India (1 of 3): Delhi and Agra

I’ll be posting my India trip in a series of three posts, one for each city. I’m trying to get caught up this weekend before I get back to work, but I don’t know if I can-I have over 1200 images to sort through! Here’s the first part-our arrival in Delhi and day trip to Agra.

What a trip! India is so many things-exotic and exhilarating, overwhelming, heartbreaking, beautiful. I can’t capture everything words but I’ll try. And, as promised, I have lots, and lots, of pictures.

When Jess and I booked our flights back in October we were going for super cheap since we also had to book our December trips around that time. Which meant we left Beijing around 11pm on a Saturday, arrived in Guangzhou, China around 2am, then had a five hour layover before our flight to Delhi, where we arrived around noon on Sunday. It took forever to get through immigration and get to our hotel but we got there around 3. Next issue: we knew we didn’t want to stay in Delhi, so I booked our trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra the day after we arrived, then we were going to leave for Jodhpur. However, we really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. (Okay, I really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal and didn’t really give Jess a choice.) However, Agra is a 3 hour drive from Delhi, so to ensure we arrived in time, the tour operator had to pick us up from our hotel at 2:30 am. Not fun. So we walked around a bit and got dinner across the street from the hotel, then came back and crashed so we could at least get a little sleep before leaving.

In hindsight, I would have booked another flight or train to Agra and spent a couple nights there instead of staying in Delhi and making a day trip. But we still enjoyed the tour a lot and our guides were great. Our driver, Prem, picked us up promptly at 2:30 am (did I mention A. M.?) and let us doze in the backseat most of the way. He stopped about halfway through at a small, lively roadside stand and introduced us to masala tea, to which I became instantly addicted. It’s similar to what we call chai, but so much better. When we reached Agra, we stopped to pick up our tour guide, Subhash, and then drove straight to the Taj Mahal. We got there at the perfect time. Subhash got us our tickets and showed us which line to wait in. There were several, including one specifically for foreign women. (There’s a security check at the entry and there’s always a separate line for women, even at the airport, for the body scanners.) We were the first in line, before the gates even opened at 6:30.

I can’t even describe how surreal it felt to be at the Taj Mahal. It’s been at the top of my list of places to go for years. It’s magnificent in its own right, but I’ve always been captivated by the story behind it as well. It was built as a grand mausoleum in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, by her husband Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of India from 1628-1658. When Shah Jahan eventually grew ill, their son, Aurangzeb, declared himself emperor and imprisoned his father in Agra Fort until he died; he was then buried next to Mumtaz Mahal. Although they are buried beneath the structure, there are two sarcophagi representing them in the central chamber. Everything is carved of white marble in intricate designs and inlaid with semi-precious stones.

By the time we left, around 8:30, the whole place was packed with people. I’m so glad we got to see it early while it was still relatively quiet. After we left, we went to a local hotel for their breakfast buffet, then to Agra Fort.

After leaving we drove through Agra and stopped at a few local shops. The first was a workshop where they carve stone in the same style and patterns as the Taj Mahal. Everything is still done by hand. I wish I’d had more money-everything was gorgeous!

Driving through town, we saw cows and water buffalo everywhere, some roaming free, some tied near homes or shops. We kept snapping pictures, little knowing we would see them everywhere else we went this trip! Our guides told us the water buffalo milk was especially popular for its high fat content, and Jess wanted to try it, so they made a special stop to procure some fresh milk at a roadside shop.

 

We dropped of Subhash, then Prem drove us back to Delhi. He stopped on the way back (on his own time, not part of the tour, which we thought was really nice) so that we could walk around and see the India Gate memorial and the park surrounding it, then drove past the Parliament buildings before dropping us at the hotel. It was a fantastic day!

Spain, Day 7-Granada

This was actually a couple days ago-I’m playing catch-up here. I’ll maybe get a couple short posts up tomorrow too.

Finally I got to see the Alhambra. I’ve wanted to visit this place since I first saw pictures of it in an art history class, probably 15 years ago almost. And it is-lovely is an understatement-but that’s how it feels-lovely. Almost every inch of the Nasrid palaces is carved with inscriptions, poems, geometrical patterns, or covered with colored tiles. Outside, the gardens are still maintained and full of flowers, and orange trees and small pools are everywhere.

I won’t get into all the gory details, but the history of it is quite fascinating too. The original fortress was small and built in 889 A.D. on the remains of Roman ruins, then evolved over time. If anyone is interested, this is a good overview of how Muslims came to what is now Spain and eventually developed their kingdom in Granada, including the Alhambra, before the last sultan was forced out by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492. The palace, towers and gardens, even part of the bathhouse and other buildings remain, but the mosque was destroyed and replaced by a Catholic church-Iglesia de Santa María. What sticks with me most though, especially this week, is that this happened over 500 years ago, and yet, here we are, still persecuting Muslims for no reason. Will we never learn to learn from history?

Still, there is a strong middle eastern influence here; even the name of the region in southern Spain-Andalusia-comes from the Arab name-Al-Andalus.There are many shops devoted to tea, medicinal herbs, and spices (I keep wandering into them just because they smell so good.) There are silks and woven clothes and scarves and leather goods everywhere. There are tearooms, Turkish restaurants, and bars offering hookahs to smoke. All in all, it has a very different feel from Barcelona.

Spain Day 6-Granada

So I’m in Granada now but I wanted to post a bit from my last day in Barcelona. I took a bus to the National Art Museum on Montjuic, way up in the hills. The museum has a rooftop patio where you can up to look out over the city and it was beautiful. I had the place all to myself. They had a really nice collection of medieval pieces too.

From the museum I walked down to Placa Espanya and looked around, then took the metro back to Port Vell to walk around a bit. Oh, and here’s some pictures of the place I stayed:

I got up early to Wednesday to catch my train to Granada. I love traveling by trains-so much more relaxing than flying. You can just show up 20 minutes before the train leaves, for one. And the security check is much simpler. I was supposed to change trains in Antequera but misread the ticket I guess, because instead of a train we transferred to a bus for the rest of the way to Granada. Only for an hour or so though. These pictures aren’t great since I took them from the moving bus/train, but driving through Andalusia was so pretty and quiet.

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I got a cab from the bus station to my Airbnb apartment in the Albayzín of Granada. Way up in the hills and very close to the Alhambra. There’s so much Middle Eastern influence here, and so much history. It’s also more traditional than Barcelona; they take their siestas very seriously here. So many restaurants and shops were closed when I go her in the afternoon. But I met my host and love this colorful apartment. Then I got dinner at a small outdoor restaurant next door. It was a little chilly but it’s still nice to be able to be outside so much this time of year.

I was a bit worn out from Barcelona so I just took it easy today. I slept in then walked down into the center of town. These pictures are so-so since I just had my phone and it was cloudy and drizzly most of the afternoon. Still a nice walk though. Down. Coming back up the narrow, ancient, twisty cobblestone street in the rain though was work.

Then I spent the evening fighting with multiple websites but finally managed to book the rest of my trip. Leaving Sunday for Madrid for a couple days, then back to Barcelona. That’s where I fly out of so I thought I’d spend my last couple nights there since I loved it. Tomorrow I’m going to try to see the Alhambra so there will definitely be pics of that!