India Part 1: The Golden Triangle (Special Appearance: Kuwait City)

Namaste gurus and welcome back to story time. We left off having established that Egypt was pretty much an only slightly mitigated disaster, but that our last day in Cairo was a relaxing reset. Well, that was until we went to Cairo Airport. Check-in took about an hour, not security, check-in. We just couldn’t figure out what was going on, the line wasn’t THAT long… Then we watched the lone traveler in front of us, no kidding, load 238 pounds of luggage onto the scale. Got it. Turns out, this was pretty much the norm for Arab and Indian airports. Americans & Europeans, the airline baggage fees have trained you well.

After arriving at the counter we were checked in and on our way to security, until we weren’t. The young fellow who’d checked us in (we’ll call him Minion) sheepishly came to us in the immigration line and asked to see our passports again, when we handed them to him, he just took off with them! No explanation. Now, when you travel your passport is your meal ticket. You guard it ferociously and being more than a few feet away from it can cause minor anxiety attacks. This anxiety attack wasn’t minor, we weren’t getting stuck in Cairo. When we confronted the fellow and his boss, who were now in possession of our passports back at the check-in counter his superior proceeded to jump down our throats immediately. Here’s the following conversation with SweetStrawberry, the boss (we’ll get to her name in moment):

SweetStrawberry: “WHERE are your Indian visas,” (flipping through our passport stamp pages admonishingly)

G&K: Right here, we showed this document to Minion. (show her separate piece of paper with Visa info)

SS: These aren’t Indian Visas.

G&K: We’ll be issued our formal visas on arrival. See right here, it says, ‘Indian E-Tourist Visa. Status: Granted. Please show this document to Airport personnel to be granted boarding.’

SS: That isn’t an approved tourist visa.

G&K: Look right here, it says Granted, that means the same thing as approved.

SS: I KNOW WHAT GRANTED MEANS.

G&K: Then we’re confused.

— 4-5 minutes of this going back and forth—

SS: (After calling “the higher ups”) This isn’t a visa, but we’ll let you on your flight. You’ve got to email me a copy right now though.

G&K: Okay, we can do that, what email would you like it sent to…

SS: Send it to sweetstrawberry_87@h….

G&K: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH (<— Not our actual verbal reaction)

Neither of us were convinced we were going to make it out of Cairo until the wheels left the tarmac 90-minutes later. But we did, finally, depart and for the record we stopped at Indian immigration in Delhi, that was our Visa.

As one might guess since we were flying Kuwaiti Airlines, we had to layover in Kuwait City. Now, why layover in a tiny city-state kingdom with zero reputation for tourism, 120-degree temperatures, at the hottest time of the year? There were no direct flights to Delhi (reasonably priced anyhow), so we had to choose between long layovers at: Istanbul (been), St. Petersburg (out of the way and Americans can’t get transit visas or Visas on Arrival in Russia), and Kuwait City, which offers free tourist visas to most western residents and when would we ever have a chance to go again? Basically, why not?

Surrounding the Persian Gulf are tourism mega-players like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, & up-and-comer Oman. Kuwait has no such reputation. An internet search for long layovers or long weekends for ExPats in the area turned up little more than “drive the extra distance to get to “X”. We found this really misplaced. While not teeming with wonderful sights Kuwait City is beautiful. It features a long water front promenade and a handful of small museums dedicated to Islamic Art, the Persian Gulf War, and national artifacts. Additionally, the city is sprucing up with development everywhere. The only complaint (other than the heat, but we did visit in September…so that’s on us) was that the Royal Palace is closed to tourists. It looks stunning and we were a little jealous we couldn’t go inside! To top it off, every single resident without exception was wonderfully friendly and helpful. We particularly enjoyed our visit to the new National Library where we spent an air conditioned hour chatting with two wonderful ladies, being treated to coffee & cookies, and sharing travel stories.

We dipped our toes in the Persian Gulf:

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Saw the landmark Kuwaiti Towers, though they were closed for renovations so we couldn’t go up:
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Not only can you not go in the Kuwaiti Royal Palace, pictures are frowned upon as well. This sneaky shot turned out okay though:

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And the Grand Mosque & Downtown:

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In all we spent 10-hours in Kuwait City and easily could have made a long weekend of it. Though, admittedly, we’d prefer it to be in January or February. We hear it’s a chilly 95 then.

We returned to the airport, charged electronics, and made our way off on our overnight flight to Delhi. After breezing through immigration we were on a brand new Metrolink high above the treeline from the airport to downtown Delhi just as the sun was rising over the surrounding canopy.

We’re really in Asia now… The air is so thick even at the crack of dawn you part it more than walk through it. The lush tree canopy along the line looks impenetrable. The cackle of birds and animals is omnipresent. Then you step off the train and into the Thunder Dome.

New Delhi Train Station is a hive of activity. Buses, taxis, tuktuks, commercial and passenger trains all collide into a swarm of humanity. Luckily, we’d been trained by Cairo & Istanbul. Delhi, while certainly rough around the edges, struck us with an immediate charm. Tuktuks and the smell of street food wafting in the air have that effect on us.

After a long flight our hotel kindly checked us in early and we started Day 1 right, with a long nap. Finally out the door in the early afternoon we made our way through a walking tour of Central New Delhi, visited the wonderful National Museum, cruised one of the indoor emporiums and sank our teeth into some delicious dumplings. (Readers note: We’re aware our first meal in Delhi being dumplings isn’t quite right, but something you have to know about Kate, she’d push Gordon Ramsey’s food into a trashcan to get to the street cart behind it selling dumplings).

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Chips of Buddha’s bones contained in a relic previously at an ancient temple now at the National Museum. Many Chinese Buddhists were there praying and chanting.

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Our hotel row was like a Delhi Vegas at night:

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With a much better jump on day two we were off to The Red Fort in Old Delhi early. Tuktuks are, without a doubt, the most enjoyable way to see a city on hired wheels.

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Now, when you think awe inspiring architecture in history, who comes to mind? The Romans? Greeks? Maybe even the Chinese with the Great Wall & Forbidden City.

How about the Mughal Empire? No no, not the Mongols, wayyy later, though they claim linage to Genghis Khan. The Mughal Empire dominated much of the Indian Sub-continent and Afghanistan from the 1500s to 1700s and while greatly diminished didn’t formally cease to exist until the British Raj.

Why the history lesson? Because India simply wouldn’t be India without the stunningly beautiful array of forts, temples, and most importantly tombs left behind by Mughal architects and Shahs. In our travels the raw beauty of their structures is unrivaled.

The Red Fort is just the tip of the spear.

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We spent the rest of the day navigating a crushingly busy nearby market, eating delicious samosas, and drinking a few cold Kingfishers, the local brew.

We ventured out that night and were sternly reminded by the travel gods that while Delhi is overwhelmingly a welcoming, if chaotic city, one still needs to be cautious where he walks. Having seen a sign for a market to the north of our hotel, we decided to strike out just after sunset in search of delicious market food. We ended up, simply, where we shouldn’t have been. Narrow streets turned into dark alleys, smiles turned into “what are you doing here leers” and children’s laughter turned into sticky hands near pockets and “accidentally” running into our rears. For what would not be the last time, we were finally approached by a local who suggested we leave and not return via the shortest route available, which he kindly pointed us towards.

It was nothing in the moment, almost a little funny as the kids had been quite cute in the beginning, but the longer we were in Delhi the more we started to understand the seriousness of the right and wrong side of the tracks narrative in the city. Violent crime is non-existent in some areas, rampant in others. Colonial splendor two blocks from inhumane squalor. Our lovely “deluxe” hotel a kilometer from where we simply shouldn’t have been.

But, if there is an upside to such a thing, the road back to the right side of the tracks is a short one in most instances. This one proved short and led right to what we needed in the moment, an Indian & Asian Sonny & Cher, singing who knows what, while we were served cold brews and delicious Indian food.

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Our final day in Delhi was the best yet. We started by visiting Humayun’s Tomb, the resting place of the 2nd Mughal Emperor.

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Kate had been quite patient up to this point. With only minor…’um, when do I get to go shopping’, nudges dropped in here and there. Well, it was finally that day. The Dilli Haat market in Delhi is neither your typical tourist trap nor a totally local experience. The market had a huge selection of fun things to look at and play with from cashmere scarves to the famous Hyderabad pearls and interesting camel leather goods. We came away with many great deals, but maybe more importantly a very full belly. The market’s primary boast is at least one food stand representing each of the states of India and their typical cuisine. We ate idlis, dosas, little sandwiches we couldn’t pronounce, and a lime soda…which we learned the hard way you have to order sweet, not salty.

We finished the night off with a visit to the very local market at Saronjini. Arriving right at sunset the market is suffocatingly busy and it’s wonderful. The atmosphere, smells, sounds, sights…incredible. You can buy $50 advanced material running shirts for $2 because some factory stitched a Babies ‘R Us tag in the collar by mistake, second hand anything, or just good cheap locally manufactured clothes. With apologies, we were so enthralled we failed to take a single picture.

Thus concluded our Delhi time. Three full days was perfect amount of time, you certainly don’t even scratch the surface of wonderful sights but to stay longer may start to challenge the senses. Countless news articles recount the horrendous pollution, traffic, and squalor. After a few hours in the city your sinuses run black. In spite of all this, Delhi is a city with a vibrant history and a hopeful future; as such it’s absolutely a must-visit life list city.

Agra, the next corner of The Golden Triangle, is a harder equation to solve. The former capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra is home to a laundry list of the best architecture in the whole of India. The crown jewel of course is one of the 7-New Wonders of the World, often called the greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal. In addition to the Taj, a half-dozen other temples, forts, and tombs are spread across the city.

In between lies the most inhumane living conditions we’ve ever witnessed. To say dogs in some third world countries lead a more humane existence wouldn’t be a stretch at all. Adolescent children sleep naked meters from the roadside. A tattered tarp strung between trees next to lethally polluted water serve as “shelters” and human excrement is omnipresent. Certainly not all, or even most, residents of Agra live in these conditions. But a shockingly high number do.

We arrived mid-morning in Agra and were quickly checked into our very pleasant monkey-view room.

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With plans for a sunrise introduction to the Taj the next morning we struck out to see what we could of the rest of central Agra. We made it half a kilometer. The oppressive heat, overwhelming stench, and general lack of interesting sights in central Agra aside from the Taj won. We ducked into a little local restaurant and noshed the afternoon away, chatting with pleasant proprietors, and soaking in the A/C.

With the afternoon heat fading we ventured back out and headed towards the Taj Protected Forrest, listed on Google Maps. After finding our way down to the river behind the Taj, taking pictures of the resident monkeys and gawking at the awful condition of the area (the above river pic) we set out for the forest. This didn’t go much better, we again found ourselves apparently where we shouldn’t have been. Walking along a road that led through a few polluted and trash strewn villages, we found ourselves asking “where is the protected forest.” Down the road a bit further, the canopy seemed to grow more dense so we headed that way only to be stopped 200 meters later and told by locals to “Turn around, dangerous. Go back to Taj.” Whether unwelcome or unsafe, it was clear our presence wasn’t desired so we called the ball and returned to our hotel.

Day one in Agra, not that great. But the only reason anyone comes to Agra is for the Taj Mahal… and wow…just…wow. These photos are totally unedited…

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It takes your breath away. Seeming to rise up from the morning mist, catching the sun’s first rays and radiating a cool soft light. In a world where you’ve seen a picture of everything before you’ve seen it in person the Taj Mahal is the king of “you had to be there.” There’s no putting its beauty into words or photographs, so it’s best left at this. It’s perfect.

With a scheduled 7p departure that night to our last stop, we had a whole day to kill and spent it with one of the most pleasant fellows you’re likely to meet, Aslam The TukTuk Man. He had ferried us from the train station to our hotel on Day 1 and his motto of “No hurry, no worry, eat more chicken curry” had won us over so we’d agreed to spend the day zipping around Agra with him to take in the rest of the sights before heading out that night.

Tomb of Akbar The Great:
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This tomb’s grounds were a veritable zoo. We saw antelope, ibex, peacocks, and even an anaconda!

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We both got to practice our Tuktuk driving skills too!

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A beautiful smaller tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah

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The sights are incredible as you can clearly see. But being out in Agra was a stark & demoralizing experience in contrast to the beauty of the pictures above. Between the monuments we saw the depths to which human existence can sink. The juxtaposition of the grandeur and squalor is haunting. This isn’t poverty, it’s inhuman.

That was the note we were to end our Agra visit on, but a 14-hour delayed train ended up being that note instead. We talked with a lot of travelers about Agra after the fact and the field was split. There was uniform agreement that Agra is hell on earth in many regards, but the committee split on whether the Taj made the whole experience worth it. We say yes and partially because haunting as it may be, it’s rare to see such great human achievement next to a reminder of how far we’ve yet to come as a species.

End of depressing part, let’s talk about how cool camels are!

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The third corner of The Golden Triangle is Rajasthan, a vast mostly desert region in which travelers can choose from a smorgasbord of colorful towns, palaces, peoples, and environments in which to explore. We originally slated both Jaipur & Pushkar, but that 14-hour delayed train crushed our day-excursion to Jaipur.

Pushkar is a Jain town in the sea of Muslim Rajasthan. For years the main tourist draw was a chilled out backpacker culture, a few hippie retreats around a famous Brahma Temple, and its sacred lake. On day one, we focused on soaking that all up.

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These days it’s most famous for its Camel Fair. At one of the world’s largest livestock markets, hundreds of thousands of camels trade hands, race, etc.. for a week in October. Since we arrived too early for that craziness, we had to embrace the camel theme somehow…and Kate had always wanted to ride a camel. So, after a second day of temple hopping and some bazaar shopping we set out into the desert astride a steed worthy of our stature.

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Peas in a pod.

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After the craziness of Cairo, Delhi, & Agra, Pushkar was a welcome respite. We hung out with other backpackers, spent hours lounging around cafés, and strolled the markets. All of this was leading up to an Amazing Race status run of an overnight train, to catch an overnight bus, to go over a goat trail road, and take us from the heat of the Indian desert to the snowy peaks of the Himalaya, only 25 miles as the crow flies from Tibet.

From tropical beaches to snow capped peaks, the India that lies beyond the cities is for another post. That’ll be coming at you soon.

G&K

Posted From: Mandalay, Myanmar

P.s. As always, more pictures and a much much more real time account of our trip over at Instagram Mr & Mrs Trading Paradises!

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