Travelling to Dubai and a trip into the Arabian Desert

So as my week in Goa ended it was time to move on to Dubai. I was entering the final stage of my trip. I had now been away for nearly 11 weeks and in 3 days time I would be home.

Sam, who had been my personal taxi driver for the last few days, drove me to Goa International Airport. As at Delhi I had to produce travel documents to enable me to gain access to the airport. It’s fair to say that my experience of Goa International Airport was not a good one. Any resort airport that has the word “international” in the title should be treated with caution. I didn’t have a great experience in Krabi either. To summarise my experience at the airport in Goa included:-

  • the check in desk being closed on my arrival 3 hours before an international departure
  • watching cleaners rowing with each other. It was quite entertaining to watch but I wish I could have understood what they were arguing about
  • having to scan my hold luggage before check in. I did not realise this was the case until check in and was I was then confronted with a massive queue/scrum of Russians. Thankfully the Air India “baggage man” helped me jump the queue.
  • Immigration desks being closed leading to a further half an hour delay before I could go through security. When the desk reopened there was a long disorganised queue.
  • The immigration man queried whether I needed a visa to enter Dubai. I said to him I didn’t think I needed one but this placed a seed of doubt in my mind about whether I would be able to enter the UAE.
  • Getting “told off” when going through security for wanting to place items such as mobile phone, wallet etc in a tray which is what you do everywhere else. I was required to place these in my hand luggage.
  • Really dirty toilets in the departure lounge. Presumably the cleaners were too busy arguing to clean them!

So it was a shame that my last experience in Goa was such a bad one.

The Air India flight to Dubai was fine. The airport in Dubai is mightily impressive. However there are obviously a lot of people flying in here. On my arrival at around 11pm on a Sunday evening there were long queues at immigration There were loads of immigration desks and most were open. All were manned by men in traditional Arab dress with long flowing white robes and heads covered. I queued for around half an hour and then got through without a problem. So the concern about needing a visa was unfounded. I understand the delays at Dubai airport are being addressed. There is a new iris recognition system being introduced which should mean for returning passengers it will take less time to pass through the airport.

Having arrived in Dubai quite late the previous evening I had a relatively lazy morning. I was staying in an apartment hotel fairly close to the Burjuman area. After a late breakfast I went for a walk to get my bearings. Temperatures were a very pleasant mid to high 20’s. It wasn’t the best area for sightseeing but I was struck my how clean and orderly everything was compared to India. I felt like I was in a completely different world. A world of finance, technology and high end shopping. I walked into a shopping mall. It was quite a small place relative to many others but I was gobsmacked by a floor which had shop after shop selling gadgets and IT peripherals. I lunched at another nearby shopping mall. The cafe had a very westernised menu. I ordered a tuna sandwich. It felt like I could almost have been in the UK.

Mosque in Dubai near Burjuman

Mosque in Dubai near Burjuman

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In the afternoon I was booked onto a tour out into the desert. So at around 3.30pm I set off from the hotel having been collected by a Pakistani tour guide working for the Arabian Adventures company. He was driving a lovely Toyota 4×4 vehicle which accommodated 6 passengers. The other members of the tour were a couple from Delhi who are doctors and three nurses from the US. We drove on motorways for an hour before entering the Dubai desert conservation reserve at which point we had a brief stop whilst our driver reduced the tyre pressure.

The first part of the evenings entertainment was a falconry display. This was followed by a thrilling drive through the sand dunes. I had a great view as I was sat up front with the driver. At times you almost felt that the car would topple over but these 4 wheel drive vehicles are excellent. In addition to us there must have been another 50 vehicles full of tourists doing the same as us. The tour runs 365 days a year so it’s a big business. After the drive through the dunes which probably lasted around 15 minutes we had a stop in the sand dunes for a photo opportunity as the sun came down. After the sun had disappeared below the horizon we drove to the village where we were to have dinner. But first there was the opportunity to ride on a camel. Now I have to say that I am not a big fan of camels and I did turn down the opportunity to ride one in Australia. But here it was included within the price of the tour and all the others members of the group were going to have a go so I went for it. I had a camel to myself and sat in the rear of the 2 seats. It was a fairly short ride but my camel was very well behaved. I was told to hold tight and lean back. The only slightly dodgy moment was when it was time to get off the camel when I could feel it’s movement may launch me forward. I ensured I kept my weight back. The camel driver took some photos of me for which I tipped him.

Falconry display

Falconry display

Deflating tyres

Deflating tyres

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We then entered the village. I am not sure of its authenticity given this was essentially a tourist business but we had a very pleasant evening enjoying a buffet dinner whilst kneeling on cushions. The evening ended with a fantastic display of belly dancing and then some stargazing.

It had been an excellent tour out into the desert and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The end of the Golden Triangle tour

After two fantastic days in Jaipur it was time to leave there and make our way back to Delhi.

It was a long journey taking around 6 hours. Like most of the bus trip round Northern India I found the journey back up to Delhi absolutely fascinating. At the Jaipur end the road wasn’t great, pretty bumpy, and we passed through busy villages and towns where the road sides were absolutely packed with lorries. This was a major trunk road for the Indian haulage industry. On the journey I saw camels being used for transport and close to Jaipur monkeys were commonplace.

Some of the sights from India’s roads are not necessarily easy viewing. On numerous occasions when passing a village I observed locals washing by a water pump. Presumably the pump was having to be shared by a number of people in the village. I wondered what toilet facilities and living conditions were like in those villages. Litter is a problem. It’s everywhere within towns and cities. In the week I had in India I only saw one refuse truck. That was on a motorway with rubbish piled high and litter blowing off the top. I did see wheelie bins and the like but they were often overflowing. Sadly towards Delhi on this journey I did see people sifting through rubbish in a refuse dump. It’s quite common to see men peeing at the side of roads. But what toilet facilities are there for motorists? It is also quite common to see people, mainly men, spitting. This is often to do with the practice of chewing paan. Paan is a stimulating and psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco. Many of the buildings you see at the side of the road, used for trading, are pretty basic constructed from brick and cement. It’s common to see the chimneys of brick kilns scattered through the countryside and numerous advertisements for different cement brands.

After a stop for lunch we were getting close to Delhi. A sunny day turned foggy – or was it smog? We passed industrial parks full of manufacturing businesses. We passed a Harley Davidson manufacturing plant and there were numerous Japanese companies represented.

India is a country of contrasts. Extreme poverty seems all around but there are examples of wealth and real economic advances in areas such as IT and manufacturing.

We arrived back at the Grand Park Inn in Delhi in the mid afternoon. This did give time to potentially do further sightseeing. However the following day was when Republic Day celebrations were taking place and a number of roads and tourist attractions were closed so I decided to stay in the hotel for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening we went out for our last meal as a group. Like the first night in Delhi, Yash led us through the streets of Karol Bagh to our restaurant. I found the walk much more relaxing than that first night and I think this is due to the fact that I had got used to the frenetic nature of the big cities. It had been a fantastic week. None of the worries I had at the start of the week had been realised. My stomach had been fine and I had felt safe and secure. I had been travelling with a great group of people and in Yash, our CEO from G Adventures, we had an exceptional group leader. He had a real presence about him which helped everything run smoothly and some of the added extras were real delights – eg the cookery lesson and the trip round the village at Abaneri. He is one of the coolest dudes I have ever met!

It was a fantastic meal and I enjoyed the best Indian dish I have ever had in my life. It is called Chicken Lababdar. I have never seen it in the UK but in India it’s a real delicacy with tongue tingling spices and also containing butter, onions, cream and tomatoes. Yum!!

Recipe for chicken lababdar

I saw this on the side of a truck and am inclined to agree!

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Recipe for chicken lababdar

My dish looked something like this....

My dish looked something like this….

After the meal we returned to the hotel and enjoyed the last room party of the week. I crawled into bed at around 2am… I had an amazing time doing the Golden Triangle. An experience I will never forget. I felt there was so much to see and in some ways we had just scratched the surface. I feel I must return to India to see more.

 

Sightseeing in and around Jaipur and a Bollywood Film

We set off by bus for a morning of sightseeing. Our first stop was at the Hawa Mahal or “Palace of the Winds”. It was built In 1799 and the original intention was to allow ladies from the City Palace, presumably from the harem, to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. Constructed of red and pink sandstone highlighted with white lime the five storied facade contains 953 small windows. The breeze (hawa) that comes through the windows keeps it cool, even in hot months, and gives the palace it’s name. We made a brief photo stop here. It’s certainly very impressive and I can see why it’s known as Jaipur’s signature building. Returning to the bus I saw a snake charmer with cobra!

The Palace of the Winds

The Palace of the Winds

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So why is Jaipur called the Pink City? Well in 1853 when the Prince of Wales came to visit the city most of the old buildings were painted pink to welcome him. The colour has remained pink ever since. Actually it’s closer to a terracotta colour but I guess that “Pink City” sounds better than “Terracotta City”. Our next stop was a few kilometres outside Jaipur at Amber, the former capital of Jaipur state until 1727. We got off the bus and towering ahead of us was the Amber Fort/Palace complex. In front of us was a lake. Unfortunately the view was hazy but we passed by again the following day and had a brief photo stop here to get better pictures. There was an option to ride by elephant up to the fort but Yash did not recommend this describing the elephants as “sad” and the ride up not being within the G Adventures ethos of sustainable tourism. We all chose to walk up which did give numerous opportunities to see the elephants close up and yes they didn’t seem a particularly happy bunch.

The Amber Fort with artificial lake in front

The Amber Fort with artificial lake in front

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Amber was a flourishing city as far back as 967AD. The Fort/Palace complex is famous for its mixture of Hindu and Muslim architecture. It’s vast with very impressive architecture, mosaics, courtyards and gardens.  One particular highlight was the Sheesh Mahal containing tiny mirrors which when a single candle is lit can transform it into a “starlit sky”. We explored extensively the central area of the fort only then to discover a much older part at the far end. This area was converted into women’s quarters (the Zenana) by Man Singh to house his 12 wives and concubines.

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Ganesh Pol. The shimmering three-storeyed gateway built in 1640 leads to the private apartments

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The huge flagged courtyard is known as the Jaleb Chowk which translated means the square where elephants and horses are tethered

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A mirrored wall within the Sheesh Mahal

A mirrored wall within the Sheesh Mahal

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Adam Bagh the pleasure garden

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The Zemana - women's quarters

The Zemana – women’s quarters

After leaving the Amber Fort we made a brief photo stop at the Jal Mahal nearby. This “water palace” seems to float on the lake. Built in the mid 18th century by Madho Singh I , it is based on the Lake Palace at Udaipur where the king spent his childhood.

The Jal Mahal

The Jal Mahal

We headed back into Jaipur where the sightseeing continued at the City Palace. Occupying the heart of the city, the City Palace has been home to the rulers of Jaipur since the first half of the 18th century. The Palace complex is a super blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture with open, airy Mughal-style public buildings leading to private apartments. Today the complex is open to the public as the City Palace museum. We first visited a lavishly decorated ground floor room which was used for ceremonial occasions. The room contained portraits of the former rulers of Jaipur. The royal dynasty continues but nowadays their role is largely ceremonial. Heading back out into the courtyard we passed two silver urns. These are listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest silver vessels in the world. They carried sacred Ganges water to London for Madho Singh’s visit in 1901. The seven storey palace is beautiful. It’s predominately yellow colour provides a great contrast with the rest of the pink city.

The seven storey palace. Each floor is extravagantly decorated.

The seven storey palace. Each floor is extravagantly decorated.

The record breaking silver urns

The record breaking silver urns

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The tour of the palace ended with an opportunity to haggle with local traders for souvenirs – predominately artwork. I kept my hand firmly in my pocket!

After lunch back in the hotel the afternoon was free. The group split along gender stereotype lines. The girls went shopping and the blokes stayed in the hotel! I spent some time sitting on the hotel terrace in the sunshine watching the world go by below.

The view from the hotel terrace

The view from the hotel terrace

In the evening we went to the cinema to see a Bollywood film. This involved another thrilling tuk-tuk ride there and back. The Ray Mandir movie cinema opened in 1976 and is in an art moderne style with a meringue shaped auditorium. We had come to see Jai Ho starring the Bollywood star Salman Khan. He has appeared in several high grossing Bollywood films. It was the first night of Jai Ho in Jaipur and the cinema was packed. I struggled to follow the plot. It was spoken in Hindi and there were no subtitles. The scenes seemed to follow a particular formula that repeated – comedy scene, sad scene, violent scene, romantic scene and occasionally some singing and dancing. Khan played a “Robin Hood” type character who was keen to right wrongs even if this involved using what at times seemed pretty extreme violence. The audience got really involved shouting out when there was about to be an action sequence. It was a great experience to be in such a different type of audience with a real atmosphere in a great movie theatre holding around 1,500 people.

Salman khan

Salman khan

Outside the cinema

Outside the cinema

The view from the foyer

The view from the foyer

The view from my seat before the film started

The view from my seat before the film started

Fatephur Sikri and Keoladeo National Park

After two nights in Agra we checked out of the hotel and headed by bus towards Bharatpur. It was another very wet day and when we arrived at our first stop at Fatephur Sikri it was chucking it down! Built in 1571 by Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, Fatephur Sikri was the Mughal capital for 14 years. An example of a Mughal walled city with defined private and public areas and imposing gateways, its architecture, a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, reflects Akbars secular vision as well as his style of governance. The site was abandoned in 1585 probably due to a lack of water and many of its treasures were plundered. However other than missing treasures it’s very well preserved and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The building material is mainly red sandstone quarried from the rocky outcrop on which it’s situated. In it’s day, Fatephur Sikri shared it’s imperial duties as a capital city with Agra. During a crisis, the court, harem and treasury could be removed to Agra, only 26 miles away, less than a day’s march. It’s certainly an impressive place and very well preserved.

The 5 story pavilion on the right is called the Panch Mahal and overlooks the Pachisi Court where the ladies of the harem played a ludo-like game

The 5 story pavilion on the right is called the Panch Mahal and overlooks the Pachisi Court where the ladies of the harem played a ludo-like game

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The gate to the mosque known as the Buland Darwaza. It's 54m high

The gate to the mosque known as the Buland Darwaza. It’s 54m high

After leaving Fatephur Sikri we drove to our hotel near Bharatpur reaching it at lunchtime. It was a grand new hotel in the country. We were welcomed by drums. My room was large but cold and I was glad to be offered a portable heater.

The entrance of our hotel

The entrance of our hotel

Hotel courtyard

Hotel courtyard

After lunching at the hotel we drove the short distance to Keoladeo National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Keoladeo is regarded as one of the world’s most important bird sanctuaries. This once arid scrubland was first developed by the Bharatpur rulers in the mid 18th century by diverting the waters of a nearby irrigation reserve to create a private duck reserve. Extravagant shooting parties for viceroys and other royal guests were held here and horrifying numbers of birds were shot in a single day. Today the park covers 29 sq km of wetlands and attracts a wide variety of migrant and water birds who fly in each winter from places as distant as Siberia.

On arrival, Yash procured for us bicycle rickshaws with a driver and an expert guide. Thankfully it had stopped raining and we spent a fantastic couple of hours being driven around this bird paradise. I noted around 40 different bird species including the common and white throated kingfisher, the snake bird and loads of juvenile painted storks. As well as birds we saw deer, monkeys (macaque), golden jackal, wild boar and baby pythons. I did regret at this point not having a better camera as my 10x zoom did not really do justice to most of the wildlife.

White throated kingfisher

White throated kingfisher

This painted stork is around 3 months old

This painted stork is around 3 months old

A baby python

A baby python

The snake bird - so named because of the shape of its neck

The snake bird – so named because of the shape of its neck

Tor-Bjorn and I in our rickshaw

Tor-Bjorn and I in our rickshaw

After dinner in the hotel we were treated to Indian music and a puppet show by a man with an incredibly long moustache.

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Check out the size of this 'tache! He was a real character and made the puppets on display and managed to sell some to members of the group.

Check out the size of this ‘tache! He was a real character and made the puppets on display and managed to sell some to members of the group.

It had been a great day and I was loving the tour. We had done so much already but were only half way through.

Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

We were visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise so this meant an early start. The bus left the hotel at 6.30am and by 7 we were in the queue waiting for the outside gates to open. At 7am the huge external gate ( one of 3) was swung open and we made our way inside. Security was high and this involved airport style security and the most in depth search of my rucksack since The Gabba in Brisbane!

The forecast for the day was not great but at 7am it was dry but murky. We soon got our first view of the Taj Mahal. Wow! It’s incredibly impressive even in foggy conditions. It’s hard to think there is a more beautiful building anywhere else in the world.

The Taj Mahal was constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22,000. It was built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz had already borne the emperor FOURTEEN children when she died in childbirth. The Taj Mahal must be the ultimate symbol of love.

Yash had arranged for a specialist guide to explain the history of the Taj. One of our first photo stops was at “Diana’s seat” by the Lotus Pool. The seat is so named due to the iconic photo of Princess Diana taken on her visit to the Taj Mahal in 1992. She was on an official state visit to India with Prince Charles but visited alone as at the time her marriage was collapsing. As it turned out the rest of the group, and I, had our photos taken on the wrong seat. Hey ho!

Me on the wrong "Diana seat"

Me on the wrong “Diana seat”

The iconic photo of Princess Diana taken in 1992

The iconic photo of Princess Diana taken in 1992

We then moved onto the Taj itself and entered after covering our shoes. Like the Baby Taj yesterday it’s perfectly symmetrical. We saw the tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. Mumtaz’s cenotaph is right in the centre of the tomb chamber with Shah Jahan’s to one side. This is due to his grave being moved there after his death when the Taj had already been completed.

We has plenty of time for taking photos. Unfortunately the sun didn’t come out and it stayed murky.

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One of the 4 minarets. They are 40m high

One of the 4 minarets. They are 40m high

A recessed arch known as a Pishtaq

A recessed arch known as a Pishtaq

After finishing at The Taj we had a coffee nearby and then headed back to the bus. On the way we passed a number of souvenir sellers. After detailed negotiations I managed to secure a very tasteful item – a Taj Mahal glitter dome! – at the bargain price of 100 rupees (£1).

After getting back on the bus we headed back to the hotel which gave an opportunity for breakfast. Whilst back at the hotel the heavens opened and there was thunder in the air. We were lucky to have seen the Taj whilst it was dry.

Despite the weather we headed back out at 10.30 to visit Agra Fort. The walled city of the Agra Fort was first taken over by the Mughals, led by Akbar the Great, in the late 16th century. Akbar liked to build with red sandstone often inlaid with white marble and other intricate decorations. It was during the reign of Shah Jahan, Akbars grandson and the builder of the Taj Mahal, that the fort took on its current state. Shah Jahan preferred buildings of white marble, often inlaid with gold or other semi precious gems, and he destroyed some earlier buildings to build others in his own style. At the end of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort by his son, Aurangzeb. It is believed that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. The Taj of course is where his favourite wife Mumtaz’s body lays on the other side of the River Yumana from the Fort. The Fort is also the site of one of the most important battles of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India, leading to a century of direct rule of India by Britain. The Fort is a really fascinating place and our guide really brought things to life for us with stories such as Shah Jahan and Mumtaz having fishing competitions together in the fishing lake. He always let her win! There was also a harem of beautiful ladies within the Fort in the days of Akbar the Great and Shah Jahan. The rain stopped towards the end of our visit but despite this the Taj Mahal was barely visible across the river.

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Grave of John Russell Colvin who was the governor of the a North West province of India who died at Agra Fort in 1857

Grave of John Russell Colvin who was the governor of the a North West province of India and died at Agra Fort in 1857

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We headed back to the hotel for lunch and I really enjoyed my choice of mixed vegetable korma. In fact I began to order mixed vegetable curries for lunch each day in India following this.

We had free time in the afternoon which I used to catch up with sleep. The journey from Thailand to India and the early morning had caught up with me.

In the evening we headed out to the Dasaprakash South Indian restaurant and a totally different style of food. Check out the Dosa that I had. A Dosa is a type of fermented crepe cooked with rice batter and black lentils. Mine was a little bit different to the norm as it contained wheat, onions and potatoes. Very tasty!

My Dosa

My Dosa

After the meal we headed back to the hotel. Yash invited us back to his room for a party. Most of the group went along. Room parties were to be a theme for the rest of the week.

Delhi to Agra

Day 2 of my Indian adventure started with a quick breakfast of coffee and toast. We checked out of our Delhi hotel and awaited our transport. It consisted of a 20 seater bus with driver and helper. With bags loaded into the bus – I remembered to tip this time! – we set off into old Delhi.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid (the great mosque) built in 1656 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 5,000 workmen six years to build and is the largest mosque in India. The huge square courtyard can accommodate up to 20,000 for occasions such as Friday prayers. It was a foggy day in Delhi so we declined the opportunity to climb the minaret. This is supposed to give great views of the city but with the fog there wouldn’t have been much to see. We removed shoes whilst entering the mosque. This to be a common theme over the next few days and it was common for our shoes to be “minded” by someone in exchange for a tip.

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

The Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

After leaving the mosque we walked through the streets of Old Delhi heading for Chandni Chowk one of India’s most vibrant centres of commerce and religious activity. It was early in the morning and many shops had not yet opened. The usual opening time is 10am. I paused at a stall where an Indian gentleman had just ordered breakfast. We stood aghast at a street where electrical cables hung above us in a chaotic spaghetti of danger.

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Check out the electrical cables!

Check out the electrical cables!

Having reached Chandni Chowk we visited a Sikh temple. The Sikh holy site of Gurdwara SisGanj stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. To enter the temple we had to remove shoes and socks and wear headscarves. We sat in silence for a few minutes watching Sikhs at worship.

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Inside the Sikh temple

We watched lunch preparations underway in the temple kitchens. Some of the girls helped with making chapatis. Apparently lunch is provided free to the worshippers within the temple.

Now that's a big pan!

Now that’s a big pan!

Making chapatis

Making chapatis

After leaving the temple we retraced our steps back to the Jama Masjid where the bus was waiting. Many of the shops which were shut when we passed earlier were now trading. There were lots of jewelry shops with no doubt many bargains to be had.

It was now time to leave Delhi as we had a 5 hour journey ahead of us to reach Agra which is around 210km south of Delhi. It was a good journey with most of the road being a relatively new toll motorway. We passed a number of new residential and office developments in the Noida area. One of the places we passed was the Indian Formula 1 circuit at Buddh. Much of the scenery along the way was agricultural. North India is very green at this time of year. There were many workers out in the fields and little sign of mechanisation.

Having made good time to reach Agra we visited the Itmad-Ud-Daulash tomb which is also known as the Baby Taj. It was built by Empress Noor Jahan, the beloved wife of Prince Saleem’or Jahangir, in the memory of her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was the Prime-Minister of the Mughal Court. The Baby Taj was started in 1622 and took 6 years to build. It is if particular interest as it is a forerunner of the Taj Mahal and many of the designs within it are also present within the Taj. The tomb is a combination of white marble, coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. I found it absolutely captivating and loved the symmetry of the design. It was a wonderful way to spend time at the end of a long journey. Compared to the fog (or smog?) in Delhi it was clear in Agra.

The baby Taj

The baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

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After leaving the Baby Taj we headed for our hotel. We got stuck in a traffic jam on the way. Traffic coming on the opposite direction moved onto our side of the road to try and avoid the gridlock. It was absolutely fascinating watching from the bus. Tuk tuks rammed full with an improbable number of people. I saw a family of five (mum, dad and 3 kids) on a motor bike! The young girls on our bus got plenty of attention from a number of the Indian guys stuck in the traffic jam. Eventually the traffic started to move and we got to our hotel.

Family on a motorbike. Mum head away behind Dad for this shot

Family on a motorbike. Mum hid away behind Dad for this shot

A very full Tuk Tuk

A very full Tuk Tuk

In the evening we went out to a local restaurant and enjoyed a meal sat outside. There were a number of Indian weddings going on in Agra. It’s peak season for weddings there. We saw a wedding procession go past involving a marching band and the groom.

After getting back to the hotel I had a drink in the bar but then retired to my room. Tomorrow was an early start and I was going to see the Taj Mahal!

Arrival in India

Coming to India was the part of my trip that I was most excited about but this also came with worries. Would I catch Delhi belly? How would I adjust to such a different culture? What about my security and could I overcome language barriers? People say that coming to India can be a real shock when you first visit. So to alleviate these concerns I am here on an organised tour to the “Golden Triangle” run by G Adventures.

On arrival at Delhi Airport I was met by a young Indian guy as part of the pre-booked transfer. He was a splendid chap who was studying at university in Delhi and earning some extra income by undertaking airport transfers. He didn’t drive the taxi but helped the driver navigate the way to the hotel. It was Sunday afternoon and so the traffic was much lighter than normal. I saw a game of cricket in progress on a patch of rough ground on the way.

After around half an hour I arrived at the hotel in the Karol Bagh area of the city. The Hotel Grand Park Inn was tucked away on a busy side street. It was immediately apparent that this hotel was different from others that I had stayed in whilst I have been away. I was asked to complete details within a very grand and big registration book that seemed to have been in use forever.  No sign of the usual computerisation that you would generally see. A number of guys milling around in the reception area were very keen to help with my luggage. My twin room was clean but basic. It was apparent from what the guy who showed me to my room said that hot water was not always available. I arrived around 2pm and there was to be a group welcome meeting at 6pm. I decided not to venture out of the hotel in the meantime. I headed up to the rooftop terrace to see what lunch may be available. I ordered a butter chicken, naan and rice to be washed down by a kingfisher beer. It turned out that beer was not on the drinks menu but was procured and paid for separately directly to one of the guys I saw in reception earlier. I think he had a little sideline in profiting from selling alcohol in the hotel. The butter chicken was delicious. I was soon joined by Tor-Bjorn who was another member of the tour group. Tor-Bjorn, a Swedish speaker, came from a small Finnish Island and had worked for the Birka cruise line for over 20 years. Tor-Bjorn is a lovely guy and I enjoyed his company throughout the course of the week. After lunch I chilled in my room and watched tv. After expressing interest in a game of cricket showing on the tv in reception, one of the hotel guys came up and found it for me on my room tv. I was amused to see the hotel rules displayed on the door of my room and I took particular note of rule number 6 (see below).

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At 6pm I met the rest of the group and our Indian CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Yash. There were 12 in our group altogether. As well as Tor-Bjorn and I, there were 4 English girls Amy, Amy, Vicky and Holly. 3 Aussie girls from Adelaide – Prue, Susie and Carrie. A couple from Derbyshire, Dave and Emilie. Last but not least was Paulette who is originally from Belgium but now lives in Canada. I was delighted that over half the group consisted of women in their 20’s!

Yash did an introduction and spoke about the plans for the rest of the week. He talked about India and some of the differences from what we may be used to. Some of the things that stuck with me were:-

– although India may appear chaotic. – it is “organised chaos”

– there is very much a tipping culture – so tips are expected for helping with bags, tour guides, drivers, in addition to bills for meals etc. I realised at this point that I had totally failed to appreciate this and had not tipped the car transfer man, the bag helper or the tv tuner!

– G Adventures believed in sustainable tourism so we would be using local companies rather than multinationals. Eg locally owned hotels.

– the best advice that Yash provided was how it was best to adjust expectations about some of the ways that things work in India in comparison to what you may be used to. eg standards in hotels. He reiterated that all the hotels that we stayed in would be clean, and they were, but perhaps some of the things you take for granted may not be there. That explained the hot water issue earlier. This advice was really useful and really helped me during the week.

With introductions and welcomes out of the way we headed out of the hotel for dinner. Yash led us through the bustling streets of Karol Bagh for around 15 minutes until we found the tranquil oasis of a restaurant and we enjoyed an excellent meal.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and retired to our rooms. The noise outside was something else and the main contributor was car horns. Indian drivers love to use them. Normally a “watch out” warning for other drivers. The noise abated at around 10pm and I managed a decent nights sleep feeling excited about what was to lay in store for the rest of the week.

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel

 

A week in Krabi

So for the first time in my trip I have chosen to spend a week near a beach doing very little….

I flew from Bangkok to Krabi international Airport which is about an hour away by plane. Krabi is 800 km south of Bangkok towards Malaysia. I have been based at a delightful hotel, the Centara Anda Dhevi Resort and Spa in Ao Nang. Just down the road there are two beaches which I refer to as the quiet beach (Nopparat Thara beach) and the busy beach (Ao Nang Beach). Ao Nang itself is a busy bustling resort with loads of bars, restaurants, massage parlours, tailors (no I don’t want to buy a suit thank you!), small supermarkets, a bewildering multitude of “tourist information places” (basically they are on commission for getting you on a trip) and souvenir shops. Street food is in abundance and I have enjoyed consuming fresh banana pancakes cooked in front of me in seconds.

The quiet beach

The quiet beach

Long tailed boats lined up at the busy beach

Long tailed boats lined up at the busy beach

My banana pancake being cooked

My banana pancake being cooked

Ao Nang is an incredibly relaxing place although more geared up to couples and families than the single traveller. The Thai people I have met in the hotels or in restaurants have been in virtually all cases delightful although there grasp of English often makes communication difficult. So what have I done here other than lounge by the pool, go down to the beach and read books?

Well I have had two hour long Thai full body massages. Incredibly relaxing and an absolute bargain at £6 a go. It’s so cheap here….

I have found the most incredible beach bar next to the quiet beach where I have watched the sun go down whilst drinking a beer or a cocktail.

The view from the beach bar

The view from the beach bar

i have taken a long tail boat, a wooden boat shaped a bit like a canoe with an engine at the back, from the busy beach to the beautiful Railay beach a little further down the coast.

Railay beach

Railay beach

Yesterday I went on a 4 Island boat trip on a 30 seater long-tailed boat. It’s a trip I booked the previous day from one of the “tourist information” places. It was a great day seeing some stunningly beautiful islands and beaches. One of the islands looked like a chicken! All for the bargain price of £8 including lunch!

Chicken Island

Chicken Island

Sandbank by Tup Island

Sandbank by Tup Island

Lovely beach at Poda Island where we had lunch

Lovely beach at Poda Island where we had lunch

Temperature wise at this time of the year, the Thai winter, it’s been in the high 20’s to low 30’s and although humid is not uncomfortably so. The main issue I have had here is insect bites. My legs are absolutely covered in them and they are itching like mad. I will spare you a photo. I am not sure why they are picking on me as I have been checking out other holiday makers’ legs and they do not seem to be similarly afflicted. Perhaps the Mosquitos here like Yorkshire meat?

I am now embarking on a 2 day journey to reach New Delhi to start the next leg of my trip. Delhi is where I join a Golden Triangle tour. I am excited and I am sure it will be an experience never to forget. I am sure that India will be unlike anywhere I have ever visited before. I hope to be able to blog regularly from India but I understand getting an Indian SIM card for by iPad may be a challenge. So watch this space…