On arrival in Delhi our (brilliant) guide Bali was waiting. He shepherded us to the small air conditioned bus that was to be our main transport for the trip. How the driver guided us safely through the traffic that is part of India's real character will always be a mystery but he did, ably assisted by a young man who cheerfully delivered bottles of water as needed, and also kept the bus clean and tidy inside and out. The roads were variously reasonable and awful. Drivers routinely hoot as they overtake but this is not done in anger but as a safety measure. During the whole trip we never saw any display of bad temper or irritation on the roads, nor did we see any mishaps. though how the lack of mishaps is achieved is something of a mystery. We were all hot and tired and Bali asked the driver to pull off on the outskirts of Delhi for a break and a meal. In a flash Bali organised 'Talhi' - a tray full of different Indian dishes along with a synthetic looking 'cake' the base of which was steeped in a liquid of some sort. Despite its lurid colours it was really nice. We all contributed to a fund from which Bali took care of all tips, entrance fees, snacks and other items of expenditure. It was a long drive and we were glad to arrive in Jaipur (it was getting dark by now) but we fitted in a ride on a rickshaw amidst the chaotic and crowded streets of Jaipur before returning to our hotel and sharing an evening meal.
Next day we had breakfast in the open air restaurant , the temperature was already rising. We visited the Amber Fort and paid 950 rupees for the slow rolling trip on an elephants back up to the stopping off point for the Fort itself. Well over a million and a half people visit the Amber Fort (pronouced Amer Fort) each year. The building of the Fort was begun in 1592 by Raja Man Singh and is set on four levels each with a courtyard. The internal decoration is influenced by both Hindu and Moslem ornamentation. The mirror work is amazing.
We then travelled to the Water Palace. This was built in a dip then the surrounding area flooded. The result is really beautiful and there are plans to enhance it to make it a real tourist attraction. It is unused and inaccessible at the moment. In the afternoon we visited a cooperative at which they make and sell things that are locally made. The carpets produced there were amazing (I had a go at a couple of knots). Some of the carpets take many months to make. The shop sold all sorts of exquisitely made items and all seemed reasonably priced and its nice to know some money is going back into the local economy. We then went to the City Palace - the residence of the Maharajah. The building was all built in pink (part of the reason Jaipur is known as the Pink City). One Maharajah weighted 500 pounds and we saw his clothes, all made to fit his enormous frame. Some ghastly weapons were housed within this building but if they didn't interest the visitor a look upwards would have done, the ceiling was one of the most ornate I have ever seen. We learned the next day that the current Maharajah had died the night after we visited so the official buildings were closed as a mark of respect. We then visited The Market, traders were persistent and really keep to sell us something. Our last visit was to a jewellers where beautiful jewellery was made, right from the inital cutting of the stone to the finished product. Even the chippings were sold to mix with plaster to decorate ornate walls.
Next day we headed for Ramthambore and around 5.00 p.m headed out in an old Indian Army jeep to the Nature Reserve. The eagle eyed guides showed us birds, deer, monkeys and to our delight (and that of the guides whose exuberance was overwhelming and infectious) just as we were resigning ourselves to missing out on a tiger sighting we witnessed what the guides said was the best sighting for ages - this magnificent beast came strolling along a track right in front of us. The guide (who was as excited as we were) kindly took the video camera from us and took some amazing footage on our behalf. This, we assumed, was to be the highlight of the trip, but in truth it was one of many. On our overnight stay we had an unauthorised guest in our room, - a gecko. The staff claimed they had removed it as we ate our evening meal, whether they did or not we never saw it again. The plumbing and electricity supply was quaint but the room was comfortable and the gardens surrounding us were superb. The rest of the group went for an early morning game drive, I demurred out of tiredness it was a very full programme and I am twice the age of some of the group. After breakfast we were off again and called at a small encampment where some of the people were engaged not only in the day to day business of living but also the making of clay pots. One potter showed us how he threw and moulded the pots and we were all given a tiny one to bring home. Their children played happily and were fascinated by our cameras. We then travelled on and arrived unannounced at a small Indian Primary School. The classroom was bereft of chairs, tables or books but the children were sitting obediently doing a test supervised by a very friendly teacher who welcomed us in. On our further travels we became completely stuck in that very English phenomenon - the traffic jam this particular one caused by some sort of demonstration. Bali took the opportunity to go and get us some snacks - we had been on the road for four hours and the meal break was still a little way off. As we cleared the jam we left the rutted tracks and at last joined a dual carriageway. Our meal had been arranged at a roadside hotel. We then called at a Step Well aptly named and incredibly deep, with stagnant green water at the bottom. We were invited to stay for food but time was pressing and we made our way on the Agra, by the time we arrived it was dark, making the drivers' job even more hazardous.
The next morning it was another 5.00 a.m start - we went to see the magnificent Taj Mahal and words can not fully describe what a magnificent sight this is, the majestic white marble which seems to change hue as the light catches it. Built over 22 years from 1631 to 1653, it took 20,000 builders and was built to show the love of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. Even the entrance gate is amazing - onyx marble and agate used to make even one small flower. The detail in just incredible. The marble is non porous and this is why it has weathered in its unblemished state. It is built so nothing stands behind it, in fact another Taj was planned for the opposite side of the river but it was never built as the Emperor was kept under house arrest by one of his sons for the last eight years of his life so this plan was never implemented. Everything is symmetrical apart from the tomb where the Queens' body lies - the Kings' body does not lie beside it. The towers at the front of the Taj in fact lean outwards - this is by design so that if one should ever fall it wouldn't hit the Taj itself. The gardens surrounding the building are magnificent and are meant to envisage Paradise.
After returning for breakfast we visited Fatehpur Sikri (we ran out of time for this the day before). The day was the hottest we had experienced (and they had all been HOT). Fatehpur Sikri is the deserted royal city, though it wasnt deserted on the day we went, it was crowded with tourists. All the complex is made of red sandstone and is much as it was left in 1584 when the Emperor Akbar left it to secure his outlying territories.
We were due that night for our first experience of an Indian train journey and it was the subject of some misgivings. We travelled to a station outside Agra where the porters amazed us all by hoisting at least two of our heavy bags onto their heads, sometimes carrying another in the hands for good measure. The train was surprisingly comfortable and well cared for. We were given a pack of spotlessly clean sheets and a pillow and Bali had organised a packed meal which was more than adequate. The swaying of the train was soporific and I certainly slept better than expected. By 5.30a.m. (yes that hour again) we were in Varanasi and taken to a very comfortable hotel complete with swimming pool which was probably the warmest one I have ever been in. We opted to relax for a bit then were ready for our evening trip by tuk-tuk to the Ganges. The traffic was dreadfully noisy but all eight tuk-tuks arrived safely and deposited us as near as possible to the river itself. The ghats (steps) were amazing - dusk was falling and a cremation was in progress at the site by the river. Believers are convinced that the Ganges originated in Paradise before it came down to earth it is a river of enormous significance. We boarded a small wooden boat having been given small posies made of leaves and flowers with a small candle burning in the middle. In response to Bali's frantic waving from the Ghats we deposited these posies into the Ganges where they joined several hundred others floating gently down the river - the effect was magical. We sat in the boat and watched a Hindu ceremony before returning to where Bali was faithfully waiting. We were back on the ghats at about 5.30 a.m. next day to watch the early morning activity on the river, the ritual bathing and some young men washing clothes over smooth stones in the old fashioned way. Back at the hotel we explored the nearby silk shop and then relaxed by/in the magnificent pool. It is possible to retain the room until 5.00 p.m. for payment of 600 rupees on the day of departure and we considered this well worth it. At 5.30 Bali collected us up and we headed for the station. As we had a bit of a wait Bali amused us (and a considerable group of local people) by playing 'How many fingers' I was probably the last to cotton on to the trick and I have no intention of revealing the secret as I am sure he will amaze other groups with this. As we waited two cows came strolling down the track. All of a sudden we had to dash to another platform as the train was to arrive at an alternative one. Bali was more than up to the task though and we finally arrived safely together on the train and in the same carriage and by some feat of negotiation, all sharing the sleeping compartments with other members of our group and not strangers. This train was as good as the last within the confines of the huge through-put of people. We were constantly offered drinks and snacks but our Bali had once again organised a packed meal. Unlike the Trans Siberian trains, on the Indian ones they dont lock the toilet doors as you come into a station - more convenient if not more healthy. ETA was 7.30 so Exodus were not required to prise us out of bed before sunrise this time.
We were now back in Delhi. Bali took us to show us his own place of worship, a beautiful Gurdwara which was very ornate but without statues or portraits, nonetheless very colourful and thronged with people. It had been brought up to the 21st Century - big screen TV's allowing the proceedings to be watched from all angles. In a huge seperate building lunch was already being prepared by an army of volunteers - apparently a thousand people a day come here for a meal. This is outreach on an enormous scale. Anyone can come, rich or poor. A machine tossed out naan at a rate of about one a second and enormous cauldrons of food were in various stages of preparation. We then travelled to the Florence Inn yet another good quality hotel. There were various optional trips organised but we decided to chillout (!) for a bit and then entered the maelstrom of the shopping streets nearby. The temperature remained at 36degrees and as it had been a hot, crowded, exciting, rewarding unbelievable trip we decided a gentle conclusion was the best. For the last treat Bali arrived to take us all to an Indian restaurant where we enjoyed a really nice meal together staying long enough to cause a queue of local people waiting patiently to get in.
It was sad to say goodbye to Bali - he had seen us safely and enjoyably through a trip we will never forget.