Well I guess the best place to start is at the beginning - we had thought long and hard about our next adventure and decided that it needed to be somewhere cheap where we could be incharge and do what we wanted. We are both in our 40’s and done a lot of travelling in the past so we didn’t need to be pampered and thought of dollar (or rupee) value first. Consequently we stayed in 2 star places so long as they looked clean and didn’t have too many negative reports on Trip Advisor, which is of course why this report is here; due to all the information that was provided by other travellers online here. Three of our legs were by air due to large distances and the remainder by overnight trains and bus; both of which provided time to talk with locals and fellow travellers if English was a common language.
So after deciding upon India, we grabbed a pile of brochures to determine the main routes the tourist groups took; the cities and the places of interest. From that we decided upon our own route taking into account when the main tour groups were in certain places so as to not to be there at the same time and to figure out the local attractions. After we had done this and done a bit of research, we came to the conclusion very quickly that we could travel and do more in India for a month and get more bang for buck than those with the organised tour groups; added to that we learnt a lot more through doing our own research and the lure of another exciting adventure.
Reports on accommodation used should be online and under the user name “ctravla” and our itinerary included the following places:
Amritsar (and Attari Wagga),
Entry point into India was via Mumbai at 0200, we had to wait there until 0700 for a local flight to New Delhi. Being alone in Mumbai airport was interesting however not too much of a concern - just push in the general direction and people let you through - it seems to be the rule of the road there. After spending 20 minutes queuing in a line to go through customs we were told that if we only had bags to clear (i.e. no boxes or parcels), we could go through the other line which we did and just walked through customs checkpoint... ummmmmmmm
So that was our introduction to Indian security which I thought was a bit lax but I was proved wrong - they are quite keyed up and there was plenty of armed patrols and checkpoints around the places. One of our flights (Aurangabad - Mumbai) we went through five checkpoints between check-in and boarding - the last one was on the tarmac in front of sub-machine guns!
New Delhi sucked to the max - I think that it was just due to being our point of entry and we felt as if we had dollar signs on our foreheads; it was as if the intent was to rip us off right from the start. Even the taxi rides which we did through a govt approved taxi counter but yet we still got a double price and ripped off – it wasn’t until later on that we learnt we should have gone to the booth outside and to the right of the main entrance!
Although we were tired, we still went out and did the touristy things - went to some major tomb to view stuff and we had to put our scandals in the corner so expected to have to pay a small fee for that, then they tried to wrap a cloth around me to cover my legs; although there is no requirement to do this, the general rule of thumb is tee-shirts and shorts that come down towards the knees are fine but certain places will have signs outside advising about standards of dress. We then went to the Red Fort which was much better and got the good look around. Food there was great but it was to get better.
We then flew to up to the state of Punjab and did the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the Paki/Indian border closing ceremony at Attari Wagga (sounds like something out of Star Wars doesn’t it)! The Golden Temple was amazing and so very cool. We even ate with everyone else and although it is set up for charity and anyone can attend – they do ask is a coin donation which is perfectly acceptable as it was a great experience. Out at Attari Wagga we saw the closing of the border ceremony and it was actually quite cool – good to see in person as we had seen it on a travel programme the year before and hence, the want to go out there and see it. The guards are stomping around in military precision and almost within bayonet striking range of the chaps across the border. Quite funny to watch and especially when they slam the border gate shut at sunset – lots of locals there to witness it as well but us being tourists got VIP seats closer to the front; it was almost a carnival atmosphere with lots of cheering and singing happening on both sides of the border.
Went down to Varanasi which is right on the Ganges and around where it intersects with the Assi River; there is so much life on the river and sunrises were so dam cool. We had a place up above the river with an incredible view across the delta – incredible but noisy at the same time. You don’t actually realise how noisy it is until it is oh dark hundred and you hear the animals and people out there. People sleep where ever they decide to lay!
Sunrise is incredible there – it gets light at 0515 and you can see everything happening in front of you – the animals, people and life in general waking up. We just got up, made coffee and sat outside watching and taking photos. The windows are covered with screens as there are monkeys all over the place. I left a book laying down on the AC unit outside and turned my back for about 20 seconds and just turned in time to see a checky little blighter race in and grab the book – I ran outside and managed to make enough noise to scare the monkey and it dropped the book onto the balcony floor.
We spent so much time wandering around there and exploring; walking along the edge of the river and looking up you can see most of the walls along the city side of the river and it looks like a fortress wall. This 10 metre walls with steep steps are due to the fact that the river can flood that high during the monsoon – totally amazing and almost impossible to imagine the amount of water that must be coming down the river then; an unstoppable force.
Did an early morning river cruise which was awesome – we scored a rower (scrawny boy of 15 called Ravi) and a boat all to ourselves. We had to pay a bit extra but booked him the night before so he was happy knowing he had a confirmed fare the next morning – if you are ever here, do it with no one else in the boat; it was eerily quiet to be floating down the river in the calm of dawn and looking back to shore to see the city awake.
Trick for young players – when buying stamps for postcards, ensure they are the ones that are lickable; we bought some and had to go back to the post office come shoe repair shop to get glue to stick the stamp to the cards!
Left Varanasi on the overnight sleeper train over to Agra where we arrived at 0610; we had decided to make the most of using trains and buses during the trip which were ok (well trains were so long as you book well in advance or you end up with the stink carriages). Only ended up with three flights where the distance versus the time on train made it impractical to do trains i.e. not going to spend 36 hours on a train…..
So onto Agra which is the home of the Taj Mahal which was great to see - something that must be on everyones bucket list for certain. Definitely the highlight and although we got in after brekkie which was bout 0930, there was no real throngs of people. Unfortunately we everyone got kicked out by the whistle police (armed with sub machine guns) as the President of Argentina was visiting and wanted to see it without us common tourists around. At the time we were not too impressed but it worked out better for us as we got back in again in the late arvo (the normal ticket gets you in once; no re-entries) and it was towards sunset you see the Taj change colour in the dimming light – incredible – we just sat and watched for about two hours. We then went and had dinner at a rooftop café which had views of the Taj – thought it would be nice to see at night. Ummmmm the Taj is not lit at night-time so no views; it still didn’t stop them charging top dollar for a large bottle of beer (approx kiwi $4).
Next day and another train; speaking of trains, they are notoriously late – it is just part of life. You sit (or lie) on the platform and wait because sure as sunrise, it will come. We did all our train bookings online using the govt website; you can only book from 90 days out so bang on day 90 at opening time, we were online booking that particular leg – totally safe booking online using the credit card and all confirmations came straight back to us via email. We printed off all our tickets and any hotel bookings we had and also kept them online. We travelled on AC2 all the time so we had a single skinny bed and it wasn’t too costly really if you compare it to the savings you can make but the discomfort of having a chair overnight vice a bed. We did try AC1 once for the hell of it and honestly not worth the extra money!
So another overnight train (and another nights accommodation charge saved) and we entered the state of Rajastan and got to Jodhpur. Stayed at a really chilled place called Yogi’s and Yogi (Yogesh) was a chilled out cat – really friendly and even gave Helen a 10 metre length of traditional dress wrap around sari; which somehow made it into my backpack for the trip! Highlight about Jodhpur was the Mehrangarh Fort which stands up on a cliff top perch and can be seen from everywhere.
Whoever designed this fort was a master combatant and understood how to lay siege to a castle; and therefore, how to build to defend it effectively. Right down to the long sloped narrow 25 degree alleyways which allowed an elephant to drag cargo up but were highly defendable from way up above. Including the right angle turn at the top of the alley-way; so no elephant could charge a door emplacement. Just in case the idea was there, the four inch thick doors had masses of six inch spikes just above human head height; from the two to four metre mark – elephant head spiking height!
This place was well worth the visit and if not for the heat, we could have spent longer outside and just sitting there enjoying the massive heady views over this landscape.
From there it was a dawn train out to the desert to a place called Jaisalmer – a very historical place with another fort way out to the west in the desert however it was an important place due to the location on the trade routes and due to vicinity of Pakistani border – noted the airforce base a few miles away and the massive radar/jammers I spotted through binos from up on the fortress walls. Took a few photos here but in all we just chilled out here and relaxed to the max – it was the place to do this and we had a “great time” here chilling. I guess this was around our mid-point of the trip so served as a break. We spent the first two days in a hotel outside the fort and then the next two nights inside the fort and had a room right on the wall.
We had a big window seat poking right out over the desert that was about the size of a bath tub (dimension wise) so we could both sit in it facing each other (as you would do in a large bath tub) and watch the sunset over the desert - it was soooo way way superb ! For those that enjoy their recreational activities, there is a govt approved Blang shop there where you can get Blang Lassis or takeaways in the form of Blang cookies for those long camel back rides in the desert.
From there we trained to Jaipur (yes a lot of places with "ers" and "purs" in India) where we did touristy stuff for three days and shopped, ate, drank and relaxed in the late arvo reading and watching the city go dark from our rooftop perch above the city. One thing you need to be ready for is the fact that Indians just stare at you; I guess it is just their culture and natural curiosity but when you look at them and say something they normally look away; then stare again when they think you are not watching.
Following this was Ajmer and Pushkar; and a real harrowing bus trip over there. The driver must have been from a rally driving school in a past life as he drove like one. We were going to stay in Pushkar but changed out mind as the beautiful lake that is advertised all the time was actually empty but I was informed that following the 2010 monsoon season, it would be filled again. Pushkar itself was good and we were there for the Camel Fair – lots to see and do.
Then off to Udaipur to see the lakes where we took an Indian cooking class and along with three Brits, cooked up a storm under the guidance of our tutor. Later that evening we sat up on the rooftop at sunset with dinner and views of the lake. Of interest was the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed in Udaipur so every second café/bar was running the movie on a nightly basis. Speaking of which, beer is not openly served in some places so it was served in a teapot with teacups – yes its naff but had to be tried once to realise that it was a dumb idea!
Just about ending our trip and we flew to a place called Aurangabad which has two large tour areas which are made of man-made caves carved at different stages throughout the centuries. There is the Ajunta Cave system which dates back from 200BC to 300AD and consists purely of Budda statues and caves carved entirely out of solid rock – totally lost until the 1800s when an English tiger hunting party stumbled upon it whilst out chasing cats. The next day we went to the Elora Cave system which consists of Buddist, Hindu and the Jaine religions and associated carvings/caves – not quite so good as the Ajunta but interesting enough.
After that it was back through Bombay and looked there for a bit – but it was a very big city and full of Indians who tried to rip us off, more Indians begging and more Indians just content to stare at us – the tourists.
Having said that, Bombay was good to see and we did get out to look at the Gateway to India which must also be done at night time. Getting around by the Black and Yellow taxis is easy enough as they are everywhere however the shock of it was that for the first time in a month, we couldn’t barter on the price. However, do look at the meter and the conversion chart that they use as most of our drivers attempted to inflate the price to their personal gain.
The Dhoby Ghats was another place to see but kind of pales in comparison to Ajunta. VT (Victoria Terminus) should be on the list and shows some real out of date English architecture which included stained glass works; just to stand there and watch the people milling around you and get a feeling for the history and immenseness of the place was great.
Do ride the trains – even for the adventure of getting lost! We bought a couple of tickets from next to the Dhoby Ghats to take us to VT and got so totally lost. Started off at Platform 2 and ended up way out in the boonies. Lesson learnt; if a ticket says “via” it means get off there and grab another train – ours did say via Dudar and we realised this later of when we started seeing signs pointing to Dudar back the direction we came from. Not too worry; it was 18RP well spent considering it provided us with over two hours of insight into life in Indian railway suburbia.
Final thing that must be done is to go to Chowpatty Beach in the late afternoon and people watch as it gets cooler. Then walk back south along Marine Drive – great way to end the day and our time in Mumbai.
When in India, you will realise that it is a cricket crazy country; so if you have a national team, learn up on them. We learnt more about the NZ cricket team in our month there than we ever knew back here; right down to stats !
Do eat local as there is so much to try and you will soon learn that a good curry is not necessarily a spicy hot curry but a curry with spice flavour. We ate vegetarian for the entire trip, drank bottled water and beer; and were not sick once.
Another thing you need to learn fast is to learn to joke and talk back to the locals; you will find a lot of Indians wanting to have photos taken with you, like Helen found out with her blond hair. Joke with them - I would try to charge them 10RP for the photo which led to laughter when they clicked to the fact I wanted money from them.
And when the kids ask you what your name is, tell them it is “Rupee” !