Connor Hicks

Travel, Astro, Landscape & Urban Photographer

Incredible India 2019

While working through the summer of 2019 in Geiranger, Norway, my girlfriend and I had decided we wanted to do something crazier than we normally would between the end of the summer season and our next ski season in Zermatt… Originally  we were thinking of going to Vietnam and doing a motorbike tour from the south to the north, but we’d soon discovered that would be a bad idea as it was monsoon season, so we had a think again and decided to go backpacking from Delhi to Mumbai over the course of a month.

 

The planning was really intense, we had to do a lot of research on how to navigate India, how to avoid scammers, think of what vaccines we needed… the list goes on, we’d never been to such a big country to travel, without hiring a car.

We ended the summer season at the end of September and had a total of 15 days to drive back to the U.K., get our vaccines, and prepare ourselves, it was literally a case of everything out of one bag, and into a backpack with new stuff added on top. 

Next stop, Dubai! 

We booked a flight with a layover in Dubai long enough to catch up on some sleep and explore some sites like the mall and the famous Souks  as we’d never been there before.

Onwards to New Delhi!

Feeling abit fresher, we boarded the final flight to New Delhi… The flight wasn’t too long, and we’d arrived in India that night.

As soon as we stepped out of the airport, all of our senses were immediately assaulted, the smells, the flashing lights, the noise, it was very overwhelming! We tried to find a taxi, and that’s when it happened, the first of many men to try and scam us… He was trying to get us to go in his “friends” taxi, luckily we’d read about these people and decided to try and get away from him. We found our way to the official taxi booking office and managed to buy a ticket to our hotel in the city.
We didn’t have any internet or much cash, so we had to hope we were doing it all right, we made our way back over to the taxis when the lovely gentleman reappeared, still trying to get us into his “friends” taxi, I told him OK we’ll get in, turned the other way and made a hasty exit to an official taxi who was waiting patiently. We managed to get to our hotel safe and sound after an eventful first car journey in India, and being told off by the driver for trying to put my seat belt on! 

Our first morning in New Delhi, we woke up pretty early and headed out after freshening up, this was our first time trying to get anywhere, we booked a Tuk Tuk on the Ola app using the hotel Wi-Fi, but wasn’t sure if it had worked… While we were waiting we were getting nagged to get in other Tuk Tuks, it was all a new experience to us, so we just politely denied and carried on waiting for the one we’d booked. After a long 10 minutes of being nagged to get into other Tuk Tuk’s, our driver finally arrived!

Lesson 1 – “You need to visit the official government office”

The first things on our agenda were SIM cards and cash, so we asked him to take us to the Airtel shop in Connaught Place.

We went in the shop to enquire about SIM cards, and we were told we needed to wait for the shop next door to open as the shop we were in didn’t sell SIM cards. This was fine with us, so we decided to go for a walk while waiting for it to open, just as we exited the shop a man followed us and told us we couldn’t buy SIM cards at the official Airtel shop because it was for Indian residents only, and we had to visit the official government office for a tourist SIM card, he seemed pretty trustworthy and was very convincing, he even offered to show us where it was.
We fell for it and followed his instructions. When we arrived we were greeted by another polite gentleman who was going to set the SIM cards up for us, he took copies of our passports etc and told his colleague to phone through to Airtel to set the SIM cards up. While we were waiting I managed to get the Wi-Fi password and Fran went onto google to search the place for reviews… “Scam, scam, scam, stay away” she discreetly showed me under the table.

I asked the guy how much money we’d need and made out we didn’t have enough cash, so I told him we’d take the copies of our passports and our details, go to the ATM to get the cash out and come back to pay for them, we picked up our stuff and made a very quick get away, by the time we’d walked back to the official Airtel shop, it was open, and we were able to purchase real SIM cards at the proper price.

This was our first lesson, and probably the most important, never follow a random person who’s trying to take you somewhere, no matter how convincing and polite they are.

The rest of our first day was spent wondering around Connaught Place, Humayun’s tomb and a stunning disused observatory, just getting to know the place, trying the local foods and getting used to navigating around, we got the hang of it really quickly, and started to feel more and more comfortable.

Old Delhi! 

Our second day in Delhi, we thought we’d got and check out the Red Fort in old Delhi and see where we’d end up after. 

When we arrived, and was trying to find where to purchase tickets, we had our first experience with the locals wanting to take selfies with us, this happened wherever we went through our travels across India. It made us feel like celebrities, but got tiring after a while, because what would start as one young lad, would turn into whole families taking selfies with you, wanting you to hold their babies, and the father introducing you to his whole family, it was nice, but we just wanted to get on with our travels and sightseeing, (I asked a few people why they wanted to take selfies with us out of curiosity, and its because they’re often from a smaller village, so they don’t see white people, and wanted to prove it to their friends and families).

Anyway, we managed to find the ticket booth, that had a separate, very empty line for non Indians and made our way into the fort.

The place was huge, we spent a few hours inside until we couldn’t bear the heat any more, so we thought we’d go and get some lunch. On our way out we got asked if we’d like a ride on a cycle rickshaw, I was quite hesitant at first as we were only going down the road, but the guy insisted he would take us wherever we wanted to go for only 10INR (about 11p), we gave in and jumped on the back. This guy was crazy, he took us onto the main road, going about 3mph, trying to swerve busses, cars, cows and everything else that was hurling towards us! What an experience that was, I was very thankful we arrived at the restaurant in one piece!

After a beautiful butter chicken and some roti in a restaurant that seemed to be dominated by a gang of monkeys on the roofs we took a walk to old Delhi spice market… Boy were we in for a shock, this was the real India, overly crowded streets, cows wandering around in the middle of it all, Street food stalls and everything else you could possibly imagine crammed into tiny streets. Trying to walk around was… interesting to say the least, I hadn’t quite gotten used to how busy India was.

We did some more site seeing around Delhi on our last day, and made our way to New Delhi train station as we were heading south to Agra.

The trains were fairly easy to use, we’d prebooked all of our tickets a couple of months in advance, as it was Diwali at the end of October, so people would be travelling a lot and all the seats would sell out fast, our tickets had the carriage and seat numbers on, so you just find where on the platform the carriage will stop and wait there. Indian trains are really long, so trying to find your seat on a specific carriage when you’re in the wrong place on the train would be a nightmare. If anyone approaches you at an Indian train station trying to take you to “buy cheap tickets” for the train, you guessed it, it’s a scam, you can prebook online or go to the official office in the train station. 

Agra!

We got to Agra in the evening and had to try and help our driver find the hostel, it turned out to be out of the way in the middle of some farms. The hostel was great, cosy and very sociable, we were advised to go to the Taj Mahal at 5am, so we grabbed a bite to eat in the cafe on the roof and got an early night. 

We woke up at 4:30 the next morning and made our way down to the Taj Mahal, it was only a 10-minute walk from the hostel and then a 5-minute golf cart ride that takes you the rest of the way, we were some of the first there, but it didn’t take long for tour busses full of tourists to arrive, as soon as the doors opened, the floods of people rushed in to get through security and get the first photos, I didn’t hang about either, I rushed in to get “the shot” without the masses of people in, and it paid off! 

The Taj Mahal has to be the most impressive building I’ve ever seen, photos really don’t do it justice, it’s one of those places you have to see for yourself! The sheer size of it, made entirely of white marble, it’s a serious piece of architecture!

We spent quite a while there, had a walk inside to see the tombs, and then sat in one of the guest pavilions watching the sun rise behind the Taj, this is honestly something I’ll never forget!

After watching the sunrise we took a nice walk back to the hostel to have some breakfast get a bit more sleep, and had planned to spend the afternoon visiting Agra fort and the mini Taj.

On the way to Agra fort our Tuk Tuk driver picked someone up, this is normally a sign that they’re going to try and take you to their friends/ family’s shops or restaurants, because if you spend money, they get a commission, but that wasn’t the case this time, the older man was his brother, they were born and bred in Agra and had been driving Tuk Tuk’s for almost 40 years, They told us some incredible stories, it was a short but really pleasant journey hearing the locals stories.

After visiting Agra fort and the mini Taj we still had quite a lot of the day left, so we decided we’d take a trip out to Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, an hour away from Agra, we negotiated a price with a Tuk Tuk driver, who’d drive us there, wait, and then drive us back.

The city was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire by Emperor Akbar in 1571 and served as that role for a short 14 years. Akbar abandoned it due to a campaign in Punjab, and was completely abandoned in 1610. The abandoned city was absolutely stunning, and very well-preserved.

We only had another half a day in Agra, so we left our bags at our hostel and went for a wonder until it was time to get the train.

Jaipur, The end of the golden triangle…

As soon as we stepped off the train in Jaipur we had a young lad approach us really pushing, trying to get us to get in his Tuk Tuk, but I’d already booked us a ride, he followed us all the way to the car park, and stood with us, he was really determined, I kept saying no thank you, we’ve got a ride booked, but it didn’t make a difference… After what felt like hours, our driver finally arrived. En route to our hostel there seemed to be a carnival or festival of some kind, we got stuck in the traffic, and as it passed everyone started waving at us, even in the dark, in a car we got noticed, it was brilliant. 

The next day we took a Tuk Tuk to Amer fort, just outside of Jaipur, we saw elephants taking people up from the car park, but we’d decided to take the walk instead. 

Amer fort was built from sandstone and marble in 967 by Meena, A tribe found mainly in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh regions of India.

It’s a seriously beautiful place that holds some amazing history, A must see if you’re in the area!

Elefantastic! 

Elefantastic is an elephant sanctuary for rescue elephants in India. We did some research as we’d wanted to spend some time with some elephants and found this place was a renowned sanctuary and treated them really well, each elephant has their own carer, who feeds them, takes them for daily walks around the compound, and gives them a refreshing shower. unfortunately it’s quite common for elephants to be treated and exploited in India to make cash from tourists, we didn’t want to get involved in that. 

We got picked up from Amer fort and was taken to the sanctuary which was really close by, when we arrived we were introduced to Chanchal, a beautiful Asian rescue elephant, that unfortunately was abused in a circus, she had a cataract in one eye and severe damage in the other, from the people at the circus, It’s really sad to hear how badly these intelligent mammals are just for entertainment!

We’d spent abit of time getting to know Chanchal, so she felt comfortable around us, and was allowed to feed her, she at a huge amount as i’m sure you could imagine.
Once we were all acquainted we took her for a nice stroll around the grounds, elephants need to walk alot, they average around 25Km’s a day, but can walk anything up to 195Km’s a day! And i thought my step count was high! 
When we got back to the site, we were presented with a pallet of paint that was safe for animals and were told we could paint Chanchal as we’d like. 
After this we were walked over to give her a shower, and was shown how to clean her, I think most of the water ended up over us rather than her, as she thought it would be funny the spray us with her trunk, Cheeky Chanchal! 
Overall it was a really nice experience, I’d also recommend visiting here if you’re ever in Jaipur, you’re treated to a meal at the owners mothers house when you finish spending time at the sanctuary, a really nice, personal touch. 

The Holy City!

The next stop on our tour through India was pushkar, better known as the holy city. As per usual, getting there was far from easy. We got a train to Ajmer, that was the closest station, and tried to find the local bus as we’d done our research and found it was the cheapest way to get there from Ajmer, the bus station however, wasn’t the easiest to find, we tried asking people and were asked if wed like them to take us for around £10, abit of a difference from the 50p bus ride, so we declined, found a Tuk Tuk driver and asked him to take us to the bus station, of course, he took us to the wrong one, but luckily it was opposite the official one that we were looking for! We made our way over and found the bus that went to Pushkar, this was going to be the most interesting journey so far…

The journey passed through some mountain roads, and the only thing I could think was “please work breaks” It’s got to have been the most unsafe vehicle I’ve ever been in, the roof was flapping about, the interior was an absolute mess, chairs missing etc etc, but we made it, all in one piece, I guess it wasn’t so bad after all, but made for one hell of an experience! 

We didn’t have much planned in Pushkar, so we spent our time there  wandering around the temples and stalls and used it for some much needed respite on the way to Jodhpur. Unfortunately I did manage to get scammed. A guy came up to me in one of the streets and told me to throw it into the holy lake to bless my family, when we got to the lake someone had spotted the flower and approached me, he then introduced me to a “priest” who would help me bless my family, I didn’t think this would be a scam, as I didn’t think people would stoop so low and exploit religions etc, but anything’s possible in incredible India! It all seemed so legit until the “priest” asked me to make a donation and said it was normally 1500INR (around £15) per member of my family… Well I have 2 brothers, 2 sisters, mum and dad, so he wanted a total of £90. There was no chance I was handing over anything near that amount!
I told him I didn’t have that much cash, why would I? that’s big money in India, I then handed him a small note and walked away as quickly as I could before the nagging started.

Next Stop, Suncity!

As usual, we got a Tuk Tuk to our accommodation, this time it was quite terrifying! We soon entered the blue city, the streets were crawling with people, motorbikes, and other Tuk Tuks, they were just about wide enough for the Tuk Tuk and 1 person either side, but this didn’t matter to the driver… In full GTA style, he whizzed around the streets like a maniac, at one point he had to stop, when he tried to get going again he realised he was stuck on a speed bump, I tried to get out and push and was told to get back in, he shouted at some people and they rushed over and pushed us over, What an experience!


We booked a room in a Haveli, A traditional Indian townhouse, it was absolutely stunning and featured a restaurant on the roof with an incredible view of the Mehrangarh Fort!

We only planned to spend  2 days in Jodhpur, but ended up staying longer because the connections to Udaipur weren’t great, so we decided we’d spend our time relaxing, catching up on sleep etc and sightseeing.
We visited some of the local palaces, the fort and wandered around the old blue city, meeting the locals and learning the history. The blue city turned out to be one of my favourite places in India, although it was quite touristy, the locals treated you differently, and didnt harass you to buy stuff when you walk through their stall or shop, like in the other cities.

On one of the days we decided to take a drive out to the desert as there was some more temples that we wanted to see.
Unfortunately the temple had been ruined, covered in bright blue tarpaulin, so we took a stroll back to our driver after a detour around the local village. When we met our driver he asked if we wanted to take a camel and jeep tour around the desert, we skipped the camel part and said we’d like the jeep tour.
We crammed in the back of the jeep with a lovely Indian family, and off we went, into the desert…
It started off very mellow, and quickly escalated to drifing around the sand dunes, rolling down steep hills and throwing us about in every way possible! It was great fun! 

Lets Head South!

We were now on our way down south to Mumbai for Diwali.
We thought we’d break the journey up because its a 16.5hr train journey from Jodhpur to Mumbai, a journey that really didnt appeal to us.
So we stopped in Vadodora for a night and travelled to Halol to visit another UNESCO World Herirtage site.
Champaner Pavagadh is a vast arhaeological park, set around the historical city of Champaner.
The city was founded in the 8th Century by the most prominent king of the Chavda Dynasty, Vanraj Chavda.
This site holds alot of history and has some seriously stunning disused Mosques! Another to add to the list of recommendations, also, we had the whole place to ourselves, and the locals in the village are really lovely!

Bombay!

We’d reached Bombay in time for Diwali!
We spent our time in Mumbai checking out the usual tourist attractions, and wandering the streets at night, watching the locals set off fireworks in the middle of the roads, we’d seen nothing like it! It was crazy! At one point the police had to tell some people to move on because they’d blocked off a whole road setting fireworks off!

Ajanta Caves!

After the Diwali celebrations we had one more stop to make before heading home, Aurangabad! 

We hopped on the train and headed east, arriving really early in Aurangabad, we met up with our driver, and headed for the famous Ajanta caves.

The road to the caves was insane, there’d been floods not long before, so the mud road had been completely destroyed, and in true Indian style there was no order it was just chaos, lorries stuck in ditches being pushed out by diggers, motorbikes swerving around all of the traffic, it was absolute  carnage. 

The trip took double the time it should of and we’d eventually arrived, in one piece luckily.

Some information about the Ajanta caves.

The Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad District are a group of around 30 Buddhist caves that were built into the earth. They date from the 2nd century BCE to around 480CE.
Inside the caves you can find paintings and rock cut sculptures and are described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art. The paintings express emotions through gesture pose and form. 

The Ajanta caves were built in 2 phases, the first phase was around 2nd Century BCE and the second phase was around 400- 650CE.

The caves were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and is a protected monument in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India.  

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