Delhi is India’s biggest city (and one of the world’s biggest, too), with all the typical problems of large cities in the undeveloped world including excessive traffic, pollution, poverty, and crime. Southwest of Delhi is the city of Jaipur; southeast of Delhi is Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. These three cities form what is popularly known as the “Golden Triangle” of India, the most heavily visited area for tourists to India.
A visit to the Golden Triangle typically begins in Delhi, as that is where the international airport is. Arriving in Delhi was a shock to my system because as soon as you leave the airport your senses are bombarded with a new and very different culture. It looks, sounds and smells different. The air has the smell of Indian cooking with spices not common in the U.S. Although English is the official language of India, almost everyone speaks Hindi, so you cannot understand what is being said. Even when English is spoken, the heavy accent forces you to ask for words to be repeated.
I stayed at a utilitarian hotel near the Connaught Circle, the center of activity in the new city, in an upscale area. Still everything looked like it was in a state of disrepair. I was far enough away from the Circle so it would take at least 10 minutes to walk there. The hotel had a guarded gate, as do most hotels. That told me it probably wasn’t a good idea to walk to the Circle alone.
The first night was impossible to get rest. I was kept awake by dogs barking, fireworks and cars on the street outside honking all through the night. The car horn is used so liberally that it becomes part of the makeup of India. Welcome to the sounds of a new culture.
There’s much to see in Delhi. My top three sites were Old Delhi (take a bicycle rickshaw ride), the Sikh Temple near the YMCA (with a pool the size of a city block; bare feet required) and Ghandi’s last home. A good guide book can direct you, but it’s too hard to get around such a large city without local help. I strongly suggest that you get a tour or hire a driver.
From Delhi, a visit to Agra is almost mandatory to see the Taj. I stayed in Agra several days. If you visit the Taj from Delhi, you’ll have to travel for 2 1/2 hours to arrive. The lines are very long, and they get longer the later you arrive. If you go, see the Taj and return, it will take a full day. For this reason staying in one of the many hotels that have opened in Agra in recent years is a good idea. There are some other not-to be-missed sites in Agra, including a miniature Taj and the immense Agra Fort, but the Taj is the attraction that draws people.
Jaipur, about equal distance from Agra or Delhi (2 1/2 hours) has many things to see. The buildings in the city were painted pink for a visit from the Prince of Wales in 1876, thus gaining its nickname as the Pink City. The stunning Amber Fort, a huge monument built to ward off challenges to the Akbar Empire when its construction was started in 1565, is the main attraction. Arrive early and take a quintessential elephant ride to the top of the hill where the fort stands. The elephants are limited to three rides a day, so later in the day, a jeep may be your only alternative to a strenuous walk up the hill. Another must-see place is the City Palace, still occupied by royalty, impressive for its opulence amid the poverty of the surrounding bazaar — a vivid illustration of the economic divide that is India’s main challenge.