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|Hopping around India with a brief layover in Seoul||1 2 3 4 5|
Trip Date: December 25th, 2017 - January 14th, 2018
India has only a third of the land area of the United States, yet in a way it is a much bigger country. We just returned from an 18 day vacation to India. Almost every night was spent in a new city given our typical Amazing Race / go-go-go style of travel, yet we managed to only barely scratch the surface of what this country has to offer. This is due to India's hyper-diversity arising from its long and complex history. While there are differences among American states, they don't come close to what you will find in India. Each of India's 36 states and territories is almost like another country with its own unique history, different language and alphabet. Visiting India is like going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. In each town we learned fascinating facts about the town which always seemed to involve some new ruling kingdom. We also got more and more exposed (and confused) to the many religions that coexist here side by side. On the trip, we visited Hindu, Muslim, Baha'i, Jain, Sikh, Budhist, Christian, and Jewish religious sites. And despite moving from city to city on a daily basis, we had to skip many important sights. We completely missed the mountainous north which is full of spectacular views of the Himalayan mountains. We also didn't make it at all to the eastern states nestled between Bangladesh and China and connected to the rest of the country only via a thin sliver of land. This is where the famous Darjeeling tea comes from. We didn't visit a single "hill station", as mansions built at high elevations by the British to escape the summer heat are called. We skipped important cities such as Bangalore, home of India's IT industry; Kolkata, the capital under the British Raj; Hyderabad known for its Muslim influences; or Mysore, famous for yoga schools. We also didn't get to visit any tribal communities. Our brief stop by a nature preserve was not sufficient to see exotic animals. You can see just how little we covered in the map below. We started in Delhi and finished in Mumbai.
This was actually my second time to India. The first visit was almost exactly 10 years ago and was limited to the "tourist golden triangle" of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. This time I wanted to see more, including the south which everyone was telling us is very different from the north (it is). Knowing just how chaotic India can be, we decided to go with a local tourist company instead of trying to deal with booking internal flights and drivers ourselves. I got to know Helene Cincebeaux from Treasure Tours through my Slovak cooking website. Helene organizes annual trips to Slovakia but recently expanded the destinations to include India. I asked her how she manages her India tours. She recommended that I get in touch with Sheesh from Hidden Treasures of India. Over several weeks of back and forth emails, we came up with an itinerary at a reasonable cost. Sheesh arranged our hotels, local guides, train and plane tickets, as well as drivers and people to meet us at the airport. The entire trip went almost totally hiccup free despite our ambitious schedule so Sheesh has my sincere recommendation. We ended up paying around $3,700 for the two of us. This included 5 internal flights, accommodation for 10 nights, camel (and elephant, but we missed this due to a late arrival) rides, plus all the local guides and drivers. It didn't include the cost of the flight to India, but as I already had bunch of United miles courtesy of the Chase MileagePlus card, the flight was free (we even managed to snag business class on the way back). The cost also didn't include tips and entrance fees to museums but these were usually fairly minor (around 500 rupees or $8 per person). We spent two nights at the Hyatt Regency in Delhi for free thanks to the annual free night credit that comes with the Hyatt credit card. Our tour with Sheesh ended with the arrival in Mumbai. There we stayed in Four Seasons, which was booked with some free night credits I had from Hotels.com. This trip report is split into 5 parts based on the states visited: 1) Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, 2) Rajasthan, 3) Tamil Nadu, 4) Kerala, and 5) Mumbai and the flight back with a stop over in Seoul, Korea.
We left Los Angeles on Christmas Day, December 25th at noon. We didn't get to India until 2am on December 27th which involved travel across the international dateline. India is 13.5 hours (yes, there is a 30 minute difference!) ahead of Los Angeles. Still, this was a long flight! We first had a 14 hour United flight to Shanghai. There we had a 3.5 hour layover but as we had to recheck our bags, there wasn't much time for lounging around. Still we managed to grab a light Chinese dinner before boarding the flight to India. This second leg was with Air India and was 7 hours long. The flight was nice, and we ended up enjoying few glasses of free whiskey with our seat mate, some Indian guy returning from a business trip to China.
The plane touched down in Delhi around 2:45 am but it took until almost 5 to make it through immigration. The line was ridiculously long and the immigration officers were working at the speed of the DMV workers in Zootopia. After passing through customs, we were greeted by the persons Sheesh had arranged for us. They offered us marigold garlands which was a nice surprise. I didn't know this ahead of time, but the way the tour process works is that typically there would be three people involved in each city visit. First there is one person who greets you at the airport. This person takes you to the driver and also makes sure your hotel check in goes smoothly. You don't see this person afterwards. At some later time, the driver returns to pick you up. A local guide may be with him, or you will meet the guide on the way to the tourist part. The guide usually stays with you just for the day while you are sightseeing. On the other hand, the driver stays with you until the driving part is complete. This may involve getting dropped off at the airport the following day, or may involve multiple days of inter-city driving. This is important to keep in mind since tipping is very much expected so you need to make sure to have bunch of change for all these various encounters. Additionally, you will need more small change for bell boys helping with the luggage.
We got to the hotel just before 6 am. After passing our bags through the customary X-ray machines to presumably screen for guns or bombs, we stopped by the front desk to inquire about check in options. I thought it would be silly to pay for a room for the prior night and figured we will just take a shower in the hotel gym and leave bags at the reception until the afternoon check in time. Well we got lucky as the receptionist told us he will have a room for us at 9am. This was great news. We spent the next three hours in the hotel restaurant. It wasn't quite yet ready for breakfast, but we were offered coffee while the workers filled the buffet stations. The breakfast spread at the Hyatt was impressive. We tried for the first time a really tasty vegetable soup called sambar. Seems that this is a typical Indian breakfast staple as it was offered at every hotel we stayed in. We ended up having sambar on a daily basis for the rest of the trip. The one here in Delhi was one of the best. In fact, this Hyatt had overall the best breakfast selection of all the hotels.
During breakfast we also got our first introduction to the infamous Delhi smog. By now, the daily pollution levels dropped off from the November airpocalypse but it was still quite noticeable. The restaurant doors led directly to the courtyard and whenever somebody went out, we could see a thick cloud billowing in. The visibility outside was so bad that you could barely see the top of the hotel tower from the swimming pool. Luckily the visibility and air quality improved as the day went on. This poor visibility was due to two factors. As we found out later first hand, northern India suffers from terrible fog in the winter months. It is also customary for people to dispose of trash by making little piles in front of their houses and setting them on fire. Multiply this by the millions of inhabitants, add pollution from cars and smoke from farmers burning vegetation in the countryside, and you get a dark cloud obscuring most Indian cities. The smog was most noticeable from the airplane. Unlike in the US, there isn't much to see during landing. The land below is completely shrouded in a thick opaque brown blanket. City features do not appear until you are almost at ground level. Having said that, this smog is not so bad that it should scare you from visiting this fascinating country. We brought some pollution air masks but didn't end up using them. I didn't even get the scratchy eyes I felt in Shanghai. The main issue with India's smog is the reduced visibility that makes it difficult to enjoy the famous sights, since you can't see them too clearly. Don't count on seeing blue sky during your trip especially in the winter months.
After breakfast, we checked in. We were given an option to upgrade to the top floor which gives you access to the Regency club and also complimentary breakfast. The cost of the upgrade was only slightly higher than the cost of breakfast so we went for it. The club offers various small tapa style bites and free drinks during the afternoon happy hour. As we don't like to eat heavy dinner, this way we basically also got complimentary dinner. The room was nice. We took a much needed shower - by now it was around 35 hours since we left our apartment in California - and then headed downstairs to meet the tour guide. We first visited the Lotus temple. This is one of only 9 existing houses of worship for people of the Baha'i faith. The temple is truly majestic from the outside. To further its appearance of a lotus flower, the temple is surrounded by 9 ponds. The inside is however austere - basically it is just a single large open room. Presumably this simple design was chosen to to keep the devotees from getting distracted from their focus on their religious deity. From the temple we next headed to Humayun's Tomb. This is the resting place of one of the emperors of the Muslim Mughal empire that came to rule over most of India between 1520 and 1850. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the first garden-style tomb built in India. It was in a way the first draft of the eventual design used to build the Taj Mahal. On the way back we stopped by the India Gate. We also passed by India's parliament and supreme court buildings. We then headed back to the hotel for the much needed sleep.
The next morning, I broke my maybe a 10 year long streak, and ran few miles on a treadmill. Then after some more sambar, we visited Jama Masjid, one of India's largest mosques. It was built by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal emperor responsible for the Taj Mahal. It's a truly astonishing structure. It was interesting seeing how the design of religious buildings seems to indicate something about the central core of each particular belief system. Christian churches feature a mass hall where people go listen to speeches. Hindu temples are full of numerous statues and icons, but there is no central gathering place and no preachers. A mosque is primarily an empty open corridor. Instead outside you have the massive courtyard which can accomodate up to 25,000 worshippers. The massive walls between the two minarets display verses of the Quran. One of the minarets can be climbed for an impressive view of the city. From the mosque we took a bicycle rickshaw to the spice market. Here we learned about different spices and observed Old Delhi residents nonchalantly wash themselves on rooftops in the open. From there we headed to a Sikh gurdwara (temple). Most religious buildings in India require you to remove shoes before entering but here you also have to cover your head. I liked the sense of community. Behind the gurdwara is a hotel where pilgrims can stay for free. Large part of the temple complex is devoted to an industrial-style kitchen where volunteers prepare daily meals presumably for the local poor people. Later we visited a Jain temple. Jains do not believe in a single creator. The earth is eternal and they follow the teachings of 24 saviors known as Tirthankaras. As most of Indians, Jains are vegetarian but they practice an extreme form of it. They don't use any root vegetable that had to be plucked from the ground. I knew that Jain devotees wear all white and cover their mouth to avoid swallowing flies but I didn't know there is another denomination, called Digambara, monks of which do not wear any clothes at all. The only article they carry with them is a broom with peacock feathers used to brush off bugs one could accidentally step on. We then drove past the Red Fort ended the day with a visit to a rug salesman. Although we had absolutely no interest in buying an oriental rug, this visit was actually informative. We learned that these rugs were made from individual pieces of thread tied together. Furthermore, the shade of hand knotted rugs changes depending on the orientation. They are much lighter in one direction than the other. This is not the case with factory-made rugs. We spent that evening enjoying the free cocktails and light fares in the Regency club.
The next morning, after another visit to the gym and yet more sambar, we boarded a plane for Varanasi. What's interesting about flying in India is that you need to present a printed copy of your flight reservation to a security personnel just to enter the terminal. It was like this on my visit 10 years ago but I thought that was due to Delhi having the small old airport with limited capacity. But this system is widespread all around the country. We had the printouts in the package provided by Sheesh, but if you were to book your own trips, it's important to print out all the confirmations. Security will often also make everyone show their boarding passes after deplaning at the destination so make sure to keep your boarding passes handy. Another difference is that when you arrive to the airport, you generally first need to go to a baggage screening station to have your bag X-rayed and tagged with an appropriate security sticker before dropping it off at the check in counter. Not all airports are like this, specifically Delhi and Mumbai do not have these external luggage screening stations. This setup does not appear very bulletproof, as additional items could easily be added to the luggage post screening. Hopefully there is some secondary check happening behind the scenes.
Varanasi sits along the river Ganges and is Hinduism's holiest city. Hindus believe that dying and getting cremated here helps end the cycle of reincarnation, allowing one's soul to achieve moksha. Many sick Hindus travel to this town specifically for this reason, hoping to live out their last days here. Some end up getting better, and instead of spending just few days, end up living for years in hospices and old people houses. Many others come to take a ritual bath in the river which is supposed to cleanse the soul of current and past misdeeds. The riverfront is organized into multiple ghats, which are platforms with stairs leading to the river. At sunset, each holds an aarti ceremony which begins with a chanting of Vedic scriptures. It is then followed by salutations with incense, smoke, and fire (not necessarily in that order). This is supposed to send off Mother Ganges to sleep but I am not sure how effective it is as it is very loud. Go out with a bang, I guess.
But getting there first requires crossing the busy streets outside. Of all the cities we visited on this trip, Varanasi was the craziest. Delhi is noisy, congested, and dirty but Varanasi takes it a step further. There are no sidewalks as they all have been taken over by unauthorized shacks and shops. Motorbikes and cars fight for space with pedestrians, beggars, sadhus, and cows. There are so many cows here. They are completely oblivious to the sea of people, scooters, and cars passing by. Being cows, they poop. In the evening people just hose off the area in front of their house, which then turns the streets into streams of poop sludge. Bring your galoshes. Still, its a fascinating place to experience. Varanasi is home to many of India's holy men known as sadhus. Just observing the sadhus is worth the trip. There are different sects; there is even one that practices cannibalism by picking up left-over "parts" at the cremation sites. YouTube has a great documentary on sadhus called Kings with Straw Mats. More frequently you will encounter more mainstream sadhus covered in white "paint". This is actually the ash from the cremation sites. There are also many fake sadhus who mark your forehead with the red tilaka (symbolizing the third eye of Shiva) unannounced and then expect some money from you. This happened to us within minutes of venturing out.
We were staying in a hotel called "Palace on River" which also goes by "Rashmi Guest House". The hotel itself is nothing fancy but the location is amazing: it's right by the river. At the reception we were offered a welcome tea while the receptionist recorded our data. Most hotels in India operate on a handwritten system, in which visitor data are recorded by hand in giant ledgers. At every check in, our visas were verified. It seems that India is much stricter about this, as I don't believe that hotels in the United States care about one's visa validity. Our room was overlooking the river. The room was tiny but functional. The main drawback is that one of the bathroom walls has open grates in the top quarter which open to the bathroom in the neighbor room. I am guessing this is to let the steam out, but it also means there is absolutely no sound proofing. Closing the bathroom door was only slightly helpful. Luck will have it that our neighbors were Czechs and if we wanted, we could have had a plain voice conversation with them from our bed.
The hotel's Dolphin restaurant has a rooftop terrace and this is where we had dinner. It was nice seeing the crowds thin out as the town slowly went to sleep once the Aarti has ended. Post dinner we walked around to explore the neighboring streets. The next morning we woke up early to take a morning boat ride on the Ganges. It was very foggy so we couldn't see much of the riverfront, but the fog made the experience feel mystical. Our tour guide told us more about the customs, especially about the cremation. Turns out there are actually two cremation sites, but Manikarnika Ghat on the northern side of town is holier of the two. The vast majority get cremated there. The funeral pyres are started with a fire that has been burning for millennia and is maintained by generations of untouchables called Doms. The Hindu society is divided into 4 major castes and a fifth group, comprising about 16% of the population, that is outside the caste system due to reasons not completely clear to me. Historically, these people have been considered so impure that the caste Hindus found even their presence undesirable. Yet somehow they are also responsible for maintaining the sacred fire. India is indeed a strange place. The dead bodies are brought to the cremation site wrapped in a white shroud which is then covered in additional colorful brocade. These outer sheets are removed before the body is placed on the funeral pyre. It is covered by more layers of sandalwood and then the son of the deceased lights the fire. Women and children are not allowed. Per our guide, women and children cry which would make the soul of the deceased unhappy. If the deceased does not have a son, then any male relative or a close family friend will do. Post cremation, the person lighting the fire is not allowed to venture outside the house for some prescribed period (around 14 days but going from memory). Relatives can visit him during the day but at night he needs to stay in a room by himself.
After returning from the boat ride, we had a traditional Indian breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Besides sambar, we also got lassi, a sweetened yogurt drink. Sandra really liked it! Masala chai is also very popular in the north. People in India, especially in the north, do not drink coffee. And if they do, it will be Nescafe. We then checked out of our room but left bags at the reception as we next drove to a nearby town called Sarnath. We were completely unaware that this is the location where Buddha gave his first sermon after reaching enlightenment. It is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Groups of East Asian people were meditating in the park or walking around the stuppa. Sarnath is also an important pilgrimage site for Jains, as one of the 24 spiritual teachers of Jainism was born here. On the way back to town we stopped by a place making silk scarves using manual handlooms. It was fascinating watching the process as I had no idea how the scarves are made. Turns out the pattern is fed to the loom using a long chain of punch cards. I am not sure what exactly these cards accomplish. After pressing the step pedal (really a long stick attached to a rope), the loom advances the scarf to a new row. The operator then needs to add the colored silk threads to make the pattern. This seems to be the difficult and completely manual part. These colored threads are wrapped around the support threads on the loom. The loom raises some selection of these according to the pattern but it seems it's up to the operator to know which color goes where. Of course, following the short demonstration we were taken to a room brimming with scarves, runners, and tablecloths. Visiting similar craft shops trying to sell us things became a pretty standard fare over the rest of the trip. The problem with many of these places is that while the quality is great, the designs are quite horrid. I don't know what idea of westerners these shopkeepers have, but not all of us live in massive mansions. We do not need a table runner 10 feet long, or a rug to hang on a wall - there is simply no space for that.
After lunch, we returned back to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the ghats. We were taking a 10 pm overnight train to Agra so there was plenty of time to kill. We witnessed the aarti again and walked to both cremation sites. I do not have any pictures from the bigger Manikarnika Ghat as people kept telling us not to take photos there. It was a spectacular sight. There were about 15 funeral pyres going on at once and new bodies were continuously being carried in. Earlier the guide told us that some 200 bodies get cremated there each day. Just watching these fires in the dark is worth a trip to Varanasi as I doubt there is any other place on earth (at least outside India) where one can experience something like this.
We traveled to Agra on an overnight train from Varanasi. I was initially excited about this as I never get to travel by train in the USA and train travel is so typical of India. We were originally booked on a 9pm Tier-2 train. It got cancelled as it was running 10 hours late due to fog. This was an omen, although I didn't realize so at the time. Our travel agent rebooked us onto a Tier-3 car in train leaving at 10pm. I figured one hour difference won't make a difference, instead of arriving in Agra at 6:30 am we will be there at a more reasonable 7:30am. Yeah, not so much!
Indian trains offer a whole lot less privacy than any other train I have ever traveled in. I guess this is a reflection of the society which is much more accustomed to sharing living space with many relatives. The 1st class cars are the only ones that offer individual compartments with closeable doors. All other classes are basically one giant dormitory. The difference between 2-Tier and 3-Tier is in the number of beds in each section (not really compartment as there is no door). The 2nd class 2-Tier has a total of 6 beds, with 2 beds on each side plus two additional beds in the direction of travel across the corridor. The 3rd class 3-Tier increases the total number of beds to 8, with there now being 2x3 beds in the main section. There is no longer enough space in the bed to sit up. If the middle passenger wants to sleep and folds up the middle bed, you will no longer have a place to sit. We ended up with Sandra getting assigned the top bunk in the aisle section with only 2 beds while I ended up in the top bunk in the main section of 3 beds. This worked out ok since I was able to at least partially sit up on Sandra's bed. And while this setup seems rather barren, most Indians actually travel in an even lower class. Further down the list is a sleeper class which shares a similar 2x3+2 configuration but the cars are not air conditioned and blankets are not provided.
I managed to sleep surprisingly well despite this being one giant dormitory. I don't remember anyone snoring loudly. I set my alarm for 6:30 am figuring that will give us just enough time to prepare for the arrival. My compartment mates didn't seem to speak English and I couldn't get the GPS location on my phone so I had no idea where we were. However I did notice that we were stopping quite frequently. Around 7 am we finally arrived at a station. The name didn't ring any bells so I started asking around if anyone knew how much longer to Agra. One young lad departing the train said we are about 8 hours away. That couldn't possible be right! We were supposed to arrive within the next hour. Even with a little delay, being 8 hours away didn't make sense. The whole journey was supposed to take only 9.5 hours after all. Yet he was right. Our "express" train #22970 from Varanasi to Agra arrived at 5:18pm instead of the scheduled 7:25am, almost 10 hours late due to heavy fog. This ended up being about one hour of delay for each hour of travel. What was quite amazing about all this was how little reaction this long delay elicited from the other passengers. Delay like this would lead to major protest in Japan where even a 30 second delay is cause for national news. It seems that Indian trains are notorious for having huge delays and people traveling on them just accept that they will arrive to their destination at some undetermined time.
Our original plan was to visit Agra in the morning and then drive to Jaipur in the afternoon with a stop at Fatehpur Sikhri on the way. Clearly with this delay that would not longer be possible. I activated data roaming on my phone so I could get in touch with Sheesh. He was initially optimistic that our train will arrive on time as at that time the train status was showing arrival before noon. Yet noticing that about every 30 minutes the delay grew by another 30 minutes and extrapolating the remaining time made me believe we won't reach Agra until 5pm, which turned out to be the case. We thus had to go to Plan B and spend a night in Agra. Luckily we were scheduled to spend two nights in Jaipur so we wouldn't need to rebook our upcoming flight.
Sheesh found us a room in the Grand Imperial, which was a beautiful colonial mansion converted to a hotel. It being New Years Eve, the hotel was hosting a gala party, payment for which was mandatory for all guests. We figured we don't have any plans anyway so why not. Our room was a massive suite that opened directly to the garden on one end, and the pool on the back side. The hotel has an Ayurveda spa. Due to some miscommunication, my visit there ended with me standing naked in a hot tub while some guy poured milk over me. Hmm, interesting but I don't think I will be signing up for this again! Later we walked out our front door into the party. It was a bit chilly with heavy fog and light drizzle falling. We started with some whiskey and then sampled dishes from the many buffet stations. We also danced to a mix of Indian and western music. Well, something in one of the dishes was not quite right. I started feeling queasy even while dancing and it got worse as the night went on. Sandra started getting similar symptoms soon. After we came back in, she had to throw up. I tried to fight it, but I also started throwing up around 3 am. And throwing up a lot! I didn't even know my stomach had such a large capacity. I probably puked about 8 times, and each time it looked like I dropped at least a pint of liquid. I don't know exactly which dish made us sick, but later our driver thought that perhaps it was one of the chicken curries. Supposedly it's quite common to use old chicken in heavily spiced dishes to mask the bad flavor. Indian cuisine is full of delicious non-meat dishes so it's better to just stick to vegetarian options. Sandra recovered from the stomach bug quite quickly but it took me about a week of popping charcoal pills and taking Bismuth tablets to finally return to normal.
The next morning we checked out early and headed straight for Taj Mahal. Agra also has the Agra Fort but really the only reason people come to this town is for the Taj. The heavy fog that delayed our train the previous day still lingered and we ended up with a very unusual view of the Taj: the one in which you can't see it. There were photographers hawking photoshopped images but we thought it would be better to stick to reality. How do you like our Taj Mahal shot below?
But at least we got to walk around the grounds and we even got a chance to enter the mausoleum. Here our tour guide showed us the intricate marble carvings that light up when a flashlight is placed behind them. We then hopped back in the car for a 4 hour journey to Jaipur. We liked this driver. He was quite aggressive (you have to be to drive in India) and has spent many years abroad working as a driver for western oil companies in Saudi Arabia. He was one of the very few Indians we met who has traveled outside the country. In fact, most of the tour guides and drivers we interacted with in the north have never been to the south and vice versa. It seems that traveling for fun is not a big part of Indian culture. Or at least not traveling great distances as all the famous sights and monuments are predominantly visited by Indian tourists. In the south, we ended up chatting with some biopharma workers staying in our hotel on a company retreat. When we asked one of them if he has traveled outside of India, he started telling us how he had a job offer from the United States but decided not to take it. When we clarified that we meant if he has traveled abroad just for fun, he seemed perplexed by the suggestion that people would do that (the other guy seemed surprised Sandra and I were married since he thought people in the west don't do that). It seems that people here stay close to the place they grew up. One exception is the recent movement of the younger generation to cities with the booming IT industry for jobs. And I guess this makes sense. India is a very traditional country in which people remain very close to their family. Add to this the necessity to learn a new language and alphabet and you can see why people don't migrate more. What also surprised us was how much better the roads got once we left Agra. According to the driver (who is from Rajasthan so perhaps there is a bit of interstate rivalry), the government of Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Agra and also Varanasi are located, is extremely corrupt. Judging from the road condition, he may be correct. Outside the city limit, the road comes under the federal government and it was much nicer.
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