India - Nepal – Expectations & Legend
The following were our expectations and a diary of our 2 week trip to India.
We traveled to the northern part of the country beginning in Delhi, the 2nd largest city in the World with more than 22 million people. Lynn had a preconceived idea that she wasn’t going to like the food. She didn’t. We tried a couple of Indian restaurants near us just to get an idea of what to order. We decided that neither one of us like curry. We have tried korma and tandoori and we have liked it. Hopefully, we would try some great dishes and love it.
People have said that Delhi smells. We didn’t find that to be the case at all. In looking at some photos online it appeared that the smog could be intense. That sounded like low light photography to me. Fortunately my camera gear handles that well (Nikon D7000 and Canon G1X). (This was not a problem at all.)
We would be spending a couple of days on safari in Rathambhore to see tigers. For my photographer friends, that complicates the camera lens issue. I needed a long lens for the animals, but I really didn't want to take my somewhat heavy Nikon 80-400mm lens. I was thinking the Tamron 28-300mm. My wide angle choice for the Taj Mahal, mosques, temples and monuments, 12-24mm f4? For general tour use..18-200mm. I didn’t plan to take anything heavy or fast on this trip. (I took the 12-24mm, 18-200mm and 28-300mm)
The Adventure - Our route would take us from Tampa to New York. We would spend the day in the city and rest for our flight the following afternoon to New Delhi. We would be in northern India (Rajasthan) seeing the sights as well as spending a couple of days on safari in Rathambhore National Park. Then it was on to Nepal for a few days before returning to the US. 16 days total.
After arriving at JFK and depositing our luggage in a nearby Hampton Inn we got a cab to the Sutphin Jamaica subway stop where we took the E train to Manhattan and Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center disaster. We were surprised to still find the entire site fenced in with so much continuing construction 10 years after the tragedy. You could only get in to the Memorial after getting a ticket. Lines were huge for that so we opted for a photo of the Memorial from one of the construction bridges. It was a beautiful day to walk in this great city.
After a lunch stop at a small Greek restaurant on west 42nd Street we decided to do the 3 hour Circle Island Cruise around Manhattan. This was our first time doing this trip. The cruise offered a different perspective to the city. The ship’s guide pointed out many points of interest including historical sites and the residences of many celebrities, both famous (John Lennon) and infamous (Bernie Madoff). The trip was first come first served on the roomy ships. Tickets were $37 each for adults with a $5 discount for seniors.
Our dinner following the cruise was at Docks on 3rd Avenue on Manhattan' East side. We all had seafood. This was my first visit to this fine dining restaurant. I plan to return one day. It is excellent.
After a late morning breakfast at our hotel near JFK on Saturday we left for our flight to New Delhi. The majority of the passengers on our Air India flight were from Indian families. The seats on our Boeing 777-300 were small and not very comfortable for our 14 hour flight. The flight attendants were impeccably dressed. Men in their crisp white shirts, females in their beautiful black & red saris. Food service was sparse with just a snack upon departing and breakfast before arriving in New Delhi.
In New Delhi we stayed at the fancy Oberoi Hotel. The drive from the Indira Gandhi International Airport was interesting. It was Sunday in Delhi yet there were miles of crazy traffic including motor scooters with entire families riding on the back, plus 3 wheeled taxis. I couldn’t wait to see what work traffic would be like on Monday morning. The highway was lined with shoddy looking small businesses. This reminded me of China when we were there in 2001.
Our hotel, The Oberoi was magnificent. It is in a large gated property. Guards search beneath cars with mirrors. The property has both an indoor and outdoor swimming pool and several high end shops like Hermes and Burberry. The rooms are exceptional as well.
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant 360 which was having a Japanese special. Lynn and I shared sushi including soft shell crab, prawns and eel and a Philadelphia Roll with a glass of Chardonnay. Excellent. The service was impeccable.
Later, we drove to Old Delhi where we visited Raj Ghat, a simple memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the Red Fort and continuing to the Jama Masjid, one of Asia's largest mosques, by bicycle rickshaw. You can't navigate the narrow streets of the bazaar by van. Later we drove to New Delhi celebrating the division of capitals of the British and the Mughals (Muslims). Old Delhi is a walled city. Our guide, Shweta, was excellent. She was able to answer every question that we had. Shweta's real career is as a fashion designer. Traffic was amazing. Folks are encouraged to honk when they need to pass.
Tuesday, we spent most of the day (6 hours) traveling to Jaipur. Since we returned from India we saw the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (twice). It was filmed in Jaipur and does an excellent job of showing what we experienced there. We expected that the drive to Jaipur would consume a travel day. Not! Our local guide, Brag, had already made plans to take us to the local bazaar and a few other historical places in the old city. We visited Jantar Mantar, an interesting display of huge astronomical items such as a giant sundial. The market in Jaipur was huge, but most of the goods were items for the local market like hardware, tires and such. Lynn decided on some costume jewelry.
Our hotel, The Trident, overlooked a lake with a palace in the center of a lake. It was quite nice. We were on the 4th floor overlooking the city. You could see the beautiful Jal Mahal (Water Palace) from our hotel. Rooms were average in size, but fairly luxurious. The staff was at our beck and call throughout our stay.
On Wednesday, we left the hotel for our trip to Rathambhore National Park after visiting the magnificent Amber Fort by elephant. Our trip to Rathambhore took approximately 5 hours over poor roads. We passed several interesting towns on the way. I got many photos of Hindu ladies in their orange and blue saris, barbers giving shaves and craftsman hand carving beds and such.
We also stopped for a textile presentation. One of our travel companions is a seamstress and wanted some material to work with at home.
Our safari lodge in Rathambhore was right across from the heart of the old city. Our driver offered to take us into the old town after we freshened up. We did and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of photos of life on the street that I was able to get. We also met a guide by the name of Ateek that offered to take us to a local school after Thursday's early morning game drive.
Our safari guide at Rathambhore the first morning ranked at the bottom of our list of good guides. He did not appear to be interested in us seeing a large variety of animals. He really didn't seem to care if we were going to be able to find a tiger, the signature animal in the park. On this drive we didn’t see any tigers.
Later in the afternoon, after freshening up we returned to the National Park and were joined by Vijay, a different guide. He turned out to be just the opposite of our morning guide. Vijay was full of enthusiasm and determination that we would be able to see a tiger. He pointed out the numerous Sandar and spotted deer. We also saw several crocodile. Rathambhore National Park closes at 6:30 PM daily. We were somewhat concerned at 6:10 that we weren't going to find a tiger when Vijay heard a warning call from deer. We hauled off at a very fast speed to locate the deer which he thought was within 500 meters. At 6:14 we spotted the tiger pictured on the cover of this site and photographed it as it cut across the trail in front of us. The tiger later picked up a kill that she had stored up the hill from us and like a flash she was out of sight. What an incredible experience.
The following morning we returned to the National Park, meeting our new driver and guide, Kaml. Again, we got an excellent guide. It seems like it is just the luck of the draw with guides for game drives. Again, it was a mad dash to view a large resting female in a valley of grass. Nice view, though her face never turned toward us.
After returning to the lodge and a light breakfast we began a long drive, more than 200 km, to Agra. Along the way we stopped at a beautiful Hindu temple and an impressive fort. We checked in at the Trident Hotel in Agra, a low single story place with similar excellent accommodations as the other Trident hotels that we have stayed at along the way. This one had a large pool in back on the grounds that appeared to be quite popular.
On Sunday morning I insisted that we get up early to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise (5:45 AM). What a site the Taj Mahal is and it was not heavily visited on the morning that we were there. We entered through the South Gate which was beautiful in itself. Security here was tighter than TSA. A pat down by the guards even produced Lynn’s vitamin pills that I had in my pocket!
The Taj Mahal was even better than I imagined with light striking every facet of the building in every way. I took many HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos as well as shots from every imaginable view. I even tried to copy a view that renowned photographer Scott Kelby featured on his blog recently. We returned to the hotel at 8:30 after our visit. The great early morning light had disappeared by this time. This was a fascinating adventure to say the least.
Later, we toured the Agra Fort. This is another incredible site. Huge, beautiful red sandstone, great carvings and views of the Taj Mahal across the river.
The following morning we left Agra to take a 2 hour train ride to Jhansi. We had First Class Coach Tickets. We thought that we would have a car to ourselves (6 of us). Not. The car was full with at least 50 occupants. Seats were comfortable. The coach was air conditioned. We noticed other cars offering economy class. Those cars had open windows with bars across them and no air conditioning! They were packed with the sweaty masses.
We arrived in Jhansi and our luggage was carried to our waiting tour van by several boys carrying as many as 2 large pieces of luggage on their heads. It looked like a scene from Out of Africa. We learned from the tour company representative that we now had an additional 4 hour drive to our lodging, The Hotel Chandela in Khajuraho. The drive was long and hot. The scenery through the country and small towns was similar to what we have seen before. The traffic was amazing. We passed vendors in traditional Indian dress and produce shops in the small villages along the way. The road was terrible.
In Khajuraho after a short rest at the hotel we toured the old town on foot. More than 4,000 people still live in this tiny area in small connected houses with dirt floors and no running water. Folks go to the local community pump and well for their water. I learned on our drive to Khajuraho that the community well is a recent feature, only about 5 years old. The Indian government provided the wells since it was necessary to drill deeper than the local wells to reach the depleting water table.
The following morning we visited the massive temple complex of Khajuraho. One of our fellow travelers said this site reminded her of Angor Wat in Cambodia, but with more order and better preserved. These massive sandstone temples are very ornate. It was hard to believe that they were built in just 20 years by more than 2000 laborers and 200 carvers. This tour was worth the long trip to get here. Later, we got our 1 hour flight to Varanasi on Jet Airways. We were given cheese sandwiches and water.
Our trip to Varanasi included 2 chances to visit the Ganges River At sunset we watched Hindu monks perform their thanksgiving ritual on the stages along the Ganges. We went to the ceremony and returned to the hotel by rickshaw. An interesting ride, but certainly terrifying at times as we dodged between bikes, tuk tuks, motorcycles, hawkers and tourists.
The following morning Shashank, our tour guide, picked us up from our hotel at 5 AM so that we could be cruising along the Ganges in a small boat at sunrise. This was another incredible experience. We watched the religious people bathing and saying prayers in the River. We saw the sunrise in the misty sky framing boats filled with tourists. We viewed 2 sites where cremations were taking place. The bodies were placed on mango wood platforms before burning. The closest relatives head is shaved before the ceremony. Only men attend the cremation. One of the cremation sites is responsible for as many as 400 cremations every day! We also cruised by the monastery of the Hare Krishna sect as well as several temples.
Our final tour in Varanasi and in India included visits to an ancient Buddhist Temple and the world's oldest Stupa and a museum. The following day we would begin our short flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Nepal - We arrived in Kathmandu to smoggy skies. We were shocked to find traffic in the city as intense as it was in India though possibly a bit more organized. We were met by a driver in a bus that had an air conditioning problem which meant that we had to suck in dust and carbon monoxide fumes. Many people in the city were wearing masks. The Nepalese people were dressed in mostly western outfits in contrast to India where everyone dressed traditionally. Buildings were more western and multistory.
Later we visited another religious site. We were not happy with Ganga, our soft spoken guide. We let the owner of the Nepal travel agency know about this the following morning. We also requested that the tour company take us into the countryside. This wasn't on the itinerary. Willie, the fellow from the travel agency, obliged by offering an add-on trip into the countryside for $10 per person. Everybody thought that this was satisfactory. This was a hit. We stopped at an inn at the top of a mountain for the beautiful view and a cold drink. Later we planned to have dinner at an award winning Chinese restaurant which is on the beautiful Crown Plaza property. This meal was stellar. The food and service were elegant.
That wraps up this trip which was an assortment of wonders, surprises and a few disappointments. Our favorite events were cruising along the Ganges to see the bathing Ghats, Rathambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve and the Taj Mahal. We tired of all of the visits to temples and forts. And, we certainly won't miss all of the shopping stops to look at carpets. The visit to Nepal was nice, but it wasn't really long enough.