Getting around the Golden Triangle

Prior to our trip to Thailand in April 2017, we decide to head off a on an eight-day land tour of the ‘Golden Triangle’ in northern India – organised by Gate 1 Travel. This tour will start in New Delhi and take in Jaipur and Agra. We’ll visit colourful Jaipur (the Pink City) where the movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 1 and 2, were set, and then head to Agra to visit to one of the world’s best known icons – the Taj Mahal.

Chemist Warehouse almost had to close down a week before we leave because of a shortage of stock – we had it all in our bags! Travelan, Imodium, antibiotics, Gastro-Stop, Aquatabs, Restavit, hand sanitiser, hand wipes, high strength DEET, sunscreen, tissues and so on. We also had to ensure we were up to date with our vaccinations, so we loaded up with the essentials.

If you ever have to apply for an Indian visa online, you’ll understand our frustration. I’m surprised we haven’t been asked if we’re wearing coloured underwear, such is the degree of information required. Finally, our visas are approved.

After a very slow drive out to the airport because of road works on the ‘Tulla’, we arrive three hours before boarding (Thai Airlines) to beat the queues. The problem is that it seems as if everyone else had the same idea.

The long queue moves like a snake on Valium. A fair number of people have trolleys full of polythene wrapped boxes, multiple suitcases and a number of kids in tow. We survey the large number of small children and look knowingly at each other – we’re in for a doozey of a night. Screaming, crying and smelly kids. Mental note for the future: buy proper noise-cancelling headphones and consider an upgrade from cattle class.

We pop an over-the-counter sleeping tablet and manage to get a couple of hours of sleep on our overnight flight to Bangkok.

The flight out of Bangkok to Delhi was uneventful. We’re able to spread out on this quarter full plane and get some decent rest before our Indian adventure. The immigration queue at Delhi airport isn’t long but it still takes about five minutes to process each person.

So far, we’ve only explored one small part of India, but have already formed a view about this country.

Almost half of the 1.3 billion population lives below the poverty line. The population consists mainly Hindus (80 per cent) and Muslims (14 per cent). It is estimated that a baby is born every two seconds. The median age is 29 years old. Only 1 per cent of the population pay taxes and the unemployment rate is over 20 per cent.

In the cities and villages, rubbish is strewn about and in some places piled high. Most of it seems to be plastic bottles and bags. There doesn’t seem to be any personal or national pride in keeping the place clean and we wonder why this is the case, particularly when you see many young well-dressed men standing idle in groups. Hey, why not employ all these people to clean the place up? Simple question but complex cultural answer, I assume. 

Cows and bullocks roam the streets searching for food in the rubbish piles and have priority on all thoroughfares. They meander across the road much like the locals – without any thought about the consequences of being hit. The women always seem to be occupied and working, or walking a few paces behind their husbands. It is certainly a male-dominated society. This traditional village culture is one where generally three family generations live in one house ruled by the matriarch, whose daughter-in-law’s role, among other things, is to prepare and dry the cow pats for fuel.

The women generally work the fields while the men are seldom seen there. About 80 per cent of marriages in India are arranged, mostly by the family matriarch. Amazingly, there is only a five per cent divorce rate.

Unlike many other Asian countries we’ve visited, India seems to have embraced the idea of encouraging people not to smoke. Very few men smoke and I haven’t seen one woman partaking. There are dedicated stalls of smoker’s gum or chewing tobacco and it appears that there is a plain packaging policy applied for cigarette sales. There are no obvious sales outlets of cigarettes.

There is no police presence anywhere and road rules seem to be invented on the spot. Cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and pushbikes form an ordered chaos – running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic and ducking as you wonder whether your travel insurance is in order.

There’s an Ashock Leyland truck with a decorated front of flags and glitter and a blow horn pasted on its rear. Here, it seems, automotive paint is thinly coated on vehicles just to allow safe passage. And yet there is no road rage and minimal evidence of road accidents.

In city centres you generally see motorcyclists with helmets, but in outer suburbs or villages, very few wear them, In fact, most motorbikes seem to be able to accommodate up to five people with balancing skills that could get them a job with Cirque Du Soleil.

Basically, it is said that there are three things you need on an Indian road – a good horn, good brakes and good luck!

The inversion layer is pronounced as we near Delhi, the capital of India. On the ground it is cloudless and a little hazy, which mostly clears as the sun’s intensity increases. There is no humidity and the temperature nudges 40°C by mid-afternoon. Delhi is supposedly one of the most polluted cities in the world. It has almost the population of Australia, about half of whom live in slums without adequate basic services. Ironically, Delhi is home to 18 billionaires and 23,000 millionaires.

New Delhi was founded by the British around 1911. The city is well set out with orderly tree-lined boulevards, large roundabouts with gardens and shrubs, and British-era architecture. It is in total contrast to Old Delhi, which was established by Shah Jahan in 1648, although the greater Delhi area has been continuously inhabited since the 6th century BC. We are at our four-star Park Hotel near the centre for the next two nights. With an afternoon to ourselves, we head out and walk some of the local streets and laneways to get a feel for the place. We are targeted by many students and others trying to get us to go to nearby handicraft shops – of course they will get a commission on any purchases.

These places are the same worldwide – you are pounced upon by smooth-talking salesmen (no women here), who lead you from one room to another. There are the usual things: carpets, clothing, jewellery, art, and so on. We dodge their persuasive techniques and bail out. We are well-travelled, hard-nosed Aussies and over the years have bought these sorts of handicrafts from all over the world. The items generally find their way to the rubbish bin or the local Vinnies store during a spring clean or house move years later. These days, we are only likely to buy a fridge magnet or a small trinket as a reminder of our trip. We take a tuk-tuk ride home for $1. For dinner, we venture out and grab a delicious Indian meal at a local restaurant. We have eaten too much. This will really test the inner tubes.

We meet up with the other 31 people on this Gate 1 Travel tour, of which 27 are from the USA. Our tour guide, ‘Meli from Delhi’ (Rajneesh), is a 50-year-old Indian history graduate educated by the English missionary system. He is very knowledgeable about India’s history and an excellent storyteller. This will be his 300th tour of the Taj Mahal. We are set for a great week. Let the touring begin.

We head out early in our big orange Mercedes coach and visit some of the main tourist sites in New Delhi, including Humayun’s Tomb, which was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Also on the list was the assassination location of Mahatma Gandhi, who was shot point blank in front of 300,000 people during one of his prayer meetings.

In Old Delhi, we visit the largest mosque in India, which can cater for 40,000 people. There are 4 million Muslims in Old Delhi. The town is chaotic, with its labyrinth of laneways and masses of people, motorbikes and rickshaws all sharing narrow thoroughfares. It is an experience riding a rickshaw through this chaos. A jumbled mess of electrical cables hangs down precariously above our heads as we manoeuvre through. No occupational health and safety here!

The city is a hive of commercial activity, from shops selling fabrics and colourful Indian clothing to the food stall selling a variety of morsels. The sights, smells and sounds profoundly stimulate the senses.

We get caught up in a BJD Party rally for Prime Minister Bodi. There are 1 million people in brightly coloured garb swarming the streets. Orange is their Party colour and they think that, because we have an orange coach, we are party VIPs. We feel like royalty as the Party faithful all wave and yell in delight as we pass.

We seek ’em here we seek ’em there – and we found them at a visit to the main Sikh temple in Delhi. After donning head scarfs, we look at the Holy Book (scriptures from all the Sikh gurus) housed under a canopy of solid gold.

Next, it’s off to Jaipur, about 260km south west of Delhi. On the way, we stop at the world’s tallest stone minaret: the 83-metre high Qutab Minar Victory Tower built in 1206.

Jaipur is in the province of Rajasthan. There are many trucks on our divided highway route, which, in parts, is rough. There are several toll points along the way. The no-road-rule policy is in full swing. The landscape is mostly flat, desolate and dusty. There are some hills near Jaipur, but very little greenery, which is in contrast to Delhi. Jaipur is the so-called ‘Pink City’, painted so in 1905 to welcome the Prince of Wales (who later became King George V). The pink colours highlight the romantic charm of Jaipur. The buildings and architecture in Jaipur are fabulous and unique to this area. One such structure is the Palace of the Winds, with its lacy ornamental facade, and the City Palace, the former royal residence and now a grand museum.

Everyone has heard of ‘Delhi Belly’, but who has succumbed to this bug? Me! Even though I did all the right things – sanitiser before and after meals, bottled water for drinking and cleaning teeth, wary of street food and so on. And yet, Johnny Cash’s lyrics “ring of fire” come to mind right now. Delhi Belly totally knocks the stuffing out of you.

A local doctor sorted me out so I could rejoin the tour group. Others weren’t so lucky, as they came down with ‘DB’” while travelling on the bus – very embarrassing for them and uncomfortable for the rest of us. Suffice to say, the buses emergency toilet became blocked. Here’s a tip – wear dark pants and have a spare pair close by. Oh, and pack a nose peg as well!

While I recuperate at our Four Points Sheraton Hotel, the tour group takes a jeep ride to the Amber Fort, as well as an elephant ride. The magnificent Amber Fort is a fusion of Mughal and Hindu styles, with its panoramic view of Jaipur and its spectacular Palace of Mirrors and high wall that stretches around its perimeter.

You can buy a colourful sari, pashmina scarf or any other Indian handicraft at the Bazaar in the old part of town, but prepare to give way to the bullocks that roam through the market.

A visit to the world’s largest sundial at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Jantar Mantar Observatory is worthwhile, as is our stop at another UNESCO site, Chand Baori Step Well in Agra. Built during the eighth and ninth century, the fortified well is 13 storey deep and has 3500 steps making it the largest in India.

Agra is not a particularly interesting city because progress has been restricted to limit pollution and preserve the Taj Mahal. We stay at The Trident Hotel for two nights, which has a large garden space and nice pool to cool off in this 40°C heat. The food is plentiful and tasty. It would be great to chill out for a while here during our free afternoon, but we take up the optional city tour and Agra Fort visit.

Built in red sandstone in 1573, the walled fort was the main residence of the Mughal emperors until 1638. Shah Jahan subsequently added luxurious apartments in white marble for himself, his second (and favourite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and their children.

The time has come on day six for our visit to the Taj Mahal, the most perfect Mughal architectural monument in the world. Made of white marble and semiprecious stones, the Taj was completed in 1653 after 22 years of work by some 22,000 artisans. Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emporer, built this mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz, who died in 1631 giving birth to their 14th child (at age 38). It is a tragedy that Shah Jahan’s eldest son imprisoned his father at the Agra Fort in the marble apartment he built for Mumtaz. Here he spent the last eight years of his life until his death in 1666. To rub salt into the wounds, he had a direct view of Mumtaz’s mausoleum across the river.

After a short trip of about 200km back to New Delhi along the Yamuma Expressway, our hotel tonight is the Hilton Double Tree in Gurgaon on the outskirts of New Delhi. We have our farewell group dinner and say our goodbyes to our fellow travellers, some of whom are travelling to Nepal with the tour. After a late checkout, we take a taxi to the airport and are amazed that we don’t have an accident on the way. It is pure chaos at peak hour and we are stressed the whole way there.

This has been a fabulous experience for our first time in India. India is a hotchpotch of poverty and wealth. It is a chaotic stimulation of the senses. The architecture is amazing: temples, mosques, mausoleums and monuments. The brightly coloured clothing, the markets, the beggars, the traffic with no road rules, the food, the smells, the incense, the heat and dust.

This is the first time we have gone with Gate 1 Travel and I imagine we will continue using them. The hotels for our seven nights were four-star and our tour guide was excellent. Everything was organised superbly and there were no hitches. This was a great tour and definitely worth the $1079 per person we paid ($135 each/day). Of course, you could do it much cheaper by using local travel and basic accommodation, but why would you want to do that when everything is organised for you at a such an affordable price?

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Written by Max Williams

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