Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Brief Tour of Northern India

In late 2004, I traveled to India for the first time. I had been invited to a sort of coming of age party for a friend’s son and since I was still working for Delta Airlines as a flight attendant and could fly standby for free, I thought that was a good excuse for an adventure. Since I was going all the way to Mumbai, I decided that I wanted to see more of northern India, specifically Rajasthan. My friends warned me against traveling alone, so I put together a rough itinerary of where I wanted to go, then shopped it around to several Mumbai travel agents. Within a couple of days everything was booked and I was ready to set off on my tour with a private car and driver (but no guides). I visited all the main sights in and around Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Agra and Delhi plus went on a tiger safari at Ranthambore and bird-watched at Bharatpur. Overall I had a great time, despite getting very sick about halfway through the trip. Plus I felt that the value for the money I paid was very good considering I had full control of the pace and itinerary.
biking through a bird sanctuary in 2004
Thus when Greg and I encountered full trains and other hassles during our first two weeks in southern India, I knew the best thing to do was decide how much we were willing to spend to see the top sights on our list, and then shop an itinerary to several travel agents. At that time, we were in Panaji, Goa, and we ended up working with a travel agent named Charu at Kesari Tours, which had an office just a few meters from our hotel. As it turned out, all of the booking was actually done by Ramesh at Pro India Tourism in Delhi and Charu was just the middle man.
Greg framed by India Gate in Delhi
We originally had Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Darjeeling on our itinerary, and Charu recommended that since we were in the area, we shouldn’t miss Khajuraho (for the erotic temples) and Bandavgarh (for a tiger safari). However the logistics for getting to and from Darjeeling were complicated and costly so we “swapped” it for another Himalayan town, Shimla. Still, the first quote of RS54500 ($1222) per person in 3-4 star hotels (or RS49500 per person in 2-3 star hotels) for the two week trip was more than we wanted to spend. Trying to break down the expenses of the trip (to figure out how to lower the overall cost), we guess-timated the Tata Indigo (small car) with driver at RS3000/day (vs. RS4000 for a Toyota Innova SUV), hotels at an average RS3500/night including breakfast, and guides at RS1500/day. Any admission fees and other meals were not included.
a zoomed-in view of the Himalayas from Kufri
Realizing we were nowhere close to our target budget, we had the difficult task of choosing which sights/destinations to ax. As Greg really wanted to see the Taj Mahal, and I wanted to go up into the mountains, we decided to narrow the trip down to a seven night/eight day itinerary focusing on Delhi, Shimla and Agra. After much negotiation, we agreed to a final price of RS22000 per person, not including 2.8% tax.

Luckily, the trip did go pretty smoothly, a far cry from the seeming chaos (primarily due to lack of communication by our travel agent) of our Egypt tour. The only real issue we had to sort out upon our arrival in Delhi was that the car we had booked, the smaller Innova, did not have seat belts despite the reassurance of the travel agent in Panaji that all tourist vehicles would have them. I insisted on the seat belts and it resulted in a free upgrade to the much larger (and safer) Innova.
traveling like this was NOT an option!
We had some very long days of driving, which was necessary as there are not any places worth stopping between the cities we visited. This is more exhausting and stressful than you might think due to the road conditions, traffic and crazy driving. For example, the day we drove from Delhi to Shimla involved leaving the hotel at 8:15AM, driving for about three hours, taking a quick five minute toilet break at a petrol station, driving another three hours, stopping for a 45 minute lunch break, driving another two hours, taking another quick toilet break, driving another 1.5 hours and finally arriving in Shimla at 6:00PM.
in India you have to share the road with all sorts of animals and machinery
Our guides in Delhi, Shimla and Agra were all knowledgeable and friendly (although not really a necessity in Shimla if your driver speaks decent English and you can communicate where you want to go outside of town). Our driver, Shibu, did speak enough English to get by, was always friendly, and kept the car clean for us. His driving was aggressive as is typical in India, but he got us everywhere safely and that’s what matters in the end. All the hotels we stayed in were typical Indian 3 star hotels, meaning they were not perfect, but were comfortable enough, with one exception. Our room at the Hotel Silverine in Shimla could barely be considered a 2 star as the furnishings were very dirty and it did not have heat, forcing us to rent a space heater for an extra RS200 per night to stay warm in the below freezing temps.
our hotel room in Shimla appears to be radiating heat but in fact was freezing
These are the sites we visited in each city:
  • Delhi - Jama Masjid, Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, India Gate, the Rajpath, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar Complex Photos
  • Shimla - Kufri (for almost 360 degree Himalayan views), Viceregal Lodge, Christ Church, Scandal Point, The Mall, Kali Bari Temple, Himalayan Queen train ride from Shimla to Dharmpur Photos
  • Chandigarh - this modern city was on our itinerary but our driver didn’t take us to the city center and our hotel was in another nearby town called Zirakpur; we only visited Yadavindra Gardens in Pinjore Photos
  • Agra - Taj Mahal, Agra Fort; did not go to Fatehpur Sikri as scheduled because we were both sick with sinus infections and needed to rest Photos
All in all, not a bad way to wrap up our time in India!
we were both sick at this point, but smiling all the same!

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