Planes, trains and taxis in India (or how not to travel)
Sunday 29th October 2017
We headed off from Wildlife SOS much to the annoyance of Darcy who would have certainly stayed for the rest of her life with her new elephant friends.
We reached our hotel, the Optimum Tara Palace, recommended by another travelling family we'd heard from on one of our travel fb groups.
We were really happy with the room and hotel overall and enjoyed a restful afternoon after our exertions at Wildlife SOS. We booked ourselves a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal and after a reasonable dinner in the hotel restaurant went for an early night.
The clock went off at 5.05 and we got dressed and met our guide Rashid (found on Trip Advisor) in our hotel lobby. He advised us to go and get in the queue as the foreigner queue is often long even at sunrise whilst he went to purchase the tickets.
We did so and walked along the cobbled road to the Taj. We were surprised at how dirty and full of rubbish the street was as it leads to such a beautiful place and the smell was something we cannot describe. Still it had glimpses of beauty, the red brick road has pillars all along it that light up the route to the Taj and in the early morning light they looked so pretty leading the way.
We got to the entrance gate and found it already thronging with visitors just as Rashid had predicted. All around us were visitors and languages from all over the world. As the sun began to rise we were itching to get in and after the security checks we made our way through. There's a lot you can't take in to the Taj Mahal - usual things like lighters but also toys and books!
We walked through and stood at the main gate peeking through the arch to see the glistening white Taj Mahal. Rashid explained the history to us and how the marble had been transported hundreds of miles in a time when there was no heavy plant machinery or trucks. Elephants were used to do most of the heavy work and it made us think of our new elephant friends at Wildlife SOS and the hardships and exhaustion those elephants involved in building the Taj Mahal would have experienced.
As we walked through the gate the majesty of the building really becomes apparent. It was so beautiful I could have cried. The palace is something I've wanted to see for such a long time and despite the horrendous crowds it was still as awe inspiring as I imagined it to be.
The Taj Mahal is a pretty controversial building in India with a just as controversial a history. It is part of the murghal empire, who were overthrown by the British. It has recently also been left off the list of sites to see in India by a new tourism guide by those who believe it has no place in India's modern culture.
For me, it's a stunning building, an extravagantly overblown romantic gesture but of such beauty that it has to be seen to be believed. I really enjoyed learning more about its history, about the architecture and the stones used, some of which even glow in the dark after light has been on them.
I loved learning about how it is identical from every side. How the pillars are built at an angle to fall outwards, away from the main dome if ever they were to fall to cause the least damage, and how across the river the foundations were laid for what was potentially to become the Black Taj Mahal, according to legend.
I loved it. It was everything I hoped it would be and that's difficult to live up to the weight of expectation sometimes, the Taj Mahal really does.
And that was it, it was just getting more and more crowded so we said our goodbyes and took our last photos, bidding farewell to Rashid and heading back for breakfast. We were surprised to find that al the rubbish on the streets had disappeared and the smell had all bit vanished too. It seems sunrise brought a wave of cleanliness over the area!!
We packed up and began the journey back to Delhi. Another horrendous journey as apparently taxi drivers in India don't have to have any knowledge of where they're going or how to get anywhere and the very idea of sat nav is ludicrous.
We arrived back at the Prince Palace where we had previously stayed in Delhi and despite its minor flaws it was almost like a homecoming to see the familiar welcoming faces of the staff.
We headed out for dinner and an early night. The following day was my birthday but I could feel an ache in my throat and a headache that wouldn't shift. I spent most of the day resting hoping some painkillers would help shift it. The girls made me wonderful cards though and made me smile so much with their little homemade gifts.
We were also starting to worry about our Varanasi stay at this point as we were meant to be departing the next day for the last few days of our time in India.
We had booked tickets to get to Varanasi via the overnight sleeper train to leave the following day and booked a hotel close to the Ganges, somewhere Nikki has always wanted to visit.
As the day progressed, we got more and more stressed trying to establish what was happening to our train tickets.
We had started off registering online with the IRTC and did everything correctly but we were denied payment as often occurs because of our U.K. Accounts. We went to the tourist office and got past the usual barrage of people wanting to see our tickets or point us here or there etc etc which we had thankfully been forewarned about.
The system in there was horrific. No air con, about 30 people waiting, each person taking around 20 minutes to be sorted and only two operatives. We waited with the girls for an hour only to overhear by chance that the card machine "wasn't working" and it was cash only. Despite it being cash only they magically had no change either so people were overpaying for tickets. Apparently the only person who works the card machine doesn't work at weekends. We didn't have cash so left furious at our wasted time.
We sorted our UK cards and paid online and were allocated PQWL5-8. For those that don't know the railway ticketing system in India this means we were in pooled wait queue and had priority 5-8.
Hours before travel we could already see the train was delayed. We were now PQWL1-4 meaning we would move up the list (as people cancelled) and eventually become RAC - reservation against cancellation. This means that you have a seat but potentially not together and not the sleeper cabin for four we wanted.
Nikki went down to the tourist office and said it was bedlam. So many people with pieces of booking papers, asking what was happening, begging for updates. Not enough staff again - two out of the ten counters working, no card machine again and more than 40 people waiting. The station itself was overcrowded with beggars and people delayed sleeping anywhere they could.
We cancelled our tickets to get a refund but it scuppered our plans for Varanasi and we lost our hotel as flights were close to £1000 at this point. We saw tweets from people on the train saying it had turned into a free for all with classes overrun and people using ac1 and ac2 because sleeper class was rammed.
The train we were meant to take at 20.35 eventually departed at 04.40 the following morning. It arrived over 18 hours late. It's completely bonkers.
We were really disappointed that we didn't get to experience an overnight sleeper train in India, it was something we wanted to try as part of our round the world trip but it not only ruined our plans and cost us financially it has made us really wary about getting trains anywhere now.
We've since been advised that we should have picked an express train but we thought we had. There's no one to help you and no one at the Indian railway office cares. I really would advise against travelling this way in India unless you have nothing to lose, including time, money and children!!!! Organised tours may be better but it seems a standard that trains are delayed and 15 hours for overnighters seems standard.
As it turned out, the following day I was so poorly I wouldn't have been able to travel anyway. I was so ill that at one point I genuinely was concerned that I had malaria (I am always convinced I have a serious disease but when you're in India away from home, having travelled through Africa it was much more scary as the possibility of malaria was certainly very real).
I emailed Nikki all our insurance documents and googled hospitals (just in case) and the difference between flu and malaria (it's hard to tell apparently) while Nik took the girls out for the day to Adventure Island, a theme park (I use the term loosely) just outside of Delhi. They had been stuck in the previous day and our room at the Prince Palace was three beds in one room so they were all keen to escape the sickness, germs and me!!
They had a great time on rides and rollercoasters, fully enjoying a day out at a park that Nikki described as being like "the end of the pier" ha! I meanwhile, slept and took various pills and contemplated my malarial status.
By the time they returned I was feeling marginally better and was pretty sure at this point that I just had regular good old flu. We crashed out and Nikki decided to book us all into a hotel near the airport as we had had enough of sleeping together and needed a little more space. I was happy to agree as I could just about manage to stand at this point and was pleased to be near the airport as we had brought forward our departure to Thailand by three days as a result of missing out on Varanasi.
I can't even explain the luxury we felt at the Holiday Inn at Delhi International. It was far beyond any holiday inns I have experienced in the UK both in terms of service and quality. In my flu like haze I saw it as a little oasis of healing, we even had two rooms. Massive beds, luxury linen and a restaurant that had more than plastic chairs and a coffee table!!!
The girls enjoyed the pool and Nikki enjoyed the spa while I continued to rest, managing to eat after 36 hours of no food - anyone who knows me will understand what a serious indication not eating is of how ill I was!!! I never miss meals!
And so our Indian adventure rather limped over the finish line rather than smashing it in a blaze of glory. We had planned to be in Varanasi for Diwali and instead we didn't even leave the confines of our lovely hotel and flew out the morning of Diwali. I was just too ill and Nikki and the girls had just seen enough of India.
I hope to go back one day but to the south to experience the differences in the country. It's so vast, I still would like to visit the Ganges, I want to go to Jodphur and
Jaipur, and Pondicherry. I'm not sure I'll ever convince Nikki to go back but even he will admit he enjoyed the earlier part of our India travels far more than he expected to. I think he has been scarred for life by the train fiasco though.
What's next? Bangkok baby!! See you in Thailand!