…with lots of egging on from me
Given that I galavanted off to Thailand earlier in the year on my own (see the vlog here), when our friend Steve asked Mark to join him on his travels in India back in March, it only seemed fair for him to have his own ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ moment. He had an absolute ball, and after a tweet asking if you’d like to see a post from him on his time there received an overwhelming ‘HELL YEAH!’ response, here it is. Over to Mark…
Ever since I did a school project on India back in Year 6 I have wanted to go there and it certainly didn’t disappoint from my childhood expectations. The culture was so contrasted from the one that we live in, which is one of the main reasons I enjoyed it so much. Although I love to travel to western destinations, there is something familiar when travelling to places in Europe or America for example, whereas India was very different – and in a great way. The fact that you are walking around a country where nearly 1.5 billion people live is quite hard to comprehend when you come from little old blighty!
During this trip I travelled to the north west of India and took in some of the sights of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The trip took me from Delhi through to Agra, both in Uttar Pradesh, then on to Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur in Rajasthan and finally back to Delhi to fly home.
How To Plan
The prior reading I did before the trip consisted of flicking through the Lonely Planet Guide and looking at online blogposts. Through these sources I gained a base level of knowledge about local customs, how to get around, how to be safe, useful things to take with me, and most crucially, where we wanted to go. My friend and I decided on a loose itinerary of places beforehand and it was more or less what we stuck to. I like to read about the place I am visiting when I am on the plane to my destination, so I read up on the history and culture of the places that we planned to visit on the way there. I am a bit weird so this gets me excited and fired up for the trip!
Upon my first flick through the Lonely Planet Guide, it highlighted the process for booking Indian Rail tickets online. This is quite a task without an Indian mobile phone number, as without this you cannot get the verification code that is required to verify your account. The process for someone outside of India is to email the Indian Railway company with your account details and a scan of your passport and they will send you through a verification code. I tried this approximately 2 months before I went and only received a reply upon my return back to the UK. I would recommend doing this several months in advance – see this blog post for a good breakdown of the process. If this does fail don’t panic! We still managed to buy our train tickets easily at train stations as and when we needed them.
One thing that I did overlook slightly were vaccinations. I assumed that my doctors surgery would have an abundance of appointments for travel vaccinations – how wrong I was. With just a couple of months left, my doctors didn’t have any appointments until after I was due to depart. I had to go to a pricey private travel clinic to get all the necessary jabs. So top tip – get your jabs as soon as you know you are going to be travelling there.
We also made sure that we had our first night’s accommodation booked. This meant that we knew exactly where we were going when our flight landed. There is also a requirement to complete a visa which requires an address for when you get to India, so this can be used for that too.
How To Get Around
I took a return flight from London Heathrow to Indira Gandi Airport, Delhi which took approximately 8-9 hours. I wasn’t planning on flying when I was in India but ended up flying from Jodhpur to Delhi as this gave me an extra night seeing the sights!
Our main mode of transport whilst we were over there was train. As I said earlier I did try to purchase tickets beforehand as this is recommended, but to no avail. On our first night in Delhi we went to the International Ticket Bureau in Delhi Rail Station and purchased our tickets for the trip. This included an AC Chair Car ticket from Delhi to Agra; an AC Chair Car ticket from Agra to Jaipur; and a 2AC Sleeper ticket from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. The trains were by far my favourite way of getting around; all trains arrived at their destination on time and the food was amazing. Food was only available on the Chair Car services, there were people who came around on the Sleeper service but these were not official train meals.
For our trip from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur we took a coach which was approximately 200 rupees for a 5-6 hour journey (approximately £2.50, €2.80, $3.00) which was a bargain. If you are wanting to stick to a really tight budget the buses are the way to go. The bus was no frills, and the ride wasn’t great as the roads weren’t in great condition. If you are willing to spend (literally) a few extra pounds/euros/dollars – take the train.
For shorter trips around cities and towns we occasionally used Rickshaws if it was too far to walk. These were a cheap and effective way of getting round, and I would highly recommend using them as they are a great way to see the sights. Be prepared to be bombarded with rickshaw drivers at tourist hot spots, and also rickshaw drivers asking you if you need one when you are simply walking down the street. If you don’t want one, simply politely decline.
We also used a local bus when were in Jaipur to get to the Amber Fort – this was a great way to get around.The bus was air conditioned, easy to get on and outrageously cheap. The journey was approximately 30 minutes and cost us around 15 pence!
Where To Eat
We didn’t have a bad meal whilst we were there – I genuinely enjoyed every meal I ate. Once type of food I didn’t try was the street food. The main reason for this was that I didn’t want to risk being out with a bad stomach for couple of days on a 10 day trip. If I had been there longer I would have tried it. From what I read and heard beforehand you just need to be sensible when assessing a street vendor’s stand; see how and if they are washing things? Is it cooked fresh? Is it busy with locals?
Here are a few stand out places on the trip that I enjoyed. Suruci was a restaurant we went to on our first night in Delhi. They served Thali and we picked the Gujarati Thali. The Thali were unlimited and the waiters would be straight with you once you had finished any part of your meal to restock, be it the curries, the rotti, the rice or the condiments. This first meal in India got us very excited for the culinary delights that were set to come.
Another highlight came in Jaipur. LMB is a deli from the outside and when you walk in there is an entrance to a restaurant on the side. This place was teaming with locals and the food was top class. We ordered a few different dishes along with a variety of breads – the Dal Makhani was a highlight, a slow cooked black lentil dal. Delicious.
One of the surprise culinary experiences was on the trains. During our trips between Delhi and Agra and Agra and Jaipur we were served numerous meals. These knocked the socks of the tat that is sold on UK trains and it was some of the most delicious food I had on the trip. A real highlight.
Where To Explore
Agra: One of the highlights of the trip was getting to see the Taj Mahal – I cannot recommend this place enough. We got there when it opened at sunrise. It wasn’t that busy then and the views you get are absolutely stunning. We stood marvelling at it for some time and questioning if it was real – it really doesn’t look real! Take time to appreciate the other beautiful architecture in the complex; the great gate, mosque and Mehman Khana are all beautiful in their own right! After visiting the Taj Mahal we also visited the lesser known Itimad-ud-Daulah (aka. the Baby Taj), which actually pre-dates the Taj Mahal. This was a modicum of calm in comparison, with beautiful tranquil gardens surrounding it and backing on to the Yasuma River. The beautiful white marble with its delicately detailed inlayed stone work was particularly impressive.
Jaipur: The Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort, a short bus journey outside Jaipur were a great sight. We took the audio guide around the Palace and learnt how the Maharaja lived and went about his duties such as hearing the public speak and voice opinions in the hall of public audience, and how he entertained his wives in the beautiful courtyard gardens. Coming out the palace we walked up to Jaigarh Fort where we had spectacular views back over the Palace and the surrounding landscape. Loads of monkeys here too! On one of the evenings we decided to see a Bollywood film and we found that there was a very famous cinema in Jaipur called the Raj Mandir Cinema, so we decided to go and see Rangoon – a Hindi film set in World War 2. I think we managed to grasp the plot just about!
Jaisalmer: We had heard that the camel safaris from Jaisalmer are a must, so when we arrived we booked onto one straight away. We set out within a couple of hours of getting there, off into the sand dunes and spent the night in a thatched hut. The tour guides cooked some amazing food over a fire, and and we sat around with the group and chewed the fat until we fell asleep under the stars. Inside Jaisalmer Fort there are a number of Jain Temples which are exquisitely ornate and are well worth a visit.
Jodhpur: Although we didn’t have much time in Jodhpur we still managed to fit in a couple of visits. The Rau Jodha Dessert Rock Park, a place aimed at restoring the natural ecology of a large, rocky wasteland next to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur had beautiful views over the old blue city and also up to Mehrangah Fort. We also managed to see the Mehrangah Fort. This was one of the most polished forts we had seen. The rooms and external masonry were in great condition and the audio guide we listened to was very interesting.
Mark’s Top Tips
It is rude to eat with your left hand.
Take toilet tissue.
Unless it is a train ticket office, do not believe anyone who says that train tickets have sold out!
Be careful at Delhi Train Station of ‘travel agents’ and other tickets touts outside the station. They may have tickets but they will be at a heavily inflated price.
Don’t try and swim against the tide – swim with it!