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Trip Report Trip Report: India and Nepal

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Summary: In February of 2008, my husband and I traveled to three cities in India (Delhi, Agra, Varanasi) and two in Nepal (Kathmandu and Pokhara). India was the most challenging country we’ve ever traveled, but we learned a lot and had some great experiences. (Nepal was much easier.) In hindsight, our itinerary was too ambitious, not allowing for things to go wrong, which they did!

February 20: Newark, New Jersey to Delhi on Continental

February 21: Arriving in Delhi and Spending the Night

Our trip began on the wrong foot. Our hotel was supposed to pick us up at the airport, but they never showed. We waited for over an hour after clearing customs and claiming our bags. We proceeded to take our own taxi, but the driver had a lot of difficulty locating the hotel. In our naivete, something we didn’t truly realize until this trip was how one can speak a language but not be able to read it. The drivers understood us and could communicate in English, but when we tried to show them the written address, they didn’t understand. (Think of it this way--you can repeat a Hindi word that you’ve heard, but do you know the characters that compose it? Could you pronounce the Hindi symbols?) International arrivals at the Delhi airport is an unforgettable experience--lots of drivers, taxis, etc. clamoring for your business the minute you step out of baggage claim. It’s a bit intimidating!

Hotel: Palace Heights (New Delhi): Overall, this was a fine place to stay for one night; however, no one met us on arrival at IGIA to take us to the hotel, even though we had previously booked the transfer and re-confirmed prior to arrival. Not the best way to start off our stay. The hotel claims someone was there, and we just didn't see him. We waited for 45 minutes, then decided that no one was coming. There were TONS of drivers with signs waiting, just not for us. We took a pre-paid taxi, which was easy and reasonable, but taxi drivers don't seem to know where this hotel is. If they can get you to Connaught Place (which they DO know), just stop someone on the street and ask for the hotel, telling them that it's located behind the Odeon Cinema (there is more than one cinema in Connaught, though). The hotel is very small and unassuming, somewhat difficult to spot from the street (it's on the second/upper floor above storefronts). There is an entry door on the ground level, which was well-lit and staffed by a security guard and two other employees (e.g., bellman and restaurant maitre 'd, I think). There is a lift to the second floor. The lobby area is tiny (just the front desk and two chairs), off which is the Zaffron restaurant (attractive, well-staffed, but we only had drinks so I can't comment on the food). Our room was tiny as well, just enough room to walk around the perimeter of the bed. The bathroom was a decent size, with standing shower and Western toilet. Some basic toiletries were provided. Hairdryer upon request. The room was very modern and pleasant-looking, with a comfy bed, suede throw pillows, and flat-screen TV. Complimentary wi-fi access in the rooms worked perfectly. Two bottles of complimentary water were provided, along with chocolates and a fruit plate (we did not get to sample the included breakfast due to an early departure), welcome drinks upon arrival. The hotel was able to change money for us; there was no ATM machine visible nearby. I wouldn't hesitate to stay here again; it's a great value (approximately $150 USD for a double room) once you find the location.

February 22: Delhi to Agra via Train; Visiting Fatehpur Sikhri

New Delhi Railway Station: A total zoo--inside and out! But what a great experience! If you purchase e-tickets online, you can go straight to your platform. Double-check your name (for seat assignments) on the papers plastered to the wall near the platform. We weren't prepared for this station, and got the runaround from supposedly official employees who told us we needed stamps on our tickets and ran us up/downstairs and across the parking lot like maniacs (unnecessarily). I'm not sure what the scam was--but it was worth the $5 we paid to have a porter carry our luggage on his head, wait on the platform with us, and stow our luggage overhead on the train (get there early, or they run out of space). Food, drinks, and newspapers served on the 2-hour ride between New Delhi and Agra. Fairly comfortable ride in air-conditioned chair class. Did not use the restrooms on the train, which was probably wise. No smoking. Not a bad way to travel a short distance, and quite inexpensive ($15 for 2 one-way tickets).

Activities: The travel desk at the ITC Mughal, International Leisure Travel, arranged two half-day tours for us, and also met us on arrival at the Agra Cantt train station and dropped us off at the Agra airport (very small, recently re-opened--I think-with just Kingfisher and Indian Air flying from there). The two tours and transfers totaled about $100 US, which I thought was a great bargain. One day, we traveled to Fatehpur Sikri (tour given by an English-speaking guide), and the other day we visited the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort (again, with an English-speaking guide). The hawkers in Fatehpur Sikri were the worst I've ever seen, making it difficult to walk without being forced to look at postcards and snow globes. Agra was slightly better; unfortunately the guides did not help the situation much. (On other trips, having a private guide has seemed to discourage this type of nuisance.)

Hotel: ITC Mughal (Agra): Very pleased with this choice! Of course, if money were no object, I would have chosen the Oberoi, but at $125 USD per night rather than $700, I cannot compliment them enough. It's a standard chain hotel, with huge chandelier in the lobby, several shops, astrologer (interesting!), and four restaurants. One restaurant is buffet (breakfast was included with our rate, but upon check-out, was charged separately, leading us to believe that if we hadn't eaten, the charge would have been deducted), one was Oriental/Chinese, one was continental and had both indoor and outdoor (near the pool) seating, and the high-end choice called Peshawri (very spicy food, typically eaten with ones hands, but a novel option that I would recommend). There's also a nice lobby bar (chips and nuts are complimentary with drink orders). The rooms were a nice size, with a sitting area; bathrooms provided all the amenities one could want (e.g., toiletries, hairdryers, robes, slippers). Nice pool, but they could use a few more sun lounger chairs. There are lots of fountains around the pool, and some ponds/water features upon entering the hotel. The doormen/taxi callers provided excellent service, and dressed traditionally (be sure to take a photo of their moustaches). A supposedly world-class spa is set to open here soon. It is possible to view the Taj Mahal from the viewing platform at the hotel. It would be an excellent view, except for the ever-present smoke/smog/haze (it was better visible in my digital photos than in person). The hotel willingly changed money for us, but there was no ATM machine that we saw anywhere nearby. The reviews of the hotel aren't all that glowing, but I can't really list any complaint. Someone questioned the hotel receiving the Agha Khan award for architecture, but when I learned of the qualifications of this award, it is deserved (buildings arranged around a center courtyard with water elements, foliage, etc.). I wouldn't hesitate to stay here again, and pocket the extra money.

February 23: Agra to Delhi; Visiting the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Activity: Taj Mahal and Agra Fort (see review above)

Agra Airport Info: Small airport, with one shop, post office. There were spots for a bank and a restaurant, but neither was open when we were there. It seems that only Indian Air and Kingfisher fly to/from here. It's on a military base. Locals we spoke to even seemed surprised that it was open to commercial traffic (I think it may have been closed for awhile). You can't smoke inside, but it would be easy to pop back outside (not as much initial security here as at other airports, nor the crowds).

Hotel: The Manor (New Delhi): Another Delhi hotel where our pre-arranged (and re-confirmed) transfer didn't show up at the airport (although the hotel claimed that someone was there waiting for us). We took a pre-paid taxi, again easy and inexpensive to arrange, but again, the taxi driver could not find the location. He was able to locate Friends Colony West (be sure to say West), but not the actual street. We had to call on the kindness of strangers, and then to call the hotel itself, before we could actually find the location. This is an attractive property, with a nice bar and restaurant (reasonable and plentiful food), free computer access, lending library, and some green open space to walk around outside. The rooms were on the smallish side, but we had just booked a basic room, nothing more. Large and well-equipped bathrooms, with hairdryers and some toiletries. Flat screen TV with DVD player, which we were unable to get to work. Lots of instructions which we followed to the letter, but without success. We were unable to use the free wi-fi access in our room, either. So I would have to say that compared with the Hotel Palace Heights, this was a bit overpriced (about $250 per night). Still a fine, reasonable choice in Delhi, and with the ability to walk outside on the hotel property, perhaps a better choice if one is spending multiple nights. Did not partake of the (included) breakfast due to an early departure, but there was a complimentary fruit plate, chocolates, and bottled water in our room.

February 24: Delhi to Varanasi; Visiting Sarnath and Seeing the Ganges

Activity: Sarnath and the Ganges: It was difficult to communicate via e-mail with the Gateway Hotel Ganges (at that time a Taj Hotel property); therefore, it was difficult to set up day tours through their travel desk. I had thought that I arranged an airport transfer, but no one met us on arrival.We arranged a quick-and-cheap pre-paid taxi, and a tour guide hopped into our car for the ride into town. He was able to arrange what we wanted: two half-day tours, one to Sarnath with an evening boat trip on the Ganges, and one morning boat trip on the Ganges. Definitely see the river at the two separate times--very different experiences. Don't shy away from seeing the cremations--it's more moving and life-changing than gruesome.

Hotel: Gateway Hotel Ganges (Varanasi), previously called the Taj Ganges View Hotel: Great choice to see the Ganges! This was a typical, large chain-style hotel, with all the comforts of home, which provides an oasis within the city. Two restaurants (one continental and one Indian), nice cozy bar. Pretty pool area with lovely flowers. Free horse-and-carriage rides during late mornings on the hotel property. Two small shops in the lobby, also a beauty salon. Front desk exchanges money; no access to ATM machine was seen in this city. Rooms were large and attractive, with nice bathrooms. Good amenities provided (e.g., toiletries, bathrobes, hairdryers). Free bottled water and fruit plate, with chocolates at evening turndown. Great service from the bar/Indian restaurant manager. There's a sitar player in the evenings in the Indian restaurant and in the afternoon in the lobby. My other choice in Varanasi was the Radisson; after briefly seeing the location, I think the Taj was a better choice (thankfully, I ruled out staying in one of the guest houses directly next to the Ganges, which for me, would have been a huge mistake).

February 25: Varanasi to Delhi to Kathmandu (that was our plan, not what actually happened)

Varanasi Airport Info: Small airport, with a few small shops, post office, table-service restaurant (outside security). Inside security, there is nothing but seating and restrooms, although men carry around snacks and drinks for purchase. No smoking inside, but available in the table-service restaurant. You can only fly directly from Varanasi to Kathmandu on certain days of the week, which didn’t work for us, so we attempted to fly from Varanasi to Delhi and then Delhi to Kathmandu. Our flight from Varanasi to Delhi left late, so we missed our connection in Delhi. Again showing our naivete, we didn’t realize that there are two parts to the airport in Delhi, and international and a domestic part, only they are not located nearby and you must negotiate the crazy Delhi traffic to travel from one part to the other. In our original plan, we had several hours between flights, but with the late arrival of our incoming, the traffic getting to the other terminal, and the impossibly long lines for international security, we missed our connecting flight by minutes. So it looked like we would be spending the night in Delhi, only we quickly learned that every hotel in Delhi was fully booked for that evening, even $700 per night 5 star hotels like the Imperial, Shangri-La, Taj Mahal, Oberoi were fully booked. We weren’t able to cancel our hotel in Kathmandu, so we actually paid for nights in two separate hotels. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule our next morning’s activity, flightseeing for Mount Everest.

Hotel: Best Western Resort Country Club (Gurgaon): An evening turndown does not a 5-star hotel make! This was not a planned stop for us. We missed a domestic to international connection (definitely allow more than 2 hours between flights), and all other hotels in the Delhi area were sold out (unbelievably, even the ones that I had been tracking during my planning at $700+ per night were booked). This hotel is about 1.5 hours from the airport, and we had to use an official taxi (although not a pre-paid one due to the distance). Fortunately, there are signs as you approach the vicinity of the hotel, or it would have been difficult to find (and while our taxi driver understood spoken English, he only read Hindi, so he could not read the address on the paper we provided). The main building in the hotel was sold out due to business conferences, so we were in a satellite location near the golf course (quite removed from the main property, very deserted, needed shuttle service to get to the restaurant). The best I can say is that they had a room for us, which was clean and safe. I can only hope that the rooms in the main building were a bit better. There is a restaurant and bar/disco, the latter of which was reserved for one of the conferences, however. Decent/attractive lobby, and much maintenance work (e.g., painting, tiling) going on during the night to keep up the hotel. I couldn't really see the pool, but I believe there was one. We used the business center to send some e-mails. A bit pricey at $300 per night (which included two buffet dinners), but we had no choice. The hotel arranged for a transfer back to the international airport, which was greatly appreciated (but not included in our rate).

February 26: Delhi to Kathmandu (Finally!)

Activity: We missed sightseeing flight, so we postponed until tomorrow. We took a tour of Kathmandu and the Durbar Square area.

Hotel: Yak and Yeti (Kathmandu): Our planned 2-night stay turned into one when we missed our domestic to international connection in Delhi. Nice, historic hotel, with good pool area, gardens, and tennis court. Casino (not American style but reminiscent of what I've seen on small Caribbean islands) and disco, along with three restaurants and a nice bar. One restaurant was Chinese, one continental (buffet and a la carte), and their signature The Chimney (which I would highly recommend for its novel setting and food). Front desk changed money; again, no ATM in sight anywhere. Rooms could use a bit of updating (we were even in the newer Durbar Wing), particularly the bathrooms, but nothing really to complain about. Very basic toiletries provided including hairdryer, no robes or slippers. Complimentary bottled water, welcome drinks upon arrival. We had thought that staying here "downtown" would allow us to walk to Durbar Square, which wasn't the case. For that reason only, I probably would recommend the Hyatt, which is less expensive. If you have to take a taxi to see the sights anywhere, the Hyatt was better and half the price.

February 27: Kathmandu to Pokhara; Trying to See Mount Everest (and failing!)

Activity: Flightseeing of Mount Everest was not to be. We missed our flight the day before, and this was our last chance to see it. All flights this morning were delayed by 4+ hours, so if we stayed to see Mount Everest, we would miss our flight to Pokhara.

Tiger Mountain Lodge (Pokhara): This was a great hotel, just not really our type of place. The location is very remote and isolated. Many of the guests were interested in birding, foliage, short hikes, which we were not, so I question why we chose this hotel in the first place (I guess because I had heard it was the best in Pokhara). Rooms were very basic, absolutely no toiletries but soap provided (although that was handmade and I liked it). There are no hairdryers, robes, slippers--in my opinion, inexpensive things that would add a more luxurious touch to the rooms. There are no TVs, no telephones, and only very dim lights. I loved the hot water bottles placed in my bed at night--it made it nice and toasty. Pokhara had some petrol shortage problems when we visited, so there were rolling blackouts every day (and they were substantial--two 4-hour periods each day, sometimes while you were sleeping, but sometimes when you would have liked to read or shower or use the bathroom). When there's no petrol shortage, the hotel uses generators, so that probably makes it better for many guests--just not while we were there. Hot water for showers provided only twice per day, for 2 hours in morning and evening, but the tank only has a 25-liter capacity, so it runs out way before two people can shower properly. This was the only hotel during our entire trip to India and Nepal that did NOT provide bottled water in the rooms. Carafes full of their supposedly purified water were filled in each room, but I wasn't comfortable with drinking that. Bottled water is available for purchase, however. Food was good--cooked breakfast, Indian/local buffet lunch, and served 3-course dinner. I was very happy with the food; it was very tasty, well presented, with great service. Drinks are not included in the nightly rate (which I never could ascertain directly), so we spent about $100 per day on beverages (one of us drinks beer, and the other drinks only non-alcoholic drinks); Visa and MasterCard (and cash only)--American Express is not accepted. There's a lovely open stone fire pit in the lobby/bar area, where guests congregate before and after dinner (meal times are set and varied based on the blackouts). The pool is pretty, although we did not get to use it (not quite warm enough). It's unfortunate that the view when we visited was so hazy (we didn't do our homework beforehand--we thought that if February was a good time to visit northern India--and it was--that it was also a good time to visit Nepal, which it wasn't. It will be much clearer in a few months). There are a lot of stairs and much walking required on this property--anyone with mobility problems would have great difficulty (again, maybe lack of research on our part, but we weren't expecting to need to climb up/down so many steps to reach the rooms/lobby/dining room). There is no walkie-talkie or telephone to contact the lobby should you need help--when our fuse blew right after showering one night, my husband had to quickly dress and make the long trek up the hill to get assistance in nearly pitch-black darkness. The staff was excellent--always accessible and pleasant. It would be relatively easy and inexpensive for this hotel to move up a "star" and achieve the luxury which it purports, although to be fair, all the other guests in residence with us seemed quite happy with the setting and accommodations. Again, I think it was a great place, just not the best choice for us. (We were undecided between this hotel and the Fishtail Lodge; I think we would have preferred the Fishtail location since it was closer to Lakeside and we would have been able to get to town easier; from Tiger Mountain, it was $20 per person each way, which was a bit excessive for a shopping trip, lunch on our own, etc.)

February 28: Parahawking with Scott Mason

This is one of the most unusual things we've ever done! The paragliding itself would have been amazing, but to have Kevin and Brad respond on command to a whistle, and have them feed off our hands in mid-flight, was really indescribable! We feel like we've experience the beginning of something really great for Scott and his team--I can only hope that he achieves the success that he deserves! We checked in with Scott's company on the main street in Lakeside, Pokhara, getting a quick chance to meet the birds. We then traveled by car to the take-off point up in the mountains (Sarangkot, I think). Each passenger was attached to the front of a pilot, who worked the equipment. After a quick briefing, we took the plunge, and were soon soaring through the sky. Each time the pilot blows his whistle, one of the birds comes to feed from your hand; Kevin rests there for what seems like minutes while he eats, but Brad swoops in, plucks his treat, and is off before you know it. I even have a photo of Kevin resting on my hand in mid-air. Amazing!! The cost is currently 85 Euros for about a 30-minute flight, which is well worth the price for such a unique activity. You land in Maya Devi, which is where Scott lives and cares for the birds (several others are viewable in the aviary). We traveled to Pokhara exclusively for this activity, and we were completely satisfied! My only comment is that I would probably take two flights next time: one without the birds, then one with the birds.

March 1: Pokhara to Kathmandu

Pokhara Airport Info: Small airport, with table-service restaurant (outside security) and combination snack/souvenir shop inside security. No smoking inside.

Hotel: Hyatt Regency (Kathmandu): Closer to the airport than downtown, but still a better choice in my opinion than the Yak & Yeti, where we also stayed a few days earlier. Large, chain-style hotel with pretty entryway (ponds and fountains) and unique lobby, two large shops. Large, expansive pool area and gardens, with tennis courts. Reasonably-priced spa, decent fitness room. Several restaurant choices: the bar area (indoor and outdoor seating, with dessert buffet and cheese buffet in afternoons, evenings), buffet (also has a la carte options), pool café, and their signature Rox restaurant (looked quite nice, but we were just too tired for a "better" dinner). Rooms were large, with everything you would expect in the way of toiletries, robes, hairdryers (but no slippers). Excellent bathroom with separate soaking tub and standing shower. Our room was a bit tired looking, even though we were on the special Hyatt Gold Passport wing. Complimentary bottled water, full box of chocolates. There was a security guard patrolling each guest room floor--a bit disconcerting. Overall, very pleased with this choice, and a bargain at $125 US (booked well in advance).

March 2: Kathmandu to Delhi then Home: A Day of Relaxation Before Our Flight

Kathmandu Airport Info: The international airport is decent, with several shops, including two duty-free. There is no sit-down restaurant inside security (or outside that I could see), but there is a counter serving sandwiches, etc. There is smoking inside--pretty much anywhere. There is a computer/internet café with several laptops, and some TVs to pass the time. The domestic airport is next door, but in a separate building (walkable). It also allowed smoking inside, and had three small shops, as well as TVs.

Trident (Gurgaon): This was my favorite hotel of My India/Nepal trip; too bad it was just a day room and I didn’t get to spend the night. Note: This is no longer a Hilton property. Located about 30 minutes from the international airport (not a bad drive now that the new toll road is open), this was my favorite hotel of my entire trip (too bad we were only using it as a "day room", yet without the discounted rate). We used frequent flyer miles (30K) for our stay, which was pricing out at $500+ if paid directly. Beautiful property, with lots of ponds and water, great pool, but perhaps a few sun lounger chairs light. Quite pretty outside at night, when everything is lit up by torches, candles, etc. Pool bar, drinks/food service at the pool, lobby bar, and two other restaurants (one more formal than the other, one having outdoor seating as well as indoor). Nice spa by the pool (though not the cheapest prices I had seen in India), and two beautiful shops near the lobby. Our room was lovely, but we were told that we received an upgrade for being Gold Passport members (either that or a free breakfast, which we weren't going to be present for) with everything one could want. Excellent bathroom, with separate soaking tub and standing shower, nice toiletries (can't recall the brand, though), hairdryer, robes, slippers, complimentary water, fruit plate, great chocolates at evening turndown. We booked a pre-paid taxi at the airport to the hotel (about $10), but took the $40 hotel car service back to the airport (arranged by the hotel, in the most comfortable car we had seen on our entire trip, added to the bill, worth the splurge). I would absolutely return to this hotel if given the opportunity, but sadly, it will cease its affiliation with Hilton next month so no more opportunities for upgrades or free stays.
Delhi Airport Info: The international airport was not as big or as crazy as I had imagined. Not big at all, really, when compared with US airports like Newark, JFK, Atlanta. Lots of lines--to get through the door, to get your luggage scanned and tied, to check in at the airline counter, immigration, security, more security, several pat downs. Allow enough time to clear all these hurdles. No airlines except Air India seem to have permanent counters, so it's like a treasure hunt finding your airline. Only the large airlines have jetways; otherwise, it's shuttle bus service. There's not much inside in the way of services: a few shops, a few food carts/counters, two airline lounges (outside security), and one table-service restaurant (outside security). There is smoking in the table-service restaurant only. The domestic terminal is in three separate buildings about 30 minutes from the international terminal. There's a bus between the two (which we didn't use) or hire any taxi ($3 or $4 US). There is no smoking in the domestic terminals that I could see. No airlines have jetways, so it is necessary to take a shuttle bus to/from the planes. The buses don't seem to board until the exact time that you think your flight should leave, so don't get antsy!

This was not the easiest, nor the most satisfying trip we’ve ever taken, but seeing the Taj Mahal, the Ganges, and Parahawking made it all worthwhile. We will return to India someday to see places like Jaipur, Jaisalamer, Udaipur, Goa, etc., but next time we’ll be more prepared to roll with the punches.

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