Gill Stafford is the November 2014 winner of our. She tells of her experiences on our Golden Triangle tour and gives some useful hints and tips to anyone about to head on an adventure to India.
"Holding our collective breath, we gasped in wonder at the dome and minarets appearing through the early morning mist. We’d all seen many photos of this awe-inspiring building, but nothing prepared us for the beauty of our first glance of the Taj Mahal.
We’d collected together several days earlier on the roof terrace of a New Delhi hotel. Instant bonding took place as individuals became The Group. Young and old, couples, siblings and mother and daughter; all became one entity at that first meeting with Gordon, our knowledgeable Tour Leader. He advised us always to smile; any difficulty, “just smile” and all will be solved.
A tour of New Delhi was followed the next morning by a ride on the metro and an exploration of old Delhi. Walking the narrow streets was a revelation. Makeshift stalls sold everything from single bricks to turbans. The many food stalls were tempting but Gordon had issued strict instructions about not sampling any of the many delicacies on offer and only eating in Explore tried-and-tested restaurants and cafes. A glance at the single bowl of dirty washing-up water provided a deterrent though the brightly coloured fruit drinks did look tempting.
There was much anticipation among the Group as we awaited our first train, the sleeper to Agra. Agatha Christie's 'Murder on the Orient Express' seemed an appropriate soundtrack to listen to as vendors wandered through our carriage offering everything from paper plates of vegetable curry to playing cards. Several hours later we alighted to the sounds of firecrackers and soaring rockets trailing multicoloured stars. “It’s the wedding season,” explained Gordon. Agra, it seemed, was where Indians aspire to marry. Arriving at our hotel at 10pm, Gordon suggested that we might like to go wedding procession watching, which is how a group of us came to be wandering the dusty sidewalks of Agra, late at night, watching a dozen or so men carrying three-tiered lights on their heads either side of a groom riding a white stallion with a mobile amplifier providing loud music. If only one such procession, this time with a live singer and musician giving an impromptu performance, hadn’t woken most of us long since we'd retired to bed by parking in front of our hotel at 1.20am!
As a keen photographer, I wanted to visit India to capture the colours of the womens' costumes as well as the beautiful buildings. The majesty of the Taj Mahal didn’t disappoint as many women wearing their brightest and best clothes paused to admire the architectural beauty of the Taj. Sitting admiring the Taj from a well-placed seat, I was startled to have a small Indian baby thrust into my arms, the parents and grandparents taking turns to pose with infant and me while family members captured me holding the smiling infant. Asking Group members to pose with them, soon became a familiar request from Indian people, the youngest and fairest skinned in the Group being particularly in demand!
Travelling by coach to Jaipur, our journey was broken by a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, a 16th century abandoned city. Intimidated by his threat to test us on his commentary, several of us elected to have a relaxing tour around the deserted buildings without the official guide! Gordon did, however, join us and he proved an informative guide adding interest with his extensive knowledge of birds. He pointed out to us a painted stork (“the rarest bird in India”), a kingfisher about to swoop in abandoned baths and nesting parrots!
After stopping off for an excellent dinner, taken under trees and complete with performing dancers and musicians, we arrived at our home in Jaipur; the Hotel Bissau Palace. It was a genuine over-decorated Royal Palace complete with a library and collection of hunting trophies and weapons.
My particular architectural highlight had to be the Amber Fort. Reflected in a lake, the buildings are either reached on foot or by elephant. The palace rooms are ornate but, for me, the interest lie in the large courtyard where monkey mums and babies cavorted, drummers drummed, people wearing all kinds of colourful saris and dresses wandered - and a newspaper vendor proffered The Guardian newspaper - on a day when my husband was unable to buy one back in our home village in Wales! It was here we also lost a member of the Group - and it had to be the Man from Explore, enjoying one of his own company’s holidays! He had a lot to live down as he admitted to taking a wrong turning. Fortunately the tourist police found him a lift back to our coach on the back of a motorcycle which he found more frightening than his ride on an elephant on the way up!
Our furthest stop on the trip was in the town of Pushkar, reached by train and 4x4. I couldn’t believe my ears when Gordon announced that those who wished to visit Pushkar Camel Fair still had an opportunity to do so. I’d originally booked a departure visiting during the Fair but, alas, with no other bookings, this departure had been cancelled. Although the 'main events' had ended, there were still decorated camels on the mele field, crowded market stalls selling everything from candy floss to jewellery for the camels, and, not one, but four big wheel fairground rides.
After a morning spent relaxing and chatting to my new friends in the lush gardens of the Pushkar Fort, we boarded the Shatabdi Express back to Delhi prior to our morning departure. Unlike our regional Arriva trains where indifferent food and sandwiches are sold from an occasional trolly, Indian Meals on Wheels prides itself on their long-distance food service. Before we’d even left Jaipur, water, tea/coffee and a substantial snack of a warm savoury pastry, sandwich and yoghurt was served. Later we enjoyed a three course hot meal with further tea or coffee. We arrive back in Delhi very full after an exhilarating and amazing holiday!
Hints and tips
The tuk-tuk and cycle rickshaw rides were both terrifying and exhilarating. Shut your eyes when it seems you just cannot get through that tight gap - you will - hang on tight and enjoy the experience. They can go where coaches can’t so you’ll see the fascinating backstreets. Make sure you do have adequate insurance though, just in case! Explore’s own insurance covers all activities on their trips.
Stick to restaurants and cafes recommended by your Tour Leader. These are well tried and tested. Our Group of 15 only had two cases of Delhi-belly - and one was the Man from Explore! I was worried about finding food I enjoy as I don’t like even mildly spicy food. Omelettes and chips were available everywhere - although a worried Gordon took me to one side to express concern about my continual ordering of these. I did try several Indian dishes but have to admit that I much prefer omelettes! I did discover the yoghurt based drink of Lassi and enjoyed this at least once a day. Buy only sealed bottled water and use this to clean your teeth; we were warned that even one mouthful was a no-no."
By Gill Stafford
Gill travelled on The Golden Triangle.