Sights of India – Part 2

After visiting Delhi and Agra, we headed towards Jaipur as our final leg of sight-seeing before finishing the loop back in Delhi. Jaipur is known as the pink city, due to its distinctive tint on most of the buildings. It’s the one place I really wish I had had more time to explore and experience, rather than sight-hoping, but I guess that will be for a future visit to India! The photo above is the breathtaking view from the Amer Fort outside of Jaipur.

Agra – Fatehpur Sikri

The city of Fatehpur Sikri was founded as the capital of the Mughal empire in 1571 by emperor Akbar. The complex is mostly constructed from sandstone, giving it its red colour. Fatehpur Sikri was originally located on the side of a lake, but the body of water is now almost completely dried up. When this water source was nearly exhausted in 1585 the complex was abandoned. Today the location felt extremely hot and dry, but some lush, green elements could still be found which hinted at what this city may have been like in its past. 

 

Jaipur – Jantar Mantar Observatory

Jantar Mantar is located next to the Jaipur City Palace and is a collection of 19 astrological structures including the world’s largest sundial. The various instruments allow you to keep track of the time, predict eclipses, and track stars and planets. It’s said that the large scale of the instruments was to increase their accuracy. Completed in 1734 the observatory was actively used until 1800. It feel into disuse and disrepair, but was restored several times even as recently as 2006. Above I’m posing with the Libra instrument – the complex has an instrument for each of the sun signs, which can only be used during that sign’s season.

 

Jaipur – City Palace

The majority of the City Palace in the centre of Jaipur still remains a royal residence. The colourful buildings reflect the character of Jaipur itself.

 

Jaipur – Amer Fort

Located about 11 kilometres outside of Jaipur, the Amer fort is built into a hillside and from its four levels provides impressive views out across the countryside. Built in 1592 the fort is known for its artistic Hindu architectural elements. The details of the fort were some of the most beautiful of all the sites we visited, from the marble facades to the mirrored palace inside. 

Sights of India – Part 1

There is an abundance of gorgeous and breathtaking sights in India. As we travelled the “golden triangle” from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and back we had the chance to visit a whole host of amazing locations. The architecture is beautiful and as you travel you start to learn about the slight differences in style, especially between the traits of Muslim versus Hindu architecture depending on the benefactor of the time. 

We were travelling with a quite large tour group, so our visitation times at various sights was always pre-set and we only had so long to explore. I never felt too overwhelmed by the crowds at any one location, but you can definitely be strategic in when you arrive at certain places. Plus I would have loved to have gotten out earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon as the midday sun during April was absolutely exhausting!

Our experience only just scratched the surface of all there is to offer in India, and it’s definitely still on my list as a location to travel to; there is still so much more to see and experience beyond these locations. But starting off in the Golden Triangle gave us a great taste of India and has left us wanting more!

Delhi – Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid in Delhi is India’s largest mosque and can accommodate around 25,000 worshippers at its fullest. The mosque was built between 1644 and 1656 by emperor Shah Jahan, the same man who had the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra constructed. 

Tourists can enter the mosque but must remove their shoes beforehand and are given a robe to cover up as needed.

Agra – Itmad-ud-Daula – “Baby Taj Mahal” 

The tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula is often referred to as a jewelry box, or called the Baby Taj Mahal, and some consider it a draft version of the iconic structure. It was built between 1622 and 1628 by Nur Jahan for her father, who was also the grandfather to the wife of emperor Shah Jahan. The mausoleum is made from white marble inset with semi-precious stones like onyx, topaz, and lapis.

It was a beautiful and serene location to visit, with surprisingly few other tourists but plenty of precocious monkeys running around! You must take off your shoes to explore the mausoleum itself, which was a bit of a hazard as the red stone was scorching hot from the sun! Once you enter the structure, however, the cool floors will sooth your feet and give you a break from the unrelenting Indian sun.

Agra – Agra Fort

Before the seat of the Mughal dynasty moved to Delhi in 1638, Agra and the Agra Fort was the ruling emperor’s main residence. The fort itself is like a walled city and changed hands many times during its history, under going a full 8-year renovation until 1573 by Emperor Akbar. Depending on the ruler at the time, different features and styles were added to the fort. For example, Shah Jahan (the grandson of Akbar) who constructed the Taj Mahal, favoured white marble and so destroyed some of the buildings to construct his own in his preferred style. 

Agra – Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal must be the iconic structure of India for most foreigners, and seeing it in reality it’s not hard to understand why! Built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, its name means “Crown of the Palace”; a fitting name for the breathtaking structure.

We visited in the late afternoon as dusk was beginning to approach. It was definitely the most crowded sight we would visit, but even still you could move about as you wanted and it never felt like a hassle having so many other tourists around. We spent most of our time wandering the grounds and the perimeter of the Taj Mahal itself, but apparently if you go a bit more off the beaten path there are many lesser known locations for amazing photo opportunities, and maybe more peace and quiet to just bask in the beauty of this location! This is definitely a spot to take your time and enjoy it slowly.

Agra – Sikandra Fort

Sikandra Fort, located just outside Agra, is the home of Akbar’s tomb and was one of my favourite spots that we visited. The grounds were so tranquil, and when we arrived first thing in the morning there was hardly anyone else about. You walk through the gates onto the grounds and past lush green fields dotted with antelope and peacocks on your way towards the tomb. It was such a beautiful setting and I really enjoyed exploring the intricate architecture of the tomb as well as the gardens surrounding it. 

Tasting India: The Delhi Food Walk

Earlier this year we got an amazing opportunity to travel to India for ten days with a group of Rotarians. (I’ll talk more about the total experience in a later post.) Travelling to India our first worry was whether we would enjoy and adapt to the local food. Neither my boyfriend, Lieven, nor myself have ever eaten much Indian food, and you can imagine that the food found locally probably differs from what we have had here in Belgium! 

We arrived in Delhi a day before the rest of our travel companions, and so to dive-in headfirst into the Indian culinary experience, we decided to go on the Urban Adventure Delhi Food Walk. Urban Adventures is from the same parent company as Intrepid Travel, which we travelled with last year through Indonesia, so we felt very confident that we would have an amazing experience.

The tour took place in the area nearby the University of Delhi, in the north of the city. We ended up being a group of five plus our local guide, Nipon, which was really perfect for navigating the crowded streets and squeezing in the small restaurants we started out in. 

 Momos (above) are Nepalese fried or steamed dumplings 

Momos (above) are Nepalese fried or steamed dumplings 

The whole tour took around 3-4 hours. We started out by visiting a couple small restaurants, but then the majority of our food was sampled from street vendors. Along the way we stopped for a henna session, went for a short rickshaw ride, and really got to see and experience what an evening in Delhi was like for locals. Everything we ate and drank (including bottles of water as we went around) was included in our tour price, as well as the rickshaw. We would take portions to sample as a group, but could re-order for ourselves whenever we wanted to. Only the henna was extra but was such a good price you couldn’t even think twice about doing it; even Lieven got a henna armband!

The tour included six savoury dishes and finished with six sweet dishes. We ended at a small restaurant for the final fours desserts and to rest, relax, and debrief on everything we had eaten and seen. Before we knew it, we were back on our tuktuk towards our hotel, bellies completely full and satisfied. 

  • Bhel-Puri, a mixed bowl of crunchy, salty, sweet flavours – our favourite savoury dish of the day!
  • Gol-Gappa, our challenge was to pop one of these in our mouth all at once. It was a hollow fried dough-ball filled with a yogurty liquid – not to my taste
  • Pau Bhaji, a butter bread topped with a vegetable curry, onions, and mint sauce – the runner up savoury dish
  • Kulfi, the first dessert we tried, a spiced ice cream bar with almond, cinnamon, and cardamom
  • Roller ice cream: fruity syrups are poured over the massive block, before shaving off a bowl kebab-style

The food walk was hands down the best food we ate for the entire trip. Since after that point we were travelling with a bigger group, almost all of our meals were already arranged. These tended to be at bigger restaurants or hotels with buffets set up that while providing good food, over time started to blend into each other, all offering the same sorts of dishes. I’m so glad we took the opportunity to get off the beaten track and taste more of India!

  • Jalebi, a fried sugary dessert similar in shape to funnel cakes
  • Gulab Jamun, a milk solid based dumpling spiced with cinnamon and cardamon, served in a syrupy sauce – my favourite dessert!
  • Kaju Katli, cashew diamond cookies topped with silver foil – the runner up dessert and something I want to try making myself!

Discovering Indonesia – Temples Around Ubud, Bali

 Priests among the colourful offerings after a ceremony at Tirta Empul, a water temple near Ubud, Bali.

Priests among the colourful offerings after a ceremony at Tirta Empul, a water temple near Ubud, Bali.

After our journey throughout the island of Java, Indonesia, we then hopped on the ferry and travelled over to the island of Bali – probably the most well known of the Indonesian islands. As we drove throughout the island, you could feel Bali’s unique character come through. Almost every home has a small shrine set up for their daily offerings, the baskets and flowers from that morning’s ritual scattered across the sidewalks. 

We spent our first day in Ubud going out and exploring all the treasures that lay in the region surrounding the city; Bali has so many incredible temples and sites to discover! The easiest way to explore is to get a driver for a day, three of us went together and arranged it through our hotel, which meant we had a knowledgable guide and a comfortable way to travel around while seeing an astounding number of sites. Despite all that we saw, it never felt rushed, and we were free to take as much time as we wanted at each stop. Plus, we got to determine what we did or didn’t go and visit.

Goa Gajah – the Elephant Cave

You won’t actually find any live elephants when you visit Goa Gajah, or the Elephant Cave. The site, which was built on a hillside nestle between two rivers, is a Hindu meditation complex. The name likely comes from the meditation cave, carved into the stone where you will find inside a statue of Ganesh, whose head is that of an elephant’s. 

It’s a lush site, surrounded by the forest, ponds, and streams, with bathing pools served by Hindu angels whose water pots pour cleansing water into the pool. Even though we were there first thing in the morning, there were already quite some tourists around – possibly it felt busier due to the site being on the small side, so good luck getting a clear shot of the Elephant Cave without someone else around!

Gunung Kawi – Rock Temple

Gunung Kawi is an impressive sight with the shrines carved into the rock cliffs. It’s quite a walk down from the temple entrance past loads of kiosks selling Balinese souvenirs, but at least it means you have an excuse to stop for a pause on the way back up! It also gives you some pretty views over nearby rice terraces and was very quiet compared to Goa Gajah.

The temple is considered one of the oldest and largest monuments in Bali, and legend says that each of the shrines represent a member of Balinese royalty at the time.

Tirta Empul – Water Temple

Tirta Empul, or Holy Spring, is a Balinese water temple known for its sacred waters where one goes for purification rituals. It’s dedicated to the Hindu god of water, Vishnu.

The pools contain 30 spouts of water, each section dedicated to a different form of purification, first for cleansing evil and bad spirits, then for prosperity, and finally to cleanse the body and soul. You begin at the lefthand side (when facing the pools) and cleanse yourself below each spout in turn.

I’ve seen some reports of long queues to partake in the cleansing ritual, but when we were there late in the afternoon (after a heavy rainfall), while plenty of people were milling about, the was no queue. Many tourists only posed for photos under the first few spouts and hardly any continued down the line to complete the full ritual.

Discovering Indonesia: Sunrise Views and Climbing Mount Bromo

Visiting Mount Bromo at sunrise is definitely one of the tourist to-do’s of Indonesia. But despite the early call times and the crowds of fellow visitors at the viewpoint, the journey is well worth it.

Don’t expect much for accommodations in the area, most are budget hotels that are there purely for the sunrise tourists who get only a few hours of sleep before the 3am wake up call. The walls of our hotel were so thin, we could hear our neighbours plugging in their phones to charge! The wake up happened even earlier in fact as our transportation started to very loudly arrive around 2.30am.

The reason you have to start so early is that the journey to the viewpoint is not the easiest. You can only get there via 4-wheelers, so you are obliged to hire local transportation. It’s pitch black, cold, and bumpy on the way up. You arrive at the viewpoint, stumbling in the dark from the jeeps, into a maze of kiosks and tourist shops as you make your way up the hill.

Sunrise was around 5am, so we first stopped in at a small restaurant for coffees and fried bananas, huddled together against the chill. We had put on all the layers we brought to Indonesia, but after +30C days we just weren’t ready for it!

When we did head to the view point shortly before 5am, the crowd was already forming; the prime locations at the guardrail were taken, but even from further back the views were amazing. We just stood and watched Mother Nature’s show taking place in front of us.

After the sun had risen fairly high and the sky had turned a stable soft pink and blue, the crowd began to split up and you could more easily move around and reach the better photography points. It was definitely one of the locations where you can just keep taking photographs, convinced each angle is even better than the last!

Before the heat of the day started setting in, we headed down from the viewpoint to the base of Mount Bromo. From where the jeeps could park, to the top of the volcano was about a 2 kilometre hike. You can pay to ride a horse about halfway up, but the slippery and sandy conditions lead our guide to not recommend it. The walk isn’t too strenuous and you have lots of opportunities to look around and take a rest.

The most nerve-wracking part for me was the final ascent up some steep stairs, so covered with sand they became more like a ramp. The top is also not for the faint of heart, only a knee-high stone barrier separates you from the drop into the heart of the volcano. More adventurous people walked along the edge, but I was content to sit myself down and enjoy my single viewpoint from a relatively safe position.

If Mount Bromo is on your Indonesia bucket list, I would definitely recommend this combination. The sunrise is really not to be missed, and then following it up with a hike up the volcano is perfect. The heat was only beginning to set in as we came down, and by 8am we were back at our hotel to clean up and enjoy breakfast before it was off to the next stop!

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