India – Elephants and Roundabouts

Delhi / India / Jaipur / Maharajas’ Express | February 4, 2014

We arrived in Delhi at a very ungodly hour. Once the interminable wait for luggage and passport and visa formalities had been concluded, the first thing that struck me was how busy the arrivals area was – even at 4am! We had a transfer booked to take us to our hotel, and waiting for the car we were struck by how many people (and dogs – not the last animals we would meet on the trip) there were waiting outside. Soon we were driving off into New Delhi and amazingly the roads were still fairly busy, including some very early cyclists! This, I would soon discover, was a tame experience by the general standards of Indian traffic. Thanks to our local team, the check in process at the hotel was extremely straightforward, and it was time to get some well-earned sleep, as we had some busy days ahead of us.

After waking to an extremely hearty breakfast, we had a sightseeing tour of Delhi arranged before boarding the Maharajas’ Express that evening. A combination of jet lag and the short period of time available for sleep meant that one of our party forgot to apply suntan lotion before setting off into the Delhi sun. Your correspondent rapidly began to turn an attractive shade of pink, and attracted what I think were admiring glances from the locals, as well as a look of bemusement from the tour guide. Mad dogs and Englishmen…

Our tour of Delhi began with a trip to Old Delhi. After a short drive to establish the geography, we visited Jama Masjid – the great mosque of Old Delhi. In order to enter the courtyard area, we had to dispense with our footwear and press a few rupees into the palms of the great shoe custodian of Old Delhi – and I’m happy to say he didn’t let us down. He was a credit to the guardians of tourist footwear everywhere. Once this had been done, we were in awe of the imposing structure. One of my preconceptions of India then came true, as we were stopped by a young girl asking simply for “money”– sadly this would not be the last time this happened and the gulf between prosperity and poverty was truly evident that day. On departing the mosque we had one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip – a rickshaw ride around the streets of Old Delhi. I doubt my vocabulary can adequately describe the assault on the senses that is Indian traffic, but this really is an unmissable experience. Crammed into the back of a tiny rickshaw driven by a gentleman with aspirations to break the Delhi rickshaw land speed record, we hurtled around the back streets of Old Delhi and our senses were assaulted by all sorts of smells and spices as we passed various shops and food establishments. “Organised chaos” is the best description I can think of to describe this experience, where vigorous use of the horn is encouraged to let all other rickshaws, pedestrians, dogs, cows and monkeys know that you are coming and to get out of your way. Despite the fact that no one appears to stop or give way to anyone else and the fact that the passing wildlife mingling with the traffic adds another dimension to the madness, it is in reality structured by a system of calls and blasts on the horn to ensure that something vaguely resembling order prevails and there are no accidents. After initial panic, we began to relax and enjoy the experience – rush hour in Delhi never seems to end and is certainly not like anything we had seen before.

Next up was a trip to the famous Red Fort, a 17th century complex that was residence of the emperors when the capital moved to Delhi from Agra. Despite the unwelcome sensation that the back of my neck was by now beginning to fry, this was another fascinating glimpse back into the rich history of Delhi. After a quick stop at the burial memorial of Gandhi, we finished our tour at the breathtaking Humayun’s tomb, which is set in tranquil gardens. It was both spectacular in its own right and a reminder that we still had so much to experience.

That evening we began our Maharajas’ Express experience. Forget any ideas of insane and crowded train stations, we departed from the smaller Safdarjung Railway Station, where the train was waiting for us. Firstly however, we were made to feel very special indeed, as we were given a welcome drink by a very welcoming reception committee playing traditional instruments and presenting us with traditional Indian garlands. Next, it was time to board the train. We were shown to our cabin by our welcoming butler (yes, it was that sort of train!) and we soon settled in to our comfortable cabin. As we slowly began to move off into the night, it was time for dinner in the luxurious restaurant car – a far cry from the shanty towns and shacks were passing by on the outskirts of Delhi. Whilst the juxtaposition of opulence and poverty did make me feel uncomfortable, it was impossible not to enjoy the meal set in front us. Each evening there was the choice of an Indian or international menu – so no need to feast on curry every night. The menu changed daily with the Indian dishes representing a different region and cuisine nightly. Following dinner, the restaurant manager and chef would chat to each table. They would explain more about how each dish was prepared and check if it was too hot, not hot enough or just right. In truth the food was extremely tasty but never overly hot – just full of a wider variety of tastes and flavours. Tikka Massala (a dish which doesn’t actually exist in India) definitely was not on the menu.

The next morning we arrived in the famous “pink city” of Jaipur, where we began by exploring the famous 11th century Amber Fort, offering spectacular views over the city. On the way to the City Palace, our next port of call, there was a short traffic jam. I was amused to discover the reason for the delay was an elephant, who was blocking traffic by going the wrong way around a roundabout…by now this struck me as an entirely normal state of affairs. When in India….

This was however not the last elephant I would meet in Jaipur, as we now had another once in a lifetime opportunity – the chance to play Elephant Polo! After watching an exhibition match between two teams, volunteers were requested for the next game. Naturally, this was not an opportunity to pass up – one which doesn’t present itself too often in London – and soon my colleague Dominic and I were astride rival elephants. The game was underway. It is important to stress that your correspondent is in no way exaggerating when I say that within a minute I had put our team in front, although this may have more to do with an impressive turn from the elephant, and a “driver” who wanted a backhander, than any previously untapped talent for elephant polo on my behalf. We had soon scored a second, although my colleague would like me to mention that he did score a consolation effort, despite my best attempts to put him off by shouting at him as he had the goal in his sights. We both decided at the conclusion of the game that it was time to retire with a 100% goal per game ratio, and watched the next game with a cool drink, until it was abruptly ended by an elephant picking up the ball with its trunk and walking off with it towards the goal – given what I had seen of Indian roads this may well be permitted in elephant polo. The elephant was christened “Maradonna” by our party. We were also honoured with the presence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, who watched my nascent career astride an elephant begin and end (along with those of a few other people admittedly), and a cavalry of musicians, elephants, camels and horses. India does spectacle well!

After an exciting day full of once in a lifetime experiences , it was time to head back to the train where dinner was soon served, before relaxing with other passengers in one of two bar cars. We soon made friends with the barman, and as India were in the process of defeating Australia 4-0 in the current test series between the two, we found that we had plenty of common interests, watching cricket and defeating the Australians, and not necessarily in that order. We went to bed tired but happy, and (unusually for me) looking forward to an early start the next day…

The reason for my unexpected enthusiasm for a 6am start was that we were due to visit the Ranthambore National Park for a safari. The park is set in nearly 400 square kilometres of deciduous forest and offers sightings of many species including, if you are very lucky, an elusive tiger. There are few people who can say they have seen a tiger in the wild so we were not banking on a sighting, but nevertheless it was an excited group that left Sawai Madhopur station and entered the park by jeep. Our guide was soon engaged in trying to follow tracks and traces left behind by tigers and then started to get very excited. Pointing back several metres through the trees, we were just able to glimpse a trace of orange and black stripes and were informed that this was a sleeping female. As there were no signs of activity, we moved on and met a colony of monkeys and a mongoose on our travels, as well as several deer as we tracked more tiger footprints. It was getting towards time to leave when we heard cries from a jeep ahead, and saw two of them parked one behind the other with drivers pointing to the right. We nestled up behind them and waited. We were not disappointed as, craning our necks, we saw this impressive predator briefly cross the track in front of the first jeep without even paying the vehicles a second glance. Then looking to our left, the tiger disappeared amongst the foliage. A few moments later, desperate for another glimpse, we saw a startled deer jump skywards, a flash of orange and black parted the bushes and a loud roar echoed through the jungle – it was all over in a flash and we heard the sounds of the chase continue. Despite it’s brevity, it was a memorable display of the size and power of an endangered predator, and will live long in the memory. We were a happy group as we returned to the train for lunch, as many visitors to Ranthambore will not be so fortunate as we were.

While we ate, the train departed and headed towards the ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri. Once this was capital of the Mughal Empire and now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after it was suddenly abandoned for reasons unknown. The sun was really starting to beat down by this point, and after the tour finished and we boarded the train, a race for the shower began.

Just when it seemed things could not get any more memorable, day five of our trip began with the train pulling into Agra, where we would visit one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal. No matter how many times I had seen images or footage of this monumental Mughal mausoleum, my first glimpse in the flesh took my breath away. An early start to beat the crowds meant the early morning mist was just lifting, and the sunlight reflected off the marble in a myriad of colour. After gazing in wonder, it was time for the obligatory photographs, before heading inside to view the mausoleum itself. It was just as special as I had hoped it would be, even in our technological world where you can view a photograph with one click of a mouse, the Taj needs to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. Truly a special morning, and another moment I will always remember.