Before this trip, I had travelled for work by myself, but never for leisure. In the wake of a break-up, I was left with a broken heart and a shit load of holiday time still to take as the year was drawing to an end. I remember contemplating solo travel for the first time and how daunting I initially found it. I actually asked someone at work if they thought people would think I was sad for booking a trip somewhere alone. Looking back, I think it’s actually sadder that I felt the need to ask that question! At the time my mind was focused on what my holidays used to look like as a smug couple taking sunset pictures making love heart shapes with half with of my hand and half with his. The reality was I was now a singleton whose friends were unavailable to travel with me, so I decided to pick up my bottom lip and started to investigate the many solo travel options available.
I decided it was an ideal time to head back to Australia and see my family, and that my next stop should be on my return leg. At the recommendation of a few friends, I got in touch with G Adventures, offered the most reasonably priced and exciting itineraries I could find. I managed to push away the worries that were clouding my mind, like I wouldn’t know anyone, I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t be able to take my mind off thinking about what my ex was up to back home and I would be lonely; and managed to embrace the situation as an exciting opportunity to go on an adventure to somewhere that I had always wanted to go to, and eventually settled on the idea of travelling to “Incredible India”.
India has always been a popular destination for travellers wishing to have a cultural holiday experience. My reasons for wanting to travel there as a solo female, I assume were the same as any man. I was drawn to the food, the chaos of Delhi, the world famous sites, the spectacular wildlife, the legacy of the Mughal empire in Agra, to gain a greater appreciation for the people of India, their culture and religious beliefs, and explore the “Pink City”, Jaipur. That said, the country has a dubious reputation as an unsafe destination for solo women travellers and this initially did cause me some concern. I would, however, say, that once in India, I did not have any problems. I was quite guarded and kept my wits about me, and by joining a reputable tour group, I eliminated a lot of risk from my trip. I ensured that I packed and dressed dress conservatively, and observe local customs especially in places of worship. I shared my itinerary with my family and friends and checked in with them when I arrived somewhere. I also provided them with the details of my tour provider before I left home. And I didn’t venture out alone after dark. This common sense approach worked for me.
My eight-day Golden Triangle tour promised to capture all of the highlights, culture, access, and plenty of “I-can’t-believe-we-did-that moments”. I couldn’t wait. As I landed in Indira Gandhi International Airport, I expected to walk out into chaos and had visions of battling my way to meet my ride fighting off caged roosters trying to free themselves and large crowds full of pickpockets. Turns out my imagination was rather wild, and it was an ordinary orderly airport. My Women on Wheels transfer was waiting for me and whisked me off to my hotel to meet the others in my party. The cool thing about Women on Wheels is that it is a programme designed to provide safe and reliable transport for travellers, whilst providing local women with a dignified living. The programme is a great option for solo female travellers.
The hotel was basic but clean. I was also presently surprised to find out I had been upgraded to a single room for the duration of the trip at no extra cost! A friend had recommended that I take a silk sleeping bag liner with me, and I have to say it is the one thing I now always recommend to others when they are backpacking or staying in “comfort” accommodation. That and always take thongs (remember I’m an Aussie), or flip-flops (for you Brits), for the shower. I took my bags up to my room, grabbed a shower (ensuring I was careful to keep my mouth closed and not ingest any water. No one needs a sex and The City “Charlotte Pookipsy” moment on their hands), and then headed up to the rooftop to meet our guide and the rest of the group.
After the initial awkward introductions, I soon realised I wasn’t the only one travelling by myself and through natural selection, I soon formed a bond with two other girls (Mel and Tiffany), who were also travelling solo. On night one we walked through the busy streets of Delhi making our way downtown to grab a curry and a Cobra and got to know each other a little better. There was an older lady who was travelling alone, she was nice enough but we’d soon find out liked to complain a little. There was a couple in their early 50’s who were really lovely and a younger couple in their late 20’s; they were both doctors, and the guy was a cool photographer geek. And then there were Mel, Tiffany and I – all of a similar age. I actually couldn’t have asked for a better group.
On day two of the tour, we took in Delhi from a different perspective. We explored the streets of the city with a youth-led tour guide from the City Walk project. Our guide was a former street child and was able to offer us a unique perspective on the city, giving us insight into the life of a child in India. Tour fees help to support the guide’s college or university tuition. We also spent some time with some children at a Salaam Baalak Trust orphanage. The trust is an Indian non-profit and non-governmental organization that provides a caring environment to street and working children in Delhi. It was touching to meet these unprivileged children who were so friendly and well-mannered and to see them off the streets with the warmth of a roof over their head, and access to food. Necessities we often take for granted.
We made our way through winding streets filled with dirt and litter, as live electrics hang overhead, through the maze to the historic Old Delhi. The streets were lively and alluring to the senses; there were brightly coloured flowers, textiles, foods and trinkets. The smells of sweet pastries, baked goods and spicy curry were delicious, and the constant musical beeping of traffic horns hummed in the background. We visited one of the largest Mosques in India, Jama Masjid. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656, at a cost of 1 million Rupees (which was a LOT back in the day!). Featuring four towers and minarets made from strips of red sandstone and white marble, the beautiful Mosque opens on to a tranquil courtyard centred around a bubbling fountain.
Our final stop of the day was Gurdwara SisGanj. It is one of the nine historical Gurdwaras (a “door to the Guru”, a place of worship for Sikhs) and was constructed in 1783 by Baghel Singh to commemorate the martyrdom site of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, marking the site where the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1675 for refusing to convert to Islam. It was nice to see the different Indian religions places of worship and how they were all unique. I came to learn that Hinduism was the most common religion in India with Islam and Christianity also being popular. Other religions in India include Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. It was apparent from the short amount of time that we spent walking the streets of New and Old Delhi that there was respect between the different faiths, though it is saddening to think that tension still remains between the religions otherwise, not just in India obviously.
I asked our tour guide Yash, about how the different religions that co-existed. He told me, “Jas, India is a place of many religions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Islam is also a very prominent religion here. Everybody lives together under the same roof, however, there is no denying in some parts of the country tension continues antagonised by some religious groups. But tension is mostly caused by propaganda and is designed to benefit political parties by attracting votes based on religious preferences”. Yash, however, went on to remind me, “where else in the world would you see a Sikh Prime Minister, a Hindu President (female) and a Muslim Vice President; a great example of secularism”.
The next day we had an early start as we made our way to Agra to feast our eye on the infamous Taj Mahal at sunrise. Standing magnificently on the banks of the River Yamuna, the Taj Mahal is synonymous with love and romance. It was completed in 1648, after 17 long years of construction. The grand white marble Mausoleum, with exquisite ornamentation including precious gemstones, was built by order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Despite our early start there were still a lot of people around, but we were lucky enough to get our token tourist photographs by the main gate in front of the water feature with the Taj imposing impressively on the horizon with the sun rising behind, with its soft golden rays striking against dome, bathing it in a sea of warm golden light.
The monument is of immeasurable beauty. It is easy to see why it is acknowledged as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I felt so privileged to have seen it for myself and was overwhelmed by the Emperor’s declaration of love. I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed in the romance department. Mahal got an everlasting grand declaration of love, whilst all I got was an “I’m not sure if I’m ready for this”. Where did I go wrong?
We then went on to visit the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, affectionately called Baby Taj. The Mughal mausoleum was actually built before the Taj Mahal by Queen Nur Jahan for her father, so it could very well have inspired the design of the Taj Mahal. The Baby Taj is often described as a “jewel box”, owing to the intricate details of the structure.
We then spent the afternoon exploring the historic Agra Fort. The impressive fort stands tall; its strong red sandstone walls an imposing site. The current fort was built by the Mughals and is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, although a fort has stood on the site since at least the 11th century. It was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638 when the capital was relocated from Agra to Delhi. The impressive 380,000-square-metre (94-acre) semi-circular fort is a labyrinth of quarters and courtyards.
Stay tuned for part two of my solo adventure to India next week, when I cover off the second part of my trip including Tiger safaris, Indian village life in Rajasthan, fortune tellers, snake charmers and the Pink City of India, Jaipur.
Until next time, safe travels.
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