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Trip Report: 21 days in India, Dec 16th to Jan 7th

Trip Report: 21 days in India, Dec 16th to Jan 7th

Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:17 PM
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Trip Report: 21 days in India, Dec 16th to Jan 7th

Ok, here is my trip report and a link to pictures. India was incredible, but a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. I was ready to go home the first few days, but had fallen in love by the end of the trip. I took some great pictures. Here is what I did:

December 16th/17th: Off to India.....
Got on the plane in Newark 8:30 PM Friday Dec 16 for our non stop flight to Delhi. Packed flight, great food, new plane (777). Watched a couple other DVDs, popped a couple Ambien and then. slept for around 7-8 hours. Flight was relatively smooth and seemed far shorter than 14hours. Business first sleeper chairs recline 170 degrees and are very comfortable. Continental provides a great pillow.

Arrived Delhi airport 9:30 PM Saturday. Air was incredibly heavy with incense and smog. Louise's luggage no where to be found. Oh, oh. Then saw that it had been put in the "elite: area" and had been there for 30 minutes. Crisis averted.

Our tour guide was waiting for us. Baggage guys lunging at us grabbing our trolleys. They disappear into the fog with our luggage. For some reason, they seemed to know where our car was. Who knows.... Got into a Toyota "Qualis," but not before having strings of orange mums put around our neck (you will get used to these--on every arrival in every city). The Imperial hotel looks like it is from another time and place. Very British.150 year old Royal palms line the drive. As you drive in, they check under your car for a bomb. Uniformed doormen looking like they are from the"Raj" period open your door. More mums and a tikka (red powder) placed on our forehead at the Imperial. We were checked into a "Heritage room" They offered us juice, and even though we had been warned not to drink juices, I was so tired and so thirsty, I threw caution to the wind. No problems ensued. Marble floors, twin beds, huge bathroom and dressing room, overlooking the courtyard.

Showered and took both an Ambien and a new (wonderful) melatonin drug. Slept well. Been a long day.....

December 18th: Woke up at 8 AM. Feeling pretty good. Beds are the only thing the Imperial could improve upon. I think Gandhi designed these. Great buffet breakfast and our guide and driver met us in the lobby.

Great. I just discovered my computer cord doesn't work. Damn. No computer. Oh, well.

This morning we toured Old Delhi. We took a tour of Old Delhi in a cycle rickshaw. What a human and animal festival. Vegetable sellers, book sellers, cows, bullock carts, cars, buses--all in narrow streets with blaring horns as the unifying element. Our poor rickshaw driver is working hard as he has the two of us plus the guide riding on the back. He has been asked to peddle slowly so we can see the sites. We visit the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi, the mausoleum of the Mughal Emperor Humayun, the Qutab Minar, and the British-built President's house, Parliament and Secretariat buildings.

Our first impressions of Delhi are not particularly favorable. It is smoggy, poluted and incredibly noisy. However, we are jet lagged and did not have a great guide (our original guide got sick and we had a last minute substitute). We will save our opinion for our return.

Tonight we have dinner at the "Spice Route" restaurant at the Imperial. Wonderful food, but very pricey. .

December 19th: On to Varanasi.

It's Monday morning. Arose at 6:30 to pack and be ready to be picked up at 9AM. (The buffet breakfasts at the Imperial are great, and the setting is gorgeous.) As we entered the Delhi terminal, there was a huge black water buffalo literally at the entrance--looked like an airport mascot. Our plane was suppose to take off at 11, but is now not taking off until 1PM. No smog today, but some other reason that no one seems to know. I heard that Indian Airlines (IA) never takes off on time. They may be right.

It is a few minutes before we are suppose to take off and no one knows what the gate. The monitors show ads for motorcycles and only once in a while give you flight information. I've attached myself to an Indian businessman who is heading to Varanasi and we will get on whatever plane he gets on.

I believe that IA must have won some contest for how many seats can fit on an Airbus 320. "Veg or non-veg" asks the flight attendant. I learned my lesson the hard way in , amd I no longer eat anything on non-western airlines. Maybe I'll change my mind in a week or so. It is so strange being offered full meals on flights of less than an hour. In the US you don't even get pretzels anymore.

Indian Airlines female flight attendants wear saris. Their nice flat abdomens are showing. I am impressed at how well they navigate in these 6-yard garments. I don't think they are the best outfits for emergencies, but I'm not going there right now......

There are mostly Indians on the plane heading to the holy city. Very few westerners. Varanasi awaits--more later....No, wait. The airplane lands in Varanasi way too fast. The airplane slams hard down on the runway. The plane then careens to the left and over-corrects to the right. A few more rounds of left-rights and we finally straighten out. Oh, well, word has it if you die in Varanasi, you go straight to heaven without having to be reincarnated, so I guess it wouldn't be the worst place to end it all. Too bad I'm not a Hindu that believes in all this. That landing was the worst I have every encountered. As we leave the plane I look into the cockpit and see a Sikh captain and we name him "Cowboy Bob." I will be on the lookout for him on future flights.

More soon....

(Pictures: http://www.photosite.com/patpom/India/)
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:18 PM
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December 20th: Whatever you do, do not miss Varanasi.

It is hard to describe Varanasi.. A cacophony sounds--bells, chants, horns. Streets that haven't changed much in the last 500 years save some hanging electrical wires. "Dentists" sitting on the street with their tools spread about them and what looks like actual patients sitting across from them (yikes.) Bodies being moved through the streets on the top of SUV-type vehicles in joyous processions and covered with flowers. Cremations that are carried out in the open on the burning ghats without great fanfare, just as a natural part of the process of life--"The business of death" . Narrow streets and alleys only wide enough for two people. Soldiers with rifles outside the mosques. Pilgrims on the ghats looking to the Brahman priest for guidance on praying to their lost relatives (and negotiating the fee for the advice). Floating on the Ganges at sunset watching the nightly celebration and not believing they can actually perform this extravaganza every night. Children jumping from boat to boat like cats on a balance beam selling flowers for tourists and pilgrims to float in the water and make a wish/request to whatever God you believe in. Cows everywhere.

Morning too foggy to go on the Ganges at sunrise. However, the eerie fog makes the ghats very mystical. Instead of the sunrise boat ride, we visited a havali (courtyard house) a few minutes walk from the ghats. It was a great house and very interesting to see how people who live near the ghats live on a day to day basis. There were two cows living on the first floor along with a workshop for the man who owned the house, Rammi, who sells essential oils and marsala (spice mixtures). Rammi also happens to create the essential oils for Goldie Hawn, so of course, I had to buy some essential oils--I bought "Noor" (flowers) and "Green Grass." They really smell wonderful. On the second floor of the havali was Rammi's family. The children were in the living room lying on pillows studying, his mother was cooking, and his wife made us piping hot Chai. All three floors of the house look down into the courtyard. I was glad that the morning was so foggy--it gave us an opportunity to meet this wonderful family. As we left the house we continue to walk through the town to the other end of the ghats. By then, the fog had lifted and we hired a boat to take us back to the beginning of our morning journey. It was fascinating seeing all the activity on the ghat in the morning. We were the only boat and had the river to ourselves. Soft chanting, laundry drying, people bathing. Amazing.

Everyone on in Varanasi seems to have a PhD. Three tour guides that I met had a PhD in archeology or something or other. Must be hard for them to be tour guides.

That afternoon off to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon. It was moderately interesting, but I could have skipped Sarnath. I'm sure if I was more interested in Buddhism, I would have found it more compelling.

Back at the hotel (Taj Ganges), got stuck in the elevator--emergency lighting is not a concept in Varanasi--it was pitch black. This was just one of the daily power outages we encountered during our trip. Fortunately there was a bell hop in the elevator with us who assured us the elevator would be moving within a minute. Between airplane landings and elevators, Varanasi is not without hazards! Oh, yes, there are many mosquitoes in Varanasi.

Back to Delhi for an overnight and then by car to Agra

The road to Agra.....


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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:29 PM
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December 21: Delhi: A leper at my window.

I have traveled all my life and consider myself a pretty sophisticated traveler. However, as we left Delhi we stopped in traffic at a major intersection. I was talking with my friend Louise when I heard a tapping at my window (I had not learned to ignore window taps yet.) I turned and literally three inches from my face was a woman without fingers and missing some of her nose. I recoiled and made some sort of noise I couldn't duplicate today if you had a gun to my head. I had never seen anyone with leprosy. It is astounding that leprosy still exists. Goodbye Delhi.

The road to Agra was our first introduction to "highways" in India. As they say, "in India you need a good driver, good brakes and a good horn." Well horns in India are used very differently than in the US where a horn is usually used in anger. In India the horn is simply a tool--a constantly, incessantly used tool. All the trucks and carts have signs on the back that say "horn please" You get used to it and pretty soon, don't even notice the never ending horn blowing. However, you never really get used to the trucks coming at you in the wrong lane, pushing you onto the shoulder or worse. Then there are the camel carts, the bullock carts, the goats, the cows, the autorickshaws traveling the wrong wan on the shoulder. Our driver told us that a tourist was killed the day before on the road from Agra to Jaipur--so the roads are not without serious risk. We had the BEST driver in all of India. His name is Kewal Kumar. He speaks great English, is funny as can be and knows more about local sites than most of the tour guides. We are driving a couple legs and flying the rest. Kewal drives and meets us at the next destination when we fly. It is so great having the same driver.

You need to stop at the border to Uttar Pradesh. "The border" is just pulling over to the side of the road with various other vehicles. At the border are dancing bears, monkeys and vendors selling peacock feather fans (does anyone buy those things?) and various unrecognizable trinkets. The police try to shake down drivers at every turn. Our driver was stopped so many times and had to pull out all his tax forms---there are many, many tax forms in bureaucratic India.

Agra is a dirty, congested town. It took us forever to get to the hotel due to "rush hour" on the two lane road. However, the activity outside the windows is so fascinating. Ten camels with great decorations on the heads and backs are making far better time than we are while carrying immense amounts of straw on their backs. We have a very good guide who is a Muslim and who proudly told me, immediately upon introduction, that he had made his pilgrimage to the Hajj. He just as proudly told me he had one wife who he had married when he was 18 and she 16 and that they had eight children. He also pointed to a condo he had just purchased that was still under construction where he would be moving his family. He paid $40,000 cash that his sons helped him raise. At present he lives with his parents three brothers and all their families. He is trying to get his daughters married off as well as his sons. He explained the entire selection ritual.

Ok, we have now arrived at the Oberoi Amarvilas. What a change from the city of Agra--and what a relief. The hotel is beautiful and restful. We went back out into the city with our driver to photograph the Taj Mahal from the other side of the Yamuna river where I took some of the best pictures of my entire trip. Children playing cricket with the Taj in the background, camels walking with the setting sun in the background, girls gathering sticks for fuel. It was mesmerizing. Our hotel room has a beautiful view of the Taj as do all rooms at the Amarvilas.

December 22nd: We left our terrace door open and around 6:00 in the morning, you begin to hear the chanting of morning call to the mosques. It is a nice sound that you hear every morning throughout India. This morning, we visited the Red Fort (there was too much early morning fog to visit the Taj), which is a gorgeous fort. Later we visited Itmad-ud-daulah tomb (also known as "the baby Taj" and a precursor to the Taj Mahal.). At sunset we visited the Taj Mahal, which is incredibly beautiful. Great photos, but I like the ones on the riverbed yesterday better.

Photos: http://www.photosite.com/patpom/India/

Off to Jaipur in the morning.....

More trip report soon.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:31 PM
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great start....anxious for more as you have time....a friend convinced us at lunch that we should stay at imperial...craig had previously tried to no avail....but now i am neutral about it...

bob
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:48 PM
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Wonderful report so far. I like your witty style and the descriptions are so vivid. Can't wait for the rest.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 06:57 PM
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Fabulous photos!
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:02 PM
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Enjoying your report and your photos are fabulous!
Make sure you tell us how you booked this trip (private tour? A la carte?).
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:05 PM
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Gday BH. Very funny trip report so far. You survived India! And sounds like you enjoyed the ride so far! Keep up the great posts, please!
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:07 PM
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Good stuff Pat. Thanks for sharing.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:10 PM
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Bob, the Imperial is great. I would certainly stay there again. I loved it and the staff is just appropriately polite (as opposed to falling all over you at the Oberoi hotels). It took me a while to get used to the cotton stuffed beds in India, but by the end I loved them.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:24 PM
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I love your report too...perfect timing for me, as we are just beginning to consider India for our next trip.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:27 PM
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Great report, especially Varanasi, i know exactly how you felt...
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 07:27 PM
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December 22: The five hour ride to Jaipur is not quite as wild as the ride between Delhi and Agra. However, we cracked up when, as well were thrown back and forth on a one way dirt path that had been washed out by the monsoons and asked what the "road" was called, our driver said "the national highway" And it WAS the national highway! Our driver cracked up as well. However, since this was the road where a tourist and guide had just been killed, we pulled our seat belts tight and were glad we were in an SUV and not an Ambassador. There are at least six accidents along the road as we travel--trucks collided, tractors overturned, cars in ditches. Stopped at Fatehpur Sikri along the way. Very interesting.

Random thought: There are no cats in India. Seriously, never saw a cat anywhere. Dogs are ubiquitous as are goats, pigs and cows, but no cats.

We passed a group of tents along the way to Jaipur and I mentioned how beautiful the women were. Our driver Kewal dryly said "that is a red light district" Oh, my....

Field after field of mustard flowers. We stopped to give some children pens and stickers. Make sure to bring pens and stickers to India. Finally arrived at Oberoi JasVilas. Two magnificent elephants with gorgeous jeweled blankets on their back are at the entrance and salute as you arrive (the contrasts in India are crazy). Jas Vilas is gorgeous, but would have preferred staying in Jaipur proper at the Rambaugh Palace. Jas Vilas is great for a resort destination, but not the best for site seeing. Went to see the Samode Havali and would recommend it highly. Gorgeous courtyard, great locations, nice rooms. Not a posh as Jas Vilas or Rambaugh, but very nice and half the price.

December 23rd: Visited Pink city, astronomy center and Palace of Winds. Later took elephants to Amber fort. Tip: since the accident in September when a guide was stomped to death of an angry elephant, they have decreased the number of elephants by half and only let them do three rides a day. Therefore, if you want to get an elephant ride in the morning, you need to get there by 7AM. However, if you go at 1PM in the afternoon, there is hardly any crowd at all and you get right up. We actually walked up to the fort in the morning (it is an easy walk) and then took the elephant ride in the early afternoon just for a photo op. We had a great dinner at an unbelievably low price at a restaurant called "Indiana" in Jaipur. Great local dancing. Piping hot, excellent food. Casual. Would highly recommend.

December 25th: We were at Raj Vilas for Christmas and they did a nice job celebrating the holiday. Unfortunately, most of the major shops were closed for Christmas day, so we didn't get to do any jewelry shopping. However, I more than made up for that in later jewelry purchases ;-)

Off to Jodhpur....A favorite city--tied with Vananasi as my favorite. More tomorrow
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 08:37 PM
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simply a wonderful report...i am anxious to visit india later this year...
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 09:03 PM
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What a wonderful trip report. I am getting my vicarious thrills, reading your vivid stories and seeing your beautiful photos. Can't wait for your next installment! Thank you for sharing in all the details.
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Old Jan 12th, 2006, 09:32 PM
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Superb report, BostonHarbor. But I am confused - did you mean Jas Vilas or was it really Raj Vilas (the latter being an Oberoi property, considered among the world's finest)?

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Old Jan 13th, 2006, 01:48 AM
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Patricia, magnificant report - brings back clear memories of our trip. Looking forward to hearing about Jodhpur and the rest.
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Old Jan 13th, 2006, 03:38 AM
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Agtoau,

Yes, I meant Raj Vilas, not Jas Vilas. Thanks for catching that. I am still a bit jet lagged.

I thought the Raj Vilas was gorgeous and we enjoyed our three days there, but I believe would have enjoyed being in the city of Jaipur proper and thought the Rambaugh Palace might have been a better choice for us in Jaipur.

We stayed at three Oberoi properties and they were great. Raj Vilas is a superb resort with a great spa and yoga. It is all in what one is looking for.
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Old Jan 13th, 2006, 04:04 AM
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December 26th: This morning we head out to the airport to head to Jodhpur, our driver will meet us there.

Our flight is purported to be "on time" ("on time" being a relative term in India). The flight monitors have ads with Persian cats dancing around interspersed with occasional flight information, but always missing gate information. Electricity randomly going off and on in the terminal. However, we are getting use to IST (India Stretch Time) and people watching in the airport can be pretty interesting.

The "on time" flight rolls in about 90 minutes late. "Cowboy Bob" is not the pilot. Things are looking up.....

The flight between Jaipur and Jodhpur is only 40 minutes and they actually serve a meal. They're incredibly quick getting the food out and collected, and almost everyone takes a meal.

An interesting behavior I have noticed on these flights in how many times Indians press the flight attendant call light. In the US, you don't dare push the flight attendant light unless the passenger next to you is having a heart attack. On Indian Airlines, the call lights are being pushed constantly and the flight attendants take it in stride. We took 8 flights (including connections) while in India and at least 100 flight attendant call lights were pressed on our flights. I know this is an inconsequential finding, but I love observing these tiny cultural differences.

Check into the Taj Hari Mahal Hotel in Jodhpur. More strings of mums, mystery juice and more tikkas on our forehead, but we are getting used to these things now and graciously accept( my belief is, you should always graciously accept the juice, even if you don't drink it--just keep talking and put it in front of you on the table. They keep you busy signing things and checking things so no one will notice you didn't drink the juice). I drank the juice in every hotel and never had a minute of stomach upset.

Other than drinking bottled water and not eating street food, I am just living normally in India and the GI tract is doing just fine. It is too exhausting worrying about the avoidance of diarrhea. The food is so magnificent, I think I have actually put on a pound or two. I can't believe I have actually GAINED weight on my first trip to India. (Yes, I ate lots of meat too, Chicken Tikka, lamb, local fish, lobster. Fabulous. Garlic naan, yummmmm.

I loved this Taj Hari Mahal hotel! It was great. Rooms are huge. Pool is gorgeous.

We have a fabulous guide in Jodhpur. He showed up dressed all in black with black Jodhpur pants and great camel leather shoes (see photo in Jodhpur photo file). Off to Mehrangar Fort, which is my favorite fort of all the ones we saw. It literally takes your breath away. You look down upon the ancient "blue city" of the Brahmins.

Tomorrow a polo game where we are asked to be private guests of the Maharajah of Jodhpur! Such fun.....
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Old Jan 13th, 2006, 04:31 AM
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December 27th: Jodhpur

This morning we go on a safari to a Bishnoi village. This 450 year old tribe are environmentalists and live in harmony with nature. No electricity or refrigeration other than this interesting ancient clay cooler (see pictures in Jodhpur photo file). We had an "opium ceremony" and drank opium tea (supposedly it was actually Opium--who knows) as well as were served an "authentic Rajasthan lunch" (some hot bread and pickled eggplant-type cold stew), while sitting on a charpoy (rope bed) outside in a dusty courtyard. It was fun. At this point we figured if we didn't get sick we would never get sick. We did not get sick. The rural people are so gracious and lovely. Gave more pens and cartoon stickers to the children. Their beaming faces when they see stickers are so darling. The children always run and get their little brother or sister so that everyone is included. I brought LOTS of stickers ;-)

This afternoon we went to a polo game after going back to the hotel and cleaning up. Our guide had us take a seat and a few minutes later a big Mercedes pulled onto the field. Out jumped a sporty looking fellow in a polar fleece vest, ascot and cowboy hat. Our guide said "come with me and I'll introduce you to the Maharajah of Jodhpur" So, we sauntered over to the Maharajah and shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. He asked me a few questions and then said "why don't you join me for the game" So, my friend Louise and I sat with the Maharajah and he explained every play during the game. What a great, regular guy--Oxford educated and doesn't sell royal access (through paid dinners and parties like the Maharajah and Maharana of Jaipur and Udaipur do.) (see Jodhpur file at http://www.photosite.com/patpom/India/ )

The commentary during Indian Polo games is wonderful. Two chukkas (polo play periods) are in announced in English and two are in Hindi. Examples of commentary:

"A lovely backhand!"
"A lovely solo effort gone to waste"
"Two youngsters in a tussle"
"Hit with a feeble backhander"

It was great fun!

Late afternoon we returned to Maharani Arts Emporium where I had dropped $1400 the day before on wonderful goods. I just had to buy more stuff for my sisters. Maharani Arts is the ONLY store you need to go to in all of India, in my humble opinion. Jodhpur is where all the major exporters come to place their orders for weavings and fabrics. At Maharani Arts there is no bargaining, but you can get authentic (not copies) Gucci, Hermes, Donna Karen, Missoni, Kenzo (breadspreads, shawls etc),and on and on for about 10% of the International prices. An Hermes Pashmina hand woven bed throw that is presently selling for $4500 in Paris can be bought there for $233. I bought plenty! They only sell design overruns on the premises and do not bargain--the designers allow them to do this, but only if people come to the shop. Prices are more than fair and are fixed. All the celebrities load up here with hundreds of Hermes and Gucci items (pictures everywhere of the gliterati). There is no junk--only 8 rickety floors of very high end stuff. Thank God it was my last day in Jodhpur or I could have done even more damage. They ship at very reasonable prices and everything arrived in perfect condition. I do not regret one purchase that I made at Maharani Arts Emporium. The really fabulous part of Jodhpur that you don't realize until you get there is that there are essentially no beggars or touts because there are fewer tourists. That little fact makes the city so much more enjoyable.

Off to Udaipur....
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