I do not understand where all my time goes. When I lived in Paris, I had lots of time for blogging. Now that we live in Blois, I don’t seem to have any spare time at all! I do keep up with Loire Daily Photo though.
I have several posts in the making: Secret Blois, the arrival of our inlay marble table from India, flooding in the Loire, Montreuil Bellay …. but don’t seem to be able to finish them.
We personally did not suffer from the flooding. There was a flash flood in our street but it disappeared within a couple of hours. There is still a lot of water on the low-lying areas around us and the mosquitos have arrived in droves.
Our roses were momentarily lovely but most have succombed to the rain. It seems to rain most days but tomorrow, the sun is supposed to come out and from a maximum of 20°C today it will be 30°C. We are hoping to go cycling. We should also mow the garden as everything is hopelessly overgrown.
We are currently debating about where to go on our next cycling holiday in 9 days time. We had thought of going to Saarland in Germany but it has also been flooded which means the bike paths will be a little worse for wear. At the moment, we think we’ll go to the south of France – I have never been to either Marseilles or Toulon – then to the new bike path in Italy that goes from San Remo to San Lorenzo al Mare. We hadn’t cycled in Italy until last year in Padua because 1) there are a large number of hills and 2) there are not a lot of bike paths but at least there is sun! Stay tuned.
When we discovered that the Taj Mahal is close to New Delhi which was our intended stopover on the way to Australia flying Air India, we immediately wanted to visit it but we had lots of questions:
How long should our stopover be?
Should we go it alone or find a tour operator?
If we use a tour operator, who should we choose?
What exactly should we visit?
Did we need a visa? Can we apply for it on-line?
What clothes will we need?
What will the weather be like?
What medication should we take?
How much would it cost?
I have written 9 posts detailing our trip (see below) which we thoroughly enjoyed but I thought it might be useful to answer the above questions in a 10th post.
How long should you spend in the Golden Triangle?
We had a 24-hour stopover on the way to Australia during which we spent an afternoon visiting Old Delhi, spent the night in Delhi and left for the airport next morning.
On the return journey, we had a 5-night stopover. We arrived late afternoon, spent the night in Delhi, visited New Delhi in the morning, then spent two nights in Jaipur and one in Agra (next to the Taj Mahal) visiting the major sites in what is known as the Golden Triangle. We spent the last night in Delhi again before heading back to Paris next morning.
We couldn’t understand initially why it would take us 5 ½ hours to drive 270 km to Jaipur, 6 hours to drive 245 km from Jaipur to Agra and 4 hours to cover the 205 km from Agra to Delhi, but the answer is simple: despite the fact that there are motorways, the going is slow from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra because you share the road with vehicles of every shape and size, both motorized and unmotorized, not to mention the cows, donkeys and pedestrians who wander across the road whenever there is a village. The stretch from Agra to Delhi is shorter because there is a real motorway with no animals or pedestrians on it.
We found that the length of time we had chosen was perfect. We didn’t have to hurry everywhere and we had time to rest at the end of the day. The only thing we didn’t do is shop (we’re not shoppers) but there were plenty of occasions (and time) to do so had we wanted.
WARNING: THE TAJ MAHAL IS NOT OPEN ON FRIDAYS so you should schedule your visit accordingly, preferably avoiding the weekend there as well.
Should you go it alone or find a tour operator?
We had been told by several people that we should have a private organized tour. Considering our age (early sixties) and the fact that we do not like travelling in groups, the choice was between going it alone or finding a private organized tour. I had been to India before on my own for professional reasons and did not want the hassle of looking for hotels, restaurants and trains and finding our way about in general. Having seen the traffic in India, I did not even consider hiring a car. Our choice of a private tour turned out to be excellent.
How do you find a tour operator?
We went onto Trip Advisor and I sent off requests to the three organizations at the top of the list, explaining what I wanted which included French guides for Jean Michel. I received a very friendly reply from Trinetra Tours with a suggested itinerary and price. I adjusted the itinerary to our needs and schedule and Trinetra sent us a new proposal. We had several exchanges during which my various questions were answered and our visas were processed. We then transferred half the amount to their account in India. We paid the balance on our arrival.
We were very satisfied with Trinetra both before and during the trip. We were assigned a general coordinator who met us at the airport and took us to our hotel in a car with an assigned driver who was very friendly and whose English, although not excellent, was more than adequate for us to communicate.
The guide joined us at the hotel and stayed with us for the rest of the day. The driver would stop just outside the place we were to visit and pick us up afterwards after receiving a call from the guide on his cellphone.
During the visit of the Golden Triangle, a local coordinator met us at each hotel and a new guide would join us when we reached each destination. We had the same delightful Himalayan driver, Rajender Negi, from beginning to end. He was extremely competent and I was never afraid in the Indian traffic. He was also very willing to share his vision of India with us and asked many questions about France and Australia.
The guide or the driver would choose our lunch venue which was not included in the price. Neither was the evening meal but there was always a restaurant at the hotel. We personally only had fruit at night time and something from the mini bar in our room.
The guide looked after buying tickets to the different monuments and we reimbursed him. He organized our elephant and rickshaw ride. He kept the beggars away and generally made our visit stress-free and enjoyable. We were not fully satisfied with the first guide in Delhi so asked for a different one on our return. He was much better. We also did not like the guide who took us to Fatehpur Sikri so asked for another guide for the Taj Mahal next day. He was replaced and the new guide was excellent. All the guides spoke good French and were knowledgeable. Our guide in Jaipur was outstanding.
I do not think that there would have been a problem with an English-speaking guide but we had specifically asked for a French guide and Trinetra did not have much experience in this field. The fact that we were able to phone and ask for another guide and that our request was immediately met is an important point in their favour.
The general coordinator accompanied us to the airport on both occasions and helped us with the formalities.
Bottled water was provided throughout the trip.
We opted for the hotels proposed in the initial itinerary provided by Trinetra but we could have chosen a higher category had we wished to do so (obviously with a price supplement). The hotel in New Delhi, Justa Residence Greater Kalesh, was not marvelous but it was clean and spacious and the beds were comfortable. The oversights on the first stopover were remedied on the second trip and we were even upgraded to a suite the third time. The breakfast was very good and the staff were friendly. It was just a little “worn out”. The hotel in Jaipur, Shahpura House, was really beautiful and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything. The Radisson Blue in Agra was well located, well-appointed and impersonal. The breakfast was outstanding.
What exactly should you visit?
Jean Michel studied his French guidebook and listed the sights that he thought we should see. We then compared them with the places on Trinetra’s itinerary and asked for a couple of additions. This is what we came up with:
Jamma Mosque, Chandni Chowk, Raj Ghat, a cycle rickshaw ride through the bazaar and Akshardham Temple (not on the itinerary but we were very impressed by it).
Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, the Embassy area, government buildings, India Gate and Connaught Place.
Amber Fort and an elephant ride, Shiromani Temple, Palace of the Winds, City Palace, The Observatory and Govind Dev Ji temple.
Between Jaipur and Agra:
Fatehpur Sikri including the mosque
The Moonlight Garden (which is closed at night!), the Taj Mahal at sunrise, Agra Fort and the Baby Taj (not on the initial itinerary but worth a visit).
Do you need a visa? Can you do apply for it on-line?
For some obscure reason, you need to get an Indian visa before you go to India even for a one-night stopover and you can only apply during the month preceding your visit. You also need a square passport photo. Each country has a website that you have to apply through. You can’t apply directly to the consulate. We found the whole visa experience quite stressful because I have two passports and we were entering India twice at an interval of less than 45 days. In the end, it all worked out but we had to go to Paris to put in our applications.
I suggest you read my post and apply on-line immediately after the one-month interval starts. The information on the website is not necessarily up-to-date.
I was worried about the modesty issue. In fact, there are no requirements for Hindu temples or for the Taj Mahal apart from normal decency. However, at the Jamma Mosque in New Delhi both men and women of European origin are obliged to wear a wrap-around skirt or a sort of hairdresser’s cape and remove their shoes. At the Taj Mahal, the ticket includes “overshoes”. At the Fatehpur Sikri mosque, women must wear long skirts. The best solution is to take a light wrap-around skirt in your bag and use it if necessary.
What weather can you expect?
Our first visit was mid-February. It was warm in Delhi but not overwhelming and cooler in the morning. Our second visit was mid-March. We were very hot in the middle of the day especially in Jaipur and Agra. I only needed a long-sleeved shirt for our 6.30 am visit to the Taj Mahal. A hat is a must.
What medication should you take?
We asked our doctor for diarrhea tablets and antibiotics before we left. We did not take probiotics either before or during our trip. We always drank bottled water and cleaned our teeth with boiled water (all the hotels had electric jugs). We were strict vegetarians during our stay as we had been told that we were more likely to get sick from eating meat and chicken in particular. We always had curds or plain yoghurt at the end of the meal, which I had learnt to do on my previous trip to India. We only drank tea with water we had boiled ourselves. We didn’t have any digestive problems whatsoever.
Although we would have liked more “authentic” restaurants, we decided to accept the ones proposed by our guides and driver rather than run the risk of being sick. The tourist restaurants serve Indian food that is usually not too spicy and is especially prepared for Europeans. It is very reasonably priced (around 1200 rupees – 16 euro – for the two of us, including water) and the toilets are usually clean. You should always have your own tissues though.
How much will the trip cost?
We paid a total of 82,800 rupees for two people (1130 euro at the exchange rate in February 2016), broken down into 13 000 rupees for the first stay in Delhi and 69,800 rupees for the Golden Triangle. It included accommodation on a double occupancy basis, a buffet breakfast, the rickshaw ride in Delhi and the elephant ride in Jaipur, all journeys in an air-conditioned car, bottled water during the day, local guides and dinner in an Indian home on the last evening which we decided to forego due to the distance we would have had to travel.
Tipping is a way of life in India and we were very pleased that Trinetra gave us guidelines on how much to tip the coordinators, drivers, guides, bellboys, etc. It made it much easier.
I hope these tips will help you to organize you visit to India. You’ll find more details in the posts below and I’ll be happy to answer any questions in the comments section.
It’s 9.15 am and we’ve finished our luxurious breakfast at the Radisson Blue still under the magic of our early morning visit to the Taj Mahal and are about to meet up with our guide, Vivek, to visit Agra Fort. After we get in the car and greet our driver Rajendar, Vivek suggests we stop off at a showroom called the Agra Marble Emporium to see how the inlay marble work on the TaJ Mahal is still made today by descendants of the original artisans. We don’t have to buy anything, he reassures us. Here we go again, I think.
A man called Raj greets us and sits us down in front of a small table. Two young artisans are working next to him, one with a hand-driven grinding wheel. Raj explains how the pattern is drawn on the marble, then etched out by hand.
The tiny hand-ground inlay pieces are then inserted one by one – lapis lazuli for blue, tourmaline for red, crysophrase for green and mother-of-pearl for white. Once all the pieces are in place, they are taken out again then glued in after which they are sanded so that they are exactly flush with the marble.
Raj takes us into the showroom and I, the non-shopper, am overwhelmed. I love everything I see! I could buy half the shop – except perhaps the elephants. Raj invites us to take a seat and starts showing us some little translucent marble inlay tables that are very reasonably priced, shipping included. I am becoming seriously interested when Jean Michel indicates that he wants to talk to me.
He then tells me that he has been wanting an marble inlay table for many years but in France, the price is prohibitive. He asks if I like the octagonal green marble table in the middle of the room. Well, yes, it so happens I do. After inquiring about the price, he tells me he would like to buy it. Wow! We discuss the matter with Raj and he has the table cleared. We then wonder about other shapes and sizes so he has some rectangular ones brought to the middle of the room, one of which was made by his father, he tells us.
In the end, we decide on a smaller diameter made-to-measure repliqua of the octagonal table because I am afraid it might be too big. While Jean Michel is negotiating the price, I take another look around the room. I’d like to take a small souvenir home to a friend. I am shown into another room with little marble inlay boxes and choose one. Raj comes in and asks me my favourite colour. He then gives me another box as a present.
We leave the showroom walking on air (so does Vivek!) and set off for Agra Fort. Our table should arrive in France in about three months’ time.
Agra Fort is actually a walled city today but was originally a fort. Do you remember Akbar, the Mughal emperor who built Fatehpur Sikri that we visited yesterday? Because of its central location, he made Agra his capital in 1558. Akbar had the fort rebuilt with his favourite red sandstone but it was not until the reign of his grandson, Shah Jahan, that it became what it is today.
As we know, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, had a penchant for white marble so he destroyed some of the earlier buildings in the fort and replaced them with inlaid marble.
The impressive double walls are 20 m high and 2.5 km in circumference and contain a labyrinth of buildings, many of which are still used by the military so are not open to the general public.
The sole entry point today is the Amar Singh Gate. It used to be guarded by a crocodile-infested moat. Today, there are only a few monkeys.
We start with the huge red sandstone building of Jahangir’s Palace, probably built by Akbar for his son Jahangir. Its beautiful galleries are intricately carved. A huge bowl in front of the palace called Hauz_i-Jehangir, carved out of a single block of stone, was used for bathing.
Next is the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audiences, used by our friend Shah Jahan for domestic affairs. Inside is a throne room where the Emperor used to receive petitioners.
We walk up a small staircase into a large courtyard. On the left is the women’s mosque, Nagina Masjid or Gem Mosque, built by Shah Jahan in 1635.
Vivek takes us across the courtyard to the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audiences, which was reserved for VIPs and is much more elaborate.
Next we come to Muasamman Burj, the octogonal white-marble tower and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death in 1666. He could see the Taj Mahal from his marble balcony. We can just make it out in the distance.
Vivek points out the buffalo at the water’s edge and the washerwomen on the other side. I wonder whether the job is any easier with the Taj Mahal as a backdrop.
It’s getting hotter by the minute so we all agree that it’s time for lunch. Vivek takes us to Pinch of Spice, another typical Indian restaurant for foreigners. We opt for the buffet upstairs and stick with our usual vegetarian fare followed by yoghurt and instant coffee. Vivek offers to take somewhere else for a proper Italian espresso but when in Rome …
Outside, all the drivers are waiting for their sightseers, Rajendar among them. We still have the Baby Taj to visit before driving back to Delhi. But first, Vivek explains, the Agra Marble Emporium wants us to go back again and check something. It turns out to be the height of the marble stand that will support the table. We promise to confirm once we get back home and can check our own tables.
Vivek then tells us that Rajendar will take us to the Baby Taj as we’re running out of time and his assignment is up. That’s fine by us – it is an extra after all and we can visit it on our own with a guide book. When we buy our tickets, the vendor wants to keep them, but Jean Michel insists on having them back as he knows that since it’s a public building, the tickets will be “recycled”.
It’s not really called the Baby Taj of course, but the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. Also a Mughal mausoleum, it is sometimes described as a “practice” for the Taj Mahal. Built in 1622 to 1628 (twenty years before the Taj Mahal was completed), it is considered to be a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture with its red sandstone and marble decorations – an example we’ve already seen is Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi – and the second phase, based on white marble and pietra dura inlay, exemplified by the Taj Mahal.
It was commissioned by Jahangir’s wife for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, originally a Persian amir in exile. He was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj Mahal was built.
There are only a handful of visitors so we are able to enjoy the visit practically undisturbed. There is the same type of inlay work as the Taj Mahal, often more complex, depicting cypress trees, wine bottles, cut fruit and bouquets in vases. It is also sadly in need of renovation.
There are several buildings, all on a symmetrical pattern. The first combines red sandstone and inlay work while the second, along the river front, is made of white marble. There are small domed buildings on each side, with gardens in the process of being refurbished.
We feel it is a fitting end to our visit of Agra.
The next few hours are spent with Rajendar on a “real” motorway to New Delhi, the only one we’ve seen so far. There are not many cars and we see our first accident, no doubt due to the fact that the cars can go faster than usual. Rajendar continues to ask questions about France, always beginning with “Madam. In the France …” By the end of the trip, I feel I have learnt quite a lot about India just answering his queries!
We reach New Delhi late afternoon and are soon amid the usual boisterous traffic with people obviously on their way home from work.
When we reach the Greater Kalesh hotel, we are greeted like old friends! After all, it’s the third time we’ve been here in six weeks. We have been upgraded to a suite, which is appreciated even though some of the furnishings are a little worse for wear. We’re also on the other side of the hotel, away from the traffic, so it’s very quiet. We appreciate the complimentary bowl of fruit which means we don’t have to go outside our room for dinner.
Next morning, we have a leisurely breakfast and Rajendar takes us to the airport. Our flight home to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is uneventful. We make our way to the hotel pick-up point to take the coach to the Meridien where our car is waiting for us in the underground car park. Two and a half hours later, we are back in Blois. It’s 11 pm and 7°C, but the house is well heated. We are glad to be home but very, very satisfied with our visit of the Golden Triangle in India which went very smoothly thanks to our tour organisation Trinetra Tours and, in particular, our driver Rajendar. And our marble inlay table will serve as a permanent reminder.
Today’s the day. We’re going to visit the Taj Mahal. It’s 6 am and we’re walking across the foyer of the Radisson Blue to meet our new French-speaking guide. I’m relieved that yesterday’s unsatisfactory guide is being replaced. From the corner of my eye I see a man standing alone and wonder if it’s him. “Oh dear”, says Jean Michel at that moment, “We’re out of luck, it’s the same guide as yesterday.” “I don’t believe it!”, I reply. “I’m very surprised to see you here,” I say when he reaches us. “We were not happy with your services yesterday and asked for another guide. We were told we would get one.” He looks taken aback. Jean Michel explains that his attitude was unprofessional and he failed to show us two important sights at Fatehpur Sikri.
“I have three children,” he pleads, “you have to give me another chance.” I’m shocked at his tactics. “I’m self-employed, too”, I answer. “If I don’t satisfy my customers, they don’t give me any more work. I’m sorry.” We move towards the entrance in search of our driver, Rajendar. The man I noticed earlier is now outside and I hear him speak to the guide in Hindi. Jean Michel gets into the car and the guide starts to follow. I address the second man in French and ask if he’s our new guide. He says he is so I briefly explain what has happened. I tell yesterday’s guide that he is not to come with us and ask the new guide to join us. He had not been told he is replacing someone else.
We get in the car. Vik introduces himself and asks the usual get-to-know-you questions. We can already tell that he’s our sort of guide. He speaks good French, is easy to understand and obviously enjoys his job. Within a few minutes we’re in the Taj Mahal parking lot. Vik tells us to join our respective body-search queues and goes to get the tickets. At 6.30, the queues start moving. We all meet up inside and start walking towards the gate leading to the Taj Mahal.
As we walk through the gate, the magic starts to work. Although I was disappointed yesterday, I’m not today. To my astonishment tears come to my eyes. The Taj Mahal is absolutely majestic. Despite the many visitors milling around us, I feel as though we are there alone! Vik offers to take our photo then takes us to one side where it’s less crowded.
We walk down to the Taj Mahal then up the steps and across the entrance so that we are on the right side facing the east façade (all the façades are identical). There is NO ONE. Vik sits us down so we can watch the changing light on the building and tells us the story of the Taj Mahal. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (who reigned from 1628 to 1658), it was built to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Before she died giving birth to their 14th child, she asked him to build a mausoleum that would show how much he loved her.
It was essentially completed eleven years later but other phases of the project continued for another ten years. The cost was colossal and some 20,000 artisans were employed. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.
We then walk behind the Taj Mahal alongside the river and over to the other side where we can admire the second of the two perfectly symmetrical buildings on each side, a mosque.
As we approach the Taj Mahal from the main façade, we are given overshoes. There do not appear to be any clothing restrictions. I have purposely worn loose cotton above-the-ankle trousers and a long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeved blouse just in case.
Before we go into the building itself, we admire the beautiful gemstone inlay work on the white marble façade. Vik explains the colours: the red is tourmaline, the green jade, the black onyx and the blue lapis lazuli. There is also mother-of-pearl.
Inside, we see Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb and more extraordinary inlay work (no photos allowed). The octagonal inner chamber is designed so it can be entered from each side, although only the door facing the garden to the south is used. The 25-metre interior walls are surmounted by a “false” interior dome decorated with a sun motif. There are eight arches at ground level while four central upper arches form balconies or viewing areas. Each exterior window has an intricate screen cut from marble while each chamber wall is highly decorated with bas-reliefs, intricate lapidary inlay and calligraphy panels which reflect, in miniature detail, the design elements seen on the exterior of the complex.
As we come out, we take off our overshoes and put them in a bin then start to walk back towards the entrance gate. Vik continues his story of Shah Jahan. He was known as the “Just Emperor”. Working long hours, he kept an eye on every detail of the administration of his Empire. He made the roads safe for travelers, severely punishing looters and robbers. He developed agriculture and improved trade with foreign countries. People became rich and State revenue increased. He made Delhi his capital.
But he never did get over his wife’s death and the construction of the Taj Mahal eventually left the kingdom in financial ruin. He is said to have gone crazy in his old age although the official version is illness. His third son Auranzeb needed to move quickly if he were to become Mughal Emperor – his eldest brother had become regent, and would thus automatically become emperor when Shah Jahan died, having consolidated his power and position as regent. In 1658, Aurangzeb raised an army, marched on Agra, and defeated the regent. He then declared Shah Jahan incompetent and put him under house arrest in the Octagonal Tower in Agra Fort (a beautiful addition that he himself had constructed) which has a direct view of the Taj Mahal. He died there in 1666 leaving the world with one of its most beloved monuments.
I finally find a spot where I can take a front view of the Taj Mahal reflected in the water. I have to wait my turn because there are lots of other people having their photos taken or taking selfies in exactly the same spot.
Reluctantly, we leave but it’s time to go back to the Radisson Blue for breakfast before visiting Agra Fort.
After a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Jaipur, we’re on our way to Agra which is the last point in the Golden Triangle. It is 8 am. Ragendar tries to find an ATM but they seem very scarce. He’s says not to worry, that he’ll lend us any money we need before we get to Agra. The road is a bit better than Delhi-Jaipur and takes us through somewhat desolate countryside with occasional crops of cereals and potatoes interspersed with roadside villages.
As he drives, Rajendar tells me about some of his many occupations. Compared with a lot of the Indians we meet, his view of life is very modern. He lives with his wife and daughter in Delhi and not with his mother in her village. He tells us about the charity work he does with a group of friends from his village for a month each summer. They go around to the surrounding villages to try and convince poorer families not to put themselves into huge debt in order to finance their daughters’ weddings.
Halfway to Agra, we stop for a break at Motel Gangaur, which suddenly appears out of nowhere. It also has a restaurant and very large souvenir shop. We wander around a bit but don’t see anything of any interest. While we are waiting outside for Rajendar to finish his cigarette, we see several tourist buses pull up as well as other chauffered cars. We have no confirmation but imagine that the chauffeurs and guides who stop here receive a commission on any purchases.
We go past fields and fields of bricks and brickworks with tall chimney stacks. Rajendar continues to talk about traditional Indian life. With the problem of dowries, the population is becoming so lopsided that routine ultrasound scans are now forbidden during pregnancy. When there are several women living in the same house with their respective husbands and their mother, intimacy becomes a challenge. Often the women sleep in one room with the children and the men in another. A third “nuptial” room is then occupied in turn by the different couples. Rajendar adds that, when it’s “his” turn the man doesn’t work that day!
At midday, we arrive at out first destination for the day, Fatehpur Sikri. Our French-speaking guide is waiting for us. I dislike him on sight. He speaks incorrect French with a very strong accent and generally looks disdainful and totally uninterested in what he is doing. He doesn’t ask any of the usual “get-to-know-you” questions we are now used to. We leave the car and take a crowded bus to the red sandstone complex. It’s excessively hot.
The guide gives us a minimum amount of information each time then waits in the shade while we visit the different buildings. Built in 1571, the carefully-planned walled city of Fatehpur Sikri was the political capital of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Akbar from 1571 to 1585 after whose death it was abandoned, mainly due to lack of water.
It includes royal palaces, a harem, courts, a mosque, private quarters and other utility buildings which reflect the importance of Akbar, son of Humayun, whose tomb we saw in Delhi, changed the course of Indian history. During his rule, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. He created a powerful military system and instituted effective political and social reforms.
One of the most interesting buildings is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) with its magnificent sculpted stone pillar which flares to create a flat-topped plinth linked to the four corners of the room by narrow stone bridges. It is believed that Akbar used the plinth to debate with scholars and ministers who stood at the ends of the four bridges.
Akbar is said to have had 5,000 wives. Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum was chief Rajput wife and empress of the Mughal Empire. He also had a Muslim wife and a Christian wife called Mariam from Goa but some say that she and Mariam-uz-Zamani are one and the same person. In any case, they all had different palaces. Most of them have open areas enclosed by curtains and matting depending on the season.
Akbar used to sleep on a platform surrounded by water as a sort of natural air-conditioning. I can understand why if today is anything to judge by! It also prevented anyone stabbing him to death during the night.
We wander around the various buildings indicated by our guide. We learn later that he didn’t show us Birbal’s House, one of the highlights of the complex.
As we leave, Jean Michel mentions the mosque but our guide discourages us: I am not dressed adequately, the ground is hot and we’ll have to take off our shoes. I have everything I need in the car which is now too far away. A pity he didn’t mention it earlier. Jean Michel insists on at least seeing the outside, which we do not regret. The amazing structure of Buland Darwaza or the “Gate of Magnificence” was built in 1601 by Akbar to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza is the highest gateway in the world (53.63 m high) and an astounding example of Mughal architecture.
Unfortunately, we do not get to see the tomb of Salim Chisti with its ornate wooden canopy encrusted with mother-of-pearl mosaic and stone latticework windows.
As we walk back to the parking lot, the guide flags down a bus that is so full that a man is hanging halfway out the open doorway. I refuse to get in despite the guide’s muttered “it’ll be an experience – it only takes 2 minutes”. Well, in my experience, if a bus ride only takes two minutes, then it can only be a 10-minute walk. That doesn’t seem to be the case so he stops and pays for a tuk-tuk which is probably the same price as the bus anyway.
Rajendar is waiting for us in the parking lot. By now it’s nearly 2 pm and our guide gives us the choice of eating at a nearby wayside restaurant or waiting until Agra, another 38 km away which in India, as we’ve seen, means about an hour. We opt for a meal nearby and ten minutes later we find ourselves in a self-service restaurant called Ganpati Resorts. Inside, the temperature is reasonable but the buffet is outside in the sun where the temperature is at least 40°C. Also, there are flies buzzing around our table which is just inside the door.
It’s the worst meal we’ve had yet – very spicy – and I have to ask at least 3 times to get naan and yoghurt. There is no soap in the toilet either. The guide pays as we still haven’t found an ATM. We refuse to give a tip.
We are now expecting to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blue, so I am surprised when, at about 3.30 pm, we stop outside the Moonlight Gardens (Mehtabh Bagh) which we are supposed to visit after a little R&R. It’s still suffocatingly hot and I am getting increasingly annoyed with the guide. When I ask why we are so early, he says that the gardens close at 5 pm and we will miss them otherwise.
The hoses have been on and the ground is soaked. I am quietly looking for a way around the puddles when Jean Michel realises the problem and suggests another path. The guide rudely asks what the matter is. We can see the Taj Mahal in the distance on the other side of the Yamuna River. I have to say I am disappointed. Where is the buzz you’re supposed to get? I move away from the guide as far as I can so that he won’t upset me any further.
The Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had identified a site from the crescent-shaped, grass-covered floodplain across the Yamuna River as an ideal location for viewing the Taj Mahal. It was then created as “a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh.” White plaster walkways, airy pavilions, pools and fountains were also created as part of the garden, with fruit trees and narcissus. The garden was designed as an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex.
It is said that Shah Jahan wanted to build a black marble mausoleum for himself here, as a twin to the Taj Mahal, but his project never came to fruition. Frequent floods and villagers extracting building materials nearly ruined the garden. Any remaining structures fell in ruins and by the 1990s, the garden’s existence was almost forgotten. It was little more than an enormous mound of sand, covered with wild vegetation and alluvial silt.
I find the best vantage point to take a photo and hope that our dawn viewing of the Taj Mahal next day will be more satisfactory.
We join Rajendar in the car and the guide gets out about 10 minutes later having fixed a RdV with us in the hotel foyer at 6 am next morning. After he leaves, Rajendar asks me what sort of guide he is. I don’t like to be too critical but say that I’m going to ask our coordinator at the hotel to find us a replacement for the next day. He advises me to phone our overall coordinator for Trinetra Tours in Delhi, Shiva, and picks up his smartphone. When he can’t get Shiva, he phones Praveen, one of the marketing directors. I briefly explain that we are not happy with our guide who is not communicating satisfactorily with us, does not speak good French and obviously has no interest in his job. I am relieved when Praveen immediately says he will send a different guide next morning.
The Radisson Blue is on the other side of the river, very close to the Taj Mahal, it turns out. We are greeted by our coordinator who takes us to reception and we are soon relaxing in our large air-conditioned bedroom with no wish to go anywhere for the rest of the day. We are perfectly happy with our usual bananas and tea though we do decide to make an exception and try the Indian wine, which turns out to be an uninteresting chenin blanc. At least we won’t go home without having tasted the local wine.
We are up bright and early at our beautiful Shahpura House Heritage Hotel in Jaipur so we can have breakfast and be ready to leave at 8 am because today is a big day – my first elephant ride! Our excellent Himalayan driver, Rajendar Negi from Trinetra Tours, is waiting for us with our new French-speaking guide, Praveen Agraval, our best guide so far. A native of Jaipur, his French is excellent and he is obviously very experienced. and knowledgeable about his city.
We start with a photo shoot of Hawa Mahal, or the “Palace of Breezes” so named because it was built so that the women of the royal household could observe street festivals without being seen from the outside. Made of the ubiquitous red and pink sandstone of Jaipur, it is on the edge of City Palace. Praveen helps us to cross the street, telling us to keep to his left so that he is screening us from the traffic so that he will get hit first – there is no other way to do it!
Our next destination is the Hindu temple of Govinda Dev Ji devoted to Lord Krishna. Praveen asks us to go quickly through Tripolia Bazaar so don’t miss prayer time. We leave our shoes and follow the massive crowd. I stand with the women in front, a full head above the others, while Jean Michel stands with the men behind. There is music and singing and much joyous jostling.
As the prayer ends and people start to leave, a woman in front of me turns round and says “Happy holi” and smears pink powder on my forehead and cheeks. Holi, we learn from Praveen, is a two-day spring festival of colours or sharing love held held at full moon in late February/early March. This year it starts on 23rd March just a couple of days away.
We drive out of town 11 kilometers to Amber Fort also called Amer Palace, located up on a hill and ruled from 1550 to 1614 by Raja Man Singh I. With its extensive ramparts and many gates, it overlooks Maota Lake, the main source of water for the palace. Made of sandstone and marble, it is laid out on four levels, each with its own courtyard.
The cobbled path up to the fort has become a major tourist attraction because the main way up is by elephant. Praveen goes to get our tickets while we stand in line. A staircase takes us up to a platform so that we are on the same level as the elephants. A bar is lifted so that we can slide backwards onto the elephant then lowered so that we won’t fall off.
I am pleased there are two of us because the elephant sways from side to side and it’s a bit scary. It’s hard to keep my iPhone steady so I take the video that I have published in my previous post. The ride takes about 20 minutes. We have to move over towards the edge of the ramparts to let the descending elephants go past which is somewhat nerve-wracking. From time to time, Jean Michel is told to sit back for better balance.
It’s a relief to get up to the top of the hill and into main courtyard where Praveen soon joins us, having walked up from the other side. The palace consists of the Hall of Public Audience, the Hall of Private Audience, the Mirror Palace and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace.
At the entrance to the palace there is a temple dedicated to Sila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult, and given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore (now Bangladesh) in 1604. We remove our shoes, hand over our camera and enter. We are just in time for a ceremony in which the statue of Ganesh, the elephant, is covered with garlands of flowers and a gong is struck very loudly for ten mind-boggling minutes. I am surprised that the babe in arms next to me makes no protest, but I guess he’s used to it!
The palace is extensive with many different areas and fine details, the most beautiful of which is the Mirror Palace.
We learn more about Praveen. He has two grown-up children. His daughter is a French teacher and recently spent a year as an assistant English teacher in Rouen during which time her parents went to visit her for three weeks. His son has taken over his grandfather’s pottery business.
By now, the sun is at its zenith and amazingly hot. Praveen suggests we stop off at a fabric store to see the traditional printing process. He assures us that we don’t need to buy anything. After demonstrating the process during which I am asked to perform a couple of basic tasks, the vendor takes us down to the showroom. I nearly buy a tablecloth but unfortunately he doesn’t have the colour and pattern I want in the right size. Nearly all of patterns include elephants which I don’t really want.
We then go to the Grand Peacock restaurant at Jorawar Singh Gate for lunch. We choose our usual dal, sweet and sour pumpkin, jeera rice, naan and plain curds. It’s the best meal we’ve had so far and only costs 1000 rupees (13 euro).
Our next stop is Jantar Mantar, a fascinating collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built by the Rajput king, Sawai Jai Singh and completed in 1738. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has the world’s largest stone sundial.
Each time Praveen explains one of the instruments, he takes us into the shade because the temperature is well over 30°C. However, the full sun is perfect for observing the sundials and other masonry, stone and brass instruments built using the astronomy and instrument design principles of ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts. One of the sundials is accurate to within 2 seconds.
We move on to the City Palace next door, built between 1729 and 1732 by Sawai Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amber, who planned and built the outer walls. Later additions were made by subsequent rulers up until the 20th century.
It includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarek Mahal palaces in addition to a large number of courtyards, gardens and other buildings, and isthe seat of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Praveen explains that when the two flags are present on the Mubaret Mahal, which is still a royal residence, it means the Maharajah is present.
We visit the museum in the Chandra Mahal palace, which mainly includes clothing and weapons such as swords and guns.
By now, we’ve reached saturation point and have no desire to go shopping in the bazaar, no doubt to Praveen’s relief, as he nods off in the car on the way back to our beautiful Shapura House Hotel.
We take a shower and have a welcome cup of tea and a couple of bananas that Rajendar has stopped off to buy for us. We then relax until the nightly live show in the restaurant below starts up again. This time we take a look from our balcony. There are two musicians and a dancer. The restaurant is mainly occupied by groups who are not necessarily staying in our hotel. Not exactly our scene so we have a gin and tonic next to the pool before retiring early as we have another early start tomorrow which includes a long drive to Agra and a visit to the Red Fort.
Our guide: Praveen Agrawal, firstname.lastname@example.org, member of the World Federation of Tour Guide Associations
We arrive in Delhi at 7 pm, one and a half hours late due to an electrical problem on our plane which kept us sitting on the tarmac in Melbourne but I sent a quick email to Trinetra Tours to let them know and our coordinator is waiting for us. When we arrive at the hotel – Justa Residence – we have a shower and go straight to bed so we can be ready for an 8 am start next morning. The irksome things I complained about a month ago at the same hotel have been fixed up. We have been given a different room which has two tea cups (and not one), complimentary biscuits and fruit, a bathmat and correct drainage in the shower.
Our chauffeur for the next four days, Rajender Negi, arrives a half an hour late at 8.30 am, along with our French guide, Singh. They were held up by a road accident in which a truck was lying across the road. Considering the traffic here I’m surprised there are not more accidents! However, they had phoned the hotel to tell us they would be late so we weren’t worried.
The first stop is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor, Humayun, commissioned by his son Akbar in 1569-70. The site is quite majestic and we practically have it to ourselves. It was the first garden-tomb in India and also the first structure to use red sandstone on such a large scale.
The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been extensively restored. In addition to the main tomb, there are several smaller monuments, one of which, the tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, was built twenty years earlier. It is wonderful to think that such a large garden exists right in the middle of Delhi.
Our next stop is the presidential palace built in 1929 and other government buildings. Yet another side to Delhi that we didn’t see the first time. It also provides the occasion for Singh to explain more about the country’s government bodies. Although I have a little trouble understanding him initially, his French is quite good and he is a willing and knowledgeable communicator, unlike our French guide the first time round.
The 72-metre Qtub Minar is next on the list and surprises us by both its size and beauty. Like Humayon’s tomb, there are also several other monuments. Our guide points out the original pillars from the Hindu temple which was partly destroyed to turn it into a Muslim site.
More tourists have arrived and everyone is taking photos of themselves, family and friends. I move out of the way for an Indian man to snap his wife and Singh tells me that they want me in the photo. I am surprised. We then have a group photo and they are delighted.
In the middle of the complex is a 7 metre high column called the Iron Pillar weighing 6,000 kg and thought to have been originally erected in Udayagiri by one of the Gupta monarchs in about 400 CE and transported to its current location in 1233 CE. Its surprising corrosion resistance is due to an even layer of crystalline iron hydrogen phosphate forming on the high phosphorus content iron, which serves to protect it from the effects of the local Delhi climate.
It is now nearly 11 am and Singh takes his leave as we are close to a metro stop and he lives quite a long way away. He has asked us the usual questions about our family situation, children, where we live, etc. and told us about himself. He lives in a village near Jaipur with his wife, two small children (2 and 4) and his mother. As a tourist guide, he only works for 6 months a year, mainly in Delhi, where he shares a flat with other male friends during the season. The rest of the time, he lives in the village and doesn’t work. He is the only breadwinner.
We give him the prescribed tip and off he goes. Now, our driver, Rajender, takes over and asks all the same questions again in English. He comes from Himalaya, as most drivers do, he explains. Because they have a hard life as children, walking 10 km to and from school and carrying heavy loads, they have strong heads and are able to deal with the horrendous traffic. I didn’t think Delhi was very busy the first time but it seems as though the traffic has increased tenfold! Fortunately, Rajender is a good driver.
We set off for Jaipur, which is 5 ½ hours away, which seems very strange as there is a new 2 x 3 lane toll road and the distance is only 270 km. We soon discover why. Although trucks are not theoretically supposed to be in the fast lane, they invariably hug the middle of the road, moving into the middle lane if they are forced to do so. They often have a sign saying Blow Horn written on them, sometimes Please blow horn and even No horn. Rajinder says it’s because they listen to loud music so will only move over if you blow the horn.
He weaves his way in and out the traffic, which includes every imaginable vehicle, both large and small – cars, buses, tractors, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, family scooters (older child in front, father, younger child, mother sitting side-saddle), camel and horse-drawn carts and sacred cows which have a special affinity with the middle of the road. We don’t see a single accident, which is really quite extraordinary. We don’t see any women drivers either. If I don’t watch the traffic, I’m not afraid, which is also amazing especially as we often see traffic coming in the wrong direction, but since no one can go very fast, I feel quite safe! I should mention that we have seen a number trucks nose-down in the gutter.
On the way to Jaipur, we go past Cyber City, an enormous complex in Gurgaon, linked to the Delhi metro system. Now we see the skyscrapers we didn’t see in Delhi. They house international companies such as IBM, Samsung, American Express, Deloitte and Google. Residential complexes, often gated, follow one another and we see many advertisements for “green” apartment buildings and public schools which are actually private, saying things such as “if you love your child, send them to our school”.
At 1.30 pm, we have covered half the distance to Jaipur, so Rajender suggests we stop for lunch at the Moti Mahal Restaurant in Behror. When we get inside we see it’s a tourist restaurant but at least it’s not a cocktail bar. We choose dal (lentils), a mixed vegetable dish, naan (that delicious oven-baked leavened flat bread), rice and curds. The meal is tasty and not too spicy and only costs 1200 rupees (16 euro) including a bottle of water. We realise that we won’t be having any local experience restaurants but decide it’s just as well – less hassle and no gut problems!
As we approach Jaipur two hours later, we see Amber Fort with its 9 kilometers of ramparts. Rajender then points out the Jal Mahal (meaning “Water Palace”) in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. It is in total contrast with anything we have seen up until now. I ask to stop for a photo but Rajender tells me it’s scheduled for the next day. I insist, explaining that the light will be no good in the morning. He pulls over with good grace and we clamber over the low stone wall. He gets a nearby vendor to take a photo of the three of us together to put on Facebook!
We continue on to our hotel and are delighted with our first glimpse of Jaipur despite the incredibly dense traffic. The capital of Rajasthan, which currently has a population of over 6 million people, was founded on 18th November 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amer (Amber) after whom the city is named. He was something of a town planner and consulted several books on architecture and architects while planning the city’s layout. It took four years to complete the major roads, offices and palaces. The city was divided into nine blocks, two of which contained the state buildings and palaces, with the remaining seven allotted to the public. Huge ramparts were built, with access provided by seven fortified gates.
During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh, Jaipur was painted pink to welcome Prince Edward VII and Queen Victoria and it became known as the Pink City of India. We love the result but the traffic is so chaotic that it’s difficult to take any decent photos. A video proves to be the answer.
We arrive at Shahpura House Hotel at 5.30 and it is every bit as lovely as the photos on its website. I later try to understand its history, but to no avail. All I can tell you is that the current owner is Maharaj Surendra Singh, a descendant of the royal family of Shahpura, and that the fusion of historical influences has been preserved in the décor and design: Indo-Saracenic architecture, opulent Mughal interiors, European furniture, and Rajasthani fabrics and design.
After a refreshing shower, we have a tonic water and crisps on the terrace in front of our bedroom then escape from the mosquitos into our beautifully furnished air-conditioned room. Even the live Indian music in the outdoor restaurant on the terrace below cannot kept us awake once we go to bed.
We have been in India for two full days and have done so much and seen so many wonderful places that I am exhausted by the end of the day and incapable of writing a blog post. But I had to post this photo of my first (and last!) elephant ride, at Amber Fort in Jaipur.
Ours was a fairly small elephant so Jean Michel had to sit back as far as he could for balance, which explains why his feet are sticking out in front of him. The elephant swayed from side to side, which is a bit unnerving when you’re not used to it. Jean Michel said it was like being at sea. Sometimes the elephant went quite close to the side of the stone wall so I would pull my feet back although the driver reassured me that I didn’t have to worry.
Taking photos was difficult as well as there was a considerable risk of dropping my iPhone. The first photo was taken with Jean Michel’s camera by one of the many young Indians running alongside the elephants to offer their photographic services. It was easier to take a video than photos, though it’s a little wobbly! The second photo is taken from the Amber Fort showing the elephants winding their way up the hill. The last photo is our very personable elephant driver whose name I asked but now can’t remember.
It was a memorable experience but I don’t really think I need to do it again. I should also add that I was very pleased that I was not alone. I am not very good with heights and an elephant is very very big!
We’ve arrived in Delhi, met up with the coordinator, driver and French-speaking guide from Trinetra Tours, checked into our hotel and are about to have lunch. I’m surprised to see that the restaurant is called Lutyens Cocktail Bar, opposite the Meridien Hotel. When we enter the half-filled room, the only people I can see certainly not Indian. There are only tourists here, I say to Summer, our guide for the afternoon. “No, no”, he says, “there are Indians as well”.
When we visit another country, we like to eat like locals and this does not correspond to what we are looking for but we don’t have much choice. We have decided to become temporary vegetarians in India for two reasons: first there is less chance of having food poisoning and second we are certain of getting vegetables that way. We choose a mixed vegetable dish and naan and hope for the best.
Although a little spicy, the food is good, but not very copious. When the bill comes, we discover that we were only given one serving of each and not two. The total is 1120 rupees (16 euro) – hardly good value for money in Delhi and we could have been anywhere in the world. We later learn that the guide chooses where we eat so it’s best to explain early in the day that we would like a localn, authentic experience.
Our first visit is to the Jama Masjid (The Great Mosque), the largest in India. Summer explains that the entrance to the mosque is free but that we have to pay 400 rupees to use our camera, have our shoes looked after and don suitable attire, which means a wrap-around skirt for Jean Michel (he’s wearing ¾ pants) and a sort of throwover for me (I’m wearing 7/8 pants and a long-sleeved shirt). All the non-Muslim women are given the same garb.
I realise of course that I should have brought socks or cloth scuffs with me – I’ll remember next time. The ground is not particularly clean and is strewn with litter from sweets and biscuits. A lot of families come and picnic in the main square and under the galleries enclosing the mosque. It gets busier as time goes on.
Built in 1650 in the middle of Old Delhi, it can welcome 25,000 people in the enclosed area although the building itself is not very big. The three domes made of white marble striated with black offer a striking contrast with the pink sandstone of the rest of the mosque.
From the galleries there is a sweeping view of Delhi with all its contrasts.
Next on the programme is a rickshaw ride through the main bazaar. We go through a maze of very narrow alleyways and I am continually surprised that the rickshaw doesn’t overturn but our wallah is obviously a champion. The amount of muscle power required to keep us going in some parts is impressive. Also, since we have said we’re not interested in shopping, he doesn’t even get a break.
We return to our starting point where Summer is waiting for us. Anand soon arrives and we set off for the last part of our visit – Akshardham Swaminarayan Temple, which we have added to the original itinerary. This amazing Hindu temple displays millennia of tradition Hindu and Indian culture. We can’t take cameras, phones or electronic equipment of any kind so all I can do is to describe my impressions and take a couple of photos of the brochure we received. But I invite you to explore the site more on the official website.
This extraordinary complex covering 40 hectares was opened in 2006. It was inspired and developed by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual head of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, whose 3,000 volunteers helped 7,000 artisans construct the temple. The first impression is one of serenity.
Summer does not come in as guides are not allowed. He suggests we meet him at the entrance in 45 minutes but we don’t come out for 1 ½ hours!
We wander around, visiting the inside of the temple with its intricate carvings and many statues. I am a little surprised that despite its recent construction, it’s very traditional but the workmanship is exceptional.
What I like best, however, is the elephant show, Gajendra Peeth, on which the temple is based. It is 326 metres long and comprises 148 elephants carved out of stone telling various stories with the help of numerous other sculptures of men, animals and birds, paying hommage to the role of elephants and nature in Indian culture. It is most definitely the highlight of our tour. We’ll be visiting the more modern part of Delhi on our way back from Australia in a month’s time.
The big day has arrived at last for our 6-week holiday in Australia via India. As you know, we now have our hard-won visas. We leave Blois at 1.30 pm by car. Our flight is at 9.30 pm. We’ve checked out the trains and discovered that, since we arrive back at 6 pm at Charles de Gaulle airport we’ll be too late to take the last train back to Blois which means an overnight stay in Paris. We check out the long-term parking around the airport and secure, underground parking at the Mariott Hotel turns out to be the cheapest. At 164 euro for 41 days, it’s cheaper than taking the train to Blois then to the airport and paying for a hotel and it’s certainly much easier !
We arrive at the Mariott at 4.30 pm and enter the parking lot with our code (we’ve reserved and paid on-line). We take the lift up to the lobby of the hotel where we wait for about 15 minutes until the free shuttle arrives. It leaves us at the hotel shuttle drop-off point near the train station at the airport. That’s where we’ll pick it up on the way back. Very smooth.
After checking in our luggage at the Air India counter, we go through passport control and security and look for somewhere to have a drink as we have another two hours to kill before boarding. There is now free wifi throughout the airport BTW. We reject MacDonalds despite its luxurious looking sofas but can’t seem to find an alternative. Just when we’ve despaired of finding anything better, we see that Fauchon has a bar. We are practically the only people there. You wonder how they can even survive although admittedly February is not peak season.
We are pleasantly surprised by the leg-room in Air India’s hi-tech Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. The last time we went on a long-haul flight, we could hardly move our legs. The service is not very good nor very friendly, but we’ve chosen Air India this time because the prices are very competitive. My head phones are broken and not very comfortable. I’m given new ones and we watch the King’s Speech which I’ve already seen and enjoy again. We stop from time to time so that I can explain to Jean Michel the parts he hasn’t understood. I don’t get a wink’s sleep during the 7 ½ hour flight but at least I get some rest.
Passport control on arrival at 9.30 am in Delhi is quick and easy and we have soon picked up our luggage (both suitcases are there to our relief – on our return trip from Australia 3 ½ years ago, Cathay Pacific permanently lost one of our cases). We change some euro into rupees (71 rupees for one euro which means we have to start thinking in thousands) and are met as we come out of customs by Shiva, from Trinetra Tours which we have chosen because it has one of the best ratings on Trip Advisor and the services seem to correspond to what we are looking for.
He greets us and takes us out to our airconditioned chauffered car driven by Anand. This beats having to fend for yourself in a country like India! Shiva outlines our Delhi Delights tour (we are leaving for Sydney the next day at 1.15 pm so it’s essentially an afternoon tour) and gives us our vouchers, information about tour etiquette including tips, and the itinerary for our 5-night Golden Triangle tour on our way back from Australia in mid-March. We will tip Shiva 500 rupees, Anand 300 rupees a day and our French-speaking tour guide who is joining us at our hotel at 12.30 pm, 500 rupees per day.
The drive from the airport to our hotel, Jüsta Residence Greater Kailash, is an eye opener for Jean Michel. He’s surprised there are no skyscrapers, considering that New Delhi has a population of 16 million people. Perhaps they are some further out but throughout the day we see only very moderate high-rise buildings.
We drop Shiva off halfway along and Anand, whose English is much more basic but still sufficient, takes over, telling us about the transport system – a metro, 4 types of buses and 4 types of taxis and rickshaws, if I remember correctly – and asks us information about ourselves. Where do we come from, how many children do we have, how old are they, etc. We inquire about his own family.
He and his wife are from the Himalayas and had an arranged marriage 22 years ago and are very happy. They have three children, 13, 15 and 17, and his 91-year old mother also lives with them. He tells us that 70% of marriages in India are arranged and 90% in the Himalayas. There are more love marriages in the big cities
He points out various buildings as well, showing us in particular where the civil servants and middle class live, many in enclosed residential areas. He tells us our hotel is in a chic area. It’s hard to really tell, but there aren’t any slums.
We pull up outside the hotel which is not very pretentious from the outside and are swooped on by several young men who take our luggage. We arrange to meet with our French-speaking guide and Anand at 12.30 pm and go up to take a shower and get changed. It was 13°C when we arrived but it’s a cloudless sky and the temperatures will reach 26°C during the day.
I check the tipping instructions and we give 50 rupees to the bellboy who brings our cases in one at a time. The room is clean, pleasant and reasonably spacious. However, there is no bath mat, only two large towels (no small ones) and the shower takes a long time to drain. There is an electric jug but no tea and only one cup. Thank goodness I brought a couple of tea bags. The attractive silk curtains have a problem in the middle. It seems very noisy but at night it turns out to be fine.
I think it’s one of those hotels that was probably very nice when it first opened but suffers from a lack of maintenance as so often happens. We sort out what we need for the day and join our guide, Summer, and Anand to go to lunch at the Luytens Cocktail Hotel, not exactly what we are expecting …