  The whole ceremony takes about an hour.

It is quite a walk back from the border to the car and we arrive first.  Then the husband arrives 20minutes later, asking ‘Where is my wife?’ We look at each other and reply ‘Err, we thought she was with you….?’ We both start to feel a little guilty thinking maybe we should have looked after her.   Martin considers going in search of her, as it’s very crowded, but 15minutes later she arrives!

Next stop is the Mata temple-there are women sitting on the floor singing along to some drum-based music and many Hindu God figures on each level. The temple feels more like a maze with each of its floors winding round and round, in one place, through ankle deep water and a tunnel.  As we are both unaware of Hindu traditions we find the temple is quite surreal, if also a little tacky!

Last stop is the highlight of the tour and the amazing Golden Temple.  Built in 1574, the temple sits in the middle of a sacred pool, the ‘Pool of Nectar’.  Originally a lake in the midst of a forest, it was here that the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak came to pray and meditate, and over the years has become one of the holiest pilgrimage places for Sikhs.

It seems quite magical here at night, walking around the marble walkway, and taking in its peaceful atmosphere, a haven from the chaotic world outside.  The golden dome is gilded in 750kg of pure gold.

The temple was intended for people from all walks of life, regardless of religion or nationality, openness being an important part of the Sikh religion.  We pass the community dining room, seen in all Sikh temples, again a sign of unity with all, and the kitchens, which can prepare meals for over 80,000 pilgrims a day!!

We don’t go inside the temple as we are told the queue will take at least 2 hours and time is not on our side so we say goodbye to the beautiful Golden Temple.

We navigate back through the dark streets to find our taxi, and return to the hotel for dinner.

Our first thoughts of India-so far we have found, as warned, Northern India to be very dirty; rubbish all over the streets, which is either on fire or being gorged on by roaming cows and pigs.  It seems a shame that they are unable to keep the busy areas clean.   However we found it was not just us complaining, as even the couple from Southern India were having a bit of a moan, which gives us hope that when we head south things will become a little less hectic and more pleasant!

6th December

In the morning we drive 459km from Amritsar to Delhi.

We at first find the roads fairly good, and even find a McDonalds drive through on route; however after a couple of hours driving we hit the traffic. We find Indian driving horrendous.

There are generally too many different types of vehicles (trucks, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, push bikes, horse and carts, donkeys, cows, elephants and camels)  all on the road at the same time, which just creates  chaos with no obvious rules of the road.

We also find their driving to be much worse than in other counties, which may be down to lack of education, lack of money,  the police not enforcing road rules or just simple disregard for their own and others safety.   We find:

  • they have no sense of lanes, where there should be just 2 cars in 2 lanes, there are 4!
  • they do not use their mirrors or indicators, most actually don’t have any mirrors
  • they even drive in the wrong direction, against oncoming traffic on the dual carriage way
  • they overtake at any opportunity, and even force cars off the road

During our drive we did have our first few scrapes.   First we had a bus hit our front bumper; the bus driver pulled out in front of us without indicating or looking.   The second, a rickshaw drove  right into the rear wing, he kind of bounced off and continued  on….. I wanted to get hold of him,  but he raced off across the central reservation!!  In the end the damage was just cosmetic…

We finally made it through all the traffic and arrived in Delhi as the sun was going down.   We head to a strip of hotels towards the airport in the hope of finding something cheap just for the night. After searching for 20-30minutes we find an ok hotel that suits our budgets and also included breakfast!

7th December

In the morning we wake early to move on, not before having the breakfast that is included in our room rate!

So we order breakfast and 10 minutes later it arrives; only one snag, it seems that half of it is missing.   We enquire as to what’s going on and are told that only one breakfast is included in the room and we would have to pay an extra 350rp for another.

Obviously this is not what we agreed last night, so Martin goes to speak with the manager.  Again they play stupid so we make them aware that if we are not given the breakfasts we had agreed to, then we would not pay for the previous evening’s meal.   They did not budge so we packed our bags to leave.   On the way out the guard closes the door on Martin and says he is not allowed out.  Martin is not too happy at this stage and roars at the guard “Let me out!”  He quite quickly lets him pass.  In the end we manage to leave one breakfast down, but an evening meal up.

We start our journey to Agra.  The journey carries on well until we pass through a small town shortly before reaching Agra.   We cross a busy junction quite slowly.  There is a bus on one side of us, and a rickshaw driving the wrong way up the dual carriage way on the other.   There seems to be just enough room for us all to pass… Unfortunately, a young speedy bike rider also wants to come up the inside of us.   As he nears the front of our wing, it’s clear the rickshaw is not going to budge for him.  The rickshaw hits the boy.   Next thing we know, he is slammed in to the front side of our car and his bike is taken underneath.  We slam on the brakes and jump out.

The poor kid seems ok, conscious and talking, so we move the car out of the carriage way to let other vehicles pass while some locals help move the bike.   Again the rickshaw driver seems to have disappeared into  nowhere!!  I grab our first aid kit and run over to try and help.   The kid has blood coming out of his hand and arm, and seems to have a broken shoulder.   There’s not much we can do but to sterilise and bandage his hand and arm up and offer him a lift to the hospital.   A local boy approaches me and tells me to  ‘Go- go very quickly, people are bad round here.’   I say to him ‘Really?’ and he replies ‘Yes, you should go now’.   However, after considering what he had said, we decide to stay until the police arrive (not knowing if there is any law about leaving an accident) and also try to help out.   A local policeman arrives and takes a few statements from witnesses and from us.   Eventually he confirms it was not our fault but the fault of the undertaking bike and rickshaw driving the wrong way up the carriage way.   We are eventually allowed to leave, wondering if the kid will be ok.

We continue to Agra.   As we drive past the river, we have our first glimpses of the Taj Mahal, a fantastic sight.   We try to find a small guest house that we had found online.   After an hour searching we finally find it but are told it is full and instead try the Tourists Rest House.   We find the rooms basic, but cheap; in addition to having wifi, it is a good find.  We stay there during the evening and choose from the vegetarian menu.

8th December

We wake up late today.  Looking for a cash point, an old man on a bicycle rickshaw says he could take us.   We agree, and he slowly cycles us through the streets.   We grab some cash and agree to take the leisurely bike to the Taj Mahal.

As we arrive we walk though the Palace gardens, where there are lots of small monkeys running around everywhere.   We arrive at the gate to see a massive line and decide to take a stroll round the outside today and return tomorrow morning to avoid the crowds.   The walk around the walls of the Taj Mahal is pleasant in the sunshine; there are lots of chipmunks and green birds in and around its walls.  As we’re walking, a guy offers to take our photo.   We say no, but he’s quite insistent and knows some good poses too….. he takes a couple of snaps in some very strange positions (none to be shown on our site) As we leave he then cheekily asks for money -that will teach us!

We walk around the small alleyways near to the Taj-it is not so pleasant as there is quite a lot of rubbish on the streets and we are hassled by the shop owners.   However we speak with some friendly young girls on their bikes who tell me they want to be hairdressers or doctors when they grow up!  We ask directions for a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and no matter who we ask, are always told that it’s ‘just down the road’ or ‘just around the corner.’   We eventually ask a rickshaw driver, who tells us its 1km away, so we jump in.

The restaurant is underwhelming, another poor review by LP.   We head to a rooftop restaurant with views overlooking the Taj.   It’s great, as we seem to have picked the highest rooftop and we have the place to ourselves.  Monkeys are jumping from one rooftop to the next and large birds of prey are soaring above the Taj.

We meet another traveller from Amsterdam who had been around India on his own for three weeks.  He shows us his LP book which had been ripped apart by monkeys when he’d turned his back for a second!

We had planned to stay and watch the sun set but as it is behind us, we give it a miss and head back home, where we have a bit of a bland vegetarian meal in the hotel restaurant.

On our way back we meet the old man who cycled us around earlier, and agree for him to take us to the Taj tomorrow at sunrise.

9th December

We awake in the dark at 6 and meet our driver.  As promised, he is there and had been waiting since 5!  We fly off in, as he called it, his ‘Indian helicopter’, a bike with a covered seat attached to it.  It is a cold 25 minute journey down to the Taj.

We get to know quite a lot about our driver.  He’s 78 and had been cycling people around Agra for over 40 years.  A proud and nice man, with many grand children, he seems happy and content with life.    We feel sorry for him going up some of the small hills as he begins to struggle, lifting his entire body up off the pedals to push down on the other, in order to get us up the hill (we decide to get out and walk up the hill!)  We both feel guilty having him drive us around but feel it’s better for him to be working and earning than us avoiding the realities of India.

We disembark and walk the 5 minutes down to the West Gate-vehicles are not allowed to go any closer than this.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, built in 1632 on the banks of the Yamuna river the by the Shah Jahan who was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child, was built in her memory.  Today it remains a “symbol of eternal love”.

The Taj Mahal is said to be the largest and the most expensive mausoleum built by any man on earth, probably India’s most visited tourist attraction and one of, if not the most beautiful buildings in the world.

The Taj Mahal is a part of a large complex of buildings including a main gateway, a landscaped garden, a mosque and a prayer house, outer enclosures and enclosing walls.

Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632 and was completed in 22 years.   Twenty thousand people were commissioned to work on it.   The materials were brought in from all over India and central Asia and it took a fleet of 1000 elephants to transport them to the site.

The dome is made of pure white marble; it is thought that the view of the Taj changes at different times of the day and during different seasons.   It is apparently best viewed on a moonlit night.   The Taj sparkles in the moonlight when the semi-precious stones studded into the white marble on the main mausoleum glow in the moonlight. The Taj is pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden when the moon shines.

Was once given a miniature Taj Mahal many years ago and can’t quite believe I’m now seeing the real thing!

There is a two tier pricing system in place; one for Indian nationals (20rp) and one for foreigners (750rp).   I mange to avoid the 750 fee as the men behind the desk assume I am under 15!

There is a separate queue for men and women to enter through the gate, and a security check.

It is misty this morning and not the beautiful sunrise we were dreaming off.   Luckily it’s relatively quiet and are able to stroll around without too much hassle.    We enter through the west gate and our first view of the Taj is set behind gardens with fountains running through the middle.  The sun starts to slowly come out, and shines on the main dome; the low sun light engulfing one side of the dome with a soft orange glow.  There seems to be low smog over the city throughout the day, preventing us from capturing any decent pictures.   We are told that it’s much clearer during the rainy season as it clears the sky of pollution.

We spend three hours taking in the atmosphere and walking around its pretty grounds and interior, where its creator, Shah Jahan is buried along with his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

We find our guide sleeping whilst waiting for us outside the gate and head off for the fort.

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Agra Fort

The fort has been here since around 1080 AD or before, and is the biggest in India.  Like Lahore fort, it has been conquered by invading armies several times, with the British being the last to rule, resulting in the end of Mughal rule.

Our driver suggests that Nicole pretends to be an Indian national so that she pays just 10rp rather than the tourist price of 500rp!

We meet a young Indian guide outside the fort, who is very persistent so we decide to hire him for 200rp.  He also persuades me to pretend I’m from Mumbai and gives me some lessons in who’s who in Mumbai politics.  The idea doesn’t quite go to plan, as the guard overhears our conversation!  The guard then approaches the guide and they start to argue.  We later discover all that was needed to resolve the issue was a bribe consisting of 20rp.

We are shown around just 20% of the fort as the rest is still used as an army barracks.  Its walls are made of red sandstone; the House of Lords and House of Commons are made of white marble. We are first taken to a court yard, where guests would be entertained; being the guest area, there are vents in the walls where ladies would stand and fan and throw rose petals over them.  Enemies would get boiling oil and large rolling boulders down the steep ramp.

The King apparently had 300 concubines as well as several wives of different religions including Christian and Muslim.   To signify this, the court yard is covered in the various symbols representing the religions.

Outside we are shown a vast black marble stone which was used for the kings throne, looking out towards the Taj and the river.

Further past this we are shown the Kings prison.   His son killed his three brothers and imprisoned his father to take control of his kingdom.   He remained in prison until he died, looked after and fed by his daughters.   The room he was imprisoned in directly overlooks the Taj and is covered in precious stones and gold, a constant reminder to the King of what was so close but yet so far from him.  It is said that as he became ill and started to lose his eye-sight, his daughters installed a mirror in front of him so that he would have better views of his wife’s mausoleum (The Taj).

There are no doorways to the House of Lords, just lots of large entrances from where Persian carpets would be hung.  It leads onto huge gardens where the King would play chess, using servants as his playing pieces.

After sightseeing we go for dinner at the Maya restaurant, but don’t expect authentic Indian food here, apparently they don’t add spices for westerners!!

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Martin & Nicole