India Trip Report
Incredible India! In retrospect, this adage always pops up in my mind when I am asked how my (first) trip to this country was. However, the same emotions did not go through my head when I was there. Since I had already traveled quite a few times to some of the most underdeveloped countries of South East Asia and South Pacific, India’s whole maddening human and vehicular traffic, the ubiquitous cows, dogs and their faeces, and the pervasive garbage and litter were in no way new to me, and as a result something I got accustomed to and caught up on very quickly. There were bright spots, too, that add to the characteristic of incredible. Friendly folks in their varied colorful attires, jolly wedding processions, unique food, majestic forts, lavish temples and palaces, and last but not least, my interaction with one of the longest continuous cultures in the world.
Yet, there were many surprises and firsts. I had always thought that the craziest city traffic I ever experienced was in Manila, the Philippines….until I tasted the peak hours in Old Delhi or for instance a ride in central Jodphur. I could not believe there might be more misery and poverty than those prevalent in shanty towns of Bangkok or Jakarta. There is, in India, and it is much more in your face. India was not at that time that busy with foreign tourists as I had expected. Except for India's classic tourist sights, specifically the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the town of Pushkar, at Jaisalmer fort and maybe in Varanasi, we did not come across a great concentration of 'paradēśī', or foreigners. Not even in Amritsar around The Golden Temple, which was for me an ultimate highlight of our whole trip. It was a highlight not only by its beauty and tranquility but also by its friendly people who, unlike in some other parts of India, especially in Rajasthan, were genuinely happy to talk to you, offering you information and help in case you found yourself in trouble, and so on.
It became clear to me India is not for everyone. There was one guy in our group said he had read a lot about India, Hinduism, spiritualism and history of the old culture. After a couple of days, he made himself heard he was deeply disappointed in about every aspect, and it was going to be his last trip to India. On balance, it was his first trip outside Europe, and thus he had thrown himself in at the deep end. Some travelers may well get easily weary of the never-ending baiting of persistent touts and beggars. Some tourists endure, others lose it after a few encounters.
During our 27-day expedition, we traveled north or northwest of India, during which we used mostly local public transport modes. In some cases, we chartered hotel vans that took us for shorter distances and / or on routes that were hardly serviced by regular bus or train links. We stayed in hotels and guesthouses for one or a couple of nights, which were, with some exceptions, luxurious even by European standards. The greatest splurge, we enjoyed in hotels in Pushkar and maybe also in Jaipur.
Upon arrival in Delhi’s Paharganj district, we made our base at the Hotel Rak. After a day in Delhi, having touched a little on its hustle and bustle, we took an overnight bus up to the foothills of Himalayas. We got off the bus early in the morning in the suburb of Dharamshala called Mc Leod Ganj. The place may be called 'Little Tibet' as the population consists mostly of Tibetans, and their government-in-exile, including Dalai Lama, resides here. After checking in Tibet Hotel, we wasted no time and wandered around the town's main tourist sights, such as Tsuglag Khang Temple or the Dalai Lama's Temple and adjacent park. Later we also hiked to Bhagsu waterfall, which is a refreshing local picnic spot. I liked the feeling and serenity of the town and nature. I sensed it was going to be one of the rare moments to enjoy the ambiance as we would be touring many busy city agglomerations from now on.
The next day, we hired a van and headed to Punjab province, to the town of Patankot. Before setting off, we decided to make a little diversion off our route stopping at the monolithic ancient Masroor Temple. There, beside the temple, are also stairs leading you atop a terrace offering quite spectacular views overlooking the region towards Himalayas. You may see the whole mountainous range in its beauty as long as it is fair weather. It was still pretty misty then, thus the views were a little blurry.
Even relatively smaller Indian cities can be clogged by traffic jams. It was the case of Patankot and its adjacent towns and villages the frenzy commotion of people, animals and vehicles together with the unstoppable honking and revving of which may cause a mental trauma to an untrained person. Most importantly, it slowed our bus up as we were only creeping to Amritsar.
Amritsar with its distinctive the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, is one of the most memorable and pleasant cities I have ever been to. Not only thanks to its beauty, but also to genuine friendliness of the locals and pilgrims alike. Later during the course of our trip, did I learn the Sikhs, who make up the majority in the Punjab Province, in comparison to the rest of Indians that we came across are by far the most amicable and helpful folks. I had had this experience from all walks of life there. The local people also look better-to-do than their counterparts in the rest of northern India; moreover, I thought the city agglomerations, infrastructures and buildings are generally in a better shape than those in neighboring Rajasthan, for instance. In Amritsar we stayed at a hotel that was close to all the main sights – Hotel Grace. That is to see, our days were filled mostly at and around the old city, especially at and inside the Golden Temple complex. What a photogenic place that is! I must have spent about full 30 hours inside in taking photos from all possible angles by night, dawn and during the broad light. Unfortunately, on the second day I had a quite serious accident with my DSLR camera. Suddenly, my lens’ zoom ring got jammed, which resulted in the realization I could zoom only up to about 40 mm of focal length. Having a camera lens with the range of 18-270 mm, it meant I could not snap objects at a long distance. I knew it was a complex and expensive repair, so I did not try to get it fixed, considering we were leaving Amritsar soon anyway, and it did work with shorter focal lengths. Yet, as I meddled with the ring with increasing frustration and attempted to test it, it seemed like bits of the broken ring had gotten into and from time to time disrupted the lens’ autofocus motor.
We made the 16-hour journey to Bikaner by train. Regardless of the duration, we had a great time riding this about 500-meter long series of blue railway carriages. Snapping the typical (exotic) Indian train atmosphere and scenes with people peeking out and hanging around in their traditional attires was our all-along activity. At one point – during a longer stop, my mate and I decided to walk to the front end and ask the locomotive drivers to stay in with them while running until the next station. They hesitantly agreed.
Bikaner was one of the most picturesque but also shabbiest cities I have seen so far. People were nice, despite the fact the poverty is prevalent in almost every corner of the city. We stayed at Jaswan Bhawan Hotel, which was conveniently very close to the train station and fit us, I thought, as an oasis in this hot, crazy city. I must say the hotel staff there was some of the most helpful we met in whole India. In Bikaner we did the usual, popular sites, such as Junagarh Fort and Karni Temple, or a ‘rat temple’, situated outside the city, which might be disgusting for some tourists as (sacred) rats are there literally everywhere. We strolled the Bikaner on numerous occasions, its streets and lanes, which are so tangled that we had sometime trouble finding each other, numerous historic squares with markets and small kiosks, interesting historic buildings (so called “haveli”), past lavish palaces with crafted details on them, avoiding cows, stray dogs and dromedaries that block the traffic and the traffic that is so mad and incredible to us westerners.
However, the best moments for me and my two buddies in Bikaner came at the wedding party which we attended after we ran into its procession and were invited by the groom himself. It might have been only after he saw our dance performance on a square that we were dragged into by frenzied crowd of wedding guests, probably saying to himself some funny buffoons could be used to spice up his wedding ceremony.
On the way to our next destination – Jaisalmer – we stopped by at Gajner Palace at the lakeside in the middle of semi-desert , which, although nowadays transformed to a luxury hotel, can be visited (for a fee), and at the town of Kolayat with its holy men and “ghats”, or steps leading to the pond.
We arrived in Jaisalmer on the bus quite late in the evening. We were accommodated right up within the Jaisalmer Fort complex at Hotel Paradise. The fort is supposed to be one of the largest in the world and is interesting that it functions also as a full-fledged town, in the town. After seeing the wall area, a couple of Jain temples and other monuments within the complex, we ventured out to see some more temples, and mainly the known tombs of Maharajas’ located in the Thar desert. The real icing on the cake was our camel trip through the desert to sand dunes for sunset, though. Thanks to my patience, Jaislamer was the city where I managed to fix my camera lens so I was able to operate the zoom in full range. The zoom ring function was disrupted, though, meaning I had to pull in and out the lens zooming body manually.
A little addendum: Upon my arrival home about 20 days later, I found out that my camera SD card had been infected by a virus that deleted some of valuable photos I made in Amritsar and Bikaner. What a nuisance! Since one of few opportunities I got to use a card reader or USB port was in the computer in the internet café opposite the aforementioned Jaisalmer hotel, I suspect I most likely contracted the virus there. Even though I later managed to recover the photos, I would advise against using a PC in internet cafes unless you check it is malware-free.
Jodphur, nicknamed the “Blue City”, is for me one of the most fascinating cities I have visited. The Mehrangarh Fort overlooking millions of blue-colored, densely packed town houses with cubist geometry is for many a symbol of this city. We stayed a bit aside from the main hustle and bustle, but still in the heart of the city, at a stylish hotel named Singvi’s Haveli. Visiting the fort rising above Jodphur is a must as well as exploring the city’s winding streets and thousand of hidden lanes and corners. For more nice photos, I recommend to ask a friendly local to let you in their house rooftop just before the sun sets behind the horizon as I did, or potentially you could watch the sun go down from one of the restaurants that has their dining area on a taller building. Sardar market in the center is perhaps the best shopping place for fruits, vegetable, clothes or some trinkets, where one of the market’s gates hosts popular bar selling arguably the best lassi (yoghurt smoothie) in all of India.
From Jodphur, we headed by train to the city of Ajmer, where we were transferred by van to Pushkar. In the latter, it was the first time we experienced larger masses of foreign tourists. Until then, we had met predominantly Indians who traveled alone or with families. Pushkar is a pilgrimage town for many Hindus just as for plenty of, as it seemed, western travelers adherent to Hindu religion and culture. Although the city was one of my fondest cities we visited in India, I felt like the place and people were in a stark contrast to those we ran into in previous cities. The whole center was tourist-oriented, yet, or maybe because of this, many vendors and commoners seemed tired of tourists and less relaxed. The Pushkar Lake with its reflecting water and enticing views over the town towards Ratnagiri Hill are some of the attractions that should not be missed. In the afternoon, we felt like needing a good exercise, so we decided to hike the peak of nearby Ratnagiri Hill, where the Savriti Temple is located. Our hike up coincided with approaching sunset; therefore there was a second reason to enjoy the views from the hill. A nice surprise was also the luxury and comfort of our hotel, Kanhaia Haveli, which was definitely the most lavish accommodation we slept in on our Indian travels and maybe in my whole life.
We stayed only one day in Ajmer, during which we did quite a lot of sightseeing. The highlight of Ajmer for me was the Muslim Sufi shrine Dargah Sharif and nearby Akbari Mosque. Contrary to the prevailing bias towards Muslims many westerners might have, I thought all Muslims I had a chance to meet (also in other parts of India) were truly welcoming and curious about us. Again, Ajmer did not see many tourists at that time; actually, I remember only Indian tourists and maybe two western couples.
Towards the end of the day, we hired vans and traveled up to the impressive Taragarh Fort, offering, beside Jodphur, perhaps the most scenic views of any city I have ever seen.
It was quite a short way by train to the capital of Rajasthan Jaipur from Ajmer. Just as Jodphur is called the “blue city”, Jaipur is called the in accordance with its pink-painted houses that make up the downtown. Unlike in Jodphur, where the blue color is omnipresent, the color of houses in Jaipur is much more varied and sometime even nowhere near any color, for that matter. Our hotel (Pearl Palace Hotel) was again rather up-market accommodation, and conveniently close to the main railway station of this over 3-million city. As usual, we embarked on the most popular sights: Amber Fort in Amer, a small town situated just outside Jaipur, Jantar Mantar – the equinoctial sundial complex, the spectacular Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Winds, and another fort, this time the one rising above Jaipur, Nahargarh Fort.
Back in Delhi, where we caught up on emails, laundry and shopping. It was also the time when I finally solved my little intestinal problem caused by the Indian food, buying local medicine. It had been only a slight setback for me during the course of our trip. The pills that worked for me are sold under the brand name Oflotas-OZ. Hiring vans that would take us around Delhi’s famous and less known sites. Thanks to our guide, we also visited place that were right off the beaten track for ordinary tourists. We came to visit one of Delhi’s slums, where we saw the real impoverishment and destitute. In fact, no-one asked us for money or touted for anything. They were just curious, making conversation or tagging along with us everywhere. Next, it was Nigambodh Ghat on the shore of Yamuna River, where we first time experienced seeing how the dead are processed and cremated the traditional Hindu way. It was surprising to learn that it was okay, if I wanted, to make video and photos around here, unlike later in Varanasi. Then we moved to the river even closer – to the opposite bank, checking up on the traditional open-air laundry sites. Lodi Garden, a park visited mostly by affluent Indians who come here to play cricket, soccer and make picnic was our next stop. It was actually a very pleasant break from all the city heat and traffic. Our last two sights that we did were Hazrat Nizamuddin’s mausoleum – a Muslim shrine, similar the one we had seen in Ajmer, and Hanuman Temple, which was a kind of ‘funky’ Hindu temple.
As there were some other fellow travelers coming from our country, we spared Delhi ’s top sightseeing spots for the day and onwards they are over in town, so that we could visit them together. The first place was the famous Qutub Minar, a minaret a complex of which also includes a local curiosity – the rust-resistant iron pillar. After that, we proceeded to the Lotus Temple of Bahá’í faith. This temple might remind some people of the architecture of Sydney Opera.
The following day, we set about our train journey to Agra. Agra is most famous place for India ’s main landmark – Taj Mahal. This monument has been dealt with in many papers and websites, so repeating anything of that would be like exporting cashmere to Kashmir. I personally did not find the temple so fantastic as some others in my company did, as I had expected it to be bigger, more monumental and a bit less touristy. Besides, I was rather skeptical I could make some photos that have never been made million times before me, but our guide assured me I could…and he was right. As we arrived in Agra on Friday, on Muslim holy day, as a prelude to the original Taj Mahal, we dropped by at a “Baby Taj”, officially named Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah and gardens across the river from Taj Mahal. There was already a congregation of other tourists looking for some more or less traditional views. By the way, we stayed at Kamal Hotel, which has together with a couple of other hotels next door the best, unobstructed views of Taj Mahal from a roof perspective. Further, we went for a quick visit of open-air sari laundry – similar to the one in Delhi, but more picturesque, and viewing of the Tomb of Akbar the Great, which was quite exciting thanks to the fact there were many charming objects / characters for photography. Finally, later in the afternoon, we checked out Agra Fort, especially its numerous yards and wall areas.
It may be a long journey from Agra to Varanasi, especially by a train that provides a cheap, or free in case of deadbeats, transport for some Indians of many different walks of life, some of whom do not respect paying passengers with western values. Not that it was a big deal, but not everyone from our company was used to such a rough and disrespectful behavior from a bunch of wild youngsters towards tourists who want just lie down and relax on their berths in the sleeper. Not everyone enjoys listening to Rajasthani songs sung totally out of tune in the middle of night.
Varanasi is the most sacred city and a spiritual capital of India. The river Ganga flowing past the city is a center for Hindu worship ceremony. We checked in the nice Hotel Ganpati Homestay situated right above the river shore. It was pretty lengthy and difficult to get to our hotel from the railway station partly because of heavy traffic that chokes the city almost regularly and partly due to the fact that the area was closed for any motorized vehicles. And these two factors do not separate out. Thus, we needed to hire a rickshaw to carry at least our backpacks and to lead us through narrow, zigzagging streets to our hotel.
Some people have told me the local folks from Varanasi are the most annoying ones. The truth is they go after money as we men go after models. The way how you deal with various holy men, boat-ride touts or numerous solicitors is up to you and variably successful. Some tourists put up a ‘teflon armor’ to deflect all of them trying to ignore them and not reacting to their pitches. Some might rebuff them right away. Some others like me thank them for their attention (saying in Hindi ”namaste”) before saying goodbyes with a slight bow in praying-like fashion.
While wandering along the river ‘baths’, our group came closer to the actual cremation place. Not paying any attention to signs that would limit or prohibit photography, my mate and I were carelessly snapping pictures. Just as we entered the ‘holy’ area, we were suddenly surrounded by a trio of angry guys who started at us demanding compensation for illegal use of cameras (my mate used a video by that point). They argued it would bring us bad karma, and it is generally not permitted to snap souls of the dead in Hindu religion. I am used to respecting foreign traditions and rules, and I have nothing against paying for what I did as long as it was my fault. It was my fault because I should have informed myself about possible restrictions; and in fact I had heard about some of them. The problem was they demanded 3,000 INR for each offence, thus 6,000 INR for two of us, which to us seemed excessive. The more our resistance grew, the more their aggression stepped up. They at that point threatened to call out all families involved plus authorities. We sensed a bit of scam, hence we did not buy that so much, but remained wary. To make the story short, we negotiated the ‘fine’ down to 400 INR and hastily left the site. Ten minutes later, we were offered by an unrelated tout a permission to photograph for 200 INR…
The rest of the stay in Varanasi was rather uneventful. In the following morning, we hired a boat that enabled us to oversee the whole river shore with splendid buildings and ‘ghats’ from a larger distance. Later on the day we explored the inner parts of the old city before heading back to the railway station.
Khajuraho was one of the towns that were at that time less busy with tourists and certainly much less clogged with the car traffic than other destinations we had been to so far. Except for an Ozzie guy and a group of Chinese ladies, no other foreign travelers headed the same direction with us by train. It is a little, ovely town hosting some intriguing Hindu temple complexes famous for their erotic sculptures inspired by Kama Sutra. Our lodging, Harmony Hotel, was situated basically on one of the only two main streets in the town. In the evening, we went to watch Madhya Pradesh Dance Show, which was a good overview of the local dance styles. Nevertheless, much more exciting was supposed to be our next venture, a tiger tour to Panna National Park. Although, a tiger family was allegedly spotted the day before, we were sadly out of luck seeing only fresh a tiger’s footprints and old paw scratches on tree bark. Despite this, it was great experience for me personally as I have never taken any similar tour anywhere. Besides, we were not out of luck completely; we spotted other animals such as Samba deer, Chinkara gazelles, Chitals or spotted deer, monkeys, wild boars and even a large crocodile. To the end of the tour, we yet came down to pleasant Pandav Waterfalls. Our next destination was historic Orchha, but as the town has no railway station, we had to travel by charter vans.
Orchha is, like Kahjuraho, a relatively small town that boasts numerous Hindu temples, palaces and other monuments. Apart from that, it has a nice setting of Betwa river and scenic views that concoct a very interesting town to see. Our hotel was once again a noble (heritage) establishment named Sheesh Mahal situated in a palace of the same name. The amenities were quite flashy, meal prices very favorable, but hotel staff seemed a bit surly. It did not matter to me much as we were out most of the time. Thanks to a ‘holy man’ that hangs around the old Chaturbhuj Temple, we secured for a small fee the access up stairs atop this tall temple for breathtaking views of all the surroundings. From there you checked all the temples and palaces around that we had been to or later would go to – our palace hotel, majestic palaces Jahangir Mahal a Raja Mahal, charming Chhatris (pavilions) dotting the river bank, distant Lakshi Temple with beautiful graffiti paintings, Ram Raja Temples situated on the town’s main square and others.
Taking chartered vans to get us to the city of Jhansi , from where our train departed in the morning as we were headed back to the capital. Last days in India we spent taking excursions around Delhi ’s prime monuments, such as presidential palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan), the arch, or India Gate, which was apparently inspired by the Paris Arc de Triomphe, India ’s largest mosque Jama Masjid, Sikh temple Gurudwara Bangla Sahib and the popular Red Fort. Needless to say even in the capital, there is a great number of touts preying on unsuspecting tourists. It seems like they have, over the time, developed more sophistication for they tricks. As I was checking the shops at Connaught place at my leisure pace, I was approached and subsequently followed by this bloke who, as he several times mentioned, wanted to practice his English only, saying he was a private cab driver waiting for his client and so forth. His profession should have warned me right at the beginning, knowing some of the taxi drivers have connections to various expensive souvenir shops. Yet, or just because of that, I told him assertively not to waste his time with me – I would not be an easy catch as I was not going to fall for all the tricks. I explicitly told him I was possibly looking only for some shopping center or mall. He assured me he would lead me there as he had nothing to do. Guess what. After a 10 minute-walk, we got to a small shopping district full of those flamboyant souvenir shops, or bazaars, where I was welcomed by another guy standing outside. My new friend had disappeared as quickly as he came. That did it, and I left briskly slightly upset, having lost about 15 minutes of my time.
Last hours in India before heading to the airport, we spent around our Paharganj district base, having dinner and doing last-hour souvenir shopping. Bye, bye incredible India!
Train and locomotive ride
Amritsar (including the Golden Temple)
My camera incident