Rajasthan and Varanasi - trip summary

Old Apr 10th, 2007, 03:41 AM
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Rajasthan and Varanasi - trip summary

My wife and I are Indians who have lived almost 2 decades in America. We are spending this year in India. In March 2007 I went on a solo 10-day journey through Rajasthan, and at the the beginning of this month (April) the two of us spent 4 days in Varanasi. I will summarise my itinerary below. Note that this is not a travelogue.

My jaunt through Rajasthan was primarily a photography expedition. A week before I set out I emailed the precise outline of the tour I wanted to Compass Tours and asked them handle all the
hotel bookings, transport & logistics. After a couple of back-and-forth emails I gave credit card details, and Compass had my entire programme nailed down, including car pick-up at my apartment in Gurgaon and the final drop-off. The tour price quoted included everything - taxes, parking fees, camel rides, toll charges for the road etc. This was a departure from tradition for me. I like to do all the bookings myself, but given Compass's high standing among members of this forum I decided to give them a try, especially since the idea of undertaking this trip came about at very short notice.

Among the most important requirements for a fulfilling time in India is a very good driver. I had enumerated stringent requirements and advised Compass that this was non-negotiable, that any slack in this department would be a no-no. My stipulations for a driver were as follows:

(a) Safe driving, and adherence to all the rules of the road at all times.
(b) No cigarette smoke in the car, no drinking while on duty.
(c) No music in the car (imagine being saddled with a driver with a penchant for crude new Hindi remixes and/or bhangra rubbish).
(d) Professional attitude, enthusiastic, and no intrusive personal questions.
(e) No suggestions/recommendations for shopping or restaurants or sights unless specifically asked.
(f) Punctual, and availability at the crack of dawn (the last item being very important for a photographer).

These might sound unduly harsh but Indian drivers are notorious for their commission rackets and for the tricks they pull on unprepared scalps. Most Westerners do not realise this: these fellows will size you up in 30 seconds flat. They are also highly adaptive organisms. Their
latest schtick is admirable: they now know that many Westerners have figured out this commission business and will themselves tell you that the "other" taxi drivers are all into commissions. I don't mean to get anyone to be overly cynical. But you are better being cynical than a sucker. Let your local travel agency know exactly all your wants and want-nots. Once the baseline interaction with the driver has been established it makes for a very pleasant transaction. My practice is to provide a generous tip at the end of the trip for good service rendered.

I had also requested the finest accommodations available, inclusive of buffet breakfast.


Rajasthan:

To Compass's credit they provided me with an outstanding driver named Joginder Singh. I give him a 9/10; one point knocked off because after a couple of days he made bold to give me suggestions for some shots. They turned out to be terrible - either the composition was lousy or the lighting conditions unacceptably harsh. I then gave him a gentle lifestyle hint and I got no more tips on photography after that.

I was picked up at my apartment in Gurgaon by Compass's representative, who handed me the hotel vouchers, airline/rail tickets etc, and driven to the Delhi airport for the Jet Airways flight to Jodhpur. At the Jodhpur airport, Joginder and another Compass rep were waiting. Joginder and I took off for Jaisalmer, a 6 hours drive, in a comfortable air-conditioned SUV, the Toyota Innova. We took the route through Osian, site of some exquisite ancient Jain and Hindu temples.

We also detoured to the small village of Khichan where demoiselle cranes come wintering from Oct to March. Unfortunately, the birds had left a few days earlier. A gaggle of kids besieged me here asking for pens. I was nonplussed until I realised that Craig, BostonHarbor and all you Westerners have spolit these kids rotten by doling out pens everywhere you go. After a long drive through the desolate Great Thar Desert, we got to Jaisalmer around 8:30 pm.

Check-in at Taj Rawal Khot. Jaisalmer doesn't have true luxury options yet. The Oberoi is currently erecting a hotel there. Taj Rawal Khot was good, but not outstanding, with a nice view of the Golden Fort. I was probably the only Indian guest amid large groups of French and Italian tourists, and for the breakfast buffet I was chagrined that only one Indian hot item was available. I mean, which self-respecting Indian has porridge and baked beans for breakfast?

The big show in Jaisalmer is the fort followed by a trip to the Sam sand dunes. I decided to skip Sam (since it can be a real carnival there) and instead headed to Khuri. This paid dividends since Joginder and I the dunes at Khuri all to ourselves.

After 2 nights in Jaisalmer, we drove back to Jodhpur. On the way I stopped at Pokran, test site of India's nuclear bombs. I was turned away by the military when I tried to drive on the dirt road leading to the 1998 tests (apparently there's a huge crater in the ground there). So
we decided to check out the adjacent village of Khetolai. The villagers were delighted to have us and took us within a mile of the test site (which is cordoned off by a military fence and watch towers).

In Jodhpur, I checked into the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace, recently in the news on account of Liz Hurley, who, I understand, is a celebrity. The palace is now a Taj luxury hotel (the Maharaja of Jodhpur occupies a wing for his residence) and while most Taj properties & services do not measure up to the world-class Oberoi standards, the Umaid Bhawan does. The renovated rooms are large - in most hotels, they would be junior suites - and luxurious, and peacocks roam the grounds. The alfresco Pillars restaurant is fabulous and one evening the chef put together a large traditional Rajasthani thali. 3 nights at the Umaid Bhawan.

From Jodhpur, we drove to the holy town of Pushkar, site of the famous Brahma temple. It is mistakenly thought by many that this is the only Brahma temple in India. Goa has one, too, so does Tamil Nadu. We got to Pushkar around noon. 1 night at the Jagat Singh Palace, said to be the best digs in town.

Out of Pushkar we briefly stopped in Ajmer at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, then headed for Jaipur where I had a train to catch that night for Bikaner. Got to Jaipur in time for lunch at the revolving Om restaurant, a tower with a panoramic view of the city. That afternoon, I made the 2 hours drive to the small village of Abhaneri to see the wondrous 9th century Chand Baori (an eleven-story stepwell, a marvel of civil engineering). Later
that night I took the train to Bikaner. First class A/C, private coupe. Joginder had earlier made off to Bikaner in his Innova.

Early morning arrival in Bikaner and check-in at the fantastic Laxmi Niwas Palace, the former residence of the Maharaja of Bikaner. The equally magnificent Lalgarh Palace is behind this palace in the same campus. Laxmi Niwas Palace is very charming, the walls, appliances, the bathroom, the furniture, all reminiscent of an earlier era. The carvings in the palace are jaw-dropping, and there are many remarkable photographs dating from the early 1900s.

The highlights in Bikaner are the imposing Junagarh fort, the colourful havelis situated lining the warrens of the old city, the Karni Mata temple (notorious for its rats) in Deshnoke, and the serene village of Kolayat wrapped around a lake in the middle of the desert. After 2 nights in Bikaner, we drove back to Jaipur. En route we stopped briefly at Fatehpur, in the Sekhawati area of Rajasthan, known for its superb 18th C painted havelis, many of them now decrepit. I took a short tour of the haveli bought and restored by a French woman named Nadine Le Prince (do a Google search with the keywords "Nadine Le Prince haveli).

Back in Jaipur, check-in at the Oberoi Rajvilas where I had requested a luxury tent. Rajvilas is a class-act, but Udaivilas and Amarvilas are superior overall. I will remember Rajvilas for a couple of incidents. One, I got mistaken for the butler while returning to my tent by a British couple (may have had something to do with me toting the tripod on my shoulders). Two, next morning the hotel staff mistook me for paparazzi. This time I had my camera & camera bag. In either case, the apologies and fuss that followed were more amusing than the original faux pas.

Jaipur has now become a messy, unpleasant city like many other urban Indian sprawls. After one night there, I had a flight to catch to Delhi but instead decided at the last minute to drive back with Joginder and sample the Delhi-Jaipur highway. Adherence to road rules and regulations is not yet part of the Indian DNA, so this was an anxious ride throughout.

All in all, an enjoyable 10 days and a respectable haul of good pictures.

Varanasi:

Four days and three nights.
This time our driver - Bablu - was even better, a perfect 10. We flew Kingfisher Airlines from and to Delhi and Varanasi. Again, Compass had their act down pat. Car pick-up from apartment, airport reception, hotel check-in, sunrise & sunset boat rides etc.

In Varanasi, there are 3 good hotel options: Radisson, Taj Ganges, and the brand new Ramada Plaza. We chose Ramada Plaza. All these are clustered together, and are around 5 Kms from the ghats (15 mins drive in traffic).
The rooms at Ramada are smart and fresh. We took one undistinguished meal at the Indian restaurant at Taj Ganges, which we understand has been renovated recently. Other than spending a lot of time on the ghats, we did the short trip to Sarnath where Buddha delivered his first sermon, and then a spin through the leafy campus of the Banaras Hindu University. We saw the sorry sight of Westerners being aggressively hounded by postcard hawkers at Sarnath. And of course, we earned some karma points by calling on Shiva at the Vishwanath
Temple and Hanuman at the Sankat Mochan temple. My wife also made successful forays into the serpentine gullies of Varanasi to seek out weavers of traditional silk sarees.

Compass is a marvelous agency and I have Craig to thank for strongly recommending it on this forum. Their website is http://www.compasstours.com. Note: Compass offers good guides at all locations. I chose not to take these guides (since I usually know more about the place than these worthies) but for non-Indians the guides may serve as a useful supplement.

My Rajasthan journey began March 19 and ended March 29, just before the advent of the hot season. Varanasi was pleasant in the mornings and late evenings (this was April 5-9) but the afternoons were hot, although not oppressively so (yet). If you are a foreigner, both Rajasthan and North India are best done before March 20.

I shall post links to my photo galleries in the coming days.

agtoau is offline  
Old Apr 10th, 2007, 10:11 AM
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thanks for the great review....i wish i had used compass for my tour last year....next time i will listen to craig...my tour was fine, we just had a small problem with the payment...
rhkkmk is offline  
Old Apr 11th, 2007, 12:05 PM
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I always enjoy hearing feedback from non resident Indians on how how they view their country.

thank you very much.
Looking forward to the pictures
waynehazle is offline  
Old Apr 13th, 2007, 02:41 AM
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Hi, I enjoyed reading your trip summary.

We were in Fatepur Sikri last month where we were besieged by kids asking for pens...
sharon1306 is offline  
Old Apr 13th, 2007, 06:17 AM
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Great report - glad Compass took good care of you. Did you meet Durjay (the owner)? I look forward to seeing your photos.
Craig is offline  
Old Apr 14th, 2007, 10:18 AM
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Craig, no, I did not get to meet Durjay. My interaction was with his managers, on the phone and via email.
agtoau is offline  
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