Over the last few months, Violet and Tyler have each learned about the Taj Mahal in school. Violet’s teacher, for a timeline project, asked her to write about an event between 1600 and 1650. Foregoing the more obvious selection of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth Rock, Violet stumbled upon the building of the Taj Mahal. Needing to sketch the event, she was entranced with the symmetry and beauty of the structure and selected this as her timeline entry. In Tyler’s primary curriculum topic "Structures," he drew and reported on the Empire State Building, while his good friend drew and discussed the Taj Mahal. Truth is, the kids knew way more about the Taj Mahal than we did when deciding that our post-wedding time in India needed to include a trip to the Taj.
With seeing the Taj Mahal as an itinerary starting point, we were kinda locked into spending our visit in north India because India is huge. It’s called the Indian subCONTINENT for a reason! Trying to hit sights in both the north and south would have meant a lot of flights. Starting in Delhi, the nearest major city to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, we put together a pretty standard north India itinerary to visit the “Golden Triangle” highlights. With trusty TripAdvisor as a guide, I booked a car with a locally-owned small company, Ashok's Taxi Tours (http://www.i-love-my-india.co.in/). Ashok assured me that since it's the "ultra low season" prices were reduced and hotel bookings would be no problem. Why is it the ultra low season? It's hot. Right, hot is okay; we live in Malaysia. So I booked!
Pune to Delhi is a 2 hour flight. Before leaving Pune, we checked the weather in Delhi. 114 degrees. Excuse me? I thought there was a typo on weather.com? Not a typo. It was the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark hot (i.e., bad guys' faces melting off). That's why it's low season. Our trip started off on the right foot. As we were coming in for the landing into Delhi, the overhead speakers on our SpiceJet plane started playing "My Home Town," by Bruce Springsteen! Our lovely driver, Anil, met us as we departed the domestic terminal in Delhi. With the temperature right around 110 degrees, Anil said that our plan was to see sights in the morning and evening and drive during the day (in the air conditioned car).
As we said in our last blog entry, driving from Mumbai to Pune was a wild ride, but the drive from Delhi to Agra was no less a spectacle. First, the traffic in Delhi is a nightmare. It took two hours to get out of Delhi (not even rush hour). Then as we left town, the distances were magnified by the poor road conditions. Anil said, “Anything you might see on a road, you’ll see on a road in India.” He wasn’t kidding. Over the five hour drive we saw so many modes of transit. From ox carts to horse carts. Buses and trucks so packed that more people were on top than inside. Auto-rickshaws stuffed with 16 people. Milk trucks with huge jugs strung on the tailgate. A steamroller (not at a worksite, just cruising down the highway). We try to keep our blog light, but I can’t neglect saying that on our way to Agra we also saw the aftermath of a horrific accident. It appeared someone fell off a vehicle on the road and was hit by another car. It was time again to count our many, many blessings. We were inside a car, buckled in, with a careful and attentive driver guiding us.
|I loved the decked-out trucks. See the black tassels hanging off the sides|
and garland on the front. Many also had elaborate scenes printed on the rear.
All the permits and signs are also hand painted. I kinda want to deck out my car like this.
|Village traffic calming roadblock|
|Climbing and jumping off the Fort Agra walls|
Approaching Arga, we stopped by the Ackbar mausoleum, the resting place of the grandfather of Shan Jahan (the ruler who built the Taj Mahal). The structure was beautiful but the coolest part of this place was its 300-year-old herd of African antelope wandering the grounds. We continued on to Agra. The evening of our arrival, we visited the Agra Fort. We were fortunate to pick up a wonderful guide who walked us through the vast structure. The huge red stone walls surround a 16th century palace -- the pictures here don't show the scale of the walls at all. The kids latched onto one fact about the fort – the fort had both a wet moat with crocodiles and a dry moat with tigers – and peppered our guide with questions about the advantages and disadvantages of the tiger/crocodile dual defense system. Tyler was particularly struck by the pre-battle strategy of depriving the tigers of food so they would be extra hungry and aggressive for foreign invader meat! Agra Fort looks out over the Taj Mahal, so we saw the sunset on the Taj as the Fort closed for the evening. It was our first real glimpse of one of the most incredible structures we've ever seen.
Early to bed and early to rise for our sunrise Taj Mahal tour. We met our guide who provided us the context and history of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is a structure of symmetry and beauty. The kids were totally impressed with the structure's optical illusions, like the four-sided pillars that looked eight-sided from a distance and the script that seemed condensed at the bottom from far away, but up-close looked in correct scale. Put your worries to rest, the Taj Mahal of glowing white marble with decorative inlay is as beautiful and magnificent in person as it seems from photographs. The scale and placement over the river makes the building seemingly float in the sky. The ultra low season paid off here as we had no lines and wandered around the complex enjoying the calm.
After seeing the Taj, we were in for another long car ride. The ride length was much worse since Brian came down with "Delhi Belly." It is a common occurrence in India, so common in fact that most reviews on TripAdvisor talked about the bathroom facilities at hotels in case you came down with "The Revenge." TripAdvisor unfortunately did not rate the roadside bathrooms on the northern state highways. As the ciprofloxacin, immodium, peptobismol, ibuprofen and oral rehydration salts from our ziplock bag mobile pharmacy worked their magic, we drove into the Indian state of Rajasthan, in India's far northwest. Driving along, we were treated to a picture of life in rural India as we watched the landscape change from pasture to all out desert. Drying cow paddies rested on stucco-decorated mud huts to be later used for fuel. Miles and miles of brick factories sent trucks, tractors, and ox carts filled to the brim with bricks out along the roadway. The scene soon gave way to arid farmlands as ox carts were replaced by camel carts. The many areas we past were a flurry of activity with villagers preparing for the upcoming monsoon season. All along the way people loaded hay into gigantic burlap sacks that hung over the sides of flat bed trucks. As the landscape changed, women's attire shifted to bright orange saffron saris, worn over the head mostly for sun protection.
|Is it a truck stuffed with hay?|
|The same truck from the front!|
|Stopping for cows crossing the road.|
Rajasthan is home to Ranthambore National Park, the largest tiger reserve in India, and our destination for this leg of the trip. (http://www.ranthamborenationalpark.com/) There’s not a lot in this little town outside a strip of hotels and the park. Lacking in places to eat, most hotels provide full board. The park is closed from June 30 until November 1 because monsoons make the park roads impassable, so we were catching the tail end of the season. This has the advantage of uncrowded jeep tours and great prices on hotels. But it is a bit odd staying and eating in a giant hotel with no other guests. Brian was worried it was going to be a hot weather version of The Shining (especially when we learned that the hotel was no longer selling liquor for the season).
|Our first sign of a tiger - a massive paw print in the mud.|
We went on two rides in Gypsy jeeps which sit six guests, plus a guide and a driver. The reserve is divided into ten regions into which the park rangers randomly assign each tour group. Our first visit was in Region 1. From the onset, everyone set up low expectations. It’s not prime tiger-spotting weather. The rain the night before made the tigers not need to go to the waterhole to drink. Plus it was relatively cool (like 95 degrees), so the tigers did not need to swim to cool down. The rain also made the tigers harder to track since there was less dust to look for tracks. The rocky, arid landscape was beautiful. The pre-monsoon rains were just adding touches of green to the landscape. The park is known for its many birds, most notably the peacock, the national bird of India. Our guide called the peacocks “tiger cupcakes” (looks nice, but not so filling). One nice part of visiting with the approaching rainy season is that the peacocks were in full dancing glory. During the dry season they lose their feathers and just kinda hang out. But with the approaching rainy season, there is love on the peacocks' minds. The feathers grow in and they start putting on a rhythmic circular dance, with a distinct mating call. We also saw male spotted deer fighting for the affections of a doe, several antelopes, and other types of deer. Right as we were giving up the tiger search, we heard from another car that there was a sleeping tiger by the road right at the border of Region 1 and 6. We went into high gear – racing through the jungle to find the tiger. Tyler loved going fast in the open jeep -- up and down the rocky hills. He was definitely airborne a few times. Here’s a picture of the three year old male we found. You most definitely appreciate his massive scale from up that close and how amazing is the tiger's camouflage! Our second safari took us to Region 5. We were fortunate to also see a tiger on this visit, but this time a bit more in the distance. This region has a beautiful watering hole in which we saw all the grazing animals as well as some crocodiles. The kids were pleased to have seen in the wild both animal occupants of the Agra Fort moat.
|Two male peacocks showing off with dances!|
The next day we left Ranthambore and headed to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.
Leaving you with a picture of Violet trying to take the Taj Mahal home with us.