And now for something completely different

Date Posted: 28/12/2011

Rob Yandell headed east to experience the magic of India, finding a country that is as baffling as it is beautiful. See how you can organise a group holiday travelling the Golden Triangle with your group.

Watching India go about its day is enough to bewilder the most travelled individual. Having a monkey at your coach window, seeing cows wandering the streets or a cobra being tamed by the sounds of a snake charmer were sights that will stay with me forever. India can overload your senses and offer a real culture shock that is hard to understand. My advice would be to experience it with a touch a patience and an adventurous spirit and you’ll fall in love with the place.

In a country of 1.21 billion, the density of its population means there are people everywhere. But there is always room for guests and I found the welcome both warm and sincere, with a smile and a wave from even the poorest people as our tour group explored a country that was once regarded as the jewel in the British Empire until independence in 1947.

Delhi

My India adventure started in the nation’s capital, divided into New and Old Delhi, with plenty of sights in both to keep you reaching for the camera. As we boarded our coach to begin our sightseeing tour, I was completely struck by the volume of traffic and the rules of the road, which if any exist are cast aside as multiple lanes of traffic jostle for position.

India boasts an extensive list of World Heritage Sites and the first stop on our tour itinerary was at Qutub Minar. The name is given to an impressive red sandstone tower built in the 13th century under the rule of Qutbuddin Aibak of the Mamluk Dynasty. Wandering the site’s structures, columns and carvings gives you plenty to see and set the tone for a trip that would include so many sights of historic importance and interest.

A far grander site is Humayun’s Tomb; the final resting place of the Mughal Emperor and the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent, which is also said to have inspired the design of the Taj Mahal - and it’s easy to see why.

The links and stories of the vast Indian dynasties dominate much of the tours and sights sampled by tourists; but the father of a nation was a simple man who did so much for the civil movement in India before he was assassinated in 1948. A short stop at Raj Ghat in Delhi reveals a simple and understated memorial site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated and serves as a tribute to the man and his ideals.

My time in Old Delhi introduced me to compact, densely populated streets full of life; and what better way to experience it than on a rickshaw? It’s an experience I highly recommend but it’s not the most comfortable of journeys. That cannot be said for the city’s Metro service which we were invited to sample. Opened in 2000 it is a slick, modern form of transport and something the locals are very proud of. Also worth seeing is Jama Masjid, the country’s largest mosque which can accommodate over 20,000 worshippers.

Agra and the Taj Mahal

India is a vast country and even though this ‘Golden Triangle’ tour covered only a fraction of it, travelling between cities takes time. Having said that, a five hour journey to Agra passed much quicker than I had anticipated with so much to take in as we passed a seemingly endless array of people, markets and food stalls. In fact, it was impossible to see where one village ended and the next one began.

As the sun fell, we reached our destination and I realised that the streets of Agra are just as chaotic as those we left behind in Delhi. Once the capital of the Mughal empire, it is at Agra you will find the iconic Taj Mahal and why so many tourists flock here. Having seen it in countless photos, it was surreal to finally see it with my own eyes. Construction of the Taj began in 1631 and it took 22 years for 22,000 craftsmen to complete the complex. It was never intended as a palace for the living, but as a magnificent mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal, the most beloved wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Now both rest within its magnificent white marble which attracts around 10,000 visitors every day, except Friday when it is closed to the public. A mosque also sits on the site, as does a small and rather unimpressive museum. Photo opportunities include the bench where Diana, Princess of Wales famously posed for the cameras – expect fierce competition. There are plenty of spots to sit, think and take in your surroundings, which is all you need to do to enjoy one of the modern wonders of the world.

In the distance stands Agra Fort, another historic monument worth visiting and still a working fort to this day. Used by the Indian army, only ten per cent of the site is open to the public, but this is more than enough to satisfy a curious tourist group. You will find out about this imperial city of the Mughal rulers and the story of emperor Shah Jahan who was imprisoned here by his son.

Continuing our Mughal theme, we spent the evening catching the colourful Mohabbat the Taj show in a comfortable, modern theatre with headphones for an English translation. Fearing I would find it rather dull, it was actually fast paced and enjoyable, with colourful dance routines and traditional music, set to the tale of the Taj Mahal legacy. It certainly breaks up the itinerary and can offer your group something different.

Jaipur

Having left Agra we stopped at Fatehpur Sikiri, the former capital city of Emperor Akbar and the centre of the Mughal empire for some ten years. Said to be both deserted and in ruins, I thought the buildings were in great condition and there are actually 30,000 inhabitants living within its walls. The architecture is stunning and the wide open spaces add a sense of scale that reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Founded in 1727 but with roots back to the tenth century, Jaipur is known as the ‘Pink City’ and it is easy to see why by looking at the colour of its buildings which were painted so to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1853. It took us approximately five hours to reach it by coach from Agra and it is especially famous for its arts and culture. The capital of the state of Rajasthan, it proved to me that whilst travelling in India you think you’ve seen it all until you move onto the next destination where you are forced to re-evaluate all over again.

The City Palace is well worth a visit and is the home of the royal family of Jaipur. See a range of historical carriages in the courtyard, one of which was gifted by Queen Victoria. Touring the Hall of Commons you see fine decoration on the walls and ceilings before displays of traditional outfits as worn by past maharajas.

Next to the palace is the Royal Observatory, which is a World Heritage Site full of amazing instruments used to record the time and to stare at the stars from as far back as 1728. The techniques and knowledge used by the people at that time is truly impressive.

However, the highlight of Jaipur was the Amber Fort, which was like stepping into an Indiana Jones movie. Seeing the Palace of the Winds on route, we transferred to jeeps to climb to the fort itself, negotiating the traffic and the elephants. The royal family ruled from here between the 16th and 18th centuries before Jaipur was officially founded and a colourful, original gate from 1639 set the tone for a remarkable visit. Beautiful throughout, including stunning mirror decoration used to enhance candle light, Amber Fort is a must see.

Samode

A tour of India means a lot of travelling so it’s a good idea to factor in some relaxation time. For us, this meant a secluded hideaway once we had left the hustle and bustle of Jaipur behind. The Samode Bagh resort in the town of Samode offers a sense of calm within lovely gardens with accommodation in the form of luxury tents which are basically chalets with a tent-style roof meaning no lack of comfort I was pleased to discover. The pool and Jacuzzi were just the tonic.

There is plenty on site to keep your group happy but how about a camel safari (you’re pulled long on a cart) to the spectacular and authentic Samode Palace hotel for a special dinner? It’s not the most comfortable journey but a special welcome awaits and we also enjoyed pre-dinner drinks in one of the palace’s stunning rooms and dinner alfresco with music and dancing. A very special evening and one that will give you and your group long-lasting memories.

India Essentials

Eat: You may be tempted by something bubbling on a street corner, but sticking to the hotel eateries is a safer bet. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy some local delights, but ask for a Balti and you will be laughed at.

Drink: Soft drinks, local and western beers and wines are readily available but for something Indian you can try chai tea; traditional yoghurt-based drink, lassi; or the Goan liquor Feni, which will blow your socks off.

Buy: Exquisitely made carpets, jewellery, paintings and carvings make good presents and souvenirs. Watch out for locals pretending to be artists, you may find it’s simply something of a production line and not the one-off you thought. Bangles and scarves are also popular but be prepared for ‘hawkers’ who will invade your space and sell hard... but it’s all part of the fun.

Go: Weather conditions in the north and south of India are rarely the same and not linked. You will find it most comfortable during the cooler months between November and February but watch out for monsoon season, usually around June to September.

Fact file

Getting there: I flew from London Heathrow to Delhi with Indian carrier, Jet Airways which I confess to knowing nothing about before the trip. Now I know it offers a really comfortable flight, with a good seat pitch and a first class entertainment system that helps fill the hours.

Flight time: London to Delhi takes between approximately 8hrs and 8hrs 30mins.

Time difference: GMT + 5 1/2hrs

Currency: Indian Rupees (you cannot take any into the country)

Languages: There is a variety of languages spoken from state to state, with Hindi the most common, with a long list of different dialects. English is widely spoken in hotels and tourist attractions.

Red tape: A visa is required for travel to India and the form is thorough, with the process often long so it’s best to go through your tour operator in good time.

We went with... Travelsphere (part of the Page & Moy Travel Group)

The multi award-winning tour operator collected its latest long haul accolade at September’s Group Leisure Awards and has a wealth of expertise; ensuring groups can experience the most exciting destinations in a safe, well organised escorted tour. The hotels we used in India were of a very high standard and any group holiday would be led by a tour manager, who will work with the GTO to ensure the holiday runs the way you want it to. I cannot fault the ground handling agent in India and can see why Creative Travel has recently won four international awards.

This familiarisation trip was attended by a number of top group travel organisers and was based on Travelsphere’s ‘Golden Triangle’ holiday which is a ten day tour. Various other India tours are available and if you can get the numbers you may be able to tailor something a little more to your personal preferences.

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