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Biting the India bullet...well, maybe...

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Apr 7th, 2014, 03:27 PM
  #1
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Biting the India bullet...well, maybe...

As some of you may already know from my responses in this forum, I've been mulling the idea of a trip to India for some time, but have not had the courage to bite the bullet. Some of the anxiety comes from perceptions, real or not, that India is just so different from anywhere else I've been and expectations of an assault on all the senses. India has been a subject of several intensive family conversations, and we may be closer to taking the leap than ever before.

We've been reading up on India and combing through several of your reports on your own travels there. Based upon the information, here are some questions with which hopefully you can help me.

Geography - The focus of our trip would be North India. The places that are MUSTs include Bodhgaya (for the Mahabodhi Temple and other Buddhist sites in the surrounding area), Agra (for the Taj Mahal), Delhi, and Varanasi. We're also interested in Rajasthan, but would be okay to save it for another trip. Other places that may make sense and seem interesting are Khajuraho, Gwalior, and Orchha. Depending on whether we go over the Atlantic or Pacific to reach India and back, our entry and / or exit points could include Mumbai or Kolkata. We love history, culture, landscapes urban and natural, etc., and are generally quite active (hiking, walking, museums, performances). We will have about three weeks, discounting international transit time, and know we won't be able to do everything or even most things. What would you include for such a trip? What places / sites / experiences you find most memorable and / or unique to India?

Timing - Our options for a possible trip, given weather, would come either over the Christmas / New Year's holidays at the end of this year or late-February / early-March of the next. Other than potential higher prices over the holidays, are there things of which I need to be mindful during that time (e.g. sites being closed, higher volumes of tourists)? Would you favor one over the other?

Right now, the likelihood of the trip is about 50 / 50, depending in part on whether or not a trip to Iran during a similar timeframe comes together.

Thank you in advance for your suggestions and feedback.
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Apr 7th, 2014, 04:33 PM
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We just got back last month. February-March is a ideal time. My trip report is still fresh, but aside from Delhi and Agra, we were more concentrated on Rajasthan, which was magnificent.
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Apr 7th, 2014, 07:35 PM
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Wow, TP you're considering Iran, and concerned about India (admittedly an in your face assault on all senses).

We went in March 2012 to Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan and Kolkata for 3 weeks. Weather was perfect, if hot, but I think you will handle that easily given your time in Central Australia.

There may be fog issues in the north in Jan/February.

It really is called "Incredible India" for a reason, it's challenging and so rewarding.

Go for it !
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Apr 7th, 2014, 09:12 PM
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Sorry, just revisited your original post, and realise perhaps I could have expanded.

My favourites:

The forts and palaces, they are tied to history and culture, it's almost spiritual to just be in the space and try to imagine life for the people and the Rajah in the (name your) century.

The road trips - seeing a religious festival attracting hundreds of thousands of people who walk there. The left lane blocked off by boulders to house tents with refreshments for the pilgrims, all blaring out high volume Bollywood music.

The traffic in general, colourful trucks, animal drawn vehicles (there's a choice of camel, elephant, oxen, horse, goat, donkey, maybe more) and you might even see the aftermath of a traffic accident where 50 men with long wooden poles are soundly thrashing a tour bus which had T-boned a 4WD. Brutal and confronting, broken glass everywhere, six men trying to force open the door, they only wanted the driver of the bus. Our car driver laughed about it later. Such is India, where things are different.

The hustle of the streets, the markets, the people, and colour everywhere, everything jam packed together.

The food, subtle or spicy, the variety of fresh veggies and fruit, curries prepared a hundred different ways.

We found friendly people, and not just at the front desk of hotels. We felt very safe.

I want to go back to explore Southern India and also Varanasi and Amritsar.
India is incredible.
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Apr 8th, 2014, 03:40 AM
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Hi, tripplanner,
I'm glad to hear that you're considering India now! I love sartoric's description and can't agree with her more. Having traveled through Rajasthan, Varanasi, Agra & Delhi, we also want to return, next time to Southern India.

Varanasi was definitely a highlight, although it is probably the place with the greatest culture shock, with the intensity of all things India (animals, dirt, crowds, traffic, people). But worth it -- experiencing Varanasi and being on the Ganges is remarkable.

Sarnath is a short distance from Varanasi, and I'm sure you and your family would enjoy seeing it, with your interest in Buddhist sites.

We also loved driving through the more rural areas of Rajasthan and seeing the smaller towns -- this made a nice complement to the more tourist-oriented cities and large towns, and we saw many scenes of daily life.

Enjoy your planning!

Paule
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Apr 8th, 2014, 05:02 AM
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Thanks for all the feedback.

Uhoh, I started reading your report last night, and will try to finish it in the next couple of days. Sounds like you had a terrific time.

Sartoric, I appreciate your description of India. It sounds chaotic, but exotic at the same time. And you're right about Iran having issues in its own right. The Islamic history, culuture, architecture, and food appeal to me, and in some ways I'm interested in getting there before the door swings wider open to mass tourism.

Paule, thanks for your insights on Varanasi, Sarnath (definitely on the list), and Rajasthan.

From all your suggestions, it sounds like Rajasthan should go up to the top of the list. As for southern India, it would have to wait until a future trip.

Thanks again.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 03:16 AM
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Now seems to be your time to book an Indian holiday! I've been twice, last time i 2001 and am planning to return to the north for 6-8 weeks in 2016.

India can be very confronting, it is also inspirational, has fantastic food, architecture and history. In 3 weeks you could fly into Kolkata then overnight train to Varanasi before heading to Khajuraho, Gwalior and Agra. I didn't find Orchha all that interesting but am very taken with Fatehpur Sikri outside Agra. Udaipur with its romanric Lake Palace and busy Old Town is also one of many must sees. Bundi is a lesser visited palace and fort complex well worth a day if you can spare the time. In Gwalior the fort is very imposing and the Jao Vilas palace has the silver train that ran around the dining table with liqueurs and cigars.

If you are keen on wildlife and want to try your luck seeing a tiger, Bandhavgarh and Kanha NPs could be stops before Khajuraho.

The south is definitely a trip in its own right and probably worth a further 6-8 weeks.


Happy planning,


Pol
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Apr 9th, 2014, 06:13 AM
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Pol, thank you for your suggestions. You and Sartoric here both mentioned Kolkata. It seems like it's one place that's mostly left off of itineraries, so I'm curious on your take of the city and what's different about it compared to the wealth of other places in India.

I do enjoy wildlife but haven't really given a tiger safari much thought given the limited time I have, although the photos that Uhoh posted has me thinking.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 06:46 AM
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I think that Rajasthan is overrated, and it is certainly the most touristed area of India (aside from the Taj and Goa) and therefore the area with the most hassles. Not that you shouldn't visit it, but if you are willing to be a little more adventurous there are many, many other places to see in India.

Certainly, if you want to visit Bodhgaya, it would make sense to fly into Kolkata, and even to concentrate on that side of India. From Kolkata you could visit Orissa (highlight is the sun temple at Konark), possibly the Sunderbans tiger reserve, and certainly the Himalayas - I took the "toy" train up to Darjeeling, Kathie has a TR on this board for a great trip to Sikkim.

Then you can head west to Bodhgaya and Varanasi. If doing it by train, see http://www.seat61.com/India.htm I would then fly to Delhi and take the train to Agra. You could also consider Amritsar.

You don't say how long you have. India is best taken slowly, and often you have no choice but to do so. For my trip to North India - now somewhat dated, but I doubt the sights have changed much - see: http://wilhelmswords.com/asia2001/index.html
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Apr 9th, 2014, 07:29 AM
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I'd definitely go for February-March as opposed to Christmas, which will be the most crowded and expensive times. In December-January, there is also frequent fog which can delay flights and trains.

I'd second the recommendation of Udaipur. And I found Mumbai, surprisingly, to be my favorite part of India.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 07:49 AM
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If you want the north and you are interested in Buddhism, consider Sikkim. Sikkim, formerly an independent kingdom, has a long history of Tibetan Buddhism dating from long before the invasion of Tibet by China, but the numbers of Tibetans (and Tibetan monasteries) increased after that. I have a trip report here on that trip, and photos are at www.marlandc.com We saw only now other western couple during our time in Sikkim. Most visitors were Indian.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 08:41 AM
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Oh....but my DH and I are safari nuts...otherwise we wouldn't have tried for the Tiger safari (and we were SO lucky). It was not close to what we would call a true "safari" experience, although some of the other parks might offer that. If you expect to make a follow up trip, you might consider adding one in, but on a first trip, you might prefer to spend that time in Varanasi, which we did not see, and/or more days in the countryside between cities. Making such choices is the toughest part of planning.

Do check out Glover's recent trip report, too. They did a lot more on their own and traveled a good bit by train. Now that I've been there, I can see how that would really work out really well. In fact that is how we travel just about everywhere else in the world. But I can't lie and say I didn't enjoy being treated like the rich and famous once in a while on our private tour!
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Apr 9th, 2014, 09:53 AM
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Wow! Thank you for the wealth of information. My friends here never disappoint.

Thursdaysd, I will take a look at your report. The places you're suggesting did not even come to mind, so more to consider. I'm looking at three weeks not including intercontinental travel time.

Trebex, thanks for your tip about timing.

Kathie, your report on your trip to India was one of the first ones I read. Sikkim would definitely be of interest to me. However, I understand that it is one of the places that require a special permit. Not sure if it would be hard for me to get as I'm of Chinese origin even though a U.S. citizen traveling on an American passport.

Uhoh, yes, I'm an independent travel and do most on our own, with the exception of guides where it may make a difference and where public transport is more difficult. I will check out Glover's report; I may have already, but have gone through quite a few to remember.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 09:57 AM
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Thursdaysd, I also want to say thank you for your wonderful report on South America over in that forum. Just reread the Rio and Iguazu parts a few days ago as I'm finalizing plans for the trip in July and August.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 11:32 AM
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Thanks tripplanner001, glad you enjoyed it. I know you're going to just love Iguazu, lucky you!
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Apr 9th, 2014, 12:09 PM
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I believe the visa situation should be easier for you as India is instituting "visa on arrival" this Fall. I am not sure if that is different for Sikkim. If they don't - for whatever reason - plan to get the visa process rolling at least 8 weeks before you plan to leave.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 12:14 PM
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The permit process for Sikkim is really pro forma. You can get one when you get your visa or you can get one in Kolkata if you go there first or you can get one on the road on the way in. India is reducing the places that require a permit. There have been rumors that is going to change for Sikkim. Do you know about the India Mike Forum? Someone over there will know whether the permit requirement has changed.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 12:19 PM
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I'll believe in "visa on arrival" when, and only when, someone reports on it actually happening. Don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, applying early certainly seems to be necessary.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 02:37 PM
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We ended up with 8 days in Kolkata sort of by default. Original plan included a river cruise on the Brahmaputra which was cancelled last minute due to a broken lock upstream. The choices we then had were either Darjeeling for hill/tea country, or Sunderbans Tiger Reserve for wildlife/peaceful cruising on waterways. We chose the latter thinking we might have had enough car time by that stage after two weeks with car and driver in Rajasthan.

At the time I wrote home "if you think Delhi is dirty, dusty and poor, then Kolkata takes dirty dusty and poor to a whole new level". Having said that, Kolkata provided us with a great contrast to other Indian cities we had been - Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodphur, Udaipur. There were far fewer westerners, and more opportunities to observe life at the local street level. Also some well preserved colonial buildings remain.

As Thursday suggested, you can train to Varanasi from there, although I would be tempted to put Kolkata at the end of your trip rather than starting there.

William Dalrymple wrote "City of Djinns" a fascinating account of his year in Delhi which gives great insight into India's recent history, and also "Nine Lives" which delves deeper into the various religious or holy aspects of the people. Both are highly recommended reading pre trip.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 02:50 PM
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Almost anything by Dalrymple is recommended reading!
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