A few days of home comforts in Mumbai were lovely but before we got too comfortable we explored Rajasthan, Agra and Delhi in just 10 days to be back in Mumbai for Christmas.
First stop on our whirlwind tour was Udaipur. From Mumbai we flew to the Udaipur airport and took a pre-paid taxi to our guesthouse. I have been in Rajasthan a few times, but for Harry it was the first time and it’s just totally different than the more relaxed southern part of India. The traffic is a lot more aggressive, it’s dusty, it’s busier, the smells are stronger and you get hassled a lot more.
Udaipur is a city of 500.000 people and is set around a few (artificial) lakes and is famous for it’s huge city palace. Our guesthouse was on one of the lakes and from our room we had a really nice view. It is also one of the more relaxed cities in Rajasthan that we visited (we concluded after the 10 days). On the first day however, we got a bit of a culture shock. Very narrow streets with no sidewalks and motorbikes and cars passing you with just a few centimeters to spare and constantly honking at you. We walked from the guesthouse to one of the many rooftop restaurants and had a late lunch/early dinner with a beautiful view over the lake. Afterwards we walked to the lakeside and enjoyed watching the beautiful sunset at the Gangaur Ghat. As soon as it was dark we crossed the Chandpole bridge to the other side of the lake and walked along the lake for a bit and stopped at the many Ghat’s for some lake views. There are some really nice restaurants and very fancy hotels that maybe one day we will stay at.
Sunset at Gangaur Ghat. The buildig on the left is the Bagore-ki-Haveli.
The next day we explored Udaipur. We started with the Bagore-ki-Haveli near our guesthouse and right on the waterfront of lake Pichola. A haveli is a traditional townhouse/mansion and the Bagore-ki-Haveli was built in the 18th century and has over a hundred rooms. Today it’s a museum during the day and they host traditional dance shows at night. During the day you can walk around and get a feel for how life was back then. It’s in quite good condition after it was renovated and I especially liked the views over the lake and the beautiful colourful windows.
View from the Bagore-ki-Haveli over the Pichola Lake.
I loved the colourful windows in the haveli.
From the haveli we walked to the City Palace. An impressive palace complex that was built over nearly 400 years with contributions from several rulers of the Mewar dynasty. The construction began in 1553 so some parts of it a very old. The palace complex also featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy and that explains why many cafes and restaurants show this movie on repeat. We spent a good few hours at the palace and it was really nice. Another big plus was that we could pay the entrance fee by card otherwise we would’ve had to queue at an ATM again before we could enter.
The City Palace
Beautiful decorations inside the palace.
Group of women from rural villages on a day tour to the Palace who really wanted to have us in their group picture. Say cheese!
The palace complex is quite commercialized with wedding venues, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc. and they also offer a boat ride on lake Pichola to see the Lake Palace (now a luxury 5-star hotel that you can’t visit unless you stay at the hotel) and the Jag Mandir palace on islands in the lake. We took the boat ride and it was great! You get beautiful views from Udaipur and a totally different perspective than from the lakeside. At the Jag Mandir palace we could disembark and had some time to look around. Back at the palace after the boat ride we went for some lunch and the daily queuing for an ATM to get some money… In the late afternoon we did the climb up to Machla Magra hill for a stunning view over the lake and a gorgeous sunset. A very busy day but we only had one full day in this beautiful city!
View of the Lake Palace hotel from the City Palace.
Jag Mandir Palace.
Sunset view from Machla Magra hill (photo credits Harry).
The next morning we took a rickshaw to the bus station to take the bus to Jodhpur, about 5 – 6 hours north of Udaipur. Our rickshaw driver however dropped us off at the office of the bus company. We were way too early, as we wanted to spend some time around the bus station to get some snacks etc. A bit confused we walked into the office and we showed our ticket and the staff there made clear we had to wait in the office. As we had so much time still we went outside to buy some snacks. When we came back I tried to ask if the bus would come to the office to pick us up or if they would take us to the bus station in time for the bus. But all they said is ‘ok, 5 minutes’. About an hour later they signaled that we had to go outside and we had to get in a car with someone from the office and a driver. We were going in the car to Jodhpur. Hmm… not sure what to think about that, it was all a bit dodgy and in South America this is the biggest mistake you can make, get in a car with two men you don’t know. You have a high chance of getting robbed then. But India is not South America so we decided to just see what would happen. Apparently the person from the office who would go with us was the owner and had to go to a town near Jodhpur and the air-conditioning in the bus was broken so they thought it would be better for us to go by car, but could we just pay the driver 400 rupees tip at the end. Nope, that was not going to happen but they let us stay in the car anyway and off we went. We took a little bit of a detour to drop off the ‘owner’ of the bus company but eventually arrived in Jodhpur. We took a taxi to our guesthouse in the centre and went for dinner at a really nice restaurant on a rooftop overlooking a very old, and recently rediscovered stepwell and Jodhpur. After dinner we wanted to go to bed but there were a few weddings going on nearby and sleeping was impossible even with earplugs. At 2am the music stopped and we finally got some sleep.
Rooftop dinner with Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh Fort in the background.
The next day was sightseeing day. We walked from our guesthouse to the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India. It’s an impressive fort located on the top of a hill at 125m overlooking the whole city. It was built around 1460 and it’s huge! From the fort you have a beautiful view over Jodhpur and you can see why Jodhpur is called the Blue City. The fort/palace is set up mainly as a museum and very interesting. The audio guide was very good as well and made that we spent many hours walking around.
The massive Mehrangarh Fort as seen from our guesthouse.
One of the beautiful rooms inside the fort.
And this is why it is called the Blue City.
In the afternoon we were pretty tired and we didn’t do much, except for some planning for the next few days, which always takes more time than you expect. At night there were still weddings going on but this night they stopped the music at a more respectable hour.
One full day in Jodhpur and the tour of Rajasthan continued. From Jodhpur we took a 6,5 hour train to Jaipur, the pink city and the capital of Rajasthan. The guesthouse we booked in Jaipur offered a free pick-up from the train station, which was great as Jaipur is chaotic and busy. That moment when all these taxi and rickshaw drivers approach you and you can say ‘I have someone to pick me up’ and you see your name on a sign. Hassle free travel! The hotel was really good and had a lovely rooftop restaurant. We had a quick and early dinner and then took an Uber to meet with one of my former colleagues, Mandy, from G Adventures for a drink. She was in Jaipur that night with a group of G Adventures travellers. So nice to meet her in real life and catch up!
Mini G Adventures reunion.
Mandy had organized a guide for us for the next day and Sanjay, the guide, came to pick us up at our hotel at 8am. Nice and early! First stop on our day tour of Jaipur and surroundings was the Hawa Mahal. This is a palace and is essentially a high screen wall built so the women of the royal household could observe what was happening on the street without being seen. It’s a beautiful pink façade (there are many pink buildings in Jaipur, hence the name ‘the pink city) and I’m not sure if you can actually go inside but we just had a look from the outside. Sanjay stopped here first as the light is better early in the morning and it’s shocking how little traffic there is at that time in the morning compared with a few hours later when the traffic is mental.
The pink façade of Hawa Mahal in the early morning light.
From Hawa Mahal Sanjay drove us to Amer/Amber, a town a few kilometers from Jaipur. On the way he told us a lot about the history of Jaipur and Rajasthan in general, very interesting. In Amer we first stopped at the Panna Meena stepwell. This stepwell was constructed in the 16th century and was so much more impressive than the one in Jodhpur. All the little steps going deep down to the water, it looked a bit like a painting from Escher.
The Panna Meena stepwell in Amer.
The main attraction in Amer though is the Amer or Amber Fort. This huge fort, a UNESCO World Heritage, was built in the late 16th century (the current fort at least) and is built high upon a hill. I had been to the fort already a few times as a tourist and also when I was a tour leader but every time you enter through the gates and get to the big main square where elephants drop off lazy tourist that don’t want to walk up the hill, it’s very impressive. For Harry it was the first time and Sanjay gave us a big tour and he was very enthusiastic and told us all there is to know. The views from the fort are especially nice; you look out over hills and can see the big defensive wall that runs over the top of the hills surrounding Amer. After Amer Fort, the tour wasn’t over yet. On the way back to Jaipur, we stopped for a quick picture of the Jal Mahal, the ‘water palace’ or ‘floating palace’. Quite a bizarre sight, this palace in the middle of the water that indeed looks like it’s floating. You can’t visit it, so only pictures from the shore. Unfortunately it got really hazy so I don’t have a picture that’s worth showing here.
The main square at Amber Fort.
Fun with the mirrors at the fort.
Stunning views over the surrounding hills.
Back in Jaipur city, Sanjay showed us Jantar Mantar, which is the largest of five astronomical observatories built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur. It contains fourteen geometric instruments, designed to measure time, track celestial bodies and observe the orbits of the planets around the sun. Without a guide this place would just look like a few concrete structures on a grassy field, but Sanjay explained every instrument and it was just fascinating to see how precise the sundials were and the other instruments. During our tour of Jantar Mantar, Sanjay told us he could read our palms if we wanted to. Of course we wanted to have our palms read so just before we said goodbye we sat down and he did a palm reading. Everything he said about me was true, some things that he said about Harry were true, but some were also completely wrong. A fun experience nevertheless. In the afternoon Sanjay had a group to show around Jaipur so he dropped us off at a central location and said goodbye. It was great to have such a knowledgeable guide as it really adds value to all the sights we visited.
Jantar Mantar, more than just concrete structures.
Samrat Yantra, apparently the biggest sundial in the world. You can see it move 6 centimetres every minute!
We took a rickshaw back to the hotel as we were pretty tired and we had to still organize our train tickets to get to Agra the next day. So the rest of the day was spent planning and relaxing at the hotel. Also Harry wasn’t feeling well from eating too many very spicy chilies…
Unbelievable how many highlights you can see in only a few days in Rajasthan but with our tight schedule, we couldn’t spend more time in Rajasthan and moved on to probably the most visited city by tourists in India: Agra. With a very early morning train we left Jaipur and 5 hours later we were in Agra (Uttar Pradesh state). Very quickly we decided that instead of two nights, we would only stay 1 night here, as apart from the tourist attractions it’s an awful city.
With this change in plans we dropped off our bags at the guesthouse and went straight to the Taj Mahal. I had been a few times already but always for sunrise (when there are not so many people) so I was curious to see how it would be in the afternoon. Well, very busy! But as a foreigner you pay 25x more than a domestic tourist but it does mean you can skip the line for the security check and can go into the special ‘high ticket price’ queue. Unfortunately you can only pay cash and the entrance is 1000 rupees per person so with the cash crisis still in full swing this wasn’t ideal but it’s the Taj Mahal so it’s worth the precious cash.
Even though I have been several times, the first sight of the Taj Mahal when you walk through the massive gate is magical and I always feel a bit emotional and surreal. This monument that everyone in the world knows and you have seen on so many pictures is right there in front of you. And it’s so pretty in real life. One of the towers and the back of the monument were covered in scaffolding but it didn’t matter. It was still beautiful. We spent two hours or so walking around and stayed until the sun was about to set. Sick of all the rickshaw drivers asking ridiculous amounts of many to take us back to the guesthouse, we just walked (sounds easier than it is in India where most of the time there are open sewers and no sidewalks).
Us at the Taj Mahal!
The setting sun makes it even prettier.
The following morning, before taking the train to Delhi, we visited the Agra Fort. We took our bags to the fort so we could go straight to the train station after our visit. Luckily they had a ‘secure’ luggage storage where we could store our backpacks. We walked around the fort with an audio guide but still, after the few forts and palaces we had already seen in Rajasthan in the last days, I think we were a bit ‘fort tired’. Also the audio guide wasn’t as good as others that we’ve had. It is still a beautiful fort though and you can see the Taj Mahal in the distance.
A courtyard at Agra Fort.
Can you see the Taj Mahal in the background?
With still time for some lunch we took a taxi to the train station to catch the train to Delhi. In the last two months we have been at many train stations in India and there is always a reasonable restaurant at the station or very nearby. In Agra, none, zero, nada, nothing… Even the stalls selling biscuits and crisps had a smaller selection than ones at other stations. Which is a reflection of Agra itself, no really good and reasonable priced restaurants in the city either. They are all overpriced and the food is not very good. Luckily there was one guy selling bananas at the platform so we had a lovely lunch of bananas, Marie biscuits and crisps. And to make things worse, the train had a delay of 4,5 hours, but every time we checked the current status of the train online it said that the train would be there in 25 minutes. So we didn’t go back to the centre for some normal lunch and instead bought more bananas, cookies and crisps so we had something to eat in case dinner had to be on the train. Eventually the train came and we got to Delhi around 21:00. We took the rickshaw to Defence Colony where we stayed with Harry’s sister-in-law’s aunt. She was waiting for us with dinner ready on the table so thank god no more biscuits and crisps.
We started our first full day in Delhi with a visit of Humayun’s Tomb. This is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and it was built in 1570. It looks almost like a palace, rather than a tomb and there is a big and really nice garden around it with tombs from other Mughal family members. From Humayun’s Tomb we took the rickshaw to India Gate, a war memorial that looks a bit like the Arc-de-Triomphe. It’s always very busy there but we were the only non-Indian tourists so selfie-time and many requests to ‘click’ a picture with us.
Posing at Humayun’s Tomb.
Isa Khan’s Tomb.
The India Gate is near the National Gallery of Modern Art, which was the next stop on our sightseeing tour. Unfortunately though the entrance could only be paid by cash and with Humayun’s Tomb, Taj Mahal and Agra Fort all being cash only we had run out of cash. In Agra all the ATMs had queues that we didn’t have time to stand in and in Delhi we didn’t see an ATM yet. The lady at the museum told us that at the nearby High Court there was an ATM so off to the High Court. When we got there we were the most out of place two people ever, but there was an ATM. And very kind, they let us jump the queue, as we were visitors to their country. But the ATM didn’t accept foreign cards and with no other ATM nearby, it was the end of our sightseeing adventure for the day. We had no cash left, not even 1 rupee so we decided to walk to Khan Market. This is a high end shopping area where we were not too far away from and I thought there would be a high chance of finding an ATM. And yes, bingo! There was a little bit of a queue but it took only 45 minutes and the machine had money! Around Khan Market there are many nice restaurants and coffee shops and for all the cash stress we treated ourselves to delicious cakes, croissants and smoothies. We could pay these by card luckily, as otherwise we would’ve been out of cash pretty quickly again. From Khan Market we took the taxi back to Defence Colony.
Harry spent the next morning at the golf course for a round of golf with his sister-in-law’s granddad and his brother. For lunch we joined the golfers at the club lawns and it was lovely to have lunch outside in the pleasant December weather. The food was really good as well and it was great to go to a place where as a ‘normal’ tourist you would never come. After lunch, we went to the National Museum, which is huge! We spent a few hours walking around but didn’t manage to see everything. They have many paintings, sculptures, arms, anything really from the pre-historic era to more modern times and all very interesting.
Our last day in Delhi we went to Old Delhi, which is chaos! We didn’t spend too much time there but did visit the Sis Ganj Sahib Gurudwara, which is a Sikh temple. You get a free tour here by a friendly volunteer who shows you around the temple and tells you more about Sikhism. You also get to see the massive kitchen and dining hall where they cook thousands of free meals everyday for anyone who wants one regardless if you’re rich or poor, religion or background. I got to help making some chapatis and we also got to taste some of the food. A great and interesting experience.
Making some chapatis.
Huge pans in the kitchen of the Gurudwara
After Old Delhi we stopped at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site. It’s a black monument and there were many school kids and tourists from all over India. For lunch Harry’s sister-in-law’s grandparents took us to the posh Delhi Gymkhana Club. Dressed in our most formal backpacker clothes Harry still had to change into black leather shoes (they have them there for unprepared visitors) and he had to tuck in his shirt. Again an experience that not many tourists have and it was great to see this club inside and have lunch here. No phones allowed inside so no pictures.
Raj Ghat, Gandhi’s cremation site.
After lunch we went back home to pack our bags as we flew back to Mumbai that evening (Christmas Eve) for Christmas. I had been in Delhi several times before but this time it was a completely different experience as we had family taking very good care of us, which was amazing!
Christmas in Mumbai
In Mumbai we celebrated Christmas with friends and family of Harry’s sister-in-law, which was lovely. We managed to find a Santa suit so Harry dressed up as Santa which was hilarious. Two weeks ago we didn’t see everything in Mumbai so being back was great as we could do some more sightseeing. We visited Mani Bhavan (Gandhi Museum) and Chor Bazaar. I especially liked Chor Bazaar and it’s a good thing that all we have are our backpacks as otherwise I would have bought all kinds of souvenirs. To finish our India trip I went to see Dangal, a Bollywood movie completely in Hindi, but I still got most of the story (I think).
Poster at Mani Bhavan.
A boy selling clocks at Chor Bazaar.
Just before New Years Eve we flew Bangkok and said goodbye to incredible India!