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Trip Report We Did It Our Way--an Unusual 6 Weeks in India & Nepal (long)

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First a bit of background: We are in our mid sixties (just retired), and in 2012 we had a successful, independently-planned six week trip to India to some of the usual suspects and to quite a few more rarely-visited places. We had a great time and planned a return visit in 2014 for another extended period of time. What we choose to do is frequently not the typical tourist route, and we prefer to find lesser-known gems (we were successful on this front on both of these trips).

I'd classify us as moderate travelers who are willing to make some splurges, but we are definitely not super high end travelers, and we couldn't afford to be if we want to take regular trips of this length. Rooms we had ranged from $24 to $178 for our splurge at a lovely all-inclusive place. We don't need a lot of hand-holding, and we do not typically hire guides, preferring to use guidebooks and Internet research to make our trips. We'll sometimes hire a guide on site, but that is fairly rare. For our first trip we'd secured ten year visas, so that hassle about getting into India was now over.

So the plans were in our heads to make a return trip to India (probably southern this time around). But, then I saw a film about Nepal and decided it looked so interesting that I focused on making a visit to Nepal instead, thinking it would be a great complement to India. As usual for us, we did not book plane tickets until a month or six weeks ahead of time. We just seem to prefer the flexibility of making plans closer to departure time rather than booking months and months ahead of time.

After checking into ticket prices from the US, I discovered that it would be cheaper to fly into Delhi and then make our way to Nepal rather than just doing a round trip ticket to Kathmandu. So, I booked a six week trip in and out of Delhi as a gateway. Then, the planning began.

As I soon discovered through my research, it seemed like Nepal is good for perhaps two weeks of time unless one is doing a major trek. While we wanted to definitely do some walking, the purpose of our trip was not to do a major trek. So, the decision was to combine three weeks in India with three weeks in Nepal. We'd begin our trip in India in mid to end of February and then move into Nepal as the weather started to heat up.

Since we'd already spent quite a bit of time in India, I was already familiar with the travel hassle involved. For example, trains need to be booked waaaaay ahead of time, and this fact proved to be my nemesis once again on this trip. On the other hand, those budget flights can more or less be booked last minute, and it won't cost you much at all to wait to book. On our first trip I had been super happy with the agent we used to arrange a driver (and some lodging) for us, so I once again contacted Nikhil at TGS Travel for driver (and a few room) arrangements within India. But, this was not a trip where everything was set in stone and fully booked. I know we often drove our driver nuts because we'd change plans and move on to a different place than we'd originally intended.

From our first trip I knew about pacing for a trip to India and wanted not to cram too much in and wanted to eliminate most one night stops. Unfortunately, as you'll learn in my trip report for a number of different reasons, this idea soon fell apart, and our trip to India was fragmented with way, way too many one night stays. By the time we got to Nepal we were exhausted from moving around all of the time and wanted to settle into longer stays in places.

Here is our itinerary in India:
1 night Delhi (Delhi B & B)
2 nights Bundi (Dev Niwas)
1 night in transit at Indore (Lemon Tree)
1 night Maheshwar (Hansa Heritage)
2 nights Mandu (Hotel Rupmati)
1 night Bijaipur (Castle Bijaipur)
1 night Dhariyawad (Fort Dhariyawad)
1 night Udaipur (Jagat Niwas)
2 nights Bera (Castle Bera)
2 nights Chanoud (Chanoud Gahr)
1 night Pali area outside of Jodphur (Samad Sadar Palace)
1 night Pushkar (Dia)
2 nights Nawalgarh (Roop Niwas Kothi)
1 night Patan (Patan Mahal)

I'm exhausted once again just typing the list out of all those one night stays!

Our itinerary in Nepal (much more sensible!)

4 nights Kathmandu (Hotel Courtyard)
3 nights Balthali (Balthali Village Resort)
2 nights Nuwakot (Famous Farm)
3 nights Bandipur (Old Inn)
2 nights Pokhara (Mum's Garden Hotel)
3 nights Chitwan National Park (Jungle Villa Resort)
2 nights outskirts of Kathmandu (Chandra Ban Eco Resort)
2 nights Bhaktapur (Mila Guest House)

For those who quit reading this report here, we'd recommend everywhere we stayed in Nepal. In India we'd recommend nearly all of the places we stayed with a couple exceptions. Fort Dhariywad--a very definite no! Roop Niwas Kothi--probably would choose a different lodging in the area.

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    The upgrade to economy plus on the long fourteen hour Newark to Delhi flight was worth it. With the extra legroom, we both actually slept for five hours or so.

    In the evening when we arrived at the Delhi airport, we were surprised to see the same driver we had two years ago. And, even more surprised that he remembered us and even remembered that he had taken us to the Jaisalmer train then. We were even given the same room as last time at Delhi B & B. Last time we visited we'd been told that there was really no place to walk in the neighborhood, but this time we were given directions for a walk through this upscale neighborhood. We even managed to find the correct phone store—after asking in about three other phone stores. So, we were set up with a SIM card we hoped would work after all of our identity verification was finished. This trip we were smart enough to also buy a second SIM card so we could put it in our small travel computer and use a dongle for Internet access. Our last trip we'd discovered that in many places the Internet really isn't readily available, and it is better to be able to connect with a data plan using a dongle.

    Feb. 21—overnight train Delhi to Bundi

    Since our train to Bundi didn't leave until ten at night, we had the driver take us around for some sightseeing in the afternoon. Delhi is not our favorite place by any means, and for us bits and pieces of Delhi rather than long days are just fine. We settled on visiting the Red Fort and Old Delhi. The Red Fort was different than we had expected. It was a large expanse of space with all different sorts off buildings and greenery. Apparently the British had destroyed many of the original buildings during the nineteenth century.

    To us, Old Delhi was nothing but the very worst aspects of India. It is crazy, filthy and chaotic. We had to join in a group of people to even be able to get across the street since pedestrians are low man on the totem pole. Then, we were continually hassled by guys wanting to guide us around or to give us tuk tuk rides. Apparently here there is supposed to be good junky souvenir shopping, which didn't interest us anyway, but we escaped within ten or fifteen minutes and headed back to the parking lot where we were to meet our driver. We'd wanted to visit several famous mosques, but it was Friday, and the driver told us we'd never be able to get near them. And, since we'd read that one of them holds 25,000 people, they were definitely off our agenda.

    Prior to being dropped off for dinner we drove by the area where the presidential palace and governmental offices are located. This is definitely a different atmosphere and feel than Old Delhi, and it is amazing what a difference a few miles can make. I'd picked a nice-sounding, not-too-expensive restaurant out of the guidebooks, and it turned out to be a Delhi yuppie haven. Service was impeccable with waiters hovering all over us at all times. They even had finger bowls, which I hadn't seen in decades at home and I suspect they'd mystify our kids as to what they were supposed to be used for. Yet, to me, it seemed somewhat uncomfortable and a bit obscene to be spending as much on dinner for two here as most of the people on the street would be lucky to make for several full days of work.

    Our train was 1AC, but we once again remembered that this first class might be the equivalent of say third of fourth in a European train. Our compartment of four had two other guys—one was getting off at Kota, and he went promptly to sleep snoring throughout the night. Our other cabin mate kept us awake for a couple hours because he was trying to figure out where to get off the train around two am. We weren't annoyed because we would have been in the same boat since there are no announcements as to stations and no way to figure out where you are. And, we'd forgotten how hard those train beds were. There wasn't much sleep to be had this night.

    Feb. 22—Dev Niwas in Bundi

    On our last trip to Rajasthan we'd wanted to visit Bundi, but we just didn't have time to fit it in. So, this trip it was a priority.

    Sure enough when we got off the train we saw the guy from our hotel Dev Niwas holding up a sign with our names on it. We got in the hotel's fancy tuk tuk for the five kilometer ride to the hotel from the train station. As is so often the case in India, we were dropped off in a tiny alley way in front of a building that didn't seem all that impressive. That is until you enter the courtyard of the large, old haveli. By a little after ten we were checked into our deluxe room ready to collapse (I'd reserved a deluxe room knowing that we'd want to have room to spread out and get organized and that we'd be spending a lot of time in the room just recuperating from the journey). Jet lag and a few nights of not getting nearly enough sleep had hit us. Although we'd initially thought we'd be ambitious and do some sightseeing, we ended up spending much of the day just relaxing in our room. That, and we were trying to figure out how to really get our phone working because we need to call the bank at home. This was an exercise in frustration—the phone wouldn't work until we'd made three or four calls to their help center, and we'd gotten locked out of our online bank accounts with the only option to get everything working again a phone call. The manager was fabulous and helped us immensely and even took our SIM card to put in his phone so we could call the bank.

    Finally, after lunch we were ready to emerge from the calm of the hotel. The street scene outside the haveli's door was the typical small town India scene that is so fascinating to walk through just seeing life in all of its aspects so out and exposed. We walked for an hour or two before returning to the peace of the hotel. In many ways, we felt that this hotel has one of the best locations in Bundi (better than those immediately at the foot of the palace) because of the great views it offers from the rooftop restaurant.

    day 4 —Dev Niwas, Bundi

    By morning we were feeling somewhat more rested and decided we'd make a day of it visiting the ruins in the hill above Bundi. After breakfast we set off with our walking poles to fend off the monkeys we'd all been warned about. We were also glad we had the poles for the hike up and down the steep hill. The ruins were fascinating, and we spent a couple hours wandering through them. The palace itself was somewhat a let down in comparison to others we've seen in India. It needed a lot of maintenance, and only parts of it were open to the public. There were a few rooms that originally had some gorgeous paintings. One of the rooms was kept locked because some of the painting was done in 24K gold and had been defaced by people who were scraping off the gold flakes. So, the guard had to let us in the locked room. Here, as in many other locations in India, we had a hard time discerning who were the paid employees of a place who are supposed to help you and who are the hanger-around guys (and, they are all men; no females in positions like this anywhere) who are looking for tips. This became a pretty common theme at most of the places we visited during our trip.

    All of this took us close to four hours, and we came back to the hotel for a quick lassi before heading out on our rickshaw tour the hotel had arranged for us. We hadn't known exactly what the tour included but decided to go anyway. It was a wise decision. Bundi is home to many elaborate step wells, and the ones our guide took us to are gorgeous with elaborate carvings. We never would have been able to find these on our own, We also went to the lake and small palace where Rudyard Kipling visited. Our final stop was the maharajah's palace where they used the small pool to lure animals for the shoot. Well worth the 500 rupees. Our day was complete when by early evening we learned that my waitlisted train ticket for tomorrow from Kota to Indore had finally been confirmed! For over a week we'd had one confirmed ticket and one wait-listed ticket, and we really would have been punting if that ticket hadn't come through confirmed.

    day 5 — Lemon Tree, Indore

    We'd made arrangements to be picked up by a driver and taken to Kota where, before boarding our train to Indore, we'd spend time on the Chambal River on a boat. This is India's cleanest river and is unique in that it flows from south to north. The fact that much of it has extremely steep cliffs, combined with the fact that there is only one large city on the river (Kota), has made it inaccessible for the most part and thus not prone to the trash and pollution that plagues so much of India and its rivers.

    The guide was excellent and knew the river well, having had a boat on it for thirty years, We saw a nesting fishing owl, an Egyptian eagle, unusual vultures, a Himalayan eagle, a kestrel and many crocodiles sunning themselves on the river's banks.

    After the boat journey we had lunch, and the taxi dropped us off at the train station for the ten hour train ride to Indore.

    I had booked a room at the modern Lemon Tree Hotel in Indore and had arranged for a pick-up at the train station. We never were picked up (it was getting close to midnight when our train arrived) and finally decided to arrange to take a tuk tuk to the hotel where we were told the driver couldn't find us (unlikely!), and we were still charged for the pick-up even though we'd had to arrange our own transportation. This was a nice hotel, but we ended up being charged quite a bit more than I had thought we'd be charged according to our reservation.

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    Thanks for getting this report started, julies! I feel exhausted reading your India Itinerary! Looking forward to the details of how this happened... a good cautionary tale, I expect.

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    I am on a roll now and am going to keep going.

    Kathie--Yes, this next portion of my report reveals the snowballing effect of how that many one night stays can happen. In one instance we did it to ourselves by deciding that a place we were planning to stay two nights just didn't call to us for any more than an overnight stay. And, then, we had the one disaster of our trip as far as lodging, and that compounded the problems even more, leading to more one night stays.

    day 6— Hansa Heritage Hotel, Maheshwar

    Since we had arrived and settled into our Indore hotel so late (around midnight), we slept in for a while and headed down to the restaurant towards the end of the time that the “free” breakfast was to be served. We were glad we'd made the effort because it was quite the spread with a wide variety of both Western and Indian and Chinese foods, and it filled us up for most of the day.

    We'd had the Lemon Tree arrange for a driver to drop us off in Maheshwar where, based on positive things I read about the town, we planned to spend two nights. On our way to Maheshwar we wanted to make a detour to visit Omkareheshwar which we had read was an interesting place to spend a couple hours observing the religious pilgrims. Unfortunately, there were communication problems with us being misled as to how long it would take to actually get to Omkareshwar. We didn't realize this until we'd been driving for a while, and there was no way leaving Indore around noon we'd be able to get to both places. So, we skipped the side trip (really out of the way) to Omkareshwar and instead went directly to Maheshwar thinking there would be enough there to keep us occupied for a day and a half. We were wrong!

    There are not many lodging options in Maheshwar (or dining options). Aliyah Fort sounds lovely but was way beyond what we'd wanted to spend. I'd read good things about Labooz' Cafe and rooms in the entrance gate to the fort, but we were unable to make any sort of connection with them ahead of time. So, we booked into the pretty basic Hansa Heritage Hotel for two nights.

    We had so loved Varanasi and its ghats on our last trip that we assumed (incorrectly) we could spend lots and lots of time in Maheshwar just wandering the riverfront. We were disappointed, and after about two hours of exploring and strolling along the river we knew that one night was going to be enough for us. So, we headed back to the hotel to have dinner and make a plan to move things forward a day and leave for Mandu the next morning.

    There really is not much available in Maheshwar as far as a restaurant or place to eat out, and all guests at the hotel just used the hotel's service for ordering food from the dhaba across the street. Everything is veg, and there is basically a set menu. And, the guests eat at tables in the front room of the hotel that kind of reminded us of a garage. But, we had an enjoyable dinner in the dark (all the power in town had gone out) chatting with the other guests, all of whom were from Europe. And, during our evening of conversation we learned about a gadget we'd never heard of and might be interested in purchasing for future travels because it is both handy and purchasing one is a charitable act—Waka Waka Solar charger-- http://us.waka-waka.com/products/


    day 7 -- Hotel Rupmati, Mandu

    We had to do some juggling to do as far as shuffling our plans a bit. We needed to move our reservation up a day in Mandu and also call Nikil at TGS to make sure our driver could pick us up a day earlier than planned, and we needed to shift all of our already booked room plans. Plus, we needed to get our hotel in Maheshwar to find transportation for us to Mandu. The hotel in Maheshwar was a tad disappointed that we were leaving a day earlier than planned, but we'd decided we'd had enough of the town. At breakfast some of the other guests were making plans to take taxis to Omkareshwar for the day, and I suppose we could have done that too. But, by this time we'd already set in motion our plans to move on.

    On our first trip to India we'd wanted to visit Mandu, which consists of 15th and 16th century Islamic edifices built on a very large plateau which was selected as a building site because of its defensive capabilities. The problem is that Mandu is kind of out in the middle of nowhere in Madhaya Pradesh and not exactly on any usual or easily reached tourist route. So, getting there takes effort and time. We're glad we made the effort this trip and took the time to explore Mandu. In fact, after exploring there for a while, I wished we'd had three nights there rather than the two I arranged. The buildings are spread out in a nice rural area, and it takes a while to visit them all. Some have been restored, and some are more in ruins.

    The drive to Mandu from Maheshwar only took a couple hours and was interesting, especially as we started to climb up the the plateau on which Mandu is located. An issue with Mandu is that there are not too many places to stay that are considered “nice”. We'd done our research and decided upon Hotel Rupmati which is close enough to the center of town to walk but is isolated and quiet (not that anything in Mandu is too much hustle and bustle). When we arrived in early afternoon, our taxi driver drove into a modern looking motel-type structure set in pretty extensive grounds overlooking a gorge. The hotel definitely has many shortcomings (maintenance and cleanliness) but is probably the best of the bunch in the area. While in Mandu, we went by the three major lodging options, and this is definitely the best located and the one with the best outdoor amenities.

    The hotel's location is great with seating areas outside of the rooms facing over the gorge thus providing lovely, expansive views. There is also a nice garden area where one can sit and eat outdoors, and it is a peaceful and quiet location. The food in the restaurant is quite good and very reasonably priced, but the restaurant itself reminded me of a school basement cafeteria. We ate all of our meals here during our stay. And, if you visit Mandu, stay with the veg options only everywhere because power in the Mandu area goes out all of the time, so you'll never know how long things may have been sitting without adequate refrigeration. In our two day stay, the power went off about ten times with outages ranging from a few minutes to a couple hours. If you stay at this hotel, make sure you have flashlights or headlamps because the hotel doesn't do anything to accommodate guests when there are power outages.

    We got settled and went out to the garden to have a snack before starting out on a walk to explore the area. The walk into town is not bad at all, maybe ½ to ¾ of a mile. We like to walk and just check out our surroundings, so this made for a good way to spend the rest of the daylight hours. Renting a bike to cycle around the Mandu area was one of our plans, so while walking into town we checked out the local bike rental place that is on the road between the Rupmati and town. Bikes were really cheap, and we made plans with them to pick up two in the morning.

    We got our bearings in town, walked around a bit, and visited Ashrafi Mahal (the Palace of Gold Coins) with its adjoining tomb. This is only partially restored and not as interesting as other edifices we saw in Mandu, but it is worth exploring. The other edifices in the center of the village we decided to wait on until the next day when we planned to spend the day visiting the ruins. While walking back to the hotel, we got caught in the rain—something that we never even thought could happen in India in February. This was to become a theme in Mandu because we had rain every day we were there. Locals were astounded too and pointed to this as a sign of climate change.

    day 8 – Hotel Rupmati, Mandu

    After breakfast we walked down the road to pick up our bicycles. After trying out a couple, we finally settled on two that were somewhat reasonably sized for us. At home we are recreational bikers, and we have fairly decent bikes so our expectations may be a teeny bit high. But, these bikes were something else. One speed., heavy and slow. Even on flat surfaces we felt like we were pedaling uphill into a head wind on flat tires. On some of the uphill portions, I just gave up and walked the bike. But, the area is so expansive that cycling is the way to go unless you have a driver (we hadn't booked ours until the next day) or take taxis. And, cycling is an enjoyable way to see the countryside.

    It was an uphill ride (I ended up walking my bike up the final approach) to Rupmati's Pavilion which is probably one of the most visited edifices in the entire Mandu area. This is a palace that was erected so a military leader's mistress could have views of the river winding a thousand feet below. Here we Americans were a popular tourist sight, and we are now featured in many of the photos Indian tourists were taking.

    Today we encountered another very strange weather occurrence that had all of the locals shaking their heads and referring to climate change and global warming. The end of February is supposed to be without rain, and yet in the late afternoon we once again saw the storm clouds quickly gather and let loose. This was not a minor sprinkle; this was torrential rain accompanied by hail that quickly covered the ground like a 2” or 3” blanket of snow. Lucky for us when this hit we were back in the bazaar part of town visiting the lovely Jama Masjid and Hoshang Shah's Tomb complex. We'd left our bicycles outside and were walking the grounds when the rain and hail hit. Along with all of the other visitors we ran as quickly as we could to take cover within Jama Masjid.

    We really enjoyed the day and Mandu, cycling between both the more heavily-visited and lesser visited ruins. In fact, we realized that we could have actually used another day in Mandu because we hadn't seen everything and should have stuck with our original plan to have our driver pick us up on March 1. Oh well, too late. We'd already rescheduled once and couldn't do it again. In fact, as we found out the next morning, our driver had spent the day driving from his home in Jaipur and was spending the night in a small establishment in Mandu.


    day 9 Feb. 28 – Castle Bijaipur, Bijaipur

    When I made our itinerary, we knew that from Mandu to anywhere in Rajasthan would be a fairly long drive, so we were prepared. So, when we decided to move everything up a night because of leaving Maheshwar early, I'd asked Nikil if we could go straight to our next stop Fort Dhariyawad which is in very southern Rajasthan. He called but, they didn't have any rooms available a day earlier than we booked. So, we needed to find a different place to stay for one night somewhat within the vicinity of the area we wanted to be in. He suggested Castle Bijaipur and called there for us. They had a room, so it was a go, and it wasn't too far out of the way.

    The grounds here are beautiful, and overall it is a nice place to stay. Our room,was lovely and spacious, with a small terrace off it it . While many people would probably be thrilled, aspects of this experience just seem a bit contrived for us. We arrived at the same time as a group. Visitors enter to the sound of the musicians beating time for your entrance and are greeted with garlands and a tikal on your forehead. Perhaps if we had arrived as sole travelers, this greeting wouldn't have been the same, but our arrival coincided with that of a group.

    In the evening there is a bonfire in the outside bar area with musicians playing. To us, this whole bonfire/ musician scene seemed a bit like a way to increase bar sales rather than a way to provide for guests' comfort and to enhance the overall experience. The owner made a quick, perfunctory stop by to welcome us, but this too seemed to us just a formality so guests could say they'd met some minor Indian royalty. Perhaps this is the type of thing that appeals to some, but it is not us and is not as authentic an experience as we have had at other similar properties. However, if it is what you want for an experience, come stay here and you'll have a lovely place to stay at what we thought was a very reasonable rate. They had on offer some spa type things and a few excursions, but since we were just there for a one-nighter, we didn't partake of any of their offerings.

    Even though there were only perhaps a dozen guests, dinner was served buffet style (not our favorite by any stretch of the imagination) and, as far as spices, definitely was toned down for western palates.

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    day 10 – Fort Dhariyawad, Dhariyawad

    This place turned out to be the one disaster of our trip and another of the reasons we had a string of one night stays! And, I'd chosen this place with Nikil's stamp of approval. Oh well; I guess that one bad choice in six weeks isn't that bad a percentage. Now I can look at the experience in those terms, but when we were there, we were fuming.

    Fort Dhariyawas is outside of the usual Rajasthan circuit, and we thought we'd have a unique and authentic experience. It was also the only place during our entire trip that required full pre-payment in full. I now know that I will never do that again. Their policy is no refunds even if they are at fault. This place was so bad that we decided we'd rather forego the money we'd paid for the second night than endure a second night there.

    We've spent eight weeks in India in the past couple years and have stayed at many different heritage properties, so we can make valid comparisons. At close to 6,000 rupees per night his place is vastly overpriced for what it has to offer and the rundown condition it is in. As far as we are concerned, it might be acceptable at half the price they are asking.

    Where to begin? From the moment we arrived we got bad vibes. With no greeting or welcome at all, our suitcases were quickly deposited in a gloomy room with only one small window. Then the non-English speaking porters disappeared, and we were on our own with no one even around to talk to to ask for a change of room. Finally, after a half an hour we were able to locate the “manager” who spoke English, and he changed us to a different, lighter room. When I then asked him about all of the various activities promoted on their website, he was clueless. And, of course, the only thing that drew us to this out-of-the-way property was the activities they offer. He then did come up with a proposal for the evening trip to view the flying squirrel sanctuary.

    When we discussed the evening safaris with the “manager”, he had mentioned 5:45 to us as a safari departure time. At 5:15 we went down to the garden and sat. There was no one around at all, no one came to check with us about anything or even to see if we'd like a drink—very, very unlike what is the usual in India as far as service expectations at these smaller royal estates. We sat until nearly 6:00 at which time the only English-speaker on the premises, the “manager”, finally came and asked us if we planned to go on the safari. We told him we had been sitting there since 5:15, and no one had ever approached us about the safari or asked if they could get us anything, so we had no idea what was going on. The typical India experience is that waiters/servants are hovering all of the time, so this lack of service was really different from the norm.

    Then we found out that the person who was to take us on the safari didn't speak English. We were lucky because our kind driver speaks English and volunteered to come along as a translator. At this point the “manager” who we found was the only English speaker on site that day hopped on his motor bike and left for the night.

    The safari is itself to see the flying squirrels is a complete joke. We were driven to the national park sanctuary where there is a circular stone bench. There we sat and waited for the magic hour when ONE squirrel emerges from its den in the tree and climbs out on the branch maybe to fly away (we didn't see it do this).

    In the afternoon, about an hour after our arrival, we had tried the hot water. There was none. All of our requests about this seemed to get no response or a response that it just needed to heat a bit longer and perhaps we hadn't turned on the geyser long enough. Oh, did I mention the fact that there were several panes of glass missing in the windows in our room, so a large lizard came in? And, the carpet is a ragged, worn-out version of indoor outdoor carpet and the ceiling fan sounded like a freight train was in the room so the fan was unusable.

    After the “safari” we returned for dinner and discovered that we were left for the night with not one person available on the staff who could communicate with us. And, we discovered that the hot water still did not work. We were told, through sign language, that our choices were to put up with it or to move to a smaller room that was not made up. So, in the morning in a $100 a night room, we had to get buckets of hot water delivered so we could take a bucket shower. I've done bucket showers before, and they are fine in certain types of establishments. But, at an establishment at this price and at this level, it is completely unacceptable.

    To top it all off, after dinner we were sitting in the garden relaxing for a bit. At 9:30 the staff signaled to us that it was time for us to go to our room because they wanted to go to bed and let the dogs loose for the night. So much for the guest being the god as is the oft quoted axiom in India.

    On a positive note, the food at dinner was good and the staff (other than the manager) did seem to be trying. And, the morning expedition to the local tribal area and dam was very interesting. But, these things do not in any way make up for all of the shortcomings of the place. Apparently the owner was away and busy with a family wedding, so this may have just been an exceptionally bad day for them. But, any responsible owner would have well-trained backup staff to adequately replace him when he is not there to supervise. And, the idea of offering guided tours by people who only speak Hindi is absurd.

    day 11 – Jagat Niwas, Udaipur

    We had called our agent Nikhil about the disaster that Fort Dhariyawad was and told him we intended to leave. Nikhil did intervene and phone the owner asking for a partial refund and did get a small part of our already-paid money back. But, we were so fed up that even if there had been zero refund we were going to leave anyway. So, we needed a suggestion as to what to do with the one night we now had available before we were supposed to arrive at our next destination—Castle Bera.

    Nikhil suggested a night in Udaipur, and we decided to do just that. On our last trip we'd stayed at the Jagat Niwas Hotel and liked it a lot. So, a quick phone call got us a room there. (I was becoming more and more happy that we'd bought an Indian SIM card for our phone because we were using the phone much more than we'd anticipated.) Our trip was now deteriorating into a bunch of one night stays in a row, the exact opposite of what we wanted. But, we opted for this rather than staying in a place where we were miserable.

    Since we'd visited Udaipur two years earlier, we didn't feel the need to do much sightseeing or anything very touristy. And, we spent quite a bit of time just at the hotel itself. On our first trip we'd booked one of the hotel's much-requested rooms with a jokhara overlooking the lake. A jokhara is nice but in reality not particularly useful. You climb up in it and sit on the mattress propped up with pillows. This time we had a room on the upper level that had a small terrace with table and chairs. I think perhaps the terrace was for all guests, but, since it was right off of our room, no one else even thought to use it and we enjoyed just sitting out there. As we remembered from our earlier trip, the hotel's restaurant has lovely views over the lake but is a bit pricey compared to other local places. We had an afternoon snack in the hotel's restaurant, walked around town for a while and returned to the restaurant for dinner. By breakfast we'd decided to go somewhere cheaper and found a nearby hotel with a rooftop with semi-decent views and food at about half the price.

    As were ready to leave Udaipur we got one of those e-mails no one wants to get when on a trip. There was a major problem at home with our house. The damage was already done, but we had a major mess on our hands and had to decide what to do about it. Should we continue on with our entire trip, continue on with part of our trip, or just call it a day and go home a month earlier than intended?

    From the title of my trip report, I guess you can figure out the answer to what we eventually (after a week of much agonizing) decided to do.

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    Great report, julies. Your first trip and report were invaluable in my own planning for our 2013 trip to Rajasthan, India, and we went to Fort Dhamli as I was fascinated by your experience there. We also worked with Nikhil, and found him very helpful and accommodating throughout our trip.

    We did go to Bundi on our first trip and loved it -- I squeezed one night into our itinerary, and I would've loved a second night in the town, but we were so glad to have gotten there at all. It's a special town - small, with a tourist infrastructure but not the crowds, with a wonderful ambience.

    We saw some of the stepwells, which we loved, and I would've loved to see more. Interestingly, we loved the palace, despite its general rundown air, as we saw many remarkable rooms, with gorgeous paintings and tile work. The colors of some of the paintings were strong and we had time to absorb the feeling of the place as there were so few people around. We did meet one of those "hanger-around" guys, but he was great in getting us into several closed-off rooms that were not obvious to us at first.

    I love the way that you mix your destinations up with less-touristed places with the major locations (tho the first 3 weeks does sound tiring!). And I admire your drive to continue your trip despite the news from home.

    I also love the link to the waka-waka products--these look like great travel products as well as socially-conscious ones.

    Thank you so much for writing such great reports! They are wonderful!

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    I forgot to mention a new environmentally-conscious product we took with us. We hate to keep throwing away plastic water bottles, so we use platypus bottles regularly when traveling because we can just fill them from the tap. But, this concept doesn't work in places where the tap water isn't pure. On our first trip to India we'd buy those huge two gallon jugs of water and take them with us from place to place (when we were travelling by car) and use them to refill our platypuses. But, for this trip we had read that in Nepal even bottled water can sometimes be pretty iffy. So, we looked around at different types of water purifiers. We ended up buying this great product for purifying water with UV rays. It worked like a charm, and we never bought a bottle of water. It isn't cheap, but we figure we'll have it for future trips too.

    http://www.camelbak.com/allclear

    We live in a hundred year old house in the far, frozen north of the US where there was a horribly long and bitterly cold winter this year. Our boiler for our hot water heat went out, and the house had frozen up. Cast iron radiators had split, the toilets had broken from the ice in them, and plumbing was gone. After much agonizing and going back and forth on the issue, many phone calls, and even checking with the airline about changing tickets, we finally made a decision to stay and continue on with our trip. The damage was already done, a mitigation company had been called in, and the house had been stabilized. We figured we could deal with it when we got home.

    In retrospect this was such a wise decision. We thought that this would be a pretty quick fix. Wrong! Despite the fact that we have what is supposed to be one of the top insurance companies in the US, this entire experience has been a nightmare, and those people who told me we would still be dealing with it in the fall were correct. We still have no water to the second floor. The heating system has been partially torn out, and the real demo and reconstruction is finally scheduled to begin in a week. So, a word from the voice of experience, if you live in a cold climate and are travelling in the winter do not just rely on having someone periodically check on your house. Make triple sure you have a notification system that immediately creates a warning if the heat goes out. We were told that in cold weather once the furnace/boiler quits it does not take long for the entire plumbing system and (in our case) hot water heating system to freeze up.

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    I am enjoying reading your report, "warts" and all. Looking forward to hearing about your stay at Chanoud Gahr. We really were impressed with the job those two brothers are doing, not only with the wonderful place they have inherited, but with the surrounding town. It was one of the most interesting and welcoming places we've ever stayed. AND I also want to hear about Nepal...

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    What a horrible disaster in your home! It should be fixed just in time for you to go away this winter...

    The UV works very well for bacteria, not as well for viruses, and works poorly for water that isn't clear. In my experience in Kathmandu, the tap water was probably not clear enough for it to be fully effective. (Fill a sink with water and look at it - it's sort of a brownish green color.) I'm glad to hear that you did fine with the UV light, but be aware of when it might not work as well.

    Looking forward to more of your adventure!

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    Kathie--

    The camelback actually does treat viruses. Our understanding is that it is not effective say if someone wants/need to filter something like stream water with particulates in it. However, it does work on tap water.

    Yes, the house will probably be finished just as we want to escape again this winter......And, for our next trip we will be installing an alarm that directly notifies the heating contractor's office if there is a failure.

    Back to the Indian portion of our trip:

    Days 12 & 13 Castle Bera, Rajasthan

    We visited here two years ago and enjoyed it so much that this is the one place from our first trip we decided to return to. The Thakur owner, Winku, has focused his life on tracking leopards and other wildlife in his vicinity. And, he has also trained six superb guides to assist him. We had leopard sightings nearly every safari last visit and hoped to replicate that success this trip. We did; we saw several leopards on three out of the four early morning and late afternoon safaris. On one morning safari we saw hyenas because the guides know where their dens are and are able to predict their habits. And we also saw lots of birds, crocodiles and monkeys in the local countryside which is absolutely beautiful and greatly adds to the enjoyment of the trip. For those interested in nature and wildlife (and having a nice place to stay), Castle Bera is an excellent option. And, in many ways it is probably better than many of the national parks because it is a more personalized experience and isn't subject to all the rules and guidelines (and hordes of people) that are a part of a national park visit.

    Winku is a congenial host who runs a great operation and loves to sit and chat (and drink) with his guests in the evenings. Rooms are definitely period furnishings and are extremely spacious (more like suites). Since there was a group from Gujarat who were also visiting the estate, we were in a different room from last time, and this one also had a small terrace sitting area outside. And, there is even a mini fridge for your beverages.

    The visit was another success, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely once again. Except, this time we were trying to balance the early morning safari and the late afternoon/early evening safaris with making lots of calls to the US to make some decisions and check on the status of the house. With an 11 ½ hour time difference from home it was not an easy task to connect with people. And, of course, we needed to do this in the one portion of the trip where we were really fully scheduled with time-dependent activities.

    Days 14 & 15 – Chanoud Gahr, Chanoud

    Chanoud Garh, a few hours north by car of Castle Bera, is another historic property owned by a minor royal family in Rajasthan. It has recently been redecorated and opened its doors to guests as the equivalent of a five star property. Our suite of rooms was absolutely gorgeous and very well done. Several siblings (in their 30s maybe) manage the property and devote themselves to their guests, and they do a great job. Their father is the equivalent of the local lord, and during our visit he was presiding over a gathering of local men who had come to discuss the celebration that was being planned for the first Holi celebration of the family's first-born grandson. As we had learned on our last trip, the first Holi for a baby boy is a major event that involves the immediate family, extended family, and the local villagers. It is like planning for a wedding or an elaborate bar mitzvah or quincenera. The premise of a visit at Chanoud Garh is that guests will be treated as family, served home-cooked meals from favorite family recipes, be told all about local customs, and be introduced to life in the adjacent small village.

    As seems to be typical in most of these historic places that now cater to guests, it is kind of assumed that you will arrive in the early afternoon for lunch, and that is how it worked out for us. As was true of every meal we had here, the food was delicious, made from special family recipes and different from the fare that is typically served to guests at the historic places. Two women from Canada were the only other guests during our stay, so we also spent some time chatting with them. Where are the Americans? I don't know. On our entire six-week trip we only saw a couple of Americans, and that was in the really major tourist places. Lots and lots of French though!

    As far as activities here, the first afternoon we were shown around the estate itself. Guests are lodged in the front and totally renovated section of the estate, while family resides in the separate quarters at the back. Our second day we were treated to a slow and thorough guided visit to the local village. We were actually out for nearly four hours after breakfast walking through the village and visiting various places and people. We settled in and did our own thing for a couple hours after lunch and then went out on a jeep expedition to see what would be the local equivalent of desert flats or sand flats. It was a very interesting way to end up the day at a very nice venue that was definitely worth our little splurge. As I mentioned earlier, we balanced out different types of places to stay with some being more budget and a few higher end and most more mid-range.

    Day 16 – Samad Sadar Palace

    After my pre-bookings at Bera and Chanoud Garh, once again I had some nights to fill. I'd purposely left things open for a couple nights so we could decide last minute what to do and where to go. We're okay with flexibility and a bit of winging it, which I know a lot of people aren't. Plus, we were in shoulder season and weren't trying to get to the super popular locales, so we weren't too worried about finding a good place.

    (In fact, on the entire trip we only found three places we were interested in and would probably have visited if they weren't booked up. One was the place where the Best Marigold Hotel was filmed. They happened to be filming the sequel exactly when we wanted to visit. Another was a place on the outskirts of Udaipur that offers horse rides into the surrounding countryside. They are very small and were booked up with a group trail ride that was to last for several weeks. Then, there was the one night that Fort Dhariywad was not available when we wanted to come in a night early. When we got there, we saw why. A small French tour group was leaving just as we arrived.)

    Back to what we actually did on this trip. An acquaintance had recommended Samad Sadar Palace as one of her favorites in India for a time when people want to do absolutely nothing except sit around and relax for a day or so. At this point in our trip, what with continuously moving around and trying to deal remotely with the crisis at home, this idea was sounding pretty good.

    Samad Sadar Palace is an Art Deco “lodge” set high on the shores of a fairly saline lake in the middle of absolutely nowhere. And, other than walking around the grounds, looking at the views, and a short trail by the lake there is absolutely nothing to do. The staff were helpful and one man even came up to us as we were strolling the grounds and pointed out to us various wild animals hiding in the shrubs near the shore.

    I'd called a couple days earlier, and they had a room for two nights if we wanted it. This was an understatement about availability; the place was totally deserted other than the large staff of servants. When we arrived we were given our choice of several different room (suites really) and chose one with an adjacent terrace with great views over the lake. Since the place is large and was completely empty, what was really strange to us was that when the sole other guests (an Indian businessman and his daughter of about ten) arrived, they were given the room right next to ours, destroying what would have been a perfect sense of solitude. Other than emerging for breakfast in the morning, they spent the entire time in their room (with room service). They kept their door which opened on to the shared terrace propped open (so we could hear everything) and watched tv or talked on the cell phone all of the time. Very strange.

    Here my husband's one bout of illness on our trip set in, so he retreated to bed for most of the late afternoon and night emerging only for an hour or so to go to the dining room for dinner. By morning he was feeling better and ready to move on. If he'd still been ill, we would have stayed another day, and I would have spent the day on the terrace reading. This proved to be a good one night relaxing place for us, but we knew right away that we didn't want two nights there. We know ourselves well enough to know that an afternoon and evening of just sitting and reading and relaxing is enough for us; we get antsy and need some options for activities.

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    Loving your report, julies.

    The light reliably killing viruses is something new. I'll have to read about that. When I last investigated that, it did not kill all viruses, and water that had any cloudiness or color to it was harder for it to manage. Thanks for the info.

    We also have 10 year India visas, and we are considering where we want to go next in India. Your two reports will help inform our decisions.

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    I'm also enjoying your report julies. We'd love to return to India, such a diverse and complex country.

    If it's any consolation, hearing the news about difficulties at home whilst away may be slightly better than arriving home to find said difficulty surprisingly laid out before you.

    On New Years Day one year, we arrived home to a flooded apartment - flooded with sewerage from the second floor apartment. Tree roots blocking exit pipes were the culprit, causing all drains etc to overflow. In later years it was made into an interesting story. Hope you can do the same.

    Thanks for the detailed info about your trip, it really helps those who might want to follow.

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    Hi Julies,

    I read all your journey details and I just wanted to inform that you missed some most important and must visit places in India. Like Kutch, Some part of Gujarat like Gir forest, patan vav and many more places. Whenever you come next time don't forget to visit those places. :)

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    Visiting India is like saying I'm going to visit the United States or Europe. It takes many trips and a lot of time to do it justice. I think (maybe) our next India trip may be to the south and Sri Lanka.

    Yes, I am hoping that a few years on down the road I can look at the house mess as just another story in my life, and I keep telling myself that we are getting some nicely redone things out of this that the insurance company is paying for.

    I always read trip reports here when planning our journeys, so that is why I am hoping to pay back with mine.

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    Day 17 – Dia, Pushkar

    So, ready to leave Samad Sadar Palace, and reading through the guidebooks and maps looking for a location that would fit in our itinerary as we slowly moved north up towards the Shekhawati area, we decided to visit Pushkar. In my initial planning I'd thought about Pushkar, but it wasn't a strong enough draw that it was on my list to be a must-see and a place I would arrange everything else around in order to make it happen. And, I knew from my trip planning that Pushkar is one of those places that people seem to either love or hate. We had so been entranced by the spirituality we found in Haridwar and in Varanasi on our first trip, we thought it would be interesting to visit another holy city on a body of water. Now, having been there, we can say we fall in the dislike Pushkar category.

    Pushkar itself is a small-sized city with all of the typical Indian chaos, but for the tourist and religious pilgrims, everything centers around the not particularly large lake. The lake itself is surrounded by bustling bazaars one has to walk through to reach the edges of the lake. There is no natural lake shore; rather, the entire lake is ringed in cement steps/ghats and landings going down to the lake. And, all of this cement is covered with lots and lots and lots of pigeon poop that looked as thought it had never been cleaned up. We had planned to circumnavigate the lake (what should have been a very easy walk because the distance is not far at all even though one has to go up and down and in and out of the various areas to make it all the way around the lake) but gave up in disgust after an hour or so.

    Since this is a holy lake people need to remove their shoes and go barefoot or in socks. Now I know we should have had socks with us that we could have just thrown away as bio-hazards after walking around the lake. We walked for a while carrying our shoes with us. Then, we were yelled at by a man with a bullhorn because apparently we weren't even supposed to have shoes near the lake. So, I guess you need to have them in a bag so they aren't visible or just leave them sitting out and go back to them, hoping they will still be there when you return. As I said, this whole area ringing the lake was go gross that when we went to put our sandals back on we wiped our feet (twice) with anti-bacterial wipes before even wanting to put shoes on.

    I guess I don't understand why, in respect for a holy lake, religious adherents don't try to clean this up. But, perhaps I don't understand India. I've recently been reading the many articles about the extremely poor sanitation in India and how many poorer Indians need to be educated about why they should use the new government-funded toilets rather than maintaining their preference to defecate in the open fields.

    End of digression.

    The highlight of our trip to Pushkar was that we had a spacious, lovely room—Aarti—at Dia which is a small, semi-boutique lodging in a quiet part of town. In addition to the room there is a nice private balcony on one side and a common swing on the other. We had dinner (only veg and no alcohol as this is a holy town) delivered to our room from their sister restaurant for a nice, private meal on our balcony. Having the refrigerator in the room was another plus. Although this is a lovely place, it is still in some ways in the category of budget lodging. While there is hot water to the shower, the sink only has cold water. And, the super dingy, once white but now grey towels would never pass muster anywhere. But, at $50 a night including breakfast, I can't complain.

    All in all, this is a very nice place to stay in a town that didn't do a thing for us. Initially we were disappointed Dia only had one night available, but in the end were more than satisfied with a one night stay in Pushkar. So, the string of one-nighters continued. Since on a trip of this sort we consider ourselves travelers looking for enrichment and experiences and not people who are relaxing“on vacation”, we'll push on when a place doesn't call to us even if the result means more living out of the suitcase and pushing on is not as comfortable as just staying put.

    We finally decided to continue on with our trip for the full six weeks and booked a flight on Spicejet, a budget airline, to Kathmandu for March 12 (four days from now). The price was cheap and was really only about $10 or $15 more than if we had booked much earlier, so it was a bargain. We'd figure out the Nepal portion of our trip and our return flight timing while we were in Nepal, and we'd just start initially with a one night booking at a Kathmandu hotel. How long we'd stay in Nepal was open, and whether we'd spend the entire rest of the trip in Nepal or return for a few final days in India was still a moving target. As should be obvious by now, we are not the type of people who feel that it is necessary to have everything arranged, confirmed, and locked in place when we travel. Even for a really long trip like this, we typically don't even buy air tickets until four to six weeks out. And, we've had success in operating in this manner.

    Having learned on our first trip my train lessons about the need for making India train reservations way in advance, I was playing the India train game. I've used Cleartrip on both of our trips to make train and plane reservations, and it is a snap (once you get your information coordinated with IndiaRail for security issues). I'm willing to play the India waitlist game with the railroads, and, although it can be harrowing at times watching to see if your name moves up to the confirmed status for a journey, we've been successful in our travels by train. On the other hand, as I am sure is true of all good travel agents, the agent we used in Rajasthan for both trips will not make train reservations unless there are confirmable seats to book because he wants his clients to be certain their plans are a go. I think the one advantage to having an agent book train tickets for you, and I am not 100% certain on this, is that an agent can pull some strings (I think) if he has booked the seats and a change has to be made on a train with no available seats.

    I had several sets of different reservations at different locales for the end of the trip. If I didn't want them, I’d just cancel for a full refund a day or two before the date of the departure. One of the locales was the Sikh's holy city Amritsar. The city had been calling to me, and I was trying to figure out how to make it a part of this trip since it didn't happen during our first trip. On the other hand, we would have now spent nine weeks in India without ever visiting India's premier tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal. I'm not saying we'll never visit there, but I don't feel compelled to make a super special effort to get there.

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    Sorry about your flood, but at least there is a silver lining to it and the insurance money will allow you to re-decorate. My understanding re: pushkar is that the primary highlight is the yearly camel festival. Amistrar calls to me as well, but we did not make it there. Enjoying your report still.

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    My goodness! I am seeing how this series of one-nighters just piled one on another! The good news is that you are flexible and don't hesitate to move on if a place is not to your liking.

    Looking forward to more.

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    europe2011. A VOA is v.easy. Here's my experience of Kathmandu (Tribhuavan) airport from March this year...

    "TRIBHUVAN AIRPORT. It's a small airport, so unless you're v.unlucky your flight won't have arrived immediately behind a queue of incoming flights. There's no air-bridge, so you'll either get bussed a few yards, or walk from the aircraft.

    We got VOA, having printed off application forms online. So we had the forms fully completed, a passport size photo stapled to it, and US$40 fee [30 day] all ready. There are different visa queues that I saw, depending on the length of visa you wanted (15/30/90 days). A 15 day VOA is US$25.

    We were staying for 35 days. So we joined the 30 day queue, having 'lied' about our intended length of stay on the visa form. Had we stated our correct length of stay then we'd have had to buy a 90 day visa for US$100, whereas it's less expensive to purchase a 15 day extension either at the Immigration Office in Kathmandu (KTM), or in Pokhara.

    It took us 20 minutes from feet on the ground to retrieving our baggage, including changing €20 at the exchange kiosk to the left of the Visa queues. I saw a bloke in front of me reaching the front of the visa queue only to find that he never had a photo, so he had to suck-it and go to the photo machine in Arrivals. The RoE at the exchange kiosk was only marginally less than we got in KTM.

    There was no separate queue for Immigration after you get your Visa into your passport. So once you get your Visa you can proceed to baggage reclaim.

    So, providing you've done a bit of homework regarding VOA, the clearing Tribhuvan Airport is painless.

    AIRPORT PICK-UP. We'd pre-arranged our pick-up with our KTM hosts, he was there, and off we went to start our little adventure. There's a fixed-price taxi kiosk in Arrivals, and you could also walk a few yards outside the airport grounds and flag one down. BUT if you do take a taxi be aware that the vast majority of the [zillions] of taxis in KTM are tiny Maruti Suzuki 800cc vehicles, which will only comfortable take 2 x medium sized passengers and a couple of medium sized suitcases."

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    Well, after a four month break from this trip report, I am back posting again and hope to finish it off.

    March 9 & 10 – Roop Niwas, Nawalgarh

    Days 18 & 19

    Since our first trip to India I'd been intrigued by the idea of seeing the painted homes in the Shekhawati area. Many things I'd read suggested that the town of Mandawa is the most touristy place to be located, so we decided instead to stay in Nawalgarh. (Having now visited Mandawa I think I'd choose that instead if I had it to do over because, other than having places to buy tourist-oriented items, it didn't seem overwhelmingly touristy to us.)

    As we knew advance, it was going to be a longer drive from Pushkar to the Shekhawati area than most we'd recently had, and we'd stopped for lunch at a small restaurant on the outskirts of this area so it was mid afternoon when we arrived. For lodging we selected Roop Niwas Kothi which is a large estate on the outskirts of the town of Nawalgarh, and we'd booked for two nights (possibly even thinking of three nights). On arrival we were shown two rooms--one a tacky, regular room in the main building and the second in the lower level, old staff quarters area adjacent to the main building. This was despite the fact that there were only three rooms booked the day we arrived. So there must have been other options. Or, maybe all rooms are of this standard.

    The rather minimally decorated, large-size room we took in the lower adjacent wing was definitely quiet (a plus) but lacking some basic amenities. And, as more people (a small tour group) checked in on day two the room was no longer so quiet because all of the rooms have screen doors that bang shut quickly and loudly. As we got settled in, we discovered that there was no closet, there were no hooks and there were no hangers. In other words, no place to put your clothes other than to leave them lying on your suitcase. The manager had asked for constructive criticism, and I mentioned this to him but got a non-reply. When I also mentioned to him that typically hotels of this quality level include a complimentary bottle of water in the room, he just replied that they don't. And, on principle, I was quite turned off by the prominently displayed sign posted in the reception area announcing that outside food and drink are banned.

    Right after our arrival we decided that we just weren't that favorably impressed by the place and planned to leave after the first night and find a different lodging in the area. The place looks like my grandmother's house that was last decorated in the 1930s or 1940s and doesn't even fit the category of shabby chic. In the softer light of night, the place does look better, and by our first morning we decided it wasn't worth the hassle to move and we might as well stay for both of our nights. It was okay, but the place certainly isn't anything special. And, it definitely has some deficiencies.

    The second night of our stay tour groups had come in, and we were not allowed to order off the menu as we had done the night before. Instead, it was a buffet only option, and a buffet that we felt was over-priced. Plus, we are not fans of buffets. If returning to the area, we'd make a different lodging choice.

    Upon arrival we settled in a bit and, rather than seeing the local painted havelis, we asked our driver to take us to the nearby town of Dundlod where we could wander around a while and see the murals there before darkness fell. The next day when we set out to drive to Mandawa we discovered that we were taking exactly the same road, so we should have combined those two trips in one. Oh well. Our driver was very experienced and knew all of the roads and back roads in the area, and the drive from Nawalgarh to Mandawa took maybe 45 minutes. In fact, we never ended up at Poddar Haveli Museum in Nawalgarh because by the end of a day of visiting Mandawa havelis, we were both haveli muraled out and opted not to visit.

    Our arrival in Mandawa proved to be quite interesting, to say the least. As we were very slowly making our way in through the very crowded and narrow streets in the middle of the town so the driver could drop us off at the epicenter of the havelis, our car was suddenly surrounded by a group of perhaps six or eight men who were loudly shouting in Hindi and gesticulating. We, of course, had no idea in the world what was going on and became quite apprehensive and were very glad the windows were rolled up with the AC on. My mind started racing, remembering all of those things we've read about mobs of people surrounding offending drivers after car accidents and I wondered about trying to call the police, not that I would have even know how to do this.... After a few minutes of this, the driver slowly started to back up around the narrow corner (no easy feat), and we still had no idea in the world what was going on. Then, I happened to glance directly down out of my car window and saw that a donkey was giving birth in the middle of the street not more than a foot from our car. In fact, the baby's head had just emerged. Only in India!

    Since getting around the donkey and backing up and out was quite difficult, and since we were no more than a block or two from our destination, we told our driver we'd get out and walk the rest of the way. He wouldn’t hear of it and insisted that he deliver us right to the large, open courtyard parking area in the center of town adjacent to some of the nicest havelis.

    When we arrived we learned why he insisted on driving us all the way. There were guides here, and our drive planned to hook us up with one. We vacillated a bit and finally made an agreement with the guide to have him take us around. Despite our apprehensions, and wondering if our driver was just out to make some money for himself off this arrangement (we're sure he did), this was a good decision because the guide was fabulous.

    When you hire a car and driver from TGS Travel, you are given information that explicitly states that you should not necessarily take your driver's recommendations as far as eating and shopping. This can become a delicate balancing act because, obviously, the driver knows the area and you don’t. Yet, we all know that drivers make recommendations based on their kickbacks or benefits they receive from these places they suggest. On day one we had told our driver that we are not shoppers so he should not recommend places to stop and shop. Other than one time, he never did. And, the one time he did recommend stopping at a place to shop, we just told him we weren't interested.

    Interestingly enough not ten or fifteen minutes after the car and donkey episode we walked right past the place where the donkey had been giving birth, and there was no donkey or baby to be seen. We really enjoyed the havelis in Mandwa, and we found Mandawa to be an interesting town to wander around in on our own for a bit after our time with the guide was finished. Just walking and wandering is one of our favorite things to do and have found that these memories are often more interesting than just checking off another must-see sight on the tourist list.

    We'd had lunch at a small restaurant in Mandwa, so by the time we got back to our room at Roop Niwas it was mid-afternoon. We'd seen enough painted murals and decided to just spend the remaining few hours of daylight at the hotel. Wanting to access the internet, we settled in to our usual table in a corner of the main hotel guest terraces (the signal doesn't reach the rooms). As we were sitting there, one of the employees came up to us and asked if we would be interested in seeing the daily arrival of the horses as they galloped in to the stable from the fields. If so, we should stroll down to the fenced and gated stable area shortly. I left for the stables with my husband saying he'd follow shortly.

    When I arrived in the enclosure, the stable hands sent me off in the direction of a small table where I was shortly joined by a middle-aged gentlemen. It was a magnificent sight watching all of the horses suddenly thundering around a corner and into the farmyard and then into to their stalls. I was offered tea and accepted, and my husband finally arrived having missed the horses' arrival. It turned out that the man I was sitting with was the owner of the estate (whom we saw the next day in a car decorated with flags and who was kow-towed to with much pomp) and we had a very enjoyable conversation on many different topics for least an hour with him.

    This personal touch and seeing the stables with the owner was the highlight of our stay at Roop Niwas Kothi and made the experience of staying there worthwhile. And, this reinforces to me once again why we much prefer to travel on our own. These types of serendipitous encounters and opportunities—the ones that make for the best travel memories-- just don't happen when you are with a large or small group.

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    We were surprised by the lack of American tourists, as your were. But I also noticed after our 1st week in India, that when speaking of tourists, that includes huge numbers of Indian tourists. I loved seeing large family groups enjoying the "sights," because it reminded me of a dear friend in the States, who used to tell me she wished she and her husband could just go somewhere on their own, without all the cousins and aunties, etc.

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    <<Then, I happened to glance directly down out of my car window and saw that a donkey was giving birth in the middle of the street not more than a foot from our car. In fact, the baby's head had just emerged. Only in India!>>

    Julies, love the story! It is truly an "Only in India" kind of experience!

    We also worked with TGS when we were in Rajasthan/Varanasi 2 years ago. In fact, your trip report was one of the ones I used to help prepare for our trip. Did you have Raj as a driver? My husband and I became very fond of him after 2 weeks of travel, and saying goodbye was hard.

    Thanks for your detailed report - very enjoyable! I'm looking forward to your trip to the south -- it's definitely a place we plan to visit in the not-too-distant future.

    Paule

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    Thanks for your report, julies. I've spent about 6 months in India on several trips and now considering a return. I, too, love the less touristed places but need to be pointed in some new directions and your report interests me for that reason. I will be staying tuned for more.

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    uhoh-busted--I think we may figure prominently in the photos of some of those large groups of families since we were the tourist attraction in some places.

    progol--Raj was our driver on our first trip, and we did prefer him to our second driver who was still fine. We'd asked for Raj on this trip, but the timing didn't work out.

    MmePerdu--If you are interested in less visited places, then you'll definitely want to read my first trip report.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/our-1st-trip-to-india-6-weeks-in-mostly-rural-less-visited-india.cfm

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    Now, back to the story and moving on to Nepal....



    March 11, Day 20 – Patan Mahal, Patan

    We'd finalized our plans with a flight to Kathmandu from Delhi in mid-afternoon of March 12 and had intended to go directly there from the Shekhawati area, but after consulting with Nikhil from TGS and the driver we realized that we did not want to try to push it and have to make a very, very early departure in the morning in order to be certain we'd make our flight from Delhi. And, since we knew we were done with the painted havelis (there is haveli overload just as there can be church overload in Europe), we decided to look for a place closer to the airport to spend our last night of this portion of the trip in India.

    After some research on our own and discussion, I contacted Patan Mahal and made a reservation. We were given the prime room/suite on the front of the building with a balcony overlooking the gardens. We weren’t looking for activities; we were looking for a nice relaxing place to spend an afternoon and evening. And, we found it here at Patan Mahal.
    Lovely! Fabulous! What more can I say? Beautiful grounds with a nice pool. Quiet and relaxing. We walked the grounds, sat on our balcony and read, went down to the pool and had a snack and beer and might even have had a swim if a rain shower hadn't blown in. The adjacent town looked interesting for a wander, but we didn't even attempt that wanting to relax instead. The day ended with a relaxing dinner and preparations to leave the next morning for the airport and Nepal.

    March 12 (day 20) – Hotel Courtyard, Kathmandu

    This day was completely consumed with travel. It took longer than we'd anticipated to reach Delhi airport from Patan, and part of it was because traffic completely stopped for 30 to 45 minutes due to some road construction and some truck breakdowns. We'd liked Patan so much that we'd contemplated returning there for two days of relaxation at the end of our trip before flying home to the US, but this drive made us realize that we did not want to do that again. We decided that perhaps plane or train would be the best way to arrive in Delhi at the end of our trip.

    Throughout our trip we'd reinforced to our driver that whenever he needed a break he should take one. Driving is so all-consuming and stressful in India that we wanted to make sure he was as fresh as possible so we'd all be safe. During the journey to the airport, he'd made a stop at one of those typical tourist-oriented roadside restaurants where all of the tour buses and private drivers stop because they get a free meal as compensation for bringing their passengers there. We just used the toilet and walked around while he ate; I'm sure the restaurants aren't thrilled when this happens, but so be it. Our driver had assured us that even with this stop we'd have plenty of time to reach the airport, so I was getting really annoyed as shortly after this stop we later ran into the huge traffic jam. I was extremely worried about making it to the airport on time. In fact, if we'd missed our plane because he wasted time stopping for his free meal, I think I would have been very tempted to forgone giving him his tip (and it was a very generous one).

    But, all was well and we made it to our flight on time and even discovered that somehow we had booked premium seats on the plane. This basically meant we got a free soft drink and cookies. We spent most all of the fight having a fascinating discussion with an American doctor who, tired of his twenty years as an ER doc, moved to Afghanistan to work for a medical NGO. According to him, as soon as the US finishes it final pull out the Taliban will be back in control, and they had already overrun several areas.

    It took quite a bit of time to clear customs and to get our visa at the Nepal airport. In our perspective, their visa scheme is basically a way to get money, and we'd have been just as happy if they didn't make us go through this farce of a process and instead just quickly asked us for the money and let us proceed. Since our plans were completely up in the air for Nepal because of our disaster at home, and because we had three weeks remaining until our return fight to the US, we decide to opt to pay more for a month-long visa rather than just the two week. This turned out to be a wise decision.

    When we finally emerged from arrivals and had stopped to get some cash from the ATM, we found the driver we'd arranged with a sign with our name. I'd gotten this guy's name from someone over on Trip Advisor who’d said he is a nice guy who works independently as a driver/guide and who could help us out with transportation for our entire Nepal trip.

    We hopped in his rather beat up car (one with no seat belt latches in the backseat) and headed to our hotel—the Hotel Courtyard in Kathmandu. It was tight quarters in the car with the two of us, our two suitcases and two daypacks, and two guys in the front seat. We had no idea who the second guy was, but it turned out he was supposed to be the guide for our trip, something we hadn't even thought about since we'd been led to believe that the driver would also act as a guide. Kathmandu is very polluted (one of the worst places we've been for air pollution), but the streets are nowhere as dirty as those in India, and there aren't all of the animals wandering around.

    After our arrival at the hotel we met with the two guys for about 15 minutes to discuss their services and what we wanted to do for the remainder of the trip. After they left, we finally checked in and, since it was close to 8:00, decided to try to find our way to a local restaurant in Thamel where we couldn't get too lost trying to find our way back to the hotel in the dark. We chose Yin and Yang, a Thai restaurant, because we wanted something different than we'd been eating for the past three weeks; it was good food and was only a couple blocks from the hotel.

    When planning our trip I really had hesitations abut staying in Thamel because I understood it was tourist (and young backpacker) central. It is, but in the end we were glad we'd decided to stay there. Set off the end of a small alleyway off the main streets, the Hotel Courtyard was nice and quiet and very convenient. I'd only reserved the first night, but we kept extending our stay for one more night and finally ended up with four nights there.

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    Julie - glad to see you are finishing this. Our travel style is very similar to yours, although in recent years we have prearranged hotels. Can't wait to see what you come up with for southern India as it will help with our own planning. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your visit to Nepal.

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    Yes, I'm back again as I simultaneously try to wrap up this trip report and plan for this year's upcoming trip to India. So back to the report......

    Day 20 – Hotel Courtyard, Kathmandu

    Afterwards we kept referring to this as our day with Mutt and Jeff, or the Two Stooges. We had thought we were hiring a driver and guide for the day, but we soon found out that these guys were more like the Two Stooges and were in no way qualified to guide. We basically got screwed for the $50 we paid them for the day, and we were so glad we'd done this as a trial day because we would have really been upset if we'd planned to use them for the entire trip.

    In my e-mail communication with Mutt (I thought I was just getting a driver), I'd specifically asked if the car has seat belts in the backseat and was told yes. When they picked us up at the airport, I couldn't find the lower latch to the seat belt but decided to just wait until the next day to make sure it was really there. It really was missing when I looked for it in the daylight the next morning. I know some people would say that I shouldn't be so hung up on these types of car safety details when traveling in a developing country because that is the way people there live. But, the fact that I also know about the high accident rates and the poor availability of emergency health care in these countries make me want to do everything I can do to ensure my safety. So, this was a major strike against using this guy as our driver during our trip.

    After spending a day with them, I think we may have been better off without them and just relied instead on our guidebooks and hiring taxi drivers to take us around. Having read about Kathmandu, and knowing what we'd be interested in seeing, I was the one who was coming up with the ideas of where to go and when. And, they couldn't get it straight what we wanted to do when. I told them at least four times that we wanted to go to Boudanath around dusk because it is supposed to be most interesting then. Of course, we ended up there around 1:00 pm.

    We started out with a visit to the Swayambhunath Temple complex and found it fascinating to just wander around taking it all in. We'd assumed these guys could explain everything to us, but they were useless so I was extremely happy I'd read up on this beforehand.

    Then, we said that we'd like to go to some other monasteries in the area, so they took us up to a place called the White Monastery. It was an interesting drive, but when we got there we found out that that the place only admitted visitors on Saturdays. Of, course today was Thursday, and any guide worth his salt would have known this.

    What did compensate for this though was what we observed at a medical complex close to the monastery. There was a whole busload of older people who must have come in from the villages perhaps for cataract surgery. At least that is what we are assuming they’d had since they were all older with at least one eye bandaged. Some had two eyes bandaged and were being led around by family members.

    So, we then set out for Boudanath (in the middle of the day despite my telling them we wanted to go at dusk) where they once again proved themselves to be totally clueless. We were so fed up with them that we finally told them to just meet us in 45 minutes because we wanted a snack. Plus, this was the only time we'd had to talk about them and their services because they were hovering all of the time and we couldn't even have a private conversation. I realize there are differing standards about personal space in different cultures and perhaps this was a part of it, but it was too much for us.

    After our snack when we met up again we talked about visiting Pushpatinath, but after I read more about it (and we discovered that the admission was quite pricey for what would be quite a brief visit) we decided against it. We had just come from India where we had seen plenty of temples (and the main temple in Pushpatinath is not open to non-Hindus anyway), and we have seen cremation ghats a couple of other places.

    I then came up with the idea of visiting Kopan Monastery, a Tibetan monastery that is based on the teachings of the Dali Lama. They knew where Kopan was but nothing else about it. We headed up there and were so glad to have made the visit because it was fascinating to see all of the child monks in their school setting and to listen to all of the monks chanting. There were carvings on the outer walls with some of the Dali Lama’s quotations that we really appreciated reading. Such a wise man with so many insights. It is too bad that his guidance (not just spiritual but also political) is not more widely followed.

    To us it was incredible that so many parents had given their children at such young ages and committed them to the monastic life. But, our guess was that the parents felt they were doing their children a favor and providing for their future by setting them up in a place where they'd be fed and would receive an education.

    Day 21 – Hotel Courtyard, Kathmandu

    Before we left home we’d debated and debated whether to take on the challenge of a multi-day hike while in Nepal. Our final decision was that we’d instead find places where we could do day or half-day treks and then return to a decent lodging. I’d already arranged a stay at Balthali Village Resort for when we were done in Kathmandu.

    But, we needed to make a plan for the rest of our trip and decided to devote the day to getting this done. At home I’d done some research on places we wanted to stay (not necessarily for trekking) and found that Himalayan Encounters owned several accommodations we wanted to stay in. And, we knew they have a good reputation, something that is very important to us after an experience we had on our first trip to India with an agent in Uttarkahrand. (At the end of our trip through Nepal we felt really good about our choice because Himalayan Encounters did everything just right for us.).

    It did take longer than we'd anticipated because after a late, leisurely breakfast in the Hotel Courtyard (included in the room price) we strolled through Thamel and sat down with an agent and discussed our possible plan for about an hour. Then, after getting their proposal we wanted to go back to our hotel and research some of the lodging options they'd proposed for Chitwan National Park.

    After our meeting at the Himalayan Encounters office (located in Thamel only a few blocks from our hotel) we decided to try to find the Garden of Dreams we'd heard so much about and have lunch there. The Garden itself is not that large and charges admission of $2 per person even if you plan to have lunch in the restaurant there. The restaurant is on the pricey side because it is an offshoot of Dwarika's Hotel, but we decided to eat there anyway since the garden was such a peaceful and lovely spot. Plus, after three weeks in India I was ready for some different kind of food than the Indian style food we'd been exclusively dining on. A salad nicoise with some nice homemade rolls hit the spot, and it was the last thing I ever thought I'd find in Nepal.

    Our final decision was for Himalayan Encounters to book the two lodgings—The Famous Farm for two nights and Bandipur Inn for three nights—and the car with driver. For the five nights (complete room and board and local guides when needed at the inns) and two weeks of a private driver we were charged $1100. We didn't think this was bad and was cheaper than the driver and car in India. But, of course, our India car was a bigger, fancier Innova small mini-van, SUV-type car while this was for a smaller car. On our own we booked three nights for some day hiking at Balthali Village Resort. This resort also arranged transportation for us to their resort from Kathmandu. So, we'd start using Himalayan Encounters' services after our stay at Balthali was completed.

    We were glad to have the decision finalized as to what our itinerary and schedule would be. One thought we'd originally had was to spend time in Nepal and then return to India for the last three days of our trip. Putting it all together and looking at all the places we wanted to visit, we decided to just spend the rest of our trip in Nepal and return to India the day of our night flight home to the US. Now all we had to do was research and find our own lodging in the three other places we wanted to visit in Nepal--Pokhara and Chitwan and Gorkha.

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    So glad to see you continuing with this. I don't know where you are finding the time to write a report and to research your upcoming trip, but I appreciate your efforts. Looking forward to hearing the rest of your story. Hope you return from southern India and report back more quickly as I'll be anxious to hear about that trip as well.

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