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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Northern India | Delhi, Agra & Varanasi

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

Day 10-11: Delhi

We caught the train from Varkala to Trivandum to begin our trip to Delhi. When we arrived in Trivandum we got some breakfast and then took a rickshaw to the airport. He ended up dropping us off at the International Terminal - guess he figured weren't Indians...ha ha! After went in, we were told we needed to be at the Domestic terminal, which was 5-6 km away from the International terminal, so we caught another rickshaw there. We flew Indigo Airlines with a 45-minute layover in Mumbai, where we just had to stay on the plane.


We were lucky that we didn't fly Kingfischer, because that particular day they had 60 flights cancelled across the country due to pilots leaving as a result of financial troubles. When we arrived at the Delhi Airport it felt like we were in a modern Asian city along with the modern subway line from the Airport to the City. However, as soon as you stepped out of the metro station it was back to feeling like other parts of India. This particular experience really showed the divide between the rich and poor.


Harat Nizanuddin Dargah – Shrine to Muslim Saint

After dropping our things off at the Comfort Inn - New Delhi, we visited the Harat Nizanuddin Dargah, which is a shrine to the Muslim Sufi Saint Nizam-ud-din Chishti. It is surrounded by streets and alleys of vendors and food places, but we eventually found our way inside. Before we could enter we had to cover our heads, which we were provided a white handkerchief to use. We didn't want to leave our shoes at the doorway, so we just carried them with us. However, from the looks we got from a few people I think it might have offended them. There were all types of people inside. Some people were there to worship, and others lived there or sought refuge there and were begging. In the main area only men were allowed to enter while women had to remain outside. Once back outside the alleys were full of life, so we spent some time walking through those and had some dinner.


Khan Market & Connaught Place

Khan Market was an area of high-end retail shops and was actually surrounded by a fence. All the street vendors were outside of the fence. The Indians within the Khan Market were very well off. However, it was sad when there was such poverty just across the street. On our walk that night we even passed a mother with a bassinet for her baby, her other children and all their possessions just sitting on the street. The poverty tugged at my heart. Later in our visit we also visited Connaught Place, which is another high-end retail market.


Red Fort

On our first full day in Delhi, we explored Old Delhi area and went to the Red Fort, just as it was opening which seemed to be a good way to avoid the crowds. The Red Fort was built by the Mughals between 1638 & 1648 and was the place where the king resided. However, the courtyards would open up to the public for entertainment, like elephant or tiger fights, back in the day. The sandstone walls surround the central area for a total length of 2 km.


Markets

Not far from the Red Fort was the Chandhi Chowk Bazaar, which was filled with all sorts of stores and booths. The area was full of different types of markets. We wandered further in and ended up at the Nai Sarak Market, which had store after store of saris, as well as stationary and books. We also spent some time in Chown Bazaar, which sold wholesale paper and greeting cards. It was there that we found the "cookie wallah"! He had the most delicious shortbread cookies and he cooked them over a bed of coals .... we went back for seconds. To go along with our cookies we got some chai from the chai wallah.


Later that day, we also ventured to the Spice Market, supposedly the largest in Asia. The books all said you would know you've arrived by the smell, and that was VERY true! It was a wholesale spice market so there were huge bags of spices everywhere. The smell was so strong that my nose was working overtime to try to identify what I was smelling! However, I don't think my nose could handle it, as I would suddenly be overcome by coughing or sneezing. Even the workers were coughing within the market.


Life in Delhi

It was also very entertaining to watch and ride the rickshaws in the market area - there was so much happening and even bicycle rickshaw traffic jams. My favorite though was the Bicycle Rickshaw school bus.


Jama Masjid Mosque

We also walked to the Jama Masjid, the largest Muslim Mosque in India, from the market area. The mosque was built in 1644 to 1658. As we entered they told me females had to be fully covered, so I had to use one of the coverings they provided. We were informed that it was 200 rupees each for us, as well as a donation for the covering. We paid 400 rupees and delayed paying for the covering, but later found out that it was actually only 200 rupees per camera, so we had overpaid. We felt a bit cheated, and not as guilty that we didn't provide a donation for the cover.


Humayun’s Tomb

This is a Mughal tomb for a Mughal emperor & several others and it was the precursor to the Taj Mahal. The architecture & design was very beautiful.


Train to Agra

Late that afternoon, we caught a train to Agra, which was 3 hours. The train ride was quite the contrast to our accommodations that night. We had some hotel points so we stayed at the Radisson in Agra. It was basically in its own compound. However, right outside the compound were a small grouping of tent shacks with no running water and using fires as fuel to make food, etc. However, I was surprised with how many tents had running TVs. Meanwhile we were upgraded to a suite. Sometimes the contrast was astounding.


Day 12: Agra

Taj Mahal at Sunrise

We couldn't go to India without visiting the acclaimed Taj Mahal. We visited the monument early in the morning right after the sun rose. When we first walked through the gate and saw our first glimpse of it, it was pretty breathtaking. It's just such a magnificent structure that is symmetrically balanced no matter how you look at it. Inside the main building was the tomb of Shan Jahan's third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth of their 14th child. (Although the tombs are below ground.) There was such intricate detail on the marble with flower designs etched and painted, so no wonder it took 9 years to build. We spent most of the time taking photos of one of the seven Wonders of the World.

However, we probably only spent a couple hours there, as there's not a whole lot to see inside the grounds. It's a huge tourist trap, which is demonstrated by the entrance fees. For Indians it only cost 10 rupees, but for foreigners it is 750 rupees!!! (The price differences between foreigners and Indians is pretty common at most tourist sites in India.) Once we were inside it was probably about 98% foreigners. However, it was definitely worth seeing!


Agra Fort

The Fort is the other main attraction to see in Agra. It originally was build as a Fort for the Mughal empire, but later became a palace. It had been added on by several different emperors, including Shan Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal).

However, 30 years into Shan Jahan's reign as emperor, his third son Aurangzeb ended his reigned and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort in 1648. This was because Aurangzeb was upset how Shan Jahan had spent lots of money on very ornate buildings. Instead he spent the last 8 years of his life in the Jasmine Tower where he had a daily/hourly view of his Taj Mahal....and his future burial place. Talk about ironic!


This was his view:

However, the place was overrun with monkeys in some parts. We also learned that the Indian military utilizes some parts of the Fort still today.


Village Life in Agra

We wandered around the town of Agra, and could definitely tell when we were out of the non-tourist areas. However, it was so interesting to watch everything. There were motorbike and other drivers honking to get through the streets; while at the same time herds of water buffalo and cows shared the same intersection. Up above all the commotion on the street, there were monkeys dangling from the power lines above.

The river was also full of action with water buffalo crossing and we even saw them drying out cow pies (poop) to use as fuel for their fires.

Sleeper Train to Varanasi

That night after dinner we took the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. We did get some bunks to sleep on, but they weren't the most comfortable. Plus, unfortunately Alex got sick with a stomach bug overnight on the train ride there.


Day 13-14: Varanasi

Varanasi was the most unique place we visited in India, as well as memorable and eye-opening. Memorable because this is where we both caught a stomach bug, but also because it is the mecca of India. The streets 'galis' are narrow and are basically just small alleys where you encountered several ‘holy’ cows 'up close' as you walked through them.


Volunteering with Indian Children

Almost immediately after we arrived at our accommodation from the overnight train, Alex just went to bed because he didn’t feel well. I felt fine that day, so I spent some time volunteering with local children and working with them on their multiplication tables at an orphanage/school, which was set up through the Yoga & Volunteer Centre. I continued to explore by myself into the evening.


Ganga Arti Ceremonial Prayer

In the evening I took a boat trip for the Ganga Arti, a ceremonial prayer located at the Dashashvamedth Ghat. As part of the ceremony, I released a leaf bowl with carnation flowers and a candle into the Ganges rivers, which is called a Puija, which is an offering to the gods. The ceremony is performed every night by the Hindu holy men as a prayer to a number of their gods.


Ganges Sunrise Boat Cruise

At sunrise on our last morning (overnight I started to not feel well), we manned-up and went to the Ganges for the sunrise boat ride. This was something I had been looking forward to for the entire trip, so I willed myself to make it to the sunrise boat tour. We found a boat to take the both of us for 250 rupees.

There was so much to take in on the boat ride, including seeing people perform daily rituals, like bathing in the ‘holy’ water, priests doing their prayers, and banging clothes on stones to wash them. Although, the most memorable were the cremation ghats, where bodies wrapped in white laid on piles of wood to be cremated. Sometimes there would be several bodies laid on the same pile of wood, as it is less costly than to pay for a single one. Later we even witnessed the body of a baby floating in the river. This is because babies under 2 years old do not have to be cremated, as they are still considered 'pure'. However, some families who cannot afford the cremation will sometimes release bodies or partial cremated bodies in the river; although this is technically against the law. All this is because Hindus believe that the Ganges River is the most sacred place to die as a Hindu. As a result, some Hindus come to Varanasi to die because they believe it will get them out of the cycle of birth and death and help them achieve 'moksha', or spiritual liberation. However, all these sights and smells were a bit harsh on our already sick stomachs.


We took a tuk tuk from Varansi to the airport for 350 rupees. The airport was only 26 km away, but it took us an hour to get there. However, after not feeling well, a modernized airport and air conditioning felt pretty nice. It was also heavily skewed toward tourists it seemed. We spent our last night in India at a hotel in Delhi.


Flights: Return Home

It was a long journey home, but we were again on business class so it was still an enjoyable experience (sans being sick). These were the legs:


Turkish Airlines: DEL – IST – LHR

Virgin Atlantic: LHR - JFK (Spent Night & Transited to Newark)

United: EWR - ORD - YYC


Turkish Airlines

We took our Turkish Airlines flight from Delhi to Istanbul and slept most of the way because we had woken up at 2 a.m. to get to the airport. However, upon arrival in Istanbul, we were able to visit the Turkish Airlines Lounge, which had recently opened. It was amazing! They had a pool table, kid's play area, a grand piano, Mac computers, a coffee espresso machine and a wide variety of food. My favorite was the table full of just dessert! They also had chefs to make meals to order. We ended up taking advantage of their shower facilities and took a nice long warm shower. Warm showers were somewhat of a rare occurrence in India, unless we were staying a high end hotel. Our flight to London was good as well; however, my stomach was still recovering from being sick so I couldn't enjoy the food the way I had wished.


Virgin Atlantic

When we arrived at London Heathrow we were able to visit the Virgin Atlantic Lounge, prior to our flight. Unfortunately, we didn't have much time, so it was a little bit of a bummer as it was the top rated lounge in the world. They also provided many unique offerings - they had a deli to make sandwiches, sushi to order, a movie theatre area and even a salon area (for extra charge).


The service on Virgin Atlantic to JFK was great as well. The flight attendant took the time to explain all the seat features, and were very on top of things. Unfortunately, I didn't feel the best during this flight, so I was just grateful for the lie flat seat option, which I took full advantage of. However, I'd never seen such a social airplane. There were several guests who would come eat their meals with their travel partner because the foot stool turned into a shared table. Plus there was a bar area toward the back of the first class cabin where guests could just stand around and have a drink.


United/Continental

After arriving in JFK we took the train to Newark, NJ and stayed the night in a hotel there. The following morning we went to the airport to check in for the remainder of our journey; however, we could definitely tell that we were on American carriers once again. It just wasn't the same first and/or business class service we had received overseas. Luckily we were flying 'Internationally' to Calgary, otherwise we would NOT had gotten access to the lounges either.


We flew Newark to Chicago O'Hare and had 4 hour layover there, which we spent in the lounge. However, as we were about to board our flight to Calgary, they were asking for volunteers to give up their seats as they were overweight. We took the offer and ended up with some flight vouchers and some additional time in the lounge! Score! We got on the second flight and made it back to Calgary.


We made it back home and come back even more grateful for the life we have!






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