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Trip Report South India/Kashmir

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We just recently returned from a 26 day trip to South India and Kashmir. Incredible India is a place either you love or hate. Obviously, we love it. The sights are unbelievable, the people are friendly, and we've always felt very safe. We booked with Mr. VP Singh of Legends and Palaces and had an excellent tour. It all began in Delhi where Mr. Singh's rep met us at the airport and took us to the guest house and then to an excellent restaurant where Mr. Singh and his family met us for a most enjoyable Indian meal. This is our third trip with Legends and Palaces and Mr. Singh and now his family have become friends. Our first trip was to Rajasthan and Varanasi, the 2nd to North India including the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Shimla, and Dharmasala. Late the next morning we flew to Cochin to begin a houseboat tour of the Kerala backwaters. We had booked a premium houseboat with 4 crew members and the 2 of us on a large houseboat. It was a worthwhile splurge as everything was about us including the whirlpool tub in our private stateroom with king sized bed. Our tour included 26 nights at mostly 5* hotels, a car and driver, and 7 internal flights on Kingfisher, Jet, and other airlines for a little less than $10,000 U.S. I get giddy looking at what you would pay on O.A.T. Travel for a lot less in a shared environment. Anyhow, on to the tour. After the backwaters, we drove to Madurai where Matu was our guide, who turned out to be the best ever guide! We planned to be in Madurai for the "Ponga" Festival. It was a combination of Indian Bullfighting, dance, and a celebration of the bulls decorated in colors, flower garlands, and bells. We stayed at the Taj Gateway Pasumalai(very nice). The Meenakshi Temple was o.k., but everything else about Madurai was just outstanding. We moved on to Tanjore where we stayed at the beautiful Ideal River Resort and enjoyed the Brihadishwara Temple that was a sight to behold. Next was Mahabalipuram with a fantastic BAS Relief :Arjuna's Penance and many other temples. This temple town was located on the Bay of Bengal where I swam and enjoyed the nearby fishing village. A good stay. On the way to Chennai we stopped at Kanchpuram and visited Ekambareswar Temple which was built and enriched by the Pallava, Chola, and Pandyan dynasties. This was our favorite U.N.E.S.C.O. temple on the tour. Very friendly priests who would allow photos of ceremonies, blessings (even of us non Hindus): 10 rupees, and other festivities. After flying to Banglore we drove to Mysore. Another good stop with great photos of the City Palace on Sunday evening with over 80,000 lightbulbs being lit. The Royal Orchid upgraded us to an extra large room and a candle-lit dinner in the courtyard was excellent. Next we drove on to Chikmaglur in order to visit Belur and Halebid. The Gateway hotel was good and the temples built by the Hoysala Dynasty were the most beautiful in all of India. It took the Hoysalas over 100 years to build the temple complex in Belur. Everything is so intricate (like lace) and still standing after many, many years. Just about every inch of the exterior of each temple is covered with carvings. Well worth the effort to see. Then we drove on to Hospet in order to visit Hampi. Another worthwhile site. The biggest surprise here was the temple of Virupaksha. It was a beehive of activity. We were greeted by a "Shiva" temple elephant who would bless us with his trunk for a donation(10rupees). There was a wedding taking place in an inner courtyard. Cows were everywhere. Outside there was a bazaar with vendors here and there. I was able to get a great photo of a man selling flutes stacked well above his head standing in front of the main temple tower. We moved on to Badami where the hotel(Badami Court) was not so nice. We called Mr. Singh and arranged to leave Badami a day early and to add an extra day in Goa. The caves in Badami were good and we visited Pattadakal and Aihole the following morning. We drove many hours on bad roads to Goa the next day. In all we went about 3,000 kilometers via roads on this journey. Goa was not white sand beaches we had expected and would have been a disappointment except for our hotel: "Casa Colvale". The best of the trip! A flight to Mumbai for an overnight stay. Mumbai was a pleasant surprise and I wish that we had another day there, but we were due in Aurangabad at the Taj Residency, a very nice hotel. We had a great guide and visited the Ajanta Caves the next day, but the murals were difficult to photograph without flash. The following day we visited Ellora Caves, Daulatabad Fort, and a Taj Mahal look-alike which was actually very nice. The stay here was most enjoyable. The people here, like all of the people in South India, wanted to have us take their photographs and pose with us for photos. We felt like Hollywood movie stars. In fact it got to be a little much! Oh well, on to Delhi and Kashmir. We arrived in Srinagar and it was snowing. Judy went shopping for a Kashmir coat and saved 50%. The next day it was still snowing and Farook, our guide came to the Taj Vivanta, and picked us up on time. We tried to drive into the country, but the car kept slipping so we decided to return to downtown. By the time we got back the snow had stopped, and we took a Sharaka ride on Dal Lake and stopped at one of the Chicago Houseboats (where Farook nornally worked in summer) for tea. The houseboats were luxurious but we liked the hotel better, especially in winter. Kashmir is very beautiful, and I'd like to return in the spring. Mr. Singh called and checked on us throughout the trip, but especially in Kashmir. We always felt safe and comfortable. We walked around on our own and local people were very interested in where we were from (America). It was snowing again on the day we left and the hotel manager said he would hold a room for us in case our flight was cancelled. He seemed to like having Americans stay at the Taj as all of the other guests were Indian tourists who had never seen snow before. The airport was security plus. No electronics in checked luggage. Nothing in hand luggage, except electronics. After about 5-6 security checks, we boarded our plane for Delhi. We stayed at the airport hotel (excellent) and had dinner and a massage before boarding our late night AA flight to Chicago. There were many Indian soldiers in Kashmir, but we always felt safe. When we were in Lhasa, Tibet there were many Chinese soldiers there too. After arriving in San Diego it took several weeks to get used to the time change. India is easy to do on your own as English is common in most places. At least 1 in 4 people you meet will speak English.

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