Country Diaries

India’s golden triangle – Jaipur, Agra and Delhi

India’s ‘golden triangle’ offers an insight into old-world India, from colourful bazaars in Old Delhi to Jaipur’s ancient palaces and the marble majesty of Agra’s Taj Mahal.

Colour and chaos in Delhi

We begin our trip in India’s capital, Delhi, a bustling metropolis split into two parts – ‘old’ and ‘new’. New Delhi is surprisingly green and clean, filled with colonial government buildings and heritage sites.

Old Delhi is the complete opposite – a vibrant mess of chaos and colour, street vendors, beggars, shop owners and locals spilling out in every direction.

We took a rickshaw through Old Delhi’s backstreets, whizzing through tiny bazaars filled with colourful sari shops, flower sellers, ox and carts, street food and spice stalls.

A faithful ox and cart in Old Delhi last week. I had no idea this method of transportation was still a thing!

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India’s ‘pink city’ Jaipur

Next day, it was time for the four-hour journey to Jaipur, India’s ‘pink city’ – painted in exotic hues of blush pink. As we head into town my excitement levels were high, yelling out names of all the interesting things I could see.

“Look, camels!” “Holy shit – elephants! 

“Whoa, Jim! Manoj! Look! More camels! Camels pulling carts! Camels with Hindu symbols painted on them!”

At this point, Jim tells me to shut up about camels as our lovely driver, Manoj, sees them every day and is not interested to hear me yap on about them.

I stop talking about the camels and quietly observe the streets of Jaipur through the car window.

Athletic baby goats hop up steep walls, monkeys steal fruit from market stalls, slums spill out into urban areas and beautiful women wear rainbow-coloured saris. (“Little goats! Baby ones! Monkeys! Oooh, look – pretty colours!”)

We stop by Monkey Temple on the outskirts of town. This run-down temple has a faded charm and is totally overrun by wild monkeys who are very happy to play.

Encouraging feral Indian monkeys to stick their grubby little hands all over your face probably isn’t the most sensible course of action. But, it was hella fun.

Things getting slightly out of hand at the monkey temple 🐒

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Jaipur is filled with amazing architecture, rich history and a rugged natural landscape. Next day, we’re up at sunrise to visit the spectacular Amer Fort and palace that overlooks the city.

The ancient fort is built of pale pink and yellow sandstone and offers spectacular views across the city. Inside the palace, there are exquisite carvings and courtyards with a number of chambers to explore.

Many visitors choose to enter the fort on richly decorated elephants. A procession of them trudge up and down the hill daily, a magnificent sight as they deliver tourists to the fort.

New government regulations have recently improved working conditions for elephants, but the hill is steep, and sun hot. Concerned for the welfare of these beautiful creatures, we didn’t want to ride one.

Our guide told us the Maharajas who lived at the palace inside the fort in the 16th and 17th centuries would have hunted tigers on elephant back in the surrounding hills.

Passed this beautiful painted lady at Jaipur's amber fort today.

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Agra, home to the ‘jewel of India’

Our last stop was Agra, a grotty town that sits on the bank of the Yamuna River, famous for the Agra Fort and majestic Taj Mahal, the ‘jewel of India’.

We rise early the next day to watch the Taj ‘wake up’ at day break. Joining throngs of jostling tourists from all around the world, there is a sense of excited anticipation in the air.

The Great Gate Archway is finally flung open at 7am and I catch sight of the white marble beauty. It’s a snapshot you’ve seen a thousand times and that first glimpse in person makes it all worthwhile.

Bizarrely, the Taj experience was amazingly tranquil, despite the crowds.

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Well worth getting out of bed at 5.30am for!

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Ten travel tips for the Golden Triangle:

1.Arrive armed with some rupees. Recent changes to India’s currency system has resulted in cash flow problems. For three days, we struggled to find an ATM that wasn’t empty. We saw tourists everywhere – including ourselves – rely on guides to lend them cash to get by.

2. When you finally manage to get your mitts on some handy cash, break it down into small change. Cash is king here and everyone is going to be expecting a tip from now on. From the waiter, the snake charmer you take a pic of and the lady who hands you a tissue outside the bathroom. Make sure you have some twenty rupee notes to whip out – you’ll need them.

3. One of my guides said it’s fine for tourists to dress how they wish (within reason!) but a modest approach – pashmina, long sleeves or light-weight cardigan – will help you blend in. It’s a good idea to carry a scarf so you can cover up if visiting temples.

4. Local people will want a selfie with you! Our guide told us many of these people travel from remote villages to see the famous monuments and have never seen westerners before. Jim was very popular the day we visited the Taj. Apparently bald white guys often play the villains in Bollywood movies so his face was particularly interesting! An adorable little Indian girl grabbed my arm shrieking “Hello! Hello!Hello Hello!” delighted to be able to share her, somewhat limited, English with me.

5. Barter for everything. A good rule is to start at 70 per cent discount, then up to 50 per cent of initial asking price. If the answer is ‘no’ – act disinterested, shrug and start to walk away. Nine times out of ten the vendor will call you back “ok, ok, deal!” It can be emotionally exhausting after a while. The constant hustling and haggling drove Jim up the wall but it’s just the way it is in India.

6. Carry hand sanitiser, deet and tissues everywhere you go. Bottled water is a must and don’t eat any fruit you can’t peel yourself. Try not to overload on water during the day – you’ll find clean toilets few and far between. Obviously, avoid dehydration, but be mindful that you may regret chugging down litres of water when you can’t find a bathroom.

7. A private driver is a great way to explore the golden triangle and get the most out your trip. We used Manoj from Private Driver in India. He was friendly, professional and fun, helping us get off the beaten track to see the ‘real’ India. Manoj’s glowing testimonials on Trip Advisor tell the story of many other happy travellers.

8. If you don’t have a guide, be wary of ‘not a guide’. These random chancers lurk around famous monuments sniffing out tourists. They will then attach themselves firmly to you, spouting local information, and then, of course, expect a tip. Don’t be shy about shoo-ing ‘not a guide’ away.

9. Drink the local chai masala – milk-based tea made from tea leaves and ground Indian spices including cardamom, cloves and ginger. It’s ­­served in neat little cups that make a Venti latte at Starbucks seem quite vulgar. Do give it a try, it’s delicious and refreshing.

10. Finally, keep an open mind. From a six-legged cow (yup, we actually saw one!) to beggars, babas and blaggers – you will undoubtedly see many unusual sights on your trip to India. Some will be confronting, others amazing. It’s all part of the unique charm of this crazy, wonderful country so drink it in, and enjoy.

What were your favourite things to see on India’s ‘golden triangle’? Leave me a comment, I’d love to know.

Goa’s beach paradise

Rose-gold shimmers across the beach. A blood red sun takes its final bow, slipping into the silver Arabian Sea. I sip my frozen coconut drink and think, “Goa, you’re alright.”

We travelled to India last week, the journey slightly fuzzy around the edges due to numerous refills at the A380 bar.

I’m blaming the handsome Irish bar man, “Go on ‘av another,” he’d urge. So I did.

 

For a few panic-stricken minutes, I lose my passport at Dubai Airport and Jim sighs very loudly in my face. The passport is found, and we’re on to Mumbai, and our final connection to Goa.

Welcome to India

I am wildly excited, and slightly delirious with jet-lag, when we finally arrive at Goa’s International Airport – joining a motley crew of hippies, backpackers, loud Brits and locals.

Face-pressed against the window, I gorge on my first sights of India en route to our hotel in South Goa.

A woman in a bright blue sari carries a water jug on her head. Coconut sellers crouch at the roadside, faces shielded from the pounding sun.

Children play in arid, red dirt and holy cows meander by with a lazy flick of the tail.

Holy 🐮!

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Two days ago we were driving along winding country roads in England, a procession of hunting dogs and riders in top hats clattering by. Now, here we are, in India.

The perils of driving on English country roads! 🐴

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India’s west coast paradise

Goa is the most westernised part of India, a recommended good introduction before braving the mayhem of the cities.

Divided into two states – north and south – Goa is home to over twenty beaches. And they are all idyllic – clear blue waters and soft, gold sand fringed by palms and coconut groves.

Palm trees for miles 🌴🌴🌴🌴

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The area is also notorious for its party scene, a result of the many hippies migrating here in the late sixties.

We skip the Goan trance parties and local lethal ‘moonshine’ – cashew feni – for some good old-fashioned sunshine and rejuvenation.

Delicious coconut frappe by the pool. Loving Goa's tropical climate after a few chilly weeks in the UK. 🌴🌴

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The days pass slowly as we fall into a lazy rhythm of breakfast, pool and early evening stroll along the beach for sunset, drinks and dinner.

Tourists, locals and expats gather on the beach nightly to watch the spectacular Goan sunsets. No two nights are the same as the sky explodes into gold, pink, red and orange.

Kingfisher and seafood while bathing in the rose-gold hue you only get from a truly awesome sunset.

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Thali,  a feast for the eyes, and stomach

The local food is fantastic – aromatic Goan fish curry, fresh seafood and coconut-flavoured curries. The best food I sample is a delicious, colourful vegetarian thali.

Delicious Goan vegetarian thali. This colourful feast included a fab pineapple curry and coconut crepes.

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‘Thali’ is a way of serving food in lots of little dishes, generally served with roti and rice. The pleasure of thali is sampling a number of dishes, savoury and sweet all in one hit.

My favourite thali included  colourful pineapple curry and a red spinach and coconut dish, followed by sweet coconut crepes and a tart, lassi drink.

A friend told me she crept up a dress size while travelling India.

“Well that won’t happen to me,” I smugly thought at the time. “I’ll eat lovely healthy veggie and fish curries, lay off the rice and actually, I’ll probably lose weight.”

I may have spoken too soon. The food is insanely good and the ‘healthy’ veggie curries are served with mounds of steaming rice, roti and garlic naan.

I’ve been hitting the hotel gym in a desperate bid to work off some of the calories.

Sadly, the lure of the delicious food is far greater than that of the gym.

Goa has been blissful and I know we’ve barely scratched the surface of its natural beauty and old charm.  However, it’s time to pack up and head off – the cities of India beckon!

 

Smitten with Britain

I’m afraid tumbleweeds have been blowing through this blog recently. A broken laptop and dodgy wifi in the English countryside have rendered me digitally absent.

The good news is, I’m back. And lots of lovely things have been happening.

We arrived in the UK early December by ferry from Zebrugge – a closely-guarded secret from family and friends who believed we were temple-hopping in Cambodia.

First glimpse of the UK travelling undercover on the Zebrugge – Hull ferry

Elf yourself

We’ve had a marvellous time turning up on doorsteps unexpected, giving family members the shock of their lives.

My absolute favourite was crashing an elf-themed party in the lovely Surrey countryside.

Here, we surprised Jim’s sister who nearly keeled over when she saw us. Once she had recovered – aided by some fortifying white wine – we made merry with dozens of strangers, all dressed as elves. It was the best.

A special Sydney visitor for Christmas

In other good news, our beloved pug, Winston, joined us from Sydney for Christmas. Quite the international jet-setter!

I talked a couple of blog posts back about the challenges of bringing your dog overseas, and here when our plans fell through last minute. So, as you can imagine, we’re delighted he’s safely here and enjoying bolting around English fields.

Introducing the little one to the joys of brisk country walks. His first experience of muddy fields and frosty grass! 🐶🌿🌿

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Jim’s sister got a second surprise on Christmas Eve to find him sitting in front of the fire wrapped in a large, red silk bow. You can watch the video here.

We’ve spend a lovely Christmas and New Year with family across the UK from London to the north, exploring beautiful countryside along the way.

Beautiful (and noisy!) geese at dusk over Rutland Water 🌅

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Quintessentially English villages

For years Jim and I have dreamt, discussed and deliberated a village we have never visited. A picture perfect village with honey-coloured cottages nestled in the heart of the English countryside.

The village is Castle Combe, arguably England’s prettiest village. For the past five years, it’s been the much-loved desktop background on Jim’s laptop.

We’d spend many a Sydney evening, ‘driving’ up and down the main street on google earth – exploring cobbled backstreets and zooming in on particularly lovely cottages.

Shortly after our arrival in England, we headed for the Cotswolds to finally see it for ourselves.

Cotswolds country

The Cotswolds in southwest England boasts beautiful countryside and timeless villages built from golden Cotswold stone.

Quintessentially English, Castle Combe is a step back in time, sitting peacefully in the heart of rural Wiltshire.

The day we visited was chilly and plumes of grey smoke rose from the chimneys of houses dating back hundreds of years.

An ethereal mist hung low across the surrounding fields and stream at the foot of the village.

We could hardly believe our luck when two otters appeared, their sleek heads bobbing along before ducking under the icy water and out of sight.

 

Hunting for the perfect village

Castle Combe is one of the many charming villages we explored in December in search of the perfect place to live when we relocate permanently later this year.

Counting 🐑🐑🐑. Brisk winter walks in the English countryside. 🌿

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Rutland is a small but beautiful county in mainland England that also captured our hearts.

Even in winter, rolling fields spread out like soft green pillows, dotted with quaint villages and chocolate box cottages.

This adorable cottage reminds me of the one from my favourite Christmas rom-com. Any guesses? 🏡🎄

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See you in spring, Blighty

Christmas is over and the road is calling us once again. January is a great time to escape England – a couple of particularly grim and grey months now loom. We’ll be back by spring when the realities of house and job hunting will begin.

We’re headed for India and I’m looking forward to lots of new adventures over the next few months.

Hope you’ve all had a great start to 2017 – here’s to a fantastic year for all of us!

Fireside Christmas gin with cinnamon and cloves.

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