Tuk-tuks, Touts and the Taj Mahal

Tuk-tuks, Touts and the Taj Mahal

Wednesday 1st – Tuesday 7th August

We arrived in Delhi early in the morning and, guesthouse found, set about walking from Paharganj, the city’s hotel and bazaar-packed district, to Connaught Place, then onwards to India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhawan (the presidential palace) and – by rickshaw this time, since Delhi does sprawl somewhat – finally to the Red Fort, colossal Jama Mashid mosque and ostentatious Hindu temple Akshardham. We even managed to squeeze in an evening of much-needed opulence at 1911, the cocktail bar of Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, a stunning relic of colonial times and former hang out of the Viceroys and Maharajahs who stare from gilded portraits on its walls.

But Delhi is a difficult place to be a tourist. In four days I found that, almost without exception, the people we met were aggressive, offensive and dishonest – not at all what I’d expected. I was prepared to be surrounded by persistent touts wherever I went – to be regarded as a walking money belt who was born yesterday – but not to be treated with such total disrespect, suspicion and hostility. The saddest part is that I arrived with such unfailing optimism, prepared for noise and dirt and being shoved and shouted to and stared at, proclaiming almost immediately that Indian’s were some of the friendliest people I’d met and that I’d fallen in love with India’s magic. It is magical and fascinating and beautiful, but I never expected the people to be so jaded and calculating – you soon learn that the sweetest child and holiest man are often as cunning and abusive as the worst of the touts – and it’s difficult to stay optimistic when confronted with such remorseless deception and profound lack of humanity. It’s sad that a city so wonderful can force you to become so deeply suspicious, and so angry, so fast.

But perhaps I was unlucky in Delhi and, blight though this was on my first experience of India, it is still only a small part of the whole. There have been a selfless few who have helped us (I can count them on one hand, but they are there), and Varanasi, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are each unique, alluring and intoxicatingly vibrant. Still I can’t deny that I left Delhi with a bitter taste in my mouth, desperately hoping my first impressions wouldn’t be my last.

We headed for Agra which, for all we’d been warned was an ugly, hectic place, turned out – mercifully, after the trials and tribulations of Delhi – to be wonderfully laid-back little town, criss-crossed with narrow streets rambling back from the three gates of India’s most famous attraction; the Taj Mahal. Finished in 1640, the Mughal king Shah Jahan’s heavenly monument to love (the mausoleum was built for his favourite wife) towers above the crowds of barefoot visitors who swarm around its base, eagerly snapping its white marble dome and intricately carved minarets. At sunset, when both glow a magnificent pink in the fading light and the call to prayer echoes out across the town, it’s easy to see how the Taj Mahal has become an icon of eastern promise.

From Agra we headed to Fatehpur Sikri, where Luke’s dad had tied a string to a Sufi shrine in 1977 and, as is customary, made a wish. The wish having come true, it was our mission to hike up to the huge mosque, find the shrine and untie one of the thousands of strings tied to its latticework – not forgetting to tie one of our own in its place – before hiking down again and jumping on the bus to Jaipur.

The people in Agra had largely managed to reaffirm my faith in human decency with their affable, friendly natures – which, to our relief, applied almost as liberally to the citizens of Jaipur. The touts were still there, persistent as ever, but they were chatty and unthreatening which was a welcome change of pace. The first thing you notice, though, is the money – Jaipur is visibly more developed than even Delhi, boasting endless luxury stores, and roads – elsewhere filled almost exclusively with buses, bikes and tuk-tuks – littered with privately owned Suzuki’s and Hyundai’s. Its biggest draw is the Pink City, a walled complex dating from the 18th Century (which is mostly yellow and, at best, orange), where we spent our first day dutifully trotting through never-ending bazaars, then visiting the Hawa Mahal and Pink Palace (also yellow).

The next day was one of well-deserved relaxation, followed by a sunny trip to the Amber Fort and, my firm favourite, the Floating Palace (Jal Mahal), a stunning red sandstone building which appears to float on the surface of the huge Man Sagar Lake.

Then once again our time was up and, after a long day of travelling across Rajasthan (and our first experierce of India’s chaotic seating carriages), we found ourselves in lovely Udaipur.

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