After my “once in a lifetime” trip to India last August, I didn’t expect to return for a few years, if ever.
Surprise! My daughter had two weeks to travel at the end of her semester in India, and I was invited to be her buddy again.
The planning for this trip was much more rushed than our August one. Not only did I have only a couple weeks notice, but because she was no longer a rookie, we had to discuss the details together. Not a simple task when she was travelling in India and often out of reach. In addition, winter is high season in India and I was very worried about getting hotels and flights.
Because of this, I tried to do much of the planning without using an agent in India. While I was happy with Compass Tours last time, one issue had been some delayed responses. Since I had so little time, I decided not to risk it.
We started off planning to visit Varanasi, Darjiiling, and Ranthambore Park. Getting to Darjiiling proved quite difficult, so our final trip ended up being Delhi-Varanasi- Udaipur- Ranthambore. I was able to book flights and hotels, and the hotels all included airport/rail pickups.
I finally gave up on the trains and overnight hotel in Delhi. My daughter and her classmates had used a Delhi agent to arrange all their travels in India and we ended up having him fill in the gaps for us. I can recommend him very highly; Vini at VINstring holidays Pvt Ltd.
Email: India@vinstring.com or http://www.vinstring.com./main.htm
Here is a quick summary of our trip:
Flew Continental, Honolulu - Newark - Delhi $1650 RT-Nice planes and service
3 Days at Imperial Hotel
$259 night w/ breakfast Excellent!
Jet Air #723 Delhi to Varanasi
$156 Good planes and service
Palace on the Ganges, Assi ghat, Varanasi. $75/nt Looked nice, but not recommended!
Air Sahara # S2 115 Varanasi to Delhi
$150 Great airline also
Hotel Radisson, New Delhi
$250 -Very expensive and forgettable
Jet Air #9W 709, Delhi to Udaipur $134
Fabulous! Worth the $375/night
Over night train #2964- Mewar Express 1st class sleeper. Udaipur to Sawai Modhopur
$92 for this and the Kota Jan tickets.
Cheap and relatively comfortable
Sher Bagh at Ranthambore Park
$275 night w/3 meals. Really enjoyable
7am Train “Kota Jan Shatabadhi Exp”
AC car to Delhi. Comfortable seats, good people watching
½ day at the Imperial Hotel pre-flight
$150/ eight hours
Now the full report:
I flew Continental Airlines non-stop Honolulu to Newark (10 hours)and then Newark to Delhi (15 hours) with an eight hour layover at Newark, and all in economy seats. I thought I’d kill time during the layover by taking a train into NYC, but once I got there it was too cold and I was too tired to leave the airport.
I went to Continental’s President Lounge to see if I could sneak in. I explained that I was new to the airline, but would have two college kids in NYC and Boston for the next four years, and the kind woman at the door waived the fee. What a treat! It is a huge lounge with lots of free food and drinks, showers, TV room, lockers and desks with internet hookups. Much nicer than my regular lounges!
Both flights were in new planes with seatback movie/game players. They fed us two full meals and a couple of snacks. The FAs on these eastbound legs were quite nice.
We arrived in Delhi at about 9:30 PM. I cleared customs very quickly, got some cash at the counters inside, then found the driver from the Imperial . It is always so much easier when you’ve done it before! At the Imperial, I was pleased to be assigned a huge heritage room (#307)for my $259 a night. Despite the fact that there were three weddings in the hotel that night, my room was very quiet.
Had their wonderful buffet breakfast in the morning, then was picked up by one of Vini’s drivers to go pay my bill at the office of Vinstring in the YMCA. Vini booked all the trips for my caughter’s college group, as well as their free travel and post-semester travel. The kids and instructors had been very happy with his services and sugesstions, so I had turned to him to tie up all my loose ends.
Vini was quite an interesting guy; we chatted had tea, and he gave me a hysterical essay on Indian drivers. When we were done, his driver dropped me at the Cottage Industries Emporium. I shopped a while, walked back to the Imperial, then took a cab to my daughter’s apartment. The cabs in Delhi rarely have meters, but the doormen at the hotel would always tell me how much my trips should cost. The taxi was Rs100; when I returned by auto-rickshaw with my daughter it cost us Rs30.
DD and I love the Spice Route restaurant in the Imperial so we had an early dinner there and she ended up spending the night in my room. After breakfast, she headed back to class and I went shopping in Fab India at Greater Kalish Market. Fab India has several shops; one is three floors of clothing, another with linens and curtains and another with rolls of fabric. The fabric was mostly upholstery/curtain types. I think the Cottage Industry Emporium has a much better selection of cottons and silks.
The clothing shop was great though. Lots of westernized styles in silk and cotton upstairs and a huge selection of Indian styles and scarves on the ground floor. Very busy place with lots of local and ex-pat types. The sales people were really great; no pushiness, but they were quite nice at helping match pieces and styles. All the things are sorted by type and then stacked on the shelves by size. I bought several blouses, scarves, a caftan, and salwar kameez . All were incredibly cheap. There were some other nice shops with jewelry and household items in the market, which is really a collection of shops around a little park.
I’d been to Santushti Market in August, and was eager to return. I had a nice lunch at Basil & Thyme, and spent a couple hours buying gifts and stuff for me.
I headed straight back to my daughter’s apartment for their farewell dinner this evening. I was able to wear my new Salwar kameez as all the girls were dressed in the saris they’d bought over the course of their travels. We walked to the India cultural center about ½ mile away. Lucky I had a new wool shawl on-- It got very cold once the sun went down.
This weekend in Delhi had apparently was a very auspicious time for weddings. The paper said there were 20,000 in the city. All day I had been seeing white horses on the streets, and there were two weddings at the center as well. Lots of very well dressed Indians wandering about!
We walked home after the dinner, then my DD packed all her stuff to come back to the Imperial with me, as we had an early flight out in the morning.
Another Imperial breakfast, then we were driven back to the airport for our Jet Airways flight to Varanasi. I had booked this online for $156 pp. Found out, too late, that young people (under 25 years old) get a 30% discount. Her other flights booked through Vini had this discount.
After three times at the airport, this was the first time I’d seen it during the daylight. You travel through an area of army lands and police housing, then into what looks a bit like a village. The domestic terminal is a little low rise building. You need to show your tickets to get in, but never do they ask for any ID. Baggage x-ray, quick check-in, and then thru personal security. There is always a separate line for women to go into a curtained booth for a pat down. Often the airlines will have you go outside and identify your checked bags before boarding.
Jet Airways was pleasant. New planes, very friendly attendants, and clean bathrooms. The flight to Varanasi was only an hour and a taxi was waiting for us. My daughter spent two weeks in Varanasi earlier in her trip, so I had been warned that it was the dirtiest city anywhere. The airport is quite a ways out of town. We zipped through the countryside with horn honking, then came to a virtual standstill once in town. Our driver was very creative though and we did a lot of careening through shortcuts. I was happy to know the trip was pre-paid...I might otherwise thought we were being taken for the proverbial ‘ride”.
Varanasi streets are narrow and crowded with vegetable carts, cows, piles of rubbish and millions of cycle rickshaws. The buildings tend to be tall and narrow and ornate in an Italian sort of way. There is a newer part of the city- the Cantonment- where all the nice hotels are located, but it is quite a long drive from the actual town and the river. Based on DD’s previous stay, we were down at the Assi Ghat on the south end. It is a less congested and there are several newer mid-range hotels.
I had originally looked at the “Temple on the Ganges” and the “Palace on the Ganges”. Both are newer, right on the river and looked quite nice online. I was able to get rooms at the Temple for Rs960 a night and at the Palace for Rs2990 including airport transfers. Don’t know why, but I decided the higher price must mean better rooms at the Palace and booked it.
I really liked the location...It is right above the ghat. We were given a choice of several rooms - none had a river view, but all were on the side away from the road, so we assumed it would be quiet and took one of these on the second floor. There was a bar with free Indian music in the basement and a café of sorts on the 5th floor rooftop. Our room was very clean and nicely decorated, and had a TV. The beds were hard, but decent. Main problem was that it was right above the generator. In India, every building has a generator for the inevitable loss of power. The Palace lost power for several hours at a time, all night long. It was like sleeping next to a truck with its engine idling! Luckily I had earplugs and my daughter slept thru it, so the next morning we decided against asking for a room change. We should have, as the next night, she was kept up much of the night. Oh well.
Our first afternoon, we wandered around the neighborhood. There is a terrific little shop called Silk Paradise that was about 3 doors up. My daughter had made friends with the shop owner when living in Varanasi, so we went back and she ordered some custom pants. I bought a huge number of cotton scarves for RS 50 each and some silk fabric as well. He was an exception to the aggressive Indian shopkeepers and gave us a free scarf every time we stopped in!
We took a cycle rickshaw (RS5) up to Bread of Life, a bakery up the main road, and had some wonderful soup and Nachos- different, but tasty! Afterwards, we walked along the river from Assi Ghat up to about Tulsi Ghat. Saw a wedding on the river, and had a lot of fun chatting with and taking photos of the little children selling floating candles with marigolds. My daughter refuses to support the use of children as salespeople, but I ended up sending two candles out on the river. We did not do any touching, as several of them had obviously been making cow patties and had cow dung up all over their hands and arms!
From Tulsi Gaht we headed up from the river into the winding little streets and walked back part of the way to Assi Ghat, then took a cycle rickshaw the rest of the way.
The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn to take a boat ride up the Ganges. Our friend at Silk Paradise had told us to pay no more than 150 rupees, so I was proud my daughter got a boat for Rs125. It was a large rowboat with one guy, two oars and a seat for two in the back. The sky was light enough to see when we started, and then the sun rose a litlle later.
As American tourists, we saw wonderful old 17th/18th century buildings that are quite rundown and an extremely dirty river. When we put on our “India goggles” we saw a vibrant, active community filled with blissful pilgrims and locals doing their business along this holiest of rivers.
There were dhobis standing in the river beating laundry, people doing yoga on platforms above the ghats, and all along the way people stripping down and washing in the river. We saw several men swimming in the water...one was just jubilant and spitting water into the air like a whale. We also saw the funeral pyres and a body of someone too poor for a $20 funeral floating in the river.
About half an hour into the 90 minute trip we were treated to an incredible pink and gold sunrise.
Our boatman spoke no English except to say “no pictures” as we passed the funeral pyres, and the little boats selling music CDs and religious icons ignored us for the larger boats full of tourists coming in the opposite direction. The whole experience was very surreal...beautiful, gross, quiet, noisy, peaceful, unsettling. I felt like this was the real India.
After we returned to Assi Ghat, we went up to the roof to get breakfast. It was so cold, we asked the guy to bring toast and tea to our room instead. I had a secret stash of sharp cheddar cheese from home, crunchy pears and pomegranates from the Imperial Hotel, and even some candy. We had our own breakfast feast, then took a nap before venturing out again.
We were waiting for a college acceptance email, so we headed to the nearby SIFY café. These are great internet places. You can buy prepaid SIFY cards and use them in many cities in India. The phone is about 7 cents a minute for international calls and the internet access about 2 cents.
We then took a cycle rickshaw up to the marketplace. This is the best way to get around Varanasi, and even a 10 minute ride would run about RS 5 or 10cents ( “Paunch Rupees”).
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After my “once in a lifetime” trip to India last August, I didn’t expect to return for a few years, if ever.