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India

General Travel Tips: India

Out of India

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We'd originally planned to make the journey from Jaisalmer to Delhi in one day, but it turned out that this piece of planning (to be fair, executed many months ago sitting in front of a laptop in California) was not terribly practical, not least because the distance between the two is about 800 kilometres! And so we took the advice of our driver, stopping overnight on Thursday at Bikaner, a little under halfway between the two.

We chanced upon Lalgarh Palace Hotel which was built a little over a hundred years ago for Maharaja Ganga Singh (a signatory of the Versailles Treaty, no less!). The Maharaja's stately home combines both European grandeur with more local design features such as wooden and sandston carvings. Our room, one of maybe twelve set around an open-air courtyard, had a four poster bed so high that steps were provided to get onto it! Many of the hotel's features, from our room's ceiling to the dining room, billiards room and bar are original and, although not terribly well maintained, it was a real treat to spend our last night in India here.

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We finally reached the parking lot that is Delhi on Friday evening, in plenty of time for our 11pm flight to Kuala Lumpur where we would pick up a connecting flight to Hanoi. Actually, with a few hours to spare, we headed into town to give Lloyd a drive-by of India Gate where, happily, there was a celebration of India's Territorial Army! Even though we arrived after dark, the mood was light with hundreds of Indian families enjoying the park. Vendors strolled by with colourful balloons, toys, candy floss and food.

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Unfortunately, we didn't have time to wait around for the band to actually start playing their bag-pipes! If you look closely, you can see Lloyd featured in the big screen......

The traffic didn't allow us anymore time for sight-seeing, so we headed to the airport and checked in for our Malaysian Airlines flight. After ten days of - well - not much to eat at all, the 'Subway' sign after security was too much of a temptation for us. Apparently the diet of lentils and chipati had failed to satisfy more than just the two of us; as we turned the corner into the store, we saw about twenty caucasians busily ramming sandwiches down their throats as fast as they could. Within a few minutes, we were racing through a turkey salad sandwich, and - yes - we did rejoin the line to order a second sandwich....

Next stop - Vietnam! But first, a few tips if you're planning a trip to India:

1) Partly due to fewer language barriers and in large part due to a strong rail and (relatively speaking) road infrastructure, India is one of the easiest places to get around, so FTG*. This is absolutely a place to travel independently, and we loved the freedom we had during this leg of our trip.

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Fewer language challenges, sure, but it's far from a sure thing. It took us a while to realize that this sign was for CHILLED beer...

2) Travel on an Indian Train at least once. Even though many of the long-distance trains are overnight (limiting what you can see of the countryside), there's something unique about Indian trains versus the (many) others we've been on. Don't miss it.

3) But bear in mind that if you go 2AC class (2 tier bunks, air-conditioned), you'll at best have yellow tinted windows that don't open. At worse - like us - you'll have yellow tinted, cracked windows that don't open. Again, it just restricts your ability to see anything.

4) Train experience aside, hire a car and driver to take you around. Shop around online and you'll probably get a better deal than we did just showing up. That said, you don't want to scrimp too much. Indian roads are - absolutely - the most dangerous we've seen and you want to be sure both the vehicle and driver can deal with it. We insisted on seat-belts (hey, it made us feel better) and you'll probably want AC too.

5) Don't miss Varanasi. This was my second trip to India and I have to say that Varanasi continues to top my list of favourites (at least of the India I've seen so far!). It's the spiritual heart of India, and reveals a side of India that you don't see if you are otherwise sticking to the Golden Triangle and Rajastan as we did.

6) One night in Agra is enough! We wouldn't have missed our stay at the Oberoi Amarvilas because of the once-in-a-lifetime view of the Taj (we got the best rate we could online through the hotel's website), and also because this kind of hotel offers important insight into India's history. We can't tolerate this kind of deferent service for too long, but it's something that should be experienced once. And one night is enough. There's NOTHING in Agra but the Taj Mahal and the Fort. Get in, get out, and don't waste any more previous time than you have to. If you're staying at the Amarvilas, the bank manager will also be happier.

7) Special tip for the tea drinkers out there. I'm one of those travellers who takes her own teabags and expects the simple pleasure of a good cuppa in the morning. Even with your own teabags, India isn't the kind of place where you will get a good cup of tea. By ordering hot water rather than coffee or tea, I had the unfortunate 'benefit' of seeing exactly what was in the water, and I'm afraid - even though no doubt perfectly safe in nearly every case - it was enough to put me off drinking at all. If I was to do this again, I would take my own mini-travel kettle and boil my own bottled water. Lloyd really wished I had ;o) - with my routine caffeine fix, I might have been more pleasant to be around.

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On this lucky morning it only took three attempts to get the perfect cuppa

8) Ladies: if you're going anywhere on a camel, wear a sports bra! I had no idea camels could trot, but when they do.... ouch!

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9) Don't miss Jodphur's Mehrangarh Fort.

We may add some more as we have more time to reflect on our time in India. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have questions on any of our comments!

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A creative street vendor's advert in Jaisalmer.

*FTG = "F-the-Group" (i.e. "Forget"-the-Group, or "Forego"-the-Group, or ...).

Posted by jacquiedro 17:20 Archived in India Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (2)

"Not Lane-Based, but Space-Based"

A 1400 Kilometre Rollercoaster Ride on India's Roads

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You need to be in India for about three minutes to reach the decision NOT to drive here. If there is order to the chaos, we have yet to find it. The only guideline is that the bigger you are, the more aggressively you can ‘go for it’. Honking, of course, helps and is so frequently deployed that it must offer indemnity from responsibility; ‘yes, I did hit the cow/sheep/bicycle/tourist, but I honked to let them know the impact was imminent’. Our driver put it far more eloquently, explaining that driving in India isn’t lane-based, but space-based. Even on the rather attractive, new six-lane highway that links Jaipur and Jodhpur, much of the traffic ignores the clearly partitioned lanes. Government signs urge that ‘lane-driving is safe-driving’ but no-one’s listening.

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About 300 people die each day on India's roads. Experts say that enforcing seatbelts isn't the answer because only around 5% of road users are in cars: the rest are on bikes, animal, or foot!

We covered 1400 kilometres in four days on the road (in a country where 300 kilometres is a very, very full day's drive). The bulk of our route was windy, two lane roads shared with animals, bicycles, tuk-tuks, pedestrians and the infamous brightly coloured TATA trucks with their ridiculous horns. Back home in California I spend a lot of time driving – maybe two-and-a-half hours a day to and from work, and I’ll call Lloyd maybe two times a year, trying to catch my breath as I share with him how I just about died because some idiot pulled into the fast lane without looking at his blind spot, or how some road-raged maniac just about forced me off the road.

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There are more than four million TATA vehicles in India - they tend to be brightly decorated, both with paint as well as flowers and other offerings intended to protect the driver from harm.

But on Indian roads, near-death occur multiple times an hour. Overtaking on blind bends is absolutely the norm. Dozens of time, we'd pull out to overtake in clear sight of an oncoming TATA truck heavily laden with uncut marble. In the US, I’d never attempt the maneouvre. Hell, Lloyd wouldn’t even attempt these maneouvres in the beemer. In fifth gear at 30mph, the driver presses the accelerator but doesn’t seem to know that a lower gear would help. The TATA driver flashes his lights, making sure we know he’s there. It’s about this time that our driver decides to pass another vehicle. The TATA driver sets off his horn that will likely only be mid-ridiciulous-sequence by the time we get hit, head-on.

And then – somehow – it happens. When it becomes clear that we don’t have the space to pass the second vehicle, a space miraculously opens up for us, and we swerve to safety. Lloyd and I look at each other, eyebrows raised, but honestly our hearts don’t even skip a beat anymore. In California, you’d be considered a buffoon for even attempting the manrouve and the drivers would punish you by trapping you, fully exposed to oncoming traffic. In India, however, the traffic just somehow deals with it and everyone is – well – nice to everyone else. What goes around comes around, and Indians just want the good stuff!

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Just the good stuff! Which reminds us of our driver’s adage for successful driving in India: good horn, good eyes, good brakes and good luck. Fortunately for us, our driver Suri seems to have the latter in spades.

Posted by jacquiedro 18:18 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Our Night with Bob Marley

A Search for Sand-Dunes on Camels

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To escape the hustle and bustle of Jaisalmer life, we hired a jeep and driver to take us almost 50 kilometres southwest of the town into Desert National Park. Covering an area of more than 3000 square kilometres (more than 1200 square miles), this desert wasn't the endless sand-dunes of my imagination. Rather, the scene can be more green than sand-coloured, with plenty of bushes and scrub punctuating the landscape.

As always, the drive to our desination was as much an adventure as arriving, and we witnessed young ladies walking miles with water canisters precariously balancing on their heads. Of course, it's a normal part of life here, but it's always good to be reminded how precious water is, and how fortunate we are to have to do little more than turn on a tap or open a bottle...

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It was soon time to meet our onward transportation: two camels named Disco and Bob Marley. With dusk fast approaching, we alternate walking and trotting out to our sand-dune camp for the night. It's wonderfully quiet, with the silence broken only by passing herders and farmers heading home for the night, or by our teenage camel drivers chatting in Hindu, or making clicking sounds to encourage the camels to keep moving. Both camels seem quite happy with the situation, despite their heavy loads or the dozens of bugs buzzing incessantly around twitching ears and noses. A few, tiny chinkara antelope and a desert fox carefully survey our position before disappearing over the nearest horizon.

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Bob Marley and Disco.
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The magic truly begins when the sun goes down, and the night sky begins to reveal itself to us. We've been promised a camp fire, but our young guides are woefully ill-prepared for our request. They respond enthusiastically, however, and set about collecting sticks and then building the most pathetic attempt at a camp-fire you can imagine. Despite his protests and offers of assistance, Lloyd is required to sit on a blanket with me, and we almost dread the embarassing revelation that lies ahead for the boys when the fire is lit. As we expect, the fire lasts a staggering three minutes. It's a good thing we don't need it for heat tonight!

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I guess we should be thankful the fire lasted long enough for the photograph...

When the embers are burned out, we are left in near-blackness. To our right, we can see a halo of light on the horizon that marks Jaisalmer, almost thirty miles away. Closer, there are a few, dim lights from a nearby village. Even the moon is absent, and in fact it won't rise for several more hours. With so little light pollution, I can see more stars than I've ever been able to see before, and the experience is magical, humbling, and beautiful. We lie on a blanket, flat on our backs, and watch satellites and shooting stars fly by.

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No piccies after dark, I'm afraid, although we have loved to have shared the star-filled night sky! Here's a picture of Lloyd and I at dusk instead, in our charming matching his-n-hers safari shirts....

We expected to spend the night on the blanket on the sand - which was, in fact, almost as hard as Chinese beds! But, although we could only hear his neck bell approaching, Bob Marley later materialized with two 'beds' which were quickly made up for us. We were to be comfortable on this camel safari!

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A surprisingly comfortable night in the desert!

In the morning, we trek back on the camels. While trotting is actually more comfortable in the moment, it proved painful the morning after. Lloyd's back and my chest were therefore relieved that it's a nice gentle sail back to the village (note for the ladies: wear a sports bra for camel treks!).

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Finally, we're back in our jeep for the two hour drive to Jaisalmer, via the Royal Cenotaphs.

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The Royal Cenotaphs commemorate the spots where Jaisalmer's former rulers were cremated. We liked the contrast between the old cenotaphs and the new windmills.

Posted by jacquiedro 17:45 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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