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Trip Report Just returned from an amazing trip to India!

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Hi, everyone,
I just wanted to write a brief note, having just returned to our home just 2 hours ago. I promise a trip report, too, but for now, letting you know that we have a fabulous trip to India, seeing Delhi, Varanasi, Agra and Rajasthan in 3 weeks.

Thanks to everyone here for feedback - it was invaluable for my trip planning. The trip went incredibly well, no snags until the end (and these snags had nothing to do with trip planning) - our flight home got cancelled because of the storm, and and negotiating the interruption was a bit challenging. Ultimately, we got on the next day's flight, but it was very up in the air (so to speak!) for the first day and a half.

I booked hotels directly, but worked with Nikhil, of TGS to coordinate all other aspects of the trip - drivers, guides, activities, specific recommendations - and he did an amazing job for us. He provided us with a wonderful driver, Rajendra, who drove us through Rajasthan, and we hired guides in most places. One nice touch was that we were also met by a TGS rep in most of the locations, which really made us feel safe and taken care of. Nikhil would generally call each day while we were driving, just to check in to see how things were going and to review upcoming plans.

As far as clothes -- you guys called it well! Very casual, and in layers, layers, layers. I ended up wearing 2 pair of pants exclusively, and my comfortable Brooks sneakers throughout most of my trip. I had short sleeve t-shirts and longsleeve t-shirts, a warm sweater, a lightweight safari-style jacket, and a black zip up sweatshirt. They were black and pink, and I alternated them every day or so, but believe me, no one is going to care what you're wearing.

Temperatures varied - evenings and mornings were generally cool, but warmed up to the mid-80s in some places by the afternoon, although generally in the 70s for much of our trip. The temps were unusually cool this year, and when we arrived in Delhi, the evening and early morning temps were high-30s/low 40s. So wearing layers is essential.

I'll definitely write a more thorough trip report as I acclimate to being home, but I did want to let you all know that our trip was fabulous.

Paule

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    I posted photos and brief blurbs regularly on Facebook. If anyone wants to view these, you're welcome to email me and I will be happy to add you to my list of Facebook friends!

    Paulesue@gmail.com

    In the meantime I will work on my report and get it up as soon as I can.

    Paule

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    India trip report

    The conversation about traveling to India began over a year ago, shortly after we returned from Greece. Our travels have generally been in Europe and a wonderful trip to Turkey, but we both felt that it was time to travel beyond the usual stops and see part of the world that is less familiar and comfortable to us. We both agreed that India was the place to go. I scoured the travel boards, concentrating on Fodors, TripAdvisor, and IndiaMike, and quickly settled on Rajasthan, Varanasi and Agra.

    After reviewing countless trip reports (many thanks to all the wonderful trip reports that I read obsessively), I developed an itinerary that, for us, worked very well. I was able to carve out 3 weeks from work, which allowed us to have enough time for a good trip. We have always been independent travelers, and we’re generally moderate budget travelers. I like to say that I’m a “value” traveler – I don’t mind an occasional splurge, provided it gives me something worthwhile, although I generally try to keep costs down. India was a great place to be a value traveler, as many of the hotels we stayed in were quite elegant and classy, and our “splurges” were no more than $100/day.

    One thing we both quickly realized is that we wanted to have someone in India that we could depend upon to help oversee the trip. Again, I read many travel reports and reviews, found TGS receiving excellent reviews, and made the decision to work with Nikhil and his team, a choice that both my husband and I were extraordinarily pleased with.

    The itinerary:

    Delhi – 2 nights
    Varanasi – 2 nights
    Agra – 1 night
    Jaipur – 2 nights
    Bundi – 1 night
    Udaipur – 2 nights
    Fort Dhamli – 1 night
    Jodhpur – 2 nights
    Jaisalmer – 3 nights
    Jodhpur – 1 night
    Delhi – 1 night (turned into 2 because of flight cancellation)

    No surprise, we tweaked the itinerary many times. We wanted a mix of small villages as well as the larger, main cities in Rajasthan, and on reflection, it was near-perfect for us. It’s easy to second guess one’s self, but we came away with such a sense of satisfaction from this trip, that I really feel we did the best we could’ve done in the time we had. I came close to eliminating Bundi, and am so glad that we didn’t, as it was one of our favorite places – a small gem, well worth visiting. It was the one place we wish we had another day, but were so glad we got there at all.

    Hotels and guest houses:

    Delhi/Colonels Retreat – I began booking my hotels and guest houses last summer for this past January, and was greatly disappointed when Saubhag B&B, my first choice, was booked. Colonels Retreat, in the Defence Colony, was recommended, and overall, we found it a very good place to stay and came to appreciate the location of the guest house, as well as the hardworking staff, who were very accommodating and helpful, especially when we had a flight cancellation at the end of our trip and had to book an additional day. Initially, I was disappointed - I had hoped for the more personal experience of a small guest house, with an owner who we met and welcomed us, but this didn’t happen. It’s also larger than I first realized, with at least 4 floors of rooms, with each floor having a shared living room area. We ended up staying in 3 different rooms, and found it to be a very comfortable place. They also served an excellent breakfast and the best coffee of any place we went! Recommended. Rs 5,300, breakfast included


    Varanasi/Kedareswar B&B – We were very pleased with this guest house. Simple, basic, but well run, with proprietors who were very warm, gracious and accommodating, and were as helpful as they could be. The room was small but comfortable, with a shared balcony, overlooking the Ganges. Nice terrace roof, we had breakfast one morning (the other was too cool). The staff was very respectful - they call Michael, Papu, and me, Mama! It’s a very simple place, but for what it is, I recommend it highly. Ganges facing room/Rs 2,400

    Agra/Garden Villa guest house/homestay - Did not find it a particularly welcoming place, although it was perfectly adequate. The owner was businesslike, and not particularly warm.. The dinner (we paid extra for it) and breakfast were again adequate, but minimal. We arrived at a time when it was quite cool and the rooms were freezing, although he eventually found a heater for us at our request. To get there, we drove a long way through the middle of nowhere to get to the gated community. Still, the price was good and the rooms were clean and comfortable. Standard room 1,900, dinner – Rs 300x2.

    Jaipur/Pearl Palace Heritage - Despite the large and stylized rooms and extra amenities (bathrobe, large glassed-in shower), we found the place poorly run. They are clearly trying to be a luxury hotel, but it isn’t there yet – a personal computer is set up in the room but it didn’t work, and the room safe didn’t work. Construction was going on into the evening. The room decor was truly garish, did not look like a heritage hotel with its red pillows and blue lighting! Surprisingly, the basic lighting was very poor although there was a lot of effort to make it a design element. The staff was extremely disorganized, spoke minimal English, and were generally lackadaisical bordering on rude. We got the sense that this was the second tier help, because when we went to breakfast at Pearl Palace (the original hotel), the staff - and the owners - were there and present and it seemed very well run.. I didn't realize that the restaurant was at the other hotel until we arrived, which we also found annoying, although they did get us a tuk-tuk very quickly to get us to breakfast. I do not recommend the Heritage until they improve the staff and work is complete, although the original hotel, Pearl Palace seemed very nice and had a great rooftop restaurant. Luxury room/Rs 2000 + 7.42% tax.

    Bundi/Bundi Haveli – Absolutely loved it. We fell in love with Bundi and we loved the hotel. Small, elegant heritage hotel, wonderful, attentive staff. We really felt welcomed by the charming manager, who spent a lot of time talking with us and making recommendations -- this is what we hope for in the places we stay! Decent restaurant in the hotel. Recommend highly. Super Deluxe room Rs 2,500 +7.42% tax.

    Udaipur/Jagat Niwas- Without a doubt, the place that made me feel pampered and spoiled, as I completely fell in love with my large window seat overlooking Lake Pichola! The room is spacious and comfortable, and there is a separate nook for our suitcases. The extra cost of the lake-facing room was worth it to me, as it gave me the opportunity to fantasize and really feel like royalty. The only odd thing about this place is the open shower in the bathroom (but I didn't mind it). The restaurant on top is also a wonderful amenity of the hotel. The hotel is elegant, with a very polished and professional staff. Highly recommend. Raj lake-facing room Rs 4,200 + 8% luxury tax + 7.42% tax =Rs 4,950 (breakfast extra).

    Fort Dhamli - An odd but very worthwhile experience in a very off-the-tourist path village in the Pali district (near Jodhpur). This is thanks to Julies, whose trip to India last year to smaller towns and villages was inspirational. Fort Dhamli is a very small village of about 2000 people, with nothing to offer a tourist, except for the experience of being in a rural village with minimal tourist traffic. There were no other people staying there when we were there - my sense is that the occasional guest comes, but it's not a regular occurrence. The building is a one-story building surrounding a courtyard, with bedrooms along one side. The owner (or Thakur – thanks, Julies!), is a descendent of the family that had been the feudal lord, but though he no longer “owns” the villages, his role very much is still the lord of the manor. The room is comfortable, and the meals were very good and generous. We are here because of the village tour, which we do in the morning. Getting here was a long drive through small towns and roads that seemed to be endless. I had been quoted Rs 4,750 for a package of dinner, breakfast and the tour (which took about 2 hours), but it ended coming in somewhat less than that.

    Jodhpur/Ratan Vilas - I think this wins for best in show! Comfortable room, great amenities and staff that could not do enough to make one feel welcome. Lovely house and grounds. The owner is there and as gracious and welcoming as can be. The exceptional nature of the staff was apparent when we returned for our second stay. My one scheduling error had me confirming the room for the next day, so when we arrived (and thanks to the TGS rep, this all was resolved before we showed up), they were extremely apologetic that they didn't give us the same room we had, but were still able to give us another perfectly lovely room which was absolutely fine with me. And no one gave me any grief over my mistake. I could've stayed here for days just relaxing. Highly, highly recommend! Superior room: Rs 3,600 + 7.42% tax

    Jaisalmer/Garh Jaisal: One of our 3 favorites -- this is a beautiful hotel in the fort, fabulous views of the city, and incredibly well run by the boys from Nepal! They are warm, gracious and helpful, and we ended up really enjoying this place. The few quirks of the place are understood as part of the old and fragile nature of the place, but we adapt and feel very much at home in this place. The room was very comfortable with a window seat overlooking the city and the rooftop a spectacular place to sit and have chai or meals. Great breakfast, lots of extra masala chai! Highly recommend. Rs 5200, including breakfast.

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    Booking: I decided to book the hotels directly to save the booking fees, and I also booked all flights. Domestic flights were booked through Cleartrip, and I booked directly with United for the international flights. I watched for months until the price was fairly reasonable (around $1200+). In retrospect, I really should’ve let TGS take care of booking the hotels, because it was far too time consuming staying on top of all the details.

    Transportation

    International flight:
    We flew nonstop from Newark to Delhi, leaving Newark at 8:40pm and arriving Delhi at 9:20pm. We were pretty much on time, and had no problems with flights due to fog. Our return flight was cancelled because of the northeast snowstorm, but we were ultimately able to rebook the next night (although getting through to United was a major effort!). We left Delhi at 11:35pm and arrived at 4:35am (again pretty much on time), coming in before the customs officers were there to clear us!

    Domestic flights:
    1) New Delhi to Varanasi/Spicejet, left @ 9:35am, arrived at 11:00am. On time! No fog delay!
    2) Jodhpur – Delhi/JetKonnect – departed 12:15, arrived 13:45.

    (I’ll have to look for the rates)

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    Train: Varanasi to Agra:

    We took the overnight train from Varanasi to Agra, leaving at 17:20, scheduled to arrive at 5:55 am. Now THIS was delayed by fog! And not just by a few hours! We ended up 8 hours delayed! Apparently, the other trains are kept on schedule, but the delayed train falls further and further behind, and is only freed to go when the other trains have completed their run. Our wonderful driver waited the entire time for us at the station! TGS booked the train for us when they were first released, so we got the lower berths. Surprisingly, we slept well, as the train gently rocked us during the night!

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    Great report!! thank you!!! I am learning a lot.

    I am surprised by some of your hotel /guest house choices. How did yo decide on them?
    Saubhag and Meera ARE wonderful, but there are many similar,quiet owner-welcoming guest houses, for future ref for you and other Fodors readers.

    thanks for warning of open shower at Jagat Niwas. I simply cant get over my dislike of water all over the floor around the toilet, in whatever country it is.

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    CaliNurse,
    As far as choices, I looked for a range of places and experiences,from a very pampered experience to a more personal and intimate experience. The latter was what I hoped for by considering Saubhag B&b,which is listed as #1 on tripadvisor, and reviews speak about Meera's attention. Though we didn't end up there.

    As far as the other choices, what are you wondering? I chose Jagat Niwas and Ratan Vilas because of the reviews here, and were very happy with them. I chose the guest house in Varanasi because I didn't' want the Rashmi Guest house .....and again, it was the right place for us. Overall, I was looking to have a range of experiences when I chose where I stayed, but I don't have the budget for an Oberoi. None of my places cost me more than $100/night.

    If you don't want an open shower, avoid Garh Jaisal as well.

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    More practicalities...

    Many others have put together extensive packing lists, so there's no need for me to repeat what's been done so well before. For us, the items we found most useful were a small bottle of hand sanitizer and the small packages of tissues. I had 2 8-packs of them stuffed throughout my luggage. And when we ran out, we found that they are readily available in the small shops.

    The single smartest thing I did before my trip.....was to get a 3 week supply of scopaline patches for motion sickness. I do suffer badly from this, and the patches allowed me to travel on the planes, the train and 2 weeks of often bumpy driving on rough roads with nary a moment of nausea! I'd been concerned about the traveling, and this was the best case scenario. I had used them for brief traveling periods successfully before, but never for 3 weeks. So this made the trip manageable for me.

    We also got malarone from the doctor (paid by my insurance!) though we really do think it was overkill, as the areas we were in have a very low risk of malaria. Still, with no noticeable side effects, we chose to take the precautionary medication.

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    Hi,
    If I'd known that, I would've collected it for you!

    I thought of you when we were there, and agree completely that they are the best. I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in the city or not, but after arriving at Ratan Vilas, and after going into the old town, I was very, very happy to come back there! They couldn't have been nicer! I still find it amazing that they apologized to me for not giving me the room that they were intending us to have, even though I was the one who made the scheduling error!

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    The trip!

    Friday, January 18/Saturday Jan 19…following an uneventful flight, we arrive in Delhi at the scheduled time of 9:20pm. After going through customs, we look for the driver…and I can’t find him anywhere! I manage to find Nikhil’s number, who reminds me that the driver is waiting for us at Gate 4, which he had written to me before we left – and sure enough, he is there, waiting patiently, a trait we see over and over in Rajendra, our driver for much of our trip.

    We are in India! We can hardly believe that we’re really here! Driving through the night into Delhi is surreal. We are hit by the smog in the air – it is overwhelming, an acrid smell of burning. I was prepared for this after reading a recent travel report, but it still hits hard when we first arrive.

    We arrive late at night at the Colonel’s Retreat. The drive here, too, is startling, with roads that seem to go every which way, and horns blaring constantly. We are in the Defence Colony, but the roads coming here are confusing, and we can’t quite make sense of where we’re going. When we arrive, we are greeted by staff, who bring us to a modest-sized room, and then leave us. We look at each other with a sense of disbelief – where are we? This feels like we’re suspended in some strange time warp somewhere. We finally fall asleep, waking up sometime around 5:00am.

    Sunday January 20 – Our room is on the same floor as the dining area, so we head out for breakfast by 7 or 7:30am. The staff serve us promptly, providing a menu of options. The masala omelet and the coffee is wonderful, as is their banana bread. We are alone throughout breakfast, but finally, others show up!

    At 9:30am, we meet our driver and our guide, Unil. He is very pleasant and polite, and we make the plan for the day. We only have the one full day in Delhi, so our itinerary is prioritized. First, we visit the Jama Masjid, the largest and oldest mosque in Delhi, built by Shah Jihan. The structure is quite beautiful, but neither of us can quite absorb any information yet, though I love looking at the many Indian families who are also touring the site. I’m loving the visual experience.

    We then take a rickshaw ride through the Chandni Chowk market. Loved it! Crazy, intense, overwhelming – the crowds, the shops, the different “trades” that are available, such as the street barbers – just a density of activity that is fascinating to watch. This was wonderful, getting a feel for the people who live and work here, tasting the “aliveness” of the market.

    Our guide recommends that we bypass the Red Fort in the interest of time, knowing that we’ll be seeing many more in the upcoming weeks. So we drive by the fort, admiring the walls from the outside, and drive on to Mahatma Gandhi’s tomb. The tomb itself is an open space, with a building structure surrounding it. There are many families here strolling here as well, and again, I’m especially enjoying seeing the women and the beautiful colors of the clothing. Throughout the trip, I’m just taken by the styles of dress, the fabric, the patterns and the color combinations. Gorgeous!

    Our guide then takes us to the Indian cottage industries, where we are to be given an orientation on the crafts of India; we end up leaving before someone is available to speak with us.

    A note: throughout our trip, each guide would bring us to a factory or shop where a particular good or goods are produced; in each case, we’re given a little lecture, offered tea, and, to everyone’s credit, we are never given a hard sell. It’s clear that the goal is to purchase something, but after the first couple of times, we occasionally come to appreciate the visit, as it’s all done politely, and we even get to see something we might not have seen otherwise. And, once, when we were not interested in going to a particular place, the guide was respectful and accepted our choice graciously.

    Off to Humayun’s Tomb! It is very beautiful, a superb example of Mughal architecture, built for the Mughal emperor Humayun by his wife in the mid-16th century. The design of this building and the grounds that surround it are thought by many to be a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

    On the way to the Qtub Mnar, a bit south of Delhi, we are brought to the Red Onion for lunch. The food is good – not fancy, but satisfying. It’s also a place where tourists are brought to regularly for lunch.

    Qtub Mnar was wonderful! The day had started off quite chilly (high 30s or low 40s in the morning) but had warmed up considerably by the time we arrived in mid-afternoon, and with the bright sun, we found the architecture remarkable and, being Sunday, there was a festive atmosphere with the many Indian families and foreign tourists who were there. The Qtub Mnar complex was built during the beginning of the Islamic rule in India, and once formed the center of the Muslim city. Construction on the tall tower began in 1193, and is a remarkable sight. Michael and I found this site exceptionally moving, and though a bit outside of town, well worth the visit.

    We drove by the India Gate, although weren’t able to go up to it today, as the roads were closed in preparation for Republic Day. We also drove past the Lotus Temple, a stunning contemporary building that is a Bahai temple, shaped like….. a lotus!

    The end of the day, and we go back to our guest house, later walk over to the Defence Colony market and pick up some snacks to eat, as we’re too wiped out to sit down to dinner. Our first full day in India and we’re starting to get acclimated. Tomorrow we’re off to Varanasi!

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    Monday January 21

    Our driver, Raj, picks us up at 7:30am to bring us to the airport; our flight to Varanasi leaves at 9:30am, and we’re there about an hour early. Nikhil calls to remind us that we’ve got a driver to meet us at the airport. Wonderful! We’ll also be meeting our guide later today.

    We arrive on time, and, just as we were promised, there’s a driver holding up my name. As we drive away, I asked about the guide, and the driver didn’t seem to know anything about this. I was surprised, and asked to speak with Nikhil. The driver puts me on the phone, and I’m even more confused, because I’m not sure who I’m speaking with. I soon realize I’m talking to the hotel, and it turns out that they sent a driver, even though I let them know that this was unnecessary. No problem! We turn around, and we quickly find the driver and our TGS rep, Sumit.

    On to Varanasi! Never have we experienced anything like the traffic getting into Varanasi! Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, tuk-tuks – and the occasional human or cow, dog, goat, going anywhere and everywhere! 3 million people going everywhere at once! Traffic careening in all directions! Cars, trucks, bicycles coming at you, and somehow, one or the other drivers swerves to avoid crashing into you! Amazingly, there doesn’t seem to be any accidents, as everyone understands the rules! Lanes are dispensed with entirely! Honking is constant, with everyone honking all at once, making it impossible to know who is really doing the honking! There are traffic jams, though, with traffic at a standstill, when vehicles converge at the same spot, and no one can move forward or backward. There may be some order or logic to it all, but it’s hard to make sense of it. This is the real culture shock!

    The distance from the airport to Varanasi may only be 12-15km away, but with this traffic, it takes well over an hour. But arrive we did, at last. We can’t drive up to the hotel, as the streets behind the ghats are pedestrian-only, so our rep coordinates with hotel staff, and they gather our luggage, leading us to the hotel. Kedareswar, is a modest place, but comfortable. Small room with a shared terrace looking onto the Ganges! The bathroom has a tiny sink with a rubber hose draining into the floor. The shower is open to the room. There are few spaces to leave anything, but we manage to make do.

    One thing that is a real challenge is to brush our teeth with bottled water only. I can’t rinse the glass or brush with sink water, so organizing the many steps is a real work in progress!

    Time for lunch! We walk along the ghats, taking in the life on the river. Right in front of our hotel, a group of men are working on a large wooden boat. We walk further up and note the many activities: men and women washing laundry against stones in the river; laundry being hung up or laid out on the steps; men washing and bathing, even brushing their teeth; cows and water buffalo roaming freely, alone or in large herds along the steps; goats wandering; dogs run freely. There are many beggars, too, often young children, coming up to us and begging – they are very persistent, following us for a while, until they see that we don’t respond. Or the many touts who are selling their wares, and they are very aggressive. This is, in fact, one of the most difficult aspects of being here – having to tune out the poverty, which is so in your face.

    The Lotus Lounge is recommended to us, and the hotel gives us directions. We couldn’t find it, and end up going back to the hotel, where one of the staff leads the way. We sat outside on a low table – a popular place, it seems, for tourists. The food was okay, nothing special, but we did enjoy sitting there.

    Back at the hotel, it’s late afternoon/early evening when we meet our guide, who is a lovely young man, very warm and open, and we develop a real bond with him over the next 2 days.

    We board a small row boat at the foot of our ghat, and row over to the main burning ghat. The experience is surreal – there are many cremations taking place simultaneously. Our guide explains the ritual process to us, and we see it all taking place on the steps. Bodies, wrapped in cloth, are carried down to the river to be dipped in the Ganges, before the fire is set. There are huge piles of wood sitting on the ghat. It is one of the many images that stay in my mind (no photos are allowed). We note the many fires that are taking place on the steps, each fire representing a cremation. There are at least 7 going simultaneously while we’re there in different stages of completion. These people have now attained Moksha, or release from suffering.

    We then row toward the Dasaswamedh Ghat where the Aarti ceremony takes place nightly. It is a spectacular event, with 7 pandits, or priests, performing a highly elaborate and ritualized ceremony, in which fire, in the form of a lamp, is offered to the Goddess Ganga.

    We decide to go to the ceremony on the ghat, rather than remaining in the boat, and I’m glad we did. Sitting there, right in front of one of the priests, amongst the many pilgrims and tourists who are also attending, is exciting and moving. The open air ceremony was amazing to watch, and though it was theatrical, it also felt authentic, with meaning for the religious observers, and a beautiful and spiritual performance for the rest of us. The ceremony lasted over an hour, and we returned by boat to the foot of our ghat, and we returned to our hotel room. We were exhausted but completely absorbed in the remarkable experiences of the day.

    Jan 22/Tuesday

    The morning is cloaked in fog, creating a mystical ambiance that sets the experience off perfectly. We meet our guide at 7:00am, early enough to still catch the sun rising on the water. We are in the same boat with the same young man who rows us; we like him, too. He is 17 years old, and goes to school, rowing the boat here on the water when he is not at school.

    We take the boat to see the early morning activity along the ghats. Men bathing, women bathing their children, others doing laundry – the practical and the spiritual integrated fully. We row out to the burning ghat and see more cremations being held.

    We are one boat among many. Some boats have large groups, while others, like ours, have a guide and 1-2 people. One boat carried a goup of elderly men and women, singing songs that sounded religious or spiritual. Our guide explains that Hindus come to Varanasi from all over India, and we guessed that this group came from South India. Riding in the water as the sun was rising, viewing the activity in and along the Ganges was incredible. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the activities that are taking place here – it’s all very alien to us, and it almost feels like we’re watching a movie. At the same time, there’s a sense of feeling something of the energy here, although I wouldn’t say we feel a sense of the spiritual, either. It’s hard to describe, yet we are very taken with Varanasi.

    Afte the boat ride, we are taken to Varanasi’s Golden temple in the old part of town. Walking through the streets and alleyways is unbelievable, with crowds of people, cows, dogs, goats – and don’t forget the cow dung! – while people on motorbikes ram their way through these tiny streets!

    The temple is an important religious site, now very secured after multiple bombings and attempts, and we have to go through security pat downs to enter. Once through, we walk the small street to the temple, and peek in, though, as non-Hindus, we’re not allowed in.

    We return to the hotel, where Michael and I have breakfast on the roof terrace. It’s plenty warm by now, and it’s pleasurable to be sitting on the roof. Our breakfast companions (who take no notice of us) appear to be 3 women from the States who look like they are here for some kind of spiritual enlightenment. On the other side was a single man reading Ram Dass. Too spiritual for my taste!

    By 10am (we have seen much by this time of the morning!), we rendezvous with our guide, and we’re off to Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first sermon. First we visit the reconstruction of the Sarnath temple, and then head over to the site of Buddha’s first sermon, which is commemorated by the stupa, built by Ashoka. There are ruins of the dormitories and other buildings, which had been a site of Buddhist learning, destroyed by the Moghuls, and later excavated by the British. It is moving to us both, and we reflect on how Buddhism once was an important religion in India so long ago. Finally, we go through the Sarnath Museum, a small but excellent museum, which shows many statues and artifacts found in the archeological dig.

    After that, we head back to Varanasi. Our guide suggest a visit to a silk factory, but we politely decline, and he acknowledges that this is part of his job, but he respects our choice and doesn’t push his clients. We very much appreciated his attitude.

    The traffic returning to Varanasi was, if anything, even worse than the day before. We hit that “traffic jam” with all vehicles converging at one point, nowhere for any of them to move. After several minutes of a standstill, someone takes charge, directing the vehicles, finally helping to get things going again. Gridlock indeed.

    Our guide gets us back to the hotel, leading the way through the streets. We say goodbye, with a tinge of sadness, as we really formed a connection with him.

    That evening, we went to dinner at the Dolphin, the rooftop restaurant at the Rashmi Guest house. It took a while to find the place, and then walked up endless stairs to get to the restaurant. I had looked forward to it, as it got generally good reviews, but our choices were poor, and service was extremely slow. We both were a little frustrated with dinner.

    And then, there was the walk back. We walked along the ghats, and the lights were completely out, making this the march through hell. There was a creepy, sinister feeling in the air, dogs and humans were out, but only seen as vague shadows and silhouettes. By the time we got back to our guest house, we were a little bit weirded out by the experience.

    Jan 23/Wednesday

    Check out day today, although we are not leaving until 5pm this evening, when we take the train to Varanasi. We have no plans for sightseeing, just packing up and looking for an ATM for more cash. Walking through the streets of Varanasi - amongst the people, cows, dogs, goats, bicycles, motorbikes, cow piles, dog poop, goat droppings, and generally filthy streets is not for the faint of heart.

    The afternoon is spent walking through the back streets, looking at shops and vendors – fascinating to be in the thick of it. Heartbreaking, too – we see beggar women and their children begging, and they can be aggressive, too.

    We wander up to the large market area off the large D. ghat, and overwhelming doesn’t begin to describe it! The noise is constant, the vendors aggressively trying to sell their goods – this really does feel like a constant assault, vendor after vendor after vendor! And, with the number of vehicles, the horns are constant, and by the time we left, we are completely worn out.

    We stopped for lunch at the German bakery. This looks like a foreigners gathering place, with young and not-so-young spiritual followers and hippie wannabes, along with a large group of Japanese tourists! Lunch was so-so, the sevice took a long time, but it helped us pass the time.

    Finally, back to the hotel to wait for the driver and Sumit, our TGS rep, who valiantly leads us through the chaos that is Varanasi! We arrive at the station at last! Another sea of humanity, watching and waiting at the train station. I get the distinct feeling that I’m being stared at by many, and now I wish I was wearing some traditional clothing. At one point, there are several young men who are staring at me and making comments, and our rep moves us to another spot to wait. Finally the train comes into the platform, and Sumit settles us on the train. We feel well-taken care of!

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    A few thoughts about Varanasi - we loved it, consider it one of the highlights (among many) of the trip. It is a difficult place to be, and the garbage and filth can be off-putting. But there's no doubt that it's a remarkable place to be, and the convergence of the spiritual and matter-of-factness of daily living along the Ganges makes being there one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

    Some folks say that it's better to go to Varanasi after traveling through India for a while. We, on the other hand, went right after arriving. We were glad we did, despite the culture shock, we had the energy to absorb it. And it prepared us for the rest of India, which was nowhere near as hard to adjust to after Varanasi.

    The 3 days/2 nights was perfect. We didn't feel the need for more, and we felt like we had acclimated pretty well by the time we left.

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    Jan. 24/Thurs, day 5
    The train cubicle is plain, but comfortable enough. We both have the lower berths,which makes it easier to sleep. There's a small party of young Chinese women who have an Indian guide, and they are pretty loud for the early part of the evening. Michael falls asleep early, and then I do soon after. Thankfully masks and ear plugs do the trick here! At 5:30am, we are near our destination. Out the window, it is dark with deep fog.

    We are supposed to arrive at 5:55am, but at 8:17 am, we are still on train. Fog has caused a slowdown, and the estimated time of arrival keeps changing. At one point, we are stopped outside a small village:. Several children walk by on their way to school, a small bus, people walking by on foot and by bicycle. All rather dreamlike in the mist.

    Train finally arrived 8 hours late! We were told it was the fog, only the other trains are moving! As we leave the station, there is Raj, patiently waiting for us, having waited all these long hours. It’s great to see him again!

    Raj took us to our guest house, Garden Villa, which is in the middle of nowhere. We drove through areas of shanty-like villages, a large swathe of land with the worst road yet- more like a roller coaster, until we came to a small gated community, and turned in there. We were greeted by Raj, the owner, and we are shown to our room. Very cold! Like an icebox! The owner wasn't especially warm- rather a retired businessman who opened up a b&b.

    After settling in, Michael and I met our driver, Raj, with our Agra guide, Arif. Off to the Taj Mahal! Approaching the Taj Mahal was incredibly moving. One of those iconic structures that exist in the imagination, but not in real life. It is spectacular, and soaking in the image was thrilling. We went inside, which was impressive, but the exterior is the real deal. The shimmering marble, the absolutely beautiful proportions of the building are there in front of us. And, like everyone who comes there, we have our picture taken in front of the Taj Mahal by our guide, who has perfected the photo op from his many visits as a guide. He takes many shots, but after reviewing, I discover that he has taken a shot of us that we love!

    From the Taj Mahal, we went to the Baby Taj, the mausoleum/tomb of the grandfather of the wife of Akbar. Also beautiful, though not nearly,as grand as the taj. This structure is thought to be the "test" for the Taj.

    Back to the guest house. We had dinner there and we sat with a pair of retired women from Montreal, and a German couple. We were all surprised when there was no after dinner dessert or tea. I think we all felt the dinner was a little chintzy. I enjoyed the dinner, but felt it a bit overpriced for what we were served.

    Friday, Jan 25

    After breakfast, we meet our guide, Arif & Raj to visit Agra Fort.

    Agra Fort was much more interesting than we had expected - a very splendid & handsome Mughal fort, begun by Akbar, with additions made by his grandson, Shah Jihan. It was both a military fort, but later turned into a palace by Jihan. It was one of the more remarkable structures, and we found it well worth a visit.

    Leaving Agra on the main highway was quite something, with small villages & open-air shops lining the road. All traffic was funneled to one road and we passed a small parade in honor of Mohammed, who was born & died on this day.

    We then drove to Fatepuhr Sikri, a fortified ancient city built by Akbar as the capital of the Mughal empire for about 10 years, following the successful prediction of the birth of an heir. The city was abandoned after Akbar’s death, however, because of water shortages in the region. This is another fascinating site.

    Continuing to Jaipur, we have lunch at the Rajasthan Motel, which was very good. I ordered paneer in a sauce, while Michael ordered potatoes. We also had banana lassi, which was delicious.

    Shortly thereafter, we stopped at Chand Baori, a beautiful stepwell in the town of Abhaneri, just outside of Jaipur, which was wonderful. Truly remarkable structure, as elegant as anything we’ve seen. This well was built in the 9th century, and is one of the deepest and largest in India. It’s 13 stories deep and has 3500 steps!

    After a brief visit to the TGS office in Jaipur, we arrive at our hotel, the Pearl Palace Heritage. What a weird place this is- an ostensible luxury hotel, but nothing works the way it's supposed to, and we’re too tired to deal with it. Construction is going on, and we are in a room that is supposed to be a boudoir, but looks like something out of the wild wild west. We’re here for 2 nights, however, and it’s just not worth getting too irritated. We are settled in and collapse for the night!

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    Saturday, January 26/Republic Day
    Raj and Sharma, our guide for the day, arrived around 9:30 am, and we are off to the Amber Fort! First we passed the Palace of the Winds for a quick photo op. then through more traffic! And traffic! Saturday in a big city plus a holiday as well = noise and traffic!

    At Amber Fort, we decide not to go up by elephant, so drove up instead. Amber Fort is a handsome & solid structure, well-sited, 11 km outside of Jaipur, with wonderful views of the countryside from the top. This is truly glorious Rajput architecture!.Magnificent with elaborate decorative work (I loved the Hall of Victory, with its inlaid panels and multimirrored ceiling).

    Back to Jaipur, where we saw the City Palace, another extraordinarily elegant structure, with many fine details. The 4 entryways to the courtyard are especially beautiful. I’m becoming a little blitzed with all the beautiful structures beginning to run together, so we take a break from the building tours and plan for a little shopping therapy!

    After an unmemorable lunch at a tourist restaurant, we go to the bazaar, where our guide takes us into a saree shop. I was really having fun looking at the pashmina and silk scarves, with more and more gorgeous things being pulled out. Our guide then said he would take care of the bargaining for me, and I made the mistake of letting him do this. Unfortunately, he only offered a small percentage less than the starting price, but by now, I was locked into price he offered. My husband reminded me that he has no incentive in getting me any significant bargains, since he is getting a commission on whatever is sold. I really felt a bit taken at this point, although I genuinely don’t think he was trying to cheat me. The price was not bad, although I really could’ve bargained harder on my own.

    We then wandered a bit through the market. Michael checked out some spice stores, giving him a chance to do his own bargaining!

    After this, we needed to chill out from the noise, traffic, the blur of too many sights, and the hard work of shopping!

    During our short stay in Jaipur, we had the opportunity to meet both Nikhil and his wife; they are both very welcoming and good company.

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    Sunday/Jan 27/day 7

    Today, we are on our way to Bundi!

    Getting out of the hotel took far too long, as the staff couldn’t figure out the bill. I still can’t believe how inefficient the staff is, although I do believe that we’re at the new hotel, the Pearl Palace heritage, at an unfortunate transition point, and that these are not the usual staff. After going to breakfast at the Pearl Palace, the original property, it’s clear that this is a well-run place, and the staff are excellent. So I just think we’ve arrived at an unfortunate moment, and the new hotel will probably be a good one in the future.

    Stopped for tea with Raj, and that was the only stop we made until we got to Bundi. We fell in love with the town the moment we arrived. A perfect small town, lovely heritage hotel, the hotel manager (Kooky jr) was genuinely warm & welcoming, and we found the local people were generally friendly. The town sits on a small lake and has a fort and palace above the town.

    After lunch, we go off to the palace. What an amazing sight this is! The paintings and murals were gorgeous and in surprisingly good condition. What a treasure!

    After that we had a lovely stroll through town, going through the marketplace, a vast network of stalls and shops. A very lively atmosphere!

    I’d debated throughout my planning whether or not to include Bundi, and am so glad we did. It is worth a visit, and my only disappointment is that we didn’t stay 2 nights. It was much more relaxing than the main cities, but much to explore.

    Mon, Jan 28/day 8

    There are around 60 stepwells in Bundi, although we managed to see only 2 of them before leaving for Udaipur! One was especially beautiful.

    After that, we took off for the long haul to Udaipur. We went on a wild goose chase for the Bhimlat waterfall (recommended by our hotel manager), but when we found it, it turned out to be a dam, and a dried out one at that! We all had a laugh over the trip.

    We then stopped at Menal, an old temple complex dedicated to Siva, with few tourists around. Very lovely setting, lovely carvings, though it says there is an erotic panel, but we couldn’t find it.

    We ate lunch at the Menal Resort, next to the temple complex.. There were 2 British couples driving 2 gorgeous vintage cars who we exchanged pleasantries with.

    The ride took a long time, passing many small villages along the way. The first stretch out of Bundi was also a very poor road, making it feel even longer than the actual distance. We also passed small opium fields (white flowers) along the way.

    We stopped off at Chittorgarh fort, one of the largest forts in India, though by this time, we were completely exhausted and didn't feel like really looking very much. This site is in multiple sections, so Raj was able to drive us from place to place.

    Arrival in Udaipur was crazy. Narrow streets with huge numbers of motorcycles, it was impossible to move much. We finally got to our hotel, the Jagat Niwas, and what an amazing room we have! Spacious room with large window seat looking out onto the lake. One of our splurges, but still under $100, and absolutely luxurious to relax in. We ate dinner here (biryani & lamb rogan josh. After dinner, we settled into the room and to sleep.

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    Following along - a great read so far with excellent detail. Inspires me to finish my report about my September trip. Re: Overnight train - can't tell if you're just great sports or it was truly not so bad.

    A theme is emerging in your report: It seems you were not thrilled with your meals. Did your guides choose the restaurants? Do you think they were second guessing tourist tastes?

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    Crosscheck,
    You're right, we were not especially thrilled by many of our meals. We're not foodies, don't go out to high end places, but we live in NYC and are used to Indian food, so did not find many of our meals significantly different or better than what we have here at home. We did have a few meals that stood out, but as a rule, our food experience wasn't that exciting.

    The guides or driver generally brought us to established restaurants that are geared toward the tourist palate. We weren't asked where we wanted to go, and we never really took up the issue, as it often happened that we'd be brought to a place when we were between sites, and suddenly, we'd arrive somewhere. If I were to do it again, I would ask for more "authentic" places, but we didn't really think about it. Sometimes we'd be on the road, and the options were also limited. Part of the concern, of course, is making sure we're eating a meal that is not putting us at risk, so we also accepted that eating cautiously was a necessity.

    Then again, we ate at the restaurants at most of the hotels we stayed at, which many people speak very highly of, so I imagine that we are more critical about what we like. While we found many of the hotel meals okay, we didn't find them very exciting or interesting.

    Toward the end of the trip, we began eating occasional street food, which we did enjoy -- and in Udaipur, we did have a wonderful meal. More in the next installment!

    And the train - surprisingly, was not that bad at all. What we realized, however, is that we were traveling with other tourists, so it didn't have the drama or the color one thinks of when looking at pictures of Indian trains. The amazing thing was that we slept well because the train actually rocked us gently, lulling us to sleep!

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    Enjoying your excellent report as I'm on my last night in Udaipur (well...Devi Garh). I definitely agree with you on the food. I've had Indian food that was just as good in New York and Hong Kong. My husband insists the paneer here is much better, and I agree, but aside from that, no difference. We have eaten in hotels and the tourist restaurants our guide took us to, so maybe that's why. Even after being cautious my husband did come down with a 24 hour virus and stomach bug so maybe it's all for the best....

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    Thanks for the nice comments!

    Bob, I hope I get back your approval when I describe our camel ride adventure! I agree, though, we both regretted not taking the elephant, but the moment had passed, so we let it go. Next time....

    Tansmets, it's good to know that we weren't the only folks somewhat disappointed in the food (not that I'm happy, mind you!). I also realize that we often ended up not having a normal dinner on days that we had large lunches. Often we weren't hungry, and would end up with a small meal or snacks.

    Have a good rest of your trip, tansmets! Where are you going next?

    More to come later.

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    Tues, Jan 29, Udaipur

    Udaipur is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the East”, and we are lucky that Lake Pichola is very full, and the view out the window from my room leaves me with wonderful romantic visions of a bygone era. Depending upon monsoon season, the lake can be very low.

    Up for the day at a respectable 7am and had breakfast at the hotel - a little pricier than other places, but pretty good. Elegant & classy rooftop restaurant with a gorgeous view.

    At 9:30am we meet our guide, Uma. What an interesting character! Uma is of a Brahmin caste, says his family has multiple villages in the region, and he is still responsible for them. He then told us a heartbreaking story of a lost English love, but did not marry her to appease his father, who arranged his marriage. He is 31, has been married 8 years and has 2 children, yet still carries the torch for her. This is the first guide who even spoke about a desire to marry for love and to consider marriage outside the tradition. Uma spoke for a long time about the loss of his English love-- although it wasn't "the program", it was interesting to get a more personal perspective, and we found him to be a terrific storyteller.

    We first visited the Jagdish temple, with people praying & singing inside. Up a long flight of stairs, beautifully carved, it’s centrally located and there is a great deal of activity in and around it. I liked the feeling of the place a lot.

    We then went to the City Palace( huge!) and in between the usual tourist speeches,, he tells us another family story, this time, about the death of his uncle who had been cursed by someone. His telling was on the order of a grand Shakespearean tale, with intrigue upon intrigue! Rather odd but very compelling tale, and he is an entertaining companion. He gives us the necessary details of the sights, but he is far more interesting for the tales he tells! Will I remember when a particular building was built? No! But his story of his poor cursed uncle is very much a vivid memory for me! The City Palace is stunning, with some of the most ornate rooms yet, though to tell the truth, I’m starting to have a hard time keeping track of the many forts and palaces we’ve been visiting. Uma then takes us to the City Palace museum, which has some wonderful picture galleries, and he gives us a really good overview of the paintings.

    I’m obsessing over shopping, as I keep seeing women tourists wearing interesting looking outfits, yet I can’t seem to find them in the markets that we are visiting. So, after the city palace, Uma takes me to a shop for clothing. Everyone shows me pashmina, they don't even ask what I want. I'm trying to figure out what I want, and I'm overwhelmed. This is an ongoing theme! I didn't buy anything in the store, although they seemed to have good quality. I find the Anokhi store in the City Palace complex, but don’t see anything there that really appeals to me, either.

    However great the sights were, our favorite activity of the day was lunch! We ate at Natraj, by the train station, and this was an amazing experience! This was very much a local place (there’s another Natraj listed in the Lonely Planet, but it’s not the one we went to), no foreign tourist in sight. This was filled mostly with businessmen, and some families. They served one dish only: a vegetarian thali, each person getting an aluminum tray with a total of 20-something items; waiters constantly filling the dishes and bringing various breads out. It was outstanding, as much for being in a non tourist place as well as for the food itself. And the cost: Rs140/person! This was the type of food experience that we love, and we really were appreciative that Uma took us here. It was also one of the few times we ate with our guide.

    After that, Raj met us and drove us to Sahleyion ki Bari, the Women's Garden. A nice break several kilometers outside the city, pleasant garden grounds, with a small eclectic museum which had the most absurd displays with no overriding theme. It looked like a room filled with school projects done in the 1950s, and I loved it! We then went to one of the “stop and shop” places, a place specializing in modern miniature paintings. It was a pleasant stop, and, as usual, we looked but didn't buy. I’m used to this by now, and have come to view it as an opportunity to learn about an art or craft, and really, no one is pressuring us to buy.

    Back to the hotel, and goodbyes to Uma and to our driver, Raj. Arrangements made for the day after tomorrow with Raj. Uma recommended that we take the footbridge across to the other side of the lake for dinner.

    After a rest at the hotel, we set off to look for the footbridge and see about dinner. I was not especially hungry, having eaten a large meal earlier.

    After crossing the footbridge, we discovered that a movie was being filmed so some of the restaurants were closed..It was fun watching the locals gather for the sight of the film star, though we don't know who it is.

    We ended up back at the hotel at the restaurant, mainly because I wasn't hungry and it was easy. We had a vegetable biryani dish that we liked very much with another lamb dish that was okay.

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    Wed, Jan 30/Udaipur

    Today was relatively low-keyed, yet busy. Slept late, then had breakfast at another nearby hotel with a roof top restaurant, which was surprisingly good and cheaper than the Jagat Niwas. We then took a walk down to the market area on the other side of the clock tower. There were many gold shops here, and we saw what looked like people buying jewelry for important occasions. This felt like a less-touristy part of town.Still on my shopping mission, I found a small shop near the hotel called Mystique, with an older gentleman who had a gentle demeanor and his son who tailor clothes right there. After searching through many shops, I opted to get some tunics made for me. The shirts are lovely, and I really enjoyed the interaction. They were ready for me later that day!

    We went on the the boat ride to Jag Mandir island, which was very pleasant, if a little short. The island is pretty but there’s not much to see, so we came back shortly after arriving.

    We then ran into Uma as we got off the boat. A pleasant surprise to bump into him, so walked with him for a little while and got some chai masala and a samosa (yum!). This was the first time we actually had street food, and it was a wonderful treat.

    We strolled through town and took lovely breaks at the hotel, taking full advantage of our huge window seat.

    That evening, we went to the performance of Rajasthani dances and puppets at the Bagore-Ki-Haveli that was absolutely delightful! It happens every evening at 7pm, and though it is a touristic event, it’s in a lovely setting in an outside courtyard, and the performers have real charm. The costumes are fabulous and the dances are quite impressive. Well worth attending!

    Tomorrow we are off to Kumbalgarh & Ranakpur, and then Fort Dhamli.

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    31 Jan Thursday/Udaipur to Fort Dhamli

    A long and twisty drive through the Aravelli hills to Kumbalgarh - a large, beautifully sited fort high up in the hills with great views of the countryside. This is the most remote of all the forts we visited, and is removed enough from the city that it’s not crowded with tourists. It’s a large site, and we stay for a while, although we only explore a tiny bit of the fort and its many structures, but really enjoyed the place.

    Next stop, Ranakpur, a Jain temple complex, open to non-Jains after 12:00 noon. Truly beautiful, the main temple, the Chaumukha Mandir, is spectacular, with 1,444 beautifully engraved white marble columns under many smaller and larger domes. We visited two other temples in the immediate vicinity, although the main one was the primary sight.

    On our way to Fort Dhamli, we drove, it seems, forever, down roads that seemed to go nowhere. We go through several larger and smaller villages, wondering just how far we are going off the beaten path. We come to a dirt road, with some dilapidated-looking haveli- style houses, and Raj says, "We're lost" -- when I see a sign that says, Fort Dhamli. Michael said he freaked out when we entered the gate and saw the dusty looking court yard. Then thakur Inder Singh, (feudal lord), the descendent of the aristocratic family that used to own the village, walked out and welcomed us, and brought us inside the building, settled us in the room, and then sat with us for quite a while. The place is actually quite nicely renovated, and surprisingly comfortable, given our first impressions. We're the only ones here, and it is a very odd experience! He tells us about his family, the property and the nature of the village life.

    Why Fort Dhamli? I had wanted to get a sense of small village life with the minimal tourist filter, and remembered reading about it in a trip report last year. It filled the bill completely, as it really is way off the beaten path, yet has a lovely hotel. We’re there only for the one night, so it’s a quick stop, but it was a fascinating and different place to be.

    After a cup of Masala tea, Michael and I venture out of doors. We are told that a wedding will be starting that evening, and within moments we are greeted by some village locals, including one man who calls himself Inder's nephew. His brother is the one getting married, he says, and then, as others gather, he introduces us to another brother, his SIL, and numerous other folks and children, who come out of the woodwork to view us, the foreigners! It was a delightful interaction, only somewhat frustrating due to the language barrier. I took lots of pictures, and they had asked if we could give them to them somehow. We told them we'd email them to Inder, and hopefully, they will get them. They invited us to something at 8pm, but we were unable to go then because of dinner.

    Inder sat with us throughout dinner, and Michael and he talked about the nature of religion and its meaning, especially in India and its conservatism. Dinner was good (cooked by Robyn, cook and general assistant), the vegetables were delicious, and the roast pork was tasty ( shot by Inder himself!) although a bit tough.

    After dinner, Inder got a horse ready for the wedding procession, which was supposed to start at 9pm. We then went back to the area where the wedding activities were taking place, and hung around with a lot of kids and other folks. After about a half hour of waiting, we decided to call it quits, as we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. The language barrier is difficult here, and it’s now more awkward, standing around waiting. So we came back and, shortly after we’re back in our room, we hear loud music, mostly new music with a touch of traditional. It was time to go to sleep!

    Feb1/Friday/Fort Dhamli to Jodhpur

    Up for breakfast @ 8:30; Inder then took care of paperwork, explaining that the strict monitoring of tourists really began after the attacks in Mumbai. The paperwork is quite overwhelming for the tourist industry, and now I have a better understanding of the reasons for it. Each place has to make copies of passports, which are sent to the police station and tourists have to identify where they are coming from and where they are going to next. And it's all being written in large ledgers! We also take care of the fees, which end up less than the original quote.

    The village tour was fascinating. Inder was not really giving a "guided" tour so much as we accompanied the village head around the town as he did his rounds. We went into a few homes, and he showed us certain aspects of the lives of the locals.

    First we went into the compound of the untouchables, interacting with the children, mostly, who were flocking around us, the foreigners, and posing for the camera. There were some strikingly beautiful children, and it seemed a shame that they would have little opportunity to move beyond their caste. We also,went into the tiny rooms of a few of them, saw how they lived with the barest amenities.

    We continue our walk through town, and though Inder doesn’t explain too much, the opportunity to stroll with him is enough, as he is clearly the head of the town and people greet him wherever we walk. We went to a higher caste home, where 2 girls were getting ready for school. Their house, too, though more modern, has a cooking area outside, and though they have plumbing, they still need to fetch drinking water from the well. It’s a world that continues to astound me, the contrasts that exist.

    We were shown how families have a flour mill to press their own flour, and they have their own oil presses, too. Sometimes, these things are used for barter. Inder said the town is completely self- sufficient, growing or making everything that they need.

    Then we walked to the girls school, which Inder had established about 10 years ago. I took many photos! Inder had them sing a song that shows off the English skills. Then he had them pose with me! I love the photo!

    We asked about the girls' opportunities, and Inder told us how some people had wanted to create a scholarship for the girls to go on to college, but that the families don't want them to go. Such a conservative, old- fashioned culture. We entered the school, and the older girls excitedly showed me their classroom – it was clear that they were very proud of what they’d accomplished. Some of the younger boys also attend the school.

    We walked through the village some more, and showed us the newer construction going up for some wealthier families. And, he took us to a public bath/basin where the women go to wash clothes.

    Finally, time to leave, but we’re both glad that we made the effort to visit. It really gives us a good snapshot of life here in Rajasthan.

    The drive to Jodhpur is less than 2 hours away, and we reach our hotel by 1:00pm. A brief lunch, and we are off to the Jodhpur market with Raj.

    This is the most intense market yet – huge, many different types of things, from food,to new clothing, and everything in between. Many people hustling to get us to buy for them. I ended up buying a couple of scarves from some women who were sitting on the ground, piles of scarves all intertwined,with no stall or table and everything cheap. These are not your quality goods! And still I bargain!

    We walked a bit outside of the market to get a bit of a flavor of the old city . Then, back to the car, where Michael gets,some saffron from the shop that let Raj park in front of their place. Michael bought 2 gms of saffron, but the shop owner did everything in his power to get Michael to take at least 10 grams!

    Michael and I decide that we want to visit some of the Bishnoi villages, and a quick call to Nikhil and it is all arranged for the next day. We will get a private guide to take us on a brief tour of several villages.

    Back for an afternoon rest. Ratan Vilas is a lovely place, just outside of the busy downtown, a real oasis in the chaos that is Jodhpur. This hotel has the most amenities so far, and is spacious, comfortable and relaxing. The shared spaces are beautiful. It has wifi, but, I’m having intermittent luck getting on with my ipad. I’ve had difficulty accessing the internet throughout my trip, however.

    After lazing about the hotel for a few hours, we had Raj pick us up at 7:00 to take us to Indique, the rooftop restaurant on the roof of the Pal Haveli. It looks pretty grand, and would be good place to stay in town. Michael and I were very happy to have a quiet oasis to return to, however.

    The evening was beautiful and the rooftop views spectacular, with the Mehrangarh fort and the clocktower lit up, and the city spread out. Really lovely. The food was very good, one of the best meals so far, especially the traditional eggplant dish. A great end to the day.

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    Feb.2/Saturday – Jodhpur/Bishnoi village tour

    Up at a reasonable hour, we had the large breakfast buffet in the garden tent. Very luxurious, very colonial.

    We met Raj and our guide, Ragu, at 9:00am. From the first moment we met him, Ragu was a real pleasure to work with. His English is far and away the best of any of the guides we've had, and he had a wonderful sense of humor, and really appreciated Michael's humor, too.

    A note here: Michael gets lots of attention in Rajasthan because of his mustache, a thing of pride for the Rajasthani men, and we have many wonderful photos of Michael posing with them.

    We visited several small villages of the Bishnoi tribe. These are people who don’t believe in killing any living thing. Each of the different villages are known for a particular product, which sell to tourists like us! The trip to these villages was wonderful, as the people are really warm and welcoming. We visited both a village of potters and of weavers, and we bought something at each. We didn’t find the commercial aspect of this a problem, as the people had a genuine openness to them. And we were especially lucky with our guide, who knew them well.

    The first was a potter family. One man was working on already thrown pots, forming them into larger containers. We then watched a demonstration by another man making several small pots on the manual potter's wheel. No electricity! After the demonstration, we bought a small dish and our own small Ganesh.

    On to the next -- and best! This traditional family was introduced to us, I guess, to be shown the opium ceremony. And of course, we did partake, though it was so diluted that neither of us felt anything. But the head of this family was a character -- a lascivious, mischievous fellow with a bawdy sense of humor, and he and Michael hit it off like they had known each other for years. There was much laughter but much sweetness in the exchanges. When he brought out his pipe, Michael took out his, and Michael ended up giving him his tin of little cigars. Mr, Bishnoi looked very happy with his new toys! I have a series of photos of the 2 of them that are priceless.

    Finally time to leave, and we were taken to a weavers’ village, where we watch a demonstration of weaving and are shown a number of dhurries. After much back and forth, we decide to buy one of the smaller dhurries, though I really love the larger ones, too (no room in a small NYC apt, I’m afraid!). The head of the village cooperative is a very sharp, well-educated man who seems like he'd be at home in a business or academic setting, and seemed oddly out of place in the very rural Bishnoi village. But perhaps that's my bias. Nonetheless, we are very happy with our rug - having a personal connection makes it special.

    After the tour, we are dropped off at yet another tourist restaurant and say goodbye to our favorite guide. We head back to Jodhpur, where we are on our own.

    First stop: Jaswant Thada, the cenotaph, or crematory ground for the maharajahs of Jodhpur. Attractive structures on the hill, with good views of the fort.

    And then the fort! It is an amazing structure, stands grandly on top of the hill. We got the audio guides to tour with, and they were fine. The fort was fun - there were numerous musicians performing throughout the fort, which really added to the total experience, making it a lot more alive and personal than many of the fort tours.

    Finally, the day's activities come to an end and we return to Ratan Vilas, with no desire to return to town. We stayed at the hotel to rest and revive ourselves, and then had dinner at the hotel. We opted to have the buffet dinner (and noticed that everyone else did the same), although we found it a mediocre meal. Too bad, because in all other respects, the hotel is a wonderful place to stay.

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    loved indique and that general area...

    anxious to read about your time in the villages... we liked that very much... i have a great rug next to my side of our bed that i bought from there..

    the fort stop sounds perfect...maybe next time for us..

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    Our rug is lying right in front of the door! It arrived the day after we came home - couldn't believe how quick it was. And the packaging was incredible -- the packaging was sewn around it.

    We loved the villages, both the Bishnoi villages as well as the very untouristy Fort Dhamli. We also really loved Bundi, which was a smaller town, but with much to offer.

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    Feb. 3/Sunday – Jodhpur to Jaisalmer

    The breakfast buffet is plentiful and satisfying, and we have our usual omelettes and coffee. We are not starving on this trip!

    At 9:30, we meet Raj -- he is always there and has consistently been responsible, helping to coordinate our guides and taking us to places even when we don't have a guide. I think we'll miss Raj when we leave. He's really been a part of our travels.

    We go directly to Jaisalmer, no stops except for a brief one more than halfway there in a “rest stop”. The trip takes about 5 hours, and we drive through a flat, semi-desert stretch for more than half the trip. We passed many cows, water buffalo, goats and sheep everywhere, but also passed camels (I saw a small herd at some point!), peacocks, and pigs, both wild and domesticated.

    The first quarter or third of the road was really poor, with bumps and rough patches everywhere. It meant slow going for a while! It was a real welcome when the road smoothed out and Raj could make time on the road.

    We arrive in Jaisalmer about 2:30 or 3:00, and are met by the TGS rep in Jaisalmer. We confirm the touring plans for the next few days.

    Jaisalmer and the sandstone architecture are beautiful, and the look really is very different than we've seen so far.

    After settling into the Garh Jaisal hotel, we have masala chai on the roof. The roof itself is very pretty, and the city view is exciting from this vantage point. I know that there is some ongoing controversy over staying in the fort, but we find it a wonderful place to stay. There is a real feeling of a small town here that exists simultaneously with the tourist world.

    And then we ventured out, first within the fort, and then outside the walls. The touts and hawkers here are even more aggressive than any place we've been so far, which is hard to fathom! At one point, there must've been 3 or more,trying to hustle me, and I had to tell them to leave me alone, I'm not ready to buy anything.


    We walked around the fort and explored the back streets. Along the fort wall, we met an older couple who wanted to have their pictures with us. The woman had said that she became a Christian after being cured of cancer. She was filled with a sense of joy and gave me a small bauble as a gift. Her happiness and enthusiasm was infectious, and we’re both touched by the interaction.

    We met a local, who told us that his family had been important in the village in the past, and invited us in to show us the place. He talked a bit about the history, and then showed us an eclectic assortment of things, both antique and new, that he had for sale. It wasn’t an official haveli, although it was clear that he was trying to raise money to maintain his house. I’m sorry that we didn’t buy anything at the time.

    While wandering through the fort, I got accosted by a cow! It was butting my butt and I had to jump up on a large stoop to escape it!

    Dinner was next door at the Surya guesthouse, also called the Lakeview restaurant. Excellent meal – another standout! - a vegetarian thali that was really delicious. Inexpensive, too. I think we’ve done well with this particular meal!

    After dinner, we returned to the hotel and took it easy. There was a little rain that evening. During the evening there were also wedding celebrations, which included loud drumming and singing below our window. Ear plugs needed!

    Garth Jaisalmer is a lovely place, run by several men from Nepal, in a very exotic setting in the fort. The room has is a little window seat that overlooks the city. The room itself was built into the basic structure of the fort. The staff is pleasant and attentive. At first, there seems to be no hot water, but we are told to run 2 buckets of water and it will be hot – and they are right! Other than that, the room has the usual quirks - not enough hooks to hang things on, and no TV!

    Monday, Feb 4 - Jaisalmer

    After breakfast, our guide joined us, and he began talking about life in the fort. He is a Brahmin and his family goes back many generations here. We walked all around the fort, and he brought us into a few of the Hindu and Jain temples.

    The Jain temples were amazing. The Jains were financial advisers to the maharajah. Their temples had been destroyed by the Moghuls so they asked to have a temple inside the fort. The Brahmins objected and a compromise was reached. The temple was to be called a Hindu temple and was adorned with many images of the Hindu gods, but there were also images of the prophets of the Jains, as well as altars to the Jain prophets, and it functioned as a Jain temple. The Jains consider themselves as a sect of Hinduism but the Brahmins, still to this day, do not eat with the Jains.

    Our guide shared a lot about his experience growing up in the fort, which made it come to life for us. He invited us into his home and had his wife serve us masala chai. He then took us upstairs to show us the terrace roof views - great views of the top of the temples. We met his family, although it was a bit awkward, as they didn’t seem much interested in us. Overall, though, we found it a very lovely gesture to bring us into his house, and we appreciated the personal interaction.

    We walked by the palace although didn't go in; he said it wasn't that unique and we'd seen so many other places by now that were so much more interesting. We both felt that he was both good yet shirked a bit, too-- he really gave us a flavor of life in the fort but didn't spend as much time at the actual sights as we would've expected.

    We then left the fort, went to one haveli, and were given a tour/sales pitch by the owner, who is 6th generation in this house and whose forefather 6th generations back was the prime minister of Jaisalmer. Now he sells things to maintain the upkeep. The most interesting thing about the haveli is that 2 architect-brothers designed the haveli, so that while the overall look is symmetric, the design elements do vary from each other.

    He later brought us into a lovely textile shop that specialized in patchwork, and I ended up buying something here far bigger than I planned, spending more money than I intended (!). I bargained hard for something I didn’t know I wanted! But I’m now very happy with it and have a beautiful patchwork runner dressing up a large file cabinet.

    We also had a samosa and another pastry in the street. That's all we needed today! Not the big lunches we've been having!

    At 2:00, we met Raj and drive a short distance to an artificial lake, Gadi Sagar, that was built as a catchment for monsoon rainwater, and was used as a water supply in the past. The most interesting thing there was the gate, built by a courtesan, who built a temple on top to prevent the king from destroying the gate.

    Back to town and to the hotel. The sun is shining brightly on the golden sandstone, and we sit on the hotel roof, enjoying the warmth of the day and the beauty of the view. The boys from Nepal welcomed us warmly and gave us a masala chai!

    We had dinner at Trio, a restaurant near the city walls. It was a good restaurant, although food seemed very mildly spiced and geared to a tourist palate. After that we walked back to the hotel, where we chatted with several of the vendors in the fort before heading in for the night.

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    Tues Feb 5/Jaisalmer & the Sam Sand Dunes

    Today we are on our own until we get picked up by Raj at 3:00 pm to go out to the Sam Sand Dunes.

    Breakfast at the hotel, upstairs but under the awning as it rained the night before. My mission was to go shopping and find some nice things for myself and for gifts.

    First we went to the Jaisalmer Maharajah palace -- a small palace, but pleasant to do. We did the audio guide and that was well done-- the most interesting thing we learned was that there is a close connection between Nepal and Jaisalmer, as the Maharani is Nepalese. There is still a maharajah and maharani, who stay in a palace.

    A little more shopping, buying some scarves and purses for nieces and grandkids. I've gone on a scarf binge this trip!

    We also went to a small museum called the Desert Cultural center, run by a man named Lakshmi, who created it as an act of love. He had an extensive collection of things related to Jaisalmer's history.

    We met Raj at 3:00 pm and made several stops on the way to the Sam Sand dune. First, we stopped at the cenotaph of the Jaisalmer royals, a crumbling mess, fascinating and beautiful, although not in particularly good condition or well-sited. I think we're also getting tired don't have it in us to absorb it all.

    We then stopped at Khuldara, an abandoned village. The story goes that the maharajah wanted one of the village's women for himself. Then he decided he wanted another one, and the villagers abandoned their town rather than letting another woman be taken.

    We were there for a short while. I noticed several women working at the site, carrying rocks from one side of one of the buildings a short distance away. I find the use of women's labor often mind boggling.

    An aside: it’s not just that you see women carrying water jugs and piles of wood for long stretches on the road in rural places. Women are also working alongside men on construction sites, often carrying materials on their head. They’re not only doing traditional “women’s work”, but are working alongside men, carrying construction material, too.

    Finally, we are off to the Sam Sand dune. Raj warned us of the commercialism, and he wasn't kidding! When we arrived after a long drive, we were really struck by the carnival atmosphere. There were people hawking camel rides, camel-cart rides, drinks, and the usual collection of kids, hustling any way they can. Two young women pose with me and we give them Rs10, and they ask for 10 each. We say no. I can’t believe we’re getting tight about Rs10, but the hustle is so constant that it’s just part of the game.

    There are so many tourists here that it’s hardly an intimate and peaceful experience in the desert. I knew this but am really amused by it while also finding it somewhat unpleasant.

    We decide not to ride the camel here as we will be doing a guided tour tomorrow. We walk through the dunes a bit, but get tired of wandering around, and go back to the car, where Raj drives us to an open air building set up for a music & dance performance, and a buffet dinner. This wasn’t quite what we expected (we were expecting a barbecue and a performance by Manganiyars, traditional Rajasthani musicians. This was a performance that was similar to the one we saw in Udaipur, but with a much heavier touristic flavor. But we are here and make the best of it, and we did enjoy ourselves by not taking it too seriously.

    We arrive shortly before a large German tour group, who were getting better service while we were getting ignored. Finally, they left before the dinner so it got a bit more pleasant. We also chatted with an Indian couple who live in Long Island, NY

    Got back to the hotel and packed, as we need to get up early the next day. Tomorrow, we are scheduled to go to Hacra, where we will take a camel ride through the desert near Osian.

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    Hey Progol, AWESOME report!
    Thanks for answering about accommodatins, and the warning of the other open shower. Maybe we should all start a list! (-: I know i'm not the only person who prefers a shower that at least has a little divide area, even if it is just a step, and a shower curtain. ( Africa too has the "open showers " in some places.)
    A friend from India told me she prefers not being enclosed while showering (no curtain or sliding partition! Guess it depends what you are used to.
    i'm like you--i mostly prefer the accommodations at$100/night--for budgetary as well as atmosphere reasons.I'm always surprised when someone wants to "experience the real India" but does it from $300/night accommodations or exclusively Taj or Oberoi hotels
    The choices i was surprised by were the ones in Jaipur and Agra., esp'lly the latter. I recall it getting some pretty mixed reviews somewhere--maybe on TA?

    Thanks again for a fantastic report!!!!!

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    Wed Feb 6- Back to Jodhpur by way of Hacra

    Up early to go to Jodhpur with several stops in between. After driving for a while, Raj takes us to a town, with a small lake in what seems the middle of nowhere. He tells us that some Siberian bird comes by here every year to this town, but at first, all we find is a small lake with some pigeons. Then he takes us around the town and we finally see them in a small yard. We are directed to go on the roof of the small building beside the yard, and then we see them, hundreds of the Siberian cranes, and I remember reading about them! It's sorta cool especially when they start to fly off.

    Michael sleeps for a while, and I enjoy watching the wildlife in the fields as we drive by. The most interesting creature was the tiny deer with the long horns, but I see peacocks, and a wart hog, and an amazing-looking antelope. Very lulling and otherworldly.

    We arrive at Hacra, in the Thar desert, and meet Gemar Singh. He and his organization, Hacra.org, are impressive. He is a local desert guide, and describes his approach as ecotourism. He offers private tours of local villages, the desert, rural homestays, and has built a few huts at his home compound where tourists can stay. This is home to Gemar, his wife and son. There is no electricity, save for a solar panel, which charges his battery for his cell phone and his computer. But that’s it.

    We arrive around 11:30 and are early for lunch, so we sit and relax.. A few goats are about. While we’re waiting, 2 young Australian women return, by camel, from an overnight in the desert. Now that is impressive!

    Soon, we will be going for a shorter tour in the desert on these camels, but first, they are groomed and fed, and allowed to relax for a little while. They are also a riot to watch, especially when the goats try to grab their hay! Hey! No way!

    Then, we have a simple, home-cooked meal together, prepared by Germar’s wife. The food is satisfying, and the young women are pleasant company. Then we get ready for our tour through the desert.

    The guide leads us through the Thar desert, passing many small villages. Several groups of kids came running out, some shouting thank you, over and over, and the next group yelling tata! We pass a shepherd and his goat herd, too. We see many small deer running by. The desert is like the southwest – dry scrub. It’s a 2-hour walk, and it’s very peaceful, although sitting for 2 hours on a camel is also like sitting on a bumpy rollercoaster!

    I sit on the camel behind the guide and my husband. I laugh when I see the guide talking on the cell phone, and tell him that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone on a cell phone while riding a camel!

    Two hours later, we arrive at the designated spot, and Raj and Gemara are there, as well as a group of men, boys, and young men lined up staring at us. We are the objects of interest!

    We have another 1 1/2 hours to get to Jodhpur, and we finally arrive. We are welcomed back as if we are old friends, and it was the one place I made a mistake about the date. Yet they were wonderfully accommodating and found us another room. They had been trying to hold the same room for us, and were apologetic that they couldn't save it for us! They were wonderful, so solicitous.

    We had a snack there and later a small dinner. A good place to relax for our last night in Rajasthan.

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    Thanks, CaliNurse! Much appreciate your comments! I'm on the homestretch now, and hope to finish this shortly!

    I'll respond to your recent post in a little a little later, when I can think again!

    I'm still struggling with a nasty case of jet lag, and am finding it difficult to sleep past 4am, which makes me very tired by the afternoon!

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    Thurs Feb 7 – Back to Delhi

    Up early, although we are in no rush, as Raj won't be picking us up until 10:45. We have breakfast, pack, and wait. At 10:30,Raj is there so we take off. I'm really sad-- saying goodbye to Raj was hard for me. We really grew fond of him.

    The Jodhpur airport is tiny, the flight is on time, and we arrive in Delhi on schedule. By the time we get back to the Colonels Retreat, we are both fairly worn out, though, and my plan for a last dinner at Indian Accent falls by the wayside. We have dinner at the guesthouse, and find it quite good.

    This is supposed to be our last night, and I've arranged with Nikhil for a driver for the day. I’ve been keeping an eye out on the weather, though, as I see that a major snowstorm is predicted for the Northeast just as we return.

    Friday feb 8th – The departure that didn’t happen

    Woke up to the news that our flight was cancelled, so much of the morning was spent trying to sort out what our options were. A friend of the owner, Meera, is managing the guest house while he is away, and she offers her house as an option, as the Colonels Retreat is booked. Later there is a cancellation and we were able to stay.

    As for the business of trying to reach United… I tried to rebook on the computer, but that didn't work. I speak to Nikhil, who suggests that we see if there is an office in Delhi. Getting through on the phones is difficult. We had the driver scheduled, so we figured we would try getting to the united airlines office in Delhi.

    So with the driver, we drove to Delhi, only to find out that the office had moved to Gurgaon. We then decided to try the airport, only to find out that 1) we couldn't enter the terminal until 5 hours prior to our flight's departure, and 2) United personnel aren't there until the evening. Our driver spoke with Nikhil and said that of course we need to go to Gurgaon, going to the airport is only for departing passengers. So our driver got the address and we drive to Gurgaon, a half built, under construction, industrial city that was as confusing as it gets. We kept going down one road and another till we finally got to the right one. Even going into the building was frustrating, as the elevator didn't stop on our floor. Once there, though, the woman who helped us was terrific, and got us on a Monday night flight. She gave us her number to call the next morning to see if there is any availability sooner.

    After taking care of business, we went off to the Khan market. We had wonderful kebabs at khan chacha, which was a great little fast food place, although it wasn’t so fast. I then walked into a small crafts shop on the second floor of one of the building and bought a few more gift items.

    After that, we went back to the hotel. We decided not to take a driver the next day, since we expected to be here for a few days, and wanted to explore a little on our own.

    We rested for quite a while at the guest house, then went to the market at the Defence colony and had dinner at Swagarth. It was different than any of the other restaurants - very hot food – and very tasty, one of the better restaurants. We had a prawn dish in a coconut sauce and hot garlic noodles - yum! We walked a bit through the market and then back to the hotel.

    Saturday, Feb 9 - A day in Delhi and farewell

    After breakfast, Michael contacted the airline, and amazingly, we got booked on the flight later today. Now we wanted a car, and, after some confusion, we end up arranging a car through Colonels Retreat. The driver was pleasant, although his English was not as good as the drivers we had with TGS, but he was responsible and did what we asked him to do. He drove us around during the day, dropping us off at the airport in the early evening.

    We went to the Gandhi museum, which we really enjoyed. After that, we saw New Delhi, going first to the India Gate, which was delightful with its carnival atmosphere. It was a gorgeous day, around 70 degrees, and many Indian families were there as well as tourists. We then drove the Rajpath to see the President’s house and the gov’t buildings. Very interesting! This really gave us a better understanding of Delhi. It's still a bit confusing, but at least some of the pieces are coming together.

    We also went to the National Museum, which we had mixed feelings about. There are some beautiful displays, particularly the collection of paintings, but the audio guide is limited and the labels next to the displays really don’t say very much. It’s unfortunate, because there is a lot there, but it could be presented a lot better than it is.

    And then we went to Connaught place, the commercial center. We got stuck in ungodly traffic, and after driving around forever without having any luck with parking, we took off to Khan Market, where we ate again in Khan Chacha. And then I finished my day in Fabindia, which really was fabulous! I only wish I found this store earlier in the trip! My most favorite clothing shop! Nicely styled clothing, good quality, reasonable prices. I could’ve spent a lot more time here, but my husband does not have the shopping gene, and it’s getting time to go.

    Off to the airport, got there a little early but were able to go in. I resolve my shopping obsession in the duty free shop and, after several hours, it’s finally time to board. Sad to leave but ready to go home, this was our Most Amazing Trip ever!

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    CaliNurse,
    That's very funny about your friend not liking enclosed showers! I'm not crazy over them, but I learned to tolerate them, as I was otherwise very happy with the hotels.

    As far as my choices of hotels, well, most came from here or TripAdvisor. I liked the idea of a homestay in Agra, and truthfully, Garden Villa had been suggested to me, and the reviews on TA looked pretty reasonable. I had very positive exchanges with the owner, but was disappointed with our experience. To be fair, however, it was everything he said -- and the price was Rs 1900 (plus dinner), which is $35. I really expected a warm welcome from a homestay, so the more businesslike demeanor was part of the surprise.

    The search for a hotel in Jaipur was different. I put together a list of hotels, and the reviews on TA were excellent. Pearl Palace Heritage sounded fun with its "updated" Heritage style, and, at Rs 2000, was not a bank-breaker, either. It appears, though, that I was there during a period of transition & construction, and the staff were backup, not the regular staff. I wouldn't stay there again, though, because I like having access to the restaurant where I'm staying. I did like the original and more modest Pearl Palace, however, and felt that would be a good place to stay (although I didn't see the rooms). Our room was huge, and really could be comfortable when completed. The decor of that particular room did not appeal (so garish!), but photos I've seen of the other rooms look a little less over-the-top!

    By the way, our hotels ranged in price from the $35 for the homestay, to less than $100 for several places, with most in the middle.

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    My husband just told me that we did meet one of the owners of the Colonels Retreat! We met Meena, the Colonel's wife, during our second stay at the guest house. She was lovely and gracious and as helpful as could be.

    I don't know how I misunderstood the relationship, but I did want to pass on this information. I believe it's her son who normally runs the guest house, but he was out of town at the time. Sorry if I passed on misinformation!

    Hope you are enjoying the trip report!

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    Thanks, Crosscheck. Glad you're enjoying this. My husband often gets the details better, so I should have him proof my next TR. But I take full responsibility for wanting to correct my mistakes, especially if it conveys a better impression of somewhere we visited or stayed!

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    Hey Progol--Carry on. Love ALL of this report. Can't wait to use it as a reference when i return to India and see the many places I've missed.

    My friend LIKES the un-enclosed showers (easy to miss the word "not" on first reading) because that is what she grew up with, I dont like them. Something about watching that water run around the toilet commode.( IMHO--eww!) And in one place which had one, the floor was linoleum. Very slippery, even with a towel on the floor

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    Great report Progol. You had a fantastic trip!

    (I like the open showers, mainly because they seem cleaner that the separate shower that is often shoe-horned into a small bathroom.)

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    Many thanks, dgunbug, bob, lcuy-- your trip reports and advice were very helpful in figuring out my own trip. CaliNurse -- I'm glad that you'll want to use my report as a reference! Call it the "open bathroom" report!,

    Bob--- hiding the garbage in Varanasi is quite the challenge! I do love the fog shots as well.

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    Bob--why (re Aarti ceremony)? Was last in Varanasi 40 plus yrs ago, and it sure sounds different now. Trying to decide if worth a revisit and if so, for how long. Thanks (or just refer me to a TR)

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    Hi, CaliNurse,
    We loved the Aarti ceremony. It's theatrical and flamboyant, but it's also a real ceremony that (as you see) pilgrims to Varanasi as well as tourists attend. For us, it was a great experience to be there. Even though it's a spectacle, it's also a genuine ceremony that has meaning.

    Bob, why did you hate it so much?

    Paule

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    We loved the aarti. It did have a choreographed Bollywood element, but that made it more accessible. We were lucky to sit in the cage next to the musicians, superb people watching from there. Captivating, uplifting & atmospheric, with way more locals/pilgrims than tourists - I would go back in a heartbeat.

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    i just saw it as a bunch of people jumping around and swinging vessels with fire in them..

    lots of interesting sorts around to look at but then they are at the ghats most of the time..

    june---bored, that's a good word for it..

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    We were just so mesmerized by the whole experience - the audience, the ceremony - that by the time we started to feel a bit tired of the ceremony, it was over.

    It was our first night in Varanasi, and only our 3rd night in India, so I think we felt a bit like Dorothy in Oz -- we're not in Kansas anymore (with apologies to anyone from Kansas!)! Or, NYC for that matter!

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    Just back yesterday at 5pm. Up at 4am. Loved our 19 night trip to India. Brought with me many TR from this board, but, of course, our trip was our trip. What works for one person is different than what works for another. But, for us, having used Legends and Palaces as our travel agent was a most important decision. We were made completely comfortable wherever we went by the people taking care of us. In fact, we have never, ever been so well cared-for.

    Our agent, Mr. Singh, gave us an Indian cellphone to use for our trip. Really important!!! Being able to get in touch with our agent, our driver, our guide made a big different.

    When our India Airlines flight from Varanasi to Agra, which left on time, did not land in Agra but took us to Khajuraho instead. It was a problem. They would not take us back to Varanasi, or to New Delhi. Just here at 4pm. they provided a bus to go to Agra, but Agra was 500 km away and 120 km of the road was not paved. In fact, the previous road had been torn up for a new road 2 years ago, but the new road had not been laid. So it was worse than unpaved.

    Fortunately, Mr. Singh phoned us before we got off the plane to tell us he would have a comfortable car and driver to take us to Agra. The provided bus did not have a toilet and it did not get to AGra until 5:30am. We got there to our hotel at 3:00am. Those hours made a difference to us and we also had a feeling of being in control. We could stop when needed (not just when the driver had to wipe the dust off the headlights). It was an experience. We took with us two young Japanese women since our car could hold 4 passengers.

    I had made the agent at the airport write a note on our tickets saying we were entitled to a full refund. He also stamped and signed it. Mr. Singh is in the process of getting a refund and we just had to pay the difference between the airfare and our car cost. We would have had a much harder time getting over the trip to Agra if we had to take the bus.

    More adventures to come when I pull my thoughts together.
    But I loved Varanasi. It was a trip back in time. Since it was the 12 year festival at a site 100km extra pilgrims came to V. For many it was the trip of a lifetime and they shared their joy. So many different clothing styles, racial differences, but all so happy with the pilgrimage experience.I kept thinking of the Medieval peasants in Europe going to the cathedrals.
    And then we went back to the Nascar Palace which has 10 suites and ours was larger than our NYC apartment. That is India.

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    Welcome back, Elainee. Can't wait for your report - Sounds as if you had quite the adventure. The Agra/Khajuraho escapade sounds very strange. I didn't know that you could even fly to Agra. What excuse did they give for going to the wrong destination?

    Khaj to Agra was an easy road trip for us - less than 4 hrs. on a decent road to Jhansi + ~2 hr. train ride to Agra - were the trains not running? Wow.

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    No possibility of train or train reservations at that time. Plus we wanted to get to Agra that night (even if short night time) since we had only 2 nights in Agra.
    Really we just did what Mr. Singh told us to do.

    Why did the plane not land in Agra? Good question. We were told that Agra refused our landing. Since it is primarily a military airport, I guess they can refuse. But did Air India not know that before we left on the one hour flight?? Maybe cheaper to provide a bus than refund 30 tickets or reschedule the people. Who knows??

    But that was our only mishap, so not bad.

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    Elainee - glad you had a good trip despite the one annoyance. I, too, didn't know of a direct flight from Varanasi to Agra. I looked and found that flights stop first at Delhi, so I'm curious about what flight you were on. I'm glad you got to Varanasi, though, and enjoyed it so much. It was definitely a highlight for us. Looking forward to reading about your trip now!

    C'wn - I'm excited for you! I'm glad you enjoyed my trip report!

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    Elainee,
    I don't think you mean Nascar Palace, do you? Is that auto-correct or sleep deprivation writing?!
    I do so agree with you about seeing so many pilgrims there; a wonderful energy.

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    Always concerned about safety at auto races, but, yes, it was the Nadesar Palace. Sorry to hijack your excellent report. I will start my own thread when I get less fogged-out.
    Glad you had such a good and interesting time.

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    Progol - just wanted to thank you for this wonderful trip report. I've been reading lots of them and enjoying them all, but somehow had missed yours - which is especially relevant to us because of the timeframe of your trip - and your travel profile! We leave Jan. 7 for two months in India - our first trip there. We'll visit most of the places you've described so well, as well as a few national parks and Kochin/Munnar, Mumbai.
    I'm now going to take up your lodging recommendation for Varanasi too, so thanks so much again! I plan to write an ongoing report while on the trip.

    One q - were you traveling with a cell phone? If so, what?

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    Hi, glover,
    So glad you are enjoying the trip report and are finding it helpful. I think it's great that you have 2 months to travel -- I'd love to go back and include the South, but alas, the working life leaves limited time for travel. I'm lucky to have 3 weeks!

    Nikhil provided us with a cell phone, but honestly, we never used it. We were traveling with our driver, Raj, for over 2 weeks, and Nikhil would call us almost daily - sometimes even more - while we were in the car with Raj.

    Even when we were in Varanasi and did not have our regular driver, the TGS rep contacted us through our guide or the guesthouse, and somehow, we never found that we needed the cell phone at all.

    Can't wait to read about your trip! Less than a month away!
    Paule

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