Should I go to India? The Golden Triangle

It’s been over a month now, since Dave and I returned from our 29 days in India.  I’ve written 12 blog posts about our trip and have spent countless hours going through photos and videos.  I filled a journal with anecdotes and airplane tickets and have reminisced a great deal about our time in that crazy country.  So now, before my memory gets too fuzzy on the details, is the perfect time to dole out some advice for my fellow travelers.  Is India worth the trip?  Let’s take a look at the facts (according to my own experiences anyway!)

Golden Triangle Tours

Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is THE tourist circuit in India.   Tours typically begin in New Delhi, then head to Agra and finish in Jaipur.  These 3 stops can  be done in a short amount of time (3 days is easily doable), making them popular for foreigners who don’t have a long stay in India.  And, because the Golden Triangle covers so many of India’s ‘must-sees’ (The Taj Mahal, The Pink City, etc…), you will not have difficulty finding tour operators or drivers for a trip around India’s most popular tourist circuit.

Let’s break it down…

The Good

Beginning in New Delhi, you will experience the country’s capital, for better or for worse.  There is a great deal of history there, which is great if you’re interested in India’s past (both modern and ancient).

In addition to the historical sights in Delhi, the Zoo was surprisingly impressive.  The animals seemed to be well cared-for and the park where the Zoo is located is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Agra has a great deal to offer tourists as well.  The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort alone are enough reason to make the 4 hour drive from New Delhi.  Best of all, if you leave New Delhi early enough and are okay with a long day, you can see Agra’s most famous sights and then head onto Jaipur for dinner.

Jaipur is the final stop in the Golden Triangle, and it’s a nice little introduction to the state of Rajasthan.  Dubbed ‘The Pink City’, Jaipur is full of markets, historical sites and, of course, several forts.  It’s a lovely place to spend a day or two, especially if you’re tight on time and want to see Rajesthan, but can’t make it to one of the other cities I’ll be writing about later on this list.

New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur can surely offer you some insight into the rest of the country and are a great place to start if you have limited time to spend in India.  I can see what attracts people to these 3 places, but if I’m going to be honest, there were a lot more drawbacks than selling-points for me during my time in the Golden Triangle…

The Bad

I’ll begin with the most trivial problem on my list, though it IS the most relevant for the average traveler.  If you are traveling to New Delhi, prepare yourself for scammers!  There are an unbelievable number of people out on the streets at any given time trying to get into your pockets and take you for as much as they can.  Some of my favourites:

  • Taxi drivers who tell you that your hotel is closed/full/doesn’t exist, who offer to take you to a hotel that their cousin/brother/friend owns.  The hotel they bring you to is invariably be cheap and dirty but the prices for the room will be jacked up, because the taxi driver is making commission.  You will face this type of scam right at the airport, so beware!
  • Travel agents who claim to be ‘government owned’.  They might give you a tour, but I estimate we paid about 30%-40% more than we should have when we signed up for our tour.  That’s nothing compared to what some people face…
  • Tuk Tuk drivers who charge 5, 10 or 50X the price they should for taking you places.
  • Tuk Tuk drivers who say they’ve met you…and then try to make you feel bad for not remembering them.  These guys will guilt you into letting them take you to an ’emporium’, where everything is massively over priced and where they are given a commission.
  • Counterfeit everything!  Don’t buy scarves, or anything for that matter, from any emporium.  Once you get out of Delhi, the ‘hand painted post cards’ that the nice painter made in the Emporium go from 350 rupees to 35 rupees…you also discover pretty quickly that they aren’t hand painted…Silk is another big one…most people can’t tell the difference between Cashmere, silk and polyester, so do yourself a favour and skip buying any expensive scarves.
  • You will be told all sorts of things about how you can tell that a person’s scarves are ‘the real deal’….the one I fell for was the ‘burning hair’ routine.   They will tell you that burning cashmere smells like burning hair…it does…but so does any silk (low-grade or high-grade), which is a MUCH cheaper material

These are just some of the scams Dave and I experienced (and in most cases…evaded) while in Delhi.  It’s honestly an exhausting experience being in Delhi, because you feel as though you can’t ever trust anyone; a feeling I really dislike.  Furthermore, Delhi isn’t the only place where you’ll experience these scams.  India’s tourism industry is filled with dishonesty, and you’ll deal with this in all of the big tourist destinations (Delhi, Agra, Mumbai and Varanasi are the worst)

The next problem on my list:  the pollution!!  New Delhi holds the record for being the most polluted city in the world.  While everyone talks about Beijing’s pollution problems, China’s capital got to about 500 points on the Air Quality Index this winter (making big news!), whereas in New Delhi, this has been happening for years.  They had to actually expand their AQI scale because the city was so often blowing past the highest number ON the scale!   New Delhi’s pollution is estimated to cause 1.5 million deaths every year and is causing massive issues for the country’s healthcare system.

From a tourist’s perspective, the pollution is little more than an inconvenience.  Staying in New Delhi for a few days isn’t going to kill you, but it WILL make you appreciate the clean air back home!

In addition to the air pollution, New Delhi is also very dirty.  You’re told by everyone who’s ever been to India to expect it…but there’s really no way to prepare for some of the things you see.  The garbage bins that exist hardly seem to be in use, and people mostly just throw their trash onto the ground.  Later on, a cow or dog will come along and eat anything edible…everything else gets burned at the end of the day.  Sadly, from what I saw, burning garbage isn’t solely done to eliminate trash…it’s also done for warmth…

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Not taken by me….but we saw things like this often.  There are countless stray dogs roaming the streets of New Delhi, and they rely on garbage for survival.  

To say that Delhi is poor is a gross understatement.  More than 50% of the population lives in the slums.  For those of you who have had the fortune of being born in a 1st world country, where slums of this degree don’t exist, I will paint a picture…

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An Indian man sleeps on the roof of his house at a shanty area in New Delhi, India, Monday, April 20, 2015. . (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Slums are basically groups of makeshift houses,  built in areas that can’t technically hold buildings (near rivers that are prone to flooding, for example).   The poorest of the poor live here, where there is often no electricity or running wate, and therefore, no toilets. People mostly defecate in the streets, creating sanitary issues.  Without clean water, children and adults both die of parasites and something as common as a bad case of diarrhea is a death sentence for many of these people.

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Once more, I cannot make claim to this picture, but Dave and I did see countless naked children running around the streets of New Delhi.  His belly is most definitely not large because he’s full…parasites are a big problem in India.  

It sickens me to say that you can actually pay people to go on tours of these slums, in both Delhi and Mumbai.  The idea of gawking at the poor, who already live with so little dignity, bothers me a lot.  There are many organizations out there that are trying to help these people, but it’s too big of a problem to be going away any time soon…

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People filling jugs with clean water brought to them by a relief group.  This clean water is vital for their survival

So…if I’m going to sum it up…I wouldn’t visit the Golden Triangle again.  The Taj Mahal was VERY cool and I highly recommend a visit, but if I were planning our trip again, I would be spending as little time in New Delhi as possible.  There are plenty of other places in India that ARE worth a visit, and next I’ll be outlining the pros and cons of travel in Rajasthan.  Thanks for checking in!

 

Awesome Agra

Often, when it comes to traveling, I am underwhelmed by ‘must see’ sights that everyone else seems to love.  At Yellow Stone, I didn’t find Old Faithful to be particularly punctual or impressive.  In Cambodia, I preferred several temples over Angkor Wat.  Even in Thailand, I preferred Elephant Nature Park and Ayuttaya over the crowded beaches.  Agra, however, was the exception to that rule…Although I arrived at the Taj Mahal expecting to be underwhelmed, within minutes, I realized I had underestimated India’s most iconic building.

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We traveled for hours in a thick fog and Dave and I were both very worried that the visibility was so bad that we wouldn’t even be able to see the building.  Luckily, as the sun climbed in the sky, the fog dissipated and we arrived at Taj Mahal’s front gate with beautiful blue sky above us.

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India’s pollution problems + Winter fog = poor visibility for some tourists!
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We were so glad the sky cleared by the time we made it to the front gate.

We were provided with a tour guide while we were in Agra.  I don’t typically like guides, because they can take so much away from the experience (I hate being shuttled around) but this one was pretty good.  He offered a lot of information about the structures themselves, although we did find out later that some of his facts weren’t exactly true (more on that later).   The things that were true, though, made it worthwhile having a guide at this particular attraction.

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I doubt he liked us very much, though.  He learned quickly that we weren’t big spenders when we opted out of the 1/2 km carriage ride to the Taj Mahal.  The weather was nice and so was the walk 🙂

Now, about the the building and grounds themselves…

In 1631, the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife during the birth of their 14th child.  After spending a year in secluded mourning, the emperor hired an architect to design a beautiful building both to commemorate his late wife, and to act as her final resting place.   The architect did his job well and today, thousands of tourists flock to the Taj Mahal to visit the burial sight of Emperor Jehan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Now that you have some history, I should explain why this UNESCO World Heritage Sight is so renown.   I like lists, so let’s do it that way…

#1 – The Optical Illusions

When you are (finally) done with security and have bought your tickets and paid for your camera fees, you make it through the front entrance.  This is when you first see the Taj Mahal.  It looks enormous and very close, and you can’t quite figure out why you hadn’t seen it behind the front gate.

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When you first see the building, you realize that photos could never possibly do it justice.

But as soon as you step through that doorway, you realize that there is quite a bit more walking to do before you actually get TO the building itself.  The doorway just makes it look closer than it really is.

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The view from the other side of the gate

There are also optical illusions on the building itself.  For example:

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This pillar does not actually have points everywhere.  It only looks like it is because of the way the stones are inlay-ed (we’ll get to that…)

 

More interesting yet, depending which time of day you visit the hall, it changes colours!  I had always seen the Taj Mahal in pictures during sun sets, so it surprised me a lot when I saw that it is white!  The entire building is made of high quality marble.  The material is actually partially translucent, so it reflects light in some very interesting ways.

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With a really beautiful sunrise or sunset, the building actually turns pink

This marble is very valuable and delicate, so India has come up with an interesting cleaning regiment for their famous landmark.  Instead of washing dust and dirt off with a pressure washer (or a harsh equivalent) they cover parts of the building with mud, and then gently wipe it away by hand.   The mud helps to delicately scrub away any built up pollutants on the Taj Mahal’s pristine facade.  They were working on 2 of the towers when we were visiting.

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#2 – The Symmetry

Every aspect of this building is symmetrical genius.  From the trees, to the pools to the mausoleums that stand on either side of the main building, the Taj Mahal is balanced.  As you walk through the gate, you are met by a long pool that leads up to the Taj Mahal itself.  The line in the middle of that pool runs directly to the center of the main building, making for perfect picture taking.  Even the most amateur photographer can get a straight picture if they know where to look.

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And everything from the trees to the stone steps to the pools on either side are mirrors of themselves.  It’s really quite impressive because as long as we were with our guide, he never seemed to run out of things to show us that were perfect mirrors of one another.   Both inside and outside of the building, everything from the art to the pillars to the shape of each room is a perfect reflection of the other side.

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Obviously I didn’t take this picture, but it shows that no matter which side of the Taj Mahal you are standing on…you see the same thing!
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Similarly, the pools are designed to reflect the Taj Mahal perfectly and there is a mosque built on either side of the main building.  Each of those mosques are also perfectly balanced.

But wait!  I’ve saved the best for last!!!

#3 – The Inlay Art

What impressed me the most about this incredible structure wasn’t the symmetry or the marble.  It was actually the art and how that art was made.

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A close up of one of the entrances.

Now, the Islamic writing around the arches is painted on…but all of the other art you see…the flowers and vines…that’s not paint!

Every piece of those flowers and vines are actually made of precious and semi-precious gems.  Here’s how it’s done…

The high quality marble that was used to make the Taj Mahal was carved into by artists.  The designs were chosen ahead of time, and gems were brought from as far away as China and Egypt to complete the task.  The gems were sanded down to fit into the holes in the marble and then glued into place.  So instead of having paint all over the Taj Mahal…you have incredibly detailed inlay work.

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All symmetrical and all inlay-ed precious stones

We went to a factory where this form of art is still being practiced.

This form of art is called Parchin Kari in India or Pietra Dura elsewhere.  In order to decorate the Taj Mahal, Emperor Jahan had Jade brought from China, Sapphire brought from Sri Lanka and even Turquoise from Tibet.  The results are magnificent.  Not only is the art beautiful, but when the light hits certain gems just right…the whole building sparkles!!!

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It is a bit difficult to catch on camera, but you can sort of see it in a few places here.

Sadly, because this building is so famous, it gets a lot of attention from thieves.  Repair work is almost always being done on the building because tourists try and remove stones and are sometimes even successful!

 

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Myth vs Facts

India has worked hard to protect this  building, and during the second world war and wars with Pakistan special measures were taken to keep the building from being bombed.

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Although only partially covered in bamboo here, it is believed that India covered the entire building during WW2, to keep the Nazi and Japanese forces from recognizing and bombing their most famous landmark.

Of course, this is one of the more interesting TRUE stories about the Taj Mahal.  I learned later on that some of the other interesting stories our guide told us are completely fabricated.  For example, there were never plans to build a second BLACK Taj Mahal across the river.  It is a myth being perpetuated by tour guides in India.

Another myth that has added interest in the Taj Mahal states that the Indian Government had plans to demolish the building and to sell the marble.  This story has no more truth to it than the black Taj story does, but it continues to be told because it increases interest in the famous landmark.

To me, I think the building is fascinating enough WITHOUT fabricating additional stories.  But hey…I suppose they know what they’re doing…there’s no such thing as bad press, right?

After visiting the Taj Mahal we also went down to Agra Fort, which was built during the same period for the same emperor’s family.  It wasn’t as interesting as the Taj Mahal itself, but it was still pretty neat and definitely worth some photos!  (click on the photos for captions and explanations)

I have 1 last post that I’m still working on for India.  I hope to have it up soon!

If you found this blog post interesting, please feel free to share with your friends.  As always, comments and likes are always appreciated (and make me feel a little less like I’m talking to myself;) )

The Problem with People

 

The world is a funny place.  All I have wanted to do, for as long as I can remember, is to travel.  And I have.  In the 29 years I’ve lived so far, I’ve seen 6 Canadian provinces, 5 US states and 9 Chinese Provinces (plus Hong Kong and Macao, which don’t actually count as Chinese provinces but sort of are…).  I’ve  also visited Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia and now India and I’ve gotta say…everywhere I go, people are pretty much the same.

We all basically have the same needs,  no matter what our religion, ideology or race may be.  We all want to feel safe and to have a place that we can call a home.  We all suffer defeats and achieve our goals and feel defiance and pride and a great deal of other emotions.  We all have families and loved ones and we all want what’s best for them.  Everyone you meet is looking for the same basic things you are…but it’s hard to remember that when you are in the face of a strange culture where you are ‘the other’.

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A store selling Indian rugs.  None of them can fly…

I made a new friend in Suzhou recently.   He found a good job as a chemist in China and is currently dealing with Culture Shock.  When he was at our place a few weekends ago with his girlfriend, he mentioned that nobody ever writes about that stuff in blogs.  Everyone writes about how lovely travel is; how rewarding it is to learn about other cultures.  I laughed and said that although some of my posts can be downers, most of the time, i try to put a positive spin on my experiences.  Mostly I do this because I find it helpful to look for a positive when I’m in a negative situation.  But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, part of me really wants to hang onto that idea that travel is all lollipops and rainbows…

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Nobody talks about the line ups you wait in so that you can go see an overpriced attraction.  And nobody wants to talk about the traveller’s diareha!  It’s real and it’s awful!!!

So let’s be honest for a moment…

Today was one of those rotten travel days.  We’re beginning to realize how much we overpaid for our tour and we’re both getting tired of being treated like walking piggy banks.  We had a group of children follow us through the bazaar today, trying to sell us something (we aren’t sure what) and we’ve had countless people grab our arms and try to bring us into their stores to sell us their goods for 10x the price they’d charge a local.  It’s exhausting knowing that you can’t really trust anyone when you are travelling….being a tourist can really jade you in that way…

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Can you spot the difference?  This isn’t actually very surprising or unfair.  We don’t pay taxes to keep up these beautiful places so it’s only fair that we pay more than the locals.  What’s unfair is that we had been told by our tour operator that all the sights we’d be seeing were free.  This one was the cheapest one we could find today…

Of course, we do have some coping mechanisms.  Sometimes it’s an inappropriate joke (every tourist makes them).  I recognize that it can be culturally inappropriateive or offensive to laugh at Chinese medicine or to make a joke about Ganesh and his giant elephant head, but it’s sort of like laughing at a funeral…sometimes an inappropriate joke is the only thing you can do to relieve the tension that has built up with every encounter you’ve had throughout the day.

Because really, at the end of the day….people suck!   We are a sefish group, we really are!  We are destroying the earth because we are too lazy to recycle plastic bags or to walk to the store.  We allow corporations to treat their employees like garbage because it saves us money on our groceries.  We use animals for entertainment when we go to Swim With the Dolphin programs or when we go on an elephant ride.

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Disclaimer:  This animal was tortured for months so that you can ride on its back!!

And for some reason…we (and  I’m referring to all of human kind) think that people from other countries are somehow ‘less’ than we are.  Canadians have the resources and space and jobs (yes jobs!) to take in refugees but many are against it, because they think Canadian lives somehow matter more.  Somehow we have to fix ALL our  problems before we can hep anyone else…why should we all have to be living at 100% happiness before starving children and families fleeing war can be helped?  How are they less important??

It’s the same on this side of the planet.  I’ve been taken advantage of in nearly every country I’ve visited because of my white skin and my accent.  Somehow, because I’m Canadian, it’s ok to take advantage of me because I have ‘so much money’ and I can always make more.   I came here with a budget that I need to stick with….so all our tour guide did by charging us 30% more than he needed to, was to take away from what we would have spent on the second half of our trip.

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This also means that we have less money to tip musicians and artists who are trying to make a living without begging.  These are people I like to support.

And yes, these are trivial problems.  I’m sure some of you at home are rolling your eyes and hating me for ranting about my ‘first world problems’…but there are bigger issues too…

I did a lot of research before coming to India because I knew it would be very easy to get sick here  Disentary is something many travelers suffer from while in India and I did not want to be one of those unlucky travelers.  Basically, the water in India is very contaminated and dirty.  So dirty, in fact, that you are told to brush your teeth with mineral water and not tap water.

This means that all raw fruits and vegetables are off limits to us…because if they were washed with tap water (and they probably were), we will get sick.  And I’m not talking about a tummy ache….many people need to be hospitalized and are on medications for months if they catch something from the water here.  It’s no laughing matter.

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We are also on a vegetarian diet while we’re here, because meat is often unsafe.  We’re only ordering it in top notch restaurants, and even then, I find myself sticking with Dhal (lentils and chickpeas)

So when I learned that you are suppose to crush your empty water bottle when it’s finished, so that scam artists can’t refill it with TAP WATER and resell it in the market place, I wanted to scream.  These aren’t just people who are trying to make an extra buck off of me…I can understand why those people resent me.  I am no better than them…i was just lucky enough to have been born in Canada.  I can forgive them for taking as much as they can… After all, many of them are supporting extended families as well as their own children.

But there are actually people here who are knowingly getting people sick to make a few extra rupees…. That’s a completely new level of behavior.  That goes so far beyond ‘doing what you have to go get by’.

So that’s how it is.  That’s what it can be like to travel in foreign countries.  Tourists aren’t protected by the same laws we have in Canada here, because let’s face it….their government has bigger fish to fry.   The number of homeless people in India is astounding and my tourism dollars can go a very long way to help those people…I just wish so much of that money wasn’t in our tour operator’s pocket…

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The number of stray dogs is astounding…you see them curled up in the boulevard between lanes, trying to sleep like this

But I will leave you on a happy note..

We had a lovely walk today through Old Jaipur.  We set out early and were walking through as everyone was just getting set up for the day.  The crowds weren’t out yet, and we were able to walk along slowly, taking in the Pink City.  And the most wonderful thing, was all the smiling.  We had several people give us the warmest, most genuinely beautiful smiles.   They couldn’t communicate with us verbally (now that we’re out of the capital, fewer people speak English), but they spoke in a way that they could.  Indian people, as a whole, are so wonderfully inviting.  It’s a shame that the bad apples all flock to the tourist industry, where they tarnish the name of a country that is otherwise, welcoming and vibrant.

And we finished our day at Tiger Fort, where we watched the sun go down over the Pink City.

And while today i do feel that people suck….my love for animals remains…

And there is an abundance of them in India…

I will be back soon!