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Trip Report: Delhi, Agra, Ranthambhore, Jaipur, Udaipur, Varanasi, Mumbai & Aurangaba

Trip Report: Delhi, Agra, Ranthambhore, Jaipur, Udaipur, Varanasi, Mumbai & Aurangaba

Old Feb 14th, 2023, 08:53 AM
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Trip Report: Delhi, Agra, Ranthambhore, Jaipur, Udaipur, Varanasi, Mumbai & Aurangaba

My husband and I recently returned from a fascinating trip to India. It was our first visit and we had an amazing time. I reached out to several travel agencies and found Arvind of Castle & King to be very responsive and helpful. Mr. Arvind patiently helped us craft a custom trip, asked questions about our preferences, and made wise suggestions. We had investigated different tour groups but decided we preferred the flexibility of more independent travel. Mr. Arvind arranged for our drivers and guides throughout the trip and we enjoyed getting to know them. Although our itinerary was fairly well established before we arrived, we realized it was best to be flexible as our schedule had to occasionally be altered due holidays, changes in train and plane schedules, traffic, road closures, etc.

Mr. Arvind also booked all of our hotels for us. He offered several suggestions for each location and was open to booking other places. We mentioned being budget conscious but hoped some Heritage Hotels would be affordable. All of our hotels had delicious buffet breakfasts and most had the option of adding omelettes and other dishes at no extra charge. We found that our breakfasts were enough to sustain us most days until dinner, which usually began at 7:30 pm, although we occasionally had a mid-day snack.

We were surprised at the strict security at most hotels. Our drivers' cars were often checked as we entered the hotel driveway and we frequently had luggage and metal detection screenings. We learned why that was so important when we stayed in Mumbai.

The airport screenings, even at very small airports, was also quite extensive. Men and women had separate lines to go through to be "wanded." Our luggage was often screened a second time. At various times we had to show: nail clippers, tweezers, electric toothbrushes, computer charging cords, a walking stick and an electric shaver. Surprisingly, we were allowed to carry full water bottles.

One tip: if we were to travel to India again we would bring non-slip padded socks. We often had to remove our shoes to visit temples.

Second tip: if you book with Castle & King, be sure to request to have Krishna as a driver. He was calm and patient as he managed to thread his way through snarled, chaotic traffic. He was also a pleasure to chat with and we learned a lot from him about history, culture and life in India. We were fortunate to be with him until we flew to Varanasi.

Day 1: We had a fun first full day in India touring the Qutub Minar in New Delhi, followed by a Bahai temple known as the Lotus Temple, as it is built in the shape of a lotus. We saw the precursor to the Taj Mahal at Humayun's Tomb. (Humayun's grandson built the Taj Mahal and modeled it after his grandfather's tomb.) The complex was enormous and also held a tomb of his favorite barber as well as the tomb of a nobleman (Isa Khan) who had defeated Humayun in battle before his triumphant return to Delhi. We finished the day with a tour of the Swaminarayan Akshardam, the largest Hindu temple in the world. It was built in five years and finished in 2005 with no ferrous metals -- just pink sandstone and Carerra marble. The security screening line to be admitted was very crowded and no cameras or cell phones are allowed in, so you'll have to go online to see photos of this enormous and elaborate compound.

Even though it was Sunday and traffic was supposedly lighter, we did run into some epic traffic jams thanks to construction and stalled trucks. We drove through streams of tuktuks, motorcycles and vendors weaving in and out of traffic. The air was quite smoggy (AQI of 450 or so) because of the farmers who burn vegetation after harvesting -- the smoke ends up choking the air above New Delhi. Despite this, enjoyed some great food and learning the complicated history and fascinating culture of what is or may soon be the largest country in the world as its population is 1.4 billion and growing.

Among the non-human residents of Delhi, we did see a jackal, cows, stray or wild dogs, parrots and large eagles (possibly the spotted eagle). Check out these huge birds flying over the tomb of Isa Khan in the photos below. (I will add a few of the many photos my husband took to this report.)

In Delhi, we stayed at The Metropolitan Hotel which was very comfortable.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/WwqoaSQUyxFJdUih9

Last edited by KTtravel; Feb 14th, 2023 at 09:44 AM.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 09:08 AM
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Day 2: our second full day in Delhi included a visit to more holy sites including Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh temple that feeds 5,000 people each day. We had a chance to roll some roti (a flat bread) that was part of the meal. Our roti weren't as perfectly circular as those rolled by the elderly women, but we hoped they tasted just as good! We started the day with a tour of an Islamic temple, the Jama Masjid, built in the 1650s by Shah Janan I, the same man who built the Taj Mahal. Following that, we hopped on a bicycle rickshaw on a tour of some very narrow and crowded streets in Old Delhi. The shops along the route were beautiful in stark contrast to the chaos on the street -- a chaos marked both by the traffic and the tangle of power lines that reminded us of Hanoi.

We followed that with a visit to Raj Ghat, the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated; the park was filled with quotes by this great man and was a peaceful place of respect. Republic Day celebrations were scheduled to begin the next day and the site is the first stop for India's Prime Minister.

We ended with a visit to an Hindu temple, Laxminarayan Temple aka Birla Mandir, which was built in the 1930s and dedicated by Mahatma Gandhi.

Day 2 photos.


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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 09:25 AM
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Day 3: We really enjoyed Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, which we saw from a distance today at the Agra Fort, one of the most impressive forts we had ever seen. We were amazed by its defenses. The deep moat was filled with crocodiles. If you got past them, on the first wall were soldiers. If you got past them, the ditch between the walls held hungry lions. If you got past them, then more guards awaited, then a steep ramp onto which you'd face rolling boulders covered in flaming oil. The person who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan,first had this place as the center of his government, then it became his prison after one of his four sons kept him under house arrest here. He could look out upon the Taj Mahal in the distance -- it was the tomb he built for his favorite wife -- and after his death, he was buried there.

We could have taken an elephant ride up to the fort but opted not to. We were told the elephants have protections including only work a few hours a day in the morning before it gets too warm.

Outside of the fort, we also saw a snake charmer. Apparently this is now illegal as the cobra's fangs are removed making it safe to handle but the snake will eventually die of starvation.

After the Agra Fort, we traveled to a mausoleum known as the Baby Taj -- the tomb of a Persian treasurer for one of the Mughal rulers. The walls are decorated with inlaid jewels, though we were told that the Taj Mahal's walls are even more impressive.

From there, we toured a place that demonstrated the making of Persian rugs. Alas, we were not in the market, but it was a great photo op

Check out the photos here:

In Agra, we stayed at the Trident. It was a lovely hotel with a wedding celebration happening in its courtyard. We learned it was "wedding season" in India as the weather is cooler at this time of year.

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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 09:35 AM
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Day 4: The Taj Mahal, perhaps the most beautiful building in the world, is certainly the most beautiful building we have ever seen. We arrived at 6 a.m. to see it as the sun rose, and even though the sun never broke through the haze and fog, it was still a stunning site to see it almost float, a jewel embedded with jewels, and a tribute to a man's love for a wife he lost as she delivered their 14th child. On our eight hour drive to Ranthambore National Park we stopped to see an impressive step well -- Chand Baori. And no. We didn't walk down to taste the algae-covered water hundreds of feet below. We did see a kingfisher, a beautiful bird, which my husband managed to get a shot of it, though not in flight, where it is even more amazing. (The bird is so admired, that the best beer in India is the Kingfisher brand.)

Check out photos of the Taj here.

Check out stepwell photos here.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 09:56 AM
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Day 5: In the poem "The Tyger," William Blake asks this question:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


We had a morning and afternoon safari at Ranthambore National Park, but all the burning bright tigers weren't to be found, at least not by us. We did have a great day nonetheless. Check out the photos of all the other animals we did manage to find, including a huge antelope known as the nilgai (blue cow). We also saw peacocks, spotted deer, black-faced monkeys, egrets, kingfishers, cormorants and a mongoose.

Check out our photos here

At Ranthambhore we stayed at the Ranghambhore Kothi. Mr. Arvind had recommended another, more luxurious hotel, but we opted for this less-expensive place. We had a large room that was quite cold until the electric heater warmed it up but it was then quite comfortable. We had difficulties with some of the light switches that didn't seem to work and noted pigeons enjoyed roosting on our balcony. We saw a sign that hot water was limited to certain hours but this didn't inconvenience us as it was available when we wanted showers. The hotel did provide thick blankets each morning for our early safaris which were much appreciated and also served complimentary tea and coffee in the afternoon.

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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 10:14 AM
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Day 6: OK. The third time was the charm! We were able to finally see a tiger in the wild -- a very large female. We had almost given up but rounded a corner and there she was! After a very short time, she headed away from us so the convoy of jeeps that we were a part of headed a half mile or so away downhill in hopes that she would make her way there. She took her sweet time, but she did end up right in front of our jeep on her journey to a lake. She rubbed her head against a tree and then sat down for a rest from all the paparazzi.

The morning safaris, by the way, were quite cold; I'm just guessing, but it felt like just above freezing, especially driving fast in an open jeep in the morning fog. We did wish we had brought warmer clothes.

We saw more birds, monkeys, some crocodiles and fruit bats. Check out the photos if you so wish.

We then had a four-hour drive to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. The old town is known as the pink city for the color on the exterior of all the buildings.

Our Jaipur hotel, The Samode Haveli, is the former home of a local ruler. It was lovely and among the most impressive places we have ever stayed.

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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 10:22 AM
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Day 7

Today we learned the art of ignoring people -- mainly everyone trying to sell us everything from precious gems to cheap souvenirs. The hard sell was at a place where artisans turn raw rubies, sapphires, and emeralds (and more) into works of art. When I started looking at earrings, about 20 cases were brought up from under a counter and flung open. When we said no, we were led into another room filled with scarves. When we said no, we found ourselves in yet another store filled with block-print shirts. We are not big shoppers and It was a little much!

The sites today included the Amber Fort Palace, where the Hindu rajahs ruled until the place grew a little small for them. Then they built the City Palace in the heart of Jaipur. The rajah had trouble from time to time dealing with his 16 wives; when the number one wife left town, the others wanted her larger and more luxurious quarters. The rajah decided to have them play chess -- a game invented in India -- against each other, and the winner would get the queen's quarters until she returned.

We also toured the Jantar Mantar, which held devices to tell the time, latitude and astrological signs. On the way there, we saw a royal hunting lodge sitting in an artificial lake, as the rajah liked duck hunting.

Check out our photos here if you like.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 10:30 AM
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Day 8
I forgot to include this yesterday, but we drove on Day 7 to the home of an Indian family for a cooking class. We made a variety of items, and I chuckled as my husband did not earn high praise from our teacher for the way he spooned the mixture of veggies and chickpea flour into the pot of boiling oil. We met her two daughters, ages 9 years and another 9 months, and her husband returned from his job at the royal palace, where he works on special events such as weddings and VIP visitors. They shared with us photos of the wedding album and spoke about everyday life and customs in India. The evening was one of our highlights thus far, as the family's warm hospitality made us feel like VIPs ourselves! We awoke in the middle of the night to pouring rain, and it rained most of the day. Still, we headed out to take a photo of the Wind Palace, which boasts more than 900 windows. Then we set out for a walking tour of the city, passing storefronts that sold spices, chili peppers, chai, veggies and everything else one needs for daily life. We saw two barbers offering haircuts on the sidewalk for 100 rupees (about $1.20).

After our walk we drove to a place that demonstrated block printing -- a process that uses large wooden blocks with carved designs. To make the image of the elephant, four or five blocks are dipped one by one in dyes made from plants and pressed, one atop the other, onto a sheet of cotton. The color changes after it dries and oxidizes. My husband loved the process so much that he had two shirts made -- custom tailored and delivered a few hours later to our hotel. They turned out beautifully. He claimed he needed them for his increasing size. (The food here is simply too good!)

We then headed for Dera Amer just outside town where a wonderful young man turned part of his family's farm into a haven for one camel and two elephants that his family rescued from the hard work of carting people up to the Amber Fort Palace. Even though the government regulates the latter, limiting how many trips elephants can make each day and what hours they can work, it isn't an ideal situation for the elephants. Here on the farm guests don't ride on the elephants but walk alongside them. We were told that the one caretaker who does ride atop helps the elephant feel safe and secure. The family is dedicated to restoring most of the land to its original wilderness condition. That means hyenas and leopards can be found on the property as well as 90 species of birds, including peacocks.

Check out the photos here if you like.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 10:36 AM
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Day 9
Today we flew from Jaipur to Udaipur -- both located in the state of Rajasthan, a place that managed to hold off the Moghal attacks from the north. In fact, the leader of Udaipur was dubbed a Maharana (not a maharaja) to show his status as a warrior king.These days, Udaipur is dubbed the Venice of the East for the waterways that link its man-made lakes, created for irrigation and to supply drinking water to the town. Because this city of 1 million is so beautiful, it's also a big wedding destination.

We managed to find, too, its wild side. Just above our hotel as were coming back from a stroll by the nearby lake, we saw a peacock above the door. (The peacock is India's national bird, and we have seen them in most of the places we've been thus far.) On our drive to a Hindu shrine, we saw a crocodile. That sighting surprised our guide, a native of Udaipur. "I just swam here a few days ago," he told us. "I thought the stories of a crocodile were a myth!." I don't think he's headed back in the water any time soon. At the oldest Hindu shrine, the Jagdish Temple, we saw monkeys leaping from the 17th century structure, reminding us of a scene from "The Raiders of the Lost Ark." We also saw another reason why Udaipur is called the Venice of the East, as pigeons were everywhere and would explode into flight whenever a toddler decided he needed to chase one down. One guide told us that pigeons are held in high regard in India though I can't recall just why. Cows are holy because they provide milk and are "considered a manifestation of the mother goddess." I was surprised to learn that most cows are owned by people who sell their milk; even though they run freely around the cities, they return home to be milked. Even cows that don't belong to anyone are cared for by various agencies. And while we've seen a few Burger Kings, the only burgers they sell are non-beef.

We also visited Sahelion Ki Bari, aka the Garden of the Maidens, where the queen and the women in her entourage would go to escape the palace and enjoy nature, fountains and cool air. It was quite nice, and it also reminded us that even queens led cloistered lives; they rarely left the palace and could only peer through screens at the world outside.

Check out photos here.



Day 10

We had a boat ride on Lake Pichola and passed by the Taj Lake Palace -- a hotel used in the filming of Octopussy, one of Roger Moore's James Bond films. We stopped at an island that was used to hide Shah Jahan (who would later go on to build the Taj Mahal). He was on the run from his father and sought sanctuary in Udaipur. The local king then hid him on the island, and when Shah Jahan's father came looking for him, the king told dad that he couldn't go on the island, as it was a shrine intended only for women to worship. As a result, the island is now called Jag Mandir (mandir means Hindu temple), even though there is neither temple or shrine on the island.

We toured the city palace, which is filled with mosaics and silver, but what caught my eye was the room occupied by one king who had polio as a child. His room included a wheelchair and had a nearby elevator to accommodate him.

Our evening included a great show that featured local dance, music and puppetry

Check out photos here.

In Udaipur, we stayed at the Trident, a beautiful hotel with lovely grounds.




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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 11:09 AM
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DAYS 11 & 12

We spent all of Day 11 traveling from Udaipur to Delhi to Varanasi (the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world).

Our first taste of Varanasi was driving from the airport to our hotel. We thought traffic was bad in Delhi. That may be true, but Varanasi traffic is several times worse than anywhere else in India that we've been. Check out this video (not mine) to get a sense of what it is to drive through a street where cars, bikes, rickshaws, tuk tuks, pedestrians, cattle and dogs might be coming right at you, crossing in front of you, or trying to pass you.


The challenge didn't stop when our car ride ended. We walked through narrow alleys accompanied by motorbikes zooming past us as we dodged sleeping dogs and eager beggars. We felt like we had definitely found the colorful, chaotic India we had heard so much about.

Upon arrival, we went out to watch a nightly ceremony on the shore of the Ganges on a ghat -- a platform at the foot of stairs leading to the river where locals bathe, pray, cremate their dead relatives and spread ashes into the water. We made friends with three young women who came to Varanasi to pursue their masters degrees at the local university. They were so sweet and offered to take us out to buy some local sweets when the ceremony ended.

The next morning, we met our guide at 6 a.m. for a drive and walk to the same area. This time, we hopped in a boat and spent about an hour cruising up and down the Ganges. It was both cold and beautiful as the sun rose over the eastern shore. We passed people bathing and two crematoriums busy at work burning the dead out in the open before their ashes were sent to the river.

Later, we toured a silk weaving store and then Sarnath -- one of four holy places for Buddhists, as this was the site of Buddha's first sermon and the first training ground for Buddhist monks. There are brick foundations of the site that was destroyed by Muslim invaders in the 1200s, but the large stupa remains to commemorate the site of the sermon.

We stayed at the Suryaudai Haveli, which was initially built by a Nepali royal family as a retreat for the aged. Our room had a small window overlooking the Ganges and we enjoyed the calm atmosphere of the hotel as well as the musicians that played at dinner time in the courtyard. We learned the hotel and all of the others along the river only serve vegetarian food but there were many options. We particularly enjoyed the hotel's roofdeck, with a great view of the Ganges. We initially wondered what the hotel staffer with a big stick was doing on the roof deck but soon learned his purpose after a troop of monkeys tried to join us.

As always, check out photos here.



Last edited by KTtravel; Feb 14th, 2023 at 11:13 AM.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 11:18 AM
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Day 13 & 14

We flew from Varanasi to Mumbai and had a whirlwind car tour of the city. Even though it is the second largest city in India (behind Delhi) with 20-30 million people (depending on whether you include the metro area, it is the most modern city we have seen in the country. No tuk tuks are allowed -- just small cabs, and the government can fine cars that honk excessively. More importantly, there is some observance of street lanes and very few cows mixed among the traffic.

This doesn't mean that the city is without its slums (there are plenty) or without vestiges of industries that seemed antique to us. Our first stop was to the Dhobi Ghat -- a giant area where 7,000 people wash tons of laundry by hand each day -- including newly made clothing, preparing it for sale. Workers wash loads of hotel bed sheets as well as clothing. Just above it rise modern apartment buildings. It was weird and wonderful to witness.

We then toured a train station that was built in a weird blend of Gothic, Arab and Indian styles. Once named for Queen Victoria, the Indian government changed its name to honor a revolutionary who fought against the Mughal empire.

We visited the house that Gandhi stayed in while he lived in Mumbai; check out the photo of the room with a simple mattress on the floor. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife spent the night sleeping in that room, and he came away from that experience dedicated to adopting Gandhi's principles of nonviolent civil disobedience to his fight for Civil Rights in the U.S.

We arrived at our hotel (the beautiful Trident) and learned that it was one of the sites attacked by Pakistani militants several years ago -- an attack that killed 30 people. Security at hotels across India have been beefed up since then, so we had no worries.

The next day we took an hour-long boat ride to Elephanta Caves on an island that featured statues of Shiva, one of the three main gods in the Hindu religion. Our guide was among the best we've had -- a grandmother -- whose children had love marriages rather than arranged marriages. Her explanations gave us a deeper sense of Hinduism and its values.

That afternoon we flew to Aurangabad to begin our exploration of two more caves with paintings and sculpture that date back to the second century BC.

Check out photos here.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 11:29 AM
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Days 15 & 16

We toured the Ajanta Caves on Day 15 and and the Ellora Caves on Day 16

The caves are quite amazing. And they aren't technically caves. Imagine a mountain made out of basalt - a hard rock created by lava after a volcanic eruption. Now imagine someone making a clay model of a temple complete with interior chambers and bas relief art. Then give a group of workers hammers and chisels and set them at work for several hundred years. Nothing in these caves was carved elsewhere and brought in to be affixed to the walls or ceilings. Everything was carved in place.

In the first caves we toured -- the Ajanta Caves -- the Buddhist monks also plastered over everything and painted the plaster with images of Buddha and the stories associated with him. Work began in 200 BC, and the caves were abandoned in 700 AD. About 1,000 monks lived and worked in these caves, with young boys studying the teachings of Buddha by listening to the older monks recite the stories that were painted on the walls and ceilings. One of the most impressive carvings was a sleeping Buddha (a nicer way of saying dead Buddha) that is the second largest sleeping Buddha in the world.

At some point, after the site was abandoned, rocks fell covering up all of the caves. Then in the early 1800s, some British troops discovered them while hunting a tiger. (The tiger survived, we're told.) Because they were hidden for centuries, the art survived far better than the art of the Ellora Caves, which were always known to locals. (Some of them hacked away at the carvings at Ellora to take them home as souvenirs, including some of the massive elephant trunks.

The Ellora Caves began in 700 AD and work continued for 400 years until they were abandoned. The difference between the Ajanta and Ellora Caves is that the first was exclusively Buddhist and the latter included Hindu, Buddhist and Jain followers all sharing ideas and styles. Jains, by the way, make up less than one-half of one-percent of the Indian population. One of its two sects doesn't believe in wearing clothes and both refuse to eat meat, fish or any root vegetable. Even Buddha thought they were extreme!

The first Ellora site we saw is massive -- about 1 million tons of rock were removed to create it, and many of its carvings grace Indian currency. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site as are the Ajanta Caves.

As always, check out photos here.

We returned back to Mumbai at the end of the day and prepared for our return flight home. To our surprise and delight, the Trident hotel upgraded us to a suite with an amazing view of the Arabian Sea. We ate in their more casual restaurant and received wonderful service (and free dessert!) from their kind staff. We wished we had more time to explore Mumbai as it is a beautiful city. We can only hope there may be a next time to visit more of fascinating India.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 05:00 PM
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Thank you so much for taking the time to share your trip with us. Your report gave me a good idea of what you saw and I love the diverse color in your photos.

Other than being in a populous country, it did not seem the sights you visited were crowded, not even the Taj Mahal. When did you travel?

Other than Mumbai, did you feel you had adequate time in each city you visited?

Was the hustle you described in Jaipur an issue everywhere?
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 07:12 PM
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Thanks for your comments, tripplanner001.

We just returned home a week ago and our guides did say tourism has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Things are slowly picking up and they are hoping for a better season in the coming year. We were almost first in line to see the Taj Mahal when it opened up before sunrise and were felt so lucky to see it before it became crowded. It really is a special place.

Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi were quite busy and crowded with Varanasi being the most hectic. However, we were glad we visited them, particularly Varanasi.
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Old Feb 14th, 2023, 10:38 PM
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Thank you so much for sharing such great trip experiences. There are a few places I really would love to visit their likes, Ajanta Caves, Ghats in Varanasi, Ranthambore National Park. There are lots of things/hustles that need to learn which every tourist can face anywhere.
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Old Feb 25th, 2023, 06:30 AM
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Just saw this, will begin reading. TY!
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Old Feb 25th, 2023, 12:04 PM
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Very nice TR. Thank you. It reads easily and the pics are great.

Having been to India myself many times now what you mean about learning how to ignore all the hawkers.
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Old Feb 26th, 2023, 06:21 PM
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I am glad you enjoyed it, jacketwatch! I am certainly not an expert like you are, but we felt like we learned a lot and had a great experience. What a country!
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Old Mar 31st, 2023, 07:46 PM
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The cave temples are truly magnificent. Thanks for the interesting facts. The Kailashnath temple of Ellora was built from a single rock.
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Old Apr 5th, 2023, 08:53 AM
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Originally Posted by KTtravel View Post
I am glad you enjoyed it, jacketwatch! I am certainly not an expert like you are, but we felt like we learned a lot and had a great experience. What a country!
thank you. Iím certainly no expert and I appreciate your input.

if you enjoyed going to India and experiencing all that is there, you may want to look into some of the documentaries done by the late Anthony Bourdain. He did trips to India and I watched one that I had recorded last night. This was on his trip to the Punjab. His documentaries are really much more about people and culture than about food. You may know that he was once a great chef. It was very well-made and well filmed, and it gives you an insight into India thatís quite keen.
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