I am back in Delhi, back to the starting point of the tour and it suddenly seems less chaotic now after the last few days in Agra and Varanasi. It even seems less humid too, maybe I’ve gotten used to the heat……doubtful though.
Anyways time to go back to last Saturday morning where we left beautiful Abhaneri by private bus and arrived in Agra. Our hotel, Karan Villas, was on the outskirts of the city but very close to the infamous Taj Mahal. We had the option of getting up to see the Taj at 4.30 for sunrise the next morning or doing it ourselves another time. Claire and I chose to go see it ourselves that afternoon.
After a quick lunch, I had spaghetti as I was craving something a little plainer for a change, we grabbed a tuk-tuk from the hotel down to the Taj. No vehicles are allowed after a certain point, so we got a rickshaw for around 20 rupees each up the ticket desk. A very helpful man guided us to the foreign ticket desk where we paid INR1000 for the ticket, it included some very attractive shoe covers and a little bottle of water. You’re not allowed any liquids, lip balms, lipsticks, pens or pencils inside, nothing that can mark or damage the building. Once I was through security I wandered through one giant courtyard and as I walked through the archway of this beautiful red bricked building I caught a glimpse of the majestic Taj Mahal in all its wonder and it took my breath away. It was absolutely massive, the whiteness of the marble was really something to behold.
We spent the next hour or so wandering around, amused at the amount of photos taken of couples by professional photographers, there were some interesting poses, watch out Vogue. The queues for the infamous bench shot were very long so we chose the side bench and shockingly it’s pretty much the same angle. We walked into the Taj and around the tombs, this is where you need to wear the shoe covers or remove your shoes. We found a bench in the shade and just sat back and took it all in. Once again we got a lot of attention here as we were the only westerners there, the sunrise tour has a lot more westerners at it. We were asked for our photos quite a bit and at one point an Indian tourist called out “hello, white” to us, for the most part people just wanted to say hi to us and ask us where we’re from.
We met the rest of the group, who had been to the Red Fort, at Maya’s restaurant for dinner. I had the Navrattan korma and some roti but it wasn’t half as nice as the one I had in Jaisalmer. It was a grand restaurant but it was full of other tour groups and overpriced for such mediocre food, but then again everything was that bit more expensive in Agra compared to other places we had been. After the restaurant I went to a chemist to get some baby wipes and hand sanitizer and I paid more than I would have paid for them at home, INR750!! I wasn’t in the mood to barter though so I just paid it and moaned about it afterwards instead, very productive, haha.
Day 2 in Agra
Up and had breakfast at the hotel, cereal, omelette etc. We grabbed a tuk-tuk to the Red Fort for INR300, return, which was a pretty good deal. He was going to meet us back there afterwards and we’d pay him once we were back at the hotel.
The ticket into the Red Fort was INR550, it was surrounded by plenty of monkeys and little chipmunks. The fort was pretty in parts but I just loved the Amber Fort in Jaipur so much that it’s spoiled any other fort for me I think. You can see little glimpses of the Taj at different points throughout the fort as well.
If we had gone with the rest of our tour group the day before we would have gotten a tour guide who would have shown us different optical illusions and what each room was used for etc. After the fort we went to look for our tuk-tuk driver but unfortunately he wasn’t about so we got another one instead for INR150.
We had lunch at an Indian fast food place called Bikanervala. There were soooo many sweet and savoury things to choose from, my eyes practically popped out of my head with the amount of sweet things and how was I going to choose which ones to order.
Claire and I decided to share a few dishes, we had the masala dosa, which was our first taste of Southern Indian food, it was delicious, it came with a sambar (lentil soup) and two chutneys, a chili, garlic and tomato chutney and a coconut chutney. The giant dosa was filled with a potato mixture, sooooo good. Next we had poori, puffed bread, with a chickpea mixture, which was quite tasty too. By the time our last dish came we were quite full, it was a puff pastry filled with potatoes and covered in so many different sauces and yoghurt, it was cold and it tasted quite sweet too.
Trying to decide what to order sweets wise was tough, but in the end I went with 7 little sweet things;
Laddu dry fruit – ball of nuts with a few sultanas, tasty and quite healthy.
Dry fruit chakkar – made of figs with a pistachio centre, nice bite size treat too.
Khoya chocolate burfi – coconut square with chocolate covered silver on top, absolutely delicious, melted in my mouth.
Special pinni – rectangular in shape with almonds on top, I did not like this, it was such an unusual texture and combination of flavours.
Kaju kalash – silver cone, it’s mainly cashew, quite crumbly, wouldn’t eat too much of it either.
Kaja dhoda plain – square and full of flavour, really liked this one too.
Laddu kaju choco chips black – big ball of cashew chocolate covered with chocolate chips, says it all really, yum.
Overall the sweets were actually quite on the healthy more savoury side, I was delighted I tried so many of them though, Alan also bought two boxes of sweets, the coconut and cardamom ones were my favourite, yellow sweets.
We got private transport to the train station and we left quite early as there was a pilgrimage starting that evening and all the roads were closing after 6, there were loads of speakers being hooked up and music blasting everywhere and loads of people dancing. At the train station I lit one of my incense sticks from Pushkar and at 8.30 we boarded the overnight train to Varanasi. Alan told us that they were two tiered bunks and that I’d be on the bottom bunk, I was so happy, as you can see by the pic above, we had our own little curtains and I got to sit up and watch the world go by in the morning. As I was eating Bombay mix for breakfast I spotted people working in rice fields, a man using a water pump to wash himself and some workers hard at work on the rails.
Varanasi – Day 1
We arrived at Varanasi later that morning and got a tuk tuk to our hotel, Haifa hotel. The traffic was beyond crazy I’m Varanasi, it took us well over half an hour to get to our hotel, there were loads of pilgrims walking about as they celebrate for another 15 days in Varanasi. They walk for up to 120km, barefoot, collect the holy water from the Ganges, queue for ages at the temples to get it blessed and walk back to their villages. Some amount of dedication and we saw so many pilgrims over our few days in Varanasi, it was so interesting to see. We got lunch at the hotel, I had a falafel thali, very nice.
Our hotel was so close to the Assi Ghat, Assi means 80 and ghat means bank, there are 88 ghats altogether in Varanasi. We walked the 5 minutes down to the ghat and realised that there were sooo many cows here, even more than Udaipur, which is saying something, the cows just lay or stood in the middle of the road and expected everyone to go around them. I’m comparison to the crazy, beeping ride to the hotel the ghats and the area around the hotel was pretty quiet, which was lovely. We walked towards a burning ghat, which is where the funerals take place, where the bodies are blessed in the water and the eldest member in the family lights the body first. The ashes are mostly scattered into the Ganges. There were also women taking a holy dip, which is seven dips in the river.
We went to Open Hands cafe for coffee and cake, this is such a lovely little cafe with so many different seated areas all built around a clothes and bags shop too, we went there quite a few times.
That evening we did the flower ceremony on the river, the lit tea-lights were nestled among rose petals in a little compostable bowl. The rose petals stood for the solidarity of earth and the candle for lightness, bringing light. We carefully placed them in the river and wished for good health for others etc. It was so pretty to see all the candles floating down the river.
As the sun was setting we sat back to witness the sunset aarti, meaning to dispel the darkness. Five priests were using different elements such as fire and water to bless all corners of the world. Each time it began with the ringing of the bells, then singing and the offerings. The fire lanterns had a snake (cobra) shape which represented Lord Shiva. Every now and then the gods would be called out and everyone would shout out “jai” meaning praise be. The chai man served us a lovely cup of masala chai with a fresh cardamom leaf. I really enjoyed the aarti, I found it really peaceful and mesmerizing. We had some pizza in the pizzeria beside the ghat, it had quite a strong cheese on it, which I wouldn’t be a fan of but other than that it was lovely pizza. Went to bed earlyish as we were getting up early for the sunrise aarti.
Day 2 in Varanasi
Up at 5 and we sleepily wandered down to the ghat to see the sunrise aarti only to realise that it was pretty much finished, we saw the last 10 minutes of it. It was slightly different as there were children singing instead of a man, but plenty of shouting “jai” at the end. Two men began to play be tabla drum and a flute while everyone gathered for the morning yoga class, it was quite a haunting piece of music but it was so fitting wit the beautiful sunrise and clear sky too.
We had breakfast at 8 in Open Hands, the coffee was delicious and the breakfast was very filling and so cheap at INR200. I even had another coffee to keep me fueled for the rest of the day of course, haha.
At 10 we got rickshaws down to the main market area where we walked down through these wooden barrier railing areas towards another ghat. There were sooo many more pilgrims around this area and it was already so busy at 10 in the morning on this street. There were a few people from the Agori tribe down by the ghat, some live in the jungle naked but others live near the crematoriums and have ash on their faces. They also have very long dreadlocks.
We walked through lots of narrow streets and alleyways past so many long queues of pilgrims waiting outside temples, there were quite a few funeral ceremonies taking place too, as quite a few people ran past us singing and shouting whilst holding the deceased body above their heads. We took a breather at the Blue Lassi cafe and I ordered the mango and coconut lassi. The lassis were made by one man sitting at the front of the cafe using fresh fruit and curd and a pestle and mortar. The lassi was topped with fresh coconut shavings, mango and pistachio nuts, it was served in a little clay pot and it was absolutely divine, yummy.
We delved even deeper into the labyrinth of streets, we passed by so many cows, beeping motorbikes, basement shops, restaurants in peoples houses etc. We were shown the hospice houses near the crematorium and then we walked up the steps to the open space that was the crematorium where the smoke hit me so hard it stung my eyes. No women are allowed as they believe that they’re sensitive to spirits entering their hair. Also women clean the homes to purify the house. Hair is seen as a symbol of pride and so the men shave their heads after the ceremony. We saw lots of side barber stops too. Between 200-300 people are cremated everyday, it’s non stop. It was quite an overwhelming experience and it was so much to take in between the walk down the windy streets and all the sounds, smells and sights near the crematorium, it was very interesting though.
I had a veggie wrap and a cardamom and apple tea for lunch at Open Hands. I just relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and that evening we got tuk tuks to Kaiser Hotel which was a good 40 minutes away and of course it was lashing rain also. It was a nice restaurant, tad pricey for India but it’s nice to treat yourself every now and then. We had some spicy poppadoms with a coriander, mint and yoghurt dip and some puffy poppadoms which were very tasty. I had the chicken chatinad with rice and roti, it was verrrrry spicy but full of flavour and it was my first bit of meat on this trip. I had a glass of red wine too and the fried ice-cream for dessert which was nice. The tuk tuk ride back in the rain was craaaaazy, the driver was a bit of a speed demon, he was shouting out random things to other drivers, spitting and swerving and very nearly hitting quite a few cars and motorbikes, all of this while it was bucketing rain too. We were never as glad to see our hotel and get out of that tuk tuk. Every other tuk tuk driver has been very friendly and a little bit more careful when driving, variety isn’t always the spice of life. 🙈
Day 3 in Varanasi – day trip to Sarnath
The next morning I had a light enough breakfast as I wasn’t feeling the best after such a heavy meal last night. A few of us got a private bus to Sarnath for the morning. Sarnath is where Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment. We visited a few temples, I visited a mosquito filled toilet first 🙈😯. After we walked through deer park and saw the remains of a temple. We saw the prayer bells which had different mantras on them and we walked clockwise around the stupa three times, this is called circambulating. First you think about Buddha, the second time you think about the Dharma teachings and the third time you think about the community, monks and nuns etc.
We did a little guided mediation, led by Paula from the group who had taken her Buddhist vows. Afterwards we visited the museum and we saw the giant Buddha statue which was surrounded by lovely flowers and a pond. We grabbed a bite to eat and headed back to Varanasi. Although it was only 10km away it took over an hour to get back because of the mental traffic.
That afternoon we got tuk tuks to the market and Alan brought us to a little cafe to try a few street food dishes. We had aloo tikki first which was a little spicy and had potatoes and tamarind sauce. Next we had pani puri which was a puff of pastry filled with a potato mixture, you poured a few teaspoons of a mint and coriander water into it and then popped it straight into your mouth, I LOVED these, had about three of them, could not get enough of them. Lastly we had papri chat which was a little crispy pancake made with white flour and topped with potato, chickpea, radish, carrot, tamarind and yoghurt sauce, chaat masala and flakes. It was a mixture of sweet and salty, very tasty.
We wandered about for an hour or so and then got a tuk tuk back to the Open Hand for another coffee and slice of cake. I freshened up back at the hotel, packed my bags and then we got tuk tuks to the train station, we passed a very colourful vegetable stall on the way when we were once again stuck in traffic and surrounded by the orchestra of beeps. The train station was fierce fancy with a verrry nice air-con waiting area where we relaxed on the couches for a bit. I had a butterscotch cornetto here and at 7ish we boarded the last sleeper train of the tour. I had the bottom bunk and no-one in the bunk above me, so happy days. I had the best nights sleep I’d ever had on the sleeper trains for a change.
Back to Delhi
We arrived in Delhi train station around 8ish and got private transport to Hotel Perfect. We had some breakfast at the buffet up on the rooftop and at 10ish we checked into our rooms. We have a lovely big room with a couch and all, the shower has a partition too, which we haven’t had in a while, it’s the little things. At 11 we walked down to Roopak and bought a few spices, I bought a packet of masala chai at Chaayos, which is a chain similar to Starbucks here in India. We went to a South Indian restaurant for lunch, which was just around the corner from the hotel. I ordered a thali which had a lovely lentil soup, lady fingers, mini chickpeas, yellow dal, rice, rice with cumin, curd, poppadom, roti and pudding for dessert, all for INR150, so tasty and great value too, I was stuffed after it. We had some freshener after dinner, aniseeds with sugar, it was quite overpowering, I definitely took way to many seeds.
I chilled out for the afternoon, wandered about for a bit, bought a handbag in Baggit as the zip has broken on my current bag unfortunately. Bought a bag for INR1500 in their sale section. I chilled in the hotel for a bit and then Claire and I went for coffee in Glenz cafe, which we were told by one of the girls in the group had strong coffee. It was a lovely quiet cafe and the men working there were so nice, I loved all the quirky posters there and the frappe was pretty damn good too. We wandered around the shops and then later met the group for our last meal in a restaurant called Street Kitchen and Grill around the corner which had quite a few westerners in it. The restaurant is run by two G Adventures leaders. The food was nice, I had some pad Thai and gulab Jamon for dessert, still been hard to beat the gulab Jamon in Jaisalmer.
We chilled out back at the hotel and recapped on the tour and what we liked about it and any suggestions we had. I really enjoyed doing the tour, it made things so much easier as we didn’t have to worry about transport and accommodation, it was lovely to have a guide to show us the ropes and give us a taste of the street food and many different Indian dishes to taste too. Alan made things run so smoothly and he was a fountain of knowledge on India. I loved Northern India and how different each city and village has been.
Tomorrow we fly down to Goa and I can’t wait to spend a few days in Panjim and Palolem and how different that will be, especially the food, yum.