I’m writing this from our hotel outside of Delhi airport before our flight to Kathmandu tomorrow. There’s a lot to catch up on so just to warn you, this is a bit of a marathon blog post!
We’ve seen so much during our time in India, but there was still one gaping hole on our Indian bucket list – the Taj Mahal!
We’ve been looking forward to seeing India’s most iconic sight for months, and, as we arrived in Agra after a long six-hour drive from Ranthambhore, we caught our first glimpse of this wonder of the world from the rooftop of our homestay.
Excited to see it up close, we joined the masses making their way down at sunrise. Unsurprisingly, there was a queue and far more tourists than we’ve seen anywhere in India so far, but we made it through in the nick of time to see the light beginning to play tricks on the translucent marble.
Incredibly beautiful despite the crowds, and well worth an early start.
It`s certainly an evocative sight, although possibly one that’s best appreciated from a distance where you can truly take in the immensity of the perfectly symmetrical building.
Up close you can see the damage that’s been done over the last four hundred years, and it’s true that it could do with a good clean. In fact, it turns out that this month the Taj is due for her very own facial. The walls and dome are going to be coated with a rejuvenating mud mix, the same mix, that’s used in spa facials. The building will be covered in scaffolding for a full year so it seems we made it in the nick of time!
Aside from the Taj, there are countless other historical monuments in Agra.
First stop after breakfast was Agra Fort, designed by the same king who designed the Taj in honour of his wife who died giving birth to her fourteenth child. It’s also the spot where he was cruelly imprisoned after his own son usurped him. Meanie.
The fort has panoramic views over the city and the Taj itself, all the more poignant because the poor king had to spend his days in imprisonment gazing at his own beautiful creation.
After the fort we headed back to our homestay for a brief rest, before heading back out again for a mooch around the Mehtab Bagh gardens.
We’d all been up since five by this point, and a few of us were suffering from our first hit of Delhi Belly, so we were hoping for a nice peaceful afternoon. Unfortunately India, and particularly Agra, doesn’t really do peaceful. The city is extremely overcrowded and full of traffic, as well as overflowing with tourists and touts so it doesn’t make for the most relaxing experience.
We ended up at the so-called Baby Taj on the insistence of our tuk tuk driver who, for some reason, was absolutely obsessed with it and adamant that it was better than the Taj itself.
In fairness, the inscriptions are far more delicately preserved, but I’m not sure I completely understand his absolute obsession.
The gardens were also lovely and offered the best city views of the Taj itself, although, beautiful as it is, we were feeling quite Taj-ed out by this point.
Back to the hotel for a home cooked vegetarian curry and an early night.
The next day, however, three of us were still feeling slightly worse for wear so we decided to take it easy and chill out on the sightseeing a little.
First up was a visit to the Wildlife SOS sloth bear sanctuary just outside of Agra. The sanctuary is home to 188 bears who have been rescued from their careers as dancing bears.
The practice of dancing bears has been ongoing for 400 years, but over 600 bears have now been recovered and, a few years ago, the charity rescued the last captive bear.
It’s a great initiative and the sanctuary tours are really well set up. The bears have all been subjected to horrific torture – pierced through the nose by burning hot metal spikes, whipped and kept on a leash their whole lives. They’re normally captured as cubs so many of the bears in the sanctuary don’t even know how to climb trees. One of the bears, Jonny, endlessly paces up and down a distance of four metres, a habit the keepers told us he’s learnt from years of walking the length of the rope he was kept on. Another bear, Akban, was brought to the sanctuary with his two siblings, who were inseparable, before they died of injuries sustained during their time in captivity. Akban now shuns the company of other bears and spends his time alone in his area. Some of the bears are blind as a result of cataracts from poor nutrition, others still endlessly sway in a dancing motion.
Very sad, but lovely to see the bears in their new homes. It was also interesting to hear how the charity has handled the process of eradicating bear dancing. They recognise that the practice, however cruel, has been the livelihood of the Kandar people for centuries and so, instead of leaving them destitute, the keepers are offered a lump sum in exchange for signing a form promising never to work with wild animals again. The money is then often used to buy land or rickshaws so that the keepers can build a new life, while their families are also offered support and education.
An all round lovely organisation! We’ve seen a hell of a lot of mistreated animals during our time here – from starving dogs on the street, to donkeys being loaded with ridiculous weights, to elephants chained by their ankles, cobras kept in backpacks and brought out to dance and monkeys kept on leashes and forced to hug tourists for money. It was so great to finally hear something positive being done to address just one small part of the problem.
After the sloth bear sanctuary, we headed back to the homestay to relax before our train to Delhi.
We were supposed to be taking the Gatimaan Express, India’s fastest train, with a journey time of just one and a half hours between Agra and Delhi. Things didn’t quite go to plan, however, and, after road closures on the way, we arrived at the station to find complete chaos, with people everywhere and whole families (or what seemed like entire villages) camped out on the platforms. Turns out the entire transport system was on the blink due to nationwide strikes because of caste conflict.
Obviously every taxi driver in the world was outside the station and we were hounded the minute we stepped out the door. After a lot of negotiation, a few drivers who failed to turn up and some shouting and arguing about who knows what, we finally made it into a taxi, only to be told by the police moments later that, in fact, we couldn’t go with this particular cab as it didn’t have a railway licence. Given that the same group of twenty policeman had been standing watching and laughing at our attempts to negotiate this entire time, we weren’t best pleased.
Anyway, we made it on to the road eventually, feeling very thankful that we could get away from the mayhem while some families with small children were still stranded on the platforms. And after seeing the rocks that had been hurled on the road, the smashed-up bus and the fires just round the corner from the station, we couldn’t get out of Agra quickly enough. There were some reports that the road between Delhi and Agra was shut off by protestors and we made it to the absolute palace of the Sheraton New Delhi just three hours later than planned.
After a few busy days in Agra and Ranthambhore, we’ve spent the last three days in Delhi making the most of the luxurious pool and restaurants in the hotel.
Poor Dad has been the latest member of the team to be struck down, so he lost a couple of days, but in any case most of our time has been spent relaxing on sun loungers and feasting on the immense breakfast buffet (one word – BACON). This hotel is so fancy that my Dad even ended up in the lift with, of all people, the Dalai Lama. Of course, he chats so much rubbish most of the time that no-one actually believed him and we had almost persuaded him that he’d only seen a buddhist monk when, all of a sudden at breakfast, Jamie spotted him in the foyer and exclaimed ‘Wait, no way, that’s actually the Daily Lama!’ Apparently he was a very polite and my Dad can now say he’s been wished a good day by the Dalai Lama himself.
We did make time for a couple of outings, the most memorable of which was a city walk run by the Salam Balaak Trust, a children’s charity which helps to rehabilitate India’s street children. The walks are run by teenagers and young adults who have been helped by the charity themselves. Our guide, Anny, was left in an orphanage by her mother at a very young age, before eventually being picked up by Salam Balaak and transferred to a children’s home when the orphanage became too full.
She’s obviously a tough little cookie and told us some horrible facts about the life of street children in India. There are over eleven million children living on the streets in India, and 100,000 in Delhi alone. Some of these kids have been abandoned by their parents, others have simply been lost in the crowds at festivals, while some have run away to escape abuse or addiction. Many others are lured to the city by the promise of a better life and, possibly, a shot at what Anny called the promised land – a career in Bollywood. Some of the kids have jobs as shoe shiners, sellers or litter-pickers, while some make what little money they can through begging. Even those that make money, however, have to spend it the same day – Anny says it’s too dangerous for a street child to keep even 300 rupees on them at a time as it makes them vulnerable to attack.
Girls are particularly at risk – because of arranged marriages and dowry requirements, they are sometimes seen as a burden to their families and either run away to escape their lives or are given away by families who can’t cope with another mouth to feed. Many girls on the street in Delhi end up working in a notorious area for prostitution where they are forced to sleep with up to 20 different men each day, for 100 rupees (£1) each.
Many of these kids, even those as young as five and six, are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They live together in groups and the oldest of the group will buy and supply to the rest. They often spend what little money they have going to the weekly Friday new release at the cinema where, Anny says, they can take drugs in the safe, dark and cool confines.
It was a tough but necessary insight into the other side of India – something that’s particularly important when you’re lucky like we are and staying in such a plush hotel.
Anny took us to the contact centres and the day care centre and showed us some of the quirks of Delhi’s backstreets, including a wall which has been adorned with pictures of gods from every religion. Apparently the gods are there to stop people urinating against it – they tried putting up signs saying that offenders will be fined, but it didn’t do the job so now they have pictures of the gods instead.
It was a tough morning, but also incredible to see how some of the children have turned their lives around, and we left feeling humbled, saddened but also in awe of the strength of these kids.
Aside from the street tour, we spent the rest of time in short outings around the nearby parts of the city. As you can imagine, Delhi’s not exactly the kind of place for a quiet stroll, so we took it easy and made sure to keep things short and sweet.
We’ve left the parents in the taxi to the airport now and I’m writing this from our latest hotel room. It’s been such an amazing two weeks and we’ve seen an entirely different, but equally interesting, side to India. It’s definitely going to be tough to say goodbye to our new life of luxury, but we’re SO excited to be moving on to the adventure of a lifetime in Nepal.
I can’t quite believe that, after three months, we’re going to be leaving India tomorrow. After 71 days, we’ve travelled over 4,588 kilometres over 147 hours of travel. We’ve both learnt so much from this fascinating, but difficult, place and, although we’re ready to leave now, it’s not without a touch of nostalgia. I have so many different thoughts about India that I don’t even know how to start summing up how I feel about the place so I’m going to leave it to a later blog post.
Everest, here we come!!
(PS We’re now staying in a small village just outside Kathmandu so this post is slightly late and the pictures have proved tricky thanks to intermittent WiFi. I can’t see a preview of the post so sorry for any mistakes or rogue pics!)