wanted to share with you some of the highlights (& lowlights) of our 3-weeks-long trip to India (5th-27th of Dec, 2010). Trying to do it "live", however internet access is not always provided.
So, plan of the trip has been described in a separate thread:
Some of you folks commented, that I'm out of my mind with such a schedule, but so far so good :) (writing this on the 4th day).
DESTROYED BY NATURE(to be explained later)
So, first of all, if you have a limited amount of time and you want to make sure you use your time get a private car (not that expensive) and the most important GET A GOOD DRIVER. Priceless. Guides are important, but that's the driver who will stay with you most of the time. You really want to have somebody driving smoothly & safetely through India. It sounds easy when you're on 101, but it is next to impossible in here. We had luck to have a driving-master. He drove us from Delhi->Agra->Jaipur->Udaipur + around cities (15hs in total) and it was just smooth. In comparison - today we had a cab from GOA airport to the hotel (45mins): almost like a turbulent landing in a monsoon season. Here's our driver:
And here is what it looks like: http://kowalik.smugmug.com/Travel/India/14998806_7CrUV#1135218699_Af4r5-A-LB
Another good learning (for the 4th time now) - combination of wikitravel.org and flyertalk.com is a great source of travel advice. I don't even remember when was the last time I bought printed book. Apologies to Pascal / Lonely Planet.
Dec 9, 10, 10:00 am
started pretty nicely, we have arrived at WAW (EPWA) well in advance, that our flight (WAW-VIE) is 30mins delayed. No issue as long as you don't have ... 50mins connection time. After few beers in the lounge we have been kindly asked to proceed to OS (Austrian) desk just to learn that we're flying TK (Turkish). No issue, TK's fleet is pretty modern, flight-time together is little shorter than OS, however we arrived at DEL(hi) 4 hours later than planned. Yes, our driver loved that idea. Managed to call him from WAW - thank god.
Highlight: we got an op-up IST-DEL. Lie-flat beds in C are just stunning - have a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqTcL1A3fNM. Lamb was also perfect - "meeeeeeeee!".
We drove from Delhi directly to Agra, planned less than 24hs there (including back-to-life activities after using all goodness of TK's C class). Despite no-sleep experience, that 4 hours drive was a kind of a culture shock for me/us. It is a 1st time in India, I was prepared for some emerging-market sights, but you just need to be prepared for more. Driving is a "must see" experience.
Day 2 & 3 - Agra and surroundings
Agra Fort (view from that one):
Just stunning, let along that love-story, but the whole complex is amazing.
Amazing how you can build a HUGE city in the middle of nowhere and abandon it after 10 years. Reasons unknown (scarcity of water blamed by the guide) but it's just a gigantic area.
Day 4 - Jaipur
Another 4 hours of driving, starting to understand Indian code-of-driving. Pretty wild one. Even for somebody from Poland :). The most surprising thing is a lack of rear-mirrors among motorbikes/scooters. That's an utter suicide in Europe. Here it's not a problem at all.
Amber Fort (read: Ameer Fort) - packed with tourists
Distant View of Jaigarh Fort - That's a stunning beast!
City Palace - Nothing REALLY interesting after seeing #1/#2,
Astronomical Observatory was an interesting one (don't mention Copernicus)
Day 5 & 6 - Udaipur
Another 6 hours of driving through wild-east national highway! Udaipur welcomed us with a much better air and less traffic, although old-city (tourist spots) are pretty much separated from the new town. Initial plan was to see just few regular places but given our young legs we just wanted much more. City Palace is the first place you'll be directed (pretty nice one), also the Pichola Lake ride is a must. We extended it with:
Kami Mata (great view of the city)
and Monsoon Palace (mountain view)
Udaipurians are very proud to be a part of Bond 007 series - half of "Octopussy" (#13) was filmed here. After 7PM JB's theme is easily audible in the city center - be prepared for an old good cold-war action when eating your naan and sipping your lassi/kingfisher.
Day 7 & 8 - (South) Mumbai
Completely different India, less noise, much more green, less pollution, no more agressive sellers. We spent a weekend there, so also much less traffic than usual. When I think about it - the best place to start when traveling in India. Will skip describing all the places we've been to - you can easily walk around and just enjoy it by yourself. Try to sneak into local (=no Westerners at the tables) dining places and try Cheese Dosa for breakfast or Gujarati Thali for dinner.
But here comes the second big learning of this trip: make sure you have all emergency phone numbers handy and your agency/guide is prepared to handle that. We had a health-related problem (nothing long lasting though) and both our agency and guide were able to get us to the best hospital in town and rearrange (slightly) rest of the trip. All happened on early Sunday morning. We cancelled Day #2 in Mumbai and flew directly to Goa. It was a hard-core experience but with a very positive result.
Day 9 - 11 - Goa
Well, arrived to Goa today and we discovered right away what December heat means. The most important thing for me was a clean air – proximity of the sea made a huge difference. Almost two hours drive to the hotel located in Calangute Bardez, North Goa gave us a good preview of this catholic area. Easily visible Portuguese influence (peoples’ names!) combined with tropical feeling made it worth seeing. Don’t want to compare it to Macau, however Azulejos, casinos and seafood seemed to be the linking point. We stayed at Casa De Goa which appeared to be so called “boutique” (western) style with a pool, Indian/Continental restaurant and big LCD TVs. Must admit that this was one of the cleanest places we’ve seen with a very nice and motivated team (reception. general manager, laundry service, especially folks in the restaurant). “Diet” food was not a problem, constant supply of nicely priced Kingfisher and black tea was not a problem, very late check-out (5PM) was not a problem neither.
Back 15 years ago I have discovered electronic sounds with a very hard beat – psychedelic trance (also called by some GOA). This was one of the main reasons of visiting this place. And I must admit that I was kind of disappointed – while this was very popular back in nineties – given the serious problems with drugs and organized crime beach rave parties have been forbidden by the government. Basically all music needs to be turned off at 10PM. So, unless you make a good research beforehand (which I failed to do) you won’t be able to experience it. I found one bar on the beach Pity.
What was even more surprising was the amount of tourists in Goa (and also other parts of India) – it was really low. When traveling around Goa I was vastly surprised by empty tourist spots, almost empty beaches with bars waiting for customers. Russians appeared to be a significant part of the tourism down here – many adverts, menus, etc were written in Cyrillic. Few hotel employees in many Indian places connected lack of tourists to the Mumbai events back in 2008. Just sad.
Day 12 - 15 - Kumarakom & Allepey, Kerala
Today we arrived by train to Kumarakom (Kerala), it was a little sleepless night and an interesting experience but we managed to charge our batteries in Goa, so it is not a problem really.
Why Kumarakom? Well, good friend of mine has decided to marry an Indian girl and to arrange the ceremony in Southern India. We spent three days in Zuri resort, which is an upscale prepared to handle well those kind of arrangements. Despite the fact that we come from Catholic background, Christian ceremony combined with Indian Customs (Sangeet, Barat, Mehdi) was soooo different.I also tend to think that gathering (caging?) whole group in one place, away from any bigger city for three days creates a very good atmosphere. After the first day you start talking to everyone, so you are all friends during the wedding day. Also attended my first cricket match :).
Day after the wedding we have boarded a houseboat to travel around. I must admit that it was one of those items which raised my suspicions when looking at the itinerary. I’m an inland yacht skipper since I was 12 and the whole of sitting on a very slow motorboat idea sounded really boring. However I’m on a boat right now and after 6 hours of cruising I must admit that I was wrong. Vast space filled with water, palm trees on the horizon and not too many mosquitoes so far. Let’s see where it goes later.
OK, I was even more wrong than I thought, we have spent a marvelous evening being docked in the middle of nowhere, far away from the civilization. Our boat had an upper deck partially without a roof, so we spent over 4 hours there, in a complete silence, listening to “Lord Of The Rings” OST, sipping beer and watching a spectacular moon/stars/fireworks combination on the other side of the lake (several miles away). Gentle breeze kept all mosquitoes away – just loved that.
All I can say now is: try it by yourself!
Yep, it was a good idea to spend few days here to relax a bit and charge our batteries before Bangalore and Delhi. The funninest thing was that you don’t really notice that you arrived at Kochin Fort (touristy part). One or two stories buildings, all hidden in a tropical jungle added kind of a mystical feeling. It is pretty much separated from the daily-life, so less street noise. Our hotel was known to have one of the best spa and Kerala restaurant so we didn’t even hit new part of the city (Eranakoloum). We used those two nights for getting good food, ayurvedic massages and reading half-priced books from a nearby Jew Town.
Now we’re on our (a very crowded one) way to the Cochin airport to catch IndiGO to Bengaluru.
We decided to visit Bengaluru mainly to see our friends but also to witness the most ITized city in this country. From a first minute this was visible – clean airport, American company names all over and some really nice places to hang-out (Mocha Café, Botanic Garden). We spent walking around over half of a day – really nice, worth maybe an additional bar in that Botanic Garden?
This place is also fantastic for the book worms like we are – we visited several book stores offering both new and second-hand prints (will bring some locations later). What is most important – prices of those books are far lower than anywhere else. No, no – not pirated, just “to be sold on Indian subcontinent only”. I ended up (as usual) with 10kgs of additional luggage – thanks Kingfisher for not being too picky about it. Now I have to carry it on the 4th floor.
On the third day we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Delhi. Over half of the flights were massively delayed, surprisingly our one was on time despite foggy weather in DEL. Indira Gandhi International Airport welcomed us with a thick fog (holding pattern for 45mins), with a nice landing view from a front camera:
Seems like this will continue for a few days - will we depart home on time?
Oh well, back to the north! Much colder and much worse air to breath. Unfortunately we started seeing again sights like the one from Agra– ultra-poor neighborhoods, massive traffic and few more people trying to get some money from us. Pre-arranged guide and the driver saved lot of troubles. We did a usual sightseeing next morning (little petrified by out hotel’s neighborhood), unfortunately milk-thick-fog made it nearly impossible to see anything in Old Delhi.
Our guide tried his best do describe “what is out there”, but it was India Gate where we started seeing something.
We spent rest of the day on wondering in a shopping mall, eating and preparing for the late flight. Indian News TV kept informing about thousands of stranded passengers, cancelled flights and a general chaos. Indian Government even lowered the minimal visibility thresholds for landings and takeoffs to make things work. So, we drove to the airport 6 hours in advance. “Departures table” was in a pretty serious condition – almost all flights delayed, sometimes by 12h+! But not our OS! Austrian team appeared at checkin 5 hours before the flight (!), gave us vouchers for the “Green Lounge” where we continued to prepare ourselves for the flight :). In the very beginning they were planning to take-off 30 mins before the schedule but a thick fog eventually caused the 2.30hs delay. We didn’t mind – well prepared, sleeping in Exit Row seats, we reached Vienna delayed by 3 hours. Got quickly rebooked OS->LO flight. We’re just descending to Warsaw now, getting SO CLOSE to my corporate PC and Blackberry …
It was a good vacation, wasn’t it?
Dec 27, 10, 9:12 am
First of all – we were very glad to take the challenge and to visit India. As you’ve seen above there was a bit of a cultural shock here and there, but it is worth seeing how does 1/5 of world population live. I wasn’t however prepared for the mixed pictures that India provided – an ultimate richness of former kings and current magnats contrasted with an ultimate and helpless poverty. Probably it is good start at Goa / Mumbai and then continue to a more contrasted places up north (Agra & Old Delhi as the extreme examples).
Another pretty heavy surprise was the level of the “investment” into their sightseeing spots. While a few palaces are under constant construction to keep them alive, vast majority of places (forts, old mosques, etc) are just falling apart because of lack of any maintenance work. We had a strong feeling that India is a bit overusing their “sightseeing spots” resource without a proper investment level. You know – like this wild coal exploration all over the world without caring about environment. This probably won’t impact Indian tourist overnight – don’t worry – there will be lot’s of things to see 10,20 or 50 years from now, but it won’t stay forever. Question is if we want to keep some of those forever? Today we heard the best description for that: “destroyed by nature” – I love it so much, that I decided to use it as for trip’s name.
Mosquitoes – my biggest fear. Get some DEET and forget about it. I’m eaten alive anywhere close to the lake side, got bitten three times only in India.
Safety – we heard many worrisome stories before we even thought about going to India. I must admit that we didn’t have any bad experience during our trip. Common-sense needed – avoid dark places, don’t walk alone (especially if you’re a female), don’t expose too much of money publicly. If you keep a low profile and have some local person (guide/driver) you will most likely avoid any troubles. Indians are really warm, not always helpful but always smiling and doing their best to get a smile from a foreigner.
As mentioned before, when you have a limited amount of time you want to maximize the outcome. This needs to be done by combining air/rail transport as well as working with “local” agencies.
When it comes to the transportation I already covered driving in India. Time for some notes on air transport - we have experienced three different domestic airlines down here: Jet, Kingfisher and IndiGO.
Kingfisher: Mumbai-Goa, Bangalore-New Delhi
Not sure if we were just lucky, but the service was just flawless – like in other places in the world. Pretty new airplanes, steady flight and an exceptional service onboard. All airports were clean, effective with ground crews being helpful – things like check-in, carrying the luggage was mostly done by them. It was kind of a stupid feeling to be 100% honest, but so be it. Half of those flights were purchased 48hs in advance, but prices were still decent.
Trains - In India we planned for 3 overnight trips – our travel agency did their best to secure 3-tier AC coach and we were good to go. Our first (and only …) trip started and Margao (Goa) and ended at Cochin. ~850kms took 12hs, which is well known to us, as Polish railways back 20 years ago (as well as now: WAW-GDN, 350km, 6h). We were pretty realistic about it and didn’t have too high expectations. Clean sheet and blanket was provided, we had considerate fellow-travelers (they patiently waited for me to finish reading before turning off the light) and we were good to have a good sleep. We were well aware of the “Indian Standard Time”, so we were not worried when our train was late by one hour – nobody seemed to be surprised at the station (apart from a group of Germans and Israelis waiting with us at the platform). Few tiny things made me a little worried about that solution:
- Indians tend to be pretty loud and move around pretty intensively – I used my earplugs and eyes-cover to fall asleep. But I wasn’t too sure about all our belongings.
- Almost all tourists travelled with a huge number of small bags, backpacks and boxes – we had a pretty big problem to convince them to rearrange storage to fit everything
- Bed length – I’m 190cm tall (not an extreme, right?) and the bed seems to be few inches too short to stretch.
The last one killed my sleep really and taking into account the first problem we decided to move back to air for longer distances.
Don’t get me wrong – train is a great mean to travel within India, but you need to be aware of above. I hate to make this comparison, but we’re all humans: back three years ago we have used trains in China as a main transportation on both short (45mins) and long haul routes (26hs). Beds were short as well (if not shorter) but there was less “crowd” during the night and just a bit more discipline with bags. That helped
The other explanation is, that I’m just getting older?
I think the most important factor is a good “local” agency that links all items of your trip together. You can’t say really “local Indian” as different people need to guide/help you and there should be one that synchronizes all those activities. We had luck to have such a “guardian angel” who was able to propose a very decent itinerary well ahead (6 months) and change in live when we asked for it. Those things like rearranging our Mumbai setup due to the emergency, switching houseboat trip details or moving all train logistics into flights (along with guides, pickups, etc). Very prompt all the time, responsive in mornings / late evenings.
Don’t want to advertise here, so PM me if you’d like to have their details.
Well, that’s all folks, I definitely encourage you to see India if you haven’t seen it so far. Just be prepared and open-minded!
Dec 30, 10, 6:23 pm
Great report! Enjoyed it thoroughly. Brought back some great memories.
And the prices of the books were just brilliant. Under USD 10 for hardcovers. Also picked up some cheap "For Sale in India" only high end software.