Friday, March 11, 2011

India Part 2 – The Northern Adventure

The second half of our stay in India was spent in the northern section of the country. I'll pick up with where I left off in Goa then highlight our time in the north followed by some final thoughts on India.

We ended up spending a total of 4 nights in Goa. We stayed in the Panaji area about 10 km from what is known as Old Goa. We decided to stay in this area versus the beach areas since we had just spent so much time on the beaches in Thailand. In Panaji you can get a sense of the Portuguese architectural influence that is quite different than in other parts of India. The Goa area was a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese were actually the last European power to leave India after the British. Portugal still occupied Goa after India gained independence from Britain in 1947 until 1961 when they were sort of force out by the Indian army.

We realized once we got to Goa that we were going to be in need of a travel agent. This was primarily because internet access in general is of poor quality and hard to come by at times. wi-fi is virtually non existent. Even with internet access it is a challenge to travel independently through India. We spent one day looking for open travel agencies before finding one near our hotel. We spent several hours with a travel agent going over our options. We finally had to leave for the day and discuss our options that evening before going back the next day to negotiate the final deal. We ended up cutting out about half of our shortened itinerary for northern India due to the budget that we had set for ourselves. About the only sightseeing that we did on Goa besides stroll around the downtown area looking for internet cafes with wi-fi or open travel agents was on the last day and that was on the way to the airport. We negotiated with the taxi to take us to Old Goa to tour some of the old churches in the area before heading to the airport. The churches were pretty neat and free! Many of the churches were around 400 to 500 years old and were built in the Portuguese architectural style. We did see the tomb of the St. Xavier who is buried in Bom Jesus (baby Jesus) church. The only real negative was that I got sick in Goa and was offline for a full day which cut into our ability to go sightseeing in some of the surrounding areas. We probably would have toured a spice plantation and visited some other sights close by. I probably contracted some type of 24 hour virus. It wasn't too bad but could have been worse. I'll spare everyone the precise details.

Now that I had recovered from my first India illness and that we had a tour of northern India booked we headed up north to start in New Delhi. For our northern itinerary we booked a driver to take us between cities and guides in 3 different cities. This was a much better option than booking trains which we were having difficulty doing along with going through the hassle of finding an guide in each city. We landed in Delhi in the evening of March 2nd and were met at the airport by a representative of the travel agency we were using. He took us to our hotel and we sat down and went over the itinerary. Once we ironed out a couple issues I did what we did in Egypt and that was pay in cash up front for our week of activities to someone I would never see again. I handed over approximately 47,000 Rupees (~$840 US). Nothing like handing over a wad of cash to someone you'll never see again. The representative who was new at the company (that gave me even more confidence) said he had never had that much money on him before.

India Gate in New Delhi - memorial to Indian WW1 servicemen

We ended up spending just one full day sightseeing in New Delhi. We started out at 9 am and visited multiple sights. We went to the Jama Masjid (15th century) mosque, India Gate (India's Arc de Triumph), Gandhi's Cremation spot, Presidential Palace, Humayun's Tomb, and the Qatab Minar. My favorite was Humayun's Tomb which is a large complex for the 17th century ruler Humayun. We also got suckered into a shopping excursion where some gentlemen tried their best to get us to buy all sorts of Kashmir carpets and clothes. We specifically said up front when we booked the tour in Goa that we didn't want any side shopping trips. Alethea emailed the New Delhi travel agent to provide some feedback. They were aggressive but not too bad. Unfortunately, this is a common tactic. It almost happened again in Agra but we headed it off and went back to our hotel early. Even though we only spent one full day in Delhi I felt like we hit all the main attractions and weren't too rushed. We were back in our hotel by around 6 pm. One funny thing about our hotel is that hot water only works during certain times of the day and they were having trouble with the boiler on our floor. It took multiple trips of people to get it to work. They got the boiler started and we just had to let the water run for several minutes before hot water came out. This is actually pretty common in India.

Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi

Next stop on our northern Indian circuit was the mountain town of Shimla. We drove I believe 6 hours north with our driver to Shimla from New Delhi. Shimla is located at about 6,800 feet elevation above sea level. It was the summer home of the British government when they were in charge and served as a summer residence for the Indian President after independence. I liked Shimla. It definitely provided a contrast to southern India and Delhi. It was also much cooler at the higher elevations. We went from sweating in southern India to bundling up with our thermal underwear within a couple days.

We spent one full day sightseeing in Shimla as well. First place we came to was Kufri about 20 km outside of town. There wasn't too much to see but we did stop and get a pretty decent view of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains or least one small section of them. The area of Kufri is actually somewhat of a disputed territory between China and India. They fought a small war in 1961 over this and other areas. Our tour guide even mentioned that Kufri still shows up on Chinese maps as a part of China and not India and occasionally Chinese troops cross the line of control. China primarily wants this area for the water produced by the mountain snow. We did have clear weather so the views were pretty good. Other sights we saw included the Viceregal house that was built in 1888 to be the capital of the British government and Indian President's Palace. We saw Christ Church and a Hindu temple which was actually the 1st and only Hindu temple we visited in India. We did spend time walking up and down the Mall area which is lined with shops and is a place where locals hang out. We continuously had people staring at us as there were few westerners around.

foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in Kufri outside of Shimla, includes the Chinese border

One real neat thing we did the following morning was to take what is called the Toy Train. The Toy Train is a scenic old small train line that goes up and down the mountain. A lot of tourist take it but so did Indians as well. It was built in the beginning of the 20th century by the British. The trip took a little over 4 hours. The entire route goes through a little over 100 tunnels and over 800 bridges. One funny side note is that we couldn't go all the way to the terminus in Kalka because our driver is from Delhi driving a car with Delhi license plates. The taxi union of Kalka will not let non-local taxis pick up passengers so we got off one stop earlier to meet our driver. Other than that one issue it was a neat thing to do that I enjoyed even if the seats were a little small. Only other interesting thing about our time in Shimla is that our hotel didn't come with heat despite it being close to freezing at night so we rented a heater for $4.50 a night to go along with our two blankets and for me thermal underwear. Interesting but we said we wanted only 1-2 star hotels. I think heat comes with 3 stars and up.

riding the Toy Train in Shimla

We finished our travel day after the train ride by visiting a less than impressive garden before retiring
for the evening outside of the city of Chandigarh. One funny thing about the places we stayed in Chandigarh was that our voucher for our hotel didn't have the address or phone number of our hotel so our driver would stop, roll down his window, and ask strangers for directions. I actually saw the sign first and we eventually found the hotel. The next day we left at 6 am for what was supposed to be a 12 hour driver day to Agra but only took 8 hours. You never know with India traffic.

Agra was our last tourist stop in northern India. The main purpose for Agra was to see the Taj Mahal. We got up at 6 am and went when it first opened in order to beat the crowds and see it in good lighting. It is a beautiful piece of work. I was impressed by it. It is hard to describe in words. It is simple but very intricately designed and built. There isn't too much to say about it other than it is well worth the visit to Agra to see it. The pictures will hopefully do the talking. I've wanted to visit the Taj Mahal for a long time and it was the one absolute thing I wanted to do in India. We ended staying for about 2 hours total.

Taj Mahal

The other attractions we saw in Agra was the Agra Fort which is a large complex where India rulers lived starting in the 16th century. It was ok but we could only see about 20% of it since the rest is occupied by the Indian army. I believe we were only there about 30 minutes or so. We had the option of seeing a facility about 40 km away but since we both had very nasty head colds we decided to skip that item. Instead we used the services of our guide to go to the India post office and negotiate a way for us to mail back to the states about 2.5 kg worth of stuff we no longer need in order to make our backpacks lighter. It would have been difficult to talk our way through all the steps needed to get it done. During the process we ended up giving a woman an extra 50 rupees (~$1 USD) extra to wrap our package a little better. Technically, this may have constituted a bribe. She wasn't shy about asking for it. We also stopped at an electronics store to get Alethea another mouse for her computer. We also stopped at a pharmacy to get some more medications. Our guide was getting ready to steer us to a craft sales opportunity before we talked him out of it and told him we would go back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on online activities since our hotel actually had wi-fi. One of the very few places to have it in India.

Qatab Minar - New Delhi

This concludes the second half and northern tour of India. I was satisfied with the time we spent up north and with our overall time in India. I felt like I got to see some different parts of the country. I think we made the right call by switching from traveling independently to using a travel agent. I am also glad we drove around the northern part of the country for a week versus taking trains. We took one overnight train from Kochi to Goa. It wasn't bad but it didn't have much privacy. Having a car and driver gave us so much more flexibility and comfort which are helpful in India. It isn't all that expensive to hire a car and driver either.

Here are some of my final thoughts on India. To start with I would say it wasn't as bad I feared. I would also have to say that it wasn't exactly pleasant all the time either. I was impressed with the all the diversity within the country which I wasn't fully aware of before we arrived in India. Different states within India speak completely different languages than other states. People in the north can barely understand a word of those from the south. I was somewhat disappointed with how challenging travel can be within the country. I had expected a little better infrastructure including better roads and an easier time with trains. China's infrastructure is better from what I've experienced. Oddly enough this came up in discussion with Indians who had not been to China before. They would often ask how the roads and trains were in China. Of course the lack of infrastructure in no way made the driving any better or safer. India drivers are probably worse meaning more aggressive with no thought of following any traffic laws than their counterparts in China and Egypt. A 4 hour car ride can make you feel pretty worn out if you look out the front window while riding. I am getting used it to it after all the travel abroad but I would sometimes think to myself from time to time there is only so many times you can cheat death on the roads of India. We made so many close calls passing trucks, tuktuks, and other cars that just a slight mistake could have serious consequences. Also, just to add to the excitement drivers are frequently on their cell phones too. Our driver was pretty good about this even pulling off the road sort of to make some calls.

monkeys grooming themselves in public in Shimla

I mentioned this in my previous post but another thing I didn't like was all the trash just scattered everywhere. It seemed about everywhere you looked there was trash laying around . An another activity that got to me were men urinating in public. It was very common to see men using the bathroom in broad daylight by the road while traveling. Toilets aren't exactly common everywhere but still I think there should be some more discretion.

I would say that India would be worth another trip. We only stayed 18 nights but had originally planned on staying about 4-6 weeks. As mentioned earlier transport logistics, money, and the grind of India traveling had us cut our trip short. We have 10 year multi-entry visas so we can go back multiple times up until 2020 as long as we have blank pages in our passport. I might as well since our India visas were the most expensive on our trip. They were $150 a piece and you have to go to a 3rd party to get one. You cannot go directly to an Indian embassy anymore to get one. We could have obtained 6 month visas that were a little cheaper but they would have expired when we were there based on our original itinerary. The 5 & 10 year tourist visas are the same price so we opted for the 10 year visa just for the heck of it. If you're interested other expensive visa countries are China ($130 US), Tanzania ($100 USD), and Vietnam ($50 plus $16 for entrance letter). If I should go back I would like to go to the Rajastan area along with the northeast part of India up to Darjeeling and into Nepal and Bangladesh.

Alethea in our cold room in Shimla

There were some highlights of our trip. For me the number one highlight of all of India was the Taj Mahal. It is just a marvelous structure that should be a part of any India trip. I also enjoyed Shimla quiet a bit too. I kind of liked being up in the mountains with the beautiful views of the mountains and what I think was clean fresh air. The Toy Train trip was enjoyable as well. In the southern part of India I enjoyed the backwaters overnight cruise that we did although it was a little hot.

Overall I would recommend India as a place to visit. It is a remarkable country with plenty to see. A lot of it will probably stun your sense but it would be worth it. I would have some cautions depending on how one is traveling. It would be challenging for someone with not much experience traveling outside the US in my opinion.

Now that India is over we are done with Asia. We now fly in to Europe. Originally, we had planned on taking a Delta flight to Amsterdam but we ran into issues with not being able to accurately predict when we could fly on our standby passes so we purchased a confirmed ticket to Milan, Italy. We had multiple options but this one was the best fit of locations, price, and schedule of the flight. We'll fly from Mumbai to Amman, Jordan then on to Milan. We had an option to fly in to Cairo on Egypt Air but decided against it considering all the issues going on there. Cairo airport is a zoo anyway under normal conditions. We have put together an itinerary and budget for Europe. We'll take it country by country and see how we are doing before deciding when we will be coming back to the US. Hope all is doing well. Time to get a bite to eat here in Amman airport.

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log

Thursday March 3rd
First full in New Delhi after flying up from Goa yesterday.
Visited all of the following sights: Red Fort from road, Jama Masjid mosque, India Gate, Gandhi Cremation spot, Humayun's Tomb, Qatab Minar. I though Humayun's Tomb was the best. Large and pretty. Kind of disappointed in Jama Masjid mosque. India Gate was pretty neat too.
Saw the above sights from 9:00 am to 5 pm. Had expensive lunch and was taken to a Kashmir shop for a sell that wasn't planned.
Came back to hotel and got caught up online on expenses, pics uploading, and trip research.
New Delhi is a big messy city. Kinda of crazy.

Friday March 4th
Long drive to Shimla. Left hotel around 8:30 am. Arrived in Shimla around 5:30 pm.
Saw some neat scenery.
Shimla is pretty but compact. Has a Gatlinburg feel to it.
During the drive we spent a couple hours going over our cost options for flying into Europe. Sometimes a little painful but we got on the same plan.
After we checked in we walked to an internet cafe about 15 mins from our hotel and researched flights for a hour before booking a flight from Mumbai to Milan, Italy via Amman, Jordan. It came down to not being able to trust the numbers for the Amsterdam flight since the Mumbai crew is using KLM\Air France's system and not Delta's. The confirm tickets on Royal Jordan weren't that expensive considering it is only a few days out. I believe they were around $440 and it puts us into a city and country we planned on visiting. If we flew in to Amsterdam we would have taken a train to Brussels to start our Europe portion of the trip.
To celebrate we stopped at one of the few alcohol stores and bought some whiskey and 2 beers.
Didn't eat dinner until 9 pm. It was included in our room rate. Our room doesn't have heat. It does have two warm blankets and you can rent a heater for 200 R a night ($4.50). I decided to rent the heater. It works pretty well.

Saturday March 5th
Sightseeing day of the Shimla area.
Drive 17 km to Kufri. Saw the foothills of the Himalayas. To the north was Tibet. China actually claims Kufri on their maps but we were clearly inside India by several km. We were around 300 km from Pakistan. Weather was clear and we got good views.
Drove to Viceregal House. Built in 1888 by British. Was summer home of the British govt. India used it after independence for a little bit. 1945 conference regarding India independence was held here. Gandhi was in attendance.
Went to mall. Had lunch and walked around mall.
Had tea with guide.
Visited Hindu Temple. Guide educated us on Hinduism.
Bought another new pair of sunglasses.
Very good day. Good weather. I like Shimla. It's like Gatlinburg but with 2 million Indians.
Came back to room and drank beers we bought the previous night.
Restocked on toiletries.
Went to internet cafe and researched hotels in Milan. Booked one but it is expensive. Ok for 1st European one since we will have a long travel day to get to there.

Sunday March 6th
Rode Toy Train down from Shimla. Train is very scenic. It is a narrow gauge old train. There are a little over 100 tunnels and over 800 bridges. We rode for 4.25 hours from 10:30 am to 2:45 pm. Seats were pretty cramped but otherwise it was a very enjoyable trip.
Shbu picked us up from station. We drove a hour to Kalka where the train actually ends but we got off early because their taxi union will not allow taxis from outside their area to pick up passengers from the Kalka train station.
Went to Pinjore Gardens. They were built in the 16th century by one of the Mogul Emperors. It is a 7 terraces set of gardens inside a walled compound. It is nice but 50% of it is being refurbished plus people are living inside of it. This was for something we paid for even it was only 40 R total.
Had the option of going to the Rock Garden but passed.
Eventually found hotel. Our voucher had the name of the hotel but no addresses or phone number. Our driver would drive around a general area and roll down his window to ask people in Hindi.
Checked in and discussed Europe itinerary.
Ate dinner.
A very loud party is going on next door that we can hear very loud. It is outdoors and is probably an Indian wedding celebration.

Monday March 7th
Long day of driving from Chandigarh to Agra. Left at 6:00 am and arrived at 4:30.
Driving was crazy as always.
Hotel actually has wi-fi.
Booked hotel in Mumbai.
Have nasty head cold.

Tuesday March 8th
Slept really bad due to nasty head cold
Got up at 5:45 to see the Taj Mahal at the opening.
Left hotel at 6:20 am and drove the 1 km to the Taj. Had to take an electric vehicle about a km to the entrance after purchasing tickets. There were separate lines for women and men.
Toured the Taj Mahal from around 7 am to 8:30 am. It is very spectacular building. It was well built and looks to be in good condition. I've seen buildings of nearly the same size from the same time period that do not look as good. The guide mentioned they wash it every 3-4 years with mud 1st then water.
Came back to hotel to eat breakfast by 9 am.
Didn't leave for 2nd half of day until 10:30. It was good to have the break since we are both not feeling well. I took some medication and washed up.
Went to Agra Fort from 10:30 until 11:30. The fort was the home of several India Mogul rulers. The army still occupies 80% of it. It was Ok but not all that spectacular. It was worth it though.
Decided to not go to the place that was 40 km outside of the city that is a walled in city. Alethea had been before but we didn't feel like driving and sightseeing for 4-5 hours.
We gathered up excess stuff we ever accumulated or had but no longer feel we need and with the help of our guide we shipped it back to the US. It was 2.65 kg of stuff that should help. It cost $27.95 including paying 100 R instead of 50 R to a woman who said she would wrap it a little better. This may have technically been a bribe :-). It would have been a real challenge for us to negotiate our way with the India post office.
Went to ATM machine to pull out more money.
Stopped by pharmacy to by some medical supplies since they are much cheaper in India versus Europe.
Alethea and the guide stopped by an electronics store to buy a new mouse.
Guide try to take us to a craft type store but we said no and went back to the hotel since we were tired and not feeling. Back in hotel by around 1:30 pm.
Spent the afternoon in the lobby of our hotel getting caught up on pictures, expense tracking, blogging, and other misc internet related tasks

Wednesday March 9th
Checked out of hotel around 8 am and drove to New Delhi
Tipped driver 2500 R which was more than we expected but was probably more in range with what the norm is.
Flight to Delhi was 1 hour late leaving with no announcement as to why.
Driver wasn't at airport to pick us up. Had to talk my way back into arrival area past security to have hotel desk call our hotel and have them come get us. They said the flight # was wrong but that was bull.
Found driver 15-20 minutes later. Drove to hotel.
Checked in. Arranged for transport the next morning. Ordered dinner to our room.
Took shower – no hot water despite letting it run for 10 minutes.
Read a little bit then slept for about 4 hours. Hotel cost $43 for 7 hours use. Glad we did it vs sleeping in the airport.

Thursday March 10th
Wake up call at 2:35 am instead of 2:45 am.
Left hotel around 3:05 am. Arrived at airport by 3:25. Was told it would take 45 minutes. Barely took 20.
Checked in and went through immigration and security.
Spent my last 60 rupees on a green tea at 4:15 am.