Having travelled to the south of India before,which you can read about here: my trip to Ooty, India, and not having time to visit the infamous Taj Mahal, and missing out on seeing the elusive wild bengal tiger, I decided that when I returned, these were going to be the aims of my travels.
Time was tight, as I was due to be volunteering during the kite festival, which you can read about here: Avian A&E during the Kite festival, so I was unsure whether ‘going it alone’ would allow me to fit everything in – we had 6 days!
I found a tour company, tourmyindia, and was amazed to see they had a 6 day itinerary, which included safaris in Ranthambore national park, a national park with a brilliant reputation for wild tiger sightings, a visit to Agra to see the Taj and Agra fort, and a few days in Delhi. It was a private tour, and included hotels, airport transfers, local guides in all destinations and train fairs between Delhi and Sawai Madhopur, and Sawai Madhopur and Bharatpur. I was a tad sceptical, that such a tour could exist, it seems rare that you will find exactly what you want online. And equally the price was so reasonable I was wondering what the catch was!
Scepticism aside we decided to bite the bullet and booked what looked like the perfect tour.
On arrival in Delhi we were met by a representative from the company and our dedicated driver. Both were lovely, and very keen to encourage us not to explore Delhi at night alone. I had read this before arriving, so had no intentions of venturing out after dark, however it was nice to know the company had your safety as their priority from the get go.
We stayed at Hotel Intercity, New Delhi, which was lovely, had good clean rooms, although hot water was sparse. The hotel staff were very accommodating, and the food was a good standard.
The next day our driver picked us up from the hotel with a local guide, who was studying at University in New Delhi, and we had a day tour of Old and New Delhi. I can honestly say this is the best way to see the city, its safe, you get a personalised view of the city, and the chance to ask local people questions and understand the culture better.
We visited a lots of sites, Jama Masjid, Qutb complex, Ghandis memorial, and India gate, but my absolute favourite experience was the cycle rickshaw ride we took to explore the streets of Old Delhi. The streets are so narrow that you can’t drive down there, and after 11am you can barely get a rickshaw down due to the street markets. These markets sell absolutely everything from gold, meat, fabric to stolen car parts! Its pretty impressive, but also very sad to see the poverty that many people have to live in on a daily basis.
Our guide knew the local people quite well, as he had lived in the area when he first moved to the city, so arranged us a rickshaw driver to give us a tour. It was a great experience, and we felt like we got a good insight into the craziness that is Old Delhi. We tipped the rickshaw driver well, as it was apparent that these guys don’t have a lot of money, and also he did a great job of showing us around – not to mention the physical demand of cycling around with our weight strapped to him!
Our Rickshaw guide!
After the guide had left we asked our driver to take us to Janpath Market. It is a local market where there are plenty of shops selling souvenirs from tapestries to dresses, elephant pants to shoes and everything in between. We felt very safe wandering around together, it was daylight, people were friendly and everything was reasonably priced, but you could still barter to get a good deal.
The next day we took the train from New Delhi station to Sawai Madhopur, the train station in Ranthambore. The train was delayed by 3 hours, which involved a slightly irritating, very cold morning, of standing on the platform wondering if the train would ever arrive. It did arrive and we eventually found our seat/beds. We were travelling in 2nd class AC and the train was sleeper style so we had a bed each effectively, which was well received as the journey was going to be around 6 hours and we were both frozen to the spot and exhausted from basically doing nothing all morning! The train was perfectly adequate, it wasn’t the cleanest, and I would suggest having your own snacks as the vendors who boarded the train at every stop were selling questionable quality food, I wouldn’t recommend buying it unless you had an India proof stomach which most westerners don’t!
Our train when it finally arrived!
I enjoyed watching out the window, and seeing the scenery change as you travelled away from Delhi and into the countryside. One of the saddest things was seeing the ‘slums’ as they are referred to, and all the communities of people practically living on the railway lines, with barely any shelter let alone houses. The crazy humbling thing about this though, is that the people look happy, they have what appears to us as nothing yet there they are living the life they have and to the passer by, appear to be doing ok. It doesn’t get any less amazing no matter how many times you see it, especially when you consider the wealth and sanity we take for granted so readily in the UK.
We arrived in Sawai Madhopur and our local Tour my India guide was waiting on the platform for us. I was amazed that he knew what carriage we were in – but later noticed the markings on the platform that denote this! The station was decorated in tiger murals and as we jumped in the open top jeep towards our hotel, my mood instantly lifted.
We stayed in Ranthambore National Resort, a lovely hotel only 10 minutes or so from the gates to the national park. The food was good quality, not always to my taste as it was often a set menu so you didn’t have a choice, but this was more personal preference and it wouldn’t stop me staying here again.
The delay did unfortunately mean we missed our afternoon safari in Ranthambore, which I was a bit gutted about, but we had two safaris booked for the next day so all was not lost.
Our first morning safari left at 7am, and it was freezing! Do not underestimate the wind chill on the back of a jeep! Wrap up warm with plenty of layers, gloves, hats, scarf the works. We were in a 6 man ‘gypsy’ jeep, as booked by Tour my India. We did see the 20 man ‘canters’ but my preference would always be the jeep as they are more personal, and there are less people to pick up and drop off, which means more time in the national park!
Our guide and driver were really knowledgeable and we spent over 3.5 hours in sector 4 looking for the elusive tiger. We followed tracks and listened out for warning calls. I was amazed at the knowledge of these guys, there is no tracker on the tigers, and no way of knowing where they are, so spotting them is pure luck and skill of the guides recognising tracks and the warning calls of the prey species in the park. On our first safari we didn’t see any tigers, just tracks, but we saw tons of other wildlife from langurs, to axis deer, an eagle, crocodiles the list goes on!
Before the afternoon safari, I was contemplating staying another morning to increase our chances of seeing a tiger, as it was my main reason for visiting the national park, and our Tour my India guide was extremely accommodating, stating that if we still wanted to do this after our next safari, he would arrange it all, obviously an extra fee would be involved but he was prepared to sort it out for us. I was really impressed with the service offered, and the fact that they didn’t want any money off of us now, and encouraged us to wait for the next safari first.
I am very glad we waited, as our luck was in on our 2pm safari, when we spotted a 2 year old wild bengal tiger. We were probably only 10m away from her and the experience was mesmerising. Her sighting was all thanks to the guide recognising a warning call, and then noticing an axis deer stood rooted to the spot and wide eyed, a careful redirection round the corner revealed a sleepy tigress, wondering what all the fuss was about! An absolute dream come true, our trip was completely made. We watched her for a while and took some photos before leaving to explore the rest of the national park. Once again we saw tons of other wildlife including 2 mongoose, before returning to our hotel around 3 hours later.
Our guide met us at the hotel before dinner and took us to a local cooperative that sells paintings of tigers. The money is used to fund the local community, and they sell the paintings to dealers around India who then sell them on for a profit. The local people paint these themselves and they were really stunning. Priced at around £30 for an A5 painting we brought some as gifts and then left. Unlike a cooperative we had visited in Delhi, which was very overpriced, and the staff were quite pushy in trying to make us purchase things (which we refused to do!), the staff here were amazing, you could have a laugh with them and I would have felt more than happy leaving without making a purchase and not feeling like I would have been pressurised to do so – great place!
The great staff in the cooperative – the guy in the middle painted one of the paintings we bought!
The next day it was an early train ride to Bharatpur where our original driver from Delhi met us to drive us to Agra. I had managed to get quite bad bacterial tonsillitis by this point, so needed to see a doctor for some antibiotics. Our local Tour my India guide took us straight to a ENT specialist and within 30 minutes of arriving in Agra I had had a consultation, been dispensed antibiotics, and was ready to continue with our day. Amazing service and all for the price tag of only 600 INR (£7!).
We met up with our local guide in Agra, who took us to the Taj Mahal. We had to run and scramble to get on the little eco-friendly battery powered buses that take you down to the ticket counters by the Taj, but after that everything was pretty straightforward. The security is really strict, so make sure you read up on what you can/cannot take in – no food or ipads/laptops would be the main things that most travellers have in their bags, and no tripods for cameras to name a few.
But wow, what a place. Honestly the only monument I have ever visited which looks the same if not better than the professional photos your see clogging up your Instagram feed. Absolutely breathtaking. We were fortunate enough to visit after the renovation works had finished so the white marble was gleaming, and in the middle of the day so the smog had gone and the sky was bright blue.
The inside was a lot smaller than I expected, but equally ornate, although it is more difficult to admire as you are walking around in single file in almost a carousel fashion, but it was still nice to experience the interior and try out the echo that lasts over 10 seconds!
We told our guide that we wanted to relax for the rest of the day, so we headed back to our amazing hotel, Howard Plaza, Agra, and sat on their rooftop terrace eating good food and drinking Kingfisher beer, watching the Black Kites glide through the sky, occasionally obscuring our view of the Taj – bliss!
Final day, and it was time to explore Agra Fort. I really loved this place. The architecture is great, and we got there just after 8am so there was hardly anyone there. Our guide told us all about the history of the building, my favourite of which being that the ruler built a white palace made of marble for his beloved daughter, and a white palace made of plaster of paris for his slightly less beloved daughter – I did find this amusing!
I spent a few hours admiring the architecture, enjoying the stories and taking some cool photos before we headed back to meet our driver for the 3 hour return trip to Delhi.
We arrived back in Delhi in good time, so our driver took us to a local restaurant he liked, I have a feeling they give drivers commission for taking there guests here as there were several other westerners in there, but it was good quality northern indian food at a good price, so you can’t complain!
And then we were back at the airport, and 6 days had flown by in an amazing colourful blur. The trip was more than we had hoped it to be, and Tour my India provided an exceptional service. I would’t hesitate to use them again, and would highly recommend their service to anyone looking for a slightly more personal Indian experience.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions please contact me!
NB: This trip was partly subsidised by Tour my India.