16 (Scorching Hot) Days in India

The plane touched down in New Delhi around 3pm local time. It had been a pretty enjoyable flight, as I managed to get an emergency exit row seat next to two Swiss guys. They had already spent some time in India and Nepal and were on their way home via Delhi, so they gave me some good tips for India as we enjoyed a couple of complimentary beers. We parted ways at immigration but made plans to meet for dinner in Paharganj.

I caught the airport express to New Delhi Railway Station and planned to walk from there up Main Bazaar in Paharganj to the hostel Backpacker Panda. Luckily I had read up a lot on how to get through across the railway station, otherwise I would have been so lost and confused.

First I needed to find a bridge across the platforms, so I went upstairs and someone told me “No Entry”. Well I had also read that people would say that and not to listen, but sure enough as I climbed higher it was blocked off at the top.

Next I went back downstairs to a stairway where locals were queuing up to go in. There was a cop at the gate monitoring the queue and checking tickets, so I went and asked him how to get across to Paharganj. His English wasn’t great, but he quickly pushed me into the queue and through the gate, and that’s how I found the way across.

I found this first experience of Delhi pretty confronting. There was a lot of poverty and trash everywhere, people lying down all over the ground. In hindsight many of them were probably victims of multi-hour train delays, so spreading out on the floor was more understandable (especially in the 40 degree heat!).

Once across the station and into Main Bazaar Road, I thought it looked like Indias version of Koh San Road, just much dirtier and dustier, and Indian of course. Though I got hassled a bit on my walk to the hostel, it wasn’t much worse than in South East Asia, but I was very cautious and wary having read a lot about Delhi scams.

After checking in to the hostel and chilling out for a bit, I went to meet the Swiss guys for dinner at a Korean restaurant. The entry into the restaurant was down a dark alley, through a different restaurant, into an open living room in an apartment building, through the apartment building and up to the roof, very strange entry.

I ordered a beer and some Korean sushi, but had to leave early to go and meet my friend Winnie at the airport. Winnie and I had met in Malaysia three weeks earlier and made plans to travel in India together. I walked back to New Delhi Railway Station, this time in the dark at 10pm, it was pretty unnerving, and difficult to find my way as it looked different at night, but eventually I found the airport express and made my way to the airport.

Once Winnie was through Immigration we got a pre-paid taxi back to Main Bazaar in Paharganj. It was about 12.30am by this time, and I was surprised to see plenty of people sleeping in the street, on benches, carts and everywhere else.

New Delhi (2 nights + 1 night sleeper bus)

For our first day in Delhi we started with breakfast at a nearby cafe, then headed off to the Red Fort, taking the subway there. It was at least 40 degrees and not the most relaxing place to be. We felt quite popular with the locals requesting photos with us the whole time (this feeling didn’t last long). After the Fort we got a tuk tuk to Humayun Tomb. (My advice for anyone getting tuk tuk’s in India – Negotiate HARD – you’ll often get the ride for a third of the initial asking price. If they’re not budging, go to a different tuk tuk and try again (the first tuk tuk driver will probably call you back and agree to your price as soon as yo walk away).

Humayun Tomb was surprisingly nice, in a similar style to the Taj Mahal and also surrounded by green gardens. After the tomb, we still hadn’t had lunch and it was nearly 4pm. Also craving A/C, we caved and settled in Maccas at Connaught Place.

We were hoping to book our train/bus tickets for the two weeks in India together, so we sat down with the travel agent at the hostel. But he was an absolute pain in the arse and so we ended up just booking a sleeper bus for the next night to Varanasi – we would plan the rest of our trip from there.

For our last day in Delhi we went to the India Gate (where we got hassled for photos again), before going back to Paharganj for lunch and to get ready for the bus.

The bus was actually leaving from a station 1 hour east of Paharganj, so we got a taxi out there. Although there was a big bus station across the road, the taxi driver asked around and then was adamant that our bus would pick us up on the side of the highway, it sounded really dodgy. Anyway, we went across to the station for dinner (Subway) and then when we returned, our bus was waiting for us!

We had a double sleeper, which was a completely flat bed in a individual cabin, it was really cool, but being a bus on Indian roads, didn’t get the best nights sleep.

Varanasi (2 nights + 1 night sleeper train)

When we arrived at Varanasi the next morning, we got a tuk tuk with another backpacker from the bus to the Assi Ghat area. We had booked accommodation at Roadhouse Hostel, but when we arrived they said the A/C in our room wasn’t working, so we went across the road to Assi River Guesthouse and got a pretty good deal with very good A/C.

After settling in we went for some lunch at a restaurant nearby. (The only eating I’ve mentioned so far is McDonalds and Subway, but I promise almost every other meal was some combination of usually delicious Indian Curry/Roti)

We were pretty exhausted from the bus so had a siesta and a pretty lazy afternoon, but we did arrange a boat tour of the Ganges for the next morning.

It was pretty peaceful cruising along the river by rowboat. We were away from the noise and the hassling (except for the kid selling candle flower things from his foam boat). We had front row seats to see the people bathing in the Ganges (though its a sacred river to Hindus, it is extremely polluted).

On the return journey back down the river to the starting point, I started feeling sick. I thought I was going to vomit, faint, and more. Winnie took me back to the guesthouse where I slept for about 3 hours and woke up feeling surprisingly much better. In hindsight I think it was mostly from dehydration.

We went for lunch and after chatting with my friend Nick (who I met on the Trans-Mongolian Railway in October 2016 and he was traveling India at the time) he suggested we go to Varanasi Station and try to book all our tickets through the International Tourist Office there.

We took his advice, and sat down with a not-so-chirpy guy who would look up the ticket availability for each leg of the journey on the date we requested. We decided to book trains from Varanasi to Agra, Agra to Jaipur and Jodhpur to Goa (via Mumbai). Only for the routes to/from Pushkar would we need to arrange a bus.

Once that was done we took a tuk tuk to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first teachings. Next we went back to the guesthouse for a break before heading out to the Ganges to see the activity at night. It was about 10pm at this stage and some of the ghats were busy

I was still a bit paranoid about being out too late at night, and when Winnie started feeling unwell we had to weave our way back through tiny lanes and alleys for 20 minutes before hitting a main road, where we got a cycle-rickshaw the last 1km.

The next day we were leaving for Agra. Our train wasn’t scheduled to leave until 6;15pm, so we hung out in a cafe for a few hours to escape the insane heat before heading to the train station. After waiting for 6:15pm to roll around, a delay notice came over the loudspeaker for our train – We didn’t get away from Varanasi until about 11 or 12 that night.

Agra (1 night + 1 night sleeper train)

We were supposed to arrive in Agra at 6am, but due to the delay we didn’t get to our hotel until 1pm.

We went to the Taj Mahal at about 4pm, and for 500Rs had a guide show us around (and act as our photographer) for 1.5 hours. The Taj Mahal was amazing to see in person. I expected it to not amaze me so much as I’ve seen it in pictures for years, but it really was something else. The amount of work that went into it, and the detail and symmetry (all four sides are identical) is incredible.

After seeing the Taj Mahal, we managed to meet up with Nick and Erika (mentioned earlier) and went for dinner together. A few beers and a ‘special’ lassi would have finished off a good night, but we were about t experience the worst hotel in India. I won’t repeat it here, but avoid Hotel Gayatri Palace at all costs.

Our train to Jaipur was scheduled to depart Agra Fort Station at 7.30am and arrive at 1pm. When I woke up at 6am, I checked the train schedule and saw it was already delayed by 10 or so hours. I thought it might be a problem with the website, but after checking four more websites, they all said the same thing. This gave us the morning to sleep and after checking out of the hotel (I gave the manager a deserved spray at the time).

We went for lunch and then to the train station to leave our bags until our train was ready to depart.

Given the delay, we now had time to see Agra Fort. Having seen Delhi Fort and been a bit underwhelmed there, we weren’t expecting a lot from this Fort, and it was only ok, not particularly inspiring, but it did kill some time.

We went for dinner at a really nice rooftop bar/restaurant, then headed back to the station, only to find that our train was delayed again and again. We didn’t leave Agra until 12am that night, making it a 18hr delay following an 8hr delay the first time; not great success with train travel up to this point.

Jaipur (1 night)

Arriving in Jaipur around 5am, we walked to Moustache Hostel about 1km from the station. We had booked the night before (because we were expecting to arrive at 1pm) so it was nice to have a room to check into immediately, and it was a really nice place. We needed to book a bus to Pushkar, so did that at a local travel agent for the next day before going for lunch. The bus was departing early in the morning, so we only had one afternoon to spend in Jaipur. After lunch we went to the old city, but unfortunately we were too late and the palace, museum etc. were closed. Still, we got to see the ancient streets of the Pink City.

When we got back to the hostel, we went back to the same travel agent and booked our bus ticket from Pushkar (Ajmer rather) to Jodhpur, from where we would continue our journey by train to Goa.

The Pink City

Pushkar (1 night + 1 night sleeper bus)

In the morning, we got the bus from Jodhpur to Pushkar with no trouble, for about 400Rs each. I asked the bus to drop us off at the end of the road near our hostel (Zostel), which he agreed to do, before driving right past it and taking us to the other side of town. I have no idea what happened, but we then had to pay a couple of hundred rupees for a tuk tuk to Zostel.

Zostel was also a really nice hostel, the swimming pool was very nice. We had a lazy afternoon, but the next day walked to the lake in the middle of town, said to have been created by a lotus flower. The lake is a very important religious site in the area, so naturally being India it was home to scammers. When we tried to walk down to the lakeside steps, some random guys approach and insist on pushing flowers into our hands, saying “it’s free, must take to respect the lake, go and place in the lake”. Luckily I’d read about this scam beforehand, so we refused the flowers. An Indian woman at the lakeside just looked at us and said hurriedly “just come”, so we pushed past them and found ourselves at the lakeside and the scammers backed off.

Walking along the lake it happened another four or five times. We later found out that the scam works as follows;

  1. They give you the flowers for free, and tell you to go down to the lake to put them in and make a blessing
  2. To get to the lakeside you need to remove your shoes, this gives them more time to slow you down also
  3. They recite a blessing for each member of family, work, education and anything you want blessed
  4. Then they request 1,000Rs per blessing. Sure you can try to negotiate, but they’ll get aggressive and you didn’t agree to any payment so even negotiating anything above 0 Rs, you lose.

Having survived the scammers, we walked from the lake to the temple and lookout on top of the hill at the other end of the lake. It was 40+ degrees, so a very nice relief to find there was a cablecar to the top and that we didn’t have to hike up the 500 steps in the blazing sun.

Back at the hostel, we went on a camel sunset safari for two hours in the desert surrounding Pushkar, before returning to catch a taxi to Ajmer where we would get the night bus to Jodphur.

We waited for the bus on the side of the road in Ajmer from about midnight to 2am, it didn’t feel like the safest place in the world. But the bus did come, and we were on our way.

Ajmer > Jodhpur > Mumbai > Goa (1 night sleeper bus, 2 nights sleeper train)

I checked the expected duration of the bus journey to Jodhpur, and set an alarm for 45 minutes before the ETA (approx 6am). I couldn’t get any sleep on the bus, it was throwing me around too much. My alarm went off, and then 5 minutes later we stopped, apparently in the middle of Jodhpur – this was a surprise to arrive so quickly, so we had to hurry to get off the bus.

We took some time to decide what to do on the steps outside a bank or some government building. One tuk tuk driver had his eye on us, the easy tourist tuk tuk rip-off opportunity. He seemed to think we had no option but to go with him, but as we sat on the steps, I was ordering us an Ola (Indian Uber). We took the Ola to the station we would leave from that night to drop off our bags and have a shower in the first class waiting room (not even close to first class standard in any other country), then took a tuk tuk to the old town, where after 2 hours having tea in another place and looking for a cafe we finally found one open. I was absolutely exhausted and fell asleep in the cafe. Winnie decided to book us a cheap room just for the day so we could have a decent shower and I could have some sleep, so we went back for our bags and then to the guesthouse.

I thought we were cutting it fine leaving the guesthouse in the afternoon at the time we did. The streets were busy and we actually got turned around due to a police blockade further down the road. I said to the driver, “I’ll pay you an extra 300Rs if you go fast!” He understood that, and we made it to the station with only a few minutes to find our train and carriage, boarding with just a couple of minutes to spare.

The trains in India, though regularly delayed, are fairly comfortable. Winnie and I watched a movie on my laptop before going to sleep, and I slept pretty well, especially after the night bus.

We arrived in Mumbai at Bandra Terminus station around 11:30am. I had been recommended a slum tour by a friend (It sounds a bit ‘poverty porn’, but 80% of profits go back into the community), so we signed up for that and met the tour guide after lunch at 2pm. There were about 5 other foreigners on the tour, and it was really interesting. They ban photography to not exploit the poverty of the locals, and showed us how the Dharvabi slum is actually an industrial neighborhood, specializing in recycling waste products into new reusable products. I was really impressed in their ingenuity.

After the tour, we dropped our bags off at Mumbai CST station for the next night train.One thing India does very well is bureaucracy. To check our bags in to storage, we had to get them scanned in one place, get a sticker in another place confirming the security scan and buy a lock for Winnie’s bag back on the street just so they would accept them into storage.

We went down to Mumbai’s “India Gate”, where we got hassled for selfies. By this point I’d started refusing these requests, because “one photo” is NEVER one photo. It turns into chaos. One guy wasn’t happy with my refusal, so tried to take a selfie with me anyway, I pushed my hand up to his camera and told him to go away.

Back at the station, we collected our bags and after having a shower we got our train, again with only a few minutes to spare. It was 11;30pm so we booked our Goa accommodation for one night in Anjuna and then went straight to bed.

Goa (three nights)

Our train tickets were for Madgaon in Goa, but when I woke up I checked the train timetable and it was going to be much closer if we got off a few stops early. We took a tuk tuk from the nearest station to our Guesthouse.

Goa was to be a break from the insanity of hot, dusty, dirty cities, and it was exactly what we needed. We spent one night at Anjuna beach before relocating to a really nice place in Vagator Beach. We swam in the ocean, ate in the few beachside restaurants that were still open (it was low season) and had a few drinks at night.

The three days in Goa was a very nice way to end the trip in India, and we were both happy to be leaving, but not at all regretting the decision to see how some of India’s 1.2 billion people live.

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See the full photo album here.

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