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Trip Report Trip Report on Recent Journey to India

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It’s time for this lurker to say thanks for all your help in planning for our recent visit to India and Nepal. Besides the brutal jetlag we encountered upon our return and the fact we saw no tigers, everything about the trip was excellent. I will forego many details and simply paint the overall picture of our experiences. The entire journey was arranged flawlessly by Amit Nayyar at &Beyond India. We are two couples of “old friends” who have known each other for more than 50 years and who have traveled previously to New Zealand, Tanzania, and southern Africa. We prefer upscale accommodations, private touring, and a good dose of nature, wildlife and birds. We achieved each of these goals.

We arrived in Delhi late in the evening for two nights at the Taj Mahal Hotel. The following morning we met Amit with whom we had communicated via email for more than a year as we planned each detail of our journey. On our full day in the city we did a typical tour of the city: short metro ride, rickshaw in Old Delhi, visits via private van and our own local guide to Jama Masjid, Humayuns Tomb, and Qutub Minar. We stopped for the obligatory carpet demonstration and snack. It was a great day that was capped off with a delicious breakfast and dinner at the hotel.

On the second morning we flew to Khajuraho and toured the Western Group of Temples for more than two hours with another private guide who explained the background and artistry of the temples. We stopped at a very nice artisans’ shop where we bought the first of several souvenirs. We were then driven to Sarai at Toria which is an eco-friendly lodge near Panna National Park for a one night stay and morning game drive in the park. The lodge was very comfortable and the early morning game drive was a great introduction to safaris in India. After a delicious breakfast we were off in the van for the 4.5 hour drive to Bandhavgarh National Park and three nights at Mahua Kothi Lodge, the first of three &Beyond/Taj lodges we would visit. The drive through northern Madhya Pradesh enabled us to see authentic Indian rural life and to be introduced to the crazy driving habits on Indian two lane roads. We rolled or covered our eyes at incidents of near collisions and overturned vehicles. It was a long 4.5 hour drive but interesting all the same.

Mahua Kothi was wonderful! We were pampered by our butler, enjoyed excellent meals, and our cottage was spacious and well-decorated. The morning before our afternoon arrival our naturalist said he had sighted a tiger, so we hoped the same would happen to us. We spent a total of about 15 hours on four different game drives over the next two days during which we saw numerous birds and the typical four legged creatures: various types of deer, monkeys, jackal, etc. But, you guessed it – no tigers! It rained each morning or evening which, according to the naturalist, caused the tigers to stay hidden since they did not need to seek water. We were disappointed but not devastated since after about six weeks in Africa we knew game drives were “a crap shoot.” Our final game drive in Bandhavgarh was cancelled due to heavy rain so we set off for the next stop.

The drive to Kanha National Park and the Banjaar Tola Lodge was longer but just as crazy. We drove on everything from divided freeways, to city streets, to cow paths and rutted dirt roads, plus we even needed to ford a couple of streams during the final hour of the exhausting drive. We were split into two separate vehicles since &Beyond wisely thought it would be too uncomfortable for the four of us and our baggage to be squeezed into a smaller van which were the only ones available. Being separated made the journey seem even longer due to the risky driving and terrible roads. But we all made it safely to the lodge which was an amazing place. The units were round tents with solid walls and they were huge. The bed sat on a circular platform and the bath and dressing area was as large as the sleeping area. To top it off the food was the best of the journey. Every dish, and there were many, had a unique flavor; the presentations and service were outstanding. The weather pattern of daily rainfall continued during our two nights in Kanha which led to the same tiger non-sighting outcome and an exciting adventure of having our Tata Range Rover clone get stuck in the mud. Just after we saw fresh tiger paw prints on the muddy road, we ended up getting stuck and spent more than an hour standing in the open while the park rangers, volunteers, and our naturalist tried to extricate the vehicle. An elephant and its mahout also tried unsuccessfully to pull the truck out. Finally another vehicle from the lodge arrived and within minutes we were back on the road in search of tigers. Our luck, or lack thereof, continued but we continued to see a wide variety of birds, butterflies, and mammals, including two sightings of Gaur, the largest bovine. Our last game drive was cut short by heavy rain since it is no fun to be in an open vehicle with only a plastic poncho as protection. We left Kanha disappointed at the lack of tigers but delighted with the overall experience.

Next was a long drive to Pench National Park where we were spending only one night at Baghvan Taj Wilderness Lodge. Once again we were in two separate cars and the driving circumstances deteriorated. Our driver was mute and did not speak a word and the other driver was reckless; plus it was raining for most of the drive. This was the only time we were displeased and we voiced our concerns when we arrived in the early evening at the lodge – it was still raining! The cabin was large but the design was not as good as the previous ones. Perhaps the fact that it was raining made everything seem less than ideal. The rooftop machan was useless since who wanted to sleep outside when it was raining, so that option was dropped. However, using the bathroom was not optional and the bathroom was separated from the sleeping area by an open walkway. Not ideal at all for four 70 year old wet and tired travelers. Dinner was also in an open, but covered pavilion. Even though the food was attractive and tasty we were still cold, tired and wet so the overall impact was not great.

We survived the night and left at 5:00am for another drive, fortunately only two hours, to the Nagpur airport. Also fortunately, we had two different drivers who went out of their way to drive carefully and take much better care of us. We did not think Nagpur was on any tourists’ radar – it looked pretty grim, especially on a damp and misty morning. The flights to Jaipur via Mumbai were our only unescorted departures but we managed fine with the connection.

When we arrived in Jaipur we were met by the same driver and his assistant we had in Delhi who would be with us for the rest of our time in India – that was a great improvement since his van was very comfortable and the four of us were together again. Needless to say our arrival at the Taj Rambagh Palace was off the charts. Flower leis, rose pedals, bindi, and warm washcloths were very welcomed. We had returned to five-star elegance! We settled into our extravagant palace room, took the 5:00pm guided tour of the grounds and palace, watched a business delegation from Ukraine arrive amidst much pomp and pageantry (decorated camels and painted elephants), had pizza and beer for dinner in the old steam train restaurant, and we were happy campers who did not even think about not seeing tigers!

At a reasonable time the next morning our private guide and driver met us for a day touring Jaipur. We drove through new Jaipur and marveled at the modern buildings, and later entered the Old City through one of the huge pink gates. First we drove through the morning market area where the images of the milk vendor pouring milk from his big can into customers’ smaller cans will stick in our memory forever – especially every time we need to run to the supermarket to replenish our milk supply. We drove past the Palace of the Winds with a quick photo stop before we headed out of the city center to the Amber Fort which was looming overhead. We opted to take the quicker jeep ride up to the fort rather than the time consuming elephant ride. Our guide led us through the massive fort which was actually a royal city that reminded us of the Forbidden City in Beijing in some ways. We learned much about India’s history while marveling at the workmanship and beautiful structures. We were also impressed by the number of Indian tourists who were visiting this and other sites. After we covered the high points of the Amber fort we returned to the van and made a quick stop at a textile workshop for another non-pressured demonstration. We moved on to lunch at a restaurant for tourists before reaching Jantar Mantar at the City Palace. First thing that hit us was the size of these “astrological instruments” and then we tried really hard to comprehend their purpose. After about an hour we moved to the City Palace Museum which made perfectly clear why Jaipur is called the “Pink City.” We were once again impressed by the beautiful structures and decorations. The big silver urn was an eye-opener. Preparations were underway for a private party – most likely a wedding – at the City Palace so we saw the colorful floral decorations. We asked to walk through the market and bazaar area at the end of our tour. It was a real treat to see everything imaginable for sale in small shops, on the sidewalks, and carried by the vendors. The hard-sell approach was the order of the day but we resisted getting ripped off and ended buying what we wanted and not what they wanted to sell. The flower stalls were colorful, as were the turban shops and the rental places for wedding attire. It was a good day but we were happy to return to the grandeur of the Rambagh Palace. We had dinner at the outdoor restaurant while dancers and musicians entertained us. Rambagh Palace earned the highest marks from us without a doubt.

We left Jaipur the next morning early enough so we could stop at two sites on the way to Agra. Our guide from Jaipur accompanied us to the Abaneri Stepwell which was a fascinating couple of hours marveling at the 10th century, huge sixty foot deep well with walls covered with countless steps. The stepwell was a late addition to our itinerary and it was one of our favorite visits. The adjacent temple and village also gave us a view of rural life as it probably existed hundreds of years ago. Our second stop after lunch at another tourist restaurant was the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary which was also a high point. We rode in a rickshaw through the wetlands where we saw water fowl, ducks, geese, and a host of other birds. It was a great respite from the drive and from the traffic congestion we were about to encounter in Agra. After dealing with unbelievable chaos driving through the city of Agra we finally arrived at the tranquility of the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel which was everything it promised to deliver. The setting was superb, the interiors were stylish, the rooms were spacious, the service impeccable, but most of all, the view of the Taj Mahal from every room was worth the price of admission. We actually just relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed an excellent continental dinner in the hotel’s informal dining room. Early the next morning we met our Agra private guide who was a trained archeologist who had worked throughout the world. We arrived at the Taj Mahal East Gate before 6:30am, waited in line for a few minutes, passed through very thorough security, and soon we were watching the Taj as it emerged from the mist. At that point we could not see the details of the building, just the very familiar shape. We walked slowly towards the tomb and entered the interior about an hour later. We were a bit frustrated that no photography was allowed inside the tomb, but that was minor compared to the wonders we were seeing. When we emerged from the interior the mist was gone, the skies were blue and we had ample opportunity to capture the beauty of the Taj with countless photographs. When we were standing on the raised platform we realized how much bigger the building was compared to what we had assumed. We also saw the grandeur of the decorations and workmanship. Needless to say we were impressed. We finally left the site knowing we would return that evening for sunset.

Breakfast at the hotel, which was more like brunch, was great and after a quick rest we were ready to explore Agra. First stop was the Akbar workshop and showroom where we learned how the marble inlaid decorations have been made for centuries. We could not resist them and bought two beautiful pieces that we know we will all cherish for many years. Our next stop was the Tomb of Etimād-ud-Daulah, more commonly known as “The Jewel Box” or “The Baby Taj” which inspired Shah Jahan when he built the Taj Mahal for the granddaughter of the man honored by the “The Baby Taj”. The fresco and mosaic decorations were exquisite and covered every inch of the exterior and interior walls. More countless photos later we left the site and moved to lunch and then Agra Fort which would equally impress us with its size and beauty. Once again the inlaid marble decorations were unbelievable.

This was the most crowded of the sites we had visited thus far in India but it was so large that the crowds were not oppressive. Our guide taught us the history and significance of the many buildings which remained intact after many others were destroyed by every invader since the fort was established in the 11th Century. According to the legend Shah Jahan could see the Taj when he was imprisoned at the fort by his son so naturally we photographed the same view. We then returned to the hotel about 4:30pm and gathered jackets for watching sunset at the Taj which would be the grand finale of our visit to India. It was wonderful to watch the colors change as the sun was setting. The crowds for sunset were much greater than in the morning but our guide found a quiet spot facing the western façade of the Taj and we appreciated the experience which we could not put into words.

Very early the next morning we were back in our van for a return to the airport in Delhi. Fortunately the new expressway enabled a fairly easy drive, but the morning traffic in Delhi slowed our pace considerably. We arrived with plenty of time for our flight to Nepal where we would spend two nights in Kathmandu and two nights in a lodge near Pokhara. You can read details for that portion of our journey in the Nepal forum.

After our visit to Nepal we returned for a final night in Delhi at the Trident Hotel in Gurgaon which was another five-star experience. We arrived there after night fall and did not realize the extensiveness of the grounds until the following morning. After breakfast we organized our belongings since we were returning to the USA on a flight that night. During the day we were invited to the home of a former colleague of our travel companion’s father. They arranged for their son-in-law to drive us to their home in a lovely section of New Delhi not too far from our first hotel. We enjoyed a relaxed visit, a delicious lunch, and shared stories about our experiences in their country. We returned to the hotel by 4:00pm and prepared for the long journey home. We were able to thank Amit personally for all he had arranged to make the entire experience such a success when he accompanied us to the airport. Granted the flight back to the east coast of the US was very long but we were able to sleep, read, watch movies and recount so much of our trip. After almost three weeks of bouncing around it was good to be going home but we felt so fortunate that we had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people, to see such amazing sites and to experience India and Nepal first hand.

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