June 27-July 3, 2023
Day 1: Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India
June 27, 2023
Our flight from Kathmandu to India was short and sweet. Growing up in the U.S. I never envisioned a “quick” trip to India. I imagined a rather long endeavor that would include multiple days of flying. Instead, it was just under 2-hours in flight before we landed in Delhi. We had another strange time change of 15 mins. This time it was an additional 15 mins, meaning our new time difference from New York, U.S.A was ahead by 9 hours and 30 minutes.
When I claimed Cambodia was the dirtiest country I’d ever seen, India said “hold my beer,” cause holy cow; this place was trashed. The locals didn’t just coexist with the excessive litter, it was almost as if they preferred it. Walls and mounds of garbage piled up everywhere. People would stand, walk, and sit in it casually, seemingly unbothered.
We were prepared for India to be a difficult place and it sure lived up to its reputation. We were hounded incessantly by tuk tuk drivers, barters, and salespeople. While walking to the hostel from the airport we had a tuk tuk driver purposely block us in the middle of crossing the street, exposed to the wild traffic, trying to make our only option to enter his tuk tuk. Seriously? This can’t work with other tourists. We walked around him quite annoyed and continued on.
Later, while walking to get food we were followed and talked at for 2 blocks by a guy trying to get us to buy a pen. Lawrence snapped on him. A different local took his place, seemingly an understanding random nice guy, who was really a salesman. “Oh man these guys are so annoying, huh? So where are you from? Where are you going next? Would you like to buy a tour?” I saw through him pretty quick, but he had Lawrence fooled with the initial relatable-act.
Those who weren’t trying to sell us something, beg for money, or pickpocket us, weirdly asked to take a picture with or of us. This happened once to me in Vietnam and once to Lawrence in Nepal, but in India we were probably asked 30 times over 4 days. We still don’t know the true reason. Lawrence’s theory is because we are white we look like people in movies they see. So white people are this kind of mythical being that only exists on screen. We asked our guide one day, but he simply said “This is the craziness.” And then proceeded to also ask us for pictures.
India has some of the most insane and unsafe traffic I’ve ever encountered. If you can successfully drive in India, you can probably drive anywhere in the world. Our guide informed us “In India you need 3 things to drive: good breaks, a good horn, and good luck!” The horn honking was considered the “unofficial universal language in India,” as everyone seemed to speak and understand it. Hindi being the actual official language.
Day 2: New Delhi to Agra, India
June 28, 2023
The second day in India was also the start of our Golden Triangle tour. This tour is popular amongst Westerners as it is designed to take them to 3 of the oldest, and most beautiful, cities while also ensuring reputable, quality, hotel stays. We would come to find that reviews on commonly used sites like Google or Booking.com were not to be trusted. Almost every hotel was littered with fake reviews. The star system is reported by the hotel itself, rather than awarded by critics, and is rarely checked up on. This makes it extremely hard to judge a hotel or hostel for what it really is until it’s too late. Another hardship of India. Taking a Golden Triangle tour was a good way to ensure we’d be at safe, comfortable, and reliable hotels as well as getting to see all the sites.
The first corner of the Golden Triangle is New Delhi, Delhi, India. New Delhi is the current capital of India, as hoped for by many historic Indian kings. It is one of the most populated cities, and holds the largest international airport of the country.
Our first stop was to India Gate, a monument similar to Arch du Triumph in Paris, but much larger. This gate was created as a memorial to the soldiers in World War I, and is inscribed with the name of every Indian soldier that fought. It is also the same gate that the British walked through when leaving their occupation in India after World War II.
On our way we drove by the enormous Presidential Palace, the current Parliament Building, and the new not-yet-open Parliament Building. An update was needed because of the rapidly growing population.
This year India officially beat out China as the most populated country with over 1.43 billion people. Though absolutely massive, the Indian kingdom used to be much larger. Before being conquered by the British, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, and parts of Pakistan, and Afghanistan as well as modern day India, were all considered one giant territory. This explains the diversity in religion in India. There are over 40 different religions in the country including large Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist populations. These religions have left their architectural and cultural influence throughout northern India.
Next was Qutub Minar, the birthplace of Lawrence’s new found love of red sandstone. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built by King Qutub-ud-din Aibek during the Slave Dynasty. The main tower is 5 levels tall. The first 2 levels built by Qutb-ud-din Aibek during his rule, and the next 3 by his future generations.
The king a few generations after Qutub, began construction for a second tower, which he originally planned to be larger and grander than the tower before it. However, he died before its completion. This king was not as popular with his subjects due to his mistreatment and eventual genocide of the Hindu people. Because of his unpopularity, after his death the tower was never completed. Today only the base of the structure stands.
Our last stop in New Delhi was to Bahai Temple, more commonly known as the “Lotus Temple.” It’s design is similar to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. With its large white walls in the shape of petals, and pools surrounding it outside to keep cool temperatures, it’s no wonder it got its nickname after the famous water flower. It’s especially fitting as the lotus is the National flower of India.
The temple is meant to act as a congregation hall for all religions to come together in peace. Anyone is permitted inside on any day except Monday, when it closes. Before we entered we removed our shoes. Fortunately the Bahai Temple was better equipped than the Maya Devi Temple in Nepal, and offered plenty of fabric laid pathways to keep our feet cool. Inside the temple it was very silent and peaceful. It was almost like sitting in a pew at church before the priest started mass. A cool and relaxing breeze from the natural air conditioning pools wafted in and created a soft, relaxing atmosphere. Talking was not permitted. Instead only the rich echo of birdsong from the sparrows that nested in the ceilings sounded.
With that our time in New Delhi had come to an end and it was time to take the 4-hour journey to the next Indian city, Agra.
Arriving in Agra we were more than pleasantly surprised to find our 4-Star hotel had been upgraded to a 5-Star hotel. After staying at hostels and cheap motels for 5 months we felt luxurious and pampered. A little but of imposter syndrome set in as well. The other people here were far fancier than we felt with our dirty backpacks and well-worn athleisure wear. After exploring the grounds we indulged in ordering room service and basking in the beautiful comforts of our room.
Day 3: Agra to Jaipur, India
June 29, 2023
Waking up at 4:30 a.m., we were on our way to one of the 8 Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal, by 5:00 a.m. It’s better to do the Taj Mahal earlier in the day when there are less visitors. Since it’s open sunrise to sunset we made use of our time and got there as early as possible.
The Taj Mahal:
The Taj Mahal, which means “Royal Crown” has a fascinating history. It was built as a mausoleum by the king at the time, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, for his 3rd, and favorite, wife in 1630. He built the impressive structure in perfect symmetry to mirror the queens exquisite beauty. Throughout the mausoleum precious jewels of ruby, sapphire, emerald, and diamond, were meticulously placed in intricate inlays throughout building. Eventually the precious gems were replaced by semi-precious stones like jade, turquoise, and coral instead. We visited a store that demonstrated how they individually inlaid each of the stones into the marble. Any colors you see in the Taj are actually pristinely cut stones fastened with a special glue.
To clean the Taj Mahal, mud is spread on its surface naturally lifting any discoloration. It is up-kept regularly so it is able to retain its picturesque, clean, white marble look. Supposedly the slight transparency of the marble glows in the moonlight. Along with the shimmering jewels this magnificent fortress sparkled day and night.
The dome inside the main structure was made up of two double-domes that reverberated within each other to better resonant sounds. Since only men were allowed inside the temple, the sound needed to echo loud enough for the women that stayed outside to hear.
At the time it was common practice for Muslims to pray 5 times a day within a mosque. Instead of having his workers leave the construction site for a far away mosque, the king erected one on-site, to the left of the Taj Mahal, to promote around the clock work. The only problem; the addition of the mosque left the otherwise perfect symmetry unbalanced. To resolve this a second exact replica of the original mosque was built on the right side of the Taj Mahal.
Once inside you’ll see replica tombs stationed above ground, while the actual tombs are buried below the ground floor. Stairs to the tombs are encased with glass, giving you a peak down the stairs, but not to the actual coffins. The tombs are the only part of the Taj Mahal grounds that are not completely symmetrical. The queen’s tomb lays exactly in the center of the building, lining up with the arches of the Taj Mahal entrance, gate arches, and long water feature. Alternatively, the kings tomb is sat just to the left of the queens. Put there by his successor without too much regard for the kings desire for symmetry. No pictures are allowed inside the Taj Mahal, so you’ll have to use your imagination!
Considered one of the most romantic attractions, the Taj Mahal’s love story is one for the ages. It was love at first site for King Shah Jahan when his eyes fell on a beautiful Persian girl when visiting a women’s market. The market was one of the only locations women did not have to cover their faces, giving them a better chance to see what they were purchasing. The only man allowed in was the king. The Persian girl was the daughter of a minister and had no connection to royalty. She and the king were but children, she was 13 and he 14. After years of courting the minister agreed to the marriage and they were married 5 years later. The Persian girl was given the name Mumtaz Mahal meaning “chosen one of the palace.”
Of the king’s 3 wives it is believed Mumtaz Mahal’s was the only love marriage as she was the only wife to have children. She gave birth 14 times, the last causing her to die in childbirth at 38 years old. The queen felt a premonition of her death looming closer during her 14th pregnancy. Feeling ill, she asked her king for 2 things in the event she died. The first: for him not to take a fourth wife so her eldest son could become the next king. The second: for him to remember her in some grand way after her passing. The king agreed and immediately started construction on the Taj Mahal upon Mumtaz’s death. Their 14th child, a daughter, survived. She would go on to never take a husband and instead devote her adult life to taking care of her father.
Originally Shah Jahan wanted to create his own Taj Mahal directly behind the original made out of black marble. He unfortunately died before it’s completion, but you can still see the abandoned beginning structures today. Why did his successor not complete the second Taj Mahal in his fathers honor? Shah Jahan’s third born son desperately wanted to be king, but was after two other living brothers in line for the crown. He killed his two older brothers and convinced the public that this was in benefit to them. Because the two elder brothers wanted to finish the second Taj Mahal project, it was in detriment to the subjects tax money and labor. The third brother was allowed to be king and did not finish the shrine, but used the peoples money nonetheless, spending it on shrines and treasures for himself. He became extremely unpopular for his false promises and murder and was eventually imprisoned at the end of his rule.
After a thorough visit of the Taj Mahal we returned to our hotel for breakfast before packing up and hitting our next attraction.
This giant fort is built mostly of red sandstone. Its size and security are astounding for the time. There are 3 gates that can be shut in stages in case the first two are bypassed. If you manage to get past all 3 gates the long, echoing, stone pathway that leads to the main courtyard will alert guards of your presence. It is even further in that the main palace lays.
Agra Fort was probably more incredible to see than the Taj Mahal simply because I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen pictures and heard about the Taj Mahal, but Agra Fort is something I have done little research on. It matches, if not exceeds, Taj Mahal’s scale and offered far more to explore.
The entrance to the main palace building features symbols from Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religions. This represents one of the kings that lived in the palace and his first 3 wives, each of a different religion. He married them purposefully, to symbolize the peace between the major religions.
When walking through the palace our guide explained how the rooms would’ve been painted with multiple colors and decorated with silk rugs and curtains. They didn’t use doors for any royalty lest they be trapped inside. Jacuzzi’s were a staple and found in the centers of the garden-surrounded courtyards.
One king, Emperor Shah Jahan’s father, had dozens of wives who all had their own rooms around the courtyard facing the kings quarters, which was the largest and most decorated. Between the lush scenery, beautiful craftsmanship, and mix of Muslim and Hindu designs it felt like the inspiration for Disney’s Aladdin. It was a place only found in my imagination up until now. Something you’d read about and visualize, but remained far removed from.
Eventually the palace turns from red sandstone to the pristine marble akin to that of the Taj Mahal. This is where the quarters of Emperor Shah Jahan, the king who built the Taj Mahal, begins. He liked the look of the marble so much when building the Taj Mahal he decided to incorporate it in his palace as well. A clear view of the Taj Mahal is visible from the windows looking over the hillside.
You can also find an ornate room inlaid with jewels in the same way as the Taj Mahal. This was the test area for the jewel-inlaying idea. The room proved to be a visual success and thus it was also applied to the Taj. This specific room is also notable for being the house arrest jail cell of the king (son to Emperor Shah Jahan) when he was charged with killing his brothers to become king himself.
Our last stop before we left the Agra Fort was to the public meeting hall just outside the main palace building. This was a sort of town hall for the townspeople to come and speak to the king about any problems they might have. A large throne sat in the center for the king. To the left and right dark windows would have been where the queens sat. They were designed as one-way windows for the queens to be able to listen in and see out, without being seen by anyone unworthy.
After our very productive morning we started the journey to the 3rd point of the Golden Triangle: Jaipur.
Along the way you could see small collections of straw and wooden huts scattered about in the distant fields. India has some of the most extreme poverty in the world. What is so jarring is that it’s mixed in right beside the wealthier areas. There are slums, but no real separation between classes. The only other place we’d seen homeless camps to this scale was in Nepal. Those camps were made from tents and scraps thrown together. While these huts had the distinction of feeling like they were stuck in time, unchanged from the homes of primal humans thousands of years ago.
We had some lunch then arrived at our hotel, another very comfortable 5-star hotel. Worn out from a long day we got comfortable for the evening and prepared for more exploration tomorrow.
Day 4: Jaipur, India
June 30, 2023
After a breakfast buffet our day touring Jaipur started with entering one of the nine old city gates. Jaipur was ruled by King Jai, accounting for the names prefix. The suffix of the name “pur” means “city”. An easy translation to “Jai City”. It is known as “the pink city” because of the uniform terracotta coverings placed on all the buildings within the gates. This was done to welcome an English prince. The prince was colorblind and proclaimed the terracotta coverings appeared pink in shade, giving Jaipur its eternal nickname.
First up was the famed “Wind Palace” officially named the Hawa Mahal. It is nicknamed the wind palace because of the hundreds of windows that let in the breeze. The palace was built for a queen for loved to look outside, but as a woman, especially a queen, had to avoid being seen by anyone other than the king. This palace instead was designed so that she could move through any level and still see views of the city.
The Wind Palace is made up of 5 levels, each representing something different. The first level is for Autumn and the fall season celebrations. The second represented by the gemstones that used to adorn the windows, which are now replaced with stain glass. The third level is in honor of Lord Krishna and the happy, peaceful feeling received by prayer in their honor. Because of the skylight that sits in the ceiling of the 4th level it is in honor of light. And finally, the 5th level is for wind as it is not really a floor at all rather than a roof with a facade of windows at the front.
The Amber Fort:
On our way to the top of the hillside we stopped at an interesting well. Originally filled with fresh water, it was now a bright neon green. Turtles and fish splashed around in the pool surrounded by hundreds of steps. The design of the numerous, overlapping stairs was to aid the hundreds of women who needed to gather water as part of their daily routine. To avoid fights or falling into the well the design gave multiple entrances, water-gathering stops, and exit points fitting all of the women at once.
We continued up the hillside and made our way to the Amber Palace. This massive fort took 250 years to complete starting in 1590. Surrounding the fort and palace is a long wall, cheekily known as The Great Wall of India. The wall and high position amongst the hills were successful tools in keeping the palace safe from raids.
The main courtyard features 3 gates. A Sun Gate to be entered only by royalty. Today this gate can be entered by visitors on elephant back for an additional charge. The second gate is the Moon Gate, the entrance for common people. And the third gate, called the Singapore or “Lion” Gate, was used to enter the main palace area beyond the courtyard. Musicians a few stories up greeted new arrivals with the sound of flute and drums. If this were the 1700’s, flower petals would have been thrown into the air for our welcome as well.
Many luxuries can be found once inside the labyrinth that makes up the inside of the palace. King Jai had dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, all of which had their own quarters stationed throughout the grounds. Each of the women’s rooms had a secret passageway for the king to enter without being seen by the other women. Other rooms worth noting were a Turkish bath made of Italian marble, a mirror room constructed of reflecting glass and metals, the winter palace that included heating, and the summer palace which included a rudimentary form of air conditioning.
Jantar Mantar Observatory:
After a lunch stop and some shopping we took a look at the conservatory park. It was much different than how you might imagine a typical observatory building. The park used large stone instruments to tell the position of the sun and stars. It features the largest sundial in the world, officially listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Star alignment is a big part of matchmaking in India. Your astrological signs must compliment one another. They have their star sign science down to the minute in order to properly betroth a pair. India does have the largest population in the world…maybe they’re onto something!
City Palace Museum:
Lastly, we visited the City Palace Museum. This was once the palace of the current royal family in India. Today part of it has been turned into a museum showcasing the treasures and artifacts throughout modern Indian dynasties.
PRO TIP: Bring your college student ID, you’ll get a 300 rupee discount and pay only 400 instead of 700 rupee (about $5 vs. $9) as a tourist!
Here we learned about the Indian class and caste system. The caste and class system only applies to Indian natives, i.e. you cannot be sorted into a caste or class if you move to India from another country. An Indian is born into a caste and cannot change that about themselves. However, they can change their class through wealth building or marriage. The current queen herself fell in love and married a servant working in the palace, changing his class. There are hundreds of different castes as it differs depending on the specifics of the village.
With that we had completed our Jaipur day. It was time to make our way back to the hotel for one final night of 5-star luxury.
Day 5-Day 6: Jaipur to New Delhi, India
July 1-July 2, 2023
The next morning we left Jaipur and headed back towards Delhi, completing our Golden Triangle tour. I had quickly grown accustomed to our new high class lifestyle and was sad to leave it. What must it be like to travel the world and be extremely wealthy? When I found myself coveting the lives of those more fortune than I, I thought of the straw huts dotted on the empty fields, the dirty children begging on the streets, and checked myself. In their eyes our life of hostel-hopping is 5-star luxury.
Once back in New Delhi we stayed near the airport for ease of access. We had already seen our fair share of the more touristy areas of the city so instead got some work done at our hotel and explored the nearby streets.
We hit some of the markets where I was able to find a ring for my collection and had some of the best biryani and palak paneer curry yet!
Day 7: New Delhi to Mumbai, India
July 3, 2023
Today was the start of our goodbye to India. We ended up getting a flight with a 20-hour layover in Mumbai, Bombay, India flying out of New Delhi. Mumbai, being a bit out of the way, was not originally on our itinerary so I was glad to get a chance to visit.
After the flight we transferred to the hostel we had booked for the night. Our mobility was made easier since our big bags were checked, leaving us with just our small backpacks. We were too far away from the main downtown area of Mumbai to explore there. Instead we took to the markets that lined the streets near the train station. We had some dinner and ice cream before calling it a night on our short stopover/long layover.
Next we’d be going to my very favorite country (at least so far), Singapore!