Visiting India’s Golden Triangle on a structured tour – a very pleasant surprise!

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In October 2014, I went on an organised tour of ‘The Golden Triangle’ in northern India, with my Mum, and for my Mum really, so she wasn’t alone. Of course, India had always been one of my top places to visit, but a structured tour was not what I had in mind initially, however, sometimes we must fit travel in around work, and this was the case with me at the time. The tour also hugely appealed to me as, it included safaris to hopefully see Tigers! One of my favourite animals and my Chinese Animal Sign, and as a vet, animal lover and conservation advocate, any excuse to see or be near animals and nature whilst travelling is a massive bonus.
We both had two weeks and a reasonable budget.

The company we used for the trip was Newmarket Travel. Mum had found a brochure in a Sunday newspaper, although they do also advertise online.

I’ve just searched online for the trip and itinerary looks to have changed very slightly to what we did a few years ago, but the highlights are the same; Delhi (Old and New including rickshaw ride around Old Delhi, the red fort and India gate war memorial), Agra and Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset,  Jaipur (the Amber Fort, floating palace and Diwali here), Ranthambhore National park including two safaris and a village stay including a camel cart ride and cookery demonstrations – see below: http://www.newmarketholidays.co.uk/11372/air-holidays-and-breaks/faraway-worldwide-holidays/india-tigers-and-the-taj-mahal

The tour was for 10 nights. The first night is the overnight flight and final night is the flight home, so 8 nights in India, which I think surprised me when I found out- it didn’t seem like it would be long enough.
Surprisingly, on this trip 8 nights felt like a perfect amount of time.

I did struggle on the first day, as I had not slept well on the overnight flight, and the tour started in the early afternoon, only allowing a few hours for a brief nap/ relax in the hotel room. After this we were straight into the action; short bus journey around Old Delhi including Gandhi’s cremation site, then a rickshaw for around one hour through the old streets. This was such a highlight! The sights and smells were a sensory overload (a phrase I can’t seem to stop using when I talk about India) and it felt impossible to be able to capture it on film.

Day two saw us tackling New Delhi, including the India Memorial Gate then onto the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque and the ornate Qutb Minar tower, which we had fun taking pictures of fun angles and posing out of various archways and thresholds! That afternoon we drove to Jaipur (the journey was around four hours long). En route all I remember is stopping at the side of a road in the tiniest of ram shackled looking buildings for lunch and having the most divine paneer butter curry I have ever tasted (no wonder I gained weight whilst away- cheese cooked in oodles of butter!!). We arrived in Jaipur in the late afternoon, where we then went and explored the busy streets during Diwali, which was an unexpected addition to the itinerary. After the hustle and bustle of the streets (the dodging of children with fireworks, the dodging of cows in the middle of the street, the dodging of excitable teenage boys on motorbikes), we made our way back to the hotel, got ourselves a beer and watched the fireworks from the safety and serenity of the rooftop pool bar.

Day three was an early start to explore the wonderful, vibrant city of Jaipur, including the City Palace complex and the Amber Fort, set high up on the hillside. We both really enjoyed the Amber Fort. I wish, back then, I was better at photography. My pictures really don’t do it justice and I would love to go back to try and better- capture the buildings and atmosphere now I know more about lighting and angles.
The hotel in Jaipur also had a pool, which made relaxing and writing in the diary much more fun. My Mum, bless her had forgotten to bring a swimming costume, but one of the lovely people in our tour group lent her a pair of men’s swimming trunks, so she got in the pool in shorts and a vest!

On day four, we left the Pink City of Jaipur (called so since Maharaja Ram Singh painted the city pink to welcome visiting British monarchy in 1876) and headed into the country to Ranthambhore National Park, which was another three or four-hour drive. En route, Adil pulled out a large bottle of Indian Rum, randomly, and got us all a small plastic cup of it to try. Those of us who enjoyed it (me!!) were offered more and I can honestly say it went to my head rather quickly! Sadly, it also went straight to my bladder and with no toilets on the bus, we soon had to pull into a field for me to pee. The driver, the trainee guide and the luggage boy all came with me and stood around me with their backs to me to protect me from being seen, which was so sweet of them! I’m sure in every trip we ever do, I have a story of urinating somewhere random; I have the weakest bladder, it literally must be the size of a grape, so peeing anywhere when caught short is just the norm for me.
We arrived at Ranthambhore moderately merry and settled down for the evening with dinner around a camp fire and a sky so starry. We had two safaris (dawn and dusk) planned for the next day.
I also bagged a few bottles of the rum to take home that afternoon. It was different to Caribbean rums, more like Bundaberg Rum (from Australia); heavier and much more a of a molasses taste. Mark was very pleased with it when I got back to the U.K.

The morning game drive started before dawn. It was amazing. Spending time in nature or with animals when travelling is so important to me, so I was so energised and excited for the day ahead. Unfortunately, in the morning we did not see Tigers, but we saw hundreds of other animals and birds. The spotters were just fantastic, they showed us fresh ‘pugmarks’ (Tiger footprints) which they use to track the Tigers, and one had a cub with her (mini pugmarks!). There was a vast abundance of deer and bird life. By the time the morning sun got warm, we headed back to the hotel for a lunch and relax by the pool. The tour had been split into two groups for the game drives and the other group had seen a Tiger. I was a little gutted but hopeful for the dusk game drive. We were, tremendously unlucky to be within 8ft of a Tigress that afternoon, but unable to see her as the night began to fall. If I was travelling alone, I would personally have stayed at Ramthanbhore longer in the hope I would see one of these beautiful, elusive creatures. The experience of the national park and the wonderful animals we saw was nothing below amazing, yet I left disappointed and jealous that I had not seen a Tiger. The next day I berated myself for having such feelings and tried to feel grateful and privileged that I had experienced such wonderful nature and scenery. India is having amazing success with wild Tiger numbers at present, the government is doing so well, so one day, who knows, I may well be able to see my favourite animal in the wild.

A Beautiful Banyan Tree in Ranthambhore National Park

Day six and we headed to a small village in the Rajasthan province where we would be staying for one night, via the town Abhaneri, famous for its amazing baoris (step wells). We spent some time looking around the town, observing fuel being made for cooking (cow pats basically) and buying some local pottery, dried in the baking sun. We visited the Harshat Mata Temple and the Chand Baoli stepwell which is one of the deepest in India and has been featured in many films and documentaries.

We reached the village in the afternoon and stayed in some basic cabins. Shock! There was no wifi! Slightly different from the four or five star hotels we had stayed in for the rest of the trip. There was however air conditioning and a western toilet. We were taken by camel cart to the village where we were hounded (in a nice way, I suppose) by many children, all wanting to know who our favourite cricketers were! Luckily, I do follow a bit of cricket so started talking about Kevin Pieterson and how I had seen England take the Ashes in Sydney in 2011! They were talking about school and what they wanted to be when they grew up, in very good English. Some of the people on the tour became quite emotional. We handed the children pens and notebooks and one lady asked Adil our guide if we could visit their school.

I had edged a little way apart from the group, led by my nose, to a small house with a couple of ladies sat outside cooking something that smelt delightful! They didn’t speak much English, but I understood what they were making was Dal and Roti. Adil soon found me and I asked him if I could try some and was happy to pay them for a sample. They declined the offer of money but let me sample a spoonful of Dal on a piece of Roti and it was delicious. Adil translated a recipe for me to take home and I have cooked it at least once a month back home ever since! Mark was very impressed with the recipe and likes it as a side dish to an Indian meal, or on its own, with some smoked haddock or cod and green beans as a weeknight easy meal! – check out our recipes page! http://www.appetite-for-travel.co.uk/2017/10/11/how-to-make-an-easy-dal-from-rajasthan/

Personally, I did not encounter ‘Delhi Belly’ and my food intake really did vary from the vast range of hotel food to street snack and chai, so I was pleasantly surprised!
The main tip I would recommend for avoiding the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’ is to use hand sanitiser/ wash your hands if possible/ avoid hands in or around mouth situations, whenever you have been handling money. Currency is the main vehicle for infection in many countries including India.

Day seven saw us start earlier than planned to drive to Agra, as Adil had arranged a trip to the local school, which was so lovely. One of the people on the tour was so moved by the experience and the eagerness of children to learn that he planned to set up a charity when home to send the school money for equipment, such as chairs and tables (everyone sat on the floor).

theschool
We reached Agra in the afternoon and headed to the Taj Mahal. What can be said about the Taj Mahal? Firstly, Adil gave us such an emotive speech about why the Taj Mahal was built, that not only most of the tour group had tears rolling down their faces, but so did he. No words can really sum up the beauty of this structure, and the beauty of why it was created. Photographs just cannot do it justice (a running theme through my Indian adventure)! That night in Agra we had an early night, ready for a pre-sunrise trip to the Taj Mahal for a second time. I thought this was a really thoughtful part of the itinerary, as after one visit there, not a single person wanted to leave, so it was so fantastic we got to experience the Taj Mahal twice, especially at two different times of day, to capture it in different, stunning lights.

A pre- dawn start again today, day 8, saw us arrive at the Taj Mahal before sunrise where we felt very privileged to be some of the few people that see the sunrise here. It was still relatively busy, but by no means bustling like it was the day before, and the atmosphere was much calmer and serene.

Taj Mahal at Sunrise

From Agra, we headed back to Delhi (around three hours by coach) and visited the Red Fort en route. This sits on the other side of the river to the Taj Mahal, so views over the beautiful mausoleum can be seen from its windows.

The whole group ate together in the hotel in Dehli that evening. It was humbling to think we would all be leaving India tomorrow with a new or deeper realisation of how lucky we are to be healthy, free from hunger and above the poverty line, unlike many Indians we had met over the last eight days.

So, day nine we had breakfast then journeyed to the airport for our flight home. I readily accept I am a day dreamer, especially on long drives, and on the way to the airport I was thinking about my expectations of the trip versus the reality of it.

Firstly, if you were travelling on your own without a guide, then things would take longer than eight/nine days, as they always do. Finding places to stay, finding transport, buying tickets and queuing for the Taj Mahal and amber fort, communication etc., all need time. 8 nights travelling alone would be way too rushed to fit all what I did in.
I have always thought that one month is the minimum amount of time required for travel in India. My itinerary would be Kerala, Goa (1-2 weeks here depending on degree of relaxing you enjoy, and this could even be preceded by Sri Lanka for 1 or 2 weeks), Mumbai, Varanasi and the Ganges, the Golden Triangle, the north of India, Shimla and then this could be extended by visiting Nepal too.
Secondly, having the same guide for the whole trip was invaluable. We were able to build a rapport with him, especially as he was also very open with us.

I was really surprised with just how much I enjoyed this trip. The tour did not feel rushed and Adil was hugely knowledgeable and explained above and beyond what was necessary.
For example, he spent hours one day explaining about the caste system and the process of arranged marriage and beliefs which really passed the time on longer bus journeys, especially when the driver had just married (arranged) and discussed his feelings and trepidations about it.
I felt really privileged to get an insight into such an interesting culture and these lovely gentlemen’s personal lives, which was not required of them at all, but thoroughly appreciated.

There were many times the guide did more than he was required, such as taking us out for Diwali and visiting the school and the villagers. Adil was a very spiritual man, connected to his emotions and aware of the issues India faces with gender inequality and violence, and more than once had tears in his eyes when explaining about his own children who were both girls. He discussed at length the international news story about the gang rape and later death of a woman on a bus, and also the issue India has with contraception the mass sterilisation of women which caused the death and significant injury of many, because due to their religious beliefs, many men will not undergo vasectomy.
I feel unable to provide detailed opinions or information on these vast and deep subjects, but when researching the horrific gang rape of Jyoti, on a bus, by five Indian men in 2012, I found this excellent article written by Amartya Sen, which is very worthy of a read: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/10/10/indias-women-mixed-truth/

Adil gave us a list of suggested readings he felt would increase our knowledge and understanding of India, which I thought was a fantastic touch and again, above and beyond what was required of him.

Adils’ suggested reading list to learn more about India:
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Tahir Shah
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Another positive I found of a tour was that I felt incredibly safe and relaxed, particularly in a country like India which can have slightly higher incidences of pick-pocketing, scams and harassment, especially for women travelling alone. Yes, it’s still India and the coach did have to emergency stop and swerve to miss a cow in the road and we did still think we might die on rickshaws in the middle of Old Delhi, but that’s the fun of such a country!
As touristy as it sounds though, it was nice to remember your bag was safely on the coach as you lost yourself in the crowds and sensory overload, sights, smells and atmosphere of India.
I was also super lucky to be there over Diwali. We were in Jaipur and so Adil arranged us all to go out onto the streets in the evening to really embrace the atmosphere at a less tourist-style level and more of the “traveller/ get involved” style I am used to. Everyone loved this addition to the itinerary.

As I expected, I did lower the average age by around twenty years, but I can’t say if this is the same for all the trips, may be just the one Mum and I were on? Although apprehensive at first about the age difference, it really did not matter a jot, I always could communicate well with older people, being an only child this was how I grew up! Plus, once we got talking and introduced ourselves, people, as I often find, are very interested about my job as a Veterinary Surgeon and this often leads to interesting conversations. Amongst people asking for advice about their limping dog (go to see your vet when you get home!) I had some fantastic evenings conversing with people from all different backgrounds, ethical values and beliefs, and, as you do with group travel, came away from the trip feeling not only enlightened by what I had learnt about India, but also what I had learnt from deep conversations with new interesting people, who share similar interests to yourself.
As a side point, my Mum was 57 when I did this trip and I was 28. She enjoyed it immensely also and felt even more connected spiritually and emotionally than even I did. No one in the group found it difficult to get around, they didn’t feel exceptionally tired even though we were on the go a lot, and all of them said how keen they were to explore more of India since this trip had really opened their eyes to the country.

Would I recommend this trip to other travellers?

Absolutely! If you have a short amount of time and are not budget -restricted.
Absolutely! If you are looking to experience India as a holiday, or as a short, concise trip whilst exploring that part of the world then this is absolutely the trip for you.
I came away from the whole experience feeling very educated, totally in love with the country and with a hunger to explore it further.
I also felt that it was extremely good value for money (at the time it cost approximately £1100).

We did this trip as a holiday, because it came as a package including flights from the U.K. As far as I am aware, there was not a ‘no flight’ option. Many trips like this begin their itinerary in the location and flights are optional. These sort of trips (such as the one I did with Intrepid Travel to China), are great if you are travelling in the area and would like a structured tour for certain smaller parts or are time-restricted.
If you are travelling Asia during a sabbatical from work or on a gap year as a younger traveller, then you may wish to consider longer tours, or tours slightly more tailored to solo or younger travellers.

Conclusion: I cannot wait to go back. The Asian continent fascinates me. I often sit and look at a map of the world, with my pins in it, and contemplate how much of Asia is left to explore.

I am very keen to explore southern India, as well as Nepal and far north India as well. So let me know whether there’s anything I shouldn’t miss!
Would I do a structured tour again to visit these parts? Most definitely… I will have to compare calendars with my Mum and see what we can plan next!!

Katy xx

LOur guide Adil on far left, and driver, luggage helper and trainee guide
  • Flights were with Jet Airways
  • Rough estimate of trip cost was around £1,100 from memory, with around £200 spending money (October 2014)
  • Hotels: Suryaa Hotel New Delhi, The Pugmark Boutique Resort in Rathambhore, Radisson Blu Agra, Lemon Tree Premier Jaipur.

 

 

 

 

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