From BANGLAORE to MYSORE to HASSAN to CHIKMAGLUR and back.
Some may point to the food or the clothing as the most obvious signs of difference between the North and the South, but for me it was encapsulated in the sights along our drives from destination to destination. While the north can be brown and dry, the south is green and lush. While the north lets color pop in their saris, turbans and trucks, the south lets the color spill onto their homes and businesses. From the road you can see the region’s lifeline – its agriculture – paddies of rice, feilds of sugarcane, and forests of coffee and tea. Here’s just a glimpse at the sight from our short trip in the south. As you can see, there’s one thing that does stay consistent between north and south… Indians try to fit ALOT on their bikes.
Deepika Padukone serenaded us as we drove into Hassan, the upbeat songs of Bollywood hit movie Chennai Express playing on the DVD player in our van. Though a fan of Bollywood, I find this blockbuster hit to be grating (see my review here), but I have to admit it was getting a glimpse of a film-version of the south as we were driving through the reality. Also, I’ve loved Deepika since Om Shanti Om, a much more enjoyable Shahrukh Khan film. I suggest checking either film out if you ever have over 3 hours to spare.
From Mysore to Hassan to Halebidu to Belur to Chikmaglur, it was a long day peppered with stops along the way. Please trust your driver’s sense of drive times instead of google’s! In India, not all roads are created equal for all kinds of vehicles and drivers. From Mysore, it was a morning’s drive to…
Lunch – Jewel Rock Hotel (in HAssan)
This unassuming budget hotel was trusted by our driver as a good quick stop for lunch. They proved him right with an incredibly cheap, but delicious meal. We each had a Thaali – a large silver dish with many small bowls of food that make up a complete meal. It’s like a buffet on a plate. As usual, you choose between the veg and non-veg. I believe I had the non-veg and enjoyed; but as usual, I suggest you make an educated decision about choosing the meat option based on where you are located. The waiters and a few other patrons hovered and starred, but for 35 Rs a thaali (as in 60 cents!!!) how could you possibly go wrong?
Then it was another chance of driving to reach…
Halebidu, Hassan District, Karnataka
This temple built around 1120 CE is carved from a dark grey soapstone. Stepping inside where it’s dark and cool, you feel its age. For me, it was one of the moments when I was emotionally impacted by the amount of work and artistry that went into every inch of it, and the thought of generations of visitors who had been there before me. The outside is just as impressive, with entire battles being described in carvings around the temple. One tier even has a line of carved elephants being ridden by soldiers. Another by soldiers on fearsome rhino-like creature. But don’t touch! The soapstone is extremely soft – don’t be the jerk who leaves a mark.
These types of temples are emblematic of the Hoysala Empire, which ruled the area between the 10th and 14th centuries and contributed significantly to the area’s arts and architecture. The name Hoysala has more of an origin legend, than an origin story. ‘Hoy’, which means ‘strike’, may come from the story of a young man-turned warrior who saved his guru (or teacher) by striking a lion dead outside a temple. Historians don’t think it’s a coincidence that this story closely matches the empire’s emblem of the warrior Sala striking a tiger, the symbolic animal of the Cholas, an army defeated by King Vishnuvardhana. Also of note are the Jain influences on Hoysala society, another fascinating South Asian religion, which deserves its own post.
Layers of people and animal carvings
Then it’s 30-45 min ride to…
Belur, Hassan District, Karnataka
I won’t lie… I was pretty temple’d out. So was my husband. So the rest of the party went inside, while we wandered the perimeter of the wall, taking a few pictures and eating chips. We ran into some school kids, who I chatted with for a bit. They were a bit surprised when I told them my walking companion was my husband (see picture below). Inside is a complex of soapstone rooms, temples, shrines, etc. Definitely check it out if you haven’t been visiting temples for 1 1/2 weeks already. Here’s a few facts from Wikipedia to make up for my lack of knowledge:
Chennakesava (lit, “handsome Kesava”) is a form of the Hindu god Vishnu
Some scholars believe King Vishnuvardhana VIII commissioned the temple to surpass his overlord, King Vikramaditya VI of the Western Chalukya Empire (who ruled from Basavakalyan), after his initial military victories against the Chalukyas According to another theory, Vishnuvardhana was celebrating his famous victory against the Chola dynasty of Tamil country in the battle of Talakad (1116 AD).
Within the complex, the Chennakesava temple is at the centre, facing east, and is flanked by the Kappe Channigraya temple on its right, and a small Sowmyanayaki (form of the goddess Lakshmi) temple set slightly back. On its left, also set slightly back is the Ranganayaki temple.
Introducing my husband
I love the artistry in the local houses
Found this parade piece
By the water
Our guides took us a ghat (a series of steps that lead to a river, often a holy river) to show us a different side of the region. Approaching the river were some unattended stalls with snacks and toys. Few people were visiting, as you can see below. At first, I thought this would be a good education on the range of Indian landscape, but had a different lesson for us. As we walked up to the waters edge, I had a bit of a shock and pulled my family back in warning. Floating in the water, perhaps for days, was a dead man. Someone had covered his face with a newspaper. Our guides asked around and heard that the authorities had already been called. To our shock, no-one around us seemed disturbed. To our right, a family was performing a ceremony in which a son or brother releases their father/brother’s ashes into the river. Apparently, the dead body was too unremarkable or common to greatly affect anyone. They continued about their business, except to stay on the opposite side of the ghat. In addition to a comment about their familiarity with he circle of life and death, I wondered if it spoke to their sense of health concerns. Why was no-one too bothered about the health implications of bathing in a river with a dead body?
In the end, I processed the moment as a chance for my family to see the wide range of India – its highs and lows. It may have contributed to their comments at the end of the trip that India contains the whole experience of human existence.Everything is shown at its fullest and purest – life, death, joy, sorrow, wealth, poverty, progress, history, beauty and ugliness.
Ceremony by the river
Hassan does not land on most foreign traveler’s itineraries. The temples aren’t the oldest or biggest. But if you’re looking to do more than scratch the surface of the South and you have the time, stop by and see a different side of the country… beside it’s on the way to the coffee plantations!!!
Welcome to the tropical Kingdom of Mysore. Lush and green, you start to wonder if you’re in paradise. And when you drive up to the Winter Palace to stay the night, you may actually be convinced you’re a guest of the King. Though not necessarily on a lot of first-timer’s to do list, don’t count this city out.
The Hotel – Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel
No need to pinch yourself. You’re not dreaming. You’re about to stay in a palace. Don’t misunderstand – this is still India. Preservation efforts don’t seem to have the same funding as they do in Europe, so this palace-turned-hotel shows its age with cracked paint and a faint musty smell. But when you walk down the corridors, most open to the air for relief from the heat, you can’t help but feel transported to a different time. A hybrid of English architecture and regional tweaks, the palace was built in 1931 for the Maharajah’s guests (though it feels like it could have been built a few decades earlier.) Atop a hill, it provides an impressive view. Breakfast is in a blue two-story ballroom. And it wasn’t even our most expensive night on the trip! One memorable moment was stopping by the empty bar for a shared Kingfisher (beer). The bartender has been working there for decades and is putting his son through engineering school in Germany. He said the palace was really hopping on weekends when people came out from the city. He also chatted about the unbelievable cost of having a daughter and throwing her wedding. All around, an impactful experience.
Eat Breakfast in the ballroom
Walking the halls at night
At the bar
Mysore City Palace
An expansive palace-turned-museum, Mysore City Palace is the second most visited tourist attraction in India with 6 million visitors annually! Tickets for foreigners are about $3.50 each. No photography is allowed inside. And watch out for tours of “secret” rooms… there have been reports of bribes. Oh – you also have to take your shoes off! Anything in the name of preservation! It truly is beautiful. The floor to ceiling peacock room was a highlight for me.
Something you’d notice without the help of a blog is a prominent architectural difference between Hindu temples in the north and south. In the south, the temples feature an ornate monumental tower with many tiers decorated with images/statues, called a gopuram. This temple was our first chance to visit the southern architecture up-close and personal. As always, you leave your shoes behind to go into the temple. After you offer your fruit and flowers to be blessed, you are supposed to dispose of them with respect – put the flowers in your hair and eat or share your fruit. This is a working temple with very few tourists, but many locals and pilgrims.
The Demon Mahishasura
A monkey eating my blessed banana
Buy a bowl of coconuts and flowers to bring in as an offering.
This temple sits on top of the Chamundi Hills. Half way down, stop by the Sri Nandi Temple – a 5 meter tall statue of a bull, the mount of Lord Shiva.
Sri Nandi TEmple – Bull statue
Decorated in yellow and orange carnations, the statue is quite the sight. Carved from a single block of stone in 1858, it’s one of the largest Nandi statues in India and sits at the foot of the long set of stairs the leads to the main temple up the hill. At its feet was a young man carving stone figurines from a chunk of rock, right before our eyes.
Carving stones roadside
St. Philomena’s cathedral
Looking for some culture clashes? Check out the neo-gothic Catholic cathedral built in 1936 to resemble the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. I have lots of thoughts on the overlap of Hinduism and Catholicism, but one that is very clear is the decoration and veneration of statues; in this case statues of saints. Saint statues are adorned in garlands of fake neon flowers and bright Christmas lights. My absolute favorite was a completely made-up scene as a black felt painting depicting Mary bringing Jesus to America on either the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. As this is a working church, the crowd and street can be a bit overwhelming. The beggars were also unrelenting, so have your driver stay nearby and ready.
Sneak pic of an odd scene
There was another temple that we opted out of once we arrived. The ground was muddy and mixed with trash. The locals and the pilgrims were a bit more unruly. As shocking as it sounds, you can burn out from temples, forts and palaces, so we passed on this one without feeling too guilty.
Guided by some city officials, we visited these terraced gardens adjacent to the Krishnarajasagara Dam. Large steps climb up a hill and a fountain flows downward creating what must be an epic site in the daytime. A very public place for the locals to hang out, there were families relaxing and gaggles of teenagers wandering, joking and flirting with each other. Vendors with snacks and light up toys at the front gate make it feel like a low key amusement park – like the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I know these pictures are terrible, but we only arrived after dark and apparently that means I lose all sense of good framing.
Outside the city
Google Tipu Sultan to brush up on this well loved leader who died defending his kingdom from the British. He is central to two tourist attractions outside of Mysore.
Tipu sultan Museum at srirangapatna
I’m having a hard time confirming exactly what the historic building that now holds the museum used to be. Hand painted with murals depicting Tipu Sultan’s battles, the building itself is a work of art. Due to the fragile medium of the art, the entire building is shaded from the sun and photography is not allowed (though I took two non-flash photos). Inside are the ruler’s clothing, weapons and sketches of both his battles and his seven sons.
Tipu Sultan Museum
Inside Tipu Sultan Museum
The Gumbaz at Seringapatam is a Muslim mausoleum at the center of a landscaped garden, holding the graves of Tippu Sultan, his father Hyder Ali and his mother Fakr-Un-Nisa. It was originally built by Tippu Sultan to house the graves of his parents. Tippu was himself allowed to be buried here by the British, after his death in the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. The visit was short and peaceful, except for the stomach issues which had me focusing on other things… Just a note: They don’t have European toilets and you have to pay a few rupees for entrance to the bathroom.
This was just the beginning of my eye-opening introduction to the South!
Jodhpur is to New Delhi as Boston is to New York City. Compared to New Delhi’s 22 million people, Jodhpur’s 1.3 mil seems downright quaint. The traffic is calmer, the streets less crowded. It’s often called the Sun City for its sunny climate (and a record high of 129 degrees Fahrenheit in May!) or the Blue City, because they were jealous of the Pink City and decided to paint a large number of their buildings blue. Just kidding – they too painted their buildings for a royal visit. You’ll see a lot of signage for military forces – Army, Air Force, Border Security, etc. Its prime location and extra space makes it a perfect headquarters.
Below you’ll find:
We took a package tour that promised to show us “village life.” Not quite equivalent to a trip to Old Town Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation, this tour was more like if you went to an American suburb in the 1950’s. Our stops did not represent a far-distant past, but they were most certainly hiding away any modern conveniences like cell phones. I’d say it was fun; but if I was a tour guide, I might design this excursion differently.
We visited the home of a master potter. His family all worked there, but clearly deferred to the master of the house. They created fun trinkets for tourists, including small authentic oil lamps. But another large part of their inventory was clay water containers that keep water cool even in the boiling Rajasthan climate.
Making the water jugs by hand
Baby hiding a cell phone!
This stop was at a local Bishnoi farmer’s home. He must be the jolliest man in all of India. He has clearly been welcoming tourists to his farm for years and loved every second of the attention. We has left out three piles of different kinds of grain so we could touch and taste. The Bishnoi are a religious group in this geographic area who follow 29 tenets, many of which emphasize protecting the environment, especially trees and livestock. In 1730, 363 men, women and children were killed protecting trees, hugging them to prevent the king’s men from cutting them down.
While the women of his family lounged in the shade of their small home, the farmer lead us to a shaded space meant to welcome visitors. There he demonstrated the local custom of making opium tea for guests. It sounds exciting and risqué, but honestly is tasted disgusting – like dirty water and no, I did not feel any different.
Typical Rajasthani Outfit
Next he demonstrated how to wrap a Rajasthani turban – a red or red/yellow/green fabric strip that shaded their heads or could be unraveled for all sorts of emergency or everyday uses, like tying things. I really didn’t mind that his operation wasn’t 100% authentic. Clearly, he got a small stipend for welcoming people and putting on these demonstrations, and he did it with joy – a win-win.
A clean, orderly man sat beneath a canopy and knotted a rug while listening to the radio. His impeccable English and good quality glasses hinted that he must not really spend his days tying rugs, but we tried our hardest to push that out of our minds. We’re pretty sure the man he introduced as his son holding his granddaughter was just a worker. I mean, they had an outhouse with an English toilet in it on the other side of their field… but that’s OK… You just hope that the men and women who do tie those rugs daily get their cut of the rugs he sells as an “authentic Rajasthani weaver.” Because no matter what system they set up, these rugs were being woven by hand by real people. No “Made in India” sticker necessary. Why am I over explaining this? Because I caved and bought one. Sure, I brought the price down from $450 to $300, but I probably could have pushed for $250. I mean, he has a credit card machine. When I saw the sea foam rug, I couldn’t resist. Everything else in India is bright and bold or a rich rust and brown. This rug is now in daily use at the foot of my bed.
Our last stop was a wildlife preserve.
Evening with Camels
Osian Camel Safari
The evening camp excursion is a popular one in many desert tourist destinations around the world. I went on one in Dubai as well. It includes a performance with traditional dancers and musicians, drinks, a meal and a camel ride. For me this falls into the category of “not necessary, but better than staying at the hotel.” I preferred the one in Dubai because it included henna. This one felt a tad lackluster because there were few people there. If any of my fellow travelers comment below, I’ll include their thoughts.
I think they’d prefer to be at home
Youngest camel driver
Pick a camel, any camel!
Jodhpur Fort / Mehrangarh Fort
Because this fort is one of the only non-government kept forts, it has a few unique feature. What makes this fort different:
Extensive museum collection
Best gift shop BY FAR
Some unique aspects like the widow’s wall
This fort was built-in 1460 and towers above the blue city. Still privately owned by the royal family, this fort has been used in many movies and requires constant fundraising. The fort and its 7 gates were built for battle. As you walk through the imposing main entrance – the Iron Gate – you will see metal handprints sunk into the wall. They represent the royal wives who committed suicide on their husband’s funeral pyre, a tradition known as sati. Morbid and heartbreaking, it is good to know that the British outlawed the practice in 1867 and the last recorded sati in Jodhpur was 1953. Unfortunately, the Indian government did not pass a Sati Prevention Act until 1987.
View from fort
Demonstrating opium Tea
Walk up to palace
The Blue City
I had a blast in the museum gift shop. Reasonable prices were fixed and clearly marked. They had a large selection of hand-printed “old” documents. The quotations are because I’m not sure how old or authentic the paper was, but the paintings are exquisite. I bought adorable cards with hand painted auto rickshaws and parchment bookmarks with painted elephants and horses for 100Rs each ($1.50). There were books, purses, jewelry and more. All proceeds go to keeping the fort maintained.
The Hermit’s Curse
I absolutely love a good story, and curse-stories are some of the best. When Rao Jodha, the chief of the Rathore Clan, needed to establish his dominance after traveling 15 years in the desert, he knew he had to build a fort. The current location was the most strategically advantageous, but a local hermit was furious that he would be displaced. He cursed the king and the fort, saying that it would never have water. Rao Jodha believe the hermit had the power but could not stop his plans. So he built a temple near the hermit’s prayer spot. But at the time, it also seemed necessary for a human sacrifice. A local man Rajiya Bambi offered himself to be entombed in the wall – alive. In return the royal family promised to take care of his descendants. To this day, the family lives on the property bestowed by Rao Jodha. To the right is his headstone along the fort’s wall.
This mausoleum built in 1899 is covered with intricate carvings. It gleams white in the sun and is surrounded by impeccable landscaping. I could have sat there for hours if we didn’t need to get my aunt, sister and BIL to the airport. There is an extra charge for cameras so we opted not to bring. This photo doesn’t do it justice.
Umaid Bhawan Palace
This palace, completed in 1943, was the last palace built-in India. It was constructed to employ thousands of people during a famine. Owned by a royal family, it is one of the largest private residences in the world. You can visit a relatively small but interesting museum that focuses on the 20th century, but the majority of the palace is run by the Taj Hotel. There’s a significant fee to go into the hotel if you are not a guest. The museum includes models of the hotel and photos of the portions you can’t walk through, as well as many gifts given to the family throughout their reign including rare jewelry boxes, pottery, clocks, art deco paintings and more. I liked it particularly because you get to see the recent past, including photos and paintings of the family in recent years.
The Jodhpur Jinx
This is a story straight out of a movie. I would love it, if it didn’t actually involve real life tragedy. As it was told to me, the hermit who cursed the fort also cursed the Maharaja’s family, but online it seems that most think it is a simply an unfortunate jinx. The jinx: a Maharaja will never live to see his grandson. Shockingly this has proven true for 5 generations. The jinx began in 1895 when Rao Jaswant Sing II died while his eldest son was only a child. That son died at 21 and his heir at 20. Maharaja Umaid Singh lived to see his granddaughters, but his son died in a tragic plane crash at the age of 29. The jinx almost continued when young Shivraj Sing nearly died in a polo accident. However, he was able to partially recover and his family welcomed a son this November (2015)! The last Maharaja of Jodhpur Gaj Singh met his grandson, breaking the jinx. At least it has a happy ending!
Lunch – On the rock
National Highway 65, Ajit Colony
The guide brought us to a relaxing lunch at a mid-priced restaurant called On the Rocks. The ambiance is its strong point as you’re nestled away under a large tree in an enclosed patio. The menu includes Indian, Italian and Chinese a la carte. The price adds up, but the quality is good.
Dinner – Indique
Hotel Pal Haveli | Near Clock Tower, Gulab Sagar
Indique is the open air terrace restaurant at the Pal Haveli Hotel, the converted former residence of a wealthy local family. There’s a beautiful view of the lit -up city and clock tower. I don’t have many pictures because we arrived when it was dark (I stole this one sorry!). This was possibly the first and only time my family got to experience auto-rickshaws – and so glad they did! Warning: you have to walk up a few flights of steep stairs. The ambiance was charming and romantic, though I do suggest you bring a jacket just in case. We had thalis with a choice of veg or non-veg. It was delicious! Every dish was fantastic. I knew immediately that this would be a food highlight of the trip.
Lunch – Winds
Near Ncc Bhawan, Jodhpur, India
A nice local restaurant under tent on a lawn, tucked away from the street. They’re clearly used to foreigners. Trip Advisor reviews say the locals recommend it. We only found it because out guide knew of it.
Park Plaza Jodhpur
This mid-level price hotel was a perfect choice. The rooms were large and clean. We were given one suite with a large seating area. The breakfast in the morning was a large spread with manned egg station. And we had dinner there one night as well, which was also delicious. There’s even a roof-top bar that is trying very hard but doesn’t quite hit the mark with ambiance and drink prices. In general, this is a very safe choice for foreigners. If you’re back-packing through India, this is not where you’d stay. If you’re traveling with parents, this is perfect.
Exports – Maharaja Art & Craft
13th Mile Stine, Near Nissan Show Room, Pali Road, Jodhpur
email@example.com | +91 – 98280 – 82100
This was sold to us as an “export house,” which we thought would mean name-brand items. But what they meant was they ship out the traditional Indian crafts and textiles to American corporations like Pottery Barn and some bed covers to European designers. As before, the man laid out his many options, including pashmina shawls. He had the air of honesty, and truthfully, he had the best prices so far. He wouldn’t go too low, because it wasn’t in his interest – he was a wholesaler primarily. We bought shawls for gifts, including a thank you pashmina for all my mom’s help with the wedding. If you wanted to do all your textile and handicraft shopping in one go, I’d suggest this place. But don’t expect a Louis Vuitton outlet.
Jaipur holds a special place close to my heart (Coincidence, it’s called the Pink City?). I’ve been to India three times. Each time I’ve gone to Jaipur, and each time I’ve appreciated it more. First, this is the city closest to Udayan, the home for street children where I spent 5 weeks in 2006. I flew to India by myself as a 19 year old girl to experience a different culture and help other people. But let’s be blunt — While I taught English, Drama and Painting, it was really I who learned a life’s worth of lessons. I gave them the love that I could, and I hope it helped. But the perspective and resilience I witnessed on the trip changed me for life. I plead to whoever wants to volunteer in another country – stay for a significant amount of time for a greater chance at making an impact, as well as experiencing more immersion.
But back on topic!
Founded in 1727, Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan. It is called the Pink City, because the entire city was painted pink, the color of hospitality, for a visit by the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. The population has maintained the practice ever since, which may be one of the contributing factors to making the city one of the most visited by foreign tourists. In some ways it has resisted modernization and therefore is a bit more charming than New Delhi. But with close to 7 million people, it’s still on the crowded side.
On Day 4 we arrived in the evening. One of our goals on the trip was to get some clothes tailored. This was under the guise of having Indian clothes to wear at future events, but let’s be honest – they’d essentially be souvenirs. And why not! I highly recommend you engage a tailor for a salwar or even a man’s button up shirt. Just make sure they have enough time to make it and deliver it to your hotel (24 hours preferred). If you want a sari, I suggest using the time for this, because unless you want a stretchy, one-size-fits-all blouse, you’ll need it sewn (blouse material is included in price of sari). Warning: They will take every bolt of cloth off the shelves to lay out in front of you. You will feel awkward and guilty as you know someone will have to fold it all again. But there’s little you can do. It’s how they like to do it. Just be clear with what you want. And try not to get frustrated when you say “blue” and they show you red, green, and black. It’s not a language barrier thing, it’s their theory that they’ll magically inspire you to want all of them.
Having eaten Indian food for several days, that night we took a break with an Italian restaurant. To our confusion, despite looking like an Olive Garden type chain, they were out of half the things on the menu. I’ll never take endless pasta for granted again!
Hotel Mansingh | Sansar Chandra Road | MI Road, Jaipur 302001, India
A large step up from the Hotel Mansingh in Agra, this hotel was clean and spacious with greater sense of grandeur. The quality of breakfast was measurably better and included a manned egg station.
After all my worrying about my family getting sick, it was I who ended up needing to check in with a doctor. I’d experienced stomach issues on a previous trip; a case in which the prescription diarrhea pill did the trick. However, a trip to the bathroom the morning of our only full day in Jaipur seemed a tad different. Asking the front desk for the best local urgent care facility or doctor, they offered to call a concierge doctor. About 30 minutes later, a well dressed, middle-aged woman arrived with a leather briefcase. Up in our room I described my symptoms. Accustomed to travelers like me, she didn’t seem the least bit alarmed. Out of her magical leather briefcase, she produced dozens and dozens of different colored pills. I had to start writing the dosages and timings down and pleaded with my husband (who has a much better memory) to try to catch it all. There were medications to every symptom and then medications to deal with the side effects of the medications. She drew up the bill and I think her visit plus the medications came out to about $22. I don’t even want to think about how much red tape and cash I’d have to go through to get the equivalent service and medications in America. I popped some pills and grabbed an auto rickshaw to meet up with my family. India may have been the source of my ailments, but she also made the solution just as quick. We’ll get into the consequences of over medication, particularly antibiotics, another day…
An encapsulation of Jaipur’s history, this amber sandstone and marble fort is built above its water source, the Maota Lake. More palace than fort, this site had a huge impact on me on my first trip. It was unfortunate that I missed it, but at least my family got to go. As many guide books will mention, you can choose an elephant ride or jeep ride up the long stone path to the gates. Inside, the opulent rooms will bring palace life alive in your imagination. Like most forts, it also has a public and private audience hall, plus a mirrored room. A personal favorite is the peacock mosaic artwork. Watch out for the number of hawkers that will be there since it’s such a hot tourist spot. You may need a guide to appreciate all of the history, but make sure you can understand them before you hire them! Also, some say this could take a day. I think 2-3 hour works.
I’ll talk about it because I should. But I’ll be honest, I’m not a science/math girl, so I’ve never been particularly intrigued despite how advanced this yard full of astronomical instruments was at the time it was built. Plus, I was so miserable from the heat and my stomach issue, that I could only stand for 5 minutes before my poor husband took me back to the air conditioning in the waiting tour van. This Rajput-built UNESCO World Heritage site is the home of the world’s largest sun dial. The stone monuments allow the viewer to see astronomical movements with the naked eye. It’s impressive… don’t listen to me…you should go see it.
This is another impressive, famous site; but when you’re starving, and you’ve already seen a gorgeous, massive palace/fort that morning, it’s not a sin to pass up. Since the majority of the palace is still a royal residence, you may only walk around a museum set up within several of the rooms. You should do it if you trip to India is short. Why not? It’s literally across the street from Jantar Mantar. But with 5 more cities to go, we were hungry and we were feeling cheap – so we passed this time around.
Mandir = Temple
Birla = The wealthy family who has been building temples throughout India for the past 80 years.
We hit up this temple on our way out of town. We had hoped to visit Pushkar that day, but the guide alerted us to the fact that it was a religious holiday, and therefore would be so crowded that it would ruin the entire experience (the city is a main pilgrimage site). Instead, we decided to spend some time here and arrive in Jodhpur a bit early.
They asked my husband to leave…
This gleaming white temple is modern and active. In Hindu fashion, you will see carvings of the world’s great religious teachers and figure, not just Hinduism’s. You’ll leave your shoes with an attendant and walk on the cold white marble in your bare feet. If you want to donate a bit, you can walk around the idol clockwise. The carvings on the wall depict popular Hindu stories. A moment that sticks out from this stop was when some young Indian men told my husband to take a hike so they could have a photos with us all. At this point, we were used to the celebrity status, but I had decided that if they want a photo of me, my husband was going to be in it too.
Since we’d be in the van for hours, I suggested we check out the local temple nearby dedicated to a different deity. Locals take off their shoes walk in through one of the lines, receive a blessing and leave. Some buy sweets to have offered in the temple.
Seeking another break from the norm and a fun exercise in globalisation, we ate at McDonald’s. With Hinduism’s worship of cows prevalent in the culture, there is no beef burger served. Beef is so rare in India, that I suggest never eating it because you don’t know where it came from or how long it’s been there. I had some bland Mcnuggets for my stomach, but the McSpicy Paneer was a big hit in my group. If you look around, you’ll see that McDonald’s is a regular restaurant for middle class families without the negative connotations that Americans put on fast food these days.
A short anecdote. My dad needed a camera battery. If you know my dad, a camera on a trip is not just an accessory, it’s an extension of his arm. We tried to think of all sorts of things to solve the problem, including using Amazon to ship something in country to a future destination. But the answer was right in front of us – our guide, Sanjay. Between sightseeing and shopping stops, he pulls the 9 passenger van into what some might call an alley. To the left and right were closet-sized shops overflowing with gadgets and tech-type things. Apparently, this was the neighborhood to get all things camera. Sanjay, my dad and the guys left the van to look. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the details, but in entailed every shop owner swearing they had the battery. One finally produced the goods.
In the meantime, the ladies are in the van watching the scenery. The driver stood guard by our van. Across the street there was a woman selling oil from a vat. Behind a colorful door was a mother and her children. She would occasionally come out to wash dishes in a bowl of water, spilling the dirty water onto the street. Monkeys darted in and out of the scene as easily and unremarkably as would cats. We bolted from our seats when we saw an elephant lumbering down the extremely narrow street. He just meanders past us. All of us just laughed at the absurdity if it all. My dad was haggling in camera alley as monkey and elephants meandered by. Welcome to India.
Jewelry Stop – Shopping!
If you are on a tour, you will be brought to a jewelry store to be “taught” about Jaipur’s famous industry. The lesson consists of showing how semi-precious stones are ground down and polish. Then the real fun begins in their showroom… As long as you know going in that you’ll be plied with drinks and salesmen will follow you around, it won’t be so horrible. We found the prices to be fairly comparable to the U.S., but if you’re looking for something with significance, at least you can tell people where you got it.
I’ll wrap it up with restating my undying love for Jaipur, and these amusing photos of a whole family on one motorcycle and a turban shop.
You’ve survived the crowds to see one of the wonders of the world (the Taj in Agra), now it’s time to rest your weary feet at a desert Oasis. For us, that oasis was The Pugmark adjacent to Ranthambore National Park. But don’t get too comfy, because you’re there for only one reason – to see the tigers!
I asked my MIL what two words she would use to describe the Hotel and National Park. She said:
“Peaceful. Peaceful even though a tiger was within reaching distance.” – My MIL
The NAtional PArk
First deemed a game reserve in 1955, then the home of Project Tiger in 1973, the area became a national park in 1980. The park may be known for its tigers, (they currently claim a population of 62), but they also have a wide variety of other wildlife including: leopard, nilgai, wild boar, sambar, hyena, sloth bear, southern plains gray langur, rhesus macaque and chital. If you visit, remember that every trek is different depending on the weather, the season or simply whether or not the animals feel like getting up in the morning.
Our Safari experience
Before we even arrived, two open air jeeps were arranged to drive us around. (Though I believe the hotel can also help you with this once you’re there). The morning of, we woke up at 6am for an early sunrise drive. I forget if this was because it was the best for cooler weather or because it was when the tigers are most active. Either way, we happily hopped in and drove about 5 minutes to the entrance of the reserve. As we drove fast, slow, then fast again, our guide used a walkie talkie to discuss with other park rangers/guides if a tiger had been spotted. Once word that one of the majestic cats had been seen, it was a mad rush to get there and jockey for a good line-of-sight among the 15 other jeeps and trucks brimming with tourists. This ride felt more like the Indiana Jones ride at Disney than anything I have ever experienced. At the time, I didn’t admit to my family that this was actually my favorite part, not the tigers.
After sitting around a lake and I embarrassingly mistook a bunch of leaves across the way for a tiger, we bounded off to another location and spotted one. She seemed to be lazily sitting enjoying the day. But after a moment, we all realized there was a deer-like animal grazing nearby. Over the next hour or two, we watched her stalk her prey by taking a few steps forward then sitting again… two steps forward then sitting again…. all downwind of the deer. Shockingly, the deer did not see her… that’s how slow she was moving! The guide said that this works for the tiger about 1 out of 10 times, but that it is OK. That ratio is built into their diet. Oddly enough, both animals seemed so used to the jeeps (and the jeeps remained far enough away) that we didn’t seem to factor into their process.
At some point another deer saw the tiger and alerted their friend. The deer bound off into the grass and our tiger decided to stroll elsewhere. We thought the trip was over, but the jeeps sprung into action and found their way to a road that crossed her anticipated path. We saw her take a little bath, spray some trees (you think a house cat can spray? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) and mosey through the line of jeeps. We were a few feet away! She strutted her stuff and could not care less that we existed. This was both fascinating and disconcerting. The environmentalist in me was nagging at me, and I hoped to goodness that the safaris contribute money and interest in preserving their habitat. I hope that the safaris are the lesser of two evils; the other evil being poachers and selfish land development. For every human that wants to create an untouched reserve, there is a human willing to exploit it.
What to wear: I would be a horrible travel blogger if I didn’t warn you on what to wear. If you go out before sunrise it will be very cold, though it will heat up quickly. Also, it’s extremely dusty – everything you wear will have a thin layer of dust on it when you return. I also suggest bringing a scarf to cover your mouth if you think the dust will bother you. Lastly, make sure your hair is pulled back; you’re driving fast, and it’ll get in your face.
We were back at the hotel by 9 or 10 am for a very thorough breakfast buffet. It was my favorite breakfast buffet of the trip, because instead of doing a half-hearted attempt at American food, they embraced Indian food while having toast and hard boiled eggs for variety. Poha is a great cross-over Indian dish for breakfast – hearty but not “strange”.
This all brings me back to the hotel…
Hotel: The Pugmark
Village Khilchipur | Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur 322001, India
Our little oasis. Clean, spacious rooms open up onto a center strip of trees, flowers and adorable sitting areas. We didn’t have enough time, but there was a beautiful blue pool. The staff was polite and efficient. Meals were served buffet style in a large room. Alcoholic drinks were offered, but with a glass of wine clocking in at $13, we stuck with the 650ml Kingfisher for 400Rs ($6.50) split among 2-4 people. Honestly, we were sad that we couldn’t spend another day there just to relax.
We left by noon to reach our next destination – Jaipur- a city very close to my heart.
Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal. For most people, that’s all they need to know for them to visit. But don’t be fooled; there’s much more… both good and bad. So while I’ll talk about the stunning World Heritage sites Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the lesser known Fatehpur Sikri; I do have some controversial thoughts that will help you prepare and take advantage.
Here’s the part no-one tells you: Agra is dirty. Not just a layer-of-dust dirty; it’s trash-everywhere-you-step dirty. While some Indian cities have had street cleaning initiatives in recent years, there seems to be a culture of lax littering and shrugging off pollution in Agra. The slums and squatter population totals an extraordinary 50% of the city’s population with
850,000 people. The poverty that visitors see when driving into the city may be very… eye-opening, but it’s as much a part of India (right now, hopefully not forever) as Taj’s grandeur. Everyone just needs to remember that each Indian city is as unique as New York or Minneapolis or San Diego. It’s why I suggest seeing Jaipur, Udaipur or Jodhpur in addition to Agra and New Delhi – to see the calmer/cleaner side of Northern India.
Below: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Lodging & a fun tale
Now that you’ve had a warning, it’s time to get you excited. Welcome to the epitome of India’s juxtapositions, Agra’s poverty against one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal, a tomb built by an Emperor’s love, is breathtaking and perfect. The precision of its construction makes you think you’re looking at a postcard. When you take off your shoes (which you’re required to do), and put your bare feet on marble, the pristine picture becomes all too real.
Let me rewind. You will need to buy a Foreigner ticket for 750 rupees (in 2015). Indians pay 20 rupees. But as you’ll see, the Foreigner ticket helps you cut an epic line. (Indians willing to pay the 750 can also cut the line). The ticket includes a bottle of water and “footies” – fabric booties that you need to cover your shoes to step on the gorgeous white marble. Make sure you step into the correct line when walking through the ticket line – there is one for men and one for women. They’re tight and uncomfortable, but push through and it will open up into a courtyard. The gateway itself is impressive, but as you look through the archway to the Taj, it will be a moment you’ll never forget.
view from the Taj Mahal
The obligatory Taj Mahal pic
The exterior courtyard
When you’re up there, don’t forget to look across the river to where the Mughal King had planned on building an identical tomb in black for himself… too bad his own son imprisoned him and took his “throne.” Take your time and enjoy the views! Note: this site won’t take up the whole day.
While this fort is impressive from the outside (my family loved the Indiana Jones-style rolling stone defense gate), my interest was captured by the complex family palace. Akbar the Great was known for his relatively peaceful reign of religious tolerance in which Hindus, Christians, Muslims and more all got along. I’m not sure which came first – if his rule was a result of, or inspired by, his marriages, but Akbar married three women – one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian (from the Portuguese influenced Southern India). Of course, he had an impressive harem as well, but it was expected at the time and often had political significance. His palace reflects these separate spaces for each of his wives.
Indian Jones Boulder Trap
Fun side facts:
The kitchen was for the Hindu wife who enjoyed cooking and could only eat vegetarian.
The white marble bedrooms belonged to Shah Jahan’s daughters. When his son imprisoned him, it was in this fort that one of his daughters cared for him until his death. He was held there so that he could look out at the Taj Mahal, his wife’s tomb.
The green courtyard was once used as a bazaar staffed only by women, so that his wives and concubines could shop without being seen by men.
This may look like another fort, but it’s more accurate to think of it as a city. 2mi x 1mi, it is surrounded by 5 miles of fortified wall. Inside you will find several different segments to visit: a palace, a mosque and the tomb of a Sufi saint. We came up through the “back door” to avoid the crowds and peddlers. We saw where the crumbled walls showed the stalls that were used by the locals to sell their wares when the city was the empire’s capital. The walk was markedly peaceful.
The multiple buildings within palace were incredibly intriguing to me. You had the public and private viewing hall. You had Emperor Akbar’s winter and summer bedrooms. Plus, there’s an ornately carved mini-palace for each of Akbar’s brides. If you look closely, you can see that each is carved in the style of the bride’s culture/religion – Hindu/Gujarati, Muslim and Christian. You’ll see a platform in the center of a pool, used for singing competitions. Next time someone makes fun of American Idol – you can let them know it’s merely following a human tradition historically enjoyed by Emporers.
Center of audience chamber
That’s just part one. The second is a pilgrimage site made up of a mosque and Sufi tomb. You must leave your shoes outside. I can’t guarantee it, but your shoes will probably be there when you get out – ours were. The Tomb is in a white structure in the center of a large stone courtyard. You can take a look and take pictures from the outside; but if you want to participate, it will cost you. It costs about 750 rupees/$12 per person or couple to enter. You’re given a plastic hat to cover your head. You walk around the “casket” in a dark room. You lay out a fabric you were given on top as an offering. Then you tie a red threat with three knots on a carved metal grate, making a wish. As you leave, you’re hit on the head with some peacock feathers. Voila, you’re blessed. The price seems a tad steep, but you will be participating in a ritual that thousands of local Indians do. This stop broke up a long day of travel to Ranthambore.
The tale of the local guide
This is a tale of how we were conned… and how everything turned out OK anyway.
Thomas Cook had arranged a local guide to show us through Fatehpur Sikri. He was knowledgable and knew a back entrance that kept us away from the relentless peddlers at the main gate. He walked us through the process at the tomb. All was good, until he told us we should meet his brother… his “brother” was hunkered down in a corner behind a wall with some of his friends. The guide explained that the carved stones were his family’s trade. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that I now have 0% faith that those men were relatives at all.
A few of our members stepped back to watch, but my parents and I couldn’t turn away from the figurines – it was our first time to really shop. The prices seemed astronomical until my Mother-in-Law stepped in. Soon it was my MIL making package deals. We were generally satisfied as we walked away.
After a short bus ride to the parking lot where we’d meet our van, we were led to a group of buildings. The local guide politely asked my MIL in Hindi if we would mind stopping by the government store. His tour guide company required him to bring the groups here. That’s when it clicked… the stop by his “brother’s” business was off-script. It took about 30 seconds in the government shop, where the prices are fixed, for my MIL to see that a few of the items we purchased were overpriced even after negotiating. I bought two magnets before we were hustled out the door by a furious MIL. We all shuffled back to the van without her. After about 5 minutes, my MIL stormed back on the bus with a very contrite looking guide. We dropped him at the exit and were on our way. That’s when my MIL explained: The guide begged her to not tell his supervisors. But my MIL wasn’t hearing it. She hated the idea that she had paid more than she needed to. It wasn’t the game that he was playing that irked her, it was the fact that she paid more for the figurines than she could have gotten at the store. We don’t know what she said exactly, but she got him to turn over 2000 rupees to pay her back for the difference. Don’t mess with my MIL!
Lodging – Mansigh Palace
I’m usually very easy going when it comes to hotels. I don’t want to be a princess about anything, especially since we were staying in hotels as opposed to hostels. However, I found that the service here rubbed me the wrong way. The hotel restaurant had an extremely odd menu that attempted to cater to international tastes and had poor selection Indian food. A large amount of the international food involved raw vegetables, which you’d think they would know most visitors have been advised not to eat. We really wanted some samosas – just a snack to hold us over, but the menu only said they were available as a “Late Night Bite”. After much negotiating, we got some snacks out, but nothing to write home about. Breakfast was lackluster as well – just soggy, sorry excuses for continental cuisine. Overall, the manager’s attitude was unwelcoming.
The only interesting twist to the hotel was the backyard pool with peacock topiary. There is no way I’d even dip a toe in the dirty water, but at lease it was fun to take picture on the stepping stones.
I love the smell of air pollution in the morning! I kid, I kid…
November is the best weather of the year, but without significant winds, the pollution lingers heavy over the city. When I mentioned how surprised I was that the air was SO polluted, an Indian American friend of mine said, “Of course, it’s insane. Everything in New Delhi is insane.”
Sprawling and crowded, both modern and historic, Delhi is the seat of India’s government, an international hub, and arguably its most famous city. Old Dehli was founded in 1639 and was the center of the Mughal Dynasty until its collapse, which is why we have incredible forts and monuments to look at hundreds of years later. New Dehli was built from 1911 – 1931 by George V, Emperor of India. A good visit includes sites in both.
Here are some of the highlights of our day in New Delhi, in case it can help you plan your travels. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me at samosasandsunshine[at]gmail.com
HOTEL: The lalit Hotel
Barakhamba Avenue, Connaught Place, Near Modern School, New Delhi, Delhi 110001, India
Clean and modern. A perfect choice for an international traveler who isn’t looking to “rough it.” The breakfast buffet was mediocre by my measure, but did include international food. For my family’s first trip, I think it was a good transition for them. The formal doorman is always a nice touch.
My favorite part of this World Heritage Site is imagining what it must have been like day-to-day. The fort includes the public audience hall where the local farmer brought his grievances to the emperor. The wives and concubines would watch the proceedings through grills carved into the the marble and sandstone because they weren’t allowed to be seen by the general public. There is an entire carved building just for dancers to perform for the royal family. There are the Emperor and his wives private quarters, including what must have been a very luxurious bathroom. Just take a moment to let the other visitors disappear and see the fort in its heyday. These pictures don’t do the sprawling fort justice. If you’re a fan of WWI history, there is also a military museum dedicated to the period in the entrance archway that once housed the musicians that played the emperors entrance music.
Open: Tue-Sun; Mondays closed Timings: Sunrise to Sunset Entry Fee: 10 (Indians), 250 (foreigners) Photography: Nil (25 for video filming) Sound & Light Shows: 6pm onwards in English and Hindi Ticket: 80 (adults), 30 (children)
A Royal bath
Mathura Road, Nizamuddin, New Delhi, Delhi 110013, India
Look a tad familiar? Humayun’s tomb is the predecessor to the Taj Mahal. Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor earned his place in Delhi. After his army was driven out to India to Persia, he made his triumphant return in 1555, only to die falling down a flight of stairs shortly after. It definitely leaves an stunning first impression. There is a steep set of stairs to enter the tomb. It is not handicap accessible.
Location: Opp. Dargah Nizamuddin, Mathura Road Metro Station: JLN Stadium Open: Daily Timings: Sunrise to sunset Entry Fee: 10 (Indians), 250 (foreigners) Photography Charges: None (`25 for video filming)
Parliament & India Gate
Big, impressive and covered in monkeys. They can’t fit their parliament into one building, so they have three. I’m not sure if a tour is possible, but the traffic was nonexistent on the weekend, so we were able to pull up in front, get out and take pictures. The India Gate is a straight shot from the parliament building through a long park, very similar to
View from parliament to India Gate
On the job
LUNCH: The imperial
Janpath Lane, Connaught Place, New Delhi, 110001
Have you ever wanted to live at Downton Abbey? Have you ever wanted to live in Downton Abbey and then take a trip to India? The Imperial Hotel makes you feel like you’re walking into a novel or Masterpiece’s Indian Summers. We had the impeccably presented lunch buffet. If you ask the concierge, you may get a tour of the other restaurants and bars in the hotel – each have their own story and history.
After a quick walk through of the small museum earlier in the day, we came back for the light show (after dark, about $30-40 pp). About 80 folding chairs are set up facing one of the only crumbling, yet standing walls left of the Old Fort. For about 30 minutes brilliant colors and loud music guides through the history of the six Mughal emperors that ruled Delhi. If I was quizzed, I’d say I remember Babur, Human, Akbar and Sha-Jahan…4 out of 6 ain’t bad! I’d say the content was a bit dense and the program overall a bit long, but it was certainly a unique experience. However, if you’re a history buff and can’t make it, you will hear their stories many times in your travels across the North. The Mughal emperors’ lives rival soap operas, with wars, romance, family betrayal and more. For example, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal was arrested and locked away before he could build the black mausoleum that would have mirrored the Taj and been his own resting place. Or there’s Akbar who had one Hindu wife, one Muslim wife, one Christian wife, and 50 concubines. While there may have been drama in his personal life, his open and accepting love life reflected his political beliefs, and the region enjoyed tolerance, peace and prosperity.
Location: Near Delhi Zoo, Mathura Road Nearest Metro Station: Pragati Maidan Open: All days Entry Fee: 5 (Indians), 100 (foreigners) Days Closed: None Photography Charges: Free (still camera); 25 (video camera)
Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg, Chankyapuri, New Delhi – 110021
I saved the best for last! Bukhara – a “frontier”, rustic themed restaurant with the best grilled meat (tandoori) I’ve ever had. I’ll admit I didn’t have the average experience. Our dinner was a wedding reception of around 35 people, so our menu was set. Dish after dish of meat kept rolling out: prawns, lamb, chicken, fish… It was all dowsed in Indian spices, predominately a coriander mixture – my favorite! They serve exclusively North Indian cuisine, but that seems to let them perfect the food they feature. The online reviews are over the top and for good reason. You can view the chefs as they cook from behind a class wall (probably to keep the smell of the grill from overwhelming). This is not a cheap date… but if you’re OK with the price, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. Trip Advisor has some pictures of the menu, if you’re curious about the price. Note: The restaurant is located inside a hotel.
Contact: Bukhara, ITC Maurya, A Luxury Collection Hotel
I wrote these tips while we were in the trenches (a.k.a. on the trip), so this advice is pure. These are the things we couldn’t do without. Note: this is specific to a family trip (I had my parents, an aunt, a MIL, a family friend, a sister and Brother-in-law). If you want to backpack and rough it in your early 20s, I’ll write a different post about that (cause I did it in 2006 & 2007).
1. An Open Mind
Ya, it’s cheesy, but you won’t know what this means until you get there. India is the ultimate juxtaposition of the extremes of humanity. Wealth and poverty. Beauty and trash. Ancient and modern. Fast and slow. Frenetic and calm. Lush and dry… I could go on and on. So be ready to get dirty and be ready to get uncomfortable (just wait until I get to the story of our flat tire at midnight in the middle of nowhere), but also be ready to know that you’re in the middle of a perspective-changing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll be out of your element – rejoice in it.
2. The Usual
Follow all the general advice you see online: don’t drink anything but bottled water, don’t eat raw vegetables, bring lots of wet wipes and toilet paper, leave your jewelry… Go to a travel clinic and get your malaria and diarrhea medication. Mentally prepare for possibly using a hole in the ground as a toilet (learn how to squat!).
3. A tour guide/driver you trust
We used Thomas Cook to book the first week of our tour. I have to say that we really lucked out with the tour guide they booked. The guide/driver should be experienced, especially if you have no native Indians in your group. We had two hired people with us – an experienced driver who knew English, and an assistant, whose sole job it was to guard the van (and often us) at all times. Later in the trip with a different driver and no assistant, we caught him out of sight of the van and the doors unlocked… when you’re in a foreign country, you can lose trust fast. Peace of mind is priceless.
So, if you can, try to book our guide, Sanjay!
Sanjay Yadav – L.A.K. Tourist Taxi Service
Based in New Delhi, Sanjay is originally from the Jaipur area and very knowledgable of the city. One particular thing we appreciated was that while we were brought to conventional “tourist trap” type stores, he would step inside first and ask them to tone it down. The result was english-speaking store owners who treated us relatively fairly. He would warn us where and when to buy things so that we weren’t ripped off (too much… you can’t change that they know you’re foreigners). Also, he was extremely flexible – if we wanted to change the plan, he would know a different location or restaurant to fit the new plan. For example, we had planned on a trip to Pushkar, but he knew that the weekend we were traveling was a significant religious festival. If we had gone, the crowds would have been bordering on dangerous. We adjusted accordingly.
4. A MIL
ok… so this isn’t always possible. But my amazing MIL was our life-saver. She spoke up when she thought we were being treated unfairly (just wait until my story at Fatepur Sikri). She haggled, grouping our purchases together and demanding a group discount. When we ended the trip, noone could express the magnitude of their gratitude for her guidance and positive spirit.
But in more manageable terms – someone knowing even the most basic of Hindi will be an asset.
5. A Working ATM card
Let your bank know you’re traveling! You’ll be making many cash withdrawals. And never get too low, there’s no guarantee any particular ATM will accept your card to withdraw money. I however had no issue with stores.
6. A Neck Pillow
No joke. With jet lag, you’ll be sleeping in the tour van. You’ll need the sleep and down time, so upgrade to the memory foam!
7. Antibacterial Gel
Besides the fact that the chance a bathroom will have soap is iffy, you’ll need to disinfect your hands often if you plan to eat like the locals do: with your hands. Though you are given many passes as a tourist, there’s one custom I suggest you follow: Don’t eat with your left hand. It’s an unspoken “truth” that you use your left hand to wipe, so only your right hand is appropriate for eating.
8. A Bargaining Backbone
Bargaining/haggling is expected. It will feel very uncomfortable at first, but practice makes perfect. It is more important to know how much something is worth to you, than it is to know what it actually costs. Even after haggling and threatening to walk away, you still may end up paying more than a local would pay. Don’t beat yourself up – as long as you feel comfortable paying it, go for it. But also, don’t be afraid to say no. They’ll be pushier than you can imagine and follow you around the store. Don’t make eye contact with street vendors or children selling trinkets – they’ll become relentless if you even acknowledge them. A good trick in a larger group is to bargain for the whole group at once. See if you can get a discount for larger volume. If they’re not bringing the price down, grab something and ask for it to be thrown in for free. It’s worked for me!
Got these down? Great, let’s get started with where you’re going. First stop, New Delhi…
This past trip has me wondering if my life calling isn’t in media, but in travel tours. You looking to travel to India? Let me know! I’m about to start my own boutique agency from my couch. Seriously… firstname.lastname@example.org
India is a massive country the spans diverse terrains, cultures, religions, languages… I could go on and on. So it’s daunting when you first try to plan a trip. Where do you begin?
Most start with the Golden Triangle – the relatively close cities of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. You get to see a major city, the Taj Mahal and a range of forts/palaces. To expand on that there are a few extra cities/locations you can tack on that are in driving distance: Udaipur, Jodhpur, Ranthambore National Park, or Pushkar. I’ve done this route three times… starting to feel really comfortable with it.
Part 2 for us, and a second trip for most, is South India – Mumbai, Goa, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kerala, etc. This climate is much more tropical and the food distinct from the North (I love a good dosa!) You’ll need a flight or very long train ride to connect a trip North with a trip around the South.
side note: don’t worry about being a “tourist”. You are one; accept it. You will experience India even if you visit the major sites. India will get in your face no matter what… just throw in a few restaurants outside the hotel and get outside the tour van every once in a while to make sure. If I get my act together and really start planning for people, I would include a few trips to “normal” locations – someone’s house, the mall, a hospital – just to be able to compare and get the full picture of Indian life.
Our India itinerary
Day 1: Delhi
Day 2: Agra
200kms drive from Delhi to Agra; approx. 3 1/2 hrs
Day 3: Travel Agra – Ranthambore
250kms drive from Agra to Ranthambore; approx. 5 1/2 hrs
Fateh Pur Sikri (A fort and shrine on the outskirts of Agra)
Day 4: Ranthambore
Ranthambore Tiger Reserve
180kms drive from Ranthambore to Jaipur; approx. 4 1/2 hrs
Day 5: Jaipur
Day 6: Jaipur
Shree Laxmi Narayan Birla Temple
335kms from from Jaipur to Jodhpur; approx. 6 hr
You could stop at Pushkar along the way, but an annual festival made it too crowded for us to stop.
Day 7: Jodhpur
Osian Village Tour
Day 8: Jodphur
Umaid Bhawan Palace
Day 9: Mumbai
1 hr flight from Jodhpur to Mumbai
There are many great things to see in this city, but we had to focus on our wedding reception that evening.
Day 10: Bengaluru
Flight from Mumbai to Bengaluru
Start drive to Mysore stopping at a few malls to wait out traffic
180 kms; approx. 5/6 hr drive due to speed bumps along route
Day 11: Mysore
Sri Nandi Temple
Mysore Winter Palace (A reasonably priced hotel!)
Day 12: Hassan
120kms Mysore to Hassan; approx. 3 hours
Day 13: Chikmagalur
65mks Hassan to Chikmagalur (Serai Resort); approx 2 hrs
Coffee Resort & Spa
Tea Plantation about 60 kms away
Day 14: Bangalore
248kms Chikmagalure to Bangalore; approx 6 hours
St. Thomas Cathedral (very intriguing for a Christian to see South Indian interpretation of religion)
Vidhana Soudha (Government Building)
There is much more, but we spent the time with family
The drives may seem rough, but if you’re traveling with people you like and the kind of travelers who need a break every once in a while, the tour vans give you that break while keeping you on the move. You won’t even find yourself napping that much… there’s just too much to see out the window. (That’s why I recommend a van over a tourist bus… closer to the ground, less tinted windows, etc.) Indian traffic/driving is the 8th wonder of the world 😉
One post for each city with hotel, restaurant, site information and pictures are on the way!