So many strands to any story about India. The history is deep and complex; touched by so many influences and doctrines; a historian would be a better author of this piece rather than a mere travel writer. But arm yourself with a first class travel guide, and your experience and knowledge will be heightened considerably.
The trip I encountered was undoubtedly a 5 star and beyond experience, and it is important to appreciate that in the narrative that follows. Also important to note that this is a personal recollection of a whistle stop tour that covered 1000 kilometres, with four hotels, and an overload of information, images, experiences, tastes and people. The itinerary was expertly put together and delivered by Avin Jain who runs Indian Tour Operator, Tours for Us.
Arrival into Delhi as day turned to night, was pretty much as expected, a frantically busy airport, and a residual warmth from a hot day. But an oasis of calm awaited at the Leela Palace which had class and international sophistication combined with our first warm Indian welcome…fruit juices, flower garlands, and spectacular service. You are made to feel more important than you are.
Day 2 took us to Gurgaon, a satellite town to Delhi where the upwardly mobile folk congregate, and not surprisingly the No.1 golf course in India is situated. The DLF Golf and Country Club is the home to the Indian Open, and is designed by Gary Player. It is an excellent golf course, and is presented in pristine condition. The odd peacock will make an appearance which only adds to the colour and beauty of the place. The associated Camellias Club on site is possibly the most luxury orientated leisure facility I have ever visited anywhere in the world, with bars, restaurants, private cinema, an exceptional spa, vast gym, bowling alley and more.
On the morning of departure to Agra, one of the world’s greatest chefs arrived at the Leela Palace Hotel in downtown Delhi to a wonderful welcome, with the entire staff of the hotel’s kitchen lined up to greet him. His name was Massimo Bottura, a name not familiar to any of the British visitors in the travelling party; this wouldn’t be the first time that I felt as if I came from a very small insular island that had a hugely inflated opinion of itself.
On the route to Agra, we stopped at the Qutub Minar; the tallest minaret in the world. It was built as a mark of victory by Qutab-Ud-Din-Aibak to commemorate his triumph over the Hindu dynasty, and is now a World Heritage site. Well worth a visit.
But when heading to Agra, the real excitement is about the opportunity to visit one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. We arrived in Agra as the sun set and the view of the famous monument was staggeringly beautiful from our accommodation. Almost as beautiful was the 5 star Oberoi Hotel.
An early rise at 05.30 to ensure that we saw the Taj Mahal as the sun rose was well worth the effort; simply stunning. Whether it was the light, the marble, the glistening stones, the general magnificence, I am not sure, but you certainly wouldn’t have to be a spiritual person to appreciate the magical and mystical effect this building evokes in millions of visitors every year.
Following this visit we embarked on a 6 hour drive into Rajasthan, in search of wild tigers at the Ranthambore National Park. Hugely impressed by the Aama Ghati Hotel on the edge of the game reserve for our evening meal and a two night stay. Another 05.30 start would allow us to get going on our first jeep safari as the sun rose. Three hours before breakfast without any sightings other than Kingfishers and a very bright yellow species, ablaze with colour, along with some deer and antelope, but the scenery and general excitement of searching for a tiger was exhilarating. The afternoon safari promised more, and whilst a tiger proved to be elusive, we did get a glimpse of a leopard who toyed with us for 30 minutes or so, and then got up close and personal to two black bears for around 20 minutes. As the Tiger is my favourite animal, and according to the Chinese, the animal representing my year of birth, I was a little disappointed not to see this magnificent beast, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Day 6 involved a later start and a welcome opportunity to sleep for longer, but rather than take advantage of that a couple of us did a yoga class; well, when one is in India, one should delve deeply into its treasures!! Following breakfast, we were again on the move to the ancient Pink City of Jaipur. Really didn’t know what to expect, but the City had the feeling of another moment in time….many, many years ago. And on the following day (after more yoga) we got to visit two of the most famous sight seeing attractions in the City, the Amer Fort and the City Palace Museum. Both hugely interesting and enjoyable. Equally excellent was a visit in the evening to a local family to learn how to cook Indian food, and then enjoy a family dinner. Yet again the food was sensational and the hospitality excellent.
On the final day, we had a four hour trip back to Delhi with a stop off at the Jack Nicklaus designed ITC Grand Bharat Golf Club, South Asia’s only 27 hole signature golf course designed by the golfing legend. Great clubhouse and fine looking course, and easily accessible from Delhi.
In summary, visiting India is an enchanting experience which engages all the senses; it is a land of vivid colour…the saris, the decoration, the flowers, the birds in the trees, the weddings (we witnessed a couple); it is clear that Indians love bright, bold colour. The noise…cars, motorbikes, other mechanical objects or vehicles (couldn’t describe some of the contraptions), animals, humans, all sharing the same space, all fighting for every last inch with any available sound seemingly the key weapon. The smells; some deeply offensive, some intoxicating. The sense of taste was treated to a wonderful explosion of flavour, as exquisite fresh spicy food made us understand that we are not getting the real deal back home. Indian food is not hot in India, it is spicy, but not made overly hot with the excessive use of chillies. Just outstanding. And finally feel..well it’s a spiritual one brought upon by this mesmerising, bewildering, absorbing country. The courtesy, the welcome, the smiles, the enthusiasm, the humour, the vocabulary (and that’s English vocabulary, not the local dialect)…it is impossible not to fall in love with the place.
Of course, its not perfect; the contrasts are stark at times, the gulf between the seeming chaos and daily battle to avoid squalor on the streets, and the peaceful calm of the opulent 5 star luxury hotels is a chasm in all respects other than the distance between the two, which can be a mere turn of the wheel and entry through a guarded gate.
The feeling of vastness, a huge country whose population has just recently overtaken Chinas. Sacred cow roams free in every town and village, the wild boar appears to be entirely at home crossing a ferociously busy road at random moments, whilst monkeys scurry around with intent. Movement everywhere.
But for the privileged visitor this is all witnessed from the cocoon of five star transportation, whilst being whisked from one super luxury residence to the next. The contrast is inescapable, but strangely not as disturbing as you would imagine or the western media would have us believe, or anything like as desperate as the conditions depicted in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’; this is a dynamic country that is very definitely going places, and quickly. The UK will need to strike trade deals with India, and they will not be a pushover. Indeed, they may be well advised to start giving back some of the treasure they stole in Colonial days, and still shamelessly hang on to, and even flaunt as their own. India will be a good friend to have.
The trip flowed past like a raging river interceded by moments of true calm, but at all times completely engaging, exciting and simply unforgettable. A sensational trip, and as the advertising campaign suggested, it really is ‘Incredible India’!
If I ever get the opportunity to visit the country again, I will not need to think twice.