Through the haze of a warm, balmy night in Agra, and from our seats at a rooftop bar in our hotel, the eternal sounds of Indian traffic continued, but failing in their competition with the cacophony of music from at least three or four wedding processions marching through the streets below, and the cracking of fireworks. Strobe lighting tried to cut through the haze, pinpointing where some of the wedding processions were. The energy of the city was abuzz, and whilst Agra feels like much more a tourist resort city than Delhi and Jaipur – the other cities which comprise the points of India’s Golden Triangle – the palpably energetic atmosphere is very much typical of India. It almost feels tangible.
Chaotic is often a word used to describe India. People have visions of hordes of people and traffic coming from all directions, and frankly, they’re not wrong. With over a billion people living in one country, and roughly 25 million people living in Delhi (or, to put it another way, the entire population of Australia), it’s easy to see how chaos and crowds can ensue. Yet, somehow, after a couple days, I started to feel a sense of serenity in the midst of the madness. Crossing roads soon becomes less daunting, as you put your faith in the fact that the cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks (and God knows what else) will drive around you (after all, it’s not like anyone sticks strictly to the lanes anyway).
India seems to be full of funny ‘only in India!’ moments, and we experienced our first after just leaving the airport, when we met our arrival transfer. The driver proceeded to take our suitcases (so far, so normal), but then – instead of putting them in the boot of the car – placed them on top of the roof. Apparently my face was a picture, but luckily a minute or so later, the driver got out some wire to hold them in place. Intriguingly, that was the only time I saw any suitcases on top of taxis, but it really did seem to hold up a TOURISTS sign. As we made our way into Delhi, we first witnessed the madness of Indian traffic, and even saw a woman being sick out of the window of a crowded public bus. After a while though, you become less fazed by things, so by the time I saw a child drive a rickshaw in Jaipur, I just shrugged it off; ‘of course, why not?’. It’s fair to say, after all, that Indians are notoriously lax about health and safety, and in any given city or town in India, you’ll find the streets are lined with tangled bird nests of electrical wiring, but it all seems to work regardless.
My friend Lauren and I were in India on a small group tour with Intrepid Travel, an adventure touring company founded in Australia in 1989, the same year I was born. When people hear of ‘adventure touring companies’ or a name like Intrepid Travel, they make assumptions – usually in the vein of back-packing, hostels, and adrenaline-fuelled activities, like bungee-jumping, sky diving, or hiking up a mountain. There certainly wasn’t any back-packing or hostels involved; instead we stayed in simple, tourist-class hotels, which were conveniently located and functional, and whilst they might not have been 5* Western chains with spas and fine dining, they were comfortable and clean, which frankly is my sole concern with hotels, preferring to spend most of my time exploring, rather than in my hotel room. Nor was there any bungee jumping, for that matter (although there was the option to go on a sun rise hot air balloon ride, which was just breath-taking). The dictionary definition of ‘adventure’ is ‘an exciting and daring experience’, and to be ‘adventurous’, according to my copy of the Oxford Pocket Dictionary, is to be ‘open to or involving new, interesting, or exciting experiences’. If we widen our definition of ‘adventure’, and apply it to touring, what we discover is an immersive and experiential form of travel, which opens all kinds of exciting possibilities to engage with other cultures and people. A new, interesting or exciting experience could be sampling street food in Delhi as much as it could be going zip lining through the rain forests of Costa Rica! Our tour, the Golden Triangle, was very much a case of the former, taking in some of the best-known and best-loved cultural gems of India.
For both of us, it was a first visit to India, and for Lauren it was not only her very first visit to Asia, but her first touring experience. Later, Lauren told me that before her trip with Intrepid, she’d associated touring with a coach-load of people standing outside monuments, but we both discovered it was so much more with Intrepid.
Tours generally begin at 6pm at the starting point hotel with a welcome meeting, although we arrived a day before the tour officially started to give us some time to acclimatise first, and because I like to err on the side of caution in case there are any flight delays. As soon as we arrived at our pre-tour hotel in Delhi, we pretty much hit the ground running (which I believe to be very important to avoid jet lag upon arrival), with just enough time for a quick change, and to check-in and ask the hotel staff to arrange a taxi for us to our Urban Adventures meeting point. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Urban Adventures make for fantastic excursions, and if they’re available in a city you’re visiting, then you must give one (or more) a go! Trust me.
As Delhi is such a chaotic city, I felt that booking a tour (or two) with Urban Adventures would make us feel more comfortable, led by a local leader who had all the local knowledge and insight. Our first tour, on the day of arrival, was the Delhi Food Walk. We were met by the lovely Shristi, our local tour guide, and joined by a young Canadian who works as an English teacher in Shanghai, and an American lady who’d retired and moved to Bangkok. This was the perfect way to introduce ourselves to Delhi, and – more importantly – its food, as we indulged in a mixture of food on the street from stalls, or in cafes, watching life go by, and visiting a community kitchen. Dishes included paneer shawarma – in which paneer, an Indian cottage cheese that I quickly became addicted to during my time in India, is marinated, grilled and then wrapped in chapatis – and momos, which were in fact a Nepalese dish (highlighting influences from immigration) of soft delicate refined flour dumplings filled with a delicious mix of sautéed vegetables, and served with a spicy dipping sauce, and came with different fillings and dips, which were great to mix and match. I especially like the puffed rice dish, bhel puri, which is mixed with roasted peanuts, onions, chillis, and chutneys (including mint and tamarind), which had fantastic layered texture and flavours. We also enjoyed pav bhaji, a street food which originated in Mumbai, where shallow-fried buns (the pav) are toasted with a good dose of butter and eaten with curry (typically a delicious mixture of vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, onions, ginger and garlic all mashed together).We also sampled the classic staple of every north Indian wedding, Dahi Bhalla, or lentil dumplings and yoghurt, before really getting to indulge our sweet tooth with a seemingly never-ending array of Indian sweet dishes, many of which comprised condensed milk. I particularly liked the kulfi, or Indian ice cream, but we also tried Rasmalai, or cottage cheese dumplings soaked in sweetened condensed milk and flavoured with saffron and cardamom, whilst the Jalebi were incredibly sweet, made from semolina and often described as funnel cakes. In between dishes, we wandered the streets of Delhi, through market places, and even had a brief stop to have henna tattooed on our arms.
The next day began with another Urban Adventure, which was also led by Shristi, but this time it was just Lauren and I, so it was nice to have a privately guided tour. The morning’s tour was the ‘Culture Vulture Delhi’, which began with a ride on Delhi’s metro towards Chandni Chowk, travelling alongside locals for a snapshot of daily city life. An estimated 2.76 million people travel on the metro each day on average, and Delhi’s metro system is considered to be the safest and cheapest way to get across the city, and has been in operation since 2002 (although there are still parts of the network due to be completed). When we arrived at the metro station, it was busy so – as we were all female – we hopped onto the crowded ‘female-only’ carriage at the front of the train. After a few stops and a change, we emerged out onto the street near Chandni Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi, and our first stop was the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, which dates back to the late 18th century, and is one of nine historical Gurdwaras in Delhi. It’s especially sacred as it was built to commemorate the martyrdom site of the ninth Sikh Guru, who was beheaded there on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb just over a century earlier for refusing to convert to Islam. Taking off shoes and socks, and covering our heads with scarves, we entered the Gurudwara, and observed worshippers giving thanks and praying, or receiving blessings. Inside the Prayer Hall, there’s plenty of carpeted space for people to perhaps sit and contemplate, or to pray, facing towards a gold-fenced area where musicians perform and chant the Gurbani (Guru’s word), entire verses of the Guru Granth Sahib which are written in a form of poetry and recited in Ragas, near to a golden canopied altar and a shrine which contains the preserved trunk of the tree beneath which the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur was severed, along with the well he used for taking baths during his prison term. After spending some time observing and contemplating in the prayer hall, we visited the Gurudwara’s community kitchens. The community kitchens – called langar - feed thousands of people, providing free meals served to all visitors, without distinction of their religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. Here, we found some local women sitting around rolling out chapatis on the ground, whilst there were other people in the room cooking the chapatis, a couple men looking after huge vats, and others dotted around elsewhere chopping up onions and other ingredients. We sat down with the local women and joined in, grabbing handfuls of dough and rolling out to create chapatis (some more successfully than others), and one neighbouring woman gave me some tips and showed me how to roll the dough out smoothly. Getting ‘hands on’ and interacting with locals in such an immersive way was truly one of the highlights of the trip, and it’s probably one of my favourite memories from our time in India.
After our insight into one of the religions to have emerged from the Indian sub-continent, we caught a glimpse of a different religion which also originates from India, this time Jainism, with a visit to the oldest temple in the city. Set down a side street lined with painted houses with beautifully intricate arched doorways, the temple was stunning inside, and housed a ceiling which dated back over a thousand years. We were shown round by one of the temple’s priests, and learned about this ancient religion which is particularly renowned for its strong aversion to any form of violence. From there, the tour continued through the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Kinari Bazaar, where shops glisten and shimmer with golden lace and tassles, and are resplendent with vibrantly coloured materials, as the area is the go-to place for buying everything you need for a traditional Indian wedding. From Kinari Bazaar, we then made our way to the spice market. Inside, there was a melee as men carried huge sacks filled with spices up and down tiny, rickety stairs, and shops were packed full of teas, nuts, chillies, and spices, and the air was fragrant with a variety of aromas. We climbed up some stairs and made our way to the rooftop, where we found a calm oasis away from the madness downstairs, and overlooked some of the streets, as well as the inside of the spice market below. Before ending our tour, Shristi took us to a local restaurant for lunch, and organised a taxi to Humayun’s Tomb for us, as we wanted to visit the Tomb – an impressive 16th century Mughal landmark which is also notable as the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent, and created a precedent and inspiration for the later Taj Mahal - before returning to the hotel. On our previous Urban Adventure the night before, Shristi had organised our taxi back to the hotel, and contacted us (and the driver) to make sure we got back OK, which gave us a sense of security and reassurance in an unknown city. What I hadn’t realised was that she was also happy to arrange a taxi back from Humayun’s Tomb to the hotel - talk about excellent service and going the extra mile!
It was finally time to meet our group, and kickstart our Golden Triangle tour with Intrepid with a meeting at the starting point hotel. I knew the tour was fully booked, but – with a maximum of just twelve guests on any tour – it was still a nice, small size, and our fellow travellers hailed from the UK, Australia and the US, with ages ranging from mid-twenties to 70. Most of the group were female (there were just two men, both of whom were travelling with female companions), and some were travelling solo. Some of the solo travellers had chosen to share a room with a member of the same sex at no additional cost, while a couple others had paid the small single supplement for a room of their own. We also met our tour leader, Kush, although he had already called us at the hotel the day before to check in with us, and offer some recommendations. Kush later told me that a tour started before the official 6pm kick-off for him, and if he knew guests were arriving a day or so beforehand, he always made a point of getting in contact to offer tips. For me (and Lauren), Kush was one of the highlights of our trip, as he was so helpful and insightful throughout, giving us unique perspectives on Indian traditions and history. Originating from Rajasthan, he was particularly proud and passionate about showing everyone the highlights and local secrets of Jaipur and the small Rajasthani town of Karauli. With such a small group size, it felt very personalised, and Kush was able to organise a couple of optional activities tailored to our interests during free time – for example, Lauren and I got to visit the Mantar Jantar Observatory in Jaipur, with even our own local guide and rickshaw rides to/from organised by Kush, while everyone else chose to visit a local bazaar. He also organised a Delhi Food Walk with Urban Adventures for the rest of the group during free time the next day but – as Lauren and I had been so organised, and already experienced that tour – we went on an alternative Urban Adventures excursion which focussed on the life and death of Gandhi. Unlike a lot of Gandhi-themed tours, this tour actually takes you to the museum which is housed in the mansion where he was assassinated.
After the introduction meeting, we all went to a local restaurant for dinner together. Only two meals are included in the price of this particular tour (a dinner and breakfast are offered by the heritage property we stayed in overnight in Karauli), but we always ate lunch and dinner together as a group, with Kush offering recommendations on what was best to eat, so we were able to try authentic local food, and order what we wanted for ourselves. Breakfasts were available at all the hotels, and generally you’d see other members of the group at some point during breakfast before heading out for the new day’s explorations. As someone particularly keen on their food, and someone who is still more used to cruising rather than touring, I always wonder how meals will work on tour – how many are included, if they’re included, and if meals are included, whether it is a case of eating at the hotel, would it be a set menu, or a buffet? With fewer meals included in the initial cost of the trip, travellers are offered a greater degree of flexibility, and – if they wished – independence.
Sometimes, the starting place of a tour is a major city that’s accessible to enter, but you soon dash off to the next destination, without including much exploration. That wasn’t the case here, as we spent two nights at our tour’s starting point hotel, giving us the time to explore Delhi more as group with an included city tour in the morning of day two of the trip, beginning with a ride on the metro which (although Lauren and I had already experienced it) felt like a bonding session, as we all crammed in giggling together, followed by a refreshing and tasty cup of masala chai on the streets of Delhi. The city tour was fairly similar to our Culture Vulture Urban Adventure excursion, but the chaotic streets of Delhi, the narrow, labyrinthine alleys and bustling shops of the Kinari Bazaar and Chandni Chowk are alive with the people that do their daily work, and are eternally fascinating, ever-changing and timeless at the same time. The city tour didn’t visit the Jain Temple we’d seen the day before, but instead we visited the beautiful Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India (if not the largest), with capacity for some 25,000 worshippers praying in its courtyard. We also met a man who still sold fireworks, even though he was now ninety years old, and a man making garlands of marigold (and marijuana) for the temple, and visited the Gurudwara again.
With travelling, it’s often important to ‘go with the flow’ and try not to stress when things don’t go quite to plan. Kush, our guide, explained at the welcome meeting at the official kickstart to our Golden Triangle trip that it was best to always be positive and bring our senses of humour. It’s funny how, when in a different country, I’m much better able to set aside my anxieties about punctuality and timing, and just go with the flow. It seems easier to ‘keep calm and carry on’, and not grumble (but instead laugh and make a joke, and the best of a situation), than when at home. But then again, Network Rail may just prove too much of a challenge to this ‘come what may’ philosophy! That being said, our trip ran incredibly smoothly, and we seemed to make excellent time wherever we went. But it helps having the local insight and knowledge into local logistics; on day three, when we departed Delhi for Jaipur, we went by coach rather than train to avoid the long delays and cancellations which are common with trains in February due to the weather, which can be greatly affected by fog or hazy conditions.
Jaipur is a very different city to Delhi. Set in the northwest state of Rajasthan, which comprises much of the arid Thar desert, camels are a common sight – often carrying carts of goods - along the highways approaching Jaipur, and even in the city itself. Rajasthan translates literally as the ‘Land of Kings’, and the grandest of its cities is its state capital, Jaipur. Founded in 1727, Jaipur is renowned for its trademark colourful buildings, which have given rise to its nickname as the ‘Pink City’, since they were repainted for Prince Albert’s royal tour of 1876. The city is more picturesque than Delhi, evocative of its regal past, and filled with landmarks that pay testament to its princely heritage. The famous Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, is one notable example now lining one of the city’s main roads; royal women of the palace would observe the outside world from this five-storey façade to preserve their modesty, while the many curved windows serve the dual purpose of looking decorative whilst simultaneously keeping the women on the other side cool.
We arrived into Jaipur just in time for lunch, which we had at the Green Pigeon, a tourist-friendly restaurant offering Rajasthani dishes – such as ker sangri and goat curry – accompanied by traditional music and dancing (which Lauren and I ended up joining in with, somehow). Comprising dried ker berries and sangri beans, ker sangri is a classic example of necessity being the mother of creation, as it originated when drought struck Rajasthan, from the Marwad region, which is particularly arid (even by Rajasthan’s standards). These berries and beans are the only products able to grow in the sand and extremely hot conditions of the Marwad region, and famine-struck families prepared this sabzi along with a variety of spices, creating this now-famous dish.
After lunch, we had a glimpse into some of the traditional skills and cottage industries that Jaipur is renowned for. The city is a major hub for cutting and polishing gem stones and has been perfecting the art for many years. We visited a gem stone wholesaler, where we were given a demonstration on polishing gem stones, seeing a variety of uncut precious and semi-precious stones, and watching some of the men at their work, before taking a browse through the shop’s wares. Following the gemstone factory, we saw how the traditional block printing is created, and even had the chance to try the skill for ourselves!
The day we arrived in Jaipur was a reasonably relaxed day, without a hectic pace, to ease us in to a new city. By contrast, our full day in Jaipur (the next day) was packed full of experiences and memories, and was a real highlight of our trip, even if we didn’t have much time to draw breath! We had opted to go on a hot air balloon safari over Jaipur, so we awoke early (pre-5am!) to be picked up from our hotel, and driven to a field in the outskirts of the city. There, we sipped hot masala chai and eagerly awaited to board a hot air balloon with six others from our group who had also chosen to go on the hot air balloon. Once we started ascending, the warm glow of the rising sun gave a soft beauty to the sky, and a thin mist covered the ground below. We could see the locals waking to begin their day, women sweeping the ground or preparing breakfast, cows and camels drinking water and eating food, and children running excitedly to wave to us. Small pockets of land were dotted with homes or farms, but much of it seemed to be a mixture of arid landscapes, hills, and some fields.
After our incredible balloon safari, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast, joining the rest of our group before heading out into the city with photo stops at a local market, the famous Hawa Mahal, and a flower market. We then hopped aboard local jeeps, which usually carry some 25 passengers (sometimes hanging off the back), but our group of thirteen shared two jeeps, making our way to the iconic Amber Fort, passing a number of elephants along the way. Sat atop a hill overlooking the city, the UNESCO-listed Amber Fort is one of the best-known attractions in Jaipur. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, Amber Fort is a truly impressive landmark, with its opulent and ornate details, and artistic Hindu style elements. Kush showed us all the main features, including the Hall of Public Audience, the Hall of Private Audience, and the Sheesh Mahal (or ‘mirror palace’), giving an explanation of each area or court yard before giving us time to admire the architecture for ourselves and take photos. As we made our way back to the heart of Jaipur, we had another photo stop at the Summer Palace, before lunch together.
The afternoon was free for us to explore as we pleased, and whilst most of the group opted to browse the local bazaar, Lauren and I also wanted to visit Jantar Mantar, which Kush arranged for us. Dating back to 1734, Jantar Mantar comprises nineteen architectural astronomical instruments – including the world’s largest stone sun dial – which proved to be strikingly accurate in recording time, but also played an important role in all matters of decision making for the Raj, who relied heavily on astronomical readings. Even today in Indian society, astronomy plays an important role in deciding when to get married, and other decisions. The UNESCO-listed Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is the largest in India, with four others found in New Delhi, Ujjain, Mathura, and Varanasi.
We also had time to browse the bazaar before meeting everyone for tuk-tuk rides to the famous Raj Mandir cinema for an evening of Bollywood entertainment. The Raj Mandir cinema is an impressive building in its own right, with a more palatial feel than you’d perhaps expect from a cinema; it is no wonder that it has such a proud reputation as one of the best cinemas in India, and even boasts the strapline ‘Pride of Asia’. It is perhaps reminiscent of the glory days of cinema, when going to see a film was an occasion. The foyer of the Raj Mandir is grand and open, and its high ceilings are ornamented with dazzling chandeliers. The screening room itself is also large, and boasts flamboyant, red velvet curtains. We were watching a screening of the film Pad Man, a comedy-drama inspired by the real-life story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist from Tamil-Nadu, who introduced low-cost sanitary pads to revolutionise menstrual hygiene in rural India. Despite not understanding a word of Hindi, it was possible to get the gist of what was going on, and watching a Bollywood film in a cinema in India is an experience in and of itself, as the local audience unabashedly laugh and talk throughout, and applaud when their favourite actors come on the screen. There’s a spirited atmosphere in the screening which elevates the viewing experience as it feels a lot more interactive!
A classic tour of India’s Golden Triangle tends to focus on three of India’s most popular cities, and we’d already experienced two of them. Before we were to visit the final point of the triangle, we were going to head a little off the usual tourist track, and spend a night in a small Rajasthani town called Karauli. It was a few hours’ drive from Jaipur, and we travelled across what Kush referred to as ‘authentic India’, passing scenes of small towns. Our home for the night was the Bhanwar Vilas Palace Hotel, a stunning heritage property which was very typical of Rajasthan. The day marked a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the cities, and we took to rickshaws to explore the small town, and its ornate city palace. We hadn’t visited the city palace in Jaipur as Kush said that Karauli offered a more authentic experience, and it was such a privilege to discover a practically unknown hidden gem of a city palace, which boasted all the ornate, colourful beauty you’d expect, with the added benefit of having the palace entirely to ourselves as the only visitors. We witnessed a beautiful sun set from the rooftop of the palace as an elderly gentleman with a welcoming smile served us sweet masala chai, and we watched a procession moving down the streets. It was one of those ‘pinch yourself, this is a beautiful moment’ experiences. But the day was not over yet! In Delhi, we had visited a Sikh Gurudwara, and one of India’s largest mosques, but – whilst India is constitutionally a secular state where all religions are treated equally – the largest religion in India by far is Hinduism, with almost 80% of the population practising Hindus. In Karauli, we had the chance to visit a Hindu temple and observe evening prayers, which was a fascinating insight into an important part of daily life for the locals, and gave a better depth of understanding than a more one-dimensional visit to a temple. After evening prayers were finished, we headed back to the heritage property where a buffet dinner awaited, complete with the opportunity to be dressed in saris for the women, and traditional Rajasthani paggar-style turbans for the men.
After our detour off the usual tourist trail, it was time to get back on track and complete our pilgrimage of India’s Golden Triangle as we made our way onwards to the city of Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Just west of the city is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 16th-century remains of Fatehpur Sikri, the former capital city of the Mughal empire in India built by Emperor Akbar, grandfather of Shah Jahan, who would later immortalise his love for his favourite wife with one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. The UNESCO-listed citadel is now effectively a ghost town; Fatehpur Sikri’s role as Mughal capital was short lived – between 1571 and 1585 – and abandoned due to a campaign in Punjab. The skeleton of grandeur remains in red sandstone clusters, and we explored the various courtyards and buildings, admiring the manicured gardens, ornate architecture and learning about Akbar, his love of knowledge and literature, the new religion he created whilst at Fatehpur Sikri, and his favourite wives. We also admired Akbar’s grand victory arch – the 180ft high Buland Darwaza – built to commemorate the victorious Gujurat campaign, and notable as the largest gateway in the world.
Following our morning visit to Fatehpur Sikri, we continued on to Agra (stopping for lunch en route and checking in to our hotel). Agra is synonymous with Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, and the city is a magnet for tourists and travellers keen to see one of the new world wonders up close. There are a lot of security ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when visiting the Taj, with a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t bring in (for example, no filming is permitted from almost as soon as you enter, and I couldn’t bring our Bedford Bear mascot), and since at least 2017, the Taj has been undergoing essentially a ‘mud pack’ beauty treatment to preserve her from pollution. However, we were incredibly lucky that during our visit, the scaffolding and treatment had temporarily been taken down, so we could admire the Taj Mahal in all its glory. Taj Mahal attracts on average 200,000 overseas visitors and between 2 to 4 million domestic visitors each year, and just a month or so before we were in India, reports were suggesting that the Indian government were planning to cap daily domestic visitors to 40,000 a day. Yet I was remarkably surprised by how smoothly our visit to the Taj went, given the sheer numbers of visitors this UNESCO site attracts. Kush arranged a photographer for the group, so that we could take a group photo, and solo/pair photos at ‘Diana’s bench’ (a prime photographic spot), enabling us to spend the rest of the visit to explore, admire, and take our own photos at our own pace. Although exceptionally beautiful, well worth a visit, and one of the landmarks I was most eagerly anticipating, the Taj Mahal was not the overall highlight of my trip – immersing myself and falling in love with this complicated, chaotic, kaleidoscopic country was, where so many moments made indelible memories in my mind.
Although most of us were on the eight-day Golden Triangle tour, it is possible to have combined trips where some members of the group might continue elsewhere and join another Intrepid tour. This was the case for one of our number, who would be continuing from Agra to Varanasi and then onwards into Nepal, so Agra was our last night as a group of twelve. Agra is a vibrant and energetic city, with a number of weddings in full flow, and we got to watch one band play some music, and join them for a photograph, whilst also admiring the brightly lit processions.
Before we left Agra, we spent the morning visiting the impressive Agra Fort, an UNESCO World Heritage Site which had been greatly influenced by two great Mughal Emperors we were, by now, familiar with. More than just a Fort, this vast red sandstone landmark is much more like a walled city. When Akbar the Great arrived in Agra, he had much of it rebuilt as a Fort, with some 4000 builders working on the project for eight years, but much of its current state today dates back to his grandson, Shah Jahan – the great builder of the nearby Taj Mahal – who changed much of its functionality to a palace. But this palace was also to become his prison, and he spent the last years of his life imprisoned in his fort, overlooking his beloved Taj. Kush told us the stories and history of this incredible building on a final guided tour, before we headed to a nearby carpet factory, where we were showed some of the local craftsmanship and processes in creating carpets. From there, we made our way back to Delhi for a final night on tour, and enjoyed a farewell dinner together, sharing some of our favourite memories of the trip.
Sometimes I wonder, as I’m enjoying discovering a new destination, how I could possibly adequately describe it when I’m back. I sometimes feel by the end of a trip, that I’m not quite the same person that I was when I first boarded the flight out; it’s hard to put my finger on exactly how, but somewhere, along the way of trying different and new foods, seeing how people in a different culture live, admiring iconic landmarks that I’d previously only admired in photos, I’ve learnt new things – about how the local people live their lives, or about their history, or even about myself, perhaps by stepping a little out of my comfort zone. With India, it truly leaves a mark on you, with the most captivating memories, and there is something about the stark contrasts you see and experience that leave an impression; this is a country where you will witness some of the world’s most famously beautiful monuments, as well as the less-than-polished veneer of urban life, where you will both witness opulence and extreme poverty. I think that, from my trip to India, I learnt that ‘if you’re happy with nothing, then you’re happy with everything’ (to quote Kush), and it’s a lesson I’ve tried applying to my own life since my return.
While ‘Intrepid’ is an adjective meaning ‘fearless – and as a tour company, that may give rise to images of travellers doing bungee jumping – for me, Intrepid helps guests feel fearless and confident while travelling, organising trips so that rough edges are smooth out as much as possible, but without any patronising ‘hand-holding’. Instead, you can enjoy the adventure of your life, immersing yourself into all the local secrets and culture of the destination you’re discovering.
In just eight days with Intrepid, we dived into India, marvelling at stunning Mughal art and architecture – including the iconic Taj Mahal, and a city palace in a tiny town way off the tourist track (our group were the only visitors) – savouring the different dhals, spices, curries, snacks, street food, and sweet masala chais, we rolled chapatis with local women in the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Old Delhi, waved at excited children in rural villages from a hot air balloon as the sun rose over the Jaipur area, watched a Bollywood film in a historic cinema with locals, tried on saris and browsed through local bazaars, and frankly had the time of our lives. When we first met our group, the Taj Mahal had been referenced as one of the top attractions for taking the trip, but by the end, I felt that while we came for the Taj, we fell in love with (and would return for) the intoxicating enchantment of India!
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