Rocking the Rails in Northern India
October 20 – 28
Maintaining the particular level of luxury we’ve been traveling by for the last six months, we opted to zigzag between cities by train. But not just any train. We’re talking shared berth bunk beds with strangers. And when those didn’t work out, we opted for a bus, complete with seats that recline stay upright… because that’s how we roll.
All jokes aside (but how funny was that first paragraph?!?!) (EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t laugh, it’ll just encourage him.), we were told that trains would be the best way to travel to get a view inside the preferred form of travel for locals, and – more importantly – would be our cheapest option. So at 5:30am after our last night in Delhi, we walked through the still-crowded streets (seriously, when do people sleep here?) to the New Delhi train station, and hopped in our coach seat car bound for Agra. The overnight bunk bed party trains would have to wait since this was just a 4-hour affair. What’s in Agra, you ask? Not much… except for a well-known mausoleum which you may know as the Taj Mahal.
Quite possibly the most-hyped tourist site we’ll see all year, we’re happy to report that it lives up to its billing as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Commonly regarded as one of (if not the) greatest works of architecture in the world, the Taj Mahal took about 22 years to complete with the help of over 20,000 workers. Mughal Emperor Shar Jahan commissioned the building project as a dedication to his wife (EDITOR’S NOTE: Who didn’t just doodle Mrs. Shar Jahan with hearts in the margin of their journal??). And upon completion, he liked it so much that according to legend he cut off the hands of all of the workers so that no one would ever be able to build such a marvelous monument again. Which is totally sound logic…
The rest of our time in Agra was spent on the roof of our budget hotel, away from people hounding you to accept tuk-tuk rides, tours, etc. But we did venture out for one of our periodic “Treat. Yo. Self.” field trips, this time to the Oberoi Hotel for a couple cold beverages. Easily the nicest hotel I’ve ever stepped foot into, the martini and bloody mary we ordered were worth the expense despite some pretty high prices. And kudos to the staff for not giving us the “Umm, excuse me, but you don’t seem to belong here…” glares that probably would have been justified as we mingled between the high rollers who were paying as much per night for a room there as we will spend for two weeks in Southeast Asia.
So that was Agra. Pretty quick stopover, and honestly, had we been given the chance to do it over again, we likely would have just tried to fit everything into one night instead of two, but you can’t win ‘em all.
We left the home of the Taj in search of something a bit quieter and more our speed, so we were off to Udaipur. This leg of the journey was our first overnight train experience, and couldn’t have gone any better. The train was delayed a couple hours, but once we boarded and found our bunks, we were pleasantly surprised at how well we both slept on the thin and conservatively padded “beds” of our sleeper car. And our bunkmate was a friendly man who seemed to want to practice his English by speaking with us – something we have actually run into in many places. He was also nice enough to inform us what time we should expect to arrive in Udaipur after our delay, which was amazing since these trains do not have intercom systems or signs posted anywhere with station stop times.
Udaipur was where we found some elusive peace and quiet that was hard to find in Delhi and Agra. Which is to say we spent plenty of time taking in the views of Lake Pichola atop our hotel’s rooftop where we read and internetted, away from the hubbub in other parts of town.
Our first day we decided to go for a self-guided walk around the city. After our experience in Delhi, we were less intimidated by our surroundings. You want to follow us around asking non-stop if we want a tuk-tuk ride? Go ahead. Try to run us off the road while forcing your motorcycle into a non-existent seam in all the traffic? Be our guests. What’s that, giant cow? You wanna just chill on the sidewalk and force us to walk around? We’d love to.
After navigating through all sorts of unmarked streets (returning home to street signs and accurate maps and directions next year will be more of a treat than we ever imagined), we finally found a cheap lunch at Natraj Lodge, a local staple that we’d set out to find in the first place. With all-you-can-eat thali platters (essentially the same as the dal bhat we grew obsessed with in Nepal, but on steroids) for less than $3 USD, we practically put ourselves into food comas before taking a breath.
Don’t misinterpret that as a bad thing. Au contraire. It was delicious. And when $5 fills us both up for half a day? Well, that right there is a good day. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This went from zero to sixty in seconds from sitting down. To the point where I barely had time to extract my camera before heaps of food were scooped on my plate. The waiters were shoeless. We were shameless. For Olympic eaters like Kobayashi Dave and me, we were all like, “these people GET US.”)
The highlight of this stop though was a private cooking class we did for lunch one day. Since this was my doing, I picked out some menu items the day before with our teacher, Mary, and she spent that afternoon gathering ingredients from the local market for us to cook with the next day.
I would explain the names of the dishes in detail to you, but I’m not even sure I know what any of it was. In between frantically trying to take notes on my phone and misspelling just about every word in the process, we had our hands full (literally and figuratively) slicing, dicing and combining ingredients for our tasty treats. And we finished up by enjoying the fruits (and veggies and other local ingredients) of our labor. And once again, nearly induced another food coma. Don’t judge us.
We loved Udaipur, but it was time to move on to Jodhpur (so. many. –pur’s.). Jodhpur is commonly referred to as the “Blue City” due to the many homes, hotels and other buildings painted blue.
But that’s not why we came. We came for Batman. You read that right – Batman. When researching which cities to include in our short trip through India, I came across a story about how part of The Dark Knight Rises was filmed in Jodhpur – more specifically, the prison scenes where (spoiler alert) Christian Bale escapes from were filmed in the shadows of the imposing Mehrangarh Fort here. And you’re not gonna not see where Christian Bale escapes prison.
While it was another quick visit where we stayed just two nights, we found time in between all the walking around the city to sign up for a ziplining experience behind the fort which gave us some amazing views of our surroundings as the sun set behind the imposing fort.
After we shed the harnesses and wiped the sweat away (weird how I was the only one sweating profusely while doing an activity that involved a breeze blowing straight in your face 80% of the time. Hmm…), we set out for our final train ride back to Delhi. It was another overnight affair and whatever luck we had with friendly and considerate bunkmates was fully used up on the Agra>Udaipur train, because our neighbors on this journey loved them some late night conversation, spotlights above our beds, forced bed tradesies (EDITOR’S NOTE: No, it’s cool, I totally wanted to sleep less than a foot from the top of the car to allow your totally able wife to have the bottom bunk – while Dave rides dirty in the middle bunk. Fine. But if you try to take my blanket again, only one of us is coming out of this alive.) and good old-fashioned loogie-hocking in the morning to wake us up. Needless to say, we didn’t have quite as good a night of sleep this time around, but any negative memories in our mind were quickly wiped away when my dad’s colleague, Mohan, picked us up in Delhi and let us eat like a king and queen yet again (more on that here) before we headed to the airport for our flight out.
It was a lot packed into a little amount of time, but we truly enjoyed our tour of India. The food everywhere was amazing, and once we learned to embrace the chaotic harmony of the place we really enjoyed walking the streets, interacting with the people and just taking it all in.
And with that, we were ready to go from a country where day-to-day life seems to go 100mph at all times to one that embraces the slogan of “Please don’t rush.” Time for Laos.