To be honest, India is one of those places I never really thought much about. I never studied Indian history or literature. Most of what I knew about India–the massive population, the burgeoning economy, the suffocating bureaucracy–came from the economist (and the book Shantaram). Having so little prior knowledge about the place, I jumped at the chance to to visit somewhere completely new when our friends invited us to spend a few days in Delhi with them. Our goal was not so much sight seeing (although we did a lot of that!) as it was to spend a nice weekend with our friends, who planned a relaxed itinerary that included several good meals and of course a visit to the Taj Mahal.
We started our visit in Old Dehli. Everything you read about the sheer number of people around? All true. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the unavoidable chaos of it all was almost overwhelming. As soon as we arrived, our friend advised us that when crossing the street we should “keep the same pace and direction, so the cars know where to swerve around you.” Yikes!
Sadly, what they say about the pollution in Delhi (at least during the winter) is also true. While we were there, the pollution index was actually higher than in Beijing, mostly from people burning things to keep warm. We still enjoyed our visit immensely, but the air quality did not make for very clear photos.
After Old Delhi, our next stop was Dili Haat, a tourist craft market where we meandered through stall after stall of handmade paper, beautiful fabrics, camel hide foot ware, beads, and souvenirs. There is also a large hall where people were selling local products like honey, spices, and clothes. Apparently, these stalls change every couple of weeks to represent different Indian states. There are also several cafes inside the market where you can stop for a snack or a spicy cup of chai tea. We also spotted these colorful dancers.
After one night in the city, we headed out of town, passing many roadside markets along the way. In addition to the shops selling kitchen goods, car parts, home improvement supplies, and food, we also noticed barbers, shoe shiners, mechanics, and tailors working out of little shops in these makeshift markets.
Traffic in India was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. Try to picture a giant bag of marbles being poured down a slide. The cars are like those marbles, rolling and bouncing every which direction without even a thought towards lanes on the road or even the general direction of traffic. In the city, the tuktuks seemed to rule the road, but out in the country it was all about the motorcycles. I’m not sure I spotted a single helmet during the trip.
At first I was charmed by the painted tailgates of the omnipresent truck on India’s highways. That was until we found ourselves all but squished between two of these massive trucks, in the closest call of my life. (Side note–the number one way Americans die overseas is in traffic accidents–please remember to wear a seatbelt when you travel.)
Our first stop outside the city was Neemrana Fort. India is apparently full of beautiful old historic sites that now operate as “Heritage Hotels.” We loved the beautiful, quirky rooms, the delicious buffet, and the evening dance performance. As we chatted with friends over spicy chai tea, we felt a world away from the chaos of Delhi or even the village at the bottom of the hill.
It was just a little too chilly to enjoy the pool, but I think I could easily while away an afternoon here.
It seemed like we were never more than a few feet from a delicious meal during our whole trip, but our most notable meals were the tasting menu at Indian Accent a swanky restaurant serving modern Indian cuisine. We also enjoyed a more traditional lunch (above) at the Bagh Hotel in Bharatpur on our way to Agra.
This was the India we had been waiting for. As we walked through this corridor to catch our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, I felt like I was in a dream. We chose to rent an audio guide (each player comes with two sets of headphones, which was great for sharing but meant that we couldn’t wander more than a foot from each other while we were there) and we were not disappointed.
All the cool kids wear matching shirts while on vacation, by the way.
Do you have any favorite places to visit in India? What about recommendations for books or movies about/set in India? Leave us a comment with your favorite tips!