Photo Essay: a 10-day tour of Northern India

Joe and Moi are two British travelers on a round the world adventure - here they share their tips and photos from their tour of Northern India. It started like this - "Hey, let's go round the world". After a short delay of 30 years due to circumstances beyond our control, we set off. A whistle stop tour of Planet Earth, calling at India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Peru, Galapagos Islands, Brazil, then back home to UK in time for tea. So, first stop India. As we only had 10 days before we moved on, our tour was constrained to four main sites in North India - Delhi, Varanasi , Bodh Gaya and Agra.   For someone who had never ventured further than the EU, apart from a couple of spells in Disneyland, we expected this would be a bit of a culture shock, and we weren't disappointed. Straight into Delhi, the adventure started as soon as we set down. We were met by our tour agent and driven to the hotel. Driving in India is another experience altogether! It's a different mind-set. Lanes are ignored, horns are used extensively, it’s not unusual to find people driving on completely the wrong side of the road or going round roundabouts the wrong way if that affords a shorter route or even cows wandering in the fast lane of a dual carriageway!! Once you get over the initial shock though (and suppress all basic reflexes such as fear), there's something quite endearing about the madness. Having only spent 10 days there, we only scratched the surface. Enough though to become aware that India is a place of stark contrasts. There is awful poverty here and some people live in real squalor. Side by side with this, you have some of the most beautiful palaces in the world. Temples abound in all sorts of shapes and sizes and spirituality and base materiality live side by side. A friend of mine said the best way to describe India was "mad" and I totally agree. The vibrant hustle and bustle of the cities, street hawkers and beggars approach you at every opportunity and won't take no for an answer. Sights not to miss are: the Red Fort - a huge impressive fort built out sandstone (there's a few red forts in India as it happens) - Humayn's Tomb, set in beautiful gardens built in the Muhgal Emperor's memory by his wife - Qutab Minar, a 72 metre high tower built in 1199AD as a monument to Islam and the Bahai lotus Temple, shaped like a lotus flower, a recent architectural marvel of the capital. [caption id="attachment_5416" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Humayn's Tomb"][/caption] After a couple of days in Delhi, it was off to Varanasi, the ancient city of Benares, known as the holy city of Shiva. If you thought driving in Delhi was mad, the driving in Varanasi just takes it to a new level. Luckily the Gods were with us and we arrived at our hotel in one piece. If you do anything in Varanasi, it has to be a dawn boat ride on the Ganges. They leave from one of the main ghats ( literally "steps" ) on the shores of the Ganges and before the sky has even started to go light are a bustling, vibrant scene of religious fervour. Bells clanging, people chanting, street hawkers hawking, beggars begging, bogus "holy men" done up to their nines for a photo opportunity (in exchange for a few rupees of course). Once out on the water all this is left behind with just the gentle lapping of the oars in the water as a golden sun rises slowly in the East. Fantastic. [caption id="attachment_5415" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Varanasi Ghat at Dawn"][/caption] For those interested in Buddhism, a place not to miss is Sarnath (one of the four main holy sites in Buddhism) where Buddha is said to have given his first sermon after achieving enlightenment, and only few kilometres out from the centre. This is a deer park with an enormous Buddhist stupa and the remains of monasteries and temples. After the hustle and bustle of Varanasi city streets, this is a haven of peace and tranquility and well worth a look. [caption id="attachment_5417" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Dhameka Stupa"][/caption] After a few days in Varanasi, we moved on to Bodh Gaya. Although I'm not Buddhist, I do have a passing interest and this is another of the four holy sites of Buddhism, the place where Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and first achieved enlightenment. Bodh Gaya itself is a little off the beaten track and some of the poverty is quite challenging. We're starting to get a taste of real India now. Central to the small town is the Mahabodhi Buddhist temple and what a sight this is. The main temple towers 180 ft over the whole complex and looks like something out of a science fiction movie! Behind the temple itself is the bodhi tree (or rather, a descendant of the original bodhi tree allegedly) and pilgrims come from all over the world to sit and meditate. It's a fascinating place with a mix of devotees, tourists, guides and locals and we returned to it a few times, especially at night when the temple is lit up and air filled with chanting from a variety of different Buddhist sects. [caption id="attachment_5418" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Mahabodhi Temple"][/caption] Our last port of call in India was, of course, Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. We travelled overnight on a sleeper train was an experience in itself (drove back from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi then 12 hours on a train). Can't say we got much sleep, what with the mice and the snoring (no, not the mice snoring) but, as I say, an experience and we're glad we did it. [caption id="attachment_5419" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Mum Taj Mahal"][/caption] It's true what they say about the Taj Mahal, you've just got to go there to experience its beauty.  And you will not be disappointed. What a magical place! Built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahanas a memorial to his wife - Mumtaz - it really does live up to the hype. Apparently he wanted to build an identical black one on the other side of the river but died before he got the chance (just the foundations remain) - or rather, his youngest son killed all his brothers and imprisoned his father for the last 8 years of his life, in the name of power !! Now that would have been a sight. People say there's only the Taj Mahal to see in Agra, but that wasn't true in our experience. There's an abandoned city about 35kms outside Agra called Fatephur Sikri, which is fascinating. Built in red sandstone, full of temples ad palaces, the city was only lived in for 12 years when they realised it was unsustainable without a decent water supply. The place is in really good condition and amazing to walk round.   Agra also has its own red fort (told you there were a few) which is worth a look and there's also an interesting tomb known as the Baby Taj. After nearly a couple of weeks in India, it was time to leave - next stop Nepal. But that's another story and will be told another time.   This was a guest post by Joe and Moi Hyde, two British travelers who have wanted to go round the world all their lives but had put it off for one reason or another.  Now they are taking their great adventure and are on the third week of their trip.  You can keep abreast of their travels via their blog: www.mytb.org/on-the-blog.