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!

 

A Night in the Thar Desert

We arrived in Jaisalmer at the end of January after a long 9 hour drive from Pushkar (all 9 hours were spent listening to a 5 minute ‘Om’ to Shiva….on repeat…) and were greeted by a truly unique city.  Located only  120 kilometers from Pakistan, Jaisalmer is a desert city, existing mostly as a base for people wanting to go on camel safaris in India’s Thar Desert.

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There are countless desert camps to choose from and many hotels in Jaisalmer offer discounted rooms for anyone booking a desert tour through them.  Our tour guide had booked ours ahead of time and I have to say that this was something he did right!   The camp where we stayed was very well run and the owner puts a lot of care into the quality of the experience he offers.  From beginning to end we loved our stay in the Thar desert!

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The Thar Desert

Camel rides to the desert camps are a quintessential part of the experience, and we met our camels (and their owners) on the side of the highway about 40 minutes away from the Pakistan border.  My camel’s name was Michael Jackson (probably because of his awesome hair!) and he was the sweetest thing!  Dave’s camel was a bit grumpy, but MJ loved being pet and he was very careful when letting me on and off, which is the most harrowing part of a camel-riding experience!

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Best desert picture, EVER!!!

We got to watch the sun set over the desert, while our guides laid in the sand.  It really was a beautiful way to spend some time and it exceeded my expectations.  Dave explored a bit and I hung out with Michael Jackson (I was worried I’d turn over a rock and a scorpion would try murdering me….Irrational?  Perhaps…)

We arrived at the camp and were very happy with our accommodations.  The tents were in better shape than a lot of the hotel rooms we’d seen.  It’s obvious that the owner of this camp takes a lot of pride in what he does.  He told us a few times how he built things a certain way so that they’d be made to last…he values quality and that was evident in all aspects of our camp experience!

Our evening was spent watching some traditional dances and listening to traditional Rajesthani music.  Once more, we were impressed!  I expected 2 or 3 songs and then for the musicians to move onto another camp…but they stayed the whole night!  We had hours of entertainment around a bonfire, under the desert sky!  Dinner was served and it was also traditional Rajesthani.  The whole experience felt very cultural, and although a lot of these types of things can sometimes feel a little kitsch,  somehow, this didn’t.

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I also got to put my photography skills to good use!  When they saw that I had a decent camera and that I liked taking photos, they asked if I wouldn’t mind taking some pictures of the camp for their future website.  These guys were so great, I gladly agreed to help out.  I just hope my photos do them justice!

We were sad to go the following morning, but before we left we were served some very tasty Aloo Parantha (a traditional Indian breakfast) and we learned later that the owner had even picked up some fresh fruit for Dave and I, in case we didn’t like the Indian breakfast!  So thoughtful!

We had such a great time in Jaisalmer!  I recommend the trip to anyone visiting Rajesthan!  It might be a bit of a drive but it is WELL worth it!!

The end of the Rajasthani Road

I have fallen very behind in my writing because although Goa is beautiful and relaxing, the internet there is the worst we’ve seen.  Still, tonight it was behaving for a while so I began the process of uploading pictures into wordpress…whether or not the internet holds out well enough for me to actually finish my post tonight, is another affair entirely… (it didn’t…I’m now in Mumbai, finishing the post!)

We finished our time in Rajesthan in the city of Jodpur.  Nicknamed ‘The Blue City”, Jodpur is famous for the massive fort that sits above the city.  We stayed in a gorgeous old Haveli-turned-hotel and had a stunning view of it.  As I wrote my last post (Jaisalmer), this was the view I had to admire while I worked.

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We were pretty shopped-out by the time we reached Jodpur, so the markets were of no interest to us.  Still, we wound up in one, only to buy some water and be asked at least 20 times where we’re from.  We’ve realized, over the course of our stay in India, that people here think Canada is made up of 2 parts:  The French Part and The English Part.  They’re always very confused when I say that we live in the ‘English Part where many people also speak French…and German…’.

I’ve realized, since we left our driver behind, that Prama is like wine…he got better as the trip progressed (not a lot better…but better…).  Because the fort was so far from our hotel, we weren’t able to get around on foot and were sort of at Prama’s mercy when it came to what we would see.  But, instead of bringing us to Emporiums (where he’d make commission off of any of our purchases)…he brought us to a lovely (free!) park!  We saw monkeys, beautiful gardens and eventually stumbled upon some beautiful old temples that reminded me of Ayuttaya in Thailand.

This is where I’m going to make note of something I realized while walking along the temples in this park.  In many temples (especially active ones), you must remove your shoes if you wish to enter.  In warmer places this isn’t an issue, but in Delhi it drove me nuts because the stone was so cold under my feet that my legs were cramping.  We missed out on a lot of temples because I just couldn’t deal with the pain in my leg (my leg is doing much better these days…but it still has its limits).  In Rajesthan it wasn’t too bad so we took off our shoes and toured the old buildings.  When we were on our way back through the park though, we saw this….

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That’s all garbage…

I took this picture about 5 minutes away from the temple where we took off our shoes to show respect and to avoid tracking dirt into Hindu sacred space.  Seeing yet more garbage in a beautiful park made me wish that Indians treated their country the way they treat their temples.  For people who are so profoundly religious and deligent in their duties to the gods (not eating beef, treating animals with respect, the most devout are vegetarian or vegan), they completely ignore their duties to nature.  The number of times we’ve seen garbage like this has been depressing!  India’s current president, Narendra Modi, is putting a lot of effort into cleaning up the country, but he has a long road ahead.  It’s a good thing he works 18 hours a day, because I can’t imagine how he’d get anything done if he didn’t!! (Jay, from Jaisalmer, is a big Modi fan.  We learned all sorts of things about him!  I have hope for this president!).

Ok…I digress…

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A worthy digression if ever there was one…

Our next stop was to the big site to see in Jodpur:  The fort!  We’ve seen several in Rajesthan and it seems like every city has both a fortress and a palace to tour, but Lonely Planet spoke especially well of this one, so we paid the 500 rupees each (50 for locals) and the extra 100 rupees for our camera (free for locals) and we took the tour.  It was honestly worth the money…There was lots to see and the audio tour was very well done.  My only complaint was the hoards of Indian tour guides that all insisted on shouting above one another and pushing anyone who wasn’t paying them out of the way…I was nearly knocked over at one exibit, while looking at the ornate elephant seats from Jodpur’s history.

The audio tour was awesome…it told us the history of the fort.  I learned that it has never been taken by an enemy and I even heard the stories behind the cannon holes in the walls.  There was a lot of battling between the Kings of the different Rajesthani settlements back in the day.  It was neat learning their history.

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The red circle is around a hole caused by Jaipur canons.  The king of Jodpur had been offended by the neighboring royalty, so he ordered a carivan of wedding gifts to be seized on its way to Jaipur.  Jaipur retaliated by (unsuccessfully) trying to take Jodpur fort.

Also interesting were some of the artifacts in the museum part of the fort.  In addition to the elephant seats, there were also carriages that carried the kings and queens of Jodpur.  You can tell which carriages were womens’ because they hid the women away behind curtains and stained glass.  In the past, women in India lived in Purdah…only to be seen by their immediate family.  Women often hid in seperate rooms when guests came to the house, to keep themselves from the ‘prying and lustful eyes of men’ (my favorite line from the audio tour).  This particular carriage was of significance, because it belonged to the queen that was alive during the Brittish take-over of the country.  The Brittish were very interested in the royal families and wanted to know what the women looked like, but all they ever got to see was a flash of the queen’s ankle as she walked up the steps of her carriage.

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This carriage

A photographer managed to get a picture of that ankle and a story was suppose to be published the following day in Brittish newspapers but the royal family intereceded and the pictures never went to print.  A little different from our culture, where Kim Kardashian can ‘break the internet’

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The only picture in the shoot where she was still wearing any clothes….

Our final stop in Jodpur was at the ‘mini Taj Mahal of Jodpur’.  A king had it built for his queen, when he heard of the Taj Mahal being built.  He thought it was a beautiful act, so he wished to do the same.  It isn’t as grand or as semetrical as the Taj Mahal (more on that in the future!), but it was beautiful in its own way!

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I’ll leave you now with some pictures of our hotel/Palace!  This was probably our favorite hotel in all of Rajesthan, not only because of the great restaurant, but also because of the gorgeous view and the beautiful rooms.  For anyone reading this and looking for a great place to stay…Krishna Prakash Heritage Hevali is where it’s at!

And the grounds were beautiful too!!

Next up will be Goa!  We seem to have better internet in Mumbai, so  I should be able to post again tomorrow! (Unless we are out exploring…)

Thanks for stopping by!!   Anyone visiting my blog with questions regarding any of the places we have been can feel free to leave me comments in the questions section!  I will do my best to answer any and all that are asked!

 

Pilgrimage to Pushkar

Oh Rajesthan:  The contrast continues!

I am writing this post from the lobby of our hotel because the internet doesn’t work in our room (it also barely works here…I’ve resorted to typing this up in Wordpad and I plan to copy and paste it later).  The internet on our phones has been working beautifully, but I’m nearly out of data now so Wifi is becoming increasingly important.  It doesn’t seem that the hotels in India care to spend more than they have to on their guests, so the toilet paper provided is minimal, the internet is sketchy if it exists at all and the facilities in the rooms are minimal at best.  For anyone who isn’t well traveled, I can’t imagine India being a very enjoyable place.  For those of us who have stayed in the cockroach infested hostels of southern China though, it’s been bareable enough.  I’m happy to have read many blogs ahead of time and I came prepared with my hair dryer and we’ve been buying toilet paper in town when we start to run low.

 

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This is our 3rd stop in this desert province, and we are so far impressed by both its beauty and also by the unique characteristics that define each city.  Jaipur, the pink city, was buzzing with bazaars that are a clausterphobic’s nightmare.   Udaipur’s peaceful lake gives the city a much calmer feel, but as soon as you enter the street, you are once more overwhelmed by the shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers.  Pushkar, our current destination, is different yet.  It’s a sleepy town (as far as India’s concerned) and the fact that it is a pilgrimage destination gives both its cuisine and its tourists some different traits.

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On the surface, all Bazaars may look the same, but this was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen.  It was much more relaxed with a lot less traffic than others we’ve seen in India

Pushkar is one of 5 important pilgrimage sights in India (we’ll be visiting a second, Varinasi, later in our trip).  People travel here to see the holy lake where Brahma, a Hindu god, was said to drop a lotus flower (India’s national flower).  Some of Ghandi’s ashes were also scattered in this lake, so it is definitely an interesting little stop

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Pushkar Lake

People are far less pushy in Pushkar and many of the prices in the bazaar are fixed.   Even when prices aren’t stated right upfront, the barganing is way less brutal, so we did some clothes shopping while we were there.  Without rickshaws everywhere, it was a lot less stressfull here than it had been in Udaipur.  I don’t think we’d have wanted to do more than 1 day in Pushkar, but overall, the time we spent there was very much enjoyed.

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One aspect of Pushar though, was not quite to our taste, so to speak.  Because it is such a holy place, meat is non-existant there, and it was even impossible to get eggs.  This wasn’t too big of a deal for me, because my stomach took a turn for the worse in Udaipur and I was mostly just nibbling on french fries, but Dave wasn’t too pleased!  As I write this now, we are in Jaisalmer, and I have to admit that after nearly a week of strict vegetarian diet, Dave and I were very excited to order meat for dinner tonight!!

We did make some animal friends though, so that made up for the lacking diet…

My absolute favorite part of Pushkar though was neither the markets nor the lake.   Our hotel had a very special tenant that made my stay in this small city…

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A Great Dane with floppy ears and a sweet disposition

We called him Frankie because we didn’t know his actual name (or if he even had one…) and not only was he friendly and incredibly sweet, but he was also an excellent judge of character!  While he adored us, leaning up against me and always asking for more scratches… he HATED our driver, Prama.  We don’t like him either, and I think Frankie could sense that because as soon as Prama came near us, this loveable dog would start barking at him until he left.  This dog stole my heart…

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The best part was that Prama was terrified of this goofball!!!  Gawd I love Danes!!!!!

Tomorrow we head out on our desert safari!  I’m very much looking forward to writing about it!  Until then, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the beautiful Rajesthani countryside.

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We have seen SO MANY monkeys!  These are Black Monkeys: just 1 of 15 species of monkey found in India
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Our driver made himself useful today and took us to a migration sight for Demoiselle Cranes.  They spend 5 months away from their home, in Russia, and they’ve chosen this spot in Rhajesthan because Jaine Monks were feeding them regularly.  Today we saw about 1000 of these birds.

Internet permitting, I’ll be back upon our return from a night out in the desert!!!

A Country of Contrast

Today was a much better day for my relationship with India.

We are currently in the town of Udaipur.  With a tiny population of only half a million, Udaipur has a small town feel…by Indian standards, anway.  It sits alongside a gorgeous lake and the buildings are well maintained and clean, unlike New Delhi.  The pollution is so much better here and it was actually warm enough for shorts today, so it was bound to be an improvement from our experiences 2 days ago!

However, the biggiest differentiating factor was neither weather nor pollution related.  As is so often the case, our attitudes made all the difference.  Today, instead of lamenting over the price we paid for our tour, and complaining about the cost of every attraction, we walked around absorbing local art and the winding streets of Udaipur.  We stopped in little shops and spoke to artists and even took a time out from the crowds to enjoy some coffees at a cafe.  It gave me time to write in my journal, which is excellent therapy in of itself.

Of course, we weren’t able to escape all of the unpleasant aspects of India.  Poverty is aparent here too and we saw far too many skinny dogs on the streets.  And, as was the case in Jaipur and Delhi, we were always given very inflated prices at the shops.  The difference today, however, was that we weren’t afraid to bargain hard.  We purchased a beautiful painting and got it for less than half the price he originally asked.

Of course, on the other hand, there is also enormous wealth in this city, as is obvious when you see the hotels in the area…

Such contrast..

After days of sight seeing, we decided to skip the city palace (which, we were later told, was a good idea!).  At this point, we’ve seen palaces in several countries and I saw enough Hindu temples in Cambodia to last me a lifetime.  Instead  of spending our money on those sites, we took a sunset cruise which provided me with infinite opportunities for photographing the beautiful city.

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Tomorrow we head to a small, sleepy little city named Pushkar.  I’m excited to see it; we’ve heard from several other tourists that it’s a quiet little place, with set prices and friendly people.