India is such a wonderful country; the sights and scents are something you can never prepare for. You get there and it hits you smack in the face - a complete sensory overload. My trip around India’s Golden Triangle was my second time in the country, and I yearn to go back and experience more of this vibrant culture, and the warm, friendly people.
On my first trip to India I went to Goa, and so a big city was high up on my list for my next visit, as well as visiting bucket list staple the Taj Mahal. Whilst researching where to go I stumbled across the idea of the ‘Golden Triangle’, which is essentially the tourist circuit of most visited places in the countries north-west. That undersells it though. Although it’s a fairly well-trodden path for tourists, I didn’t see that many other tourists around compared to the hub-bub of Indian life going on around you.
So without further ado, I’ve summarised my best bits on this eye-opening trip. For more on the planning and itinerary I took, I have a blog post coming soon so check back!
1. Seeing the beautiful Taj Mahal (Agra)
Of course, it’s no surprise that the Taj Mahal tops the list. You can read about it on many other places online, so I will keep it simple: it really is the most beautiful building in the world.
Get up early to experience the sunrise there, the early morning light in Agra is beautiful as it casts its way over the red stone. As you go through the entrance there are large red stone walls surrounding the Taj itself, so it’s not immediately visible. All of a sudden it appears in sight through an archway and WOW… I cried. It’s just such a beautiful sight, so familiar but yet so surreal when seen in real life.
Take your time to soak it up, rather than rushing for the ideal photo opportunity spots. We took about 4 hours all in, taking in the atmosphere, magnificent water reflections and pleasingly symmetrical design.
Tip on timings:
You will have to queue to get into the Taj (and there are separate queues for men and women) so make sure you leave extra time to allow for that. We got up at 5.30am and I started to panic slightly that we would miss the sunrise. Luckily we didn’t but it did take longer than expected!
2. Exploring the forts in Jaipur (Jaipur)
There are a wealth of forts, monuments and palaces to see in Jaipur, and so I opted to hire a friendly tuk tuk driver for the day to see all of them! Amber fort, Jaigrah fort, Nahargarh fort, Jal Mahal, Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar and City Palace. Whilst it felt like I had seen every monument in the city, I bet I only just scratched the surface… Hiring a tuk tuk is a great way to see loads in a short space of time, and such a fun way to take in city life.
It’s hard to say which exactly was my favourite sight as I enjoyed seeing all on mass, but one highlight was the ‘Hall of Mirror’s’ found in Amber Fort. It was incredibly intricate and beautiful, with little glints of light shining off the mirrors everywhere you turned (and much to my disappointment impossible to photograph). My other highlight were the views from Nahargarh Fort overlooking Jaipur. The haze (read: pollution) adds to the dreamy / ethereal feel, and the very windy road up and back down was fun but slightly concerning when our tuk tuk struggled to haul our heavy Western bums up and down!
Tip on tuk tuks:
Your driver will probably try to get you to stop off at shops, restaurants, his cousins place, the list goes on… Just stand your ground and don’t do anything you don’t want to! For food our driver tried to take us to a stuffy restaurant which isn’t really our thing… Instead we got him to stop at a street food stall when we saw something tasty looking to eat and brought him bhajis too, which went down very well and is a nice way to show your appreciation.
3. Nailing the great Indian train network (all across India)
The trains in India have got to be one of my top memorable ways to travel, and guaranteed to leave you with an interesting travel story or two. We got trains from Delhi to Agra, Agra to Jaipur and finally Jaipur back to Delhi. They are a great way to see a bit of Indian life outside of the city’s as you pass rural farms, kids playing near the train tracks and lots of local sights you wouldn’t otherwise spot.
Tip on pre-planning:
For long-distance train journey’s in India you have to have pre-booked a seat or ‘berth’ to travel, you can’t just turn up. Some trains get booked up months in advance, and even though I thought I was really organised I was surprised when I logged on months ahead of our trip to find some trains with only 20 seats left. Luckily the booking system is much easier than it used to be and there are several ways you can book. For all the info you need to know on booking, which class to travel, pictures, and the waiting list, go to the Man in Seat 61 (link at the bottom of the page). This has to be one of my favourite websites, full of so much useful information on train journeys around the world that will save you stress and money.
4. Discovering veggie foods (all across India)
I decided to go vegetarian on my second trip to India. I hadn’t had a bad experience the first time, but as I was backpacking I would be eating more street food so I felt it safer! Let’s face it, Indian food is so damn tasty anyway and I think some of the best dishes are vegetarian as they are just so packed full of flavour.
I picked little places to eat that were already rammed full of locals, and where you can see the chefs cooking in front of you and I don’t think I had a bad (or even average) meal the whole time I was there. In fact, one of my favourite places had the boiling pans of curry on the go out the front, and we ordered many veggie dishes to share. Whilst tucking into the food, I noticed something out the corner of my eye. I turned to see a cockroach scuttling by on the wall... Still we were already half way through our meal by then and it was delicious so I didn’t let this put me off.
On the trip I discovered jeera aloo (fragrant cumin spiced potatoes), chana masala (also known as chole, a thick chickpea curry), and besan gate (gram flour dumplings in a curd curry) to name a few. Chana masala is now one of my go-to’s when eating Indian food back in the UK and I’ve even tried cooking it a few times at home too.
Tip on staying well:
Of course if your heading to India you are going to have heard of the dreaded 'Delhi belly'. Do the obvious; eat at the busy stalls where locals are going, only eat fruit that has a natural wrapping (bananas / oranges), carry alcohol gel with you to clean your hands on the go, and have toilet paper and drugs to hand! Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of bottled water, but watch out for fake bottles which are refilled with tap water – this is surprisingly common (I came across some myself) so double check the seal and if it tastes funny, don’t drink it.
5. Asia’s largest spice market (Old Delhi)
I love a good food market, and you won’t get more interesting than the Spice Market in Old Delhi, Asia’s largest wholesale spice market which has been operating since the 17th century. Full of hustle and bustle, massive bags of spices being loaded onto wooden carts, and the distinct itchy feeling of spices up your nose making you sneeze!
Found on Khari Baoli street in Delhi, this place is a photographer’s dream. With colourful spices piled high, hessian sacks unrolled at the top showing off the abundance of dried chilli’s inside, and trays of dried pulses, beans and nuts all with little signs showing how many rupees they are. I spent hours here navigating the crowded walkways and taking photographs.
There are a mish-mash of different places all selling everything you can imagine. From tiny, narrow shop fronts with enough room for one person to slide down the length of the shop to buy whatever is on offer, to stalls outside with the owner sitting under an umbrella in the middle of all his spices! There were some amazing looking food stalls selling freshly fired breads and street-food snacks.
Tip for souvenir buying:
Although this is a wholesale market there are small packs of spices everywhere if you wanted to take home some spices and attempt some Indian cooking at home.
6. Visiting the Sun Temple at sunset (Jaipur)
This was one of the most magical experiences I had whilst in India, and I was very lucky to be there to witness this. We headed to Galtaji, or locally known as the Monkey Temple in the late afternoon as the heat died down slightly. Galtaji is about 10km out of Jaipur and is a huge complex of temples, that lead down to a natural spring which pilgrims bathe in.
My favourite part though was back at the top of the complex, which gives incredible sprawling views over pink/red bricked Jaipur – its called the Pink City for a reason! We were taking in the city views when we heard cymbals calling from a tiny temple which was a few steps away, intrigued we poked our head around the door to see a private and spiritual service going on with just a few locals. They smiled over at us, and it was such a special moment with the city view, the sunset and the music.
Tip for pesky monkeys:
I don’t have many photos of this experience sadly as I was put off from taking my camera in, after being warned by the tuk tuk driver that the monkeys would grab it! I’d just had a bad experience back in Agra with a rather large, aggressive macaque so I got a bit scared. However I saw plenty of people with cameras and actually the monkeys didn’t seem to bother them too much… See how you feel and perhaps take a camera in a tight pocket instead!
7. Akshardham temple (Delhi)
This fairly modern temple (opened in 2005), is also known as Swaminarayan Akshardham and is the largest hindu temple complex in India. The hand carved stone temple was built by 11,000 artisans and volunteers, of purely stone – in line with Hindu architectural guidelines meaning no iron metals within the structure. With no phones or cameras allowed inside either, it makes for a very peaceful setting unlike some of the other temple experiences I had around Delhi!
What I loved about it (and the reason this probably makes it to my list) was the amazing Gajendra Peeth, or plinth of elephants. Traditionally and symbolically in Hindu culture a mandir (Hindu temple) sits on the shoulders of elephants, and it’s literally brought to life here. In total 148 expertly carved life-size elephants surround all sides of the building, and as you walk around them you will see stories depicted showing the elephants with humans, animals and as gods. You could spend hours gazing at and trying to make sense of all the stories.
Tip on embracing the lack of phone:
As I touched on before, phones or cameras aren’t allowed inside the temple. There are security boxes where you can leave your valuables, I was a little worried about this but found it perfectly safe. The lack of phones / cameras actually serves 2 purposes: the first being I wasn’t stopped for photographs with locals every 5 seconds (it gets kind of tiring after a while). Secondly, I would probably still be in there now photographing elephant carvings, if they had let me in with my camera.
Photo credit for the 2 carving images above: akshardham.com (link below)
The Man in Seat 61, for all your train journey needs: https://www.seat61.com
Read more about some of the elephant carvings in Akshardham temple here: https://akshardham.com/explore/Mandir/gajendra-peeth/