India (November 2016)

10 Mar

Five months later and I’ve written the blog post. Better late than never, eh? Please ignore all typos because there definitely are a load. Whoops.

IMG_7353

India had been one of those places that always hovered in the back of my mind, but last year I decided I wanted to really push myself out of my comfort zone. To do this, I decided to go to Cuba on my own (I don’t speak Spanish, fun times) and to go to India… the stories I’d heard from people who’d visited led me to believe that even as a seasoned traveler, I’d probably still be blown away by the place.

And they were right. India is… a lot. When people ask me how my trip was I describe it as 80% amazing and 20% difficult… and the difficult parts were pretty damn difficult. To be fair most of this was due to the Indian government withdrawing two key notes (1000 and 500 rupees) out of circulation and not being organised enough to properly replace them – as a cash economy that messed things up A LOT. You can read about the madness and queues for hours and hours at every bank here. This blog post is just about the positives (mainly!); where I went and what I got up to in each place… as well as places to steer clear of!

DELHI
You know what? Everyone I spoke to about Delhi told me how MENTAL the place is… and they’re right. It’s busy. It’s dirty (well, Old Delhi is, New Delhi not so much). It’s crammed full of people, tuk-tuks and if you’ve never been to Asia before, it will bewilder you. Fortunately, I went to Vietnam a few years ago, so having streams of vehicles never stopping to let you cross the road wasn’t new to me. I live in London, so having hoards of people squeezed around you whilst trying to walk: also not new to me.  However, the smog and pollution was on another level… while in Delhi the pollution levels were 90x the safe level for humans. Despite being lovely and warm, you could barely see the sun through the smog – all of my photos came out foggy! Basically, when heading to Delhi, take something to wear over your mouth (I never understand why tourists in London do this, but after Delhi I think they’re a sensible invention…)

Anyway. Delhi is a LOT, but it’s not that scary if you’ve travelled. Enough about that… onto what to do there!

(While in Delhi I did/saw the following… highlights are below: Humayun’s Tomb, Karol Bagh Market, Khan Market, Lodhi Garden, Ghandi Smriti, India Gate, Lotus Temple, Gurudwala Bangla Sahib, Handicrafts Museum).

EAT: So Indian food is obviously a HUGE draw and there are a million horror stories about people getting ill from food in India. I was careful and kept to veggie food (although I did risk street food a couple of times and only got a little bit ill once)!

Anyway. Thali is basically Indian tapas and the portions are huge, delicious and cheap. I had about three or four portions of thali while in India and I had a few favourites! The thali below is from Hotel Saravana Bhavan on the east side of Connaught Place. Cost about £1 and SO filling.


The place is crazy busy; by the time we’d eaten there was a crowd of people (all locals actually, which means you know it’s actually a decent place for proper Indian food) so make sure you arrive hungry and be patient! Once in, there’s a huge menu (all veggie, but then again a lot of India is veggie so leave your bacon craving at home). My thali included a few different curries, pickles, chutney, rice and vegetables, chillies and a sweet paste which tasted a bit like palm sugar. Oh, and of course, pooli (those inflated thin pieces of bread. Great for dipping!)

Honestly. The food is SO CHEAP, tasted good and if it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for me. Plus, read the hilarious sign in the window about a temple that gives you a baby. Worth visiting for that alone.

EAT: So, my last day in Delhi and I decided to head to the Handicrafts Museum – not only to see the sculptures and crafts but also the cafe located in the grounds. The cafe, Cafe Lota, is beautiful and open well after the museum closes (pretty sure it’s open until 10pm). But seriously, the ornate mosaics on the wall, lovely lighting and chilled out atmosphere make it well worth a visit… and we haven’t even got on to the AMAZING food yet.

IMG_8303

Ok, so the menu serves south Indian contemporary regional cuisine and it’s great. You can have large or small dishes and amazing desserts too. The above are crumb-fried dumplings of sago and potato with a green chilli dip. The dip was hot, the dumplings (more like fritters) were delicious too.

IMG_8306

And the above is a pistachio cheesecake. SO GOOD. I mean, I adore cheesecake and pistachios go really well with the sweetness of the cheesecake base. Well worth a try. The restaurant/museum is in New Delhi, north of Delhi Zoo.

SEE: Ghandi Smriti is a museum based at the house where Mahatma Ghandi spent his final months, and was assassinated following India’s independence.

Now, like a lot of people, I know who Ghandi is, had a vague idea of the role he played in the Indian Independence Movement against Britain and that he was a peaceful man who was assassinated. The reason I travel is to explore and to learn and no matter how much you know (or think you know) about Ghandi, the museum is absolutely worth a visit.

IMG_8295.JPG
The museum is home to numerous things, including paintings and sculptures, film and an exhibition which looks at his entire life, from birth to peaceful protest, to his death. His bedroom and his meager possessions have been preserved and it’s incredibly humbling to see that a man who did so much for so many lived so sparsely.


The museum is also home to a huge statue of Ghandi (‘My Life is My Message’) and it is the place where Ghandi was killed – with footsteps on the floor tracing his final steps and his place of prayer open to the public to view. The gardens are peaceful and it’s worth heading out to them after you’ve been inside and walked through the exhibition, as it makes it all the more poignant.

I have a lot of respect for Ghandi, far more so now I know more about him. He was an incredibly smart man – after all, by challenging the British salt tax he started the Indian Independence movement and his peaceful protests were genuinely effective. His compassion is extraordinary – I struggle in 2017 to comprehend how people can be so callous and cruel when they talk about people less fortunate than them, whether they be homeless, Syrian refugees or any poor person struggling to survive in any country. Ghandi’s quote below really struck a chord with me, and I hope it does for you too.

IMG_8292

SEE: Humayun’s tomb is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and it is located in west New Delhi. Interesting fact: it was designed by a Persian architect and pretty much set the pace for Mughal tombs and temple designs (garden split into four by water, symmetrical, etc) – in fact, it was actually the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

IMG_6801

Ok, so the smog didn’t really help make the place look as impressive as it really is. The gardens are beautiful and it’s a damn impressive building. You can walk around the inside (which features gorgeous windows, the tomb itself and fantastic views over the whole gardens).

IMG_6769

It’s also worth visiting the Isa Khan Tomb Enclosure (on the right hand side as you walk into the gardens after paying). The sandstone used is stunning – I love it when the stones are all different shapes and the wall surrounding the tomb I’m sure looks far better in the sun (damn you smog). One thing to note: if you see that entry is 30 rupees anywhere that’s for local people – it’s about 500 rupees (at the time I went) for tourists. I know, I know, it’s a crazy price difference. But at the end of the day 500 rupees is about £6 so, y’know, get over it and just go.

MISS: So the Lotus Temple, as a concept, is lovely. It’s one of seven Bahai temples in the world and is open to everyone, regardless of your religion, gender, sexuality… etc. Bahai laws basically say that all people should come together regardless of which god they worship (or whether they worship a god or not)… like I said, lovely concept.

IMG_6733

It’s also won architectural awards due to it looking like (you guessed it) a Lotus. The photo above was taken when the smog in Delhi was particularly bad, hence why it doesn’t look that impressive. Maybe if the smog hadn’t have ruined the view this wouldn’t be in the ‘miss’ section, who knows. But, personally, entering the temple was a long-winded process and when you actually got in there, it’s deadly silent and you basically just sit there, on wooden benches, not looking at much (it’s nothing like Catholic churches or Hindu temples where the inside is ornately decorated, it’s very sparse). And that’s why, lovely as the Lotus Temple is as a concept and pretty as its architectural leaves are, it’s a place I wouldn’t make a visit to unless already in the area.

JOHDPUR

Johdpur: the Blue City. And it really is. Went from Delhi to Johdpur by overnight train, travelling second class sleeper. Johdpur station is beautifully decorated (stop to take a photo) before you head into a winding maze of streets, smells and sights.

IMG_7111

EAT: Ok, so the potatoes in India are off the chain. Masala potatoes (yummy spices), Aloo Jeera (one of my faves – potato with cumin seeds) and saffron potatoes.


In Johdpur I went to a variety of places for food, but one of the nicest (both in terms of the meal and the decor) was Jhankar Choti-Haveli. As you can see above, it’s a lovely setting and this is just the entrance dining space. They also have a rather beautiful rooftop dining area too!

They serve Kingfisher beer in huge cans and with cute little ceramic mugs to drink it from. We tried the saffron potatoes and they were SO good. Seriously, if you’re in Johdpur, head here for them. Annoying I don’t have a photo (nooooo) because I ate them too bloody quickly to bother. However, I do have a photo of the very nice Thali I had there. So enjoy looking at that rather than the potatoes I would like to marry.

IMG_6881

SEE: So it wouldn’t be a trip of mine if I didn’t do something that could kill me. So, after loving ziplining in Costa Rica I decided to give it a bash at the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India dating back to 1460. The fort itself (below) is absolutely worth seeing, ziplining aside, as the inside of it has so many stunning parts to it.

You’ll see opulent rooms with baubles on the ceiling, stained glass windows, ornate door carvings and lovely views. That’s a terrible description really and it does NOT do the fort the service it deserves… but as it’s so huge and towers over Johdpur you can’t really visit Johdpur without visiting.

The ziplining I booked at the home stay I was staying at, but it also has a website and you can do it when at the fort too. Best to book in advance! For people who may not have travelled much and may think that India’s safety standards aren’t up to much, the experience was safe, staff well trained and all equipment is made in Europe. So chilllll.

IMG_7140

There are around 7 ziplines, some long some short, some over lakes, one with a spectacular view of the Blue City… I’d recommend doing the ziplining in the late afternoon so that when you get to the end the sun is starting to set and the blues of Johdpur are coming to life. The pace is quite chilled and the instructors were really cool and made the nervous people in the group feel at ease (they said that I was so good I should come and work for them which I sense may have been a lie, but a lie that was much appreciated and had me strutting up to be the first to do each line when no one else would hahaha).

Tip: you have to climb a little bit, over rocky terrain in some parts, so make sure you wear comfy shoes rather than plimsolls!

SEE: Before I went to India I hadn’t heard the term ‘stepwell’. I’d just call it a well and leave the fact it had steps out of it. However, I now like the combination of steps and wells and therefore stepwells.

The reason I like them is the same reason I like graveyards and parks – it’s a place in the middle of a busy town or city where you can find a bit of solitude. Stepwells can be found all over Rajasthan because maharajas wanted fresh water (Rajasthan is pretty much a desert region) and the reason they’re so deep (hence the need for the steps) is because they had to dig so far down to find groundwater for the well.

Most are architecturally beautiful and many are very symmetrical which pleases me greatly. Toor Ji Ki Bawari (the one in Johdpur) is filled with fish and is in a nice, calming spot. But if you like them as much as I do, you can find one in most towns or cities in Northern India (there’s another awesome one, Agrasen Ki Baoli, in New Delhi). Anyway: stepwells. They’re lovely. Don’t miss ’em.

SEE: The streets and the markets. Now, true, most places you visit are worth wandering around, but in Johdpur I particularly loved wandering through the maze of streets as I was continually finding something new and interesting.

IMG_6883.JPG

So, Johdpur is the place to get leather (Agra for jewellery and Jaipur for fabric FYI). However, there are so many incredible stalls in the marketplace and the streets that you’ll be hard pushed to not bring all sorts back with you. If you enter a fabric shop (well, any shop) in India, you will be immediately pounced on and forced to see a 5 minutes presentation about how all the fabrics are made… which I actually quite enjoyed, but make sure you’re firm when you haggle and leave if you’re not into it. Make sure you also check out the food market with Ghantaghar Clock at the centre – lots of spices and sweets, as well as some really good clothing stalls too.

Also, explore the temples! There are a few really spectacular temples in Johdpur and well worth a visit, but they’re quite hidden away in this square. Make sure you leave your shoes at the door, stay covered up and don’t stray into people’s prayers… usual temple etiquette. Achel Nath Temple (above) was my favourite as it had a model lion in there, alongside Krishna. There were also a lot of Hindus chanting and seemed genuinely happy when I started swaying to the chants (it’s so relaxing to listen to, ringing bells aside)…

Just across the square is Kunj Bihari Temple and is also well worth checking it – it’s SO colourful! Filled with marigolds and the above doorway. And right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the crazy market streets of Johdpur.

PUSHKAR

(What I did/saw in Pushkar… Lake Pushkar, Pushkar Camel Fair, Brami Temple, hiking up a hill to Savatri temple, Pushkar market, Hindu ritual ceremony, queuing at the bank for 2 hours… highlights are below:)

EAT: Pushkar is one of the holiest cities in India. This is because it’s the place that Lord Brahma (a well important Hindu God) created Pushkar Lake by shedding a single tear. It’s also the location of the only Brahma temple in India, so it’s a key pilgrimage site for Hindus.

The place is so holy that you cannot purchase alcohol or meat in the entire town (not ideal as Trump was announced as President while I was there and I really could have done with a drink….). So, veggie restaurants are plentiful! But the best of all of them (seriously, this place was incredible) is called Nature’s Blessing.

So, everything is cooked to order and from scratch using only fresh ingredients. The restaurant only seats around 16 people and this is because there’s only two staff members – the place is pretty much like someone’s personal kitchen and dining room. The menu is amazing and they have some really creative vegetarian food there.

For starts I had cucumber, sundried tomato, olive and mozzarella bites (the image above). They were really tasty! My friend Mark had Thai soup with coconut and lemongrass (also above) which was also gorgeous; you can really tell everything is fresh and home-made.

IMG_7382

My main meal was grilled tofu in barbecue sauce (homemade) with fenugreek creamed potatoes and rosemary sauteed veggies. It’s actually a vegan meal and was absolutely divine. The potatoes were unusual (in a good way) and the rosemary veggies were so tender! The plate is covered with seeds and pulses and every bite not only tastes great, but you KNOW it’s healthy. The tofu, like all tofu, didn’t really taste of much, but added something chewy to the crunchy veg and rich barbecue sauce.

IMG_7383

I also had an Amla fruit smoothie (it’s basically an Indian fruit a bit like a gooseberry) – CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS DRINK ENOUGH. So tasty.

And finally: the cheesecake. I love cheesecake. And this was no exception. It’s blueberry and was so light, god knows how they managed to do it. Summary: if you go to only place to eat in Pushkar, make it this place.

EAT: After hiking up a hill (read below) it was about 8am by the time I got back down to the bottom and I was huuungry. So, I went to a rooftop cafe for breakfast, obvs.

The place I went is Out of the Blue and the entrance is in the middle of the winding roads of Pushkar Market and is quite easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled for the decorated entrance. The cafe is about 3 stories high and has a lovely seating area at the top which gives you wicked views of the market, Pushkar Lake and the surrounding area.

IMG_7357

See? That view. BOOM.
So, the food is standard. Not bad at all (in fact, someone on my tour had a granola bowl and they said it was great) and I had nutella pancakes which were nice too. It’s one of those places where you can get all the usual breakfast food (and a bit more), decent coffee and have it all in a lovely setting with great views. Short and sweet review, but it’s worth a stop for breakfast, fo’ sure.

SEE: Pushkar is basically a big market and that’s totally fine because it’s a really, really good market. All the best clothes I picked up were from here – you can get street food, clothing, henna.. éverything. So if Lakes and Hikes ain’t your thing, it’s still a lovely place to visit.


SEE:
I had the opportunity to take part in a Hindu Ritual when I was in Pushkar – it involved having a Hindu Holy Man (someone who has dedicated their life to the religion) taking me to the holy Lake Pushkar (below) and combining chanting, flowers, a Tilaka mark and submerging myself in the Lake.

IMG_7230

Basically, Holy men in India dedicate their life to Hinduism. Apparently one man per family must do this (the holy man who performed the ritual for me said his Dad and Brother had their own business so he sort of ended up doing it. But loving it, as all holy men tend to, of course).

We started by chanting and I had to repeat phrases after him. I repeated ‘Om’ numerous times (it’s the sound that apparent Brahma uttered which created the universe) and had to tell the holy man about each member of my family that I wanted to wish good health to. He said, and I quote: “It is odd you do not have a husband or boyfriend. When you find one come back and we can do this again so he will always be healthy”. So there ya go fellas, I can give you great health no probs (putting that RIGHT on the ol’ dating profile).

I had to throw rice, salt, marigolds and dye into the lake and he tied a piece of yarn around my wrist (still have it on!) which apparently if I keep on will ensure that I remain in good health the whole time I’m in India and beyond. He then added a Tilaka (a mark on my forehead made using red paste) which is generally used in Hindu ceremonies.

Basically, my family members are still alive. Therefore, it worked. Ok? Also, it’s something that you donate to the holy man for, so (unless you’re a dick) it should set you back around 500 rupees. I’d recommend doing it as I learned some really interesting things from him whilst having the ritual performed and it’s a great way to get an insight into Hinduism.

SEE:
Because I’m mental I willingly woke up at 5am one morning in Pushkar and climbed a huge hill to see the sunrise over the town. The walk up to Savitiri Temple isn’t for you if you’re not reasonably fit – it’s a LOT of steps and the second half of the climb is basically climbing up rocky sort-of-steps-but-not-really-steps, so you need to have strong legs and good balance! Cue my Thunder Thighs.

IMG_7259

Anyway, health and safety warnings aside, it’s one helluva view when you get to the top. You can see the lake and surrounding town perfectly, with the sun rising over the hill in the distance; it’s quite the experience.

When you get to the top you can grab a cup of Chai tea (or water) and watch the sunrise, as well as the monkeys playing below. The monkeys are very cheeky as they’re clearly used to grabbing food, so make sure you’re careful when walking past them and don’t have any food or plastic bags in your hand.

Just drink in the view, drink in the Chai tea and feel better about having a huge breakfast as you’ve burned a ridiculous number of calories climbing to the top. Honestly: it’s SO worth doing. One of my Pushkar highlights, for sure!

MISS: The Pushkar Camel Fair. Right. BEAR WITH ME.

IMG_7314

This is controversial ‘Miss’ as the Pushkar Camel Fair is one of the main festivals in India and you’ll find it in every guide-book and things to not to miss lists. Now, I first got a glimpse of the fair when I got to the bottom of the Sivitiri Temple and saw dozens of camels walking past. I’ve never seen a camel before (well, not in their native habitat) so it was obviously well fun being surrounded by them

The Pushkar Camel Fair itself is more than just traders coming from across Northern India to trade camels. It’s turned into a marketplace with food stalls, local handicrafts (you can buy camel dung jewelry!), a fun fair (looks super dodgy, cannot recommend if you want to get off the big wheel alive…) and an entertainment program.

Now… I wasn’t a fan. It feels VERY commercial and not even remotely like a ‘thing not to miss in India’. The camels are tied up and do not look happy – as someone who cares about animal welfare, I decided I couldn’t take a camel ride as I didn’t believe the camels were looked after properly. Also, there were snake charmers who had removed the snake’s fangs (NOT COOL) and camels being ridden and whipped in the entertainment venue. Basically, it was a commercial festival that made me feel very uncomfortable.

Even my tour guide, who had never been before, was very disappointed. I’d strongly recommend not going out of your way to attend. If you happen to be in Pushkar when it’s on (like I was), go take a look. But please don’t give money to anyone with animals, aside from the animal charity stalls and for the love of god don’t go on the fairground rides.

JAIPUR

(What I did/saw in Jaupir… highlights are below: Albert Museum, Astronomical clock, Observation winding tower, Hawamahal)

So. Jaipur. Delhi aside, it was one of the towns which I’d heard the most about. ‘The Pink City’. So let’s get a few things cleared up – it’s not pink. At all.  If you’re going for pink photos opps, go elsewhere. The below is as pink as you’ll get.

Secondly… All the best stuff in Japiur was the stuff I’d never heard anything about. For example, I discovered the Isarlate, tucked away behind some of the biggest tourist attractions – click on the hyperlink to where it is on Google maps… you’ll have to search for the tiny entrance! This place is hundreds of years old and used to have a spiral staircase to lead you up to the top for magnificent views… the stairs have been worn away, so it’s a slightly slippery shuffle up to the top these days (which is fun in itself and well worth braving for the views)!

EAT: The first place I went in Jaipur for food was Copper Chimney – it’s about a 20 minute walk away from the centre of the Pink City, but quick to get to via Tuk Tuk. I went for Thali (again) here and it was one of the best I had while in India!

IMG_7437

It’s more westernised than some of the other places I visited – they’ve got themselves into the right guidebooks and it’s paid off. But this doesn’t take away from the great food and the good service. Prices are reasonable (not a rip off like some of the tourist traps I was dragged to by my tour guide). Garlic naan here was EPIC and that Thali though. Joyous.

EAT: One night I was in the hotel and wanted to go out. So I tried to get our tour guide to take us to a little area of Jaipur which, I’d heard, is filled with rooftop bars and restaurants with gorgeous fairy lights. My tour guide – as he tended to do throughout the tour – said ‘oh yeah I’ve heard of that place, it’s meant to be really good, I haven’t been, off you trot’. Hmm.

So, I convinced a woman called Lizzy on my tour group to brave the streets of Jaipur at 9pm and head to check it out. The walk there took about 25 minutes and was dodgy – no safe places to cross roads, REALLY dark, and to get to the area you had to go through a very local area with minimal street lighting and windy streets. Personally, I think this is part of the adventure and fortunately so did Lizzy. But if you’re not a good walker and you want to play is safe, you can get a tuk tuk and be there in about 15 minutes from the old town.

IMG_7448

The first night, we went to The Kalyan Rooftop Bar, because The Peacock had queues out the door (it’s very popular – if you’re a big group, book in advance)! So, we went to the place opposite which had a charming rooftop bar – decked out with traditional Indian puppets and decorations and a separate terrace where you can consume alcohol. I had kheer – Indian rice pudding dessert with pistachios, almonds and sultanas. SO GOOD.

IMG_7447

The highlight of this place was the owner – a woman who I predicted within 2 minutes would mention TripAdvisor. I was right; once I’d promised her I’d write a review, she found out I lived in London and was telling me about her nephew who ‘moved to London to go to University, refuses to come back home and is 32 and not married’. I then got asked to explain why London makes people ‘not want to find a wife or have children’ and ‘why won’t he stay more than a day in the home he grew up in anymore’? Yikes. She then asked for my number so she could give it to him because I seemed to be ‘the right age for childbearing and he’s a lovely boy’. Double yikes.

Anyway. I loved this little area of Jaipur so much, I decided I wanted to go back the following night, but this time to The Peacock. I managed to get my friend Mike to accompany this time. The previous night Lizzy and I got stalked by a man walking on the way there and men in a car on the way back (trailed us, stopped and tried to get us to get in the car… so walking around with my substitute husband Mike did make me feel a bit safer).

IMG_7443

We managed to get in to The Peacock for drinks and the place is STUNNING. I mean… so beautiful. The lights, the decorations, the live music they were playing – it all created a stunning atmosphere. I cannot recommend the place enough – it’s perfect for romance or just for drinks with friends. While we didn’t eat, the food looked divine – so much so that we took a scroll menu for the walk home so we could kick ourselves for eating so much earlier!

SEE:
The Amber Fort is a key draw for people – it’s one of the most incredible forts in Rajasthan and if you don’t go, you’re an idiot. YES, THAT’S RIGHT, you’re an idiot. Top tip: outside the fort entrance there’s a lady who sells traditional Indian puppets, a pair for only 200 rupees. This is a crazy bargain and you should have a look.

Anyway. There’s so much to see at the Fort; it’s a steep climb to the top (do NOT ride an elephant up there, it’s cruel and the walk isn’t that bad) and when you get to the top, you’re met with stunning architecture, history, killer views, fountains, gardens and more. I can’t go into all the best bits because there were too many, but I’d absolutely recommend taking a guided tour or coming armed with a guide-book.

Highlight: the mirror room was immense. Basically a mirrored mosaic creates a gorgeous effect as the sun hits it and the backdrop is a courtyard with stunning flowers and fountains. Another highlight is the back part of the Fort – a labyrinth of corridors and rooms where the maharaja kept his mistresses and visited them at night *ahem*

IMG_7636

I spent about 2 hours there, but easily could have spent twice that long. I’d recommend hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day and including this as part of the day trip – it’s 11km out of Jaipur and the drive itself has lots of places to stop off (don’t miss the temple in the middle of a lake)!

SEE:
Did you know the peacock is the national bird of India? I did not until I raced up to Tiger Fort to try and beat the sunset (we faffed getting a tuk tuk and only JUST made it).

Our tuk tuk driver up there was a total babe – he raced through the bits with nothing to see, stopped as soon as a peacock appeared and told us lots of facts along the way. The road up to Tiger Fort is windy and steeeep – hence why Tiger Fort is THE place to view the sun as it sets over Jaipur city.

IMG_7681

Basically, once you’re in the Fort gates, you power through, pass the Fort and head to the far end of the complex where the restaurant is. THIS is where the views are. Warning: you have to pay to get in the restaurant and the beer is a total rip off here. But the setting IS beautiful and the views are unrivaled over Jaipur – at least, that’s what I was told by pretty much every Indian in Jaipur!

As the sunsets, grab a beer, pull up a chair and face the city. You’ll see a pinky glow replaced with twinkling lights… very much like looking down on the stars. Indian weddings kick off when the sun sets, so if you go there at the right time of year like I did, you’ll also be treated to fireworks kicking off across the city. Definitely worse ways to finish the evening!

SEE: Hawamahal (‘Palace of the Winds’) is one of the main attractions in Jaipur and for very good reason. The facade is only s small part of the stunning architecture – the windows were there so women back in bad ol’ 1700’s could look out over the streets and markets and Jaipur without being seen (apparently, women had to maintain their modesty by not being seen to actively give a shit about watching people, or something). The windows are mini gate mechanisms you unlock and these are scattered all over the complex.

IMG_7421

The inside of Hawamahal includes some lovely features, include lots of stained glass. Go in the afternoon when the light is in the right place to cast colours off the glass. You can also get some great views of the city if you walk up to the top of the balconies. Well worth rocking up to.

IMG_7613

MISS: There are lots of rip off restaurant tourist traps etc no matter where you go. Couple the blah food with the crazy expensive prices and awkward entertainment (women dancing and trying to get you to dance with them). Basically, all the places with dancers are promoted as ‘authentic India dining and dancing experience’ – they’re not. It’s a place for tour guides to take their tours, so the guides get a free meal and the restaurant gets to extract lots of cash from Westerners.

I think what made the particular place I was dragged to by my tour guide SO much worse was the money issues while we were there – our credit cards wouldn’t work and we only had limited currency as the banks were closed. So why on earth our Tucan Tour Guide thought it was acceptable to take us somewhere so expensive when we had no money is beyond me.

Anyway. Steer clear. You’ll only find Brits and Americas in these places – most against their will.

AGRA

(What I did/saw in Agra… Taj Mahal (obvs), Sadar Bazar, Café Sheroes hangout, Joney’s Place highlights are below:)

IMG_7817

Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The Taj has been on my bucket list for the longest time but I’d never been able to really pinpoint why aside from it being a great photo opp and ALL THE HYPE. But there ya go. However, Agra has more to it than just the Taj…. Although, with there being plenty more to explore (Taj aside) it’s also a place you need to be a bit weary of.

For the love of God, get out of the central Taj tourist area and make sure you head outside the ‘safe tourist lines’ to see the real Agra – the one where tourists don’t stray so much and where people don’t really give a crap about the Taj Mahal. It’s so worth it. Saying that, I honestly don’t think you need more three days and two nights in Agra. I spent three nights there and it was one night more than I needed!

EAT: Pinch of Spice was uhmayzing. So so good. I went there twice – the first time because my tour guide refused to take us there so I broke off from the group and grabbed a quick lunch there. The second time I went back with the tour group (minus the tour leader as he didn’t want to come which is MENTAL) because I banged on about how amazing the place was.

It’s a more upmarket place than it used to be and the menu is extensive and actually not overpriced at all. First visit I went for paneer curry (cheese and potato, mild curry) with garlic naan. Second time around I went for the garlic naan again because my DAYS it was good, and a veggie masala. When you arrive you get given a napkin which is folded and the waiters pour water on it so it blooms into a proper napkin – well fun. They do the standard Kingfisher beer but second time around I shared a fishbowl cocktail with Mark (modelling it below) because I hadn’t had any cocktails up to this point and if I’m gonna be fancy I’mma do it in a trashy way, haaaa.

EAT: Cafe Sheroes Hangout (another place my tour guide knew nothing about) is a must-visit. The food is good, but nothing special. However, it’s ‘pay what you want’… and the reason? Because Café Sheroes Hangout is run by women who have survived acid attacks – all money goes to the charity, helping save and support women who have been victims of these terrible attacks.

True, learning about how and why these attacks happen doesn’t sound like a relaxing way to spend lunch or dinner. But it’s SO important to see a side of Indian society which is present, but hidden, from tourists. When you walk in you are met by women whose faces are scarred by acid – some cannot see out of one eye, another woman had her entire face disfigured. They are friendly and welcoming and the café itself is a delight.

11111133

On the walls are the photos of the women, post-attack, and their stories. Some were attacked by husbands and boyfriends. Others were attacked by men who wanted them, but they had turned down. Some have been attacks by their mothers or fathers for not marrying the men they had chosen for them. These women were some of the strongest women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and no matter what donation you give for your food, it probably won’t be enough.

444444

I purchased a graphic novel while I was there (again, ‘name your price’) which tells one woman’s story about how she was attacked, survived, and moved on to raise awareness of the (mostly) men who do this to women. It’s a stunning work of art and I just wish I spoke Hindu so I could have a proper conversation with these women. I cannot recommend this place enough; go armed with as many rupees as you can spare for a filling, no frills meal, and to donate to an immensely worthwhile cause.

EAT:  Joney’s Place is the definition of a hidden gem… except it’s within throwing distance of the Taj Mahal, but because of the tiny size and ‘basic’ appearance, it’s often overlooked.

You see, the beautiful thing about somewhere like Joney’s Place is that they have one ambition; to make cheap, tasty food. Sure, they could expand. They could up their prices. But they don’t, and as a result I had the cheapest (and one of the tastiest meals) here.

33333

See? The place is TINY. The kitchen is about the size of a airport toilet cubicle, so everyone is cosy and the sizzling of the food cooking is your background music. I went for my usual paneer masala and garlic naan, but with a pineapple lassi (thick milkshake-esque yogurt drink). As you can see, the food isn’t exactly gourmet, but as the entire thing cost me about £1, and it tasted good, it’s worth a shout.


SEE/EAT:
Sadar Bazar was (alright, after the Taj Mahal) the highlight of Agra for me. I’d probably count it as one of the highlights of the whole trip. On the outskirts of Agra you’ll find Sadar Bazaar, a block of shops, market stalls interspersed with houses, many of which are run down, colour Havana-esque buildings.

The stalls are great – all kinds on offer, from food to drink to shoes and clothing, to homeware. But it’s all properly local – none of your tourist trap stuff (well, there is on the main road, but wander through the bazaar and you’ll see the real deal). If you want to see an ACTUAL Indian market (not an air conditioned one made for tourists) then this is where you gotta go.

Then, there’s the architecture. Sure, the place is run down. But it’s different from the center of Agra, which is old and crumbling, but the people living there are used to tourists. Here, you’ll see goats and cows chilling with children as they play with water in front of their beautiful homes. Be respectful of course – I didn’t take photos of anyone without asking.

Finally, the food and drink here is awesome. I know ‘street food’ in India seems scary, but you HAVE to try the potato concoction above: fried potatoes with curry sauce. Sounds simple and it is – it was also DELICIOUS. You can find it roughly here. Then, there’s the tea stand. All the masala tea comes in little pottery cups which you can keep; it’s refreshingly good to wander around in the boiling sun drinking masala tea, especially when I have a lovely little cup to keep as a souvenir! Tea stand is roughly here.

IMG_7864

SEE:
Taj Mahal. Doesn’t need much of an intro, right? So I won’t bang on about the fact that it IS beautiful. I went at sunrise – tip: make sure you get to the ticket office at 6am (it opens at first dawn) so you’re first in the queue to get to the Taj before the sun is fully up!

IMG_7757

The history of the place is amazing. It’s SO SO worth getting a guide to go with you, for two reasons. First is, obviously, the history. Learning about how it’s actually a mausoleum, not a palace, learning that the Arabic script on the sides of the Taj actually gets bigger the higher up you go, so it appears to people standing at the bottom that it’s all the same size. Learning where the gems embedded in the walls came from, and hearing about how Shah Jahan was imprisoned after building it by his son because Jahan wanted to build a ‘black Taj Mahal’ on the opposite side of the river… his son thought this was an epic waste of money, so locked him up in the Red Fort. Spoilsport.

Key photos opps: the Diana shot is a must, obviously. The above was captured because an old man with a walking stick hit some Indian men (who to be fair had been on the seat for 10 minutes) and told them to get out the way so I could have a go, haaaa. Make sure you get the Taj reflected in the pools of water too. Finally, another reason to get a tour guide is because he’ll know exactly where you need to stand to make it look like you’re touching he top of the Taj. Essential stuff.

All in all – it was a great experience. I think I was a little underwhelmed, but only because it’s SUCH A BIG DEAL. If I’d never heard of it before and I happened to be taken there, I have no doubt I’d have been in awe.

Top tip: there are lots of places claiming to have unrivaled views of the Taj. Without a doubt, the best place I found was Saniya Palace Hotel. For the love of God, don’t eat here – the restaurant is terrible. But this little hotel, hidden away, has spectacular views of the Taj (below). So buy a beer and settle down to watch the Taj change colour as the sun sets.

IMG_7903

SEE: Red Fort; so, this was probably the most rushed Fort I went round (we were called back to the front when the currency exchange place opened as we were still desperate for cash in Agra) but it’s worth spending a couple of hours here.

Like allll these forts, the architecture is beautiful. I mean, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal and he totally live in the Red Fort, so guy must have some idea about building a nice place to chill, right?

It’s also a great place to get an alternative view of the Taj Mahal – the Red Fort is where Shah Jahan was locked up by his son. But his son was nice enough to ensure he could view the Taj from his chamber. Sweet kid. Make sure you visit Shah Jahan’s private mosque, the cold marble under your feet on a hot day will be just what you need.

Plus, the grounds and beautiful too. See me above chilling with something that looks like a squirrel and chilling under a tree. Model much? PFFT.

MISS: Omg omg omg, so the tuk tuk drivers in Agra are the WORST. They basically take you somewhere, then tell you they can take you somewhere better (better restaurant, better market, better shops) and then they take you to some place that they get commission from if you buy something.

IMG_6889

If they see you’re white, they see someone gullible with money. Do NOT let them take you elsewhere. I told one tuk tuk driver that if he took me to a shop rather than the market I wanted to go to then I wouldn’t pay him. Stupidly, I forgot to say this to the second driver and I ended up in another bloody material shop in which I didn’t buy any material. Because I didn’t want to be there. Sigh. Just make sure you’re savvy and firm with them – they’ll take you for the wrong kinda ride otherwise.

VARANASI

(What I did/saw in Varanasi… blue lassi shop, winding alleys, Varanasi market, Dosa café, Ganges river, henna… highlights are below:)

Varanasi was a joy, despite the fact getting there was a total nightmare. Because of the recall of old bank notes, all the trains were delayed (for some reason they run off the same electricity networks as the banks? God knows). Our train was delayed by 5 hours and then delayed a further 6 hours whilst we were on the train. So, we arrive in Varanasi at 1am rather than midday the day before. And we were only there for one night, so we either did the 5am Ganges boat ride on 4 hours sleep, or not at all.

For someone obsessed with sleep, when I’m travelling I’m so high on life, adrenaline, whatever that 4 hours sleep was more than enough time. There was no way I was missing that boat ride.

IMG_8204

Oh, and be warned: cows are EVERYWHERE. I mean, they’re everywhere no matter where you go in India, but I was confronted by an angry bull grunting on numerous occasions – and the alleyways are so small and winding in Varanasi you just have to turn around and go the other way (hint: the bulls don’t back down). I think the winding, confusing, narrow lanes are part of why I was so charmed by Varanasi – if you’re a fan of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter or Gamla Stan in Stockholm, then it’s the place for you. However, if you’re a fan of American blocks and wide roads then you’re not going to love Varanasi so much!

SEE: The early morning boat ride was a total highlight of my entire trip. Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities and Buddha is believed to have founded the religion here. Hindus are well into Varanasi because they believe if you die here you will have eternal salvation and that the Ganges in Varanasi offers a direct route to spiritual afterlife. Hence why you see so many people being cremated by the side of the river.

IMG_8187

However, life is lived by the river too. Hindus wake at dawn and you’ll see them washing, praying, doing their laundry and more, all in the same river which, 2 ghats down, just had a dead body immersed in it. (A ghat is a place by the embankment where ceremonies are performed.)

IMG_8071

By going on the boat tour up and down the Ganges, you’ll see life, death and more. You’ll see the artwork running alongside the river, you’ll see school kids chanting before their first lesson, you’ll see men fishing, cleaning themselves and their clothes… before you come across the first cremation. Wood piled up, with bodies being burned next to the river (post them having being dipped in the river). Women cannot attend the cremation (too emotional apparently) and you can take photos from afar here, but obviously, it’s essential you’re respectful. Not only has someone died, but it’s a highly spiritual ceremony – the importance of being cremated and having your final resting place in the Ganges is huge.

Oh, and you get to set a tea light, surrounded by marigolds, afloat on the river. In the evening, you’ll see holy men doing this along the banks of the Ganges as part of a ceremony – well worth a visit in the evening time too!

EAT: I’ve mentioned Lassi before and I’mma mention it again. Go to the Blue Lassi Shop in Varanasi for kick-ass yoghurt goodness.

The portions are huge, there’s fantastic free wifi and it’s a great place to cool down. Not much more to say than it’s highly recommended!

EAT: The Dosa Café was a place I discovered via Lonely Planet and Tripdvisor. My tour group, for the most part, had been pretty happy with the food I dragged them to eat and the Dosa Café was (for the most part) a success.

66666

Dosas are basically rice flour pancakes. At the Dosa café, you can have loads of different kinds and it’s really cheap. However, it’s another one of those places which is hidden away and very small, so make sure you get there at 5pm rather than 6pm so you miss the rush!

The great thing about this place is that you can totally customise what you have. Spend a tiny amount of money for a dosa made with refined soybean oil. Or, spend more and get it made with olive oil. They so savoury (potato, cheese, veg, curry) and sweet (jam, Nutella) options – all of which come in a perfectly crispy, huge dosa. For cheap eats, it’s a great pick in Varanasi.

SEE: My final recommendation? Wander. Wander around aimlessly. Get lost in the alleyways. No matter where I go, I often find the best places by pure chance when I get lost.

Whilst wandering around the narrow, shady alleyways of Varanasi I discovered numerous beautiful templates, babas (the old holy men who paint themselves), street art, lovely little cafes and great clothes shops.

IMG_8211

I also stumbled across my favourite cow of the trip: I named her Lana. Trust me, I met enough cows to have a favourite. Lana is a good’un. She was chilling out near the Ganges next to a water sprinkler (smart lady).

I mean… I have so many photos of my wanderings so I’ll just stop. But hopefully it brings to life how charming Varanasi is… if you manage to avoid the cow poo at every turn 😉

MISS: Ok, so this isn’t quite a ‘miss’, it’s just a warning. I went and had henna done because I love patterns and I’m a gap year style wankerrrr.

Now, the lady who did it for me was lovely – spoke basic English and I paid her around 400 rupees for half an hour of henna on one hand. That’s quite pricey, but I didn’t care – I wanted it done and I was at the end of my trip, so had the cash to get rid of. I actually let her child do a little bit of the henna for me (why not, eh?) – to be honest it didn’t look TOO different from the patterns her mum did.

That’s the warning – try and find someone who does henna without having to copy it from a pre-made book. There are plenty of women who’ll be able to do incredible designs across the front and back of your hands for no more than 500 rupees. Oh, and for the love of god, stock up on henna to bring home! It only costs 10 rupees for a tube and one tube will do both hands, back and front. I WISH I’d purchased more!

—————————————————————-

Well, that’s all folks. As it’s taken me so long to write this blog post, I’m thinking it’s unlikely that I’ll write my cultural tips post, so for people travelling alone, here are a few tips. Sorry I couldn’t do more; if you want any advice about India, then just tweet me or leave a comment and I’ll happily help if I can!

TRAINS

  • The way to make sure you’re on the right train is to be guided by the platform number and location on the overhead monitors; but most importantly, keep an eye on the train number. This is the bit which will tell you if you’re on the right platform. The platforms at stations tend to change short notice, but the screens don’t update… so the train number is essential!
  • On the train, unless you’re travelling first class, you’ll have a squat toilet. They’re not THAT bad, but they ain’t great. Go to the loo before you get on and ladies, buy a she pee. Saved my life (well, my feet) many times.
  • On the overnight trains, there’s a kitchen which does basic rice, veg curry dishes and a guy will come round with masala tea. GET SOME. The best masala tea I had on my trip was the stuff on the trains. No idea why, but it’s so good.
  • Go second class and up – this is the only way you’re guaranteed a bed. If you go sleeper class you’re crammed in and you’ll spend the night sitting upright. Second class is less private than first class (no curtains) and you’re more crammed in: always pick the top bunk if you can. True, more hassle getting in and out of bed, but you have no space whatsoever if you’re landed with the bottom or middle bunks.
  • In second and first class, there are plug sockets next to all beds. So chillll about that phone charging.

ROADS

  • Driving in India is fucking mental. If you get car sick or scared easily on the roads, honestly? India isn’t for you.
  • Road lanes are ignored, people weave in and out, people overtake even when the traffic ISN’T MOVING (not sure how they managed it). For the first few days you’ll wonder what the fuck is going on and you’ll be convinced that death will come in the form of a tuk tuk/car accident. By day three you’ll realise it’s all good and you’ll probably survive.
  • Cows are traffic. They will be wandering down the middle of roads. You’ll be so bored by this sight after a week it’s mental.
  • Always allow way longer than you need to get to and from Delhi airport. On the way into Delhi it took me 2 hours longer than anticipated – the roads are terrible (new ones are being built, but slowly) so never assume you can leave transport to the last-minute.
  • If you hire a car in India you’re either fearless or insane.

BUSES

  • There are bus stations in all main towns (inc. the ones I visited above). Rock up the day before, buy a bus ticket and hop on – they leave on time, so don’t chance a late arrival.
  • I’d recommend getting a private bus rather than a public one. Public buses aren’t comfy, people are crammed on and you could spend 4 hours sharing with a man with seven chickens (I did see this on a public bus. Totally a thing).
  • Private buses range from plush to basic – personally, I was cool with the basic ones that came with aircon. You’ll usually get one planned loo break depending on how far you’re travelling.

MEN

  • Right, so men in India are a bit of a pain. They like to stare and if you get in a tuk tuk, within 5 minutes they’ll be trying to add you on Facebook.IMG_7893
    ^Fake husband. Worked a treat.
  • Keep your shoulders, boobs and thighs covered, especially in holy places such as Varanasi and Pushkar. Not only is it insulting to the locals if you don’t, but the harassment you’ll get just isn’t worth it.
  • Be firm. Say no. The men do understand this. I had guys trying to get me into cars, some teenage boys in Agra pulling on hair and forcing their hands between the legs of my friend. For the most part, you’ll be totally fine – but just be careful at night or anywhere off the tourist track. Be as vigilant as you would at home and you’ll be fine.

SHOPS

  • Haggle. They expect you to. It wouldn’t a trip to India if you didn’t. But – always pay what you think it’s worth. There’s no point paying half what you can afford because these people work hard and their work is worth paying for.
  • Johdpur is the place to buy leather goods, Varanasi and Agra are the places to wait and buy materials and spices and food are great in Jaipur.
  • Again, be careful of tuk tuk drivers. They will direct you to places where they get commission off your sales, meaning it isn’t necessarily a good place.

MONEY

  • Obviously I went at a nightmare time for money (this happened). But usually, it’s pretty easy to deal with money from what I’ve heard and seen!
  • Change big notes (500 rupees+) when you get there to 100 notes. This will mean you can pay for snacks, tuk tuks and most items.
  • ATMS are around in big towns, but don’t assume you can pay on card in restaurants; you almost certainly won’t be able to in a lot of shops unless it specifically says you can. There’s a reason that 87% of India’s transactions are cash, not card!

GENERAL

  • ‘The Indian half hour’ – basically, when there was any delay, we were always told it would be half an hour. The reality ranged from an hour to seven hours. If an Indian says something will take half an hour, be prepared to wait!
  • English is quite widely spoken – it’s the second language of India and you should be able to find most people have a good idea what you’re saying.IMG_7160
  • Cows are everywhere. Get used to them and nearly stepping in cow poo every 5 minutes. And monkeys are also everywhere (including above photo). Watch out – they grab EVERYTHING.
  • India is very dirty. Like… it really is. People piss and spit on the streets, cows shit on the streets, rubbish is burned rather than collected, meaning there’s smoke and charred rubbish on every street corner. Again – get used to it.
  • Begging is everywhere. Try not to give money if you can help it, especially to children. Many families force children to beg because they know they get more money. Instead, give the adults things like food, drink and clothing. Honestly, resist the child beggars – it’s far better in the long run.IMG_8275
  • Careful with the food – I didn’t eat meat the whole time I was there and I didn’t get sick. Most places in India are veggie anyway! If it looks dodgy and you don’t think it’s cooked properly, don’t risk it. Street food, so long as it’s hardcore fried in fresh oil, will be fine. But make sure the oil looks new – if it’s what was leftover from the day before, give it a miss. And make sure salad and fruit are washed with bottled water, not tap!IMG_7931
  • Go to an Indian wedding! They’re such wonderful occasions and the people are usually very quick to welcome you in. If you can go to one, definitely do 😊IMG_8227
  • Finally, be respectful. In my mind, this goes without saying, but it never hurts to repeat it. At the end of the day, I don’t agree with women’s role in India. I don’t agree with their class system. I’m not religious. But I chose to go to India and therefore will abide by their rules. Cover up when you need to. Don’t complain about not having meat or booze in Pushkar. Don’t take photos of children without asking permission from the parents. They’re poor, not on display for you. Be a traveller, not a tourist.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: