We departed Dehli by train very early in the morning. Our guide hired a porter to carry our luggage. With a single graceful sweep of an arm a porter can fling a heavily loaded suitcase onto their head. Then with a second dip and sweep they deftly hoist a second case onto the first. They weave expertly through the mêlée of people, dogs and assorted goods carrying double the weight I can normally cope with at a drag.

Tea and biscuits are served as the train rattles out of Dehli. The urban trappings gradually dwindling and replaced by rural accoutrements; trees, crops meandering river beds.

We arrived at Agra as the intense heat of the day was starting to kick in. Temperatures were consistently around 40° Celsius. We weren’t mad dogs. Most of the dogs in India find somewhere shady. After settling in to Utkarsh Villas, a somewhat odd hotel that could do with some improvements, we saw out the heat of the day by reading and sorting photos.

In the late afternoon we set off to see Agra Fort. This palace, built on the site of earlier palaces, was constructed over 8 years (1565-1573) by about 4000 builders. Overseeing the construction was the Moghul emperor, Akbar. The buildings remaining today are made of red standstone and white marble. The layout and component buildings are similar to the Red Fort, with an area for public audience. Special marble private halls for the emperor’s wives and ladies. The emperor who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned here by his son, Aurangzeb, for 8 years.

There are two moats around Agra Fort. The first had water and the second had tigers. It makes for an impressive triathlon; swimming, climbing, running then a bit more climbing. For extra security these days there is an Indian Road to be crossed as well!

We woke early the next day to catch the sunrise and early morning light on the Taj Mahal. We had a short wait before the gates opened and were extremely grateful for our guides tip to slather on the insect repellent. A group of French tourists were almost driven mad with swarms of them. The air was thick with them.

This building stopped me in my tracks. It is stunning. A marvel. Our guide ensured we were the first and only visitors into the mausoleum. No mean feat considering about 25,000 visitors were expected to turn up for that day.

It is hauntingly beautiful. The gentle morning breeze stirs rushes around the enormous octagonal dome making an eerie whooooo sound as if angels are singing in mourning for the dead empress of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal.


Return to India: Dehli via Singapore

I had my first visit to India in March 2009. The World conference on Tobacco and Health held in Mumbai. I was keen return to see more of India. So in April this year we set off in the school holidays to see a few of India’s most famous sites and some iconic wildlife. Air New Zealand in co-operation with Singapore Airlines gets you from Auckland to Dehli via my favourite airport, Changi. The warm, water-logged air declares itself as a bombastic, unmissable welcome every time you step into Singapore. I find it an antidote after 10 hours of dessicating, recirculated air. The transit hotel complete with pool, showers, spa and beds you can rent by the hour isn’t the only reviving delight offered. There is a butterfly garden, multiple imaginative amusements for children and if you are in transit long enough there is a free city tour. Standing out on this trip to Singapore were hanging gardens built into some of the city’s high rise blocks.

Just as the jet lag haze starts to imbue you with thoughts that Changi is some kind of heaven on earth – you start to feel hungry. The tantalising aromas of hot noodle soups draws you upstairs to a food court. This is where the fun begins. It isn’t a question of just rocking up to the counter, selecting, ordering then paying. No the system requires you to make your choices, add up the cost of your selection (in Singapore dollars then convert to $NZD), find the booth where you buy a token and credit your token with the amount needed to cover all your choices. Return to all the different counters that the various members of your family chose their meals from and place your orders – hoping you’ve done your sums correctly and that your children remember what they chose. You get sent back to the token booth, chided and unable to place the order if your credit is under!

Singapore to Dehli is about five hours. We arrived late in the evening. Outside the airport we stepped into a warm night, the hazy smoggy air and were surrounded by people and dogs. Some languidly reclined in groups chatting on small section of airport lawn, surrounded on all sides by roads and a constant stream of beeping and farting airport traffic. The route to the hotel, The Royal Plaza, took us through well appointed New Dehli, past consulates, manicured, lushly planted median strips and government house. There is no shortage of greenery throughout Dehli.

View from 17th floor Royal Plaza, Dehli, April 2017

View of New Dehli from Hotel, The Royal Plaza.

We had a spectacular view across Dehli. Our first taste of Indian wildlife was the oft overlooked urban wildlife, which thrives amongst city hustle and bustle. Black kites take advantage of the thermals rising amidst the concrete monoliths. A pair had a nest in the tree below our window. Ring necked parakeets clustered on the window ledges and rooves of high rise buildings. House crows with their handsome grey headscarves, dark eyes and showy beak frills patrolled the grounds. Indian palm squirrels dashed around in brief spurts then flaked out, exhaused, in the heat.

We caught the Dehli metro from the station near our hotel, Patel Chowk to Chadni Chowk station. There is a short walk through a mayhem of market stalls, tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, taxis, motorcycles, cycles, to the Red Fort or Lal Qila. The final challenge is a road crossing which will make a frogger champion of you. This palace was host to the embers of the Moghul Empire in India.

The entrance is via the Lahori gate and a covered market (Chhatta Chowk). There is a hall of public audience, halls of private audience, expansive lawns and an “air-conditioning system” which was a network of water channels and ponds throughout the grounds. The buildings are constructed of richly red sandstone and marble. On the royal ‘throne’ in the hall of public audience and columns throughout the halls of private residence the marble has beautiful floral imagery. It isn’t painted – it is created by inlaying precious and semi-precious stones into the marble. The workmanship is mind blowing. Finally there is a mosque for the emperor.

Our next expedition was to Sultanpur National Park on the rural outskirts of Dehli. This wetland reserve is home to many beautiful bird species and Nilgai antelope. I was particularly delighted by the profusion of dragonflies. There were red ones, electric green and blue ones but the only one I managed to get a half decent photo of was a rather drab brown and black one! The next day we headed to Agra via an early morning train. More later…

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Blyth’s pipit

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Black-winged stilts (left and right) and a pheasant-tailed jacana (middle) showing us its bum

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Nilgai or Blue Bull

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Nilgai in shade at Sultanpur

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Sultanpur National Park, near Dehli, India