India: The Golden Triangle and Himalayan Foothills
Featured destinations: India
Published 24 June 2016
Evocative India, an explosion of life and colour: just a mention of the name brings images of billowing saris, towering temples and of course the wild freneticism of its streets. Not for the faint hearted, it takes a day or two to adjust, but India soon gets under your skin. And with enough sights and sounds for a lifetime of travels, you’ll soon be craving more, as I discovered on my recent journey into the country’s north…
David at the Lotus Temple, New Delhi
Delhi greeted us with a wall of heat and dust, closely followed by the noise of the never-ending traffic. But there was no hanging about; with less than 24 hours in this crazy city, we ditched our luggage at the hotel and went straight out into the madness. Delhi’s sights are well spread over the city, so it doesn’t lend itself to exploration on foot, plus, the infamous tuk-tuk is all part of the experience. Wasting no time, we hailed one from the roadside, its open sides giving us a much needed breeze as our kamikaze driver weaved manically through the cars and motorbikes.
Divided into the old and new sides of town, it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start in Delhi. Short on time, we picked one sight from each part. First stop was New Town and the Lotus Temple, Baha’i, somewhat resembling the Sydney Opera House and surrounded by blue pools and well-tended gardens. The interior was cool, spacious, and refreshingly silent. Next up was the far more chaotic Old Town and the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Seating over 25,000 worshippers, it is a truly enormous structure, and worth a visit for the views from the top of the minaret alone, from where you can appreciate the maze of thronging streets below.
View from the top of the minaret, Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
After taking our daily dose of religious monuments, jet lag began to hit so we returned to our hotel for our first taste of authentic Indian cuisine, which I can confirm is a thousand times more aromatic than the British version, with far more choice. We were hooked from day one and it was curry for breakfast from then on.
Me at the Taj Mahal
We boarded India’s favourite form of public transport, the train, to Agra, second point on the famous Golden Triangle after Delhi. As we had arrived in late afternoon, and therefore beaten the heat, not to mention the crowds, we made a beeline for the Taj Mahal, to see if it lived up to all the hype. Of course it did. I’ll never forget my first view of its bright white façade, glowing regally in the soft evening light. This glorious structure was commissioned by Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, who died during childbirth in 1631. It took over 20 years to build, mainly from marble and semi-precious stones. You can go inside it too, a rather hot and stuffy experience, but the real joy to me was admiring it from afar.
Most people come to Agra, see the Taj Mahal and leave, but it’s worth hanging around. The abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri with its intriguing history makes for a good day trip, and the bright red sandstone walls of Agra Fort offer some beautifully framed views of the Taj Mahal through the marble arches. For a welcome reprieve from the crowds, the Taj Nature Walk, a pretty park area to one side of the monument, provides some excellent views among the shrubs, trees and birds.
Sambar deer in Ranthambore, fresh from wallowing in the mud
Breaking up all the temples and monuments with a spot of wildlife, we delved into the jungles and forests of Ranthambore in search of the elusive tiger. There are 62 tigers within the park boundaries, so filled with anticipation we scoured the lakes, streams and lush vegetation for this majestic beast, glimpsing monkeys, parrots, sambar deer, spotted deer and even a crocodile, but no tiger. The closest we got was a footprint.
Me at the Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
We completed the Golden Triangle in Jaipur, where for us the somewhat bizarre highlight was the 18th century Jantar Mantar, a selection of giant instruments used to measure the positions of star signs and other objects of astrological significance. The Amber Fort, set in the mountains above Jaipur, is also a must-do, its interior filled with murals, carved doors and even a room made of mirrors. To me though, the best part was the view over the mountains and lakes below.
Views of Amber Fort
Palace of the Winds, Jaipur
Later, it was time to explore the Pink City of Jaipur itself, where we window shopped and dodged the hordes in the bazaars, which refreshingly mostly sold items like cooking pots, books and spices for locals, rather than tourists. We took the typical photo of the gorgeous, and very pink Palace of the Winds and visited Galta, the monkey temple, where, splashing and shrieking with delight, the monkeys leapt in and out of the pools, sometimes from great height.
Udaipur City Palace
On the banks of Lake Pichola, Udaipur is known as one of India’s most romantic cities, so is unsurprisingly popular with domestic honeymooners. The City Palace is ridiculously ornate, laced with paintings, carvings, mosaics and marble, and with views over the town and the lake. There’s a cable car too, to add extra height to your viewpoint, but the best way to appreciate the city has got to be a cruise to the Jag Mandir, a lake palace with blossoming rose gardens. James Bond fans might recognise the fortress from the 1983 flick Octopussy.
Onboard the Toy Train
After a quick layover back in Delhi we boarded the famous Toy Train, a narrow-gauge railway that winds its way through the mountains from Kalka to Shimla. The sheer size of the towering Himalayan peaks, dwarfing the more familiar Alps, made quite an impression on us both. Our hotel put on a romantic mountainside picnic for us, quite simply the best view I’ve ever had lunch with. In a moment of madness we signed up for white water rafting, which was great fun, although rather chilly in the mountain water.
Getting ready to go white water rafting
Before long it was time to return to Delhi and say goodbye to this mesmerising country. Despite covering over 1,500 miles, five states and six cities, we barely scratched the surface of India’s many treasures: the tranquil Kerala backwaters, the idyllic beaches of Goa, the glittering Golden Temple, and of course to finally see a wild tiger – we’ll be back.