India was never really part of my bucket list because of the feared Delhi Belly. It is impossible to visit everywhere in the world, and as I have Crohn’s disease, it seemed prudent to leave India out. And a country with over 1 billion people and extreme poverty didn’t sound particularly appealing either. But the call of the tigers proved too strong, and so we decided to take the plunge.
Flying to India
As we only had a week to see as much as possible, we booked business class tickets with Finnair. This way you’re not completely exhausted by the time you get there.
Route: Brussels – Helsinki – New Delhi
Day 1: Agra
Our plane landed in New Delhi at 5:25. The general advice is to book yourself into a Delhi hotel and take it easy for the first day. As we didn’t have any time to lose, we drove straight to Agra. After a 4-hour journey (204 km), we arrived in the city best known for the Taj Mahal.
Hotels in Agra
AThere is only one option if you want to stay in a prime location in Agra: The Oberoi Amarvilas.
This hotel is the only one with a view of the Taj Mahal. As soon as you enter the lobby, you are blown away by one of the best views ever. Through a massive window at the back you have a direct view of the Taj Mahal. Our room also provided us with a front view of this fabulous piece of architecture.
Before we were collected, we enjoyed a little beverage on our terrace, knowing that we probably would never have a room with such a spectacular view ever again.
Visiting the Taj Mahal
No motorised vehicles are allowed within a 500-meter radius of the Taj Mahal, as the mausoleum is badly affected by air pollution. From the Oberoi Amarvilas you can easily walk to the Taj Mahal, but we were brought there by electrical golf cart. As it was nearly 40 degrees, this was not an unnecessary luxury.
We came in through the Eastern Gate. Women and men have to join separate queues. You pass a detector and you’re not allowed to bring a bag. Sunglasses and camera are all you need.
Once you pass the gate, you are blown away by the mesmerizing view! The Taj Mahal is straight in front of you. No matter how many pictures you have seen, you have no idea how beautiful this is. You have to see this with your own eyes.
.To enter the mausoleum, you have to join yet another queue in the burning sun. Luckily, we had a guide with us who brought us past the queue and we could go inside immediately.
The inside is also spectacular. The inlay work and calligraphy panels are beautiful. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photographs inside.
If you don't want to go inside, there are a few nice alternatives. Read 7 ways to see the Taj Mahal without going inside.
History of the Taj MahalThe Taj Mahal is a true ode to love. Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor of the Mughal Empire, had more than one wife. But his third wife was his big love. She died in 1631 giving birth to her 14th child. Before she died she only had three wishes:• Her husband had to take good care of her children• He was not allowed to remarry• He had to build a symbol of everlasting love
Shah Jahan came to a sad end. Normally, tradition dictated that the oldest son would succeed his father. But his third son wanted to be in power so he killed his two elder brothers and held his father captive in Agra Fort. From his cell Shah Jahan could see the Taj Mahal where his wife lay buried.
- The Eastern Gate has 22 domes.
- It took 22 years of work.
- 22000 people worked day and night.
- The white marble came from a quarry 400 km away and had to be brought in by horse/camel.
- Shah Jahan planned to build an identical mausoleum on the other side of the river, all in black. But because of his son’s coup, it wasn’t to be.
- The 4 minarets cause a type of 3D effect. They also tilt outwards a little so that if they fall, they don’t fall onto the building.
Visit Fort Agra
Another remarkable building in Agra is Agra Fort or the Red Fort. This fort was built between 1565 and 1571 by the Moghul emperor Akbar to protect himself and the capital city of Agra. In 1983, the monument was included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
It was in a tower of this fort that Shah Jahan was locked by his power-hungry son.
Only 1/3 of the fort can be visited as the other parts are used by the army. They were set to leave years ago, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The fort is surrounded by a 2.5 km wall. Within the wall are several palaces and mosques. Some buildings are made with the white marble that was left over after building the Taj Mahal. Enjoy the spectacular views.
Day 2 – 3 and 4 Ranthambore
We were ready at 9 o’clock the next day for our transfer to Ranthambore. As this is a long drive in the car, we decided to do part of it by train. After 1.5 hours we were dropped at the station in Bharatpur. We had 1st class tickets, but that doesn’t really mean much. For the first time in our lives we, as seasoned travellers, experienced a real culture shock. The train was jam-packed with all sorts of people. Benches at the bottom, beds at the top. Passengers regularly change places and everyone uses the same sheets. We witnessed a domestic fight where the dear wife was badly hit a few times. To sum up, it wasn’t really a relaxing ride.
After 2.5 hours we were relieved to get off at Sawai Madhopur, where a driver was waiting. He brought us to Oberoi Vanyavilas. I will tell you more about this incredibly luxurious campsite later.
Spotting tigers in India
After a quick lunch we were ready for our first safari. Excitedly we left for the national park. Would we be lucky enough to spot tigers?
The hotels don’t have their own vehicles but have to use the jeeps that are maintained by the state. If you make more than one safari, you will get the same guide but different chauffeurs. Ranthambore National Park is divided into 10 zones, and the guides are assigned a zone to ensure that the visitors are spread out over the park. Some entrances are at 10 minutes from the hotel, but sometimes you have to drive 45 minutes on abominable roads. Once inside the park, the roads are not much better. This is why tiger safaris are not suitable for people with back problems.
You can do a safari in a so-called Canter, an open truck with space for 20 people. I would say: Don’t. If you are unlucky, you’re in the middle and have no view. Other options are a jeep for 6 people. These are also open at the back, and you have a good view on all sides. You can also charter a jeep for yourself so you don’t have to share. We chose the last option. You always have a perfect view and you have a bit more of a say. Every car has a cool box so you don’t need to bring any drinks yourself.
Safaris start twice a day. In the morning from 6 to 9.30, and in the afternoon from 15 to 18.30. During the morning safari you can drink a coffee and have a small snack. Actual breakfast has to wait until after the safari. You have time to relax by the pool between safaris.
But did we see tigers? Yes, we did! We were only half an hour on the road when our guide spotted the first tiger. It took us a while, but eventually we saw them too. It appeared to be 2 young tigers of about 14 months. An antelope appeared at one point, and we saw one of the cubs practice their stealth technique. Unfortunately, not very successful as the antelope became aware something was wrong and fled while loudly alarming his kind of the pending danger. In total, we spend nearly 2 hours enjoying this scene.
As our time was nearly up, we drove back to the exit. A few meters before the exit lie the ruins of an old fort. When the driver looked back, he spotted the mother tiger on the wall, looking at us. It was incredibly spectacular to see such a gigantic animal at such a short distance. She roared and then wandered on, undisturbed.
We were also lucky during the 2 safaris on the 2nd day. One time we saw a tiger while he seemed to nap. According to the guide, the tiger was on his way to a watering hole and he instructed the driver to drive us there in anticipation. After waiting half an hour (and we thought that the guide had no way of knowing that the tiger was thirsty) the tiger suddenly appears from the bushes. This time we were EXTREMELY close. The tiger thudded into the water (apparently they like this) for a nice mud bath. After that, he quenched his thirst and then silently disappeared back into the bushes.
I can talk endlessly about all the magnificent moments, but you just have to experience them yourself. Spotting tigers was high on my bucket list and am incredibly happy that I am able to tick it off.
If you specifically want to see tigers, India is the top choice. If you want a safari where you see a few other things, you are better off going to Africa. We did not see leopards, striped hyenas , sloth bears or any other special wild life that lives around here.
The peacock is the national animal of India.
Once someone spots a tiger, all other drivers are contacted. So it might be rather busy. Ofcourse you want to enjoy this special moment on your own, but as it's not that easy to spot a tigers, I understand why they help eachother.
April is the best month to see tigers. It is really warm (about 40 degrees) and dry, which means tigers are often found near watering holes. There are 65 tigers in Ranthambore, but during wetter times, there are weeks when none of them are spotted.
The park is closed in July, August and September. The roads are impassable due to the heavy rainfall.
.As we had spotted tigers during our 3 safaris, we decided to change the 4th one to a trip to Ranthambore Fort.
This 10th-century fort is situated on top of a hill, in the middle of the park. It was built by the rulers of the Chauhan dynasty as protection against the enemy. The fort is remarkably well-preserved even though many wars were fought here. There is a mosque, but the most interesting sight is the Lord Ganesha temple. There was a celebration of Ganesha during our visit, which meant it was really busy. In stark contrast with the safaris, there was not a lot of tourism here. It was clear we were the only tourists and we got to experience that Indians enjoy making selfies with “white” tourists. I was surrounded by a group of students who all wanted to take their photo with me. Fun for a while, but after about 10 photos I got out of there.
The fort was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites recently.
Some pelgrims 'roll' to the temple!
On the road to the hotel we passed the Ghushmeshwar Temple in honour of the god Shiva every day. The legend relates the temple was built because 2 sisters, who were married to the same man, fell out with eachother. The eldest sister did not get pregnant, and when the younger sister had a son, she got mad with jealousy and murdered the boy. The younger sister kept praying to Shiva, and he resurrected him.
Day 5 and 6 Jaipur
Our usual driver was waiting for us that morning to bring us to Jaipur. This 180 km drive takes about 4 hours.
In the afternoon we arrived in the enchanting The Oberoi Rajvilas. More about this in a different blogpost.
Jaipur was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh II. The city of Amber, where his court was situated, was getting too small and he decided to build a new one. Halfway through the 19th century, the city was again bursting at the seams and new areas were built outside of the city walls. In 1876, the city was painted pink in honour of the visit of the Prince of Wales. Pink was chosen as this is the colour of hospitality. Ever since, Jaipur’s nickname is “Pink City”.
We visited the unbelievably beautiful Amber Fort in Jaipur. The next morning, we had to get up early to brave the Indian traffic on a bicycle.
More about this very cool trip with Le Tour de India in the blogpost about Jaipur.
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