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INDIA - ONE FAIRLY HECTIC MONTH IN MAY 2016

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Jul 2nd, 2016, 05:31 AM
  #1
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INDIA - ONE FAIRLY HECTIC MONTH IN MAY 2016

Finally managed to find time to return to India and although I started planning the trip last year it ended up with last minute changes which I now feel made it far more tiring than it should have been but it was still mostly a wonderful experience.

We originally planned on going to Bhutan at the end but due to the final costings we decided that we would leave Bhutan for a separate holiday so Shimla and Amritsar were added instead.

Again I used Louise Nicholson and Quo Vadis for all the arrangements and as before requested the best hotels we could afford plus rooms with balconies or separate sitting areas (as I smoke) and good views especially in the Himalayas.

Itinerary

Delhi - 4 nights
Panna National Park - 3 nights
Varanasi - 2 nights
Darjeeling - 3 nights
Pelling - 3 nights
Gangtok - 2 nights
Amritsar - 2 nights
Shimla - 4 nights
Kolkata - 3 nights

Two nights were marked down after Varanasi and Gangtok to stay overnight in Delhi to be able to catch morning flights. Both nights would be at the J W Marriott close to the airport, we stayed here last time and it is an excellent hotel.

We flew Thai business Phuket to Bangkok and I had to book Jet Airways over to Delhi due to timings and then Thai Air for the return from Kolkata, all business class.

Used the e-visa service which worked well, the only downside is the 30 days which cannot be extended, this meant we lost one day as Thai fly out at 2 am from Kolkata.

We left Phuket on 30th April due to arrive Delhi just before midnight but due to supposedly bad weather in Bangkok the flight up was delayed, they swapped us to an earlier thai flight but this sat outside the gate for 30 minutes so we still missed the Jet flight. Due to this Thai provided seats on their flight into Delhi but only one business and one economy were available. They did promise the same food and drink for both seats but on boarding they said they did not have the information so if this happens to you make sure you get everything in writing before going through. Luckily the air hostesses sorted this after takeoff. Other than that the flight was very good.

NEW DELHI

The queue for the visa on arrival was short and all processed without any problems. We were met and taken quickly to The Lodhi hotel, there is hardly any traffic at this time in the morning. Reception were very efficient but we could not get to sleep until around 4.30 am!

I had difficulty choosing between The Lodhi and The Imperial but went for The Lodhi and this was a great hotel, we would certainly stay there again, lovely big rooms and balcony, service and food very good and location was quiet. We went for High Tea at The Imperial and I thought it was too big and impersonal so happy with our choice.

Sunday - met our guide at 11.30 am and visited the Qutub Minar Tower, Raisina Hill, India Gate and then stopped for a very late lunch at the Lodi Garden Restaurant which was excellent. Sunday is a good day to visit these places as traffic was light and they were not as busy.

Monday - we went to Old Delhi (Shahjahanbad) and took the rickshaw ride (great way to see the area) through the lanes, bought some spices at the market and finished back at the Mosque. We then went to Birla House where Mahatma Ghandi was shot and finished at Khan Market for shopping.

Tuesday - Humayan’s Tomb followed by the Museum of Modern Art, the first a must do, the second somewhat disappointing although this was our choice!

We left the guide at this point, went for the High Tea (not the best one we have had!) and then shopping. Do go to Hauz Khas which has some lovely shops and the added extra of a medieval tomb and remains of a university and the end of the road.

Our guide was good but some information did conflict with my own research and what our other guides said, it can be quite amusing to question them.

We really liked Delhi, felt we missed a lot which is inevitable on the first stay so would certainly return.

Next stop Panna
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Jul 2nd, 2016, 05:42 AM
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Sounds to have been an extensive tour. Looking forward to hearing the rest.
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Jul 2nd, 2016, 05:43 AM
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Thanks, Cyansiam. I look forward to reading more.

Wasn't it awfully hot in May?
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Jul 2nd, 2016, 06:01 AM
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It was hot except for the lower Himalayas but we live in Phuket which went up to over 40 in April and it is humid so far worse than the places we went to in India. Kolkata was closer to what we are used to.
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Jul 2nd, 2016, 08:25 AM
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As you know, I love Sikkim, so I look forward to your report from there.

It does sound like a very busy trip!
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Jul 2nd, 2016, 11:16 AM
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Just wondering if you arranged the rickshaw tour of Old Delhi in advance or did you just pick one up when you arrived there ?

I am keen to do this but would prefer to get one 'on the spot' so that we can be very flexible with timings and am not sure if this is possible.
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Jul 3rd, 2016, 12:14 AM
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The ricksaw ride was prebooked by Quo Vadis but I would think you can just turn up and get one. There was a lot of them waiting just outside the road leading up to the Mosque but I do not know if this was the main entrance into the area. We came in on the road that has the Red Fort on the opposite side if that helps...also we finished at the Mosque so I would presume there are some hanging around there.

Also we were asked to tip him, guide said 50 rupees but we gave him a 100. I am not sure if these guys own the rickshaws or are part of a mafia style operation.
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Jul 3rd, 2016, 12:47 AM
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PANNA NATIONAL PARK

Wednesday - early morning flight to Khajuraho via Varanasi via Agra….although I had queried this and also checked trains and car timing myself, this seemed to be the quickest option. Basically both Jon and I arrived in Khajuraho quivering wrecks plus we could not get off the plane at each stop so a long journey. Each flight had extremely bad turbulence to the point we both thought we would not survive, I am sure the Air India pilots do not try to avoid turbulence! Later we learnt that there is an overnight train from Delhi so I think this may be a safer and more pleasant option especially this time of year when turbulence is bad due to the heat (according to the pilot!).

It is about a two hour drive down to Panna and we arrived at Pashan Garh early evening just in time for dinner. This hotel is set within its own forest/jungle with 12 lodges to chose from. You get two game drives per day with guide so up at 4 am returning around 9.30/10 am then off again around 4 pm back at 7.30 pm, the park is a 30 minute drive and there are two gates. You can also go for jungle walks around the property but with a guide as they do get leopards come in.

All meals are included but it starts to become a struggle to go to the dining room especially as the chef takes great pride in providing you with whatever you like to the point where if you eat everything more keeps coming and if you don’t like something a new selection appears. I returned to my childhood by trying to hide food on the plate and Jon was trying to eat as much as possible as we just did not want to offend him.

The staff are absolutely wonderful, they set up a surprise private dining experience and then on the last evening all of them turned up with a cake to thank us for staying.

Panna itself has amazing scenery and we rarely saw any other vehicles but we unfortunately did not see any tigers or leopards, just plenty of birds, deer, crocodile and mongoose though. Overall this was a great experience and the hotel is very special but we did leave feeling very fat and very tired!

Hindsight - I would have chosen another park as I expressly asked to see a tiger and I think Panna is not set up to do this, only one of their tigers covers the area you are allowed to drive round, her 2 year old cubs had also gone into a restricted area and she was over the other side of the river the whole time we were there.

But if you wish to visit Khajuraho to see the temples or are interested in birds then it is worth spending some time at the Park purely due to its beauty and the small amount of vehicles allowed in.

Next stop Varanasi
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Jul 3rd, 2016, 08:08 AM
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Re: rickshaws - you should have no trouble finding one - often they will find you... Lonely Planet says that in Delhi they are useful for Old Delhi and the suburbs but are banned in much of New Delhi (and the distances may be such that you'd prefer a taxi anyway). You have to negotiate the fare - as you often do for taxis. LP says that for Delhi you should expect to pay around 5 to 10 rupees per kilometer, so 100 rupees is way high for a tip unless Quo Vadis wasn't paying the driver. If you'd rather use your own feet LP lists several companies that offer walking tours.

If you are not hoping to see a tiger (which seems to be very hit or miss for India's parks) there is good bird park near Agra that can be seen in a couple of hours on a day trip including Fatehpur Sikri.
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Jul 3rd, 2016, 11:23 PM
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So glad to hear you went to Haus Khaz "Village"--a wonderful shopping street of unique, small; not chain, shops and cafes. I tell people, if they've time for only ONE New Delhi shopping excursion, this is the place --not others such as the box-like buildings of busy Khan market (which you also visited). And how many shopping "villages" end with an archaeological dig site overlooking a lovely reservoir lake!?
Look forward to reading more. Thanks for taking the time.
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Jul 5th, 2016, 05:54 AM
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Haus Khaz was a nice surprise, I went to go to the main Ogaan shop and it was a last minute pick from the list. I did like Khan Market as well, Jon was really happy to go back there later in the trip due to the Royal Enfield Shop (3 bike jackets and a helmet plus boots and they say men do not like shopping!)

Shantushi was another favourite.
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Jul 5th, 2016, 05:59 AM
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Yes 100 rupees is probably way over the top but it equates to £1 for a couple of hours pulling two overweight farangs around so I would say he earned it!

Everything is paid for except tips with Quo Vadis and it is stressed that if you are not happy with the services then you do not have to tip.
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Jul 5th, 2016, 06:07 AM
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Varanasi

Saturday - we decided to do another game drive this morning with the hope of seeing the tiger rather than visiting the temples at Khajuraho. We were told the flight was departing early so bit of a rush to leave but then en route this changed so went to see the temples. Certainly worth seeing but 30 minutes in we were again told flight was early so back to the airport.

Khajuraho airport is brand new, not a lot in there, drinks and food expensive but the toilets are very clean.

Smooth Jet flight, they obviously avoid the turbulence! Met and escorted to the Hotel - Nadesar Palace. We had a lovely room with 4 poster bed, not big but access to a large balcony overlooking the gardens. It is boutique hotel, excellent service and food….a quiet oasis in Varanasi!

Sunday - visited a Hindu shrine and then a walk down to the river to one of the places where they burn the bodies, unbelievable amount of wood used for 300 bodies a day! Walked through some of the lanes and then went to see the Barnasi brocade weaving but I felt this was more a tourist shop although the weavers looked genuine.

Later we went back for sunset on the Ganga and to see the Aarti rituals…. what a riot of noise and colour and so many people! We had to walk down to get on a boat, this walk is very busy with bikes weaving in and out and I was glad I was not carrying anything. After the boat ride we were then taken to a restaurant with a balcony overlooking the main area. I think it was better on the boat, more atmosphere!

Monday - up again early morning for sunrise on the Ganga….felt this was a more special time to go and we finished by walking the lanes and visiting a temple we could not actually go into!

Later we went out to Sarnath but not that impressed, the museum was interesting but again conflicting info on Buddhism from the guide.

I insisted on adding Varanasi to the itinerary and although I am happy we went I doubt we would return, rubbish was everywhere and the smelt of human urine is overwhelming, perhaps we just walked the wrong areas. Two nights was more than enough.

Tuesday - last minute attempt to get some Barnasi brocade and a suitcase before afternoon flight up to Delhi and overnight stop at the J W Marriott.

We arranged to leave a suitcase with the agent every time we returned to Delhi to avoid the excess baggage charges.

Next - Darjeeling
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Jul 8th, 2016, 07:10 AM
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Darjeeling

Ok got the last day wrong…. apologies… it was all a blur at the time and even more so now! We flew back to Delhi on late Monday afternoon so Tuesday up early for the great breakfast at JW and flight to Bagdogra. Another smooth Jet flight arriving lunchtime. Bagdogra was very busy and the toilets are not good, they hide the toilet rolls so just ask the girl for them.

Met by the driver from Glenburn Tea Estate. We received a welcome letter explaining the drive, what to expect on arrival and that half way to the hotel we would stop for tea and cake at a viewpoint.

We asked the driver to stop for wine, beer and chocolate supplies on the way as I thought they may charge over the top at the hotel for wine, this turned into a photo opportunity for the shopkeepers.

Started to get a bit jittery once we started to climb up especially as it was raining heavy and the stop at the viewpoint was very welcome. Lovely sandwiches, cake and Darjeeling tea provided much to the amusement of the domestic tourists who had also stopped there. The rest of the drive was not too bad and we arrived at Glenburn late afternoon.

Wow…what a view, someone said this is one of the great hotel views of the world and I would agree.

Time to recharge with good food and excellent company, the hosts were very good. I had read Kathie's report that one particular manager was too pushy but this has changed and the meals were mainly Indian plus Nepalese. There was also a lot of Indian guests who did eat separately.

The bedroom was huge with large comfortable bed and fans, no aircon but it was not needed. We loved the weather, it was like being back in England with a bit of heat during the day.

Did the the Tea Factory tour which was actually very interesting, I now know a lot more about tea. We also chose to do two walks including one down to the river where you get tea and cake, you can walk back but we took the jeep. You can stay down at the river overnight but these rooms are very, very basic.

The rest of the time we just relaxed, read, slept and took in the amazing scenery.

I was concerned about having to dine with other guests but we actually really enjoyed this to the point that my two bottles of wine did not last long. You can choose to dine privately if you wish and all meals are included.

There is also a very good shop on site where you can buy the tea obviously but it also has a good selection of handicrafts.

We did not visit Darjeeling as some of the other guests said it was not worth the trip except for Himalayan Mountain Institute but you have to pay for the Zoo to get in so that was a no go. Anyway this gives us an excuse to return!

We absolutely loved this place, could have stayed here for weeks!

Next - Sikkim
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Jul 8th, 2016, 08:54 AM
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I'm so glad that things have changed at the Glenburn! It is, indeed a gorgeous place.
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Jul 9th, 2016, 05:08 AM
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Sikkim - Pelling and Gangtok

Kathie - I know you loved Sikkim but it did not seem the same place you described, there were a lot of Indian tourists so hotels and roads were very busy.

Friday 13th May - After breakfast we were driven up to meet the driver and guide who would be with us for the duration of our time in Sikkim. It is approximately a 4 hour drive to Pelling and we were due to visit the Tashiding Monastery on the way but this would have added another 3 hours to the journey and the condition of the road was in doubt so it was decided to go straight to Pelling.

We were not given any documents or advised to have photos for the border crossing but the guide Shu sorted all this out for us. Shu was a lovely man and excellent guide.

The journey is tiring, twists and turns with sheer drops to make you cringe, numerous roadworks and mad local drivers in 4 x 4 full of Indian tourists. I was also informed that there is no smoking in public places once we crossed the border!

We arrived at the Chumbi Mountain Retreat late afternoon with rain and heavy cloud cover, this was start of the nightmare!

Although the hotel was highly recommended the rooms were in poor condition and dirty. The first one was stuck in the attic space so a complicated upgrade to a suite. As we were due to spend 3 nights here we decided we would stay if the food was acceptable which unfortunately it wasn’t.

The Manager was a rude little man who lied to us regarding the upgrade and the cost being covered by the agent. No doubt the view from the hotel would have been stunning but certainly not worth the bed bugs!

Next day we transferred to The Elgin, dumped the bags and went to see the Pemayangtse Monastery followed by the ruins of the palace nearby, both are interesting.

As we could only get one night at the Elgin before transferring to Gangtok we also went to Khecheodpairi Lake. This is another scary one and a half hours drive to get there and the place was packed out so did not feel very sacred or worth the effort. Pelling itself seemed to be full of small hotels and hostels, nowhere to find local crafts or even anywhere that looked decent to stop and eat or have a drink.

The Elgin was good but it is basically a 2 to 3 star hotel, the rooms are okay and at least clean although we may still have got bitten. The food is all buffet style and most of the dishes catered to the large number of Indian tourists, I could not find anything suitable except the rice but Jon enjoyed it. Breakfast was okay. Afternoon Tea is not recommended unless you want cookies and a piece of dried fruit cake.

On the upside the staff are very friendly and helpful and the gardens and view are lovely so if going to Pelling this is the best hotel.

Sunday (I think) we moved on to Gangtok which is a four and half hour journey on the small twisting winding roads with scary drops. Most of the time was spent looking at the mountain sides to avoid seeing the empty space in front of the next bend.

On arrival in Gangtok we would have to stay one night at the Mayfair hotel before moving over to the Elgin Norkhill.

First impressions of Gangtok were the mass of dreadful buildings marring the landscape!

First impressions of the Mayfair - disney thai style - gaudy and tacky. The room was large with balcony (smelling of urine) and massive bathroom with nothing in it.

Thankfully the food was very good although it is a huge restaurant and buffet style again.

Next morning Shu informed us that we should go straight to Rumtek Monastery as the head monk had arrived and there were ceremonies to welcome him. Another seemingly endless winding drive up the mountain to a packed monastery but this was the highlight of the trip to Sikkim so actually worth the drive. The scenery was also much more as expected even with the cloud cover.

On returning to Gangtok we checked into the Elgin but they took us to possibly the worst room in the hotel so another supposed upgrade for the agent to sort out. Not the cleanest of hotels and more bed bugs even the slippers were dirty. Staff were in a world of their own most of the time.

The restaurant is again buffet style and mostly unknown Indian dishes so not much to eat for me.

We visited the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (5/10) and were then dropped off to walk down the main High street in town. We found very little of interest to purchase, just two masks.

On returning to the hotel we arranged to leave the next day and return to Delhi for two nights before flying up to Amritsar.

Although the weather did not help I felt Sikkim was a waste of our time, the hotels were not up to scratch and the time spent in the car to get anywhere while being thrown about was just too long. We were expecting to see beautiful scenery, orchids everywhere and to stay in small Heritage style hotels with stunning views so a mixture of sightseeing and relaxation, this was not the case.

On all these long car rides there was nowhere to stop for a western toilet so take that into account!

So Tuesday morning a 4 hour drive to Bagdogra and flight to Delhi for two night at the J W Marriott, clean comfortable beds, decent food and a massage for the stiff necks!

Bagdogra is not a pleasant airport, there is a large restaurant with good food though. It was the only one that made us open the suitcases to take lighters out.

Wednesday - we took the opportunity to catch up with shopping returning to Khan Market (Royal Enfield again) and visiting individual shops for shawls and houseware, so another suitcase added to the stash.

Next Amritsar
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Jul 9th, 2016, 06:12 AM
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just joining the trip, Cyansiam.

Thanks so much for your honest appraisal of your experiences - it's so helpful for others trying to plan a trip [as I hope to be one day] to know what was worth seeing and what not. I know of course that the weather and time of year can affect things a lot as can changes in personnel but for example, you have re-inforced my belief that Varanasi is not for me!

so keep it coming!
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Jul 9th, 2016, 08:48 AM
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I'm SO sorry you had an entirely different experience from what we had in Sikkim. Certainly going to other hotels before getting to the Elgins didn't help, but I am shocked to hear the conditions of the two Elgin hotels in Pelling and Gangtok. Both are old royal guesthouses and were in good condition and very clean when we were there. I saw the Mayfair only from the outside, but agree with your "tacky and gaudy" assessment. Is the charming and lovely Sikkim we experienced gone now?
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Jul 9th, 2016, 08:55 AM
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That sounds really miserable. Sorry to hear about the buffets - although I really like Indian food, I hate buffets anywhere and in India I don't trust them.

However, I suspect I might have had a different reaction to the drives. I love mountain roads, some of my best travel memories are mountain roads in northeast Pakistan.
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Jul 9th, 2016, 01:01 PM
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Enjoyed your report and the amazing experiences you had.
Would love to find out what was the most cherished item you bought in India.
How much fun was shopping for unique items and what do you recommend for others to buy when traveling in the region.
Have an enjoyable weekend.
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