The journey from Haridwar to Shimla is about 180 miles, but it’s such a slow one. Our route took us via Dendrahen which was just a mass of roadworks that took ages to negotiate. We stopped off at a little café for a rest and a cup of tea thinking we’d broken the back of the journey, but little did I know how the rest of the journey would be a mass of twists and turns as we progressed from the Lower to the Middle Himalayas. This was the first time in decades that I’d felt terrible motion sickness in the car. It was excruciating. All I could do was shut my eyes and try not to see the horizon.
Somehow we managed to reach Shimla without my throwing up, but it was a close thing. Our hotel for the first two days in Shimla was the Oberoi Cecil, a stately pile in the centre of the town and perfectly located for sightseeing. Unfortunately our journey took such a long time – a good ten hours – that we were hardly in a position to enjoy its bounteous pleasures when we got there. But we tried our hardest anyway. Mrs Chrisparkle had to attend a phone business conference as soon as we arrived so I supported her in the only way I knew – I picked up a book and went to the bar and had a bottle of Kingfisher. Later we enjoyed dinner in their restaurant, a very grand and regal affair with a marvellous atmosphere of Raj decadence. Looking back, however, both Mrs C and I agree that, overall, this is the least impressive of all the Oberoi hotels we’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, that means it’s only superb. The bar shut unnecessarily early, and, whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable stay, it just lacked the touch of Oberoi magic that you find in their other properties. Yes, I’m being incredibly picky.
The next day we awoke rested and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Our guide was a very funny and knowledgeable chap by the name of Dinashkumar. First he took us a little way out of town to visit the Jakhu Hill Temple, with its huge statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, who keeps a watchful eye over the town below. It’s not surprising that this temple is dedicated to Hanuman as the area is totally overrun by monkeys, and you have to be very careful not to encourage them because they’re devious little buggers. Dinashkumar equipped us both with what he called a monkey-stick; it had the dual purpose of scaring them (or indeed pushing them) away if they got too close, and also acting as a walking stick to climb the path to the temple. The views are magnificent; this was the first time we’d seen mountainous India, with its fresh air (indeed the lack of oxygen did have a literally breathtaking effect on our respiration), lack of crowds and (relatively) cold temperature. We looked inside the temple and Dinashkumar was very keen that we should have the full Jakhu experience, so he paid for us both to be blessed. It always makes me laugh that a blessing is a financial transaction in India. Hanuman keeps a lovely garden up in the hills above Shimla, and it’s very well worth taking fifteen or twenty minutes to slowly do the rounds and get all the great views.
Back in the car, we descended back to town. A perfect spot for a morning refreshment – indeed, lunch if you fancied it (we didn’t – but I have a great recommendation for you later) – we took a pause at Clarke’s Hotel, the easily forgotten third Oberoi in Shimla. Built in 1898, in mock Tudorbethan style, it sits grandly at one end of the town’s famous Mall Road. We had a reviving pot of Earl Grey tea, and a very pleasant chat with the welcoming manager, Pooja. Her husband, Amardeep, is the manager of the Cecil, so together she said they are known locally as the Oberoi Mafia. The hotel seems like a great place to experience Oberoi service without paying Oberoi prices.
After a welcome rest, we walked up Mall Road, past a range of small shops – some of them barely one person wide. It has a very relaxing and stressless atmosphere; rather quaint and bijou, a little like how one would expect an Indian Polperro to look like. We had the statutory stop in a pashmina scarf shop; they were promoting a Diwali sale – baby pashmina scarves at two for the price of one. I’ve no idea to what extent it was a genuine sale, but the scarves are very attractive, soft and warm (although, be warned, when you get them home, they moult like crazy!) Dinashkumar pointed out the interesting central sights at a meeting place – the wonderfully named Scandal Point. The scandal in question was the abduction of an English lady by the Maharajah of Patiala in 1892. One thing we did realise as we wandered around – there are so many Brits! Its place in the history of the British Raj in India means it’s enormously appealing to the more intrepid British tourist. Sadly, Shimla is choked with traffic, but nevertheless it’s still absolutely charming, and definitely worth the trek there.
We were just too late to visit Christ Church (it closes for lunch) so we thought we’d take the same dining opportunity as the vicar. On Dinashkumar’s recommendation, we went to the Ashiana Restaurant in the centre of the town. It’s located in what was an old British Victorian bandstand. We sat in the outside garden, had superb food, friendly service and a much-needed Thunderbolt beer. On the other side of the street is The Ridge, which consists of a beautiful viewpoint, with a statue of Indira Gandhi, and it’s also the site of Christ Church, a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1857, with a chancel window designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood. In a rather sweet cross-fertilisation of faiths, you have to take your shoes off to enter the church; I don’t know of any other Christian church where that’s a requirement.
Many of the shops are recognisable from home: Levis, Benetton, Wrangler – even Domino’s Pizza. I bought a thick warm shirt in BlackBerry, which I’ve washed a few times now and I’m very pleased with it; it’s a brand and a shop you can trust. After slowly wandering through the Mall Road area, we headed back towards the Cecil. I made a schoolboy error where the road passes the Army Headquarters. There’s a noble looking sculpture outside of four brave Indian soldiers with a flag, which I photographed, then turned around to photograph the entrance to the Army HQ just as a means of identifying where I was. Of course, I was instantly hollered at in no small measure and refused permission to photograph. Daft of me, I know the rules. I just forgot. We reached the Cecil in time for a nice afternoon nap, followed by drinks, dinner and more drinks. The highlight of the meal was a dessert of gluten-free vanilla and choc chip muffins. It may sound like a simple pleasure, but it was heaven to the coeliac in the family.
The next morning we checked out of the Cecil, although we were still staying in the Shimla region for another two nights. Our first port of call was the Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888 in Jacobethan style for the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Getting in to the building is something of a bureaucratic challenge, with set visiting times, set queuing locations (which you have to guess at), no photos permitted anywhere, quite a lot of barking custodians – and the first few rooms you walk around are pretty dull. But it comes into its own with its amazing sweeping staircase and it’s actually quite an interesting place to visit. The gardens are also worth your time – very beautiful and immaculately kept.
Once we’d left the Viceroy Lodge it was no more than a half hour’s drive to our next hotel – the majestic Wildflower Hall in the mountains above Shimla at Mashobra. On arrival we had the disappointing (I jest) news that our Premier Valley View Room had been upgraded to a Deluxe Suite. It’s like having your own apartment overlooking the Himalayas, easily big enough to be your permanent home provided you don’t want to cook and are prepared to do without most of your unnecessary nicknacks. It was one of those places that made your toes curl with pleasure. The building was originally Lord Kitchener’s Himalayan hideaway (although there’s not much there now that he would recognise) and it has an amazing jacuzzi that looks for all the world that you’re at the edge of civilisation and with one false step you could fall into the valley below. Mind you, with that view, what a way to go! There’s a very comfortable bar (The Cavalry Bar) where Rajat will prepare your pre-prandial gin and tonic, and a glorious restaurant (eat outside during the day, inside at night) where our favourite waiter Sachin made us very welcome and gave immaculate service.
The highlight of our next day was the treat of a genuine walk (trek, hike, if you like, but it was really a walk) in the Middle Himalayas. The Oberoi provides their own naturalist guide, Rohini, to make sure you stay safe and on the beaten track, even though it feels like the most glorious adventure. The path we took was once part of an old silk route from Tibet. Rohini pointed out the local plant life, including the four main trees of the area, the Spruce, the Himalayan cedar, the Blue pine and the Green oak. We saw wild garlic, Daphne, Baby’s Breath, and many other fascinating wild flora. We heard a bell tinkling at one point, and discovered a lone pony, lost in the woods. It was slightly disappointing to discover he wasn’t wild; there’s a pony farm nearby and he’d obviously not followed the signposts home.
Our walk covered just short of 3 miles and took about 2 hours 15 minutes, giving us maximum opportunities to take it all in at a very comfortable, holiday-like, pace. Even though the temperatures were no more than about 7 degrees centigrade, because the sun was so strong it didn’t feel cold at all; and sitting outside later, in a short-sleeved shirt, felt like the height of decadence. The Wildflower Hall is perfect for a relaxing break; we loved it and would go back without a moment’s hesitation.
Just like our 2016 trip, our 2017 trip to India (October 18th – November 1st) started in Gurgaon, so that Mrs Chrisparkle could go to her company’s office there and catch up with all her Indian staff. Once again I had to fend for myself by the pool and the lunchtime buffet. As in the previous year, we stayed at the Oberoi; no grand upgrade this time like last time, but I’m never going to complain at any of the rooms at that hotel. Our Premier Room had a wonderful view of the front pool and was immensely comfortable as always. Our evening was spent relaxing in the Piano Bar; we decided we didn’t need a massive meal that night so we overdosed on their bar snacks and that was more than enough for us! The evening coincided with Diwali, but we were too tired to join any Delhi celebrations; and in fact we were surprised that the hotel itself was so quiet. But it’s always impressive to see the beautiful decorations that they place around the hotel to celebrate the festival.
It’s a good six hour drive, even without breaks, from Gurgaon to Haridwar, and to get to our hotel – the Aalia on the Ganges – you have to drive into Haridwar then out the other side and come back down the east bank of the river. When you come off that main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Driving through farming villages with narrow roads (although in surprisingly good condition) you realise this is genuine Indian countryside, not teeming with people. Eventually our driver Mr Singh found the hotel, and we checked into our River Suite room. It was a comfortable room, with a door leading to a passageway, where the main wardrobes were kept, and then another door to our bathroom. We spent the next two days playing enjoyable games of “chase the gecko” who clung to the bathroom window for dear life.
The only problem with the room was that the aircon was a) extremely noisy and b) extremely cold. We decided to turn it off the first night but were gasping for breath a few hours later because it was so warm! You pay your money and you take your choice. The benefits of this hotel are not inconsiderable. You can walk down close to the banks of the Ganges and sit under canopies to watch the world go by. There are lots of sports too – but that’s not really our thing. There’s a pleasant, if understocked, bar – the usual problem in India of plenty of gin but no tonic; and the restaurant was extremely good value with delicious food. But it’s very quiet. After you’ve had dinner there’s absolutely nothing to do apart from go to bed.
The next morning, Mr Singh drove us in to Haridwar, where we picked up our guide for the day, Satish, and we drove on to Rishikesh. It’s only 20 miles but the route is hilly and full of all kinds of traffic so it took a good hour and a half to get there. I’d always wanted to see Rishikesh, ever since I discovered it was where the Beatles met their guru. It’s a holy city – they all are when they’re on the Ganges – and you quickly realise it’s a magnet for tourists. Not only from the West, but also from all over India. As a result, it has quite a relaxed vibe to it, and is one of those rare places in India, where the locals don’t stare with fascination at a Caucasian face. There’s far too many of those everywhere.
Satish took us for a brief walk through the town, down to the first of two major pedestrian bridges that span the Ganges. This is the Laxman Bridge, built in 1929, when I sense there was less pedestrian traffic than today. It’s only six feet wide so you have to have your wits about you when crossing – and indeed pausing to take photographs, as the views are irresistible. At the other side, it’s a 2 kilometre walk to the other bridge, the Ram bridge (1986, bigger than the Laxman Bridge, but even narrower), in order to make a full circuit.
Rishikesh is charming; full of funny Indian signs, little shops, bathing places; and the main sight along this route is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram founded in 1942. It’s like a cross between an Oxbridge college (Indian style) and a small village. Full of people, gardens, study rooms; there are photographs on the walls of the Pope (understandable), Prince Charles and Camilla (also understandable) and Keith Vaz (perhaps a little surprising.) Alas we did not get to see the Beatles Ashram. Satish assured us that it has been left to wrack and ruin, and I’ve seen pictures of it since we were there and he’s right.
After a very brief visit, it was time to return to Haridwar, for a short tour of the town and to spend the evening watching the Aarti ceremony. Our first stop was at a beautiful Jain Temple, Shri Chintamani Parshwnath Jain Shwetambar Mandir, to give it its full name. It was only built in the 1990s, and has all the intricacy and elegance that you would expect. It’s notable for its lovely circular inlaid floor. We also visited the Bhuma Niketan Ashram; which has all the appearance of a modern temple, and when you go inside, it’s like you’ve discovered its Disneyland equivalent. There are some steps up and a path that goes underneath the surface of the main temple frontage, and shows you scenes from Hindu scriptures in what I can only describe as Disney format. It’s quite incredible!
Satish then took us back into the centre of Haridwar, where we strolled around for an hour just taking in the street scenes – all the usual shops and mini-industries, market stalls and cows. We stopped at the Hotel Chotiwala – it’s a café really – for some tea and rest. It’s useful that there is a glass frontage separating the diners from the outside scene, as we spent our time there being stared at by monkeys thumping on the windows for attention. It was then just for us to wander round, observe all the pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and to get a good spot to watch the evening ceremony. One of the more amusing things about being in an area where people bathe in the Ganges, is their care to look decent whilst doing so. As we were wandering around, among the more unexpected items of litter in the area were discarded empty boxes of fresh underpants!
Last year we witnessed the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, and for scale and sheer showbiz, that one comes top of the game. The ceremony in Haridwar is much smaller; it all takes place on one side of the river bank, and is, as always, an excuse for family outings, picnics, and a general celebration, as well as a holy experience – although you get the feeling that the ceremony itself is nothing like as holy an experience as simply dipping into the Ganges. Eleven priests were involved; a lot of preliminary introductions which finalised in a series of chants to which the crowd replied, and, as it got darker, the priests performed with fire, and the crowd joined in with the tinkling of bells. It’s quite a moving experience, and despite the inevitable discomfort of finding somewhere lumpy to sit for several hours, the time flies by.
And that more or less was our Haridwar and Rishikesh experience. We returned to the Aalia for drinks, dinner and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very long and very tiring drive up into the Himalayas.
This was the third time we’d been to Jaipur. The first was way back in 2006 on our first trip to India, when we crammed the Golden Triangle into six days of sheer excitement. The second was a fleeting drive through with Professor and Mrs Plum when we were both in India at the same time, in November 2015. That’s the thing about Jaipur, it gives great value for money. You only have to drive into the town and – bingo – you get an instant “pink hit”, with all the beautiful coloured buildings, the like of which you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. It’s such a vibrant, lively place, and it’s a pleasure to spend any time there. We thought we’d reacquaint ourselves with the big sights on a full day’s sightseeing on our second day. But for this first afternoon, we decided to try something completely different – a Bazaar, Crafts and Cuisine Walk through the old town that our travel agent arranged through Virasat Experiences.
But first – check in to the Oberoi in Jaipur. We stayed here in 2006 and it’s still a lovely hotel, although, to be super-critical, there are just one or two areas where it’s beginning to show its age. That’s inevitable, of course; the Oberoi in Delhi was closed at the time while it received a facelift to bring it back to the immaculate condition we’ve enjoyed there before. Maybe it’s time for the same to happen to the Rajvilas. We stayed in a Premier Room, with its amazing bath that appears to be open to the garden; we remembered from last time there’s no point having a bath unless you start running the water about two hours beforehand, because it’s so deep! We dined at the Surya Mahal on the first night but had the extra special treatment at the Raj Mahal on our last night. Absolutely stunning venue, superb food and service, and it was a real wrench to get up and leave our table at the end of the evening because we’d had such a lovely time. Our waiter Rakesh was absolutely the best.
Enough food and drink memories, let’s get back to old Jaipur, and Pratik, our guide, who was a fun kinda guy who knew exactly when to be formal and polite and when to risk mixing it with a little matey banter. His itinerary was designed to show the heart of the people of the city; their way of life, their trades, their shops, their craftsmanship; and not to be afraid of trying a little to eat and drink on the way. So we spent the majority of our time in the old market area of Jaipur, around Tripolia Bazar Road. We saw the men who sold the big steel trunks – presumably very heavy but no airline is going to damage those in a hurry. We saw all the brassware, and the trinkets; we saw shrines, we saw the stores where they create the most elaborate wedding invitations (it’s de rigeuer for your invitations to be as sassy as possible in India).
We went inside an old haveli; we saw jewellers, and shoemakers, and dressmakers; we watched as a number of all-female parties bundled themselves into these tiny stores for one of them to try on wedding dresses and for the others to coo in approval. I tried some lassi (Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen) and it was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t bother with the betel leaf. We pretty much took a look at every trade on offer and it was all fascinating. Pratik was both very knowledgeable and very humorous in his descriptions and the few hours we spent together passed extremely quickly.
Next day – and the final full day of our trip. We started off, like most tourists would, visiting the Amber Fort. It takes about forty minutes to drive there from the Rajvilas, and when you get near it looms out at you from the top of the horizon, like the God of Forts, as it’s so impressive and huge. You’ve got two choices for reaching the top – take a landrover like our guide Seema (dull) or ascend by elephant (touristy). You have to do the elephant thing really. There’s absolutely no dignity to it whatsoever as you fall back into your howdah, legs flailing about in the sunlight, more moron than Maharaja.
Your Heffalump-wallah (there must be a technical term for the man who leads your elephant) occasionally shouts instructions at you, which often include parting with cash for some reason, but it’s very hard to hear and we just play the Stupid English Tourist. It can get you everywhere, that act. After a not very comfortable but rather funny twenty minutes or so, your elephant sidles up to a kind of docking station where you have to jump off rapido, thereby losing any final vestiges of dignity you might still have had left. Then it’s down some steps, avoiding eye contact to prevent requests for bakshish from hangers-on who did absolutely nothing to deserve it, and you’re in the main square at the entrance to the fort.
Once you get inside the complex you’re greeted by the amazing Diwan-i-Aam, the space for public audience, and the Sattais Katcheri, a beautiful space dominated by dozens of pillars and arches, where the scribes would write the revenue records. From the arches at the side you have a stunning view of the Maotha Lake down below, with the endless lines of elephants trudging up and down. Go through another gateway and you reach the pleasure garden, the Aram Bagh, and on the left, maybe the fort’s most eye-catching sight, the Sheesh Mahal, made up of thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors, glittering across the ceilings and walls. It’s a truly awe-inspiring construction.
There’s an area inside where we couldn’t go – but could look through a gap – and Seema told us the man sitting inside working on restoring the pieces of glass comes from a long line of people who have done the same work for generations; he’s now continuing the restoration and also teaching others how to do it. It’s very important for the long-term future of the palace! Elsewhere at the fort you can find a collection of weapons, beautiful inlaid balconies, secret views through star-shaped windows, and many other stunning aspects. It’s a glorious place to wander around at your own pace and just drink in the artistry and the history.
On the way back into Jaipur, we made the customary stop to look at the Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of the freshwater Man Sagar Lake. The palace was restored in 2008 and now looks stunning and triumphant, a serene island in the middle of all that water. It’s a popular viewpoint and is always crowded with ice-cream and trinket sellers, but it’s really worth taking the time to enjoy the view.
Jaipur is very famous for its jewellery, and it is almost compulsory to take time to visit a factory shop. When Professor and Mrs Plum came in 2015, we witnessed her purchasing a beautiful ruby ring, with which she is still very pleased. Mrs C is surprisingly uninterested in expensive jewellery (phew!) but nevertheless you never know when you’re going to see Absolutely The Perfect Item That You Cannot Refuse. So we trooped around this factory, and were treated to a description of the process that takes a rough gem and makes it into a beautiful item of jewellery. Interesting terminology; the man described one process as taking the unfinished item and giving it a “blow job”. I think he meant cooling it down. But I’m not entirely sure.
One more major sight to see – and one we remembered fondly from our 2006 visit – the Jantar Mantar. Only in India could you find a place with such a singalong name. And it’s a memorable and extraordinary place. The largest and best preserved observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734, it has sixteen instruments which can still be used for forecasting summer heat and the monsoon conditions. One of them is made up of twelve pieces, each one representing a sign of the zodiac, which is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes; and it is traditional for people to have a photograph taken next to their zodiac sign. I did the touristy thing, and posed next to Taurus; Mrs C pooh-poohed the idea when I suggested she stood next to Sagittarius. Honestly; typical Sagittarian! Although there are other Jantar Mantars in India, there’s nowhere quite like this. It’s like an astronomical theme park, and it’s enormous fun to check the sundials and measure the angles of the stars. Fantastic!
And that was the end of our final day in Jaipur. The next morning we drove back to Delhi, where Mr Singh had arranged for us to have a massage in a place he recommended. It was very good – we both opted for an Indian Head Massage combined with back and shoulders. As is always the case with me, I fell asleep during the massage, so relaxed did I feel. However, I was rudely awakened at the end when the man who had been pummelling me decided to wash my hair in the most boiling water you can imagine. I felt like my scalp was on fire. They obviously breed them tough in Delhi.
The drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is about 180 miles and including the odd comfort break and photo stop takes a good six hours. So it was no surprise when we arrived at the Oberoi Ranthambhore that we simply wanted to unpack and have a rest. However, we didn’t take into account just how beautiful the hotel was going to be, and how friendly all the staff were, and how we wanted to explore the grounds, and how we just wanted to gawp in amazement and gratitude that this was where we were going to be spending the next two nights.
On arrival we were greeted by the hotel manager, a charmingly hearty lady named Ratna, whose enthusiasm for her job and her hotel spreads infectiously throughout all the staff. The next day we would meet her Customer Services Manager – Lakshmi, the elephant. Yes, this hotel has its own elephant, on duty for a couple of hours every morning to wave visitors off on their morning tiger safari, or to welcome them back safely afterwards. The hotel also has its own naturalist, who gives a different lecture every evening about the local flora and fauna. Normally that kind of thing strikes dread into the hearts of Mrs Chrisparkle and me, but he was actually a really interesting and funny presenter, and you wouldn’t want to miss his talks before going in for dinner or drinks every evening.
A helpful, funny and friendly young lady by name TJ took us to our room. I say “room”; it was – as they almost all are – a luxury tent. I expect some are a little more luxurious than others, but ours had absolutely everything you could possibly wish – and all exquisitely furnished with that special Oberoi taste. Dinner could be taken in the restaurant or out in the sunken courtyard – outside was just too irresistible – and the words “feast” and “veritable” come to mind. And whilst they have a comfortable looking old-fashioned Last Days of The Raj type bar, nothing could keep us away from having a drink outside round the campfire, listening to local musicians. It was simply heavenly. The Oberoi in Agra remains my favourite hotel in the world – but the Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore runs it a very, very close second.
It may come as a surprise, but the reason we took two nights to stay in Ranthambhore was not simply to drink gin round the old campfire and be spoiled rotten in the restaurant. We were booked on two tiger safaris, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. For a relatively tiny place, there’s a huge local industry that stems from the Ranthambhore National Park; home to much wildlife including the famous Bengal Tigers. The hotel lobbies are full of people recounting their “we saw a tiger! It came up right this close!” stories to anyone who will listen; the other people with whom you share your jeep will doubtless have been on other safaris and will explain precisely why the one you missed was the one you really should have been on. But do the maths; Ranthambhore National Park is home to (at the time) sixty tigers. It covers a vast area which is split into ten zones. That works out as 6 tigers per zone. The park advises each jeep which zone it will visit on each safari trip. So you will only visit one zone at random. Each zone is large enough to drive around for hours on end, so in a two to three hour drive you’re probably only ever going to be in the vicinity of one tiger, two at a push. And your job, or your driver and guide’s job, is to go find him!
We visited zone 6 in the morning, an area with a lot of open grassland, which, when you think about it, is probably not the kind of terrain a tiger is going to mooch around in. We saw plenty of blue bulls (Nilgai), deer, storks, antelope, and some extremely tame Rufous Treepies who will eat from your hand. But no tigers. It was a fascinating experience though, and after we popped back to the hotel for lunch, and to feed Lakshmi some apples, camera whore that she is, we went out again with renewed vigour for our afternoon safari. This time we called on zone 4, which is much more stereotypically jungly; at times I thought we might bump into Mowgli. Again, plenty of nilgai, antelopes and crocodiles silently floating in the lakes, but no tigers.
We did all the right things – stayed silent whenever possible; watched for their tracks, signs of a kill, their faeces (sorry if you’re having lunch) – and we found all these. We were very hopeful at one stage because the peacocks had flown into the trees and were making nervous cries – a sure sign that they didn’t feel safe on the ground, so maybe a tiger is prowling and they’re getting the word around to all their peacock pals. But no tigers.
Even so, it was a magical experience. Just parking up your jeep in a jungle and silently observing all the life going on around you was absolutely brilliant. And as the light started to fade, and sunset started to loom, the views took on an exciting life all of their own. Staying late behind in the jungle, maybe being one of the last vehicles to leave, felt surprisingly daring. I really loved it. So did my chiropractor, when I returned to the UK a few days later. Spending six hours getting tossed around in a bumpy jeep isn’t great for your back, so please be careful! However, I’d do it again in an instant – and hopefully spot my first tiger.
When we left the next morning, there was an apologetic letter for us to read on departure, personalised, and on Oberoi Vanyavilas notepaper: “Thank you for visiting Ranthambhore and staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We are sorry we were unable to meet you in the jungle. But we hope to see you again soon. Warm regard, Tigers of Ranthambhore.” On the reverse was a splendid pen and ink drawing of a tiger, signed by the hotel’s naturalist. I suspect he might have something to do with it.
There is nowhere more welcoming in the world than the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. After our journey from Gwalior, and a long day’s sightseeing, it was just bliss to be taken to our room, with its wonderful view of the Taj Mahal; to sit on the balcony with some chilled white wine purloined from the minibar, and to observe the immaculate gardens, the inviting pool, and of course Shah Jahan’s immortal temple to love on the horizon. Once we were thoroughly relaxed, we headed down to the bar for a Tanqueray 10 and tonic in the best setting you can imagine, before going for a meal. Every time we’ve been to this hotel before, I’d always failed to get into the Esphahan restaurant for dinner – it had always been fully booked. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, having booked it a couple of weeks before we left the UK. It was as sumptuous as I’d hoped.
This time in Agra, we thought we’d try something different. We’d agreed with our travel agent that we would do a different kind of tour – a walking tour of old Agra, seeing some well-known sights from different angles; getting to see some of the places that tourists don’t always visit. It was called C The 4 is For Your Eyes, and our guide for this half-day experience was Meghan.
We’d been to Agra Fort before but this time we started at the “back entrance” – the Army gate, built in 1080. It’s still formed from that familiar red stonework, but is a much less impressive and formal entrance, used only by the army. Nevertheless, you still get a good impression of the fort’s grandeur and size. From there we walked a little way to see a monument to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He stands halfway up a spiral staircase, as if to portray his rise to success from a humble background.
Next we took a bicycle rickshaw into the depths of the old city. The strength of these old men who carry portly westerners about is extraordinary! We ended up at the Jami Masjid Mosque, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. It has a grand, imposing frontage, but once you walk inside it’s surprisingly plain; it’s primary reason is to act as the Friday Mosque, so it is designed to be able to accommodate the largest number of worshippers as easily as possible. From there we headed into the market streets, where we saw a wide range of products on sale; primarily fabrics and clothes, but also sweets, flowers and jewellery. It was fun to just dawdle and learn from Meghan all about the fabrics, the sweets and so on.
There was a fascinating shop by Daresi Road that sold garlands made from rupee notes that are worn by a bridegroom for good luck – and for the fortune that they contain, of course. Naturally I had to try one on. They’re quite bulky, because they contain so many notes, that you would find it difficult to do much else whilst wearing one! We walked past Mankameshwar Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but we didn’t go in – can’t quite remember why. I think it may simply have been too busy. We stopped off and had a delicious cup of marsala chai instead.
Our bicycle rickshaw man was waiting for us and conveyed us out of the market area back on to the main streets and towards one final sight – the Taj Mahal – but from the other side of the River Yamuna. There’s a large garden, almost meadow area there, called the Mehtab Bagh, where you can wonder round freely and enjoy superb views of the Taj Mahal without having to wrestle with all the other tourists.
We spent ages just idling around, taking in the views and the peace, and generally relaxing before Meghan finally called us and arranged for Mr Singh to collect us. It was a very enjoyable and different way of seeing the city and we’d definitely recommend it. Not that you should avoid the Taj Mahal if you haven’t properly visited it yet – it’s a must.
Where next? Mr Singh took us due south-west to visit the tigers of Ranthambhore.
The drive from Orchha to Gwalior takes a good five hours so Sachun had plans for breaking up the day with some more interesting sights en route. 30 miles north of Orchha is the town of Datia, with a population of around 100,000; and I confess I hadn’t heard of it. But at the centre of the town is the Birsingh Deo Palace. Birsingh Deo was a Bundela Rajput chief and the ruler of the Kingdom of Orchha from 1605 to 1626. It was built in 1620, and, having been to the Jahangir Mahal in Orchha the previous day, the palace is exactly the same style and layout, although perhaps not quite as large, but certainly not in as good condition.
Sachun called for a man from one of the local houses to open it up for us so we could have a look around. I don’t think the man was best pleased, and he hung around waiting for us to finish so that he could go back home. “Leave him a good tip”, suggested Sachun. We did. Comparisons are odious, and it’s not as breathtaking as the Jahangir Mahal, but it’s still a lot of fun and has the added benefit of being very rarely visited, so we didn’t bump into anyone else as we wandered around, and there aren’t many places in India where you can say that. Despite the size of its population, Datia is a sleepy little place and all the streets are very narrow and steep. It took all Mr Singh’s driving skills to get us to the front gate of the palace. I wished I’d had one fewer course at dinner the previous night.
After an hour or so wandering around Datia, we got back in the car and drove another eleven miles to reach the extraordinary collection of Jain temples at Sonagiri. After walking beneath a welcoming archway you ascend a path and on the way there are 77 Jain temples of all shapes and sizes, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and all in superbly maintained condition. They’re all painted white, although some have some other coloured decoration, and each one bears a number in a circle, denoting which temple it is – the temples don’t otherwise have names. These are extremely holy in the Jain religion and I believe all Jains should visit here at least once. You have to walk barefoot throughout the whole complex and on a hot day, which this was, you have to be very careful where you step because it’s easy to burn your feet. You can end up hopping from temple to temple which is hardly the dignified spirit that the complex deserves.
Temple No 57 is the most important and has an elephant outside, to welcome you in. It’s round, like an amphitheatre, and full of beautiful and delicate images of God. I didn’t discover until the end that you weren’t meant to take photos in there – sorry about that. At the top of the hill is a small square with a school and some memorials, where a young Indian family were taking a look around. The boy was very keen to have his picture taken with me, and after his father snapped his shot, son and I bonded. I kept on turning corners and finding him there. The last photo I took at the top was of him looking back at me as we left. I gave him a wave, and he waved back.
We retraced our steps back down the hill, through the archway and back to the car for the onward journey to Gwalior. There was only one more stop to make before we got there – and that was at a roadside farm where they grew sugar cane and converted it into sugar – or, rather, jaggery. It’s fascinating to watch the process as they feed the huge stalks of sugar cane into a mill – it looks rather like an enormous old-fashioned food blender – and at the bottom out comes this juice and mixture that gets boiled up in huge pans over open fire and eventually cooled into blocks. It’s incredibly sweet, really delicious and is great for restoring an upset tummy.
We snoozed the rest of the way to Gwalior but we woke up in time to enjoy the sight of the Hotel Taj Usha Kiran Palace coming into view. This is a sensationally beautiful place to stay, with a fabulous fountain outside that lights up at night, and so many beautiful courtyards scattered all over the hotel. We had a deluxe room, which totally spoiled us, and dined at the Silver Saloon, which was also jolly nice. The Bada Bar, which looks superb, was sadly closed when we there, but I’m sure it would be worth your while popping in for a gin and tonic.
We were only there for one night though, so the next morning we had to check out and leave our bags safely in Mr Singh’s boot before going off to explore Gwalior. We had said goodbye to Sachun the night before, so our guide for Gwalior, Pawan, met us at the hotel and took us into town. Gwalior is blessed with some stunning sights but none more than the amazing multi-storeyed Man Mandir Palace, which dominates the city and takes up the majority of the northern end of Gwalior Fort. It was built in 1508 by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty, and is decorated with blue, yellow and green tiles depicting parrots and peacocks, ducks, elephants, banana trees and crocodiles.
Inside it’s in such good condition, it takes your breath away. At one time it was used as a prison, and the subterranean floors beneath the central courtyard were used as dungeons. There is so much ornate decoration, so many exquisite tiles, so many sudden surprise views to the valley below from unexpected balconies, that you wander around it with a silly grin on your face. Once you’ve explored the Man Mandir palace, there is also the Gujari Mahal, built for the queen, which now houses an archaeological museum, and the Sas Bahu temples, 11th century Vishnu temples covered with brilliant carvings. At the foot of the fort, best seen from outside, are some very tall Jain sculptures lining the side of the road into the old town. You can appreciate their size best when you see people standing in the same photo!
Amongst the other must-see sights in Gwalior are the two Islamic tombs, one of Mohammed Ghaus, a Mughal nobleman, and one of Tansen, the famous singer. The lattice work in the windows is absolutely stunning and suggests true craftsmanship on behalf of those who created them. It’s worth spending some time here and just appreciating the glorious result of their hard work. We also visited the Jai Vilas Palace, built in the late 19th century in the Italianate style for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The ex-royal family still live there, but part of the palace has been turned into a museum, showing some of the Maharaja’s more eclectic interests. Bewitching chandeliers, elaborate vases, and, most fun of all, a toy train on the long dining table that was used to carry liqueurs around to all his dining guests. How the other half lived.
After that, our tour of Gwalior was done. It just remained for us to bid a quick goodbye to Pawan and to get into Mr Singh’s car for the 75 mile journey north to Agra. The Oberoi hotel in Agra, my favourite hotel in the whole wide world, was waiting for us.