They say if you spend a day in India you could write a book, yet spend more than one day and you wouldn't know where to start...how true this statement really is...
It was as a teenager that I decided I wished to visit India, but always as a plan to go for the my 30th. Certainly a strange thing to decide in ones teens, but I figured I would probably appreciate the culture, chaos and splendor the country had to offer.
After what felt like a lifetime of waiting the time had finally arrived, and the realization of the trip ahead was finally starting to sink in...I was nervous, what if after all this time planning I hated it?
We arrived in the capital around midday, and took a car to our hotel which was not too far away. We were not in India long when I had already realized our first mistake, not staying longer in Delhi. During our time in the city we visited both Old and New Delhi, as well as seeing the amazing Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb and the Lotus temple to name just a few. One thing that did surprise me at the tourist attractions was the number of Indian tourists...I don't know why but I didn't expect there to be so many....but then I guess it is just like English people being a tourist in London. What also surprised me was the amount of Indian people (of all ages) who wished to take a picture with us and shake our hands. In the UK we are very much preaching equal rights, yet in India they are certainly not and are almost promoting white skin as being better (I am not agreeing with that by the way) - we spoke to some people along the way and everywhere we visited in India the people all had the same idea 'white is beautiful'. I was completely taken by this when I first heard it, but soon realized that it is not supposed to be a negative thing towards coloured skin, but just a positive towards paler skin. Maybe we in the UK need to reciprocate that notion and let those with darker skin know that we think they are beautiful too.
Delhi was only our first glimpse of the real India, but we were already hooked by the place.
Ranthambore National Park.
We left the smoke of the city behind and headed south to Ranthambore National Park, and the first reason for wanting to come to India. We had both morning and afternoon safari booked, and were praying hard that we would see a tiger. Our jeep collected us at the crack of dawn (an open top safari jeep with seating for 6). We were joined by Dave and Yvonne who were also travelling around India with the same guide, and on the way to the park we collected a lovely Indian couple who were holidaying from Delhi; they told us that this was there 5th and final safari of their holiday and had yet to see a tiger...my hopes were dashed dramatically.
The drive to the park was longer than expected, and the roads were certainly not designed to be travelling as fast as we were...especially with no seat belts of handrails.
Upon arriving at the park (we were at one of many zones) our guide quickly pointed out tiger tracks that had been left only hours before...was this the closest I was going to get to seeing one? Before we set off again the driver got a phone call...tiger!...we were shouted at to hold on tight (to what I am not quite sure) and the jeep roared into life. If we thought the road was uneven inside the park was even worse, and yet somehow the driver skillfully managed to drive us over terrain that looked unpassable.
Finally we came to a long stretch of track and the driver was racing faster and faster, until up ahead another jeep was stopped, and the occupants were frantically telling us to slow down. Our driver slammed on the breaks and we scanned the area, only to find a beautiful female tiger sitting by the roadside, right next to use. She looked at us for a little while and allowed us to take pictures before raising to her feet and skipping across the road in front of us. We watched in awe as she casually walked away and disappeared into the trees.
Having seen the main attraction so early on this took the pressure off the driver, and although we didn't see another tiger it was good because we could now admire other wildlife. Different types of birds, deer, antelope and monkeys all entertained us enormously and the day was loved by all.
One of the highlights of these too was driving through the towns, villages and farms and seeing all the locals and how they lived. I just wished we could have stopped at some of them to a better look as they were fascinating.
We left the national park and took the train to Agra - the trains were not as bad as reputation would let you believe, however they are very rarely on time. Even if they leave their starting place on time they still manage to make it to the final destination at least two hours late.
We arrived in Agra at lunchtime, and after a quick lunch we made our way to the famous Taj Mahal. One of the most photographed buildings in the world and an instantly recognizable landmark even to those with no knowledge of India.
We arrived through the East gate which lead into one of the largest courtyards I had ever seen. This area itself was already extremely beautiful. The North gate was an enormous building with an arched walkway, and once inside the arch the Taj comes into view in all its splendor. I have to confess that the Taj Mahal was not at the top of my list of places I wanted to see in India, and it almost got scrapped entirely when planning our trip, but I am so pleased we came to visit.
The Taj Mahal is definitely a building that is better admire from a distance rather than standing right next to it...that is no disrespect to the building in anyway, but the building is so beautifully designed and so perfectly symmetrical that taking in it all together is when its beauty really shines.
We left the Taj and headed along the river to the Agra Red Fort. This turned out to be even more incredible of a place than I had anticipated. Set within a red bricked fort were numerous palaces, gardens and temples. It is difficult to describe just how impressive this place really is. Only about a quarter of it is actually open to the public now, which blew my mind as we saw so much I was convinced we must have seen it all.
Finally back to the hotel and we decided it was time to go hunting for food...we had been recommended a little place on the highstreet and would need a tuk tuk to get us there. We came out of the hotel to a busy road, and tuk tuk's were parked on the opposite side, we managed to wave and get their attention quite easily, however things in India are never what you expect.
As there was a barrier in the middle of the road, the Tuk Tuk driver decided that instead of driving along the road and making a U turn further along that he would instead drive the wrong way up the road (as a U turning was closer that way) and proceeded with driving up the opposite side of the road against the traffic (there was a lot of traffic) until he reached us. The ironic thing was that he, nor the rest of the traffic, acted as though this action was unrealistic and barely reacted. Thankfully our trip to the restaurant and back was on the correct side of the street...even if we did have to swerve between numerous other vehicles.
I was looking forward to Lucknow as it is the least known of all the places we were visiting. It is not a place were tourists visit and for this I was hoping to see the real India. Although I got exactly that I can also see why tourists barely visit, there is little to see. Most of the monuments and historical buildings have been destroyed.
We visited The Residency, an Historical site featuring the ruins of a refuge for British citizens during the Revolt of 1857. Here we stumbled across a tombstone of an army officer with the surname Turnbull - relative perhaps?
During our stay in Lucknow we also visited numerous sites across the city including Bara Imambara, Rumi Darwaza and La Martiniere College.
Lucknow turned out to be a city of complete beauty to one side, and completely dirty and poverty stricken in the other. Poverty is everywhere in India, but nowhere did it seem more extreme than it did here (but of course that could be because I saw more of it here).
On our final evening in Lucknow we had something special planned, an evening at the Maharaja palace, where the current Maharaja and his wife hosted us for dinner. We were entertained with live music and dance performances, and were thoroughly wined and dined. The Maharaja spoke to us about his palace and about his family history, and his wife told us about the food we were being served which was a family recipe.
This was by far the city we were both most apprehensive about visiting. Varanasi has the reputation for being the loudest, busiest, smelliest and dirtiest place in the whole of India...and given what we had seen already I was struggling to image how it could be........it could!
We checked into our hotel by mid-afternoon and without any delay were straight out again. We needed to get to the river Ganges in time for the evening Aarti Ceremony. This happens every evening for thirty minutes, and is a religious and spiritual ceremony which pays tribute to the river (goddess Ganga) as well as the Sun and the Moon.
We took a rickshaw through the city to the river - the bicycle framed rickshaw barely seemed strong enough for the two of us to sit on the back whilst the driver steered us through the crazy streets. Despite the madness (and uneven road surfaces) you put full trust in him, and watch on in amazement at how close to crashing into other rickshaw, cars, motorbikes and even cows, we really come.
The Aarti Ceremony was certainly a honour to witness, and I would recommend it to everyone. It truly is an experience for every single one of the senses. I certainly didn't wish it to be over.
The final bit of journey to the river side was so busy that we had to walk, and this was the same for the return journey. We were walking through what can only be described as the biggest, most colourful, and certainly the loudest, market I had ever been to. I could have spent all evening here.
The next morning we were back at the river side, but this time the atmosphere was much more calmer. We took a boat along the river just as sunrise broke, and witnessed the morning bathing rituals. We also rode up to the burning areas of the cremation sites which were certainly something you will never forget. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi, or if you are cremated there, then you will remove yourself from the constant reincarnation cycle of life and will finally go to heaven. Because of this there is cremations being made next to the river twenty four hours a day here.
After lunch visited the holy site of Sarnath, now in ruin this monument is most famously know for being the location of Buddha's first sermon. It is still visited by millions of Buddhists each year and is absolutely beautiful.
Our first internal flight took us to the old British colonial capital. Everywhere we visited in India was always different to anywhere we had been before, and here on Kolkata that trend did not differ. However in Kolkata the feel of the city was so different we could have easily mistaken ourselves for being in Europe. The buildings were more British, the roads were larger and more orderly, and there were numerous city parks with will playing children, romantic strolling couples and there were also trams buzzing around.
We took a ride on the trams, saw numerous religious buildings including St Paul's Cathedral (which actually looked like a miniature version of Westminister Abbey). We saw the Victoria Memorial, and even saw the race course. We also took a walk along the river ganges, which was interesting knowing we were again along the banks of the same river from Varanasi. The highlight for me though was visiting New Market - ironically not new at all, yet it spanned numerous streets, so much so we got lost and then couldn't remember what we had seen and what we hadn't. I purchased a couple of cotton tops and a third one with some pattern on...although it the sales man would have had his way I would have left with half the shop.
Kolkata was a city with so many levels, and it would have taken us two weeks to have seen everything (although most cities were like this to be fair).
We left behind the big city and made our way to the hill....the Himalayas to be exact.
Before arriving we already had high hopes for Darjeeling, and it certainly did not disappoint. Situated 6,700 ft above sea level this picturesque town is situated perfectly for viewing the snowy Himalayas in the distance. Close to the borders of Nepal, Tibet & Bhutan the locals here certainly look less Indian than we have come to know.
Whilst here we visited the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - a tiny train compared to many, but a steam train with so much character. It winded its way through the streets on its tracks before making it to our first stop - the Batasia Loop - a lovely little stop for pictures, and originally designed to help the train climb the mountain by looping in a graduated circle.
After the train we visited a tea estate - sadly it was a little too early to pick tea but we were able to see the factory, see the estate and enjoy lunch with a cup of tea.
To finish of the day we visited Ghum Monastery, a Buddhist Monastery that is filled with elaborate paintings and statues inside.
The next morning we rose early to watch the sun rise over the snowy Himalayas. We had made our way to Tiger Hill and watched in awe as the rising sun lite up the snow caped mountains the most beautiful pink and orange.
We later visited the Darjeeling zoo and saw numerous animals including the Snow Leopard, Red Panda, and many more. We also visited a Tibetan refugee camp where we met some incredibly talented people. Finally we visited the Darjeeling botanical gardens, where we saw some of the most incredible displays of orchid.
Seeing so many places in India was certainly the best way to see India...it can not be defined by just one place alone. Every city, town and village has its own history, culture, traditions and food, and even I can only claim to have scratched the surface.
Never have I been so drawn to want to return somewhere as I am with India, and I can completely understand why so many people move out there. The people are some of the nicest I have ever met, and it is so endearing to see people being thankful for what they have, even if that is not very much at all...and I think it was this that made me fall in love with the Indian people the most. India has shown me how greedy and selfish the western world really is, and I wish more than anything that people would take a leaf out of the Indian book. Indian people do not think negatively of those who have more, and they don't ask for pity if they have less, they are simply thankful for what they do have and realise that things can always be worse.
My take home message for anybody thinking of going to India is this - don't let the fear mongering get to you prior to your trip. All I heard before going was 'be careful' - now of course do be careful, that is obvious, but I think there is a lot of negative scare mongering happening which can effect your enjoyment.
Like anywhere in the world, watch your belongings, be careful where you eat and drink, and don't go out alone......but if truth be told I follow this practice in London. So if you are sensible and take the correct precautions, then once you are out there just enjoy it and don't be scared. Talk to people, ride in tuk tuk, don't just eat in hotels (like I saw some people doing). Experience all India has to offer...and if you do end up with Delhi belly (thankfully we didn't) then you deal with it.
I can't wait to go back to India, and I'm already looking to where we can venture to next.
Until next time India... :)
You can see more pictures from our trip at: instagram.com/chris.turnbull20