EXPLORING INDIA: AGRA & JAIPUR
New Year's Eve 2017 was spent somewhere in the air - not exactly sure where, possibly over France - because that night at around 10pm, Rosie and I took off for a bucket list trip to India. Months before, we discussed it and both agreed that 2018 will be the year we visited. In my head, I was thinking October time then one day, Rosie just said 'how about January?' and it made perfect sense. Both freelancers, the first two weeks of January was possibly the quietest of the year for us both and so, we did it. We booked our flights to Delhi without a second thought and spent the next few months endlessly trying to get our heads around where it was we were going; where we wanted to visit and what we had to see. Planning India was a bit of a minefield, we really didn't know what to expect from the country or how we were ever going to fit everything we wanted to do into the short time that we had there.
In short, we didn't fit everything in. So don't go looking at this as your definitive guide to India by any means! There's still so much that I'd like to see but we did manage a lot in a short space of time.
To give you a brief summary, the below was our route for the two weeks. We also did a bit of Sri Lanka to give us a taster of the country.
Fly into Delhi - Agra - Jaipur - Udaipur - Goa - Sri Lanka (Hambantota) - Sri Lanka (Colombo) - fly back to Delhi - head home
Jaipur and Udaipur (my two favourite places) are both part of Rajasthan - a northern Indian state - which I would return to in a flash. I didn't get the chance to visit the likes of Jodhpur or Jaisalmer for example but I absolutely will do in the not too distant future.
Whilst I was travelling around India back in January, I was sharing all on instagram and was overwhelmed with people asking about the trip - wanting to know where I've been, what I would recommend and whether I'd be writing up a blog post. Well, I'm finally getting round to it now. Slight pressure on me to make it as informative as possible (whilst trying not to bore you to death!) but I'm going to give it a good go. And obviously, I want to share with you just some of the many many photos I took whilst there. India is (especially Rajasthan) absolutely beautiful and a country that everyone should experience at some point in their life. It's colourful, vibrant, extremely friendly (as two young females travelling alone, we were initially concerned about going, however once there, we felt nothing but kindness from everyone we came into contact with) and so culturally different from anywhere I've ever been.
Before I get sharing some of the places we visited in Agra and Jaipur (the cities I'm discussing in this post, Udaipur is next!), I'll give you a quick lowdown from the moment we touched down in Delhi for reasons which will become clear in a bit. Arriving in India can be a bit of a confusion, so hopefully this will help you on your trip (which, obviously, you're going to have to do!).
G E T T I N G
T H E R E
We arrived into Delhi around 3pm, slightly behind schedule because of the thick fog that was engulfing Delhi upon our arrival. Even when entering the airport, there was a thickness in the air which was most unusual to see! We made our way to customs, spent half an hour in the wrong queue (if you have an e-visa, as most of you travelling likely will) double and triple check you're in the right queue. They're very strict about this so if we'd have not been told by the girl in front of us that w're not in the right place then if we'd have got to the front, we'd have been sent to queue elsewhere anyway! Since we're talking visas, now's a good time to mention: don't leave your country without one! It's so important to get it sorted before you leave and keep safe for your entire trip (if, like us, you leave for another country mid-way and come back into India in order to return home). Getting your visa is a little confusing online, however this is the official website we used and got ours through within a matter of days: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html
Through customs and having picked up our bags, it was time to get some cash for the trip! Being a closed currency, you can't get Indian Rupees outside of the country itself so you have to wait till you're there to pick some up. It's no problem at all, there's plenty of cash machines in the airport which are easy and safe to use.
Next, leave the airport!
We read up a lot online before we left about dodgy taxis in India and so we were a little cautious as to how we got about. I left transport largely in Rosie's capable hands but I'd strongly recommend planning as much before you go as you can.
Our plan was to drive straight to Agra from Delhi airport, spending one night in Agra to get up early to see the Taj Mahal before the crowds and then make our way to Jaipur. Sounds simple, which it sort of was... ish.
We stayed at the Mansingh Palace - a very basic but absolutely adequate hotel for literally a night's sleep - in Agra. Speaking with the hotel before we arrived, we asked them to arrange a car to collect us from Delhi airport and drive us to the hotel (about a 3.5hr journey in total) which they did without any hiccup. The driver didn't speak much English, but knew where he was meant to be taking us and managed somehow to get us there in one piece. I say this because the thick fog that greeted us in Delhi got much worse as the day went on! At one point, we were driving down the motorway at 80mph (I checked because I was amazed he was going so fast) and the fog blanketed everything around us - you couldn't even see a foot ahead, it was that bad! It was laughable but there was also an unspoken worry between the two of us as we thought 'what the hell have we done?'.
We arrived into Agra safe, sound and in one piece around 7pm. Welcomed by the hotel, checked into our room, fed, watered and went straight to bed. A very long day of travel, done.
A G R A
R E D
F O R T
A G R A
The first day in India didn't quite go to plan... all thanks to the Mr Fog choosing to stick around.
Our hotel advised us to wait until around midday to visit the Taj Mahal, in the hope that by then, we might actually be able to see it!
And so, first on the list was the Red Fort. Also called Agra Fort, it's considered to be one of the finest Mughal forts in India. Forts are something that the Indian people are very proud of - they are filled with history, heritage and identity. The best way to see a fort (and to understand its history) is by having a tour guide show you round. Ours was arranged through the hotel - Sanjeev from Sami World Tours - and costs 600 Indian Rupees. He came with us to the Taj too, so well worth the £6.60!
The Red Fort is made up largely of red sandstone and marble. Construction began in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, originally built as a military structure (complete with a giant draw bridge that soldiers used to pour hot oil down to stop enemies in their tracks) but it as his son, Shah Jahan who transformed it into a palace. It then became Shah Jahan's prison for eight years when his son seized power in 1658.
On a good day, you have views of the Taj Mahal from one of the towers.
That just wasn't the case on the day we visited!
Entry to Red Fort costs: Indian/foreigner ₹40/550
T A J
M A H A L
A G R A
Somewhere that needs no introduction.
A majestic mausoleum of ivory-white marble built between 1631 and 1648 by order of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife.
We entered the grounds of the Taj through the Royal Gate, one of four gated entrances. Entry costs 1000 IDR for foreigners but is much cheaper for Indians, however the locals queue is considerably longer than the tourists - the photos below show just how long the Indian queue to enter the Taj was. According to our tour guide, it would have taken all day for some in the queue to get to the front!
The Taj Mahal is everything you expect and more. Glistening, magical, mystical and majestic. I didn't realise until we got there that you can actually go inside the Taj, once there you can see a replica of the Emperor’s wife’s tomb (with the real one many, many floors down).
Once you've seen the Taj, there's not much else left to see, so take your final photo and make your way back to the gates to find your tour guide. Easier said than done if you're a Westerner - you're basically a walking, talking tourist attraction yourself.
So expect to be stopped countless times for photos!
f a t e h p u r
s i k r i
A G R A
The third stop that our tour guide recommended to us was Fatehpur Sikri Palace. It was on our way to Jaipur so we thought why not, let’s add one more place to the list. However in all honesty, it might have been that we were all fort out, but I would probably give it a miss if I were going to Agra again. We didn’t spend long there whatsoever and before we knew it we were back in our car, ready for a very long drive to Jaipur!
J A I P U R
I'll take this opportunity to just give a brief word or two about Jaipur as a city. It's beautiful and it's chaotic - just what I expected from India. Cars constantly tooting their horns, tuk tuks everywhere, cows in the middle of the road - you name it. If it was crazy, it was in Jaipur. But it was perhaps my favourite city in all of India (obviously I mean from the ones that I saw!). There are also endless stray dogs everywhere so prepare yourself for that when you go. Whilst I hate seeing this in any country, the dogs here didn't look sad. They kept to their little wolf packs and at times, just looked happy hanging out with their pals.
Dressing appropriately in Rajhastan is also something you need to consider. Not only is it actually quite cool around January time, but it's best recommended that you cover up whilst there. We wore long dresses and jackets, ensuring for the most part that our bodies weren't on display.
Finally, whilst my brain's reeling off useful tips and reminders, I'd definitely recommend you walk around carrying hand sanitiser and a pack of tissues on you at all times! The infamous Delhi belly is anything but a myth (though thankfully neither of us got struck down by it) so do all that you can to warn it off. And never drink water that isn't from a sealed bottle! That goes for brushing your teeth in too!
The journey from Fatehpur Sikri to Jaipur is a long one, just short of four hours or so, but by private car is the easiest option out there. We had the same driver who took us to the Red Fort, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur take us all the way to Jaipur and it couldn't have been better. Thankfully we didn't get stuck in any bad traffic jams so it was pretty much a straight but long road there. Between napping, looking out the window and playing the 'name the 50 states of America' game that Rosie and I got very into (and by the end of the trip could do them all in alphabetical order), the time flew by and before we knew it we were pulling up to our next hotel for two nights.
I have mixed views about Hotel Narain Niwas Palace but I'm sharing with you anyway. In India, I wouldn't advise going less than 4-star (unless you want the risk of sharing that room with a cockroach!) so that was our first criteria for finding a hotel. We also wanted somewhere cheap and central. Narain Niwas Palace fit all of those critieria and so for two nights, we thought it would be OK. And technically, yes, it was a nice hotel. Aside from the poor wifi and definitely not worth a hotel restaurant (for dinner or breakfast), the grounds were lovely, the building was interesting enough and staff were friendly. However we managed to end up in what we called the service quarters rooms on the top of the roof - complete with a huge antique padlock for a door lock! We actually found it rather comical - probably we should have asked to be moved but honestly, we weren't planning on spending much time in the room so it didn't really bother us all that much. That was until on the last day we walked around the grounds and came across the garden rooms (pictured above) which looked absolutely lovely. So, my message here is: if you do stay at Narain Niwas, be very very sure to check which room you're getting! Specify the garden rooms if you can and I'm sure you'll have a pleasant stay!
Located just a hop and a skip from the hotel is also one of Jaipur's most instagrammed places (and it has quite a few!), Bar Palladio. It's a stunning blue & white bar/restaurant, serving okay Italian food and drink. They were a little funny with people with a big camera shooting the interiors (we got there literally just as the restaurant opened) but were fine with iphone cameras. Go figure! But it is beautiful and worth a visit for the instagram opportunity alone - but just make sure you make a booking before you go, its a hot spot of Jaipur.
A M E R
F O R T
J A I P U R
Through our hotel, we'd arrange a private car for the day along with the sweetest taxi driver ever. Our first day in Jaipur was a jam-packed one full of tourist spots. The first on our list was Amer Fort, or Amber Fort as it's also known, which is a must see when visiting Jaipur, sitting majestically atop the hills. It's a little out the city centre but easily reachable by car. At the bottom of this magnificent fort, our driver (along with a tour guide who we quite literally picked up on the way - there's plenty hanging around the tourist spots and I say as long as you get a good friendly feel from them, it's absolutely fine) gave us the option to be dropped off at the bottom and have an elephant take us up or drive us to the top gate (or walk - but that's not something we entertained!). We opted for the latter of being driven up having read that the elephants are poorly treated and so should be discouraged.
Following the winding road up, we finally got to the entrance of Amer Fort , a sprawling complex which was completed over two centuries. It's full of beautiful nooks and crannies to study, just don't expect to have the fort all to yourself - the place was swarming when we arrived! Spend time exploring each room, studying the intricate paintings and should you see some women dressed in yellow saris, note that whilst they're happy to pose for a photo, they'l expect some money too - we gave them 10 IDR each (that's 11p) and they seemed to be ok with it.
We spent a good hour or two with our guide, who told us more history than we ever got at school and again, paid next to nothing for him (but tipped him well). We read up a few times about tour guides who try to lure you into gift shops as they earn commission from any sales they bring the shopkeepers way, but ours told us to avoid those shops so clearly we didn't look like gullable suckers! Save that for shopping in the bazaar later...
Entry to Amer Fort costs 550 INR which is roughly £6.25.
C I T Y P A L A C E
J A I P U R
There isn't much I need say about City Palace in Jaipur except you need to GO!
We chose not to have a tour guide for wandering round this palace complex so probably didn't absorb as much history as we should have but we chose just to appreciate the palace in all its glory. Step through the palace gates and you're straight in instagram-heaven.
From the apricot coloured walls of the Diwan-E-Khas in the main courtyard to the four gates adorned with themes representing the four seasons. I challenge anyone to walk past Peacock Gate and not take a sneaky little snap. The other three gates include Lotus Gate (summer), Green Gate (spring) and Rose Gate (winter).
We ended up spending a lot of time just roaming City Palace, making sure we didn't miss a room. However, one place that I'd seen on instagram, I couldn't seem to find on our own - that was the insanely beautiful blue & white room (see below). A quick show of my phone to the guards told me that it was in a separate part of the complex - the Royal Palace, which was still in occupancy by the Royal family. Entry to this part of the Palace was an additional 2500 INR each and comes with a tour guide (probably so you don't run lose in the palace!). It wasn't a long tour and I'd be lying if I said I remembered anything except the blue & white room (a place used for entertaining) but it was worth every penny in my books - I wish all rooms could look this jaw dropping.
It certainly went down well with you guys on instagram.
A F E W O T H E R P H O T O - W O R T H Y
S P O T S I N J A I P U R
- Hawa Mahal - the pink Palace of Winds (pictured left). Visit early morning for your pic - it gets busier with people and traffic later on in the day.
- Sujan Rajmahal Palace - the most perfect hotel I've ever seen and straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Next time, I'd really like to stay here please!
- Jawahar Circle - like us, head here before going to the airport. Jawahar Circle Gardens is the biggest circular park in Asia, but ot's the entrance that had our mouths dropping to the floor. A photo-destination unlike any other - we gained quite an audience whilst we twirled and we jumped, but it was worth it. A totally random and unexpected discovery.
O T H E R
R E C C O M E N D A T I O N S
We were only in Jaipur for two days, so didn't have endless time to explore and discover sadly. That said, I have a few recommendations to help you get started with...
- Niro's - a slightly random restaurant but with good, authentic Indian food. Go for the daal and all the naan, you won't regret it.
- For other hotel recomendations, the Telegraph round-up is my usual go to.
- Bapu Bazaar is a shopping area of Jaipur and it's a lot of fun. I bought so many pairs of bejewelled earrings from a shop on the street corner for £6 each (I probably overpaid but honestly, £6 is a BARGAIN in itself). If you're looking for some new threads (pashminas, saris, skirts) be sure to bargain down. Sellers start high because you're a tourist - I guarantee they will go low. And if they don't, walk away! Chances are you'll find the same thing a few stalls down.