Leh, Agra, Jaipur, Delhi; August 9-14, 2013

I'm afraid this travelogue got a little too long. Blame it on the 18-hour plane ride home.

Trekking in Ladakh was our primary reason for coming to India, but we planned a few days after the trek both to absorb any problems that might occur (luckily none did), and to take at least a gratuitous look at Delhi, Agra, and a small bit of Rajasthan, primarily Jaipur.

Our first task was to occupy the full day we had in Leh before flying to Delhi. We'd already spent three days acclimatizing in Leh at the start of the trip, and it's not a town that takes long to see. We'd also knocked off most of Leh's signature activities: trekking, cycling down from Khardung La, and visiting monasteries and palaces in the region. There was one obvious activity left -- whitewater rafting. We've done one-day rafting trips quite a few times before, and they have a remarkable similarity worldwide: an all-day affair for 2-3 hours on the river;
bus ride; wetsuits, life-jackets, and helmets; basic paddling and self-rescue instruction; class 3+ rapids for plenty of thrills; no possibility of photos (except when an enterprising photographer takes them from shore and sells them at the end of the trip); interesting other clients; charismatic guide; lunch. And we always enjoy them! This particular trip was on the Zanskar river, ending where the Zanskar meets the Indus.

We flew from Leh to Delhi on GoAir, one of several new-ish Indian budget airlines. The airline seemed just fine, and Emily & Jennifer much appreciated something we've never seen before: ladies-first boarding. On arrival we were met by a driver in a comfortable minivan who would be with us for the rest of our trip. We immediately drove to Agra, so we'd be in position to visit the Taj Mahal at dawn. Despite housing one of the wonders of the world, Agra is a fairly typical large-ish Indian city. Shunning the Western-tourist enclaves suggested by our driver, we headed on foot into the Taj Ganj district, where we were quickly immersed in the "real India": garbage-strewn dirt streets, throngs of people young and old, masses of honking motorbikes and rickshaws, cows and other animals wandering freely, open drains. Photo 1 captures a somewhat tamer street scene in Old Delhi. Surprisingly, touts and beggars were minimal. In general we saw fewer beggars than on our previous trips to India. One local guide suggested that in Delhi at least, the slums have become more segregated from the main city over time. As for touts, at the top sites they were as persistent as ever, with prices of souvenir knick-knacks dropping by a factor of ten in the few seconds it took us to walk by.

Some people come to India expressly to visit the Taj Mahal, whereas we considered it a mere add-on. And quite a nice add-on it was! There's no question that it's a stunning architectural marvel, with a great story to go along. We very much enjoyed the couple of hours we spent there. Although there were plenty of other tourists, it wasn't crowded; we're told that in high season it's shoulder to shoulder. You've seen it a million times, but photo 2 is our very own classic shot.

After the Taj Mahal we visited nearby Agra Fort (photo 3), which we also very much enjoyed. While there were a fair number of other westerners at the Taj Mahal, at Agra Fort, and many of the other places we visited, the other tourists were almost exclusively Indian. It was a four-day weekend for many Indians, and some came from rural areas where they hadn't seen westerners before. Our family garnered regular attention, and Emily was especially popular with teenage Indian boys. Many wanted to have their photo taken with her; she usually obliged (photo 4, at a mosque in Delhi).

On a tight schedule, we left Agra midday and headed to Jaipur, with a stop in the Keoladeo wildlife reserve. Rain was threatening and we didn't feel a need for more hiking, so we hired cycle rickshaws to take us around. The bird-watching was quite good, with some antelope and a monitor lizard thrown in. Emily & Jennifer lucked into a remarkably knowledgeable and enthusiastic Sikh rickshaw "wallah" (driver) -- one of those people we'll remember for a long time, photo 5. But when we tipped him more than we tipped Alex's rather bland wallah, and the two compared, the bland guy got very angry and stood by the car window demanding an equal tip until we reluctantly complied.

Jaipur is even larger than Agra, also boasting some excellent historical attractions: Amber Fort (photo 6, reminding us of Carcassonne in southern France, but with a parade of tourist-toting elephants, photo 7), an extensive palace, an interesting ancient observatory, and a great old-city bazaar for just walking around. And we definitely won't forget our Jaipur overnight. About 11pm, deafening Hindu-disco music began emanating from enormous speakers across the street from our hotel, and continued all night. (It's a toss-up which was worse: the all-night Hindu disco music or the all-night hee-hawing donkey mentioned in the second travelogue.) Peeking out our window revealed just a few people behind a small table wedged between the speakers, with some bowls of fruit. What gives? We learned in the bleary-eyed morning that our hotel was on the route of an 80 kilometer Hindu pilgrimage, and the stall was a refreshment station. A few of the older and more photogenic pilgrims can be seen in photo 8, but the walkers were of all ages and descriptions. The one thing they seemed to have in common was plastic sandals or flip-flops, hardly sensible footwear for a 50-mile walk.

A tedious 7-hour drive (more on the roads below) brought us back to Delhi, India's capital. Nearing independence day, some of its best sites were closed for security (notably the Red Fort, though Emily & Jennifer thought we'd seen enough forts already anyway), but we enjoyed Humayun's Tomb (a precursor to the Taj Mahal, photo 9), the giant Jama Masjid mosque where, like all foreign women, Emily & Jennifer were issued shower-curtain like cover-ups (photo 10), and once again a very enjoyable stroll through the crazy old-city bazaar area, where not another white face was to be seen. We also visited an interesting museum at the site of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, drove though the clean, wide, tree-lined boulevards in the capitol and embassy districts, and popped into the Imperial Hotel, where we were decidedly out of place. At the mosque, one minaret could be climbed, which we were looking forward to, but the obscene number of people crammed onto the tiny and somewhat precipitous viewing platform at the top was downright dangerous. We snapped a couple of photos (photo 11) and headed down. With a 2:00 AM flight home, we finished our trip with some vigorous bargaining in the Delhi evening market, where Emily snagged a number of clothing and footwear items, setting us back a whopping $10.

A few closing topics:
  • Food: Except for a couple of boring tourist restaurants along the highway, the food varied from very good to truly superb, and dinner for three at the less expensive places ran about $12, including beer. We often ate vegetarian -- Emily recently became a pescatarian, but fish was uncommon. As is typical on our trips, in the last couple of days we let down our guard a bit in terms of what we'd risk eating/drinking, which resulted in minor stomach trouble but nothing that could be classified as true Delhi belly.

  • Weather: We knew we were visiting in the monsoon season. On the plus side: far smaller crowds at the tourist sites. On the minus side: hot and humid, with sudden brief torrential downpours most afternoons. Aside from the lack of blue skies in our photographs, we thought it a worthwhile tradeoff.

  • Driving: The Indian roads are indescribable. In the city the traffic is chaotic and dense. It's amazing there aren't constant fender-benders, but the drivers are skilled. The main roads between cities vary from equally dense to almost highway-like, although even in the latter case there are plenty of pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes of all descriptions, cows, pigs, and camels (photo 12). Our driver seemed quite good, though he honked his horn more than he didn't honk it, and at one point we sideswiped a large Brahman cow at high speed. By the time we knew what had happened, we could see that both we and the cow were okay. The one exception to the hectic roads was a new private expressway between Delhi and Agra. The price must be too high for most Indians -- it was nearly empty and we made gloriously excellent time.

  • Guides and Agencies: Effie at Himalayan High Treks, who arranged the trekking portion of our trip, also arranged our last few days. We were extremely happy with all of her arrangements, and her price was more than reasonable, but it was interesting to note the layering of agencies and middlemen in the whole enterprise. Effie contracted with an agency in Delhi, who provided the driver but in turn contracted with agencies in each of the locales we visited. We would arrive at our Jaipur hotel (say) and be met by a "local agent" who would help us check into the hotel (completely unnecessary), inform us about the local guide meeting us in the morning, and take his leave. One possible motivation for so many people involved is shopping commissions. It's no secret that if a tourist makes a significant purchase in India, every local involved in the trip gets a cut. What we hadn't known is that the cut is a whopping 35%, divided among guide, driver, local agents, and so forth. We're not shoppers, so I'm afraid our people may have been disappointed. On the other hand, American travelers are known to be generous tippers compared with other nationalities. When the service is decent (as it invariably was on this trip), we follow suit.
Next: Stanford doesn't start until mid-September, so after returning from Europe next week Tim still has a month left in his "endless summer." He'll have all four wisdom teeth extracted (ugh), then the first two weeks of September will be spent roaming Alaska in a 4x4 camper, photo equipment and bicycle in tow. One parent needs to stay home with Emily, so Jennifer will join Tim in Alaska for the first week and Alex for the second. It should be a nice college send-off, especially with Tim missing the India trip.

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