India has always been a place of great intrigue for me, but I felt that travelling in this vast country may be quite a challenge. It is the fascinating continent where there are staggering topographical variations and amazing cultural diversity; as a result of the coexistence of a number of religions and local traditions. With so much to experience in a period of 3 weeks, it is difficult to get the most out of your trip if you set out to organise it yourself. Therefore, a friend and I decided to book a fully escorted trip which enabled us to see both the sights and to enjoy the culture in a safe organised environment. After some in-depth internet research, we came up with a tour which would show us an area steeped in fascinating history as well satisfying our need for beautiful scenery.
Rajasthan, famous for the splendid forts, opulent havelis (south Asian mansions), stunning lakes and sand dunes was the region we were keen to explore. Having travelled previously to Goa and Kerala on the west coast, I knew that getting around India was not quite as easy as getting on a train in London and travelling to York! I was very aware that train travel is distinctly different from Britain, with long queues and many inexplicable cancellations, so organised coach or minibus travel in India is most definitely the way forward.
It is difficult to know where to start but the highlights begin with Delhi, an assault on the senses. On arrival at Delhi airport, we were immediately aware of the immense poverty. However, as we left the Bodrum Escort airport to head for the city centre, we realised that this is just the way of life in India, and although it is hard, you have to be realistic and not dwell on it. Taking boiled sweets, stickers or colouring pens and pencils can be useful to give to the small children, but money is not a good idea as they are often part of a begging ring and would not get to keep the money.
We had a whole day in Delhi to discover the sites, so we headed for the old part of town; predominantly a labyrinth of tiny crowded lanes lined with 17th century havelis, this is a mostly Muslim area certainly is a place not to miss. We decided on a quick rickshaw journey to see the Red Fort. On the way we took in the many mosques, a church and a number of temples. Opposite the fort was the Digambar Jain Temple which is renowned for it’s intricacy of carving, as was the nearby Gauri Shankar Temple, where passers by would be sold marigolds on arrival.
Our next adventure took us to Jaisalmer, often called the “Golden City” due to the yellow sandstone walls, where we enjoyed a drink at Sunset Point. The following day we took in both the Jain Temples and Badal Vilas Palace both found within the stunning hilltop fort. We then had quite an experience in the Sam Dunes as we embarked on a Camel ride; not for the faint hearted, these camels spit and smell terrible but what great fun, we were saddle sore but great memories to take home!
After Jaisalmer we headed into the Thar Dessert and to Manvar where we visited the local Bishnoi villages. Seeing the rural way of life in these small villages is an eye opener, and we were able to buy local crafts and appreciate some rural country dancing. We actually stayed in a tented camp which was exciting as waking up in the desert and watching the sun rise is something you should not miss.
Udaipur was also memorable, known as the city of lakes, the Pichola Lake, Fateh Sagar and Swaroop Sagar Lakes are thought to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Udaipur is also famous for the Lake Palace, now a luxury hotel which covers almost the entire area of the Pichola Lake. We also visited the City Palace which lies at the east bank, and had a lovely sunset boat ride around the lake. The lives of the rich and poor are inextricably linked, the wealthy sipping gin and tonics in the Palace hotel as young children bathed in the shallow waters outside while their mothers washed their clothing.
A short overnight stay in Pushkar was next on our list and was definitely worth the visit. I think this was probably one of our favourite places as it felt very peaceful, in contrast to the bustling noisy towns and cities. Pushkar is extremely picturesque set beside a lake in a valley surrounded by hills on three sides and sand dunes on the fourth. It is a main location for the cattle fair and attracts many visitors to both the cattle fair and to see the famous Brahmin temple with the red spire. This is a vegetarian town with strictly no alcohol, and we were pleasantly surprised by the wonderful local delicacies and delicious lassies.
On our way back to Agra we stopped at Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur; known as the Pink City because in 1905 the city was given a new coat of pink paint to welcome the Prince of Wales. This city is renowned for some fine examples of the Mughal and Rajasthani architecture and we were particularly impressed by the City Palace, and the Palace of the Winds. We also enjoyed the colourful bazaars because having the tour pre organised takes all the pain out of haggling with the locals over prices, and gives you the time to appreciate the experience without the niggling doubt that you are being constantly ripped off.
After an exhilarating stop at Ranthambore National Park where we spotted Tigers during the daylight, we ended out tour in Agra. Obviously you cannot visit this part of India without seeing the awe inspiring Taj Mahal (meaning Crown Palace) and we were not disappointed. Our helpful guides woke us up at the crack of dawn not to miss the spectacular sunrise over the fabulous white marble monument. It was built by a Muslim Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his Queen Mumtaz Mahal and completed in 1648. As the sun rose in the sky the marble slowly changed colour, it was quite a unique experience, and is no surprise that it is regarded as one of the eight wonders of the world. This was our last stop before boarding a plane back to the UK and we would never have had such a full, varied, and problem free experience had we not booked the wonderfully efficient fully escorted tour.