If I could offer potential travellers to India (or anywhere else for that matter) one tip, it would be this: Try not to slip over on the marble entrance of your hotel with a twenty three kilogram rucksack strapped to your back whilst embarking on a six night road and rail trip from Delhi to Goa. Having a badly sprained foot will make carrying the aforementioned rucksack somewhat difficult you see, not to mention walking miles to visit famous monuments.
As I flew through the air, arms and legs akimbo, it crossed my mind this wasn’t the best start to my trip in India, though the long drive ahead to Jaipur became instantly more appealing since it would at least give me a chance to rest my foot. Fortunately my best friends had just arrived from home and were able to assist their crippled friend into the waiting vehicle which had been procured, complete with driver and at great expense, the previous evening.
We reached Jaipur before nightfall and checked into our beautifully decorated (if rather dusty) hotel fifteen kilometres outside of the city. After hobbling up the stairs to my room I admitted defeat and waved my friends off as they went to visit a bazaar, but soon rejoiced in my decision when I found the delightful rooftop area that overlooked the stunning Amber Fort. Once the sun had gone down a light show began, illuminating the Fort in a myriad of colours.
Whilst the centre of Jaipur is fairly charmless and the Amber Fort – with its swarms of tourists taking elephant rides to the summit of the hill (Tip Two: Don’t bother doing this unless you can live with funding the exploitation of unhappy animals. We did it and I felt sad for some time afterwards for just this reason) – could prove too much for even the hardiest of travellers, the ‘Floating Palace’ is truly a sight to behold, sitting majestically as it does in a vast swathe of water set against a backdrop of mountains.
After two nights in Jaipur we climbed back into our car and drove to Ranthambore, where we would the following day visit the famous National Park. Delighted to find a swimming pool at our hotel, we donned our bikinis and cracked open some beers to aid our cooling off process. Tip Three, incidentally, would be not to get carried away on the booze the night before a 5.30am safari, as it will almost certainly impede your enjoyment of the experience. What will impede it even more is if your tour guide turns up almost two hours late only to tell you that you will not, in fact, be visiting zones one to five (where the leopards and tigers are) but zone eight (where, as we soon discovered, there is precious little besides vegetation). As it transpired only those who forward plan and book their trip months in advance stand any chance of actually seeing big cats (Tip Four: Book ahead).
After the disappointment that was our Ranthambore safari we drove for the best part of a day to reach Agra, where we would grab a few hours’ sleep in our barely built hotel (more on that later) before rising with the lark to visit the jewel in India’s crown: The Taj Mahal. My fifth tip would be to not, under any circumstances (and I really do mean any), allow the driver to stop off en route at a temple and a fort. After hours of bouncing around on tedious potholed roads, trust me when I tell you that the last thing you will want to do is fend off thousands of ‘tour guides’ who refuse point blank to leave your side unless you pay them off. Exhausting really isn’t the word.
If the centre of Jaipur was charmless, the centre of Agra was utterly devoid of soul. Our hotel looked like it had been erected in haste only hours before our arrival, with walls so flimsy a minor gust of wind would likely have blown it down. After a fitful sleep we were jolted awake by our alarms to make our way to the fabled Taj Mahal, which would mark the culmination of this leg of our travels before two sleeper trains took us to Goa via Mumbai. We arrived bleary eyed and nervous after the horrendous tour guide experience of the previous afternoon, but fortunately this time everything was far more civilised, thanks to us having pre-booked a tour guide on arrival. The walk to the Taj Mahal is not easy for someone with a sprained foot, but the sight of the monkeys lining the route is enough to buoy anyone’s spirits (Tip Six: If you value your fingers do not feed the monkeys). When we eventually arrived and approached through the large archway leading to the Taj the sun was just starting its ascent from the horizon.
I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over but as I emerged through the arch to see the huge white marble mausoleum in front of me it literally took my breath away. Construction of the 171 metre monument began in 1632, a year after emperor Shah Jahan lost his third wife during the birth of their 14th child. It took over twenty years to be completed and, as I stood before it, untroubled by the hordes of other visitors around me, I was lost in the romance of the gesture that it represented (Tip Seven: Go to the Taj Mahal. It’s epic).
Later that day, when we boarded the first of the sleeper trains that would take us closer to the beaches of Goa for the relaxation phase of our trip, we all agreed that despite the highs and lows things had got off to a pretty excellent start.