Traveller Tales: Uncover the wonders of India

Returning customers Peter and Doreen travelled to Rajasthan in October/November 2019, having first visited India in 1971, quite a few things have changed since then.

We travelled to Rajasthan in NW India with Wendy Wu Tours, a company with whom we have travelled with before and like.

We flew with China Southern (a nice ‘full service’ airline) to Guangzhou then to Delhi. Our guide greeted us at the airport, and we were taken straight to our very nice hotel where we spent the afternoon relaxing after our long flight. As the afternoon progressed, we gradually met others booked on the same tour as us. By the time of the evening meal, all of our group had arrived – 26 in total, including one other Kiwi from the South Island.

“Everyone is very pleasant, and we get on well.”

This is not the first time we have been to India, we visited in 1971 when we drove from Bombay through India en route to England (it took us three months, mainly sleeping in the back of our car). Since then we have taken a few day visits from cruise ships to Indian ports (and surrounding areas) and a few years ago we travelled with Wendy Wu Tours in southern India.

So, what have been the similarities and differences we have observed as a result of these various visits to the subcontinent?
1. The roads have improved, more are tar sealed and now there are fast multi laned highways.
2. Communication with family and friends was largely by mail using Poste Restante services.
3. Many more signs are now in English as well as Hindi, Gujarati etc.
4. Telephones were solely landlines and the service unreliable once out of main centres. Now almost every local seems to own a mobile phone,
5. There seems to be a substantial middle class who now own a motor car, so there are more cars and fewer bullock carts on the road.

Accommodation Highlights

But to us India still has the same characteristics irrespective of time or place in India. We were on a round trip of Rajasthan starting and finishing in Delhi. Each night (bar one) we stayed in an hotel with an ensuite. These are not the rather featureless international style hotels such as Holiday Inn or Hilton – they’re much more interesting. We stayed in what was once a Maharaja’s palace, a converted fort, a very modern architectural wonder of a building, some with multitudinous steps and others all on one level with lovely gardens.

The exception was the one night we were ‘glamping’ in the desert, every couple had their own large tent featuring a carpeted concrete floor. The tent had electric light, a very comfortable large double bed, and a western style flushing en suite toilet. All three meals were included every day and naturally all were Indian – usually a buffet style so we could choose and sample whatever we fancied. We started in New Delhi because it affords international access via the airport – Delhi is not in Rajasthan but in Uttar Pradesh.

The map below shows our tour route. Rather than a blow by blow explanation, we can summarise by saying this trip gave us a huge variety of everything.

Getting around

Although our day to day transport was in a very comfortable large tourist bus, our transport also included: A camel – not a simple tourist ride for a few minutes but 90 minutes travelling from A to B. We have travelled on camels before, but this ride seemed particularly uncomfortable as the terrain was over sand dunes, up and down so at times one was pitched forwards and other times flung back.
Comfortable – No!
Interesting and memorable – Yes!

  • A camel cart – which was unsprung and hard but definitely more comfortable than the camel’s hump! A steam train – definitely not first class, and definitely not for tourists but for locals. It was fun seeing the scenery roll by and talking to the Indian local passengers on the train who were all very friendly.
  • A boat – out on a lake to visit a palace built on an artificial island. Actually, there were two palaces on the lake. When the father had his palace created in the lake the son wanted to use it, but the father told him, no, build your own island and palace. So he did!
    • A four-wheel drive jeep-like vehicle in the Rajasthan desert looking for tigers.
  • Tuk tuks – as we needed quite a few tuk tuks for our group the drivers seemed to think it was some kind of Grand Prix competition, and drove us fast weaving through the traffic, pedestrians and animals. The tuk tuks would overtake each other at hair-raising places. But it was an exciting experience!

We have already mentioned camels. In some places they seemed to be the main draft animals, sometimes carrying loads on their backs, but more often hauling heavy laden carts. Goats would be in flocks crossing roads. Ubiquitous cows and bulls seemed to be impervious to car horns or prodding sticks. Sometimes we saw donkey carts.

In the desert we saw all kinds of deer, both large and small, brave and timid. We saw all kinds of birds, several types of monkeys who also were totally unafraid of humans, and at times rather a pest.

Sights and sounds

But the highlight was seeing a tiger. We had to be up before dawn and onto our safari jeep by 5.45am to see the tiger but it was worth it.

We saw so much architecture which was amazing. How to summarise it? Impossible.

We visited palaces with solid silver doors, incredible decorations, amazing views and the piece de resistance – the Taj Mahal. We had visited in 1971, essentially the Taj Mahal was unchanged, but the biggest significant change was the increase in number of people and the accompanying fear of terrorist attack.

In 1971 we drove to the main entrance, parked, paid for our ticket and walked in. We had wandered freely. Now the number of visitors was much larger, on average there are 35,000 visitors a day rising to 75,000 on special occasions.

When visiting the mausoleum inside the Taj Mahal, the route is clearly designated with barriers, no stopping allowed and no photographs. In 1971 we had walked freely and had taken photos inside the mausoleum. We explored the grounds and buildings, some areas were restricted, security guards everywhere but despite all of this we enjoyed seeing it.

Besides the inevitable carpet shops, we saw quilt making from old sari style bridal dresses, a black smith making pipes for smoking tobacco (his raw material was old car springs!), umbrella making, silk screen printing, spinning and weaving.

We were taken to a place operated by descendants of the artisans who had made the intricate stone pieces used to decorate the façade of the Taj Mahal. They were keeping their skills alive by making marble tabletops inlaid with semiprecious stones. We purchased a coffee table that features NZ paua shell inlaid in the marble, it sits proudly beside our armchair in our new retirement home.

We also visited a place where they blended silk and wool to make fine floor mats, we purchased a circular mat which is now enhancing the decor of our new home. Both are lovely reminders of an amazing holiday.

Bridal dresses

More than a destination

When buying or simply seeing these crafts we met the skilled people who created them. We also met people doing humble jobs – pulling carts, selling in the market or carrying heavy loads on their backs. No matter the environment, the women always wore beautifully coloured and embroidered clothing. Despite extreme poverty, people were just getting on with life.

Some things we saw were at first an unexpected sight; a surprise but interesting because of that, these were:
1. A stainless-steel larger-than-life Ganesh (Hindu elephant god)
2. Ready-to-wear plastic turbans
3. Fascinating musical instruments
4. Long garlands of knotted coloured cloth to hang on the back of lorries/trucks as decoration.
5. A life-sized model of a horse with a long flexible tube over its nose. One army had done this to its horses because they looked like elephants from a distance, scaring the enemy.
6. Interesting street signs: “Drive carefully. 90% of all people are caused by accidents” and “Overtaker beware of the undertaker”

This was an amazing packed to the brim, a fascinating variety of sights, sounds, experiences. Our tour guide was brilliant, food plenty, tasty, and definitely Indian! It is really impossible to summarise in a travelogue like this, so we urge you to go to Rajasthan with Wendy Wu and see for yourself!

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