Continuing with our story (and ending) in India…
After our incredible and scary adventure with Stok Kangri, JH and I spent one day exploring Leh. Our hotel helped to arrange a driver for a few hours. I think we paid the equivalent of 10 to 15 USD for this driver to take us to some of the major sites in the city for a few hours. He didn’t speak any English really, but helped us get where we needed to go. We visited a number of monasteries – Thiksey and Spituk Monasteries feel familiar. We also visited the Royal Palace, and the Palace Museum. We also visited an Army museum – the Hall of Fame. Most of these places were on elevated hills so we could get great views of the incredibly simple, but beautiful city set against the mountains. For most of these places, there was a very small admission or option to make a donation, and you needed to take off your shoes for the religious shrines. JH and I moved at a pretty slow pace, but for us (after all that hiking), it was nice just to saunter around the sites, and after this, just around the city itself. We wandered through marketplaces, and even through small neighborhoods. We ate where we could find decent Wi-Fi, and where the menus looked appealing. My addiction continued for momos, thukpa, and curries. At this restaurant Tibetan Kitchen, I also had this really good pie that reminded me of a large empanada – Sha Phaley. We really enjoyed our time in Leh, and then, it was time to say goodbye.
After we left Leh, we flew to Delhi. At this point, we had already made the decision to leave the country for reasons I can only clarify as stupidity, so there were really only 5 days left to hit some of the tourist circuit. The trip logs in turn reduced from probably four parts to two. Because we left early, we ended up missing these cities and the following sights (or sights along the drive to each city):
- Jaipur – Fatehpur Sikri, Abhaneri, Amber Fort, Jaipur City, Maharaja’s City Palace, the Observatory, Ram Niwas Gardens, Palace of the Winds, and old Jaipur City.
- Jodhpur – Pushkar, Brahma Temple, Pushkar Lake, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada, Ummaid Bhawan Palace, Ranakpur Jain Temple.
- Udaipur – Badi Lake, Lake City, City Palace, Saheliyon-ki-Bari, Jagdish Temple.
I will one day finish this part of the tourist circuit, but I was quite disappointed in myself for choosing sheer stupidity over what would probably have been some of the prettiest sights I would have seen outside of the Himalayan parts, and the Taj Mahal. I think I would have really loved Jodhpur and Udaipur for their romantic and magical atmospheres. I guess we will just have to wait and see when India will come back into the cards. It’s still on the bucket list – we have unfinished business.
For the remaining five days, we spent two days in Delhi, two days in Varanasi, and one day in Agra before we flew back to Delhi and left on a flight back to Toronto.
These days felt like a whirlwind. We went through the cities so quickly that I think in some ways, we appreciated them a bit less because we were so tired from moving around. We were also still recovering from the adventure that was Leh. Even though JH and I ate our fair share of dishes with cream and clarified butter over the five days, we somehow still managed to return to Toronto having lost weight. Compounding all this was the heat. It was hot. I normally love heat, but this was drenching, body odour-inducing heat.
As much as I would have liked to explore India on our own (or if we knew someone – through a friend), we had to book a tour just given the lack of time, and to avoid any complexities given the size of the country (and cities even). There are a billion tour companies out there, and not much structured guidance from even sites like Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, so I took a shot in the dark, and randomly picked a seemingly well-reviewed company – India by Car and Driver. For 11 days, we were quoted a price of just a bit over 91K rupees per person. This included food, hotels, monument entrance fees and mileage / transfers. We did end up paying much less because we ended our trip at the half way point. I don’t however remember the difference at this point.
Our tour guide was Raj, and he was supposed to our guide and driver for 11 days. I think we broke his spirit a bit when we told him we were leaving after 5 days, and right before his hometown of Jaipur. He showed us pictures of his family, so we were not sure if we would have ended up having dinner at his house. It might have happened, who knows. Raj was a nice man, but he was more so a great driver than a guide. He picked us from the airport, and was exuberant and super friendly. His English was perfectly understandable, and his car was clean and well-kept. He brought us a bouquet, which was a nice gesture, but a bit wasteful as we really did not want to transport it from place to place. We ended up leaving it in our first hotel. From here on out, he mostly drove us places and dropped us off at the entrance. He didn’t really give us the greatest context about where we were visiting, even when we asked questions. It was mostly canned one-liners, and so JH and I really had to rely on our own research with our phones or my Lonely Planet book to get us through the sites and what they were supposed to represent. I think we would have wanted more of a registered tour guide (with a historian / tourism background) with coordinated transportation, and not just a driver.
Delhi was an explosion that hit your senses in every which way. The traffic was insane, but perhaps on the same level as Southeast Asia or Egypt. I am never really that surprised anymore by chaotic traffic –bikes, cars, rickshaws, animals – I think we have seen enough of it not to be surprised. But what I love about chaotic places is that everywhere you look, something is going on. With Delhi, there were all these districts. There was a district for pretty much everything – food, clothes, wedding materials, car parts, kitchen equipment, and the list goes on. If you want something, you will find it, and it will have its own district of vendors. We found this to be the same in Varanasi. It was very interesting, because we were not exploring just one or two markets, we were exploring everywhere.
Despite our pre-conceptions going in, we didn’t actually find the poverty in India to be too prevalent. I am not sure if we were ‘protected’ by the tour group or our pre-conceptions were just wrongly shaped by media and television, but India, while chaotic, did not give us the culture shock that we were expecting. We did see homeless people, and some streets were dirty, but for the most part, I was more distracted by the sights, sounds and beautifully coloured saris on all the women than anything negative really. The street food also looked amazing, but that’s a story for later.
On our first day, Raj took us to our hotel to rest first. We stayed at the Le Meridian. This was your basic chain business hotel. Everything was pretty and clean, and service was attentive and efficient. The hotel was atmospheric in that it looked like the inside of a Star Trek / Star Wars ship – imagine what feels like a million really brightly-lit stacked floors with all the rooms facing each other in a circle. When you look up or down, all you can see is lights. In some respects, I like to have more of a cultural experience when it comes to places to stay, but I was also slightly cautious about aspects like clean water and ‘Delhi Belly’, so I wanted to minimize our chances of getting sick by going for chain / boring hotels (even though we brushed our teeth with bottled water, and were cautious when we showered). When I planned the trip, we were intending to stay for 11 days, and getting ‘Delhi Belly’ would have just been awful. JH got really sick during our Egypt trip from food poisoning, and it was fairly unpleasant and tiring for him. This time around, our stomachs stayed strong and intact, and we did not experience any food poisoning. The hotel was not really walkable to anything interesting, so we relied on the car/tour to get places, and then used the evenings to plan our ‘stupidity back to Toronto’.
On our first day, Raj took us to a few notable monuments. He would drop us off and then circle around or park until we were done exploring. We visited:
- Humayun’s Tomb – of the Mughal Emperor. This red sandstone building was really beautiful, and against the sunny skies, it almost looked pink. This was one of my favourite sites of the day, and it almost felt like a preview of what was to come with the Taj Mahal.
- Jama Masjid – one of the largest mosques in India. This was also a really beautiful and regal building.
- Qutub Minar – the highest tower in India. It was built to celebrate Muslim dominance in Delhi after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu ruler.
- Lotus Temple – this was a really big temple that looked like a flower. JH and I walked around the perimeter, but did not go inside because it was crazy crowded. A bunch of families also asked to take pictures with me, which I found flattering and odd all at the same time. Some of the teenage girls in the families just giggled at me with goo-goo eyes. Raj noted that these were probably domestic tourists travelling from really small villages where Oriental visitors were a rare occurrence.
At some point, Raj told us to get out of the car and he arranged for a rickshaw driver. I think at this point, we were originally supposed to visit the huge Delhi market – Chandni Chowk and the Khari Baoli spice market via the rickshaw driver, who could better maneuver through smaller streets. However, we got stuck in traffic. The rickshaw driver could barely move. I was disappointed because I actually wanted to walk and explore those areas. I also wanted to buy a shitload of spices for home. I am not sure what happened but the rickshaw driver basically took us around a loop, casually pointed out a temple to us, and then we were back at the car with Raj. I bitched a little about the spice market when Raj said the day was over, but he assured that we ‘biked’ past it, and there was not enough time for ‘free time’. Anyhow, I ended up buying spices and trinkets in Varanasi.
The next day was our ‘free day’ in Delhi away from Raj. Hypothetically, we could have just explored the city away, but we ended up gorging over a cooking class and a walking food tour instead. We took the cooking class with a lady named Farheen. Her cooking class was located in East Delhi out in a suburban area called Joshi Colony. She arranged for a driver to pick us up from our hotel (and drop us off) and it felt nice to get away from the city for a couple of hours. The cooking class took place in her apartment. It was really nice to see a local’s home and actually experience cooking in someone else’s kitchen (versus a commercial facility). Farheen and her husband (and adorable son) were extremely welcoming, and we loved talking with them and getting to know them throughout the 3 hour course.
JH and I learned to make a number of things with Farheen – mango lassi, potato pakoras, coriander chutney, palak paneer (paneer and spinach), pulao (rice dish), dal tadka (lentils dish), and my favourite – coriander paratha (flatbread). Farheen was extremely patient with us. She let us interact with her quite a bit in the kitchen versus just watching her demonstrate. She was a knives master, and she really moved quickly around the small kitchen. We definitely have a greater appreciation now for all the fine details that go into making Indian cuisine taste so good. Farheen made Indian cooking feel less daunting to try at home, though I still have yet to try her recipes on my own. I have admittedly been lazy, and / or distracted with baking, and / or distracted with being a mental zombie. Her food definitely felt home cooked versus all the heavy restaurant food we had been eating out as tourists.
All in all I loved the experience. I think JH thought the kitchen was too small and hot. He also never loves cooking classes as much as I do anyhow. As an aside, Farheen was just a really nice person. My flip flops broke while walking up the stairs and she kindly gave me a pair of her own sandals to take with me. The class was 7,000 INR for two people (or 135 CAD at the time of booking in 2015). This included pick-up and drop-off. She also offered a more expensive option which also included a visit to the spice market – for 10,000 rupees. We decided that the class was enough, though it might have been neat to walk around a suburban neighbourhood.
After the cooking class, we spent the rest of the afternoon resting our stomachs. In the evening we scheduled a walking food tour with Delhi Food Walks. This tour was one of our favourite tours ever on any trip, and it really made us appreciate street food that much more. We spent a warm, beautiful evening with the founder of the company (and one-man operator), Anubhav, experiencing his ‘Old Delhi Food Tour’. Anubhav was extremely efficient in coordinating communication, and we were confident in our booking with him even before leaving Canada. We appreciated him coming up to New Delhi from Old Delhi to pick us up in person despite a taxi strike in Delhi that day (and also for helping us return to our hotel).
Anubhav definitely took us off the beaten track to some precious hole-in-the-wall restaurants that we may not have had the courage to visit otherwise or even had known how to find. Every single place he took us had a bit of history and we appreciated the subtle stories he would share here and there. Nothing about the tour felt rehearsed or too touristy. It felt like we were visiting a friend who just wanted to show us all the old-school places he really loved. We especially loved that he took us to a rooftop overlooking the busy bazaar – it was our 15 minutes of peace away from the storm and a little break for our stomachs.
In a 4 hour time span from 5 to 9PM, we ate about 10 things, and we were stuffed by the end of it. At some point we could not even take two portions anymore because we were so full. Some of the highlights included freshly fried jalebi (sweet deep fried flour), chicken biryani, lamb korma, lamb kebabs, the ‘real’ butter chicken (grilled chicken literally doused in melted butter without the Americanized tomato sauce on top), potato patties, several flavours of kulfi (dairy dessert, kind of like ice cream), and the most delicious cardamom and pistachio rice pudding in a darling clay pot. I think he wanted to take us for one more type of dessert, but the restaurant was located on a street where someone had literally passed away. There were crowds of people blocking the street and we did not know what was going on at first. Anubhav was a little bit vague in describing what happened, but we think a homeless man might have passed away.
In retrospect, all the food was really cheap, so the (maybe hefty) tourist premium you pay for the tour (4,000 INR per person) is for the experience of visiting the real parts of Delhi with a local, and eating safely vetted food that you otherwise may avoid as a cautious foreigner. The experience with Anubhav was extremely well organized and we really enjoyed our time with him. If we ever go back to Delhi (and hopefully his company expands across India to places we have not been to), we hope to do another tour with him again.
The next morning, we flew to Varanasi. Raj did not go with us, but his company outsourced an actual guide for us for our two days in the area. Our guide’s name was Shailesh and we really enjoyed our time with him. He was knowledgeable about all the sites he took us to because he was an actual historian. He was also really friendly and easy to talk to; reminding me a bit of Eddie Murphy’s character in the Nutty Professor because of his contagious laugh. He told us that he was the tour guide to the ‘Stars’ in Varanasi. Quite literally, he showed pictures to us of himself with Seal and Heidi Klum (and some others which I now have forgotten). I can understand why though, and cannot say anything but positive things about our experience with him.
We stayed at the Rivatas hotel. This was a pretty basic hotel, but it was clean and comfortable. We were practically never there, so it did the job for a bed and a place to stay. The hotel unfortunately was not close in vicinity at all to what we had come for – the Ganges River. I would have loved to see more sunrises and sunsets over the river, but we went down to the area only twice – once with Shailesh, and once by ourselves for dinner. The hotel is not really near much except for one mall that had a supermarket in it, as well as a McDonalds. I do not eat McDonalds at all at home, but we decided to have lunch just to try the ‘ethnic’ country offering. The burger on offer was an ‘Aloo Tikki’ burger, which consisted of a potato and pea patty and sweet tomato mayo. It was good. The cashier also laughed at us a bit because we got so excited about it.
The highlight of Varanasi was riding in a wooden boat along the Ganges River. Our boatman could not speak English, but Shailesh gave us the context we needed since he was there with us. The boat ride allows you to see a glimpse of the ghats (riverfront areas and steps – there are supposedly over 80), and cremation sites without actually seeing them too up close. Varanasi is meant to be a spiritual place and the river is sacred. Shailesh asked us to splash some water from the Ganges on ourselves, but JH and I shied away. The murky, brown water unfortunately looked filthy. This did not matter of course to Shailesh – he liberally splashed some on his forehead and hands, and jovially told us how spiritual it felt. We could definitely feel the intensity of the area, and when you are down by the river, the intensity amplifies. It was beautiful and not beautiful all at the same time, and of course the burning of bodies felt a bit eerie. I closed my eyes sometimes. I think nowadays I wish I could visit somewhere like Varanasi in my current mental state. It might give me a little bit more perspective. Anyhow, by the river, it felt like there were continuous ceremonies of life and death everywhere we went. The city smelt a bit of incense, and of course, of fire and smoke. If you put aside the idea of ‘death’ everywhere, the riverside and ghats evoked community and life – we could see people swimming, doing their laundry, sitting on the steps relaxing, socializing and drinking tea. As always, I loved all the pops of colours from women in their saris.
I felt maybe that the poverty was a bit more prevalent than in Delhi. It also could have been that we explored the city a lot more on foot, rather than travelling by rickshaw. We saw Shailesh often give out money to different people. He would walk past one person begging, and then a few seconds later give something to another. We asked him how he knew who to choose, and he said that if he felt he had a spiritual connection to that person, he would give them something. I suppose we technically act similarly. I too can walk past one person in Toronto, and feel empathy and stop for another.
With Shailesh, we also visited this Buddhist site – Sarnath, comprised of a Stupa, archeological remains and a museum. It was away from the city, and quite peaceful. It was nice going into this having coming back from Myanmar the previous year. In Myanmar, we had learned a lot about the different ‘lives’ of Buddha, and seeing the imagery at this site felt very familiar.
JH and I had some free time of our own as well to explore the city. The city was a bit of a mysterious maze and it was definitely interesting to walk around. At some points, we felt like we were walking and walking and could not find our way out, and then all of a sudden we would be at the river. A number of people did ask us a couple of times if we wanted rickshaw rides or to visit their shop (here and in Delhi), but we didn’t find the aggressiveness to be as overbearing as in Egypt…until this one man.
JH and I were looking for this lassi shop – Blue Lassi. I think, given the complication of the maze, we got a little lost even with our map. This one man approached us and told us he would show us the way. He seemed really nice so we thought nothing of it. As we were walking, he said that he wanted us to stop on the way to his shop. JH and I were not really in the mood for shopping that day, so we politely said “no thank you”, and indicated to him that we could find the lassi shop on our own. The man continued to follow us saying that his store had really nice clothing. He followed us all the way to Blue Lassi (we eventually found signs that led us to the shop without his help). We continued to ignore him as we ordered pomegranate and coconut drinks.
Both drinks were really good and refreshing, so we forgot about the man outside for the time we spent there decompressing from the heat (there is no air-con but the lassi cools you down). The lassi shop just looked like an old relic that withstood the tests of time. It was small with little benches, but seemed like a great place to relax for a little. There was an open window at the storefront, so you could see the shop maker making the drinks. It was really cute.
As we left the shop, we were disappointed to find the man was still standing there and he continued to follow us. We really did not want to go to his store, and did not want to give in. JH was getting frustrated at this point, so he turned around and tried to give the man a small bit of money to leave us alone. The man got offended and started yelling at us about not being a begger. In between this yelling, he still tried to convince us to visit his shop. It was very confusing and a bit scary. Thank goodness a number of locals came forward and asked us if we were okay, and whether this man was harassing us. I guess by doing this, the man got apprehensive and definitively walked away. We were really grateful as we were not sure what he was going to do. So, point of the story – one man, one exception. We otherwise had no other trouble in India. JH and I then continued onwards to this really delicious restaurant – Kerala Cafe, which was full of locals. The menu here was really large, but we were so saturated that we mostly wanted vegetables. We ordered a bunch of paneer and vegetable dishes. We never usually order paneer back at home, but we were obsessed with it in India. After that, the next day we re-joined with Raj and moved onwards to Agra.
The drive from Delhi to Agra was about 3.5 hours. Raj and JH talked for a while, but I ended up falling asleep. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful (cars make me a bit dizzy sometimes), but I think Raj hated it whenever I fell asleep. He would try to wake me up by shouting really emphatically whenever he saw something ‘interesting’ like monkeys running around on roof-tops. It became a bit repetitive, and honestly a bit annoying. Thank goodness the company arranged for us to have a guide / historian for Agra as well. Before we visited Taj Mahal, we visited the historical Agra Red Fort or ‘Mughal Imperial City’. This is the ‘underdog’ site in Agra, often being overshadowed by the Taj Mahal. The fort however, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I thought, equally full of fairy tales. The fortress was huge, so we did not walk the length of the area, but we were told that the grounds contain a number of palaces and mosques. I think it’s possible to spend a good couple of hours there.
We stayed at the Trident Agra. Trident is another chain hotel, and the grounds and rooms were really nice and pretty. This hotel was huge, and almost felt like a resort. There was a big swimming pool, and JH and I took a nice swim before we went sightseeing. The hotel is not really near any of the sites or anything really, but we were able to find a local restaurant nearby for dinner on one of the nights.
For the final piece of our trip, we visited Taj Mahal – at sunset, and just a bit after sunrise the next day. Bagan (in Myanmar) is still the prettiest place I have ever been to (with Antarctica at a distant second), and somewhere I don’t think anywhere compares to, but Taj Mahal was beautiful in its own right. We visited the backside at sunset through a beautiful set of gardens and paths called Mehtab Bagh. I wish I had done a little bit more research, because I have seen through social media now that you can take a boat ride through the Yamuna River to see the back view. I think this would have been really great to capture some reflection photos of Taj Mahal in the natural waters especially at sunset. Anyhow, JH and I had a peaceful walk through the gardens, and it was beautiful to see the Taj Mahal against the fading sun.
Even though we did not catch sunrise, we got there early enough to avoid substantial crowds. Taj Mahal is a mausoleum (commissioned by a Mughal Emperor to house the tomb of his favourite wife), and sometimes you forget this because it just looks so pretty. It evokes life, not death. JH and I were a bit unlucky because we went during cleaning season. Unfortunately, one of the minarets had a bunch of casing around it for cleaners. I mentally tried to block this out, and we captured a bunch of beautiful photos, but I still look at the photographs and think ‘eff’. I think the prettiest photos though are captured not up close, but from far up the steps, so you can capture the entire reflection of the monument / gardens in the fountain waters leading up to the structure. JH and I walked the extent of the grounds, and we took a lot of fun photos – JH doing handstands, optical illusions. Because it was the last piece of our trip, we tried to enjoy and extend our time there as much as we could.
I really wish our trip was not cut short, but at this point, we flew back to Delhi and made our way back to Toronto. There were more scuffles with Air India in between, but I just really don’t want to talk about that trash company anymore. So, my final thoughts on India were that we touched it barely. We touched so little of it that we were not given the chance to either love or hate the country (except harbor angry feelings towards Air India). Our experiences changed some of our pre-conceived conceptions of what it might be like, but we need to go back to experience more. I have a feeling that I might just love the South, so India is not off the bucket list. We will need to go back one day.
Also, I miss JH’s short hair.