A small part of India has now been done and the culture, along with plenty of delicious curry, has been tasted. The bureaucracy proved to be bemusing and bewildering throughout.
Thankfully the Indian government have simplified the visa process by introducing a 30 day e-Tourist Visa online for $60. This can be done up to 34 days before you travel and must be done at least 4 days beforehand. If you're planning on a longer visit it'll cost a hefty £109.44 for a one year visa, after initiating the application online this then involves a trip to London for an interview at one of three application centres operated by VFS Global
Qatar Airways were the airline of choice and provided good, punctual service in the reasonable comfort of the Airbus A380
After a false start in Delhi, three train journeys took me as far as Jodhpur, then it was bus to Udaipur, all comfortable and mildly enjoyable experiences. Train tickets can be booked online 90 days in advance, which should be done as early as possible as popular trains get fully booked quickly and you really wouldn't want to travel 3rd class! First you need to open an account with the Indian Railway IRCTC, then we foreigners must open another account with Cleartrip. The two accounts then have to be linked, which isn't as straightforward as it should be but, with perseverance, will eventually happen. Once this is done Cleartrip is actually really easy use. UPDATE: They've finally seen sense and updated the IRCTC site to accept foreign credit cards so it's now a one-stop shop.
The onward Jet Airways flights to Mumbai and then on to Goa drastically cut down on travel time and were really cheap, although I, along with many others, got caught out by the 15kg baggage allowance so had to pay £28 for the excess, this does however compare favourably to Ryanair or Easyjet who charge £10 per kilo
ATM: As the Halifax Clarity card offers no exchange loading I use it whenever I travel. During this trip I found that Citibank, IDBI, Bank of Baroda and Bank of Mysore charged no fee whereas ICICI and HDFC charged ₹200 and Punjab National charged ₹150. At the airport I was able to get ₹20k in one transaction whereas in the city it was ₹10k
Laundry: I'd envisaged my clothes being battered to death in the local river then laid out to dry as the poorer locals do but the truth is that for about ₹350 (£3.50) I got a weeks worth of laundry washed, ironed and returned pristine the same day.
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Transit from Totton to Delhi went smoothly as first Sammy, then National Express and, finally, Qatar Airways delivered me in reasonable comfort and without delay the following morning.
Expecting a bureaucratic nightmare at Delhi Airport I was pleasantly surprised to swiftly clear customs without a hitch. After a quick visit to the ATM to charge up with rupees I set about finding my taxi driver, as arranged, at Exit Gate 6. Nowhere to be seen, the gate security guard enquired as to the problem then got the relevant member of staff to first phone my hotel, then the taxi driver, “Harry”, who turned up two minutes later somewhat flustered. Panic over and helpfulness above & beyond the call of duty from all concerned.
We were soon heading into town amongst the chaos & cacophony that is Delhi traffic. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how much greenery there was en-route, though, I hasten to add, very little of it is publicly accessible land. While Harry’s English was pretty good, I don’t think his hearing was as he constantly came back with something completely unrelated to the conversation, which was equally amusing, bemusing & confusing. Affable though he was, his pains to stress his reliance on tips wore a bit thin, but not enough to begrudge him the fiver he got for the hour-long journey.
A warm welcome awaited at the Hotel City Star, a reasonably new hotel in the backpacker district of Paharganj and I was soon checked into my spacious, well-equipped room which was to prove a very homely base for the next three nights, which was handy as my sleeping pattern was all over the place! After a failed attempt to catch-up meaningfully on much-needed sleep, I set out to explore the neighbourhood. On setting off I soon realised that the seemingly easy route to tourist hub Connaught Place was anything but. I knew I’d be viewed as easy prey for the ‘well-meaning’ scammers worried for my safety wandering this dangerous neighbourhood but, in reality, wanting to guide me to whichever outlet would pay him & his tuk-tuk driving cohort the best commission but I was prepared for it and played along until we got to Connaught Place, where a firm refusal to play ball after coughing up the princely sum of ₹40 for the ride.
My smile of smug satisfaction was swiftly dimmed when I got hit with one of the more recent, and disgusting, scams where a small dollop of sh*t is deposited on your shoe necessitating a shoeshine from one of the dozens lining the pavements. While this was being done someone else started cleaning my ears!?! As they’d both failed to give a price beforehand there followed a bit of a heated exchange which resulted in shoe man getting ₹120 and ear man getting nothing . . . . . 2 – 0 to me
I have to admit I was grossly underwhelmed with CP as, apart the constant bombardment from hawkers, there doesn’t appear to be any outside eating and drinking and I didn’t feel compelled to go inside any of the heavily curtained bars I came across. I did have an enjoyable conversation with a young photography student, Davish, who I figured couldn’t be trying a scam given the very expensive camera he was carrying. With energy running low I decided on an evening at the hotel where the rooftop restaurant proved to be an excellent place to eat, drink and mix with fellow travellers. After a meal, beer & a chat I was ready to hit the hay early, dozing off within 10 minutes of starting the movie I’d decided to watch.
Next morning I was out bright & breezy (awake since 2am!!!) after a delicious breakfast, with a driver booked for the day through the hotel travel desk for ₹1,850. Conversation with Mazeer proved easier than with Harry, though in hindsight the choice of a car over tuk-tuk might not have been the better way to go. We started in Old Delhi at the Red Fort which, in spite of the imposing exterior, I found pretty underwhelming. Foreigners are charged a premium entry price at most sites of ₹250. From there it was over to New Delhi to Humayuns Tomb, a very impressive and interesting site in a similar vein of the Taj Mahal. Then it was on to the furthest out of Delhi’s UNESCO heritage sites, Qutub Minar, which was my favourite of the day and the oldest in the city. By now my ‘culture light’ requirements had been satisfied for the day so I asked Mazeer to drop me back at the hotel after a drive past of India Gate, seeing little reason to take a closer look.
After a short siesta and a refreshing shower I was ready to seek out the neighbourhood bars I knew of. A long, buzzing little sidestreet took me to the Main Bazaar and Metropolis Hotel, a popular backpacker haunt, there was however little of the usual interaction so I moved on after one, pretty overpriced, Kingfisher. Next up was My Bar, a long, dark and narrow bar popular with the locals, providing cheap drinks to a mainstream dance soundtrack, much more enjoyable so I had a few more Kingfishers before heading back to the hotel to see out the evening again, where everyone was exchanging valuable info on there Indian experiences so far. Man City fans, Bob & Anne, were a great source of info and really good company while enjoying another delicious meal at the end of a very good day!
After finally getting a proper nights sleep I decided to having an easy day with my only objective to visit the step well Agrasen Ki Baoli in Connaught Place. Stepping outside the hotel, tuk-tuk driver Sanjay barged his way through the others to command my business. ₹100 later he’d dropped me there and insisted on waiting as he knew that, as impressive a structure as it is, 10 minutes of looking around covers it. Pretty much at his insistence, we then went to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh Temple not even included on my tourist map but an absolute ‘must-do’. With shoes off and head covered, Sanjay guided me around the kitchens where they were busy preparing for the 50,000 people they feed free every day with volunteers doing three hour shifts. Absolutely fascinating and awesome to see, it was incredibly humbling to witness their generosity and the architecture was pretty impressive to. An added bonus is that entry is free, though there are donation boxes to aid their benevolence, it'd be churlish not to.
I probably should’ve made the effort to go to Lodhi Park, which others confirmed is a beautiful green space with some interesting ruins to see. Hauz Khas is another area I think I should’ve tried, if only to see if any café culture does actually exist in Delhi. Instead I got dropped at the only ‘official’ tourist information in CP, as opposed to the dozens of others which purport to be. Even then you get some smartarse trying to direct you to one 50 yards away, you’d think the local government would sort it out but, as they all say, ‘this is India’! As it was only a short stroll away I did take a look around the interesting Jantar Mantar, entry ₹100, a series of architectural astronomy instruments constructed in 1724, one of five such built in west-central India by Maharaja Jai Singh II. Failing to find anything redeeming about CP once again, I decided to head back to My Bar for a beer, only thing was I inexplicibly took the wrong main road out of CP causing me to take a convoluted route through a maze of sidestreets to, incredibly, get where I wanted. Once inside I was soon invited to join three young engineering students who believed I shouldn’t be drinking alone. We actually had a real good chat for an hour or so until the beer began to befuddle their young heads but it all made for a bit of fun before we went our separate ways. Back at the hotel the rooftop numbers swelled with the addition of Norwegian Andrea and German Stefan, and another enjoyable evening ensued over yet another marvellous meal. Next morning I’d be moving on to Agra.
After another delicious breakfast and chat with Andrea and her, newly arrived, mate it was time to check-out . . . . . then the bombshell dropped, my train was cancelled!!! I then had two options, [a] book a ticket for the next train an hour later, or [b] go against all my instincts and pay ₹6,000 for a taxi. I chose the latter and regretted it almost from the outset, I almost felt sorry for the driver as I had a strop on the whole, boring, journey. There is hardly anything worth seeing in the 3½ hours drive, the primitive brick kilns dotting the flat terrain being the only thing remotely of note. To top it all off, arrival in Agra unveiled an absolute toilet of a town which, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen to put speedbumps at 100 yard intervals on all roads just to add to the discomfort. Almost out of guilt I tipped the driver ₹500 for suffering my foul mood.
Things improved dramatically as the hotel staff were welcoming and my room, once again, very nice. The bonus here was the rooftop pool to cool off in at the end of each day. I was aware that, as it was Friday, the Taj Mahal would be closed so I would visit Mehtab Bagh, a garden on the other side of the river Yumana which offers a view of the back of the Taj for the princely sum of ₹100. From there I went to Agra Fort, ₹300, which is far superior to the Red Fort in Delhi and second only, in my humble opinion, to the mighty Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. By now it was early evening so it was back to the hotel for a freshen up before a very decent meal washed down with a few beers.
Given that I’d read all sorts of horrors stories about the queues and the hawkers around the Taj Mahal, it came as a pleasant surprise that I was able to get a ticket, ₹750, without any wait and was then ushered straight in, much to the disdain/disgust of the exceedingly long ladies queue (wry smile!)
Even with the renovations being carried out on three of the minarets, this is still one hell of a special building and the sense of awe abounds. I merrily took photos with gay abandon until, somehow, managing to knock over and break my camera while putting on my shoe covers, a requirement of walking around the mausoleum itself. As I’d developed a pretty straight-talking relationship with tuk driver Mahesh, I was happy to be taken to a camera shop nearby where, after a bit of negotiation, I picked up a much better replacement (Nikon Coolpix S2900) for £60, which is the same price I’d have paid on Amazon without the 8gb card that was thrown in, so I was pretty happy, as was Mahesh as I gave him the old camera which, in all reality, I’d have binned.
While I've no doubt it should've been done, I lacked the inclination, or energy, to go to Fatehpur Sikri 45 minutes drive away. There really is nothing else worth seeing, or doing, in Agra and it's not the sort of place to enjoy a walk around so the rest of my day was spent swimming, eating and drinking in the hotel before heading to Sawai Madhopur next morning to see some tigers.
The perception of chaos on Indian trains nurtured by TV footage proved unfounded as signage on the side of the carriage led me in the right direction from which I easily found my designated seat (₹775 for 2nd Class Sleeper) and made myself comfortable for the 3½hr journey. My choice of ‘lower side’ turned out well as you get the choice of two seats or having a bed laid out with clean sheets & pillow cases provided, luggage is stored under the seats. The landscape is actually pretty mundane so a short nap was in order. Much to my surprise the carriage was cleaned and sprayed with air freshener & mosquito repellant over the course of the journey, even the toilets were done and, while not pleasant by any means, I’ve had worse experiences on British Rail!
Another surprise was the delightful station awaiting at Sawai Madhopur, artistically adorned with wildlife paintings reflecting the only reason for coming here, Ranthambore National Park. After a short tuk-tuk ride I arrived at the, equally delightful, Vatika Resort. Check in involved a relaxed conversation with owner Mahesh Sharma about the resort and my journey so far. While waiting for my room to be ready the sound of rattling pans drew me to the kitchen door and the staff were happy for me to watch them cook up a delicious looking veggie meal, I even had a go at making chapati. All this food was making me hungry and I was contemplating a spot of lunch when Mahesh, who is primarily a teacher, asked if I'd like to visit his school, where there was an end of term party taking place. Intrigued, and with nothing else to occupy my time, I was soon riding pillion on his motorbike heading to the event where, unwittingly, I became the guest of honour. You can imagine my shock when, on entering the marquee, proceedings halted and everyone started clapping and cheering at me, you’d have thought Justin Bieber had just walked in!?!?
With calm restored there followed a couple of hours of presentations, speeches (including one from me!?), food and loads of photos. When I left aboard the canter taking the girls home I was still feeling a sense of disbelief at what had transpired but totally blessed to have been a part of their day. The one unfortunate thing is that, as I had eaten at the school, my appetite couldn't stretch to another meal at the resort, which I knew would've been lovely from what I'd seen earlier. Mahesh returned later that night for a further chat in the garden, a thoroughly lovely, very interesting and articulate chap
Yet another early start next morning as, thankfully, manager Devendra Sharma had managed to get me onto a jeep safari, price ₹2,500. I’d gone for long-sleeved top and trousers purely to ward off mosquitoes and was really thankful I had as it was surprisingly chilly at that time of day, only bravado stopped me buying a woolly hat at the park! We were lucky enough to see two tigers, a leopard, crocodile, wild boar, sambar and langurs during the three hour safari in beautiful surroundings, by far the most picturesque so far. It was then back to the resort for breakfast and a relax in the garden before checking out and heading to the station for the afternoon train to Jaipur.
It’s easy to knock the punctuality of Indian trains but it’s worth bearing in mind that however short your journey is, 2hrs 20 mins in this case, it’s usually only a small section of a marathon trek. Todays train, Durg Jaipur Express, is scheduled to travel for 24hrs so you can see how any delays, however minor, would have a knock-on effect. As it happens it was less than an hour late, for which I was thankful as I’d attracted the usual attention, of which one young weedy lad, fuelled with a few beers, got particularly irritating. ‘Pots & kettles’ come to mind, which is probably why my tether stretched so far, but I was thankful for reaching the sanctity of the train. As before it had cost ₹775 for my ‘lower side’ seat in 2nd Class Sleeper.
The usual clamour for business greeted me on arrival at Jaipur, I refuse to have anyone handling my luggage so the bag wallahs are always disappointed. The obligatory tuk driver had sidled alongside and struck up conversation so he got the job to take me to my guesthouse, I politely took his contact details but rarely make the effort to follow up with further work, there are always plenty about. As my journey had been pretty relentless thus far I decided to take advantage of the lovely, peaceful garden setting of my chalet-style room to enjoy a relaxing evening in the sunshine while doing website and other internet stuff. The only downside was the unavailability of alcohol as it would’ve been nice to have a beer, especially with my meal, but I hadn’t taken this into account when making the booking.
As I’d been pretty underwhelmed with the previous evening’s meal (overcooked rice!) I headed out early next morning with my map to find somewhere for breakfast, as often seems to happens I was gone for the rest of the day wandering around the city centre. It took a while before I was actually where I’d imagined but the sights along the way were both amusing and intriguing, imagine coming across someone driving a camel & cart or riding an elephant through the centre of Birmingham?!?! I eventually ended up on Chandpol Bazaar, one of the main roads which bustles with activity as it’s lined with craftsmen shops selling every household item imaginable, mostly handmade in their tiny premises, the Health & Safety Executive would have a heart attack! After a career in engineering it was fascinating to see them skilfully create their wares.
This led nicely up to the main sights of the Pink City, the historic centre of Jaipur. First up was Hama Mahal, otherwise known as “Palace of the Winds”, an aesthetically striking, photogenic building. From there it was on to the observatory Jantar Mantar, which didn’t interest as the Delhi version had, before finishing up at City Palace, which looked nice but failed to impress much either. Filled up with my quota of culture for the day, I now needed to take care of the belly so headed back to Midtown Restaurant, which I’d noted earlier, drawn by very favourabe reviews. While not as good as had been suggested, it did the food job well though not the alcohol so it was now ‘hunt the bar’. My quest finally unearthed Bouncer Bar, which turned out to be as bad as the name suggested, I can’t understand why Indians believe drinking needs to be done in the dark!
Breakfast next morning turned out to be a drawn-out affair as I got chatting about food with a couple from Delhi, she was a nutritionist whose passion on the subject gushed out, I love these little encounters J. Slightly later than planned the hotel booked a taxi (₹975) for my trip to Amber Fort, definitely the best option as it’s some way out of town. The approach road running alongside the lake gives a stunning view of the Palace and Fort towering above. The ₹200 entry fee (with camera) is supposed to include entry to Jaigarh Fort as well but that’s not actually the case and there’s another ₹50 to cough up. The architecture and views made for an attractive and interesting visit, the highlight of which is the presence of Jaivana, the biggest wheeled cannon in the world. While here I also had the unexpected pleasure of bumping into fellow Tottonian Emma Kedzierski, whose associated family ties I’ve been intertwined with through the rugby club for many years . . . . small world!
The real bonus of this astonishing coming together is that Hotel Shikha, which Emma and pal Justine were staying at, housed probably the best bar in town, 100% Rock, I didn’t need a second invite to meet up again that evening, along with a few others they’d befriended at the fort. While the bar was more 80s disco than rock it was by far the nearest to a western-style bar I’d come across in India so far and, while I was still loving the Indian food, the international menu satisfied everyones needs, 2-4-1 drinks made it even better! A cracking evening was had by all before we went our separate ways, long past my usual bedtime. Thankfully my train to Jodhpur wasn’t until midday so I could enjoy a leisurely breakfast before packing & checking out.
Thankfully the train to Jodhpur wasn’t too busy so it was just me and a very amenable young chap on his way to join the Indian army sharing the cabin for the 5½ hour journey. I was intrigued that a young man from an, obviously, comfortable and reasonably privileged background should choose the army, he in turn believed it to be his duty. It was his first time away from home and the mixture of excitement and apprehension was very apparent. As usual, he was very to keen to know everything about my trip so far and my impression of India. Disappointingly the scenary offered by the Rajasthan countryside varied little from endless miles of hardbake and small trees so I took the opportunity have a nap, watch a movie and do a bit of blog-work.
There was the usual kerfuffle with tuk-tuk drivers, on this occasion caused by the fact none of them knew where my homestay was. Thankfully I’d noted this residual problem from reviews when planning so was armed with a map which helped greatly, though not entirely as it wasn’t exactly right, thanks Google Maps!!
I was checked in over a Kingfisher by owner Durgesh, the warmth of whose welcome was maintained throughout my stay. He spoke excellent English and had travelled widely with the Merchant Navy, I was to enjoy many interesting chats with him over the course of my stay. It had been a long day so I gladly took up the offer of dinner with a group on the final night of their stay, good call as the food prepared by his daughter was delicious and somewhat different to usual restaurant fayre, the okra being particularly nice. Ever-present throughout any proceedings in the house was the family pug Rooney, so called because he's pug-ugly!
After a sumpious breakfast and a further chat next morning, Durgesh arranged a tuk-tuk for my trip to Mehrangarh Fort, advising me that ₹500 (£5) for 5 hours is the going rate. When Sunil arrived we arranged to stop off at the bus station to book my tickets for Udaipur before heading up to the majestic beast which bears down on the city, its imposing presence actually increasing the closer you get to it. Once inside (₹400 entry fee) it’s uphill all the way with magnificent architecture and artifacts at every turn, for me everything was so much more ordered and better presented than any of the forts I’d seen thus far. There was a really good display of modern art in one of the galleries which I really liked, good to see the new & old interactive.
From there we made a quick visit to nearby Jaswant Thada, more at Sunils expectation than my need. By now it was about 1:30pm so time for lunch, Sunil said he knew a good restaurant, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Indique at Pal Haveli, exactly where I wanted to go. Reviews had suggested this is possibly the best restaurant in Jodhpur and it certainly didn’t disappoint, even better, unlike my Jaipur experience, no problem getting a drink. A large party of Aussies arrived and, on noting that I was alone, kindly invited me to join them making for a very pleasant lunch with a few beers before heading back to base for a siesta, what could be better! Perhaps wrongly, when I find a restaurant I like I tend to stick to it so I arranged for Sunil to pick me up later that evening for a return visit, this time on the Rooftop restaurant with its Fort view as opposed the the Lakeview earlier in the day, once again it didn’t disappoint and the after dinner Jamesons & ginger ales at the bar finished off the evening wonderfully. Why is this such a rarity in India?!
Next morning I completely forgot about doing the Flying Fox zipwire around the fort, which only costs £20, doh! Instead I opted to visit Umaid Bawain Palace, which is a new build in historic terms (1920) but was actually built to give work to local farmers during a particularly bad famine. When I mentioned this to Durgesh he insisted upon his son driving me. On dropping me off we agreed, in my usual culture-lite fashion, I’d be done in about 45 minutes so they’d be back for me then. It actually was quite interesting and the timing was spot-on, astoundingly I got chatting with a trio of youngsters who work at Ferny Crofts Activity Centre in the New Forest, small world.
From there it was back to the city centre to get amongst the hustle & bustle of the market. I actually intended to try another restaurant which had good reviews but couldn’t find it so it was back to Indique once more for a final wonderful meal. I had an very early start next morning so would be heading back afterwards for a quiet night