India is the worlds seventh largest country by area and the second most populous. Along with neighbouring China, the economies of these developing giants are having major impacts on the super powers of the developed world, namely Russia, USA and Europe. India has the fastest growing economy in the world and the third largest military presence.
Despite the booming economy, Stig and ABAX around the world have arrived in a resource rich country where extreme wealth sits side by side with extreme poverty. The Taj Mahal is the country's tourist magnet that embodies wealth and affluence. The travel brochures neglect to show the budding adventurer the daily fight for existence experienced in the slums of Jaipur or Luknow.
India spans 3.2 million square kilometres and is home to 1,263,970,000 people, 18% of the world's population live here.
India has 2 official languages, Hindi and English, but all 22 languages spoken in India are officially recognised as regional languages. The British established New Delhi in 1911 and this is now the capital city, home to 22 million people within the metropolitan area surrounding the city. Mumbai houses 20 million people in the city alone and is the largest city in India. The currency is the Rupee.
My guide, Faisal Uddin, proudly tells me that the Taj Mahal sits atop of the modernised list of the seven wonders of the world. From the ancient list, only the great pyramids have survived. The other six; Colossus of Rhodes, Hanging Gardens of Babylon,Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Artemis Temple and the Alexandra Lighthouse have all been destroyed.
The Taj Mahal is a Muslim edifice built between 1631 and 1653, situated in the city of Agra. At the time, Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire, a largely Muslim kingdom that spans parts of modern-day Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. There are still a lot of Muslims in Agra despite 80% of the population being Hindu.
Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his third wife who died during child birth. He had previously built temples for his first 2 wives, although not nearly as grand. Built largely from 2m x 1m sheets of marble, the Taj is decorated with Belgium Onyx, South African Malachite and scriptures from the Koran. 20,000 workers took 22 years to complete the build.
There were plans put in place by Shah Jahan to build a mirror image of the Taj Mahal in black Onyx on the opposite bank of the river. However his son, Aurungzeb, put a stop to this and placed his farther under house arrest for the final seven years of his life. He was at least held in a room where he could see out to the majestic structure that paid homage to his third wife.
Our Tuk Tuk driver had waited patiently with us throughout the day as we stopped for pictures. We made sure to pay him well as patience is a rare virtue in the hustle and bustle of Indian cities. Finally, I even got to road test the Tuk Tuk. It wasn't quite the same as the ABAX van but it still put food on the plates of our driver's family.
The struggle for existence
I am not known to be a picky eater. An ex-girlfriend once said that I would eat everything. I have eaten snails and frog legs in France, squid in Italy - when in Rome... Indian food though, I have never been a big fan of. Here in India, and especially in Agra, it is very difficult to find places that I actually want to eat. The constant smell of the sewage does not help ones appetite.
In my 5 days in India, I have travelled nearly 900km by car, train and Tuk Tuk. In Agra, my 3rd big city, the garbage is everywhere. Sewage lines the streets and poverty is strikingly prominent. It is a culture shock. Especially when you take into account the huge crowds of people everywhere. It becomes a struggle just to move in the streets meters outside of the hotel.
Standing in line to buy a train ticket becomes a marathon event, getting on the train is even harder. Crossing the road is life or death as nobody stops. However the traffic moves fluidly around my body like it autumn leaves caught in a breeze. It seems like every person on the street is either begging or selling something. Nobody takes no for an answer. I see so many people who just stop on the sidewalk and take a piss. It is simply filthy.
In the hotels and restaurants, the staff are trained to be exceptionally polite. There cannot be enough "Yes Sir" and "How can I help Sir", but on the other hand I always feel like I am being ripped off. Prices that are agreed double and change. This is a poor country where the majority of 1.2 billion people are fighting to survive.
One of the guys that I an travelling with compares the hustle and bustle of the traffic and the streets to being married but without the cosiness. You never get a moment of peace. There is constant background noise of people, of traffic and of industry.
It isn't all black through. From time to time we encounter the new, well educated generation of India. They are kind and thoughtful. There is the understanding that fewer children will be easier to support on a working wage. A Tuk Tuk driver is a friend for life! My driver will wait for me to revisit India again just to shoot the breeze. Also, naan bread. I have struggled with food here, but the simple naan would be a luxury back home, hot bread always is!
My final stage on this leg of the trip is Jaipur. The first impressions are that the city is nicer than Agra and Lucknow. The city is teeming with wildlife. As I sit in a park surrounded by picnicking families, hundreds of rats bounce about looking for food. Much like squirrels back home, the locals don't mind, they even feed them! But cows, the sacred animal, I am not sure about. When the cow no longer produces milk, it is set free. The city is awash with the beasts who feast on garbage and disrupt traffic.
As always, I keep an open mind. I must also remember that to be born in India is very different from back home. Life is always going to be difficult and you make what you can.
Do you have tips and advice for the Stig? Maybe you know places he should visit, restaurants he should eat at or experiences to try along the way. If so, you can send us an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to follow Stig's route in Google maps