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Trip Report Our 1st Trip to India--6 Weeks in (mostly) Rural, Less-visited India

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My husband and I just got back from a very enjoyable six week trip to Rajasthan (primarily smaller, less-known and less-touristed places), Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Corbett park and many places in Uttarkhand. So, it is time for me to fill all of you in on how it went. Although I’d done much of the reading, researching, planning and thinking early on, our actual trip was really pulled together at the last minute because we bought our plane tickets only eleven days before we left. And, ticket prices were pretty stable so we didn’t pay any more than we would have if we’d bought them six months earlier. I know some of you early-planners are probably rolling your eyes, but it worked well for us. We were travelling in more shoulder season, and I only ran across a couple lodgings that didn’t have room for us with this relatively last minute planning. The major problem we had with trying to arrange a more last-minute trip was with the trains. This was so frustrating because I have never before been anywhere where trains are booked up months in advance and where their availability actually can determine your trip options.

Last July or August my husband and I started thinking about taking a major trip to India—probably late January into mid March. So, I started haunting the various traveler forums online, and I checked out a slew of books on India out from my local library. The more I started reading and researching, the more confused I became as I started to realize that saying I am going to take a trip to India is like saying I am going to take a trip to Europe—waaaaay too big of a place to easily visit in one trip. The challenge was how to narrow down where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. Another challenge for me was that some things happened in our lives that made us change the timing of our trip so we ended up going from the last week of February until the start of April rather than the end of January to mid-March as we had originally planned. Thus, I had to create a completely different itinerary than we’d originally thought about because that one month window drastically changes the weather patterns in India, and we knew we did not want to cope with extreme heat. For example, I just looked at the weather for Jodphur; right now it is 104F/40C. Not for us!

We are very well-travelled and have done lots of international travel, but India proved to be more of a challenge to plan than any of the other places we’ve visited around the world. Normally our preferred mode of travel is slow travel, getting to know a smaller area very well by settling into an apartment or house in an area for five to seven days before moving on to a different area. I soon came to realize that this style of travel wouldn’t work out for India, and we would have to plan a trip where we would live out of our suitcases, continually moving on to see something new at the next place. However, I still tried to plan what I thought would be relatively relaxing and non-aggressive trip with most stays of at least 2 nights in a place. As it ended up though, despite thinking I wasn’t overly stretching us, it still seemed like we were on the go doing things nearly all of the time with very little just sitting around time. We’d loaded a ton of books to read on our e-readers, had taken our travel Scrabble game and had even put some videos on our netbook because we thought we’d have a lot of down time. Not so until about the last week or so of our trip, and I didn’t even finish one book. So, a word to the wise is to underplan rather than to overplan as far as an itinerary and what you think you’ll be able to do.

The very best piece of advice I had about planning a trip to India I found from a travel agent who is a frequent poster over on TripAdvisor. Her advice, which is really true, is to think about the types of experiences you want to have on your trip to India rather than the places you want to go. This couldn’t be more true and was immensely helpful to me in thinking about how to organize our trip. Another very helpful piece of advice that I found (and took) was in an article in a London newspaper that suggested first-time visitors to Rajasthan focus on the more rural areas rather than the cities that so many people plan around. Good advice! I also got a ton of help from people on this forum, so I hope to pay it back by putting together a report that will help other people (both first time travelers to India and others who have some experience there). Finally, thanks to all of you who helped me out so much, answering my countless questions (and I know there were a lot). So, here goes with a loooooong report……..

IS SIX WEEKS TOO LONG?
We have never taken a trip of this length before and were wondering if (a) we’d be ready to go home by the end of week two or three, (b) if we’d be ready to kill each other after spending all of this non-stop time together, and (c) if we’d be able to put up with India for six weeks. I am happy to report that we were just fine with a trip of this length and found that even with six weeks we were still able to see only a small portion of the country and the places we wanted to visit. Going through the process of getting visas was such a hassle that we applied for the ten year visa and definitely plan to make return trips to see other parts of the country.

When we were in India there was never a point where we asked ourselves why we’d planned such a long trip or even thought about the idea of trying to change our plane tickets for an earlier return. But, we purposely planned a trip with a variety of types of experiences so we wouldn’t be forted out or big citied out or palaced out. We intermingled these types of experiences, and I am sure that is why we weren’t so overwhelmed and exhausted that we’d want to go home to escape. On the other hand, I am absolutely certain that if all we had done was to run around from one major tourist site to another and visited only the noisy, dirty cities, we would have been fed up and ready to come home after about two weeks. We really found the most enjoyable things in India to be visiting more minor sites, observing and participating in everyday life, doing some lowkey things, and interacting with native Indians (and not a bunch of fellow tourists) rather than the biggies that everyone talks about all of the time and the places that all tour groups go to visit.

CULTURE SHOCK
We’d been warned by posters here that India is just so completely different from other places in the world and heard so much about culture shock for the first-time Indian visitor. We’d been told how India overwhelms the first time visitor with its assault on all of one’s senses. Well, this never happened for us, and our first few days we kept questioning each other as to when this was going to happen. It never did, other than perhaps the first time we went to a train station at night and saw all of the people sleeping around it outside. But, we’ve visited developing countries before, and we never travel on tours or in 5 star luxury style that insulates us from a country. So, I can understand how if people have only traveled in the US or in Western Europe India might come as more of a shock to them. And, many times during our trip we would comment that we would never recommend India to certain friends of ours because they would be so turned off by all of it—the craziness, the chaos, the noise, the dirt, the poop, the minor and sometimes major frustrations.

I almost had more reverse culture shock on returning home. After all of the animal poop everywhere in India, it seemed strange to be so concerned about making sure I picked up the one little turd my dog deposited during our walk today. And, it was almost unbelievable to actually have cars—ones that weren’t honking--stop for me because pedestrians have right of way here.

TRIP COSTS--LODGING, FOOD AND DRINK
India certainly isn’t the really cheap country to travel in that some people expect it to be. But, it is definitely cheaper than having a comparable trip to Western Europe or the US. After our six-week visit, we decided that the rule of thumb for India is that you never get more than you pay for (in other words, don’t expect to find that hidden gem at a lower than to-be-expected price) and be certain that you are actually getting what you think you are paying for.

I used to categorize us as budget to mid-range travelers, but now I have realized that we are definitely more in the mid-range category. And, frankly, I could never be a budget traveler in India because I do have some standards for lodging that could never be met by dirt cheap lodging. For lodging we had a really wide range of prices with the low end at $28 per night (we had a couple one night stays in this range) to two super splurge (for us) nights in a suite at a deluxe heritage hotel for $170 a night (wasn't worth it to us and wouldn't do it again). Most nights though, on average I’d estimate that we paid around $60 for a room, and we stayed some very nice places. As a general rule of thumb though, for people who want a certain standard of comfort and cleanliness, I guess I’d say that for the most part I wouldn’t recommend staying in places that are less than around 2000 ($40) rupees per night.

Food is tough to categorize as far as costs because so many of the places we stayed were in smaller locales without restaurants and thus included meals in their pricing. We never did get brave enough to try any street food because we were trying to be cautious and stay healthy. Eating out in India is very reasonable; it is the alcohol that costs you if you want it. We are not huge drinkers but do enjoy a glass of wine or beer, and you pay dearly in India for alcohol (if you can even get it). (I know this probably sounds silly, but after hearing how bad and how expensive Indian wine is, we actually packed one of those 3 or 4 bottle equivalent boxes of wine from home, and it lasted nearly our entire trip for an occasional before dinner drink.) After a couple of nights when we discovered that the cost of two beers (they are big beers though) was more than the cost of our dinners, we decided we could live without that dinner beer. And, many of the places we were didn’t even offer alcohol at all, and often you have to ask since beer frequently isn’t even listed on a menu. (When we were in Varanasi at a rooftop restaurant one evening the waiter quickly came and took an unopened bottle of beer off of our table saying something like he’d be bringing us a better and colder bottle soon. When it never came, we asked when we’d get the new bottle. They finally admitted to us that their sources told them the police were coming to make sure there was no alcohol being sold, and when this happens they take away all evidence of beer for at least 45 minutes.)

Guesstimating, I’d say we spent around $80 to $90 per day for room and board for the two of us. This figure also factors in three nights where we didn’t pay for a room because we were on an overnight train.

WHERE TO GO AND FOR HOW LONG?
We knew right off the bat that we didn’t necessarily feel constrained to visit all of the usual places the standard tours visit (no, we never did make it to the Taj Mahal), and we also knew that we wanted to limit the places we visited so we didn’t constantly feel like we were chickens running around with our heads cut off. We planned our trip based on a combination of factors--primarily overall ambience of the location, interesting activities available and weather considerations. Thus, we started our trip in Rajasthan and then moved on to Orchha, Khajuraho and Varanasi before heading up into Uttarkarhand and the foothills of the Himalayas to escape from the ever-building heat.

The itinerary we ended up with (price indicated is per night):
• Delhi-- Delhi B & B 1 night upon arrival in India $80
• Overnight train to Jaisalmer (I’d wondered whether to go to Jaisalmer because it would be too touristy. Turned out to be a favorite of ours on our trip.)
• Jaisalmer-- Hotel Victoria 3 nights $72 (breakfast & a thali dinner included)
• Train from Jaisalmer to Jodphur
• Jodphur—Juna Mahal 3 nights (didn’t arrive until nearly midnight) $45
• Fort Bhadrajun 1 night $51
• Fort Dhamli 2 nights $83 (all meals & a daily guided walk included)
• Kumbhalgar—Hotel Silent Valley $51
• Castle Bera 2 nights $160 (all meals & 2 safaris each day)
• Dungapur—Udai Bilas 2 nights $170 for a suite (a last minute change in plans pushed us into a suite rather than the $140 room we’d planned on)
• Fort Bassi 2 nights $64
• Udaipur--Jagat Niwas 1 night $80 for lake facing room with jhakaro
• Overnight train from Udaipur to Gwalior where a driver picked us up to take us to Orchha (maybe 4 hours drive)
• Orchha—Sheesh Mahal 1 night (really wanted 2 in Orchha but couldn’t make it work in our itinerary) $40
• Khajuraho—Hotel Surya 1 night $28
• Flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi
• Varanasi—Shiva Ganges View Guesthouse 3 nights $80
• long, 18 hour train trip from Varanasi to Haridwar (10:00 am to 4:30 am)
• Haridwar—Haveli Hari Ganga 2 nights $100 including breakfast & taxes
• Rikikesh—Hotel Amaris (bad place booked by bad agent) 1 night $70 including breakfast & taxes
• VanGhat—Riverine Woods 2 nights part of a mahseer fishing package for husband
• Ranikhet—West View Hotel 2 nights off season rate of $70 for AP
• Kausani—KMVN Guesthouse 1 night $30 including breakfast
• Binsar Sanctuary—Khali Estate Mountain Resort 2 nights $100 for AP
• Kaladhungi--Camp Corbett 2 nights $100 for AP
• Outskirts of Corbett Park—Pine Tree Resort (bad place booked by bad agent) 2 nights package
• Train from Ramnagar to Delhi for our flight home

More to come as I find the time...........

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    Thanks for posting a report! I appreciate the details, and especially the demonstration that you can sleep and eat comfortably on a moderate budget. You mention an agent for Rikikesh - did you mostly book through an agent, or on your own? And what resources did you find particularly useful for off the beaten track locales?

    Glad to hear that you'll go back to India!

    BTW, if you can be REALLY loose with your schedule you can get train tickets 48 hours ahead of departure on the tatkal quota. And I hear that if you're on the waiting list you have a good chance to get on. Never cut it that close myself, although I did use the tatkal quota on my last trip (see http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/indian-railways-rac-and-indian-railways-waitlists/).

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    Nice start. I've been looking forward to your report.

    The one or two nights per place would drive me crazy. My usual rule is no less than three nights in any one place. What do you think? WHould that kind of pace worked well for a trip like this?

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    Thank you julies for posting this trip summary. I have two friends planning a trip to India and your itinerary/schedule will interest them, I'm certain. You've experienced a great "taste" of India. For me, it's about what I can absorb from a place or experience, not how much time I spend there. How the place makes me feel and to understand something of the process of living life in each town/City, area I visit. Time spent in a place means little for me, if there's no engaging with local folks. I loved Orchha, Kausani and Ranikhet. I've recommended them to my friends as must-sees. Dalhousie is gorgeous too! I've spent a day in a town and felt I experienced and absorbed so much from simply talking with Indian travellers and locals, eating with them and laughing with them, catching buses with them and asking them about their lives. The trains are a great way of engaging with "ordinary" folk, try them if you can, next time! We all have our own idea of travel so it's wonderful that you discovered YOUR way to experience India! I'm a early riser (5 a.m.) and some of my best memories of India are walking the streets early and observing, engaging and attempting to understand how people exist in such a chaotic, amazingly diverse Country. Your trip sounded well planned even though you say it was organised at short notice. Thanks again julies.

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    I'll try to answer a few of your questions now though I hope to put some more thorough answers in the next part(s) of my report.

    Trains and seats--We were waitlisted on our train trip from Delhi to Jaisalmer and did get on, but I'd booked both 3AC and 2AC (the one that was waitlisted) because we really wanted the cabin with only 4 people rather than the 3AC with 6 people. When we moved up off the waitlist, I cancelled the 3AC tickets. We didn't get tatkal tickets, but we did get foreign visitor quota tickets for the trip from Varanasi to Haridwar. Getting these was an Indian experience of its own. We went to the train station in Udaipur and got in the jam-packed line for any sort of special tickets or ticket changes. It is a crazy system in that you need to get to the window to explain your needs to the man at the counter, and he then sees if he can help you. Then, if he can, he gives you a piece of paper and the information on the train. You take that piece of paper away and come back to the window with it filled out and give him the cash for the tickets. It was like a rugby scrum at the window with everyone jamming in with their shoulders and waving their pieces of paper in the window. I figured, when in Rome.....So, I was right there wedging my shoulder in too. This foreigner quota deal worked for us and we were able to get tickets, but we'd given the guy 2 different days and 2 different possible destination cities that would work for us. Even with all of that flexibility, there was only one option he had available. We grabbed it.

    Agents--We primarily did everything on our own, but I did use 2 different agents--a marvelous one in Rajasthan and one in Uttarkarhand who did some things ok but who also messed up some things and who we'd never, ever recommend to anyone. I'll fill you in on these when I get a chance.

    Going around from place to place--Yes, we moved around a lot but most of the places were only a couple hours apart and we had a driver lots of the time, so it wasn't as though we were spending entire days moving on all of the time. The reality is that I don't know if any of the places we visited I'd have stayed at longer (other than Orchha, and we knew ahead of time that the 1 night we could stay there wouldn't be sufficient, but spending another day there meant a plane ticket that would be 4 times the price of the one the day before). I know many people say they could hunker down and spend many days in Udaipur, but, much as I looked forward to Udaipur, it just didn't do all that much for us. I think the reason so many people find Udaipur so appealing is because it is a little calmer than the other cities, it has some cafes that could be kind of construed as European, and it is a pretty easy place to be. We were in Udaipur only a day and a half, and I'd planned this on purpose after reading that many people who had done mainly rural as we had done didn't find the city as appealing as those who'd done the more typical tourist diet of all of the major tourist cities. The Kumaon area (in Uttarkarhand in the foothills of the Himalayas) is a place where one could stop and slow down and spend some more time. It had been our original intent to spend 4 nights at Khali Estate in Binsar because one can do half day walks to local villages there. So, we planned to spend 4 nights and do 3 or 4 different walks to different villages. But, after our first walk we discovered that "village" really means 2 or 3 farms located together and that these "villages" had populations from 8 to 80 people. We decided these wouldn't seem all that different to us, so we moved on. And, we talked to some women from Delhi who were staying at Khali Estate with us. They told us that the Kumaon area really is for people who want to escape from the city and do some relaxing or some trekking or some birdwatching. Different places there are basically just different variations on the same theme, so we decided we didn't need another couple days of the same thing just in a different location.

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    Sorry julies, I should have added "day" to my comment re train travel... "day trains are a great way of engaging"...overnight trains are not all that conducive to chatting!! Love the report so far...thanks!

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    I had some questions from some of you about what we actually did. Here is a start to answer that question:

    Delhi—

    Our first day in India we had until our 5:30 pm train departure from Delhi. Although our plan had been to just take it easy a bit, walk around the neighborhood some, and find a SIM card, we instead spend the day sightseeing. The owner of the B & B told us that there really isn't too much to see and do on foot in the neighborhood; he suggested that we hire a driver for the day to take us around to some of the major sites and then deliver us to the train station. Since all of this was only going to cost us about $10 more than it would have just for the train station delivery, we took him up on it. Actually, from what we had time to see, Delhi is more interesting that we thought it would be, and it is less intense than we'd expected. In fact, the typical chaotic India that we'd been expecting to encounter didn't occur at all until we went through Old Delhi on our way to the train station.

    Our first stop was the large and beautiful Bahai temple where visitors from all faiths are invited to come in for silent prayer and observation of the building. Then, it was off to Huanaman's Tomb which is actually a series of interrelated buildings on a large site. India Gate, which we next visited, we discovered to be an inscribed memorial monument to the dead from India's armies and had soldiers guarding the eternal flame. Our last sightseeing stop was the large and spread out Lodi Gardens which were originally the site of an estate and still contain several architecturally impressive edifices. We wanted to eat a big and late lunch before setting off on the train to Jaisalmer, so the driver suggested Hot Chimney; it was a good suggestion and the very reasonably priced Indian food was great.

    We'd been waiting to see the chaotic India we'd heard so much about, and finally as we drove through Old Delhi to the Old Delhi train station, we started to see this and the differences between the relatively calm and leafy newer Delhi and the crammed streets of Old Delhi.

    Jaisalmer—

    I planned 3 nights here just to rest and recuperate from our journey (and my husband was also recovering from an emergency hospitalization right before we left). That is pretty much what we did other than walking around, observing, and visiting the usual tourist spots. We decided we didn’t need to do a camel ride or go out to the desert.

    Jodphur—

    We visited the fort and wandered around (and got lost) in the maze that is the back streets in the old town. Our hotel was in the old town, so we spent quite a bit of time wandering around. Our second day here I’d planned to go out and do one of those visits to the Bishnoi areas, but then the agent who’d arranged our driver for us told me that this could easily be done on our way to our next stop—Fort Bhadrajan, so we spent another day just wandering around and observing daily life. Then, on the way out of Jodphur we stopped at all of the usual tourist Bishnoi spots—the potter’s, the rug workshop, and for the opium ceremony. In retrospect they were all too touristy for us and a waste of time because we got to see the real deal at some of our other stops.

    Now, a few excerpts from the journal I tried to keep........

    One night at Fort Bhadrajan—

    Fort Bhadrajun is set in an intriguing location in the middle of a U shaped valley, obviously strategically located to stop invaders. The thakur (feudal lord) who owns it has opened it up to tourists to help support the expenses of running the place, and they must be extensive since there are numerous people (all men) who wait on guests hand and foot. As is traditional practice, we were greeted with a drum beat to announce our arrival. Then, garlands (fake) and a tikkal spot was placed on our foreheads. This whole set up seemed a tad artificial and fakey to us what with the announcement of our arrival. We were given a room upgrade to a fantastic room with hand-painted decorations, stained glass and all surfaces decorated. Today the palace/fort/castle is basically set aside as two parts. Guests stay in the area or wing that formerly was the men's area, and the thakkur and his family live in the former women's quarters. Overall, I'd classify the place as shabbily genteel and can understand why it must cost a small fortune to maintain, especially with all of the retainers around. We were a tad uncomfortable with the constant hovering and attention. As the only guests (something that turned out to be a constant theme in the trip) there were at times five or six people watching us as we ate and wondering whether we needed anything else.

    Our time there was totally orchestrated with constant activities. We signed on for the late afternoon and evening adventure. We piled in a jeep and first set out to a small Bishnoi-type village to a household that has fifteen children. Then we visited the local Jain temple and learned that the Jains are typically quite wealthy because they are businessmen and can afford to build new, large beautiful temples like this. It was getting on towards sunset, so we set off further into the countryside where we climbed a sand dune and had tea while we watched the sunset over the hills. After the sun had set we drove to a Hindu temple set up in the hills. There we observed the evening aarti ceremony. Both the driver and the guide were devout Hindus and fully participated in the ceremony. It was definitely fascinating, but we wished the guides had taken the time to brief us on what this was all about because we did not understand anything about what was going on. In their rush to take us to all of the places, they neglected to do any explanations.

    When we returned to the hotel, the thakkur joined us for drinks before dinner, and he told us how his family had been awarded the local villages and land nearly three centuries ago after helping the local maharajah to win a battle.

    After breakfast the next morning we opted to take another tour of the local village and to see the district hospital which is located in this village. They were quite proud to show off their hospital and new ambulance; there are two doctors, three nurses and several midwives on staff. Let's just say that we should all be more grateful for the medical facilities we so take for granted. Our next stop was the local private high school which serves both day students and is also a boarding school. Classrooms were packed with students, and there were none of the extra classroom accoutrements so common in US schools. Yet, they proudly showed off their physics and chemistry labs which looked as though they did the job well, and students were self-disciplined enough that they were faithfully studying their notes for upcoming physics exams. And, they have three or four older computers in a lab so students can all learn computer skills.

    2 days at Fort Dhamli--

    After the completely full-service, rather formal and carefully orchestrated production that went on at Fort Bhadrajun, the reception at Fort Dhamli couldn't have been more different or more lowkey. Fort Dhamli is a one story house entered around a courtyard, and its guest rooms seem to have been more recently remodeled. The thakkur himself came out to greet us wearing a polo shirt, old cords and a beat up leather hat. He is the feudal lord of 12 different villages that were ceded to his family about three hundred years ago. Here we got fresh flower garlands and our wrists were tied with a special bracelet for good fortune. After lunch we kind of looked at each other and wondered what in the world we were going to do there for two nights since the place was so low key, but we soon became very busy.

    In late afternoon we were taken for a walk around the local village and shown into various homes where the people seemed quite open and glad to have us visit because Inder, the owner, is quite obviously highly respected in the village. Even within a small village like this—about 2000 inhabitants—there were stark differences in the lives and opportunities the residents have. The very poor area of the village where the untouchables live together was bare bones, stark poverty whereas there were several very fancy new house in town that have been built by the Jains. Once again we heard the same common theme that the Jains are the wealthy business people (originally from the merchant caste, the third from the top) and are able to afford some of these more elaborate houses. When walking around we also learned that 90% of the people who live in rural India do not have any toilets in their homes. The government is trying to remedy this situation by giving people the equivalent of $100 to install a toilet, but the problem is that the cheapest toilet is around $400. While strolling through the town on our own the next day we came upon a dead end street that was so full of piles of excrement that it obviously was the toilet for local residents.

    We were told that although there is always something interesting going on in the village, we'd picked a fortuitous time to visit since there would be two different celebrations during our stay. The first celebration was for the birth of a baby boy. He was turning one year old, and this was the occasion for a major celebration with a large number of guests—about 250--coming to join in the festivities; we too were welcomed as honored guests. But, since this is a society with the traditional separation of the sexes, our roles were different. I was sent off to join the women and introduced to Inder's 24 year-old daughter who is to be married in June in an arranged marriage because she told me her family does not believe in love marriages. She has met the groom for half an hour and seems very satisfied with her family's choice of a groom for her because he s a good catch—a doctor in Mumbai. So, I hung out with the women for a while chatting and admiring the baby.

    The musicians appeared and first came to the women's quarters; some men, including my husband and Inder, joined the women to hear the musicians and to see the women dance. It is like a dollar dance in that the woman gives 10 rupees to the musicians, first waving the bills over their heads for good fortune and to show respect. When the musicians had played for the women, they moved on over into the men's tent area; I went back to our room at this point. My husband meanwhile had been invited to the men's area where he was offered some Indian booze which apparently was flowing quite freely. When we went to bed, we shut our room up and turned on the AC to drown out the noise from the party which went on into the early hours.

    The next day was also special because the welcome party for the baby continued on again in the morning with another feast and the opium ceremony. In certain parts of India opium is traditionally used at special life events and ceremonies. The celebration of the birth of a boy is one of these special events, and there were probably about 100 men gathered sitting on the floor in the men's tented off area. Traditionally opium was also used prior to battle because it made men strong and courageous and also stopped blood from flowing as freely and even caused constipation (apparently a good thing if you are going to be in battle). All of these are characteristics that were needed by the warrior. The opium ceremony is conducted by several holy men and elders from the area; all men partake in the ceremony as a part of the pledge to each other and the community. Even though I felt very awkward as the only woman in the area, I too was briefly invited in to observe and partake in the ceremony. The opium is highly diluted with water and the put into a special container. The holy man pours a bit into his hands and then the honoree has it poured in to his hands and drinks the opium water. I stayed briefly before escaping back to the women's area. But, I can now say I've used a controlled substance. And, yes, opium is technically illegal in India too, but it is allowed for special religious or tribal type ceremonial use like this is. The festivities ended with the band leading the guests in a procession through town, dropping various people off at their homes.

    An hour or so later, we heard music, and it was the band of male dancers who were coming with their special costumes with bells attached to their legs and holding sequined umbrellas to do the special dances to herald the coming of Holi, the spring harvest festival. These dancers also performed for the women first before moving on to the men’s area. The middle of the day was free for us to do our own thing, but in late afternoon we drove out to Inder's farm where he had cows, Marwat horses, goats, sheep and also raised crops. Two families work his land for him on a share crop basis. He gets 75% of the profits because it is his land and machinery, and they get the other 25% of the profit.

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    Thanks for pausing to answer my questions, you gave me exactly the kind of information I needed.

    I'm enjoying this report of a different kind of trip to India. We did an unusual first trip to India in 2010, and got 10 year visas in anticipation of returning. We are still researching where in India might be next for us.

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    Great start to your report. Fascinating to read your take on the rural parts of the country. They are much calmer and less crowded, and so nicer to deal with. The problem i have, and most travellers have, is dealing with lower level of hotel facilities, toilet facilities, and restaurants etc. But you seemed to handle it all in stride.

    Good observation noticing differences between Old Delhi & New Delhi. While all of India is congested...too many people...old parts of a city are much more faded, dirty, and congested.

    We enjoyed Jaiselmer too. Small town with forts and temples and we found a great restaurant too. We drove (car and driver) from Jaiselmer to Jodhpur, and saw how they are converting the desert into farmland...irrigation from tube wells using solar power to run the water pumps which bring the water up from underground.

    I am enjoying your report....yes, you are not doing the usual 4 or 5 star hotel trip or the typical backpacker trip (which is not done on this forum).

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    Is that so, magical? I thought this forum was for ALL travellers...LOL!!!! And what is a "typical backpacker trip?" I've travelled with some who could buy and sell most folks and the common thread I hear is "why would I stay somewhere where people like me stay?"...such an interesting question, don't you think? Hilarious comment!!!

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    Yes, do tell, magical. All my trips over the past ten years, except the last, I've carried a backpack. Are you now telling me I shouldn't have posted here and no Fodorites should have read my TRs?

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    Surely you recognize the distinction between a descriptive statement and a directive. Not many travelers on Fodor's describe staying in hostels in India. Magical isn't turning backpackers away, they just don't come here. That's our loss.

    Admit it, thursday. You're no longer a backpacker, you're a flashpacker.

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    My, oh my....are we getting too sensitive!!

    I know some backpackers who are doctors, and I have met some wealthy backpackers during my travel. I am just referring to the common perception that backpackers are minimalists, which some would say is a good thing. They stay , mostly, in hostels etc which is not the kind of reviews we see on this forum. That's all.

    Thank you, Marija, for getting it right. No, I am not turning any backpackers away from this forum. In fact, their opinions elicit a good variety of recommendations for hotels and restaurants that we would not get otherwise. And who wants to eat at 5 star restaurants all the time.

    But, let's face it, the backpackers on this forum, are not the typical backpacker that we think of....usually, students on no budget, sharing hostel space or hitching a ride between towns (even in India), and free to switch plans as they go. We met a few like that on our recent trip to India. Personally, I do miss the ability to travel carefree, with the freedom to change and switch plans as we went along. Sorry thursdaysd, but you would not classify yourself as a basic backpacker anymore.

    Now, back to the report from julies. Sorry. didn't mean to hijack your TR.

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    What an interesting TR. You seem to have suceeded in seeing some of the less travelled parts of India and I'm enjoying going along for the ride. Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    I'm loving this report. We too kept waiting for the culture shock, but didn't find the smells and sites to be as offensive as many purport. (not to say that we didn't find India to be as fascinating as we had hoped). Our traveling style is much like yours and I enjoyed reading your comments that you realize that you consider yourselves midrange, rather than budget travelers. We felt the same way - budget hotels in India are not the way to go, but the midrange accommodations were all fine and usually quite nice.

    I am hoping you had time to explore Gwalior. It is a place rarely mentioned, but it was one of our highlights.

    Waiting for more.

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    I am following along - we'd like to spend more time in rural India after 2 short visits there and this will be a helpful guide. Thanks so much for posting with so much detail.

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    Before I go into any more of my report, I want to clarify a couple things. When I said that the women from Delhi told us that a lot of that Kuamon area is basically the same for people who want rest and relaxation, I should have said that this refers only to those more isolated, out-of-the-way resorts or retreats. Those are basically a variation on the same theme. The towns are all different, with some being, IMO, much more interesting and worthwhile than others.

    Secondly, quality of lodging in rural areas. The heritage places in Rajasthan are the homes of those with "royal" backgrounds. Obviously, some of these people now have more money than others, but if travelers can't find this level of lodging acceptable, I have no idea what their standards are or what they are looking for in lodging. OTOH, if you are someone who needs/wants modern, cookie-cutter, business hotel 4* or 5* establishments, they are few and far between in the rural areas of India. We also found some very nice resort- type places in the foothills that I think would be acceptable to most people.

    As far as all of the places we stayed, IMO, most people (those who are looking for clean, comfortable, good location and some ambience) would be fine in any of the places that we paid $60 or more for. I'll admit that I can only remember 1 or 2 places that had hair dryers, and some of them had some kind of quirky plumbing due to the vintage of the lodging, but this is what makes place memorable to us rather than same old, same old of a standard hotel. If we wanted to, we could easily choose to pay more for lodging and get standard, generic, business class lodging, but this has absolutely no appeal to us. I guess it all depends on what you consider necessity. IMO, people who want to travel and experience all that different countries have to offer should be willing to loosen up a bit and try something a little bit out of their comfort zone. One of the places we stayed, and which was really nice for a totally out in the boonies retreat, had bucket showers. This was actually kind of fun and certainly wasn't they type of roughing it some of you seem so hesistant to try. They brought a huge plastic bucket of steaming water to my bathroom, and then I diluted it with the colder water from the shower taps. You sit on a little plastic stool in the shower area, and there is a scooping pitcher to use to scoop out the hot water from the larger bucket. Pour pitchers of the water on yourself, soap up or shampoo up, continue pouring water over yourself. Finish up by dumping all of the rst of the water in the larger bucket over yourself. It really was nice.

    Now, back to the report:

    Ramnagar and Khumbalgar

    I'd read about the temples at Ramnagar and huge fort at Khumbalgar, and I'd also read that the fort is surrounded by a nature reserve that offers the chance to do some hiking. So, I thought a one night stay here would be ideal so we could visit both places and have time to do some walking. Turns out that the nature reserve was basically a totally dried out semi-forested area which didn't particularly seem appealing for hiking. And, the fort itself—while definitely large—wasn't exactly what we had thought it would be either because it was quite set up for the standard tourist groups with chained fencing, dried out lawns, food stands etc. It was appealing for about two hours but not what we'd anticipated.

    We began the day by visiting the temple complex at Ramnagar which was very well-touristed with many people arriving at noon just as we did. The main temple was large and lovely with smaller enclosed shrines set around a main area with the largest shrine. The carving was gorgeous and the temple itself was a nice place to visit for about an hour. After this we headed off in the direction of the fort, stopping for a snack along the way so that we'd not be at the fort in the peak of the middle of the day heat.

    That day my husband had come down with chills and a fever and so by the time when we arrived at our hotel it was fine that all we needed was a light supper and a place to sleep. By later on the next day he'd recovered, but I had come down with a bad case of diarrhea—so bad I eventually started on a course of the zithromax the travel clinic had given us. Our conclusion about our illnesses: My husband got the chills and fever from his opium water, and I got the diarrhea from my taste of it.

    We hadn't been all that thrilled with the food we'd had at this pretty basic hotel the night before for dinner, so we decided to skip breakfast there the next morning and instead stopped after we'd been on the road for a while. We had a nice breakfast at Maharani Bagh (close to the temple complex) which seemed to have lovely grounds in a beautiful setting; we'd definitely stay there if in the area again.

    Castle Bera

    When we'd been planning our trip we'd thought about visiting this area which is well-known for its possibilities for leopard sightings. There are two brothers from the same feudal family that has controlled this area for centuries, and we researched and debated which place to stay at. We definitely made the right choice for those people who want to be involved in a wildlife activity that involves a property owner who chooses to study animals and their habits and to learn more about the area's wildlife.

    We went on four different safaris—two night for leopard spotting and two morning to see local birdlife and other large animals—crocodiles and a jackal. The thakkur--owner of the castle/large house--told us he shot his first leopard before he was even teen-aged but decided forty years ago that it is pointless to shoot these creatures. Instead, he decided to learn to observe their daily habits and to track their activities. He knows their dens, routines, which ones are paired, which ones have cubs etc. so he can nearly guarantees sightings to his guests. We were not disappointed, and both nights we went on safari did see leopards during our jeep rides. He was disconcerted when we did not have a similar sighting when we went out during the day with some of his men for a dawn safari. Normally we are not huge fans of extremely arid areas such as this is, but the jeep rides took us into some extremely gorgeous and varied countryside with small lakes for numerous bird sightings and some viewing of some very large crocodiles.

    Castle Bera is a true nature lover's destination. This contrasts with the operation run by his brother at Leopard's Lair. Our second night, when we were out on safari, we saw how that operation relies on baiting to guarantee that guests will have a leopard sighting. On our way back to the “castle” we came across a group of stopped jeeps waiting around a spotlit area. His brother purchases a young goat (cost about $30) and hobbles it tightly so it can't move and then ties it out in an area known to be frequented by a couple of the local leopards. We stopped with the rest of the jeeps for a few minutes to observe what we considered to be an atrocity. Sure enough, the leopard came up and started stalking the helpless young goat. Then, it made its attack jumping on the goat's jugular area and severing its head which it walked off with. But, apparently this is only the beginning of the evening's show for Leopard's Lair's guests because the leopard keeps coming back to finish off its “kill” so guests are guaranteed numerous sightings of the same animal. Our group left in disgust at people who are involved in this type of scenario.

    In addition to having extremely interesting and worthwhile safaris, Castle Bera also is a great place to stay. We were given a huge, huge suite with dressing room and sitting area. Plus, outside there are numerous places to sit around. The owner likes to sit around and drink with his guests and my husband thinks part of the reason he does the guest thing to have a constant supply of people to party with. His is the most extensive and varied private bar I have ever seen. And, unlike every other place we'd been, alcoholic drinks are included because the owner doesn't want to hassle keeping track of the drink orders to charge guests for them. All in all, this was one of our favorite places on our trip. And, the contrast to this is especially what made our next stop such a nightmare. To be continued.........

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    Julies,
    I've been eagerly awaiting your trip report! What a pleasure to read it - I, too, enjoy finding a balance of sites and more intimate experiences the best way to really connect with a place. I love how you've balanced your itinerary with urban/rural and diverse cultural settings.

    I've been quietly lurking on this board for a while now, following your planning posts on this and other travel boards, wondering how it will fall together.

    I'm planning a trip to Rajasthan/Varanasi for next winter. We'll have a much shorter trip (2+ to 3 wks), probably to the usual suspects, but I hope to incorporate some less well-known destinations as well.

    Would you mind sharing the name of the travel agent/agency who you worked with in Rajasthan? I'm now starting to put feelers out; I'm curious, how did you work with them? What services did they provide? What did they do that you didn't/couldn't do on your own? And, did they make suggestions that you wouldn't have thought of without their help?

    Looking forward to the rest of your trip!

    Paule

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    HI Julie! Thank you for taking all the time required to post this fantastic report. I wondered how you and hubby were getting on! Glad to hear he recovered ok from the pre-trip scare, and you were able to enjoy yourselves.

    Kumaon is on my "future trip to India list now! And a friend's son may be getting married in Jhansi (near Orchha and Gwalior) so your info will help both specifically and in general for your fellow Fodies.

    Thank again, and welcome home! Did you think twice about drinking water from the tap, once back in the USA!! (-:

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    Clothes and shoes and toiletries

    I decided to post this section now since I just ordered two more of these blouses so I’d have some for future trips. I took one of these to India, and it was the absolutely perfect thing for there because it is lightweight, dried quickly, is modest and is very comfortable to wear in the warmer weather. http://www.sierratradingpost.com/royal-robbins-original-expedition-shirt-upf-50-plus--wrinkle-resistant-3and4-sleeve-for-women~p~3268y/

    India is pretty casual, and only once did I regret that I didn’t have anything at all nicer than a couple of silk scarves to dress things up a bit. I found that some of my normal travel clothing was great, and some (a tank top and a couple short sleeved tops) I typically use for warmer climates I didn’t really use at all. I had two pairs of pants that convert from regular length to capris, and I wore these a lot along with my indispensible macabi skirt. http://www.macabiskirt.com/ I never did wear the one pair of shorts I took along.

    We used our fleeces a lot in the early part of our Rajasthan trip (actually the first few days in Jaisalmer we wore these under our jackets), up in the foothills and when we went on early morning safaris. I’d forgotten to pack a lightweight cardigan that I intended to bring and often wished I’d had it. Even though people always say that you can buy anything in India, I never was able to find one, and I looked even in the larger cities we were in. It is better to bring tan or khaki pants than black or navy because our darker pants were always showing the dust marks. At the last minute before we left I threw in a lightweight, long sleeved, v-necked tee shirt, and I was surprised at how often this was just the right thing for what I wanted. We took silk long johns and tops and wore them to bed in a couple of the places up in the Kuamon region.

    We always did our own laundry in our room, and India is absolutely perfect for this because there is always a big bucket in the shower—works great for doing laundry. Although I know I could have had it done at any of the places we stayed, I chose to just launder our clothes myself because I saw how laundry is done in India—the primary methods I observed were the beating method and the scrubbing on a rock method. Neither one called to me. I got an absolutely great tip for doing laundry from someone here at Fodor’s, and I tried it for this trip. Buy Purell laundry sheets, and use them for doing your hand laundry when traveling. We cut each sheet in quarters, and they were the perfect amount of detergent for a sink full of hand laundry, and you don't need to worry about a liquid soap that will leak.

    Unless your hair is very short, bring barrettes or clips to pin it up and away from your face and off your neck because you will find it often blowing around when you are in jeeps, most taxis, and in rickshaws.

    I'll try to answer other questions if I get a chance tomorrow.

    Whatever the spelling is, the jharokhra also indicates the cantilevered bos window seat-type extension we had in our room that is lined with pillows and cushions and is for lounging.

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    Marija--

    We've been back for 4 days now, and the day after we returned, my husband commented to me that I shouldn't do anything that required any brain power or any decision-making because lack of sleep and jet lag were getting the best of me. Apparently I still haven't recovered and got my "r"s confused. Ramnagar was the train station we left from on our way to Delhi and back home, so that is probably why it was on my brain. You are correct that the temples were at Ranakpur.

    Lyndie--I so agree with you that more diversity in type of traveler who posts here (at Fodor's in general, not just the Asia board) is so, so needed. There seems to be way too much skewing toward the high end, 5* trip, and not all of us are that type of traveler.

    Cali--We went through Jhansi, and I seem to recall a fort or palace or some such that our driver pointed out to us near there in Datia; I made a mental note becasue I thought it looked interesting.

    And, finally for Paule, some comments on travel agents.

    Normally agents are not my thing, and I do all of our trip planning on my own. In all of our travels the only time we have ever used an agent was when we visited Vietnam, and I wanted to book a very specialized tour of remote places that there was no way of doing on our own without an agent. But, the more I started looking into India, the more I finally realized that there would be a couple things a good agent could do that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own. First of all, I knew I would need to use some sort of agency to book a car and driver for Rajasthan, and, because we wanted to visit some very different types of places from the standard itineraries, I would need an agent who really knew his (I say he because it is predominantly men who work in the public in India) stuff. I needed someone who would be familiar with all of the properties I’d researched and come up with as possibilities and who would also know the best way to create a good route to include these places.

    After sending out feelers to about a half dozen agencies, I quickly decided upon TGS which is headquartered in Jaipur but has branches all through Rajasthan. Nikhil there was absolutely, 100% what I was looking for and he demonstrated it from our first contact. He gave me good advice on the different heritage places I was considering and arranged for our car and driver. Some of the places we visited we reached by train, and he told me when it was more economical and practical to use the train than to use a driver. Even though I chose all of our lodging, he did call and make all of the reservations for us, telling me that we’d be paying the same as if we’d booked ourselves. This was pretty accurate, but one place—Castle Bera—the owner did charge us less than quoted after telling us that agents usually take a cut and since we didn’t have a voucher from an agent (with extra fees padded in) he would charge us less. We had a great driver too after I specifically requested one with good rather than just marginal English skills. Nikhil was extremely responsive, and he would call our driver every morning; the driver would then hand me the phone so I could check in with Nikhil who wanted to make sure everything was going as expected. And, when we did have our one lodging fiasco (in a place I’d chosen with reassurances from Nikhil that it would be fine), he was extremely responsive and quickly made some phone calls and helped to rearrange a few things. His rates were very reasonable too; I’d highly recommend him to people going to Rajasthan. TGS Jaipur tgsjai@gmail.com

    Then, unfortunately, we had another not-so-good experience with an agent in Haridwar, Uttarkhand, whom I could not recommend to anyone as far as for making arrangements for anything but the most simple day trips. We had a couple red flags on this guy that we should have listened to, but he was recommended by both Lonely Planet and Footprint India, and he was a specialist in more adventure-oriented tours which is what we wanted, so we booked with him. Logically and rationally we violated some rules of common sense by booking with him, but we felt we could trust him and he is involved in some projects in India that we feel to be commendable so we ignored our qualms. He did some of the simple things fine—arranging a rafting trip for us in Rikikesh and taking us on a safari into Rajaji National Park but messed up some others that required more oversight and more detailed planning. He was difficult to reach to communicate with, but the main reason we were so unhappy (and angry) with him is because once he had our money and we had a complaint, he completely ignored us and wouldn’t take our calls or would lie and tell us he’d get back to us and then never did.

    Here is how we screwed up: First of all, we had difficulty communicating with him in the first place, and we should have just given up on him at that point. We tried reaching him about 3 or 4 days prior to when we would arrive in Haridwar where we wanted some services to begin; after a couple tries we finally got a hold of him by phone. He told us to send him an e-mail outlining what we were looking for, and he’d get back to us with a proposal. He never did. So, when we still hadn’t heard from him, and had by this time arrived in Haridwar where his office is, we walked down to his office to talk with him. When we met with him, he seemed to know exactly what we were looking for and gave us an on-the-spot quote for organizing/booking several thing for (an afternoon of rafting in Rikikesh, a guided half day safari into Rajaji park, a mahseer fishing trip, and a several-day package visiting Corbett park) and for arranging a car and driver for us for Uttarkhand.

    Our greatest concern and hesitation came when we discovered he did not take credit cards (this is not unusual in India) and he told us, since we would not be returning to Haridwar, we would need to give him all of the money upfront because we wouldn’t be in a position to come into his office at the end of our trip to make a final cash payment. We were paying this guy a big chunk of money, and operating this way meant we were using several different cards in several different ATMs for a couple days in order to be able to come up with the amount of cash we needed. I know, I know, I know. Big red flags, but we did it anyway because he had put together what we wanted and we thought we could trust him. We did get pretty much everything we’d paid for so I can’t say he was a scammer, but there were several screw-ups on his part and we had no recourse whatsoever because we’d already paid him in full. In particular, our Corbett trip was poorly planned, and he put us in absolutely awful lodging and wouldn’t move us to what we thought we’d paid for and agreed upon as far as level of lodging. And, finally, after we complained to him about the lodging and arrangements in Corbett, he just ignored us and wouldn’t even take our calls and messages.

    So, there is our experience with agents—both good and bad. I have realized that I am quite picky and anal about where we stay (even though we certainly aren’t looking for 4* or 5* luxury) because I know lodging can really affect the overall experiences one has on a trip. If you are like me, I’d suggest doing the research and booking your own lodging or directing the agent to book the lodging you have chosen rather than relying on the agent to choose places for you. One out of the eighteen lodgings I chose on our trip was a fiasco (not too bad a percentage), but 2 out of 3 of the places chosen and booked by the Haridwar agent were bad and not at all the types of places we’d ever chose to stay. We’ve learned our lesson for the future.

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    The old "pay up front in cash" trick! Done it too...won't EVER do it again....there is just no need. julies, you tailored your trip to your unique requirements, which must be truly satisfying rather than relying on another to understand and implement your plans. I find in India, the cultural differences are usually so great that few understand what I hope to experience. They seem to think we all want the same itinerary. Mahendra Singh at www.jasvillas.com is one guy I trust implicitly for car/driver and great accommodation and input.

    Another tip about clothing is to take very little from home and buy your clothing in India. If you are a standard size up to say US10-12 you will find cheap disposable salwars and baggy pants that will last for a few weeks then you can toss them out and go home with bags full of gifts instead of your clothes. I'm an Amazon size 16 AUS (Anokhi has that size)and I also had stuff "whipped up" in a day, for less than $10 for two pieces. Outfits that helped me fit in with locals in small villages. Kinda like Jack Reacher does in a Lee Child novel.

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    Julie,
    Thank you so much for the detailed description of your experiences with the agents. I,too, am typically a do it yourself planner, but sfter poring over the many posts and travel boards, I see that traveling in India is of a different order, and one pretty much needs some form of agency in the country. I did note TGS in my reading, and it's one of the agencies that interested me, so I appreciate reading your comments.
    Of course, I won't be going till the end of the year, but at least I can have fun planning! As I'll be there at a very busy time, it won't hurt to start now. And I do so love the planning!

    Looking forward to reading the next installments,
    Paule

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    We did not use an agent, but rather booked all our accommodations on line with only one small hitch along the way - we were not satisfied with our hotel in Orchha and left one night early. While many people use agents to book their rooms, we found it quite easy. For any planning a trip, note that the taj group often offers a third free night stay with two paid nites.

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    Also - we did stop in Datia and also sonigiri (sp?) neither of which we found remarkable, but worth a short stop along the way.

    Enjoying your report and looking forward to more.

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    The train from Delhi to Jaisamler ... is it a direct train or does the train makes stop at places like Jaipur and Jodhpur, etc., before ending at Jaisamler?

    Is it possible/ better to book all train travel in advance? arrive? Should one also try to book all hotels in advance also? Thanks.

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    Re agents:

    Yes, all cash and all upfront is something we would never do again. Learned our lesson!

    I too booked some of our hotels online by myself, and it worked okay. dgunbug says s/he did all of the hotel reservations that way, but I also notice mention of the Taj group of hotels. The more fancy and expensive hotels do have standardized online booking using credit cards that we are all familiar with. And, some of the government-run hotels also have the same. For example, Sheesh Mahal where we stayed in Orchha wouldn't do anything for us by phone and told us to go online to book. The problem with some of the smaller places (the places we tend to like to stay) can be that they don't take credit cards and want a bank transfer. This can be very, very pricey if you end up booking a lot if places ahead of time that require this. And, this is where an agency could help you with booking; the agency makes the deposit or payment, and you make one lump sum payment to the agency.

    I did book some of our places online by myself. Using e-mail I booked the B & B we stayed at our 1st night upon arrival in Delhi; there we had to make a Paypal payment upfront. Then, I booked via e-mail the hotels we stayed at it Jaisalmer & Jodhpur (the next two destinations on our itinerary); these were both honor system and didn't require any downpayment. For all of these places I also arranged airport or train station pick-ups too. In the last half of our trip, where we were just planning a couple days out, I just phoned ahead to make reservations.

    In Rajasthan I primarily needed an agent to help me with the routing and to make arrangements for a car and driver. If you intend to follow the usual, well-trod tourist path, you should be able to figure out routing yourself. If you intend to hire a car and driver you don't necessarily need an agent to book for you, but most agents have trusted drivers they use. Our driver in Rajasthan drives only for TGS customers. The driver in Uttarakhand is a free-lancer who will drive for anyone.

    Trains:

    If I get a chance I'll go more extensively into these later. It is imperative that trains be booked waaaaaaay ahead of time. In fact, getting a train often proved to be the major hassles of our trip. You can book these online by yourself as we did, but I my agent at TGS did tell me that often agents can help with changes to train tickets IF they are not e-tickets like you get by booking online yourself. I believe him becasue everyone related to the travel industry in India does seem to have all of these connections, so this could be a reason to use an agent to book your train tickets.

    Finally, one more comment about trains in India. These are not the nice, new fancy trains all of us who have taken trains in Europe or the US think about. Indeed, we laughed and said to ourselves that these just might be some of the same trains we took in Europe 40 years ago, and after talking to a conductor on one of our trains, I think we may have been right. No train we took anywhere in India was at all anything we'd consider express, even when the train name indicated it was an express. The train from Delhi to Jaisalmer made tons of stops all through the night.

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    Re: trains: yes, they're very popular. Booking for most trains opens 90 days ahead. If you're taking a lot of trains buying an Indrail pass can make sense (if you're in the US you'll have to use the UK agent). It will come with all your reservations. However, I found cleartrip.com easy to use and booked almost all of the tickets for my last trip with them.

    If you wind up booking IN India, you're better off using a travel agency (any agency, just walk into the nearest) rather than tackling the train station, unless it's a small, rural one, or unless it has an International Tourist Bureau (e.g. in Delhi). Note that the Bureau will come with an obligatory local telling you that it is closed and you need to use the agency across the street.

    Re: hotels: I made all the reservations myself for my last trip. They included three small one person operations for which I had to wire funds, on up to to two Taj Gateway properties. I booked a couple of smaller chains - Ginger and Keys - and booked another couple of places through agoda.com. My previous trip, back in 2001, I "booked" most of my hotels by showing up, or calling ahead from the previous town, but there were few people traveling that year, plus I was mostly staying in cheap places - not hostels and with attached bath and AC, but very basic.

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    Hotel booking--

    We too were traveling more in shoulder season, so we were probably lucky in that reservations weren't absolutely necessary. If, however, you are traveling in peak season and want prime places, it is probably a completely different story.

    Before I get back to my narrative of what we actually did on our trip, here are a couple more background items I thought might be helpful to some people.

    GUIDEBOOKS

    As I said earlier, as soon as we started to think about this trip I went to my local library and checked out just about every book that has been published as a guidebook to India (our system is rated in the top 5 in the US). All the books have their pluses and minuses (some many more minuses than pluses), and after looking at them all ended up buying only two guidebooks in hard copy to take along. Footprint India, I feel, is the best and most comprehensive of all of the guidebooks published, and, to make it even better, the publisher uses very thin paper so the book does not weigh much and isn’t too bulky. So, we took that along in hard copy with the Lonely Planet Guide to Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra. Early on in the planning process, I also bought a copy of Alistair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay India, and this gave me lots of good ideas even though we only ended up staying at 3 or 4 of the properties listed.

    We also had some guidebooks in e-reader format (this is the first time I have ever tried using my e-reader for travel guidebooks). I bought Rough Guide to India and loaded it on my e-reader so we’d have another resource without having to drag along another book. Then, after we’d finished the Rajasthan portion of our trip, we decided to buy Lonely Planet India for our Kindle Fire. In case anyone is interested, I much, much, much prefer having a real hard copy over having an electronic version. Of the two that we took in electronic version, the Rough was definitely easier to use than the Lonely Planet in e-reader format. When doing my research months before our trip, I had also checked a couple of photo-heavy, e-format India guidebooks out from my library. These proved to be absolutely worthless because all of the data needed to display photos kept locking up my color Nook.

    COMMUNICATION

    We took an unlocked phone with us and purchased a SIM card and minutes the first day we were in Delhi. Our B & B had arranged a taxi driver for us for the day, and we just asked the taxi driver to take us to a place where we could buy a SIM. We ended up with the Idea network, and other than 1 or 2 times when we were really, really out in the middle of nowhere, we had service. Having a phone was absolutely indispensible for us, and we couldn’t have managed without one because we used it to call ahead to make reservations, we used it to contact our drivers during the day, and we used it to call agents. If, as we did, you buy a SIM in Delhi make sure to emphasize that you will need the service for all of India, or you may have problems. We added minutes later on in the trip by stopping in small shops several different places, and the first question always had to do with where the SIM originated.

    Getting phone service in India is a pain. You need passport photos, have to practically give them you life history, and it is time consuming. But, it is worth it to have the convenience of a phone; we used our a lot. We only made calls within India, but I think it was only something like .04 cents a minute for calls to the US.

    We took our netbook with us, and Internet access at many times proved to be problematic, especially since we spent much of our trip in the rural areas. Many of the smaller, more remote lodgings had no access at all, and the one time we did try to use an Internet café in a smaller town, it turned out there was just one computer, and it was being used. So, we never did use an Internet café at any time in our trip. We only had a couple hotels where we could actually get a connection in our room, and many of the heritage hotels that did have Internet had really weak signals, so we would have to sit in the lobby to be able to connect. And, several places that said they had Internet had service that wasn’t working.

    After realizing that we wanted/needed more readily available Internet access, we decided to buy a dongle so we could use that to connect to the Internet through our phone. The owner of the place we were staying out in the countryside made a couple phone calls for us and sent us off with our driver to the nearest town (about an hour away). We bought the dongle and used it throughout the rest of our trip to connect to the Internet through our phone, but we never were able to figure out how to find the right type of plan that would give us access as cheaply as we knew could be done. So, every time we connected, my husband kept insisting that we use it only briefly so we wouldn’t burn up all of our phone minutes. Plus, it was a hassle because we had to keep taking the SIM card out of our phone to put in the dongle and then vice versa. If we had it to do over again, we’d have purchased a second SIM card and would have had two completely different phone plans so one could be dedicated for use with the netbook. But, this would also have meant the hassle of a second set of photos and all of the paperwork needed to set up a phone account.

    I knew I rely heavily upon the Internet, and can’t conceive of how I used to plan trips in the days when there were just guidebooks, but since we were planning the second half of our trip more-or-less by winging it, I knew we needed to be able to have access pretty available. If you have everything booked ahead for your trip, your need for Internet access may not be as strong as ours was.

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    Oops. Because I asked this question here while researching our trip, there is one more thing I wanted to comment on before going back to my narrative.

    WINGING IT VS. HAVING A SET ITINERARY

    This was a question I had before I left because we like to have some flexibility in our schedule and didn’t want everything locked in. Our compromise was to have the first half of the trip (the Rajasthan portion) planned prior to departure. That meant we had our train reservations, our driver lined up, and our hotels booked. One of our questions was how hot it would get by mid-March, so we wanted to have the option of completely changing our plans if we decided we needed to escape the heat, and that is why we left the second half of our trip open.

    Before leaving home, I had done a lot of the research for the second half of the trip so, I had a loose, tentative itinerary and some ideas about where we wanted to go, where we wanted to stay, and what we wanted to do. But, it was still more difficult (especially without good, constant, reliable internet access) and more time-consuming than I’d thought it would be to make arrangements on the fly. And, it truly was transportation realities/difficulties that dictated the itinerary for the second part of the trip. Our recommendation would be to have the major transportation (planes and trains) between different major locales all booked before starting the trip because this was the most difficult part of trying to set things up a week or two in advance. Then, leave your winging it to places within that general locale because you can easily get a driver (or bus if you are willing to go that way; we aren’t) to move within a general area.

    Having done the winging it bit for the second half of our trip, I have mixed feelings about taking this tack in India unless you are someone with a backpacker’s time, flexibility and mentality. Yes, when we realized how hot it was going to be we were able to X out the tentative plan we had to stay at a lodge in Panna National Park for a few days. And, yes, we were able to get the lodging we wanted with no difficulty. But, we also ended up spending a lot of time just trying to get logistics and other things figured out. This was difficult for us even though we had some pretty set ideas and had done a lot of our research before we left home, so I can’t imagine how hard it would be for someone just doing it cold.

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    Kathie--

    I took the time to make some detailed comments on logistics because these types of things impact all people no matter where they choose to go on their rip or how they choose to travel.

    Now back to the narrative of our trip..........

    Our lodging disaster that I chose (we had another one chosen by the bad agent we used in Haridwar) was Darbargahd Poshina just over the border from Rajasthan into Gujarat. I had had great hopes for the place because it is in the center of the tribal—adavasi—areas, and we were very interested into getting some insights into how those tribal people live. The promise had been for an exciting Holi celebration at Poshina itself and also jeep safaris to the surrounding villages. Upon our arrival it was obvious we weren't expected at all because we were shown into a dark reception room and then abandoned for about ten minutes. Finally, we were shown to a dark and musty room in what seemed like it might have formerly been the lower level stables (we’d just requested a standard room). And, it wasn’t as though this was the last room available because the place was jam-packed with other guests; the place seemed quite devoid of guests. After the welcome receptions we had been given at other places, this place was not at all friendly. Other than being asked if we wanted a cup of tea, we were left on our own with no one asking if we wanted lunch (we arrived in early afternoon and our arrangements were for a package complete with room and board) or telling us what the possibilities were for activities during our stay. The grounds didn’t seem all that enticing, and right outside of the estate’s gate was a small town jam-packed with people and food stalls.

    After about a half an hour, during which time both of our guts told us that this was going to be disastrous (especially since we'd been told by our agency we couldn’t use the car the next day since it might be damaged by all of the paint thrown around for Holi), we'd had enough and decided to call our agent to tell him we wanted to leave. He did some phoning for us and told us that we could move up our arrival at our next location and get into Udai Bilas two nights early if we wanted, but we'd have to take a suite rather than the regular room we had reserved for two days later. The suite was certainly more than we'd planned to pay, but at that point we were ready to pay anything to escape and not have to be stuck in this place for two days. Perhaps we just had bad timing and bad communications with this place (but we did have several e-mails confirming our dates) and others would have a different experience at a different time. The owner, who dids seem friendly, did come out to very briefly greet us after our wait in the reception room. And, by the time we’d made the decision to leave and were actually on the way out of the door (and he had somehow been told or figured it out that we were unhappy), he did come out again and apologize for being busy when we first got there. But, that was our experience. I should have listened to Dogster who told me not to go here.

    So, at 3:00 we set out for the three hour drive to Dungapur.

    Dungapur Udai Bilas

    Originally Udai Bilas was planned to be our splurge place because I'd been told by Nikhil (our agent at TGS) it was so beautiful we needed to stay there and experience the setting where a 15 gun maharajah (the higher ranking the maharajah the more salutes fired) lives in rather than just the homes of the more minor royalty where we’d been staying during the rest of our trip. Our suite turned out to be a not particularly large bedroom with a bathroom nearly as big as the room. What was great though was that we had a small balcony we could sit on overlooking the small lake the palace is set on, Meals (pricey and not worth the price in our opinion) were extra and were buffet style which is never our choice. Breakfast was large enough that we just ordered a veggie pakora snack in the late afternoon and had that rather than a real lunch.

    Plus, since it was Holi we were virtually prisoners in the place. We were told several times by all of the staff that we should not leave the grounds for the entire day of Holi because for many people Holi is just a drunken bash. Apparently many of the men leave small towns like this and go off into the large cities to find employment. They return for a major celebration like Holi with a pocketful of cash and spend a lot of it on booze. (I’m guessing this would also have been the case it Poshina, so I suspect it might have been somewhat the same situation there.) There was supposed to be boating and birdwatching for activities at Udai Bilas; what this means is a man will row you around on the rather small lake with the town set at one end and the palace set on another part of the shore. Late in the afternoon on the day of Holi we were told we could go out in the boat if we wanted, but we turned the offer down because to us, coming from a state full of gorgeous lakes, this was not much bigger than a pond ringed with development in many parts of the shore. There were some guest cycles available, but we weren’t able to use them because of Holi. Perhaps in different circumstances we might have taken them out for 45 minutes or so.

    Udai Bilas was also rather odd in that the manager seemed to be going around encouraging togetherness in the evening, or else he was trying to move liquor from the bar. The second night we were told cocktails would be in the garage, and this seemed rather strange to us since they'd been on the lakefront terrace the previous evening. But, then again, it was cooler and windier than the night before, so a half an hour or so after cocktail hour was supposed to start we set off looking for the garage. What a garage it was! The current maharajah is a classic car collector whose collection must include about thirty cars all of which are like new, sparkling clean and on display in this edifice that is hardly a garage but more like a huge family room with cars on display all along the walls. Not only is it decorated around a car theme, but the lounge seating area decorated with sofas and chairs upholstered in a car print is on a hydraulic lift so the entire lounge section, maybe 15 by 30 feet, can be elevated. The fortyish maharajah joined us for drinks for perhaps 20 minutes, showing off his toys. I know some of the guests were impressed by all of this, but I was disgusted by this obscene display of wealth in a country where so many people are so very poor. Apparently ostentatiousness is still a cardinal value for some people in the maharajah's social class. All I could think of was how the money spent on this hobby could have built houses with running water and toilets, fed hungry people, educated children and provided for many people's unmet basic needs.

    All in all, this stay at Udai Bilas proved to us that we really do not care to stay in these types of properties where the major feature or attraction is a display of how India’s truly rich, historically noble families live. One such place was enough. Probably the highlight of the visit to Udai Bilas was when we were leaving and stopped on our way out to visit Juna Mahal, a decrepit former castle that this maharajah's family had built many centuries ago—maybe 13th or 14th century. It was both haunting and contained gorgeous wall paintings from centuries ago. Much more appealing to me than the conspicuous display of wealth at Udai Bilas.

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    I wouldn't be too hard on the guy. After all, it's possible that he's used an equal amount of his wealth to help the poor. And it's very likely that castle was much, much more ostentatious in it's time! ;;)

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    julies, thanks again for your excellent, insightful report! Some Indians appear to believe that displays of wealth are most impressive to us foreigners. My Indian mate, Arindam (a Brahmin) has said on occasion, "it's to do with feeling inferior to the 'whites' during and after colonisation". I cannot begin to understand why or how they may suppose this. But, I agree, with you!

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    The idea of wealth (and what they perceive to be wealthy)among the "royalty" in India is fascinating. At one of the smaller places we stayed (not the 15 gun salute guy) owned by a more minor royal family, the owner commented to us that he hadn't been rich for nearly 10 years. That was the last time he had the money to spend 90,000 pounds on a gun!

    A fascinating book to read either before or after a trip to India is a memoir written by the Maharani of Jaipur. It depicts the life of the upper echelon of royalty in the era before independence (and maybe later too; I don't know for sure since I'm only in the middle of the book). A Princess Remembers. It is out of print, so buy a cheap used copy as I did.

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    Just a comment about internet access. We had a small group that did a very similar trip to yours, and found that internet access was almost non-existent. However, I luckily have am unlocked Blackberry and had no problems with getting good service throughout the trip, after getting an Indian SIM in Delhi. (I say this just in case anyone else with a BB wonders if they should bring it or not)

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    varanasi is very interesting, unlike anything else we saw in india....

    the ghats, the cremation fires, the weirdos, the throngs of people, the devout, the beggars, the river, the boats, the busy streets, the back alleys...

    for me two full days there would be sufficient... the areas away from the river held little or no interest for me..

    stay right on the river, even though the hotels are not all that nice---think clean, but no lux at all.

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    We too really found Varanasi to be fascinating, watching life on the river; take away the plastic and the cell phones, and it could be centuries or millenia ago. Before we left for India I had insisted that Varanasi would be the one place I absolutely had to include in my itinerary. Then, when we were in India and had only pre-planned the Rajasthan portion of our trip and were trying to figure out the rest of the trip we almost eliminated Varanasi just becasue it is so out of the way and a hassle to get to. I am so glad we followed through and decided to keep it in our itinerary.

    But, as Bob says, definitely stay right on the river. When we drove in from the airport and then again when we drove back out to the train station we kept asking ourselves why people would stay in the fancier hotels in the city because these entail a half an hour taxi ride to get to the river evey time you want to go there. The joy of staying right on the river is that you can just walk right out your door and be in the center of the action. And, you can go back to your room for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Varanasi is at its best and most fascinating in the early morning and in the evening. Like many places in countries with warmer climates, many people try to stay our of the sun and heat in the middle of the day.

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    kuluk--

    You were lucky with your experience with your Blackberry. I know someone else who had a terribel time trying to use a Balckberry.

    Back to the trip....

    2 nights at Fort Bassi

    We had two nights extra now to fill since we'd walked out of Poshina, so I had called our agent asking for suggestions for a place to add in before we went to Udaipur and left our car and driver. Of his two suggestions this seemed to be the most reasonably priced, and it also offered the most things to do so we decided to add it in. One of the prime attractions in the Bassi area is Fort Chittrogarh, something we really hadn't thought about visiting because we were kind of feeling like we'd seen enough forts. But, we set off in our first morning in Bassi anyway since it seemed like a good activity to fill our time. This was a surprisingly interesting place, was different from other forts we'd visited, and didn't seem at all repetitious in terms of other places we'd visited. It was a much larger fort and we needed our driver to drive us from stop to stop within the really large complex.

    Bassi also turned out to be an interesting place because once again luck was with us, and there was a major event taking place. A family wedding—an uncle’s grandson--was to be held there, and the events were just starting with all of the festivities for the groom's side of the family for the day before the wedding. Just as in Dhamli we were warmly welcomed to participate in all of the activities; I found out that India weddings are huge events with 400 or 500 people, so I can see why it was no big deal to invite a few more people. We were even asked if we wanted to stay and attend the actual wedding events on the third day, but our travel logistics were such that it just wouldn't work out.

    Nonetheless, it was fascinating to be able to both watch from above as all of the local townspeople were invited to a courtyard adjoining the palace for a dinner and to be able to join in with the family’s guests later in the night. Very long pieces of cloth were spread out on the ground, and several dozen townspeople at a time came in to seat themselves on the cloth to eat before the next shift arrived. Apparently each street in town is give an certain time to arrive, so that is how the logistics are worked out. There was also a “groom’s dinner” for family, but we were told that we’d be better off eating the standard food prepared for paying guests at Fort Bassi because the meal being served as the “groom’s dinner” would be both too oily and too spicy for us. I would have liked to have tried the food because we do like spicy but didn’t want to appear pushy.

    After all of the townspeople were fed, we joined in the procession through town led by the finely dressed and bedecked groom seated on his decorated horse. As we’d seen when we observed several weddings in Jaisalmer, a cart or truck with a generator accompanies the groom so that the long fluorescent lights can be held to illuminate the wedding procession Later on in the evening, after this equivalent of the meal for the groom’s dinner, we were warmly invited to join in the festivities within in the family quarters—Fort Bassi, as does many of the other heritage palaces we stayed, has one wing for guests and one wing for family. As in Dhamli, women and men held separate festivities, so I joined the women while my husband drank (we’re talking liquor here) and chatted with the men. Individual women would get up to perform their dances for the group, and observers would then donate money to the musicians. Since this was our second event we'd attended with musicians and dancing, we'd finally figured out the routine when people demonstrate respect for each other and the musicians by swirling the bills over the dancer's head prior to donating it to the musicians. At the end of the evening and the musician’s playing, many of the women formed a circle for group dancing, and I even joined in.

    We were sorry that we wouldn’t be able to stay for the actual wedding itself because it would have been interesting to participate. The bride’s family lived in the vicinity of Chittrogarh, and the day of the wedding all of the men from the groom’s family would process on over to the home of the bride. At her home there would be some sort of ceremony, and then the bride would return to Fort Bassi as a member of her new family. Apparently her younger sisters would be able to accompany her on this trip, but it sounded as though any older or married females from her family were not able to participate in this post-wedding journey and celebration. Males from the two families would meet at the home of the bride, but the females of the two families stay completely separate and never do meet.


    Udaipur

    I'd struggled with how much time to devote to Udaipur since most people seem to love it. But, there is also a smaller subset of people who'd visited mostly smaller, rural places just as we'd done, and many of these people feel that Udaipur is just another busy, bustling city, albeit with a lake. Finally we decided that if we arrived at noon one day and took the 11:00 pm train to Gwalior the next night it would be sufficient time in Udaipur. This was just right for us. Since we'd only have one night, I decided to book a lake facing room at a nice hotel, and Jagat Niwas certainly was a lovely hotel with a great location. We enjoyed having the large window seat to curl up in (we even had a couple glasses of wine in the evening) and watch the events below us on the lake.

    Contrary to most people's feelings, Udaipur wasn't at the top of our hit list, and I think it may have been because we had already had some quiet time in all of the smaller places we'd visited. I suspect that Udaipur is a favorite of so many people because it in some ways is less like typical Northern India and has some restaurants and cafes and other places to relax that are somewhat European in aspect. And, of all of the historical structures we visited during our trip, the Lake Palace was probably our least favorite because it was both absolutely packed with large crowds of noisy people, and the building itself just wasn't all that interesting compared to some other places we’d seen. We did the pretty obligatory boat ride around the lake and found it to be nice, but this certainly isn't the Grand Canal in Venice, and the sights are much less fascinating.

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    It may have been that you weeren't there long enough. Many of the tings i loved about Udaipur were not the town itself or Lake Palace. I vaguely remember that it wasn't open to non-guests then.

    Our highlights were horseback riding out in the rural villages on the famous Mewhar horses, the art at Bagore Haveli museum, and visiting the Monsoon Palace at Sunset. The garden above city Palace was beautifu, and we had some really good meals in Udaipur. There are also some great day trips in the area surrounding Udaipur.

    As we were staying at Udaivilas, I'll admit we were kind of lazy. Between the pools, gardens, yoga and cooking classes, I could have been happy even it had been dasert outside. On one visit,there was a wedding of some celebrity families going on, and the sari-watching was fabulous!

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    Your description of the wedding festivities is very interesting. We visited northern India in January a few years ago, but did not visit most of the places you visited. What was the average high temperature during your trip? Sounds likeon very short notice you were able to plan a trip that suited your interests. Thanks for posting.

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    When you write about visiting Lake Palace in Udaipur do you mean City Palace? Lake Palace is the name of the Taj Hotel in Udaipur. Doesn't seem like a place you'd visit, even if visitors were allowed.

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    lcuy--Perhaps you are right, and we didn't devote enough time to Udaipur but we were ready to get on the train when it was time to leave and weren't regretting that we had to tear ourselves away. I should also add in that we aren't shoppers, and people who are shoppers would want more time here. And, I also notice that many of your memories entail things that didn't happen in the city itself but rather on its outskirts. We had contamplated staying out of the city and doing day trips in because there are some marvelous-sounding places a bit out of the city. But, since we'd already had so much countryside, we decided to stay right in the heart of things.

    Marija--Yes, I stand corrected. It was the City Palace; you can only see the Lake Palace from the boat that takes you around the lake.

    Shelley--We were in India the last week of February, all of March and returned at the very beginning of April. Our first stop was Jaisalmer, and we were surprised that our first few days there we needed both a fleece and jacket in the evenings and early mornings. In Jaisalamer days were perfect for touring with long- sleeve shirts and long pants. In the rest of Rajasthan days were pleasantly warm, and it wasn't the type of weather where you walk around for a couple of hours and need a shower. But, by the time we flew out of Delhi at the beginning of April, the temperature in Delhi was close to 100F and we noticed the heat as soon as we got off the train rom the foothills. Actually, temperatures on our whole trip were much better than we'd anticipated they might be, and in Rajasthan we never felt it was too hot to be a tourist. But, In Rajasthan we had also been told that the weather was unusual this year (sounds just like everywhere else in the world) in that the winter came late. But, we were also constantly reassured by everyone we talked to in Rajasthan that temperatures would be fine for tourism when we were there, and they were.

    In Varanasi and Haridwar and Corbett Park (all later on into our trip) it was definitely warm in the sun in the middle of the day but not nearly as hot as some other places in the world we've been and not so hot that we were dying to do anything to get out of the heat. I should add in here that even though my husband had one pair of trousers taht zip off into shorts, he never once wore shorts. I think once or twice when we were settled in for the afternoon at a more resort-type place he did wear a pair of 3/4 length pants we'd brought along. We normally try to dress to respect local custom, but if the heat becomes unbearable, he will wear shorts for the comfort. The fact that he never resorted to this says a lot about the temps during our trip. As a further note on clothing for men, regular shirts with a collar rather than tee shirts or polos are the best to fit in.

    In the foothills in Uttarkharand I wore either a long-sleeved or 3/4 sleeve shirt during the day with either long pants or capris and long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a fleece as soon as the sun left. And, I can only think of a couple times in our entire trip when we turned on the AC in our room, and sometimes that was more as a noise blocker.

    All in all, it was a pretty nice time of year weatherwise. But, since we like green, and everything in Rajasthan was pretty much tan and dried out, we think it would be very nice to visit right after the monsoon when all of the vegetation is at its greenest.

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    Back to our trip.......

    We were able to buy 1AC tickets for the overnight train trip fro Udaipur to Gwalior, and 1AC is nice (not European standard by any stretch of the imagination though), especially since we were given one of the small two-person coupes.

    ORCHHA

    Our train arrived around noon, and we were picked up by a driver we'd have for the next couple of days to take us from Gwalior to Khajuraho. The transportation for this leg of the trip ended up being much more expensive than any of the other drivers we'd had, but we accepted it as the price of our not having had time to arrange this until the very last minute and that is why we really didn't even have any idea of what the cost would be.

    The roads are terrible in Mahadya Pradesh, and we were bouncing around in the back of a smaller car than the large Innova SUV we'd had in Rajasthan. Even though we might have liked to see the fort in Gwalior, and we’d heard good reviews of it, we gave it a pass because we wanted to have more time to devote to Orchha. We knew all along that Orchha would be a place where we'd want two nights, and we were right. In Orchha we'd finally found a place where we could just walk around and do some actual walking in addition to walking to visit the rather fascinating moldering ruins that were scattered throughout the area. But.......once again, as on so much of our trip, transportation realities completely dictated our trip arrangements. If we spent two nights, rather than just one in Orchha, our plane tickets to Varanasi from Khajuraho would cost nearly four times as much. Obviously, the money won out, and we shorted Orchha.

    Sheesh Mahal, where we stayed, is owned and operated by Mahadya Pradesh tourism and is a nice, reasonably priced hotel in a great location—inside the palace complex itself. If we have a chance, we'd like to return to Orchha for a longer visit, and we'd definitely stay here again. Some of the other typically recommended hotels on the riverfront are further on the outskirts of the small town, and, in our opinion, don't have nearly as nice and convenient a location.

    KHAJURAHO

    Although we enjoy art, architecture and sculpture, from the reading I’d done, I was concerned about whether Khajuraho would be for us, and I was correct. This ranks as one of our least favorite places on our entire trip. But, we decided to visit anyway because we could take a plane out of here to Varanasi. The place really did nothing for us.

    We arrived from Orchha about 4 or 5 pm via an absolutely horrible road that is under construction, and then spent a bit of time that evening wandering around Khajuraho, constantly surrounded by touts and people who were bothering us. Our preference would have been to pull in about sunset, but our driver kept insisting that we’d better leave Orchha early because the drive can take so long. Of course, his range of estimates was exaggerated, and we got there on the earlier side but we also didn’t stop for a meal at the place he stopped; instead we just bought a cold drink while he ate. We finally figured out the driver was pushing us for a fairly early arrival in Khajuraho because he wanted to drive home to Gwalior to his family that night. When we got ready to leave Orchha we’d cautiously and very politely been asked if we would be willing to let someone else—one of the waiters from Sheesh Mahal-- ride along with us to Khajuraho. The front seat next to the driver was empty, so we agreed because we wanted to help out. As with so many of the other lower level people in the tourist industry we met, the family is separated so the father can have a job in another town. This waiter has been living this life for twelve years. He now had three days off and was going home to visit his family whom he hadn’t seen for several months. If you get a driver in your trip, ask about how long it has been since he has been home, and you’ll be appalled by the response. This separation from family for the sake of a job we found to be a common theme from drivers and guides we got to know.

    In the morning we got up fairly early so we could visit the Western area temples in the morning light (and because we had an early afternoon flight to catch). The temples are all quite close to one another in an immaculate set of grounds (never saw anything like it in India as far as neatness). It is a very, very short stroll from one temple to the next, but after a couple hours it honestly starts to get quite repetitive. This is a one-shot ticket, so you can’t even go back out for a while to take a break from visiting the temples and re-enter. And, the town was so full of touts and people who kept approaching up all of the time that we just wanted to escape from it all. Maybe we weren’t used to the constant hassle of being approached all of the time since for the most part we didn’t do any of the major places that are notorious for tourist hassles and touts, but we were really fed up. Plus, the temples are really all that there is in Khajuraho, and the town itself didn’t call to us the way other towns did.

    For us, the temples were worth a couple hours, but we wouldn’t return and wouldn’t go out of our way to visit here even if it is a UNESCO site. I know I'll hear from people who loved the place, but this was our take on Khajuraho.

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    No, I tend to agree with you about Khajuraho. I am glad I saw it, but I certainly won't go back. FYI, the hassles there weren't as bad as Agra...

    The town around the temples is just for tourists, there's a much quieter, more rural, village nearby.

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    I thought the site itself was memorable. The sculptings on the temple are quite good technically, not to mention very interesting and educational.lol. It's not the kind of place you would return to, but I think it definately deserves its UNESCO World Heritage designation.

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    Well, now I am really being put off on visiting Agra. And, interestingly enough, I know someone who just returned from India whose take on the Taj Mahal was pretty similar to our take on Khajuraho. To her, it was just another architectural site fraught with a lot of hassles.

    I agree that Khajuraho deserves the UNESCO designation because of the protections such a designation entails, and the sculptures were done by highly skilled artists. I guess my point is that if someone is in India for a limited amount of time and has to make a decision as to what to put in an itinerary and what to eliminate, this, IMO, would be a prime candidate for elimination.

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    Although the hassles in Agra were excessive, if I had to choose between the Taj and the temples at Khajuraho the Taj would be an easy winner. You just can't tell from the photos how magical it is. Plus if you go to Agra you can take in Fatehpur Sikri and the Bird Park as well.

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    Khajuraho is remarkable because the carvngs there were not defaced by Islamist invaders.

    The Taj is lovely, but by the time we got there, I found Agra so unpleasant that I didn't enjoy the Taj as much as I might have.

    The best bang for the buck in India that I saw was the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar.

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    I wanted to go to the Golden Temple because a religious edifice that is actually in use is very intersting to me, probably much more so than one that is just a monument now. Oh well, maybe another trip........

    I have been starting to work on my photos (all 2500 of them), and when I look back at them it reminds me once again that what really interested us the most, and what we found fascinating, was just scenes of everyday life and trying to understand more (in the limited way of a tourist) what life is like for people of all classes and cultures in India. So, if you are planning a trip to India, my advice would be to make sure you hae enough time included to just wander and observe. I see way too many trips and itineraries that IMO are jam-packed full of nothing but visits to monuments, forts, temples and tourist sites.

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    Agree with you , Indiana, about Golden Temple, and with you, Julie about what is most interesting. That is easy to do in India, beacuse the activities of daily life are right out on the streets.

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    re: orcha, Julie--given your interest and enjoyment of daiily life, how did ou choose Sheesh Mahal over Orchha Homestay, where villagers open their homes to guests? it is a very unusual and worthy undertaking from what i read of it.

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    I am not a particular fan of erotica, but the unique carvings and temples made Khajuraho a really interesting stop for me. Granted we only spent one night there, but I thought it shed a particularly interesting light on the early practices and beliefs there. Certainly unique.

    We also stayed at the Sheesh Mahal and it was really a fun place to stay! I have to admit I love decrepit old Palaces and the location right in the midst of the other palaces is just amazing. Plus the light and sound show is right outside the hotel, and we actually became part of the show as we were walking along some of the parapets!

    Orchha was one of my favorite stops, because of the very faded glory nature and the (mostly) wonderful people. A note: Last summer a Hollywood time travel/love story movie was filmed there...which is supposed to be released this summer 2012.

    Just being at the Taj Mahal, because of it's history and workmanship, was well worth it. I didn't find Agra too touristy...the majority of visitors at the Taj we met were Indians themselves and it wasn't crowded. (although we heard rumors that some "Top Gun" movie star was going to visit the next day! (ho hum)

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    Cali--

    I read about the homestays too, but we knew we only had one night available in the area, and I believe the homestays require a two night stay. Kuluk and I both had a good experience at Sheesh Mahal, and we'd return.

    Back to our trip......

    VARANASI--

    The entire time I'd been thinking about and planning our trip from home, I kept saying that Varanasi was my absolute must-visit place on the trip. But, when we were actually in India and started realizing how far out of the way it is and the logistics of fitting it in and arranging transportation there, we nearly gave it a pass and thought about saving it for another trip. I am so glad we made the effort to get there. I'd return if it were convenient to fit in it in another India itinerary, but my husband's opinion is that we've experienced it once and since there are so many other places in India (and the rest of the world) we want to see, why go again.

    Our flight into Varanasi arrived in mid-afternoon, and, I have to say that after all of the time we had spent in cars and on trains we wondered why we hadn’t planned more flights; they are much more efficient. Since we’ve learned that it is so much easier to have someone standing there with our names on a sign rather than hassling arranging our own transportation into town, we’d arranged with the owner of our guesthouse to have a driver pick us up. The drive into Varanasi from the airport is quite long and gives a rather typical picture of smaller town India.

    Our guesthouse was located right on Mansarovar Ghat which is a nice location because it is quiet (for Varanasi) and right in the middle so we could walk both upstream and downstream. But, because of its location, cars can’t get anywhere near. So, as soon as we were as close as the taxi could go, a phone call was made and we were met by two people from the guesthouse who grabbed out luggage and led us off through a real maze of very narrow back streets. It must have been four or five blocks that we followed them, and we wondered how in the world we’d ever find our way out on our own. And, I started to wonder if perhaps I should have hired a guide for Varanasi despite the fact that our agent had told me this wasn’t necessary (turns out he was right).

    Actually we didn’t know what to expect as far as the riverfront because all we had ever seen are all the photos of the people on the steps washing and carrying on with their daily activities. So, we were quite surprised to see that the ghats are actually very steep steps down to the river which then in some places has a wide maybe boardwalk-type appearance with more steps leading down from there to the river. Set on top of the steps are three and four story buildings that usually directly abut each other. Our room had a shared balcony (screened with mesh to keep out the area monkeys which can be really aggressive) overlooking the river, but there were no other guests in the room next door while we were there, so we had it to ourselves.

    Varanasi proved to be a fascinating place to us (one of our absolute favorites on the trip), and we spent countless hours just walking along the riverfront observing life there. (This alone is the reason that IMO people are fools to stay in the fancy hotels that require a half an hour taxi ride to get to the river.) Take away the cellphones and the plastics, and it could be centuries ago. We arrived in mid-afternoon and immediately set out to stroll along the riverfront to see what this was all about. We figured we couldn’t get too lost walking along the river; the back alleys were another story, however, so we avoided venturing out in them until day two. The owner of our guesthouse had told us that he could arrange a boatman whenever we wanted, but we didn’t arrange anything through him instead talking to a boatman who lived next door to our guesthouse (we ran into a woman from New York who had recommended him). So, even though we didn’t book anything definite with him, we thought we’d just stroll out the door at dawn and find him. Didn’t happen, so we ended up negotiating with someone along the river, paying too much, and going out with a boatman who just rowed and didn’t speak English as the boatman who lived next door did. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the dawn boat trip so much that we decided we definitely wanted to do some more of these boat trips.

    After this experience, we decided to take the advice of the guesthouse owner (which we should have done in the first place rather than assuming that he was just out to make a cut by steering us to a boatman), and he connected us with a good boatman who was only 50 rupees per person per hour and who spoke English and who acted as a guide who explained various things going on. So, we went with him for both an evening boat trip and another dawn trip. The evening boat trip focuses on the daily aarti celebration that takes place in the center of the riverfront. To us, this whole event seemed a bit over-produced and a bit theatrical rather than a purely religious ceremony. Someone later told us that she’d been told that the larger of the ceremonies (there are two right next to each other on the river) is actually managed by the 5* hotels because there were too many boats crowded in front of the river at the original ceremony.

    As we went past the burning ghat (no photos at all allowed out of respect to the families of the dead) our boatman explained to us that there are five categories of people who are not cremated. Brahmins who are set adrift in a coffin that is weighted with stones. Pregnant women. Babies because they are considered gods. Victims of chickenpox (this one I wondered about and whether he meant smallpox?) Victims of a cobra bite (a Nepalese nature guide we had later on in our trip also confirmed this and explained it as having something do with the body needing to be intact so it could communicate with the cobra and get its spirit back). Fascinating!

    Varanasi, of all places, was where we spent the most money shopping. When we got to Orchha my husband discovered that he’d forgotten his glasses in the lobby of the hotel in Udaipur. We called, and sure enough they’d found his glasses. We arranged with them to ship the glasses to our guesthouse in Varanasi, but this being India we were really quite skeptical that they would actually ever arrive. So, on day two in Varanasi, when we’d gotten brave enough to venture away from the riverfront and were walking around in the chaos that is the city itself, when we came across an optical shop we stopped in. The eye exam with an optometrist was 50 rupees or $1. Many things were the same as a basic eye exam at home, but there wasn’t the same technology, and I snapped a couple pretty funny pictures of the more manual devices that were used as a part of the exam. My husband ended up getting a regular pair of glasses and a pair of sunglasses. Both pairs were ready in just over 24 hours, and we picked them up the evening before we left town.

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    As I said earlier, we had the first half of our trip all booked before we left home. The second half (once we arrived in Gwalior to move on from there) was left to arrange after we were in India and had gotten a feel for the country and what we liked and wanted to do.

    How to move on from Varanasi had presented itself as a big problem early on when we were trying to figure out the second (unplanned) half of our trip. We knew we wanted to move on over to the Uttarkarhand area but weren’t able to figure out a way to get there because all of the trains were booked. We thought about doing more flights, but this would have been pricey and would have entailed going back through Delhi and spending a night there, which we didn't want to do. So, this is why we ended up going to the train station in Udaipur to see if we could get any tickets under the foreign tourist quota. The only ones available were on a 2AC train that left Varanasi at 10:30 am and arrived in Haridwar (this made for an easy decision to include Haridwar in our itinerary) at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. Needless to say, we weren’t looking forward to all of this time on a train.

    Since we’d heard not to trust train food, we had a big breakfast and also had our guesthouse pack us a meal we thought would keep—some hard boiled eggs and some fried rice. With the addition of a hunk of cheese we’d bought and some bananas and some granola bars, we thought that would hold us until the next day. We got a compartment where the windows were actually clear enough that we could see out of them, so that helped, and the train ride wasn’t as terrible as we originally thought it might have been. The only problem was that on Indian trains there usually are no announcements of stops and there are no announcements if the train is late and there are no maps of all the places the train stops, so we never quite knew where we actually were or if we were on time. We both slept some that night but were both awake a good hour before we were supposed to arrive in Haridwar because we didn’t want to miss our stop. We also were trying to be as quiet as possible because we also didn’t want to disturb the two men who were sleeping in our compartment and who were going to a stop several hours after ours. We’d get all geared up to get off at a stop only to discover, by asking other passengers, it wasn’t Haridwar. Our train was an hour late arriving, and there was no one from the hotel to pick us up as we’d arranged. So, at 5:30 am we were trying to call the hotel, and they arranged for some tuk tuk drivers to take us to the hotel—another one set down a small back street that cars can’t go down.

    HARIDWAR

    After the craziness that was Varanasi, Haridwar seemed much more clean, quiet and peaceful. But, it still India. Our hotel was an old haveli right on the Ganges--Haveli Hari Ganga--and even has its own private bathing ghat for the many pilgrims who stream into Haridwar to bathe in Mother Ganga to wash away their sins. Our first night in Haridwar we attended the city's nightly aarti ceremony which we found to be much more authentic and spiritually moving than the productions we witnessed in Varanasi. Part of our package with the hotel was a private evening aarti viewing and participation, so a man from the hotel led us down to the center of the area on steps the river where the evening ceremony was to be held. We were strategically placed in a great location next to a small quasi-temple that extended over the river, where we had a close-up view of the entire ceremony. On the way to the ceremony, our guide had taken us to one of the numerous stalls that sell the flower bedecked candle offerings (10 rupees) to float down the river in remembrance of family. So, after the public aarti ceremony, the guide took us to a priest who explained this to us and who showed us how to set our floral candle offerings afloat along with the thousands of others bobbing up and down in the river. Even though we aren’t at all religious or spiritual, this was a moving experience and made us fee l at one with all of the devout pilgrims who were doing the same.

    We had two days in Haridwar and did a lot of walking up and down the riverfront which was much cleaner than the Ganges in Varanasi; even the back shopping streets were much cleaner and less chaotic than those in Varanasi. In contrast to Varanasi, here I could have actually contemplated getting in to bathe in the holy river. Because Haridwar is a holy city, all food is vegetarian and there is no alcohol—both circumstances that we are fine with.

    While in Haridwar we also made arrangements with an agent for the remaining two weeks of our trip-- Mohan's Adventure Tours http://www.mohansadventure.in/ As I mentioned earlier, I can’t recommend this agency for anything other than simple day trips because we had some major issues with the agency’s owner after he had taken our money (cash of course) and put us in what we considered to be absolutely unacceptable lodging and then wouldn’t even return our calls of complaint and request for a different lodging. He is a fabulous wildlife guide though, and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon with him in Rajaji National Park which is only 15 minutes or so from downtown Haridwar and is a beautiful park well worth a visit (not for people though who are expecting lots of truly exotic wildlife viewing rather than the more common wildlife that we saw a lot of there).

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    julies -- This is a great trip report! I am enjoying it tremendously, love all the details.

    So glad that you got to Varanasi. There really is no place like it -- I think of it often, and it's been almost 6 months since we were there.

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    crosscheck--

    Here is my take on agents; I am not typically an agent-user so keep that in mind, and you need to figure out what it is you need an agency to help with. We used agents to arrange for drivers, to plan a logical route in Rajasthan, to book a couple specialized packages for us--mahseer fishing and a trip to Corbett. We didn't use an agent to book trains or planes for us or to arrange any guides for us, and, with a couple of exceptions for lodging that came as a part of a package, we didn't have agent choose and book lodging for us.

    India is huge, and most good Indian agents specialize in their own area because they can't possibly know all of the ins and outs of the entire country. So, if you plan to visit several different parts of the country, it becomes complicated. If you use an agent based in your home country to arrange your entire trip what you will really end up with is having someone who then subs out to the more specialized local agent in India, and you will pay more because you are now paying for another level of agency personnel and services. I really liked the agent we used for Rajasthan and asked him about whether he could help us in the rest of the country. He gave me the name and number of someone he knows and can recommend in Amritsar, but we didn't go there so didn't make that contact. The one thing that our Rajasthan agent did arrange for us outside of Rajasthan was the driver for Gwalior-Orchha-Khajuraho, and there he made the arrangements with a different local agency. This was by far the most expensive car and driver we had on our entire trip, and I am attributing part of this to the fact that there were two levels of agencies involved. Sorry for such a long answer to a simple question.

    Magster--thanks. I hope to get back to my report in the next day or so.

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    Back with some more on the Uttarkarhand portion of our trip.

    RISHIKESH

    We had a little extra time, so we decided to add in an afternoon of rafting on the Ganges in Rishikesh. Compared to other places in the world, the rafting pricing was really reasonable, so we figured this would be a different way to see some more of the area.

    Our driver for the Uttarkarhand portion of the trip picked us up in Haridwar to take us to Rishikesh. As soon as I got in the car, I was upset because I had told the agent at Mohan's Adventure Travel who arranged everything for us that I had two requirements: I wanted a driver who spoke English and a car with seatbelts in the back. No seatbelts! When the driver took us to the agency to make some final arrangements, I brought up the seat belt issue. The agent told me that I really couldn’t have both, and when booking the driver he had made an executive decision that English skills were more important than seatbelts. And, he also told us that this is India and no one uses seatbelts. I should have retorted that the drivers are so crazy in India and the accident rate is so high and the availability of good emergency medical care so scarce that if there is any place in the world where everyone should wear a seatbelt it is India. But, I didn’t. And, I should have taken this as a red flag that perhaps everything wouldn’t go well with this agent. But, I didn’t. Luckily the driver figured out that we were serious about the seat belt issue so that night he went home and put the rear seatbelts back in. Apparently he'd taken them out because they poked people who were sitting in the back and not using them.

    We were surprised at how many rafts there were on the river because all the companies have the same departure times for both the morning and afternoon rafting trips. There were many school groups out the day we went, and definitely different levels of paddling skills and experience were displayed in the different groups. There were a couple fairly exciting sets of rapids, but the trip wasn’t nearly as wild as we’d anticipated it would be. And, the scenery, while interesting, wasn’t quite what I’d expected it would be. I’d read about all of these guesthouses/hotels/retreats along the river upstream from Rishikesh and somehow expected that they would be set in more interesting grounds. None of them seemed all that spectacular to me, and I was happy we hadn’t planned a stay at one of them. Here once again I think that it is always the comparisons people can make from their own personal backgrounds and experiences. We’ve been along some rivers that are absolutely gorgeous, so by comparison perhaps this wasn’t all that spectacular to us. We were also surprised by the fact that what we’d expected would be more of a wilderness experience included a stop at a place along the river where everyone stops. Not only were there food stalls set up on the rocks here, but the stands were even cooking hot meals. Not exactly what we’d expected!

    After our rafting trip we went back to the outfitter’s office and changed into dry clothes. Then, we spent a couple hours wandering around the area that is referred to as Rishikesh. This is spread out along both sides of the river, and there was one area across the river from the outfitter’s where it did seem quiet and where I could maybe see staying, but all in all, Rishikesh really didn’t call to us. We are not new age and we aren’t into searching for spiritual experiences. After dinner in Rishikesh we spent the rest of the evening in our hotel (the one the Haridwar agent had arranged for us) with the crummy roadside industrial location. Other than the fact that it was new and clean, the one good thing we had to say about the hotel was that it actually had working Internet access in the room (something we rarely found), so we spent the rest of the evening availing ourselves of that.

    MASHEER FISHING AT RIVERINE WOODS VANGHAT

    My husband wanted to try his hand at mahseer fishing, and he had packed some fly fishing gear to do so. We just didn’t know where to go for the fishing, so that is why we had the agent arrange a fishing trip for us. All we knew was that we were going to some place called Vanghat along the northern edge of Corbett Park. When we got to the area where we thought the resort was supposed to be, our driver pulled up to the gates of a lovely looking resort. We told him we didn’t think this was the right place, and sure enough it wasn’t. The men at that resort knew where we were supposed to be and called our resort. We were told to drive a little further on to a bridge and we’d be met by the porters from our resort.

    Where in the world are they taking us? We'd been walking nearly 20 or 30 minutes after getting out of the car which could go no further as there was no road. The porters had hoisted our luggage, and we set off over a bridge into the midst of nowhere. We hadn't been informed by our agent that it was a 2 kilometer (half an hour) hike into the resort along a dry river bed and up some adjoining hills. We didn’t have a problem with staying at a hike-in place, we just wished we’d been told ahead of time. My Birkenstocks were definitely the wrong foot gear for this trek, and I felt foolish that one of the porters was carrying my hiking boots over his shoulder. If I'd had a pair of socks in the boots, and if I'd know how long the hike I was going to be, I'd have put my boots on.

    We finally arrived at a small clearing with a carefully laid out assortment of rush-roofed huts with terraces on two sides; these are set around a central similarly roofed central dining/gathering area. Our hut was large with a big king bed, an adjoining lower “dressing room” and a lower level bathroom. The very large bathroom had running water and a western-style flush toilet but no running hot water, and showers are bucket showers only. Other than these lights in the rooms, the rest of the resort is lit by lanterns after dark. Definitely rustic, but it has its charms. And, after we’d had a chance to actually figure out what this place is all about, we discovered that it is exactly what we were looking for because it was remote, quiet and the fishing is all within a 5 minute walk away. And, there are lots of fish to be seen too; catching them is another story though. There was also a screw up on the agent's part about the fishing permits, and myhusband wasn’t able to fish as much as he should have and would have liked to. But, he did catch one mahseer during the morning and afternoon/evening fishing expeditions. This would also be an excellent place for birders, and a large portion of their guests visit specifically for the birding.

    Service is impeccable for such a small place, and, since we were the only guests, we had about 8 people waiting on us hand and foot. The meals (way too much food) were some of the best we'd had on our entire trip, so their cook is excellent. Even though I am not a birder, and our reason for visiting was so that my husband could try to catch a mahseer, I was also offered a guided walk to look for birds in the morning and I took the opportunity. We really enjoyed the place, and it is such a completely different aspect of India than most people see on their trips.

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    Wow, this is great! Thanks for posting. India is definitely on our list and your travel style sounds just like what we like to do. Your report is full of great ideas and detail that will be helpful to us I'm sure!

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    Kathie--As I recall you had a different than unusual first trip to India too, and Sikkim is an area we hope to visit someday.

    Glover--I decided to post this (overly detailed as it is) because I wanted people to hear about a trip that was customized to meet our wants and desires rather than just the typical first time trip to India.

    Hope to continue on in the next day or so.

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    LOL I am just reading my first Lee Child book with Reacher.
    We also made a similar mistake with "red flags" on a guide in Bundi. He was a retired Air Force personnel and had got good reviews on TA. However, he was difficult to contact and would not give a price for acting as a guide since we wanted a limited time and not a whole day walking around. In the end we did not get him, but he sent his nephew (so he said) who owned a shop in Bundi. His English was OK but not great and he wanted to move us on all the time. We paid quite a grand sum for a mediocre tour. We had to pay this at midday although the tour continued in the afternoon. I would certainly not recommend him.
    Indian clothes do not suit me and I would not wear a salwar khameze. I wore one in school for a photograph but that was it.

    Now you also know how the rich get richer in India. 75% of profit for backbreaking work - whole families involved! They will also commiserate about the poor but they won't do anything about it except to salt the money in the banks or on their wives - gold jewellery.

    Yes, Cleartrip is a good way to book trains because the Indian Railway site does not allow use of foreign credit cards. However Cleartrip does not list all trains to a particular place so you need to research on the Indian Railways site first to work out the best train. Then if Cleartrip does not show it you will need to find another way to book it. I must also say that when our train from Jaipur to Delhi was cancelled they did refund our fare although after quite a long time.

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    Yes, buying a SIM card in India certainly has its problems, However, we just went to the local Vodaphone "cupboard" (it was that small)and the man did it all for us. We took our unlocked phones with us.
    Theinternet however was another issue. The two major companies wanted to sell us expensive plans but could not tell us what we would get for the money. Most of the people in even the big shops in Delhi no longer speak English and cannot explain anything other than the basics that they have learnt by heart. We purchased an expensive dongle but found that in most places it would not operate as Reliance did not have the requisite towers in the area. So it was money wasted. It worked just fine when we got back to Delhi.

    A driver/co in Rajasthan we used and have recommended to people is Kan Singh Rajasthan Visit [rajasthanvisit@yahoo.com].

    You are so right about the trains not announcing arrivals. Although I am used to travelling on trains, our train from Agra to Ranthambore was some 6 hours late from Calcutta. Although it made up some time, it still got to Ranthambore in the early hours. We did not know that we were there. The train seemed to have stopped for a long while. We had asked the conductor to let us know when we arrived at Ranthambore. Obviously we did not cross his palm with silver, because he did not tell us we had arrived. I merely got out to stretch my legs and asked another passenger where we were and he said Ranthambore. Out of the big cities the train stations do not have the names of the towns in English and not all platforms carry them anyway. Then it was a mad scramble to get out things out of the train and wake our son and get him moving. Luckily for some reason the train remained on the platform for sufficient time for us to do all that!

    Yes Orcha was definitely great and the next time we will stay at one of the large hotels there. We had lunch at one and a tour of the hotel and it was definately one that we would like.

    Definately not interested in fishing but very interested in the place you stayed at in Corbett.

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    I haven't been online here in months, but decided I should finish this up since the last part of our trip in Uttarhkhand was to places that most tourists don't include on their itineraries. And, I think some of you might be interested in them. So here goes; I am going to try to finish this up in a couple of postings in thre next few days.

    West View Hotel Ranikhet

    When we left Riverine Woods we left the plains area that is adjacent to Corbett park and began the twisty climb into the foothills of the Himalayas. When I was planning the trip, I knew I wanted to visit an Indian hill station because I’d always heard so much about them. The more I looked into the idea, I soon discovered that many, if not most, of the former British hill stations are now over-developed, over-commercialized, tacky and noisy. Not at all what I had in mind. But, from my research, it seemed as though Ranikhet was still more authentic because it was in a cantonment strictly controlled by the army which wouldn’t allow for any development; this sounded just like what we were looking for.


    Since it was off season, we decided to just arrive in Ranikhet and get our lodging upon arrival; this way we’d be able to make sure we could find a place we really liked. From my guidebooks I had two places in mind, and I told Vinod our driver that is where we wanted to go. He didn’t take us there and instead took us to some places on the other side of town in an environment that was much more commercialized and noisy and not at all what we were envisioning. I truly don’t know if he didn’t know the area that well and took us to places he’d taken other passengers in the past or if these were places he knew he’d get a kickback or what. But, we told him this wasn’t what we wanted and finally he called to get directions to one of the two places we were interested in. The Chevron Rosemount was full. So, we set off to search out the West View. As was the Chevron Rosemount, this was in the cantonment area and was a world away from the atmosphere of the first places he’d taken us on the other side of town. Since it was off-season, we got a really good deal on a room with breakfast and dinner package and settled in our huge first floor room in the original building.


    We guessed that Ranikhet must be a plum posting for army members because it is such a nice location, and the army does a very good job of maintaining it. The hotel itself is apparently on a 99 year lease from the army, so it is a historic building whose exterior can’t be changed. There are walking paths all around in the cantonment section of town, and we spent quite a bit of time just walking the various areas—some with houses and some more just wooded-- looking at the bungalows from the British area. But, something seemed strange and it took us a bit to figure out what it was. There was no trash anywhere! And, we actually saw a few dumpsters! This wasn’t India!


    Other than walking, we did do a few tourist-oriented activities. There is a garden/orchard area on one end of the town that offers tours of the grounds. It was too early in the season to see much, but the medicinal plants were told about were interesting. We also stopped in a weaving workshop that provides employment for soldiers’ widows and disabled widows. It is set in an old British church, and even though I had not been intending to buy anything, I did very nice merino wool, hand-woven shawl for $16. I used it throughout the rest of our trip in the foothills where it was definitely chilly at times. We also spent about an hour in the military museum that highlights the history of the Kumaon brigade.


    KMVN Guesthouse Kausani

    We’d heard from many people that Kausani is a beautiful place and we should go there for the beautiful views of the Himalayas. So, we decided to spend a night there and figured it would be easy to find a good room when we got there. We had a couple of recommended places in mind, but for various reasons found them to be either full or unacceptable. Plus, when we got to Kausani we figured out there thre really is nothing to do in Kausani other than to sit and look at the mountains. We found a trail for a short walk in to the town (not interesting in itself), so our recommendation would be for one night only.

    We ended up at the KMVN Resthouse which is a government owned and operated complex. As with all government-owned properties this has a marvelous location, spread out over a good-sized area on the outskirts of town. We ended up with the most expensive room (euphemistically referred to as a cottage) which had a bedroom, dressing room, bathroom and very small/teeny front sitting room with a convertible single bed and two armchairs. At least there were windows across the front so we could sit inside and look out at the views when the clouds weren’t hanging down.


    We’d been in India over a month and had not seen one rain drop. Of course, just after we arrived at the place we were visiting for its views, the sky turned more and more ominous. And, as we were sitting out in front on the patio, the wind and rain rolled in. So much for the much-vaunted views. We did have high hopes for the possibility of seeing the mountains in the morning because we’d been told that, at this time of year, the vistas are most clear in the mornings before the haze starts to build up. And, in the morning we were able to at least a bit of the peaks in the far distance.

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    Hi, Julie,
    I'm rereading your trip report and curious about Fort Dhamli. Do you recommend it if there aren't any "extra" activities . It would only be for the one night stay (arriving later in the day).

    I'm planning 1 night between Udaipur on my way to Jodhpur, and am curious about Fort Dhamli. I've been trying to reach Rawla Jojowar, but I haven't heard back from them in a week, so I'm looking for an alternative stop.

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    Welcome back, julies. Glad you're finishing this because our trip is right around the corner. I just reread the part about the Orchha-Khajuraho road trip:

    <<We arrived from Orchha about 4 or 5 pm via an absolutely horrible road that is under construction, and then spent a bit of time that evening wandering around Khajuraho,>>

    I had been looking forward to that drive, which I thought was just three hours. Do you think the road would have been more pleasant in a better vehicle?

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    progol--Yes. Definitely go to Fort Dhamli, but make sure Inder the owner will be there to show you around. We were lucky in that there were some special events occuring while we were there, bur Inder told us there is always something interesting going on. Walking with him through the town and being introduced to peopole was interesting as was having him take us out to see his farm. Those are things that could happen all of the time. And, we also took a walk on our own through the town and nearby fields and encountered some other people who wanted to show us their farming operation.

    crosscheck--We liked Orchha and wanted to squeeze every minute possible out of it, so we stayed as long as possible in the morning and left noonish. And, we did lose time because the driver wanted to stop to eat. We always told our drivers they could choose when they needed to take a break because driving is very, very stressful in India. We know that we we'd have needed many breaks if we were driving. Certainly the drive would have been better in an SUV, but my point was that this was slow driving because of the road conditions.

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    Okay, back to the report--

    When I first started to plan our trip I’d bought the Alistar Sawday book Special Places to Stay India and browsed through it looking for different types of interesting lodgings. One places that immediately caught my eye offered village-to-village hiking and homestays in the Uttarkarhad area. This, I thought, was exactly what we were looking for. Then, I calculated the price and knew this was way more than we could or wanted to spend. So, I started investigating and found the name of the one of the hotels that was promoting this adventure. So, I contacted the Khali Estate Mountain Resort and found out they could make arrangements for us to either do guided day hikes or to do some overnight hikes with homestays in the surrounding villages. Although we only reserved for two nights, our plan was to stay for several more if we liked what we found.


    We did like the resort; it had lovely round cottages with balconies and views. Prices included all meals because this was so isolated—it is in the Binsar Reserve which is a protected area of natural beauty in the mountains. Here there is nothing to do except admire the views (and they were much better than those in Kausani), bird watch or hike the area trails. Our first afternoon we set off on our own on some of the areas trails, but for the following morning we arranged for a guide to take us to one of the isolated villages. We were fortunate that the rhododendron trees (and they are full-size trees rather than the large bushes we think of) were in bloom and covered in large red flowers, so it made the walks on the mountain paths even more lovely.


    When we first arrived at the resort and were setting up what we thought would be the first of many guided hikes, we were definitely overly ambitious about what we thought we could tackle as far as distance and elevation ups and downs. The man who was helping us arrange for all this was about our age and had worked on the estate since his mid-teens. He took one look at us and suggested a much milder hike/expedition for our first day out than we’d originally intended. And, by the time we were mid-hike we were certainly grateful that we hadn’t tackled anything more strenuous. The slightly elevated altitude was something we aren’t accustomed to, and all of the tails were a series of ups and downs.


    Right after breakfast, our guide hiked in from his village (most of these are not connected by any roads, so walking is the only way to get between them) that was perhaps two or three miles away on the undulating mountain trails. Our goal was a different remote “village” about four miles away. Having grown up in the area and having attended training as a naturalist, out guide was fabulous and could tell us all about the various plants and birds we saw. The “village” we arrived in consisted of eight occupants, and we were taken into the two room home of one of them and offered tea. We were glad of the opportunity to actually go into the home of the villagers but soon decided that one day of this had given us enough of a taste of what the inhabitants lives were like, and we were glad that we had left our plans flexible and hadn’t signed up to do the expensive circular hiking route with lodging in a different village every night. We had assumed that village meant small town with something of interest and contrast in every village. When we discovered that the largest village in actuality was about forty people we thought we’d seen enough.


    So, we decided we’d move on and tried to figure out something to do in our two free days before we were scheduled to arrive in the vicinity of Jim Corbett Park. I picked the brains of a couple of women from New Delhi who were staying at the Estate (we once again the only foreigners), and they told us that in reality all of the different resorts or hotels in this region were really just different variations on the same theme; they are places people from the city get away to relax and commune with nature. So, if we wanted more of the same in a different locale they had some suggestions. But, if we wanted to experience something different, we needed to go to a different type of locale. We decided, lovely as the area was, we wanted to experience something else as a contrast.

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    Jules....just stumbled upon this report today. Glad you came back to finish it up and it went back to the top. I echo the kudos. You write with such detail and style. Thank you for the time you've given to the forum.

    This will be my 3rd trip to India. I am travelling Nov 21-Dec 28th. Three nts/2 days Delhi, flying into Varanasi for 2 days and flying out to Jaipur via Delhi (4.5 hrs travel time). From Jaipur I am travelling 21 days in Rajasthan and then 9 days in Varkala, Kerala at a small b&b by the sea that I stayed at in 2008.

    I am pleased to hear that you used TGS as you Rajasthan agent. I have been working directly with Nikhil at TGS as well. My experience so far has been exceptional. I have picked all my hotels and he has booked them. Fortunately I was successful with all my first choices. And I have arranged, through TGS, a car/driver for most of the itinerary. So far, all the great reports about TGS have proven true.

    I wanted to add, for other readers particularly, that mine is a more standard Rajasthan itinerary. While I am staying a few nights in off the beaten track places, most nights are in the major cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Because I have 21 days, all these stops are 3 nights, the others are 2 nights each, except the last night again in Jaipur prior to my flight to Kerala.

    Mine is a relatively leisurely pace, with down time including "no particular agenda" days built in. I've picked moderately priced hotels, well reviewed on TA about $70 on average. All are smaller properties with character,most with large lawns and pools suitable for relaxing.

    I am a solo traveler(and gay) and I find it much easier being at properties where there are more fellow travellers to share the highs and lows than staying on my own in a remote village. While I find India fascinating on so many levels,I have found that solo travel in India can be difficult withstanding the constant personal questioning about marital status, children, and "where is my good wife?". I have often sought out other solo travellers or couples to travel together for a while for respite.

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    Thanks, Julies,
    I've decided to book with Fort Dhamli, as Rawla Jojowar has not gotten back to me.

    I, too, am working with Nikhil at TGS. I've decided to do the booking with the properties directly, but he is very helpful with his feedback and gets back quickly. He will be arranging the car/driver for our 3-week trip in mid-January.

    I'll post my planned itinerary shortly, but on a new post, so I don't hijack julies' thread!

    Thanks for your help!

    Paule

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    Great, helpful report! Thank you! For those of us who are planning our first India trip, your report is inspiration. We are much less adventurous. We will do mostly the usual circuit. But we were concerned about even doing that. Thanks to your report I think we will be fine. I just emailed our agent asking him to arrange a phone for us. Interested to see if he can arrange it. We will be 3 nights in more rural areas and I am now more looking forward to them. These forums are so helpful.

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    smacdvanbc--

    I'm with you on the rather leisurely itinerary idea. Much of our enjoyment of India was just seeing everyday life and doing some wandering. These are they types of things that don't need any special itinerary arrangements.

    progol--

    I am sure you'll like Dhamli. And, if you don't you'll just have to blame me.

    Elainee--

    India is challenging, but I know if you go into the trip knowing somewhat what to expect (and you do after having read these forums) you'll be fine. The phone is really a necessity. Glad you have it worked out.

    Back to my report now:

    Camp Corbett in Kaladhungi

    When we were trying to figure out where to go and what to do with our extra two days, so we ended up here at this resort right at the edge of the park. After making some phone calls, we decided this might be the place that most closely met our needs for a couple days. Once again it ended up that we were the only guests at a lodging. This was an all-inclusive experience that included several guided walks on top of the room and board. Our guide was a fantastic naturalist from Nepal who spends ten months a year on-site here and then returns home to his family (including several children he only sees once a year) to help with the annual harvest season. The guide so talked up the glories of Nepal and its national parks that we are now eager to make a visit there.


    This property is on the fringes of the national park, so there are not the same restrictions in place that are in place for Corbett. Yet, the flora and fauna are pretty much the same, and one morning while out taking our dawn guided hike we came across a photographer for the World Wildlife Federation. He had been in the area for over two months hoping to get some great photos of tigers in the wild. He was carrying an incredibly huge lens over his shoulder as they trekked in to the forest. Now I know why I will never get any photos of any animals that are anywhere near as good as those one sees in the magazines. To get such great shots take, luck, weeks or months of patience, and a fabulously expensive camera with great telephoto lenses.


    We enjoyed our stay here, in some ways preferring it to our visit to the regular interior of the park. It was a nice location. The food was good, the room kind of motel-like but acceptable, and the guide was great.

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    This is it--the final episode and wrap up to our trip. And, unfortunately we ended our trip on somewhat of a sour note. We'd gone back and forth and back and forth on whether or not to visit one of India's national parks because I'd read some rather negative things about many of them and the experiences they offer.

    But, in the end we decided to give Jim Corbett a try. I know our bad experiences were due to the fact that we chose the wrong agent. We weren't obsessed with seeing a tiger in the wild, so we didn't feel a great sense of diappointment at not seeing one. It was just that we spent our last few days in India fuming, furious at the agent who messed some things up for us, spoiling what should have been an interesting experience.


    March 31 & April 1 Pine Tree Resort on Ranhiket Road outside Corbett Park

    These two days were our stay at Corbett Park with safaris in hope of seeing a tiger, unlikely as we knew that idea to be. And, unfortunately in many ways it was a bad experience. Trusting in his integrity, I’d given up the rather tight control I’d exerted over our lodging choices for our entire trip and allowed an agent to make arrangements for us here. Bad idea, and I learned my lesson! Never again!


    Sanjeev at Mohan’s Adventure Travel in Haridwar made all of our arrangements for our visit to Corbett. We paid him a flat fee, and he arranged lodging and safaris for us. The safaris were so-so, the timing of the safaris was screwed up with the worst possible timing, and the lodging was horrible—nothing at all like we’d been led to believe we were getting. We were pretty appalled when we drove in to the “resort” establishment—right on the main road, loud, really no grounds whatsoever, and a filthy room. At this point our driver, who’d been there and knew the area, admitted to us that he knew we were not going to be at all happy with Pine Tree Resort, but he hadn’t said anything ahead of time. He knew what types of other places we’d been staying in and knew this definitely wasn’t our type of place.


    Then, we found out that despite our rush to get there (based on advice from our agent that we arrive by noon time so we could be available for our safaris) we had no safaris planned and nothing at all arranged for the day. There had been miscommunication on the agent’s part, and we were supposed to fit in two jeep safaris and an elephant safari in one day-- absolutely undoable. So, we were stuck in a noisy, dirty room right on the road with all of its associated noises, no nice grounds to sit in. (Camp Corbett the place we’d just left was in a lovely and quiet setting and we’d have been happy spending the afternoon sitting around there.)


    I was furious! But, we’d paid for the package and Sanjeev had our money so we had no recourse. We called him, e-mailed him, and texted him. Nothing! Finally at 10:00 pm he called me and then talked to the manager. It was Saturday night and all of their other rooms were booked, so they would move us to another room the next day. I was angry and demanded to be moved to a different resort. Nope! He had our money and was done with us. We were stuck with the arrangements he’d made. And, after that he wouldn’t even communicate with us, not responding to us or returning our messages. Because of the fact that we were not returning to Haridwar, and because he didn’t accept credit cards, we had paid everything up front in cash. We knew this was bad practice because we’d be in exactly this kind of situation if we ran into difficulties. And, our fears came to pass. Lesson learned!


    Not only were we stuck with bad lodging, but the arrangements for the safaris had been completely messed up. We needed to fit in two jeep safaris and one elephant safari in basically one day. And, safaris take place at dawn or dusk because that is when there is prime animal viewing.


    We had a 10:00 am train from Ramnagar to Delhi catch on the 2nd. With no safaris planned for Saturday the 31st (the day of our arrival) we were supposed to try to fit in all of this in one day. Obviously the safari piece of our trip had not been thought out at all by Sanjeev (or else communication between him and the manager at Pine Tree was lacking), and the result was that we would do our elephant safari at dawn on the 2nd, and then briefly stop back at the resort to get our luggage and grab some breakfast before boarding the train for the five hour ride to Delhi. We would then have about seven hours in Delhi before boarding the fourteen hour flight to Newark.

    So, by the time we even got on the plane to begin our twenty hour trip back to the U.S., we had been up and on the go for eighteen hours. As far as exhausting travel arrangements, this was the topper and the worst arrangements we’d ever had in all of our years of international travel. And, this horrible schedule for starting our trip home was due to the fact we’d trusted an agent who was obviously incompetent at some aspects of making travel arrangements.


    Because jeeps leave in the darkness for the drive into the park when the gates open, we got up very early on Sunday morning for our jeep safari into the park. We knew that chances of seeing tiger in the park were extremely slim, but Sanjeev had told us of a good back gate approach to the park that at this time of the year was where the tigers congregated by this gate. Since he was both an agent and a wildlife photographer, we trusted his judgment.


    We had a private jeep for the two of us, and our jeep driver stopped on the way into the Bijrani area of the park to pick up our guide. Jeeps gather at the entrance gate waiting for opening time, and then all set off in different directions. About half way through the couple hour safari all of the jeeps pull into a small rest area with toilets and with a restaurant for snacks. This wasn’t exactly what we thought would happen on a wildlife drive into a national park! Our guide was a loser who wasn’t particularly interested; in fact, on the way out our driver pointed out some wild boars our guide hadn’t even seen. We did see a couple wild elephants, and I was astounded at how difficult it was to spot such a large animal in the wild. They are quite well camouflaged. No tigers of course. And, the next day we heard that it had been quite a while since anyone had seen a tiger in this zone because it was the wrong season for them in this part of the park. So much for Sahjeev’s reassurances that this was a good locale at this time of year.


    We returned to the crummy resort and moved into the other room. It had been scrubbed thoroughly for us, and it was much quieter because it wasn’t right on the road. But, this still wasn’t a “resort” that was the least bit appealing. And, the restaurant was a hot room set on stilts over the parking area by the road. Also definitely not what we had requested when we told Sanjeev what we wanted in lodging.


    In late afternoon we set off in the jeep again for our second safari of the day. This time we were given a different guide who was actually decent. But, we were astounded when we found ourselves at the same gate again as we’d visited in the morning safari. Once again there had been another huge screw-up because the usual sequence is for guests to get to see different parts of the park by going in at different gates. Out guide was flabbergasted when we told him we’d been to the same part in the morning, and the manager at Pine Tree Resort was also astounded when, upon our return, he heard this. So, we can only assume that Sanjeev had screwed up once again. So, it was basically the same routine as in the morning, with of course no tiger sightings. We were totally disgusted!


    The next morning was our best experience in the park area. Way before dawn our driver took us out to meet a mahout and his elephant for our elephant safari into the edges of the park. It was still totally dark when after a drive of at least a half hour or so we all of a sudden came upon the elephant at the side of the road. We mounted up and were off into the day that was just starting to break. During our safari we did see a python coiled up, nearly invisible on the ground. But, except for the python, we didn’t see any animals other than those we’d already seen. Still the elephant ride is definitely the way to visit the park because you are on your own, just ambling through the brush without any of the other people and jeeps.


    After our elephant safari and breakfast we were off to the train for the trip in 3rd class AC to Delhi. We were in the same compartment, but our seats weren’t at all together. It ended up okay though because everybody was switching around for seats, and we actually had some very interesting conversation with a vacationing Indian family that included two college-aged daughters.


    We’d arranged a taxi in Delhi to pick us up for the remainder of the day. And, it was the same driver we’d had on our first day in India, so it was nice because we were familiar with him and trusted him. My request was to do a bit of shopping since I really hadn’t done any during the rest of the trip. We made a couple stops, and I bought a couple things at a branch of FabIndia (I wasn‘t as impressed with this place as I thought I’d be). Then, we had dinner at a nearby restaurant before being driven to the airport for our flight home.


    Six weeks seemed like an incredibly long time when we first booked our plane tickets, but in the end we didn’t have time enough to visit nearly all of what we wanted to see. Although India isn’t for everyone, it was for us. We’re glad we got ten year visas because we will definitely return.

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    Thanks for finishing, julies. Sorry about the nightmare scenario w/ the incompetent agent at the end. Sounds as if you made the best of it though. Can I ask how much he charged you?

    If you haven't, you MUST do an African safari...a peak experience even for the well-traveled.

    So...ideally, would you go for six weeks again? (not that we'll ever be able to do that...just curious.)

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    No we've never been on an African safari. Hopefully someday.....

    I don't have the exact figure, but I think it was around 26,000 rupees for the Corbett Park piece for the two of us--2 night lodging package with food, 2 jeep safaris, and one elephant safari. When we met with the agent he gave us the names of three different lodges he was proposing and said he'd have to chack on availability. I researched those lodges, and they all seemed acceptable so we signed on. That is why we were so surprised and disgusted with where we ended up. Our safari experience with the leopards at Castle Bera was so much superior and about 2/3 of the cost for accomodation and food that was far, far better and great safaris too.

    Yes, I think we'll make our next trip six weeks again because that is how much time I think it will take us to visit the parts of India that still are on our list. This six week trip was a first for us. My husband had retired days before we left, and I had a break from work this past year. So, after I retire in a year or so we'll both be free to take trips of this length. All of our previous international travels have been more in the 2 to 2 1/2 week range.

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    Having a realistic idea of what to expect really helps. When we went to Kathmandu last year I thought it was a "mountain kingdom" city. I had read lots of guidebooks and trip reports. Nobody really dwelt on the extreme poverty, the shanty towns with open sewers. When we left the airport to go to our hotel I was totally shocked. It was not an Eastern Switzerland but India light. I did come to enjoy it and even felt comfortable walking around alone, but it took a day or two. Poverty is upsetting, in NYC, Kathmandu, Agra, or anywhere. It would be wonderful if everyone had enough to eat, clean water, proper shelter, and a Western flush toilet.

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    Julie, oh how I "feel your pain" and frustration with that experience at Corbett!!! It is the worst feeling, to be taken advantage of !!!
    GLAD it has not soured you on future plans, and (nicely) envious that you'll have another 6 week trip!!
    And crosscheck is right about Africa. Having just returned from a month in E Africa, i hope you'll put that part of the world in our plans some day. BUT...INDIA has my heart still, and if given the time and money, i'd return there asap!!
    Thanks agin for spending the time to share your adventures.

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    Elainee--

    I think we had done so much research ahead of time that we didn't really have culture shock. Rather, it was a sadness that some people in the world have so much and others so little. And, usually it is just luck of the draw who is born where.

    Cali--

    Yes, just writing about my frustration with the agent brought it all back and how I sat and fumed!

    Where did you go in East Africa? I've been reading about Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya. They sound interesting.

    But, all in all, it does sound as though you prefer India. Or, am I wrong?

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    Julie, I went to Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya.
    I'll be eventually posting a TR on TA.(I'm not as good as you as writing it down!)
    Yes, you are totally correct: I do prefer India. Can't say exactly why--have to sort it all out. But i would love to return to Kenya

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    Julie - I just got to your TR via Clark's TR and the notorious leery husband thread. Strange and mysterious are the ways of fodors.

    I'm half way through and in awe of your planning and your descriptive writing. a wonderful report of a wonderful trip which has given me loads of food for thought for the trip I'm thinking about, possibly in 2015.

    Thanks.

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    annhig--So glad this is helpful to others. I got so much help here that I wanted to pay it back. We are just now planning another last minute trip northern India and Nepal), so I'll be asking for a lot more help and starting some new threads.

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