Monday, 14 March 2016

India - Delhi, Agra & Udaipur

India has never been on my travel list. Then opportunities present themselves and there are people worth travelling for. 

After queuing for an hour to go through immigration at Delhi airport, we made our way to the city via airport metro express. We bought a metro Smartcard as opposed to single journey tokens, and he was totally right because the chaotic masses of people waiting to buy their tokens at other stations were frightening. The 20min ride on the spanking new airport express teleported us back 60 years to the New Delhi Railway Station… Oh boy, the stench of piss followed by waves of tuk tuk drivers was overwhelming. Welcome to India, he said.

I wanted to keep it short and sweet in Delhi; the only items on my agenda were Bukhara and Indian Accent, both on Asia’s top 50 restaurants. We had a couple hours to wander around Connaught Place before Bukhara. Burger Singh intrigued us - what kind of burgers do they serve in a country that doesn’t eat beef… so we shared a veggie paneer burger and Dilli-6 fries.

Originally I asked if he wanted to try the super spicy fries - he laughed at my naivety. True enough, the ‘non-spicy’ food in India starts at 7/10 of my heat tolerance, anything marked with chilli sign is almost suicidal. The burger… didn’t taste like a burger… it was somewhat lacking without meat - I prefer Burger King.

See Bukhara review here

The following morning we caught the early Bhopal Habibganj Shatabdi Express train to Agra at 6am. It’s the fastest train in India between the Delhi and Agra stretch, also one of the poshest trains too. We splurged and went for executive class to ease myself into Indian train travel. Imagine what peasant class Eurostar would look like in 30 years, there you have our first class opulence. We were kept very busy throughout the 2-hour journey; first we were served some spiced yoghurt drink, which was possibly the most horrid beverage known to mankind; it was tangy, savoury, pungent and just downright weird. The tea and biscuits that followed was very well received to wash down the aftertaste. The brown bread, banana and cornflakes with hot milk got the approval stamp for safety; the hot food (idli, media vadai with sambhar) with a cold yoghurt dip didn’t. We arrived at Agra shortly after breakfast.
I'm still not sure how the ‘official pre-booked taxi’ work; the crowd of drivers that came to hustle us were the same bunch that we were assigned to via the taxi booth. After a nap and a simple lunch, we rented a taxi to take us to Agra Fort and the renowned Taj Mahal for sunset.

Agra Fort was alright.. we had an audio guide that sent us looking for things that were much smaller than the not-to-scale map.

The Taj was much less laid back. We were dropped off at the West gate where we made our way up to the entrance to buy our tickets. There was no queue for foreigners, and we cut straight to securities, by-passing hundreds of local tourists - one of the privileges for paying 37 times more. The securities were quite irksome, they had issues with our gorillapod and insisted we rent a locker to store them… grrr.

It’s as impressive as people say it is, albeit crowded. I guess in a country of a billion people, the challenge is to take photos that don’t include them… 

Everyone’s heard the romantic story behind this colossal monument of love… alright, got it. Regardless of what they are trying to sell, the sheer size of the tomb was impressive. Can’t say I was completely blown away by the Taj, but very glad that I visited it with my special someone - tick.

The wedding celebrations spanned over 2 days. In between various ceremonies, we stole a few hours to see the Baby Taj (Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah) and saw the Taj from the river bank.

One of the many great things about the wedding was the array of snacks to sample before the main meal, all freshly prepared at the hotel. Saves me from risking it on the streets to tick the ‘street eat’ box. I had some dosa, two types of chaat, pani puri, some other deep fried thing smothered in yoghurt and tamarind that was absolutely delicious, jalebi, chloe bhature… loved all of them!

After 3 days in Agra, we made our way to Jaipur by taxi via Fatehpur Sikri, which is about an hour away from Agra. Our driver dropped us off at the carpark, where we walked to a bus that took us up to the sikri for 10 rupees. We avoided all the (un)official guides at the entrance and wandered around the walled city… until we got caught by a boss. He had us in the first 30 secs - offered to show us around for 100 rupees and cruising the place like a chief, dishing out random info to anyone within earshot. To be fair he was pretty good, not to mention all kinds of cheesy shots he made us do… He was good fun.
The mosque was on the other side was much more crowded as it doesn’t charge for entry, so there was a good mix of locals there. Another marble tomb with a huge square built out of red sandstone. We’ve seen a fair number of those these couple of days. 

About 2.5 hours later, we were back on the road to Jaipur. The drive was supposed to be another 3.5 hours, but we took a little detour around the city and was so glad we didn’t plan any time there. Our overnight train to Udaipur was scheduled for 11:40pm, so we headed to Peacock Rooftop Restaurant for dinner. Meh - just another TripAdvisor-hyped joint.

The train was truly Indian in the sense that it was 2 hours+ late. Our options were a) sit in the platform where it was littered with blanket-wrapped bodies (dead or asleep) b) wait in the only bar (aka hole in a basement) nearby where a guy said it’s not good for girls c) back to the ITC bar. Answer is (c).

When the train finally arrived, it took the station’s power down, 3 times. This was followed by a tsunami wave of people running to the sleeper carriages, which were already at 90% capacity - it was a scene to behold. First class was a 4-bed perth but since it was a mid-way stop, we were just dumped a stack of sheets and blankets. Then it was a blur - he made my bed; some Americans stressed out about their booking; he asked for the bin and got 'the look’ - I slept uninterrupted.

Udaipur was much calmer than any other cities we have visited so far; it was a much needed change of scenery. We checked into a heritage hotel which was filled with traditional Indian charm. The quaint hotel had hand-painted ceilings with colourful lamps, rooms that boast Indian charm with carved doorways and antique furniture. 
After breakfast and a nap, we spent the day wandering around town starting at Jagdish Temple which was dedicated to Vishnu. We agreed it was the prettiest attraction we have seen so far with detailed marble carvings all over the temple, telling mythical stories of the gods. Shoes off and sat on the side to watch hordes of locals dressed in their brightly coloured sarees, chanting prays in unison and buying their small packages of offerings for a few rupees.

Then we made our way to City Palace despite a growling stomach, because it closes at 4pm. It was a nice stroll through various complex that boasts Rajasthani and Mughal architecture and design. The balconies gave great views over the lake and the city. My favourite were the Peacock Courtyard and rooms with mirror inlays, then we whizzed passed the end bits of galleries and textiles.

Our hotel recommended Jagat Niwas Palace for lunch. It’s a hotel restaurant that overlooks the lake; we took one of the couch seat on the balcony, where they were a gentle breeze in the afternoon. The bloody-mary here was delicious, food wasn’t bad. We lounged and chilled as the sun began to set.

On our second day in Udaipur we took a day trip up north to The Kumbhalgarh Fort, which was just over 2 hours away. The fort is the second largest wall after the Great Wall of China, stretching 36km around the town, so was also known as the Great Wall of India.

The mountainous area of Rajasthan was different to what we have seen so far, and I was loving the serenity and the lack of crowds. 

After a lunch stop at a resort hotel in the middle of the valleys, we made our way to Ranakpur Jain Temple, about a hour away from the fort. This place had a lot more foreign tourist and the securities were crazy strict about the camera fee; the ticket includes an audio guide.

The temple was exquisite. The temple was made up of 80 domes supported by 1,444 marble pillars, and each and every one bore their distinctive intricate carvings. I doubt it looked anything like this back in 15th century, but the restoration was truly magnificent.

Our second heritage hotel on an island in Pichola Lake was even more beautiful with its rooftop swimming pool, refined traditional ornaments, vibrant gardens. We stayed in one of the suites, which was unnecessarily huge; the grand 4-poster bed was the most outstanding feature.

Restaurant Charcoal was booked out, so we were pointed to Rainbow Rooftop, which also offered a great night view of the lake though we didn’t get a couch table this time. The food was ok but the candle-lit ambience and unexpected fireworks made up for it.

On our last day in Udaipur we joined a cooking class with Enjoy! before our flight back to Delhi. Harinder was a great host and helped us to choose our dishes from a huge variety. It was great to have the opportunity to visit a local's home and learn a few tricks in the kitchen. Just be warned that she puts A LOT of salt in her cooking, we just need to scale it down a bit, I mean a lot. 
Getting to the airport was more complicated than anticipated. After trying UBER 3 times and no cabs turned up, followed by one of Harinder’s sons getting his car out of the parking lot to drive us to town for a taxi, then a cab was apparently there but we couldn't see it… we found one in the end, which had to drive backwards against traffic for 100m before he floored the accelerator to get us to the airport in 30mins. He didn’t need to really, because as with typical Indian time, our flight was delayed.

Our evening in Delhi was confined to our hotel in the most unromantic way; trust we have let our guard down towards the end of the trip and the much anticipated Delhi Belly caught up. We didn’t think it was the food from cooking class, but perhaps the filtered water we drank there. Or it could have been the food from the evening before… Either way, we didn;t make it to Indian Accent for dinner.

The following morning we managed to wander around Old Delhi to see Chandni Bazaars and the masses of random stalls selling anything and everything under the sun…though being a Sunday, it was already much quieter than usual. The one thing I did enjoy in Delhi was our visit to Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. We were welcomed and shown around the gurudwara where volunteers were working huge pots to prepare foods that’s provide for those in need throughout the day. A sikh gave us a comprehensive tour, explained the praying rituals and encouraged us to take photos - the volunteers were overjoyed, albeit slightly shy, when we asked to take photos with them. The sikh was so affectionate and genuine, and understandably proud of what they do for the community. It was a really warm experience.

We ended up in Jama Masjid after ploughing through more bazaars; the mosque isn’t anything spectacular, we just sat in the shade and rested before heading back to Connaught Place for lunch. Given the state of our digestive system, we just had something simple at Saravana Bhavan, which serves vegetarian South Indian foods around the world (even in London and Singapore!).

The departure hall at New Delhi Airport makes no sense. First passengers need to hold a paper copy of their e-ticket to get in; then they only allow passengers into the check-in hall 6 hours before departure - so we had a hurried farewell:( 

I really enjoyed my time in India. It’s been an eventful 9-days; we experienced an Indian wedding in traditional attire; saw elephants strolling down an 8-lane highway; survived an overnight train; learnt to say ‘chalo’ to touts; ate at a beef-less McDonald’s and fell in love with the pizza McPuff; ticked the Taj off my list; learnt to cook Indian dishes; ate more daal than I had done in the last 29 years put together; saw more men pissing on the streets than ever; similarly saw more people sleeping on the streets than ever; witnessed a cat looking shit-scared because it was surrounded by rats of the its size; finished off by conceding to the infamous Delhi Belly. It’s been fun.

Thank you for looking after me, as always.


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