Continuation from Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Hanoi, Vietnam
Episode 2: India (Agra and Jaipur)
Almost ten years ago, I spent two weeks traveling around northwest India, from Mumbai to Delhi, and Agra. Back from the trip, I swore I’d never go back. But here I am, again… Maybe it was because of Nicky’s requests. Or maybe India is really intriguing.
Being a first timer in India, Nicky wanted to explore everything. We hired a Tuk-Tuk driver who drove us around for the next few days.
Agra Red Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was originally built with the brick by the Hindus but when it was captured by the Islamic Mughals, they rebuilt it with red sandstone. The place is huge and we spent hours admiring the architecture. From the terraces, we can see the beautiful view of Taj Mahal in a distance.
In the late afternoon, our Tuk Tuk driver, Jaabar, drove us to Mehtab Bagh, an old garden complex, which is located across the river of Taj Mahal. He told us that we can see the spectacular view of the sunset over Taj Mahal. He was right, this is the ultimate Taj Mahal viewing spot.
This garden is considered as a secret spot as we didn’t find many other foreign tourists. There were a few domestic travelers wandered through this beautiful garden, and workers tending the sprawling vegetation. We were stopped by a group of locals who wanted to take pictures with me. Sorry, Nicky. I’m the popular one.
The next morning, we went to Taj Mahal at the very early hours for the sunrise, and for avoiding the crowds. Taj Mahal is built as an expression of the love that Shah Jahan held for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The beauty of the mausoleum has withstood time and is one of the seven wonders of the world.
The Taj Mahal is epic and breathtaking. The architecture is lovely and the intricate details all over the walls are just perfect. It is not only built of marble stones but the handmade carvings of floral designs embellish with precious blue lapis lazuli and other gemstones just took my breath away. We were simply becoming awestruck by the stories of love, arts, human labor, and patience to put together this dream piece. We enjoyed walking at our own pace and admiring the beauty and serenity of Taj Mahal, and its huge complex.
On the way to Jaipur, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri. Our Driver contacted his friend to pick us up at the entrance. At that moment, I was thinking, “Well, well… Another ‘rip off tourist’ bonanza”. But I was surprised as he was worth the money. We did not have to pay the entrance fees which was about Rs500 each, he was knowledgeable, and he protected us from the group of hostile beggars and sellers.
Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. It was lovely to learn how three of Akbar’s wives from different religion lived together in harmony. Muslim, Hindu and Christian architectural elements were blended beautifully.
There were many locals enjoying their family time together. We also saw many beautiful ladies accompanied by their older siblings, sitting around with their bright beautiful clothes. Our guide told us that the women were seeking for potential husbands.
Fatehpur Sikri is worth a visit, but I think what was off putting is the number and aggressiveness of beggars and sellers. Nicky was so annoyed with one marble seller, who followed us around and said mean things to him for not buying the overpriced souvenirs.
The guide then brought us to the blessings session near Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti. We were asked to pay for the scarves, flowers, and strings to drape onto the tomb and tie the string for wishes. The ‘holy’ guy said that the money would be given to the poor. Three wishes, he said. “One for yourself, one for your special someone, and one for anyone”. He even showed the picture of Katrina Kaif, the Bollywood actress that came to seek blessings. He asked for Rs1,000 each and Nicky and I looked at each other. To me, a charity must be done willingly, it is our choice rather than being forced into it.
Our next stop was the Abhaneri Chand Baori, where we find one of the world’s largest step-wells. This place was constructed around one thousand years ago to improve the water level of the whole region. I first saw this amazing architecture on ‘The Amazing Race’ (Australia) program and was impressed with the artistic design of steps. This place is a definite work of art which is worth visiting.
We arrived Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, in the evening and had our dinner at Peacock Rooftop restaurant. It was Nicky’s birthday and I had made a reservation earlier prior to our visit. Nicky was surprised to read the “menu” which was my present for him (a self-made photo book). I swear I saw water in his eyes.
The next morning, we had the Tuk Tuk driver from last night waiting for us. Nicky had ‘promised’ him that we will engage his service for sightseeing. I was not happy. For the same amount of money, why would we take a Tuk Tuk instead of a car? It was scorching hot out there, and Amber fort was quite a distance. He asked for Rs800 which was a lot.
City Palace was constructed by the Maharaja of Jaipur and is a huge complex of exquisite’s palaces, gardens, and courtyards. It has a royal collection of textiles, arts, and the armors. The architecture is marvelous and the complex is beautiful, but we didn’t find this place that interesting. It lacks charm.
By the time we finished, the weather has turned increasingly hot and humid. We waited half an hour for the Tuk Tuk driver to come and fetch us, and decided to end his services. We asked him to send us back to the hotel and we paid him Rs500. He gave a sly grin.
Amber Fort is in Amer town of Jaipur and is one place we enjoyed the most in Jaipur. The beauty of this place is immaculate; the exterior is a wonderful example of ancient Indian architecture and the interior is artistic and filled with loads of charm and intricate details. We reached Amber Fort quite late, and have to leave after just less than two hours wandering around.
On the way to the Monkey Temple, we stopped to take panoramic snapshots of the Jal Mahal Lake Palace located in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. The scenery was beautiful, and the lake so calm. We would have stayed longer if not because of the heat.
At the entrance of the Monkey Temple, we were hassled by a man to take him as a guide, and buy peanuts from him. It was not a long walk to the temple but he said that we needed protection from the monkeys. We knew this was untrue, but were just too tired to argue.
The trip started with a steep walk to the top of the hill. The monkeys can be quite amusing and friendly but some misbehaved as they scrambled for food. After less than fifteen minutes, we reached the top of the hill. The temple was old and filthy, which somehow creates a certain sense of charm.
While waiting for the sunsets, Nicky asked about the Sadhu. The guide told him that he can call one to give blessings to us. It will take him about thirty minutes to arrive, and we needed to give a large sum of money. I smiled.
We were so impressed with Amber Fort and the surrounding area, so the next day, we went back to the town.
Amer village is an ancient village with almost thousand years of history. There were plenty of historical temples and other monuments around. The village is authentic and charming. The shops were colorful and the people are genuinely nice.
We were admiring India’s legendary Royal Enfield motorcycle that was parked at one of the house. The handsome young owner, Vijay, approached us. He was so kind enough to ask if we need any help. He showed us around the area despite the need to go to work. The temple ruins he showed us were both mysterious and beautiful.
On the way back, we managed to stop at Johri Bazaar, a central market place where we can find almost everything. Situated nearby the market is the Hawa Mahal, which was built in 1799 for the ladies of the royal court. This iconic beautiful building is also known as “The Palace of the Winds”.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more difficult time summing up my travel experience. I was horrified by the poverty, filth, and tourist scams, but Nicky loves the whole adventure. Nicky and I witnessed beautiful sacred moments in Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and Jaipur, but then we also witnessed profane moments.
The visit to Amer village in Jaipur was the most memorable one for me. I got to see real hospitality. The villagers were friendly and helpful, and never demanded a fee of us entering the mosque, temples and other interesting sites. We were not even charged for taking photographs. It makes one wanted to give more to the community. If I could change my itinerary, I would stay at Amer village and spend more time at Amber Fort.
For Nicky, as much as he adores Taj Mahal, he loves Fatehpur Sikri the most. The architecture of the building has its own unique character, and he also loves the locals visiting the place. People were warm, friendly, chatty and full of smiles. A big happy family offered us snacks which were delicious.
India was crowded and humid. It was impossible to walk down the street without beggars and gauntlet of traders running after you. The traffic was terrible. The Tuk Tuk drivers weaved in and out so recklessly, waiting for an accident to happen. And most places were sadly, too dirty. The cow is worshiped in India, but I sighed watching the cows and pigs eating litters together.
Being a seasoned traveler, I was prepared for the possibility of getting scammed. But it turned out that no matter how prepared we are, there will always be a way that we can get screwed over. Sometimes we have the innate tendency to trust others and never suspect the hidden agendas. People trying to take advantage of you everywhere in the world but in India, they tried by every means. It was an incredibly exhausting way of travel.
Nicky loves historical sites and worship places and thinks that India is fascinating and magical. When he told me that he wishes to visit again and we might stay three to four weeks to really enjoy India, I was like, “What!!!???”
Interesting Places Visited:
- Agra Red Fort – Rs550 (SGD12)
- Agra Baby Taj (Idmat-Ud-Daula) – Rs210 (SGD5)
- Agra Methtab Bagh (Garden) – Rs100 (SGD2)
- Agra Taj Mahal – Rs1000 (SGD22)
- Fatehpur Sikri – Rs500 (SGD11)
- Jaipur Abhaneri Chand Baori (donation fee)
- Jaipur City Palace – Rs350 (SGD8)
- Jaipur Amber Fort – Rs500 (SGD11)
- Jaipur Jal Mahal Lake Palace – Free
- Jaipur Amer Village – Free (wonderful people)
- Jaipur Galta Ji (Monkey Temple) – Free (expect touts)
- Jaipur Johri Bazaar (shopping)
- Indian Visa for Singaporean – USD25 (SGD35)
- Taxi Delhi to Agra – Rs5,000 (SGD110)
- Taxi Agra to Jaipur en route Fatehpur Sikri – Rs5,000 (SGD110)
- Transportation plus entry fees for cars within the cities – SGD80
- Entrance fees to monuments and interesting sites and tips/ donations – SGD100
- Accommodation and food – SGD200
- For those require Indian visa, do apply online e-visa via the High Commission of India in Singapore (hcisingapore.gov.in). As per the website, “Please beware of fake websites offering Indian Visa/e-Tourist Visa related services on behalf of Government of India”.
- Hiring a good legit Guide in India whenever possible – The guides can help in explaining the details of the monuments, assist in navigating the crowds and hordes of people trying to sell things, and can be your photographer.
- Consume a lot of mineral waters, and avoid street food if possible.
- There are many tourist scams in India. Beware. Google is your friend.
- Check the price of tickets online and on the notice board at the entrance. Some staff tries to overcharge, whenever they can.
- Take small notes with you. Some staff pretended they do not have enough change, some giving lesser change. One even said, “Collect your change when you exit.” Do count your change carefully, and be firm with them.
- Be extra careful when taking photographs. Even taking a photo of an old tree requires a fee.
- In the New Delhi airport, beware of staff taking your luggage to the counter, they demanded tips.
- In the New Delhi airport at this beautiful souvenir+massage shop call ‘Ishana’. Ask for the currency exchange rate (if you are paying using home currency). Calculate. Demand for receipts. Personal experience – the cashiers try to cheat whenever possible.
- Use Uber taxi in India for reasonable rates. Our fares city to Amber Fort was Rs160 (one way – about 15km). Tuk Tuk driver asked for Rs300.