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India Tour – February and March 2019
Arrival day in Delhi was Saturday 16th February where we were met by our Australian based Tour Operator Reena Tory and her local Indian business partner Anuj Rawat with senior guide Puneet Verma. We entered the coach which would be our travelling ‘home’ for the whole tour – a good choice for what we were to require over time – plenty of seats, air conditioning, drinks cooler, good driver (Raj) and his assistant (Yogesh).
On our arrival, Delhi was covered in a fog and it was dark so hard to see much of our surroundings.
Our starting hotel for 3 nights was the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi. Reception and check-in was made very easy and much welcoming took place. A garland of flowers presented at the airport was supplemented by another at the hotel and a welcome fruit juice cocktail while reception staff took care of all requirements.
Tony and Margaret Lovett had arrived earlier in the day so missed our first group photo opportunity but many more arose over the tour. Starting weather was cool overnight with the locals finding it quite cold.
With local guide “JK” on our first day of actual touring started with a visit to the site of Qutub Minar, a Tower site which celebrates Muslim dominance after the defeat of the Hindu ruler centuries ago. The site is quite sizeable and much of the original structure remains and includes stonework with impressive hand crafted designs. Then onto the Crafts Museum which was good for pieces in the Museum section but we probably under-did viewing the creative work going on at the rear of the premises. It had fine work of varying types. We also ate at the site which was really our first occasion of selecting something from a typical Indian menu – food quite okay but we found it hard to appreciate expected size of meal.
After Lunch we visited Humayun’s Tomb (a Mughal ruler) including the gardens and it is easy to see that the style of building and its features was used partly as a model for the Taj Mahal. We were able to compare this more closely as we travelled through to Agra. The grounds are large and very popular with the locals.
Day 3 saw us visit by rickshaw the large Mosque – Jama Majid with an excellent presentation by our guide ‘JK’ – we never established exactly what his initials stood for. We were also able to view certain “relics” of Muhammed and early scripting of the Quran. That was quite special. Next we were to go into the Old Delhi area and through the typical shops but as it turned out unions had encouraged all shopkeepers to close in respect for the soldiers killed in a clash with Pakistan terrorists the day or so before. The market was somewhat chaotic but not threatening towards us but with lots of people moving around – visitors and locals, on foot, bikes, cars and so on. With the normal shops and businesses open, it would have been an extremely bustling area. We were easily extricated by JK from there to go to lunch at a very nice restaurant – typical Indian food served and appreciated.
Next we moved onto a Sikh Temple – again with excellent briefing and a visit through the inner parts and grounds. Even Reena (who follows the Sikh faith) learned a few things from JK’s information. We followed with a visit to the Khan Market where some helped the local economy. The day had become quite disrupted but solutions could be found for all the deviations which arose – we also had time to drive through and past the British designed areas. Buffet dinner again at our hotel that evening in very comfortable surroundings. The hotel was hosting the Argentinian President so lots of security, well dressed staff and so on.
After our two days, leaving Delhi was a little easier than we might have contemplated given the normal traffic level. We made the drive to Agra quite comfortably with a stop for tea / coffee along the way. It was very much rural conditions along the way with farms / crops along a fair distance. We believe it was wheat being grown but possibly other crops as well. Lots of animals including cows, camels, dogs a vast difference to the clutter of Delhi.
Our arrival at Agra was accompanied by quite some fanfare with a Indian drummer, red carpet, forehead marking, flower garlands and rose petals being thrown over our members as we walked towards the hotel entrance. A grand welcome indeed. After lunch, we drove onto the Agra (Red) Fort with its high walls and interior structures of various ages and types. Agra had some time as the capital of India. The Agra fort was an early creation – however Shar Jahan and subsequent rulers also added parts to the fort with a section in white marble with grand designs. We could see the Taj Mahal from the fort’s higher levels although it was some distance away.
Next day was our visit to the Taj Mahal and it did not disappoint the group. We saw much of the outside but also had access to the mausoleum itself which added a lot to the knowledge and awareness of the quality of the overall workmanship. Fortunately our Guide Puneet was able to arrange a professional photographer to take a group photo and individuals to top up on what we were able to take ourselves. Immediately after the Taj Mahal, we went to a craftsman’s workshop and sale outlet where they continue to make the marble inlay products exhibited in the marble of the Taj Mahal. Later in the day we went to the Agra Bear Rescue facility for sloth bears released from performances – now outlawed through India after many centuries. It was an interesting encounter.
Then back into the city area to Sheroe’s café run by victims of acid attacks – a sadder reflection of a few incidents in India. We all purchased a drink and left a donation. There was a bit of excitement when we left as we needed to get across the road to enter our hotel and that was quite a challenge – traffic does not stop for anything. We did not lose anyone.
After concluding sightseeing in Agra, we were off to Ranthambhore National Park with a stop at the Fatehpur Sikri along the way, the site of a court established by Emperor Akbar but abandoned after only 7 years due to the lack of quality water supply. The drive was made more difficult for our driver Raj by roadworks. It took 7 hours to reach our destination so we finished our dinner quite late at Khem Villas Lodge within the park. Next morning, the group went on their first safari and were able to view a tiger and her cub in the wild with one of her “kills”. It was quite a scene and very close to the large number of jeep vehicles all watching. Later in the day, most returned to the park but this time into a different designated area. There were no tigers to be seen in the afternoon but a good deal of general wildlife – birds, monkeys, alligators, deer and antelope. Less exciting than the morning but still good.
It was quite cold on our last morning so it would have been very cold out on the open topped vehicles used for safaris if we had been scheduled to go on safari on that morning.
Next came Jaipur after an easier drive out from the national park. We had no sightseeing on this day – merely enjoyed the local scenery and landscape along the way. We could detect subtle differences compared to where we had journeyed through up to this point – the difference becoming more typical of Rajasthan State with Jaipur being the capital.
On arrival we were suitably impressed with the quality and presentation of our hotel (Samode Haveli) for 3 nights. It was converted from a Maharajah’s city residence to operate as a hotel. Its architecture is simply wonderful with very spacious rooms across many levels some even with courtyard access. Our bathroom was larger than some whole hotel room in Australia. Pre-dinner drinks were held on the rooftop overlooking the city with the sky full of kites and timed for sunset – so good we went back the next day also. It was quite an experience and fitting end to of our first day
Next day our city guide Rajesh took us to the Amber Fort perched atop high ground outside the city. Quite crowded to get to by jeep rather than by elephant but many were taking the elephant rides. The Fort had many interesting features to manage the generally hot climate and general sanitation standards of its era. The general area started to be built upon in 1135 and that was the name of the restaurant we were to dine at on our last evening in Jaipur.
We also visited through the Maharajah’s City Palace and the adjacent Observatory. The first was very good as it contained furnishings relevant to the times. There was much to learn about the history and individuals. We also briefly visited the Anokhi Museum and block printing workshop – it included some fine work.
On our second full day, some stayed around in the morning in our very comfortable hotel – others had an interest in gem and jewellery purchases (the shoppers!) as Jaipur is well known for its quality of such items. After lunch, we drove around the city more generally (a city tour effectively) and also then went through the local marketplace on foot with many vendors and types of goods – some we sampled. Also past the Palace of the Winds – one of the most commonly photographed sites appearing on many promotional brochures. Dinner on our last evening was at Restaurant 1135AD up at the top of the Amber Fort site. At our eating time, the restaurant had only one other couple dining so to some extent we became the “entertainment” for the evening. Two musicians entertained us – one playing drums and the other a Santoor – an interesting sound we had encountered before. Impromptu trying on Turbans featured on the night.
Our Tour Operator Reena Tory who had also escorted us this far, left us to start to return to Australia and passed across the full time escort duties to Puneet Verma who had been with us most of the time from our arrival in Delhi.
We travelled onto Pushkar which was about the mid-point of our overall tour. The road was more like a normal Australian road with 3 lanes a lot of the time but of course some interesting driving techniques on display. We arrived to be heralded by dancing horses (locals in dress-up), music and garlands. Again quite a spectacle. In the afternoon we visited a rare Brahma temple. It is one which Hindi followers should visit at least one in their lifetime. We also saw the man-made lake where Hindus spread the ashes of deceased family members on their passing.
A walk through the market area was also interesting with many stalls but with no great crush of people or aggressive sellers.
Just prior to dinner, we were entertained by the Kalbelia dancers performing their traditional dance. It was very energetic and well received by the group. Dinner at the hotel was a broader mixture of food types and included green vegetables, salad based foods – a nice mix.
From Pushkar we moved onto Jodhpur a well-known city towards the west and place of origin of the riding breechers. Our coach day was longer than others but mostly along roads we could manage easily. On first look, the city is subtly different to those we had come from. Lunch was under a shady tree in a courtyard.
On our first night we met one of the Royals of Jodhpur and had some bubbly in a family museum room in one of their hotels. We were escorted to dinner and he stayed with us for a while. Our dinner started and we were entertained by a local man playing the Ravanhatta instrument. Is looked quite primitive but was quite entertaining. The next day saw us visit the Mehrangah Fort on top of a hill and its related marble Memorial for past rulers and their families.
A shopping excursion during the afternoon yielded very good results for the local economy – the selling techniques of the shop owner was most entertaining. We left the next morning on our longest coach leg from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. However it was one of the easiest in as much that the road was the best we had encountered. Perhaps it reflected the fact that Jaisalmer is starting to get close to the border with Pakistan so military installations are positioned in these western areas. So the road being good, with not many villages, plenty of goats, some camels, wild boar, lots of quite desolate land but surprisingly, some green patches where crops are growing. The Indira Ghandi Canal which brings water from the north of India to the desert area must be close enough to enable irrigation and we did see some water sprinklers within some paddocks. Our hotel was a rambling fort type structure out of town with very few guests due to our timing being close to the end of the tourist season. In peak season it may be bustling but we suffered frequent power failures while there.
Jaisalmer Fort was our main stop the next day. It is a living and working fort with 5,000 permanent residents. Its narrow lanes make it an interesting challenge for bikes, people, cows, street sellers – quite a mix. The aroma would be strong on a hot day I suspect. Later in the day, some of the group visited a desert camp area where camels were taking groups on camel rides. We were entertained by a few musician/singers from nearby – it felt a little like Laurence of Arabia territory.
We moved onto Manvar Camp the next day – an easy drive. On arrival at the reception, we found we were to go into the dunes to a tented camp site. Later in the day most of our group took on a ride on camels – not overdone so that decision was welcome. Just before dinner we were entertained by musicians and dancers from the Manvar village.
It was a good moment of the tour –the event being a welcome to us and about their local life. All of them came from the one family within the village.
Next morning we travelled to Luni as a driving rest break between Manvar and Udaipur. It was quicker than what we thought. However on this occasion, we were not in tented facilities – rather a comfortable hotel of older style. It was named Fort Chanwa – something of a green oasis within a somewhat dusty village. A jeep ride to a local village occupied the afternoon.
We travelled onto Udaipur by road and took a detour to visit a Temple of great quality – the Ranakpur Temple. Then onto Udaipur to stay at a hotel on the main lake in the city. There were many other hotels around the man-made lake and we were able to take a boat ride on the lake just at sunset. A good scene / experience. Next day we saw the City Palace where the current ruler resides. The palace contains many works which have been created over centuries. Much walking up and down stairs but worth the effort to see the various parts of the building and its views over the city. After the palace was a visit to a craft workshop for art similar to those we saw at the palace and we were told that past related generations were the ones who had done the palace works. Very similar fine work with colours prepared very carefully. Some of our group helped the local economy.
Onto Mumbai by air and next morning, we took a day tour of a variety of sites around mainly south Mumbai. Traffic was normal to locals but very heavy by our usual standards. It was a “light” day of touring without any sizeable in-depth visits – one interesting one was the open air laundry which services huge numbers of items and clients each day. Mumbai is large and bustling (24 million people) but has a different feel compared to Delhi. The group took a break at the Taj Mahal Hotel – a world renowned hotel of very high standard.
Most of the group left the next morning to return to Sydney via Singapore. A few stayed on to make other visits before starting homebound journey.
Some observations / comments on the part of India we visited – Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan cities:
- Busy, bustling in major cities but we did not feel unsafe at any time – welcomed everywhere.
- Different characteristics of cities and people were revealed as we travelled across Rajasthan – we could distinguish this ourselves.
- Monuments, Palaces, Forts and sites of significant quality with architecture originating from Islamic cultures and more typical Indian origin. Past Persian influence obvious in places.
- Mixture of religions but very respectful of each –prayer calls in Jaipur were just taken for granted even though in a very substantially Hindu city. We saw no hint of anything other than daily cooperation.
- Foods were different across the state – presentation on metals trays with small individual servings in metal cups was common in central Rajasthan. Most chefs used spices but no extreme hot food for us. Care was needed of course.
- Local Kingfisher beer widely available and good.
- Wine – mainly Sula – an India product.
- Many living in quite poor circumstances so a long way to go to bring all the population out of third world living.
- Many hawkers in typical tourist places but it faded as we headed west.
- Hotels were a treat in themselves with some quite special ones and service was generally very good in hotels. A few lapses only.
- Tap water avoided but enough bottled water made available free to us at hotels and in our coach.
- Coach was very good – spacious with air conditioning, cooler for water and other drinks. Wifi, charging points, quality toilet.
- City guides were good all the way.
- Tour escort worked well so we felt well supported at all times.
- Delhi belly suffered by Tour Escort on one morning only. Others in the group seemed to manage to avoid it given our preventative medicine before departing Australia.
- Coughs colds splutters experienced by a number of the group but no delay occurred. A few took brief precautionary medical input at Jaipur.
- Duration – about right for what we wanted to do in Rajasthan. More trips would be needed to feel one knew the country.
- Local cultural music common in hotels and restaurants – also dance.
- Turbans, fabrics and textiles very colourful.
Notable parts / experiences:
- Taj Mahal naturally
- Hotels generally – all 5 star but feeling at Samode Haveli in Jaipur was special
- Forts at Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer – each for different reasons – others also of interest
- Palaces generally – many with very interesting history
- Rooftop drinks at Jaipur – sunset, kites, the call to prayers – took in most of our senses
- Dancers at Pushkar from Kalbelia tribal village
- Dinner at 1135 AD restaurant
- Welcomes at hotels – good initial efforts on arrival with most following through with rest of service
- Ranthambhore camp and tiger encounter with some lesser sightings also of interest – deer, antelope, birds
- Manvar Camp entertainment – music, dance and song and camel rides
- Sunset over Lake Pichola in Udaipur – hotels all around, some in the lake
Russell Allsop – March 2019