Northern India Trip Report

Day 0 06 Jan 2016

We got a great deal on our flights paying only around $875 US round trip, nonstop JFK – New Delhi per person on Air India, booked through The downside was we needed to drive from Rochester to NYC to catch the flight. We decided that we would drive the night before our flight so we didn’t need to worry about traffic. We stayed at a Best Western in Jamaica, NY which I would not recommend. The location was great, however since we left  from home after work we didn’t arrive until 1am, only to discover that our room was not clean. We had to wait about 20 minutes which is a long time when you are so exhausted. This was particularly frustrating because I had chosen this property over our typical Marriott properties since I wanted to use my Orbucks credit of $50 but it didn’t go through when I made the reservation and by the time I called Orbitz couldn’t credit them.

Luckily I found a good deal on parking through where I found a good price, read reviews and made my reservation at Park King – John F. Kennedy at 248-61 Rockaway Blvd, Rosedale, NY . All went very well at drop off and we got a quick ride to the airport. Check in was the usual somewhat disorganized process that goes with traveling many international carriers. I was pleased to see that the print out of the e-Visa process I followed was not questioned at all.

Flight was good, they fed us decent Indian food every couple of hours, much of it vegetarian. Slept well with my favorite travel pillow, the J Travel Travel Pillow My kids don’t love this pillow but it is the only one that works for me. We were also traveling with our medium sized Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow that we use for international travel, flights, camping, canoeing….. .

Day 1 07 Jan 2016

Immigration was amazingly fast thanks to the e-Tourist Visa process we did ahead of time through Travisa.  The paperwork and photo processing ahead of time was tedious. You need scans of your passport, electronic copies of a passport photo, which I did at home through, your flight information and the address and owner of your destination hotel, along with more information about your parents than seemed reasonable. They will not process your request until 30 days before your departure but if you submit it early they will just hold on to it. They returned an email to me with the e-Tourist Visa approval in less than 24 hours although they say it can take longer. Any aggravation with the process was quickly forgiven when we followed the signs on arrival to the special immigration lines for the eTV. There we discovered that we were first in queue despite being near the back of the plane.

Next we went to collect our luggage which was rather slow. We traveled with backpacking packs since I had read that the uneven and dirty ground was not great for suitcases with wheels. Customs was a self declaration deal where he if selected the line for nothing to declare you just walked right through. All in all very simple.

Next we met the a representative for the local company that is contracted by Encounters Travel where we booked our tour. We were quickly escorted to the car and driver.  Immediately ones senses are overwhelmed. There are people, vehicles and animals everywhere. Driving seems incredibly dangerous as no one follows the rules of the road. The roads are too narrow and motorbikes, motor rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, push carts, cows, goats, dogs, and people share the street in numbers that are hard to imagine. The noise is also overwhelming as the horns are constantly blaring and the vendors are hawking and the dogs are barking and the beggars are begging, and 5 times a day the Muslim call to prayer blaring over speakers and music at all times. The other thing there is an abundance of is color: beautiful saris, orange robes, flower wreaths, small street side shops selling beautiful fabrics, scarves, saris….. Lastly there is also so much trash and dirt: paper, plastic bags, food scraps being picked over by the cows and dogs, cow manure, dog poop, and human urine as men just face the wall and urinate anywhere on the street. I am immediately pleased with all I see, hear and feel as seeing very different cultures is one of the primary reasons I travel. India is very, very different.

We enter a neighborhood that is away from the main, modern city and after wandering around in what feels like a circle, the driver stops at our hotel, Singh Sons Hotel (add link). The hotel is surprisingly fancy. As with everywhere we went you are immediately greeted by a couple of hotel staff who want to carry your bags for 10 rupees. At registration for the hotel they make copies of our passports and we sign the large guest registry. We are also met by someone from the local tour company AVM. They go over our itinerary with us and head out. We are immediately figuring out how to get bottled water, a working local cell phone and rupees. The hotel staff are happy to walk us around to the shops we need. We had packed an old fashioned dumb phone that I bought for less than $10 US a few years before in Kenya. We went to buy a SIM card at a tiny shop across the street from the hotel and were surprised that they required a copy of my passport and a passport photo which I did not have. However, this problem was easily solved for about 70 rupees and 5 minutes in another tiny shop around the corner.

After our successful errand run we relaxed for a little while in our rooms, avoiding falling asleep so as to better adjust to the time change. We had 2 rooms across the hall from each other with 2 twins for the kids and a king for Bryan and I. The rooms were clean and spacious. Wireless internet was technically available, however it worked very poorly. There was a TV but not more than 1 or 2 channels in English. English however was spoken to some degree by almost everyone we met. From the beggar children who knew “Hello” and “Money”, to our guides and drivers who spoke excellent but heavily accented English. We ate dinner in the hotel dining room that evening and the food was very good and reasonably priced. Then we went to bed early to recover from the long flight and the culture shock.

Day 2  – 08 Jan 2016

We woke after a reasonable night’s sleep given the time change and went to the buffet breakfast. It was mostly traditional India foods which, while tasty, were a bit more flavor than I am looking for at breakfast. I tasted a few things but settled on a banana, corn flakes and a piece of toast. They had chai, tea, hot milk and juice too.

After an early breakfast we are off for our first day of sightseeing around 08:30. The first thing we observed for the day was the dense haze, fog or smoke (yes, smoke). In fact, much to our amusement all 3 of these adjectives are consistently reported as the weather for Delhi in the winter. Today we have a driver and a guide for our sightseeing and after a short drive we switch to 3 cycle rickshaws for a ride through the narrow congested alleys of Old Delhi. It feels incredibly crowded to us but as we learn later it will be much more crowded later in the day. At this point most of the shops are closed and many people are still asleep. Several new things stand out immediately including the monkeys climbing all over the buildings, the outrageously rigged out electrical lines everywhere that convince you that there must be multiple electrocutions every day, the cycle rickshaw drivers working very hard and regretfully the beginning of the never ending hawkers in your face refusing to take no for an answer.

One of the few things I really didn’t like about my experience with India was the constant barrage of people trying to sell me something or begging. It is unrelenting and annoying, and for me greatly reduces the amount that I am likely to buy. All the guides we were with told us very firmly to refuse to even say no when people approached us. We were told to just look away from them and keep walking. All the local advice we received also told us not to give to the beggars. It is not something that the hardworking people we met feel is appropriate. The sentiment I picked up was that the are embarrassed by it and know that it hurts tourism. I even had one guide tell me that some of the beggars consider it a job and make as much as 1,000 rupees a day, which is good money in India. If you want to help the recommendation is to donate to an agency and not the street beggars.

Back to our rickshaw ride. While I obviously wanted to come to India to see sights such as the Taj Mahal, I really travel to experience a very different culture and in this I was immediately happy. India is very different. While it has many similarities to other cities I have visited in Central and South America, and Africa, it has many unique features that make it more colorful and vibrant. In some ways it is closest to Istanbul because of the different religions and clothing.

At the end of the rickshaw ride we went to a mosque, Jama Masjid mosque I believe, which was interesting but not one of the really memorable sights we saw that day. We had lunch, drove around the new part of the city which we could barely see due to the smog/haze/….. and we went to Ghandi’s cremation ground. This was in a nice garden and was meaningful to us since we had watched and read about Gandhi before coming and found him to be an amazing person with an amazing story and obviously central to India. Our guide provided some valuable insight into the the sight as well and it was generally fascinating to hear his perspective on Indian history. He was trained as an historian and economist and clearly followed current events closely. He also had very strong political leanings and great distrust of Muslims. As an elderly Hindu gentleman who was a boy of 7 or 8 when his family was forced to leave their home in Pakistan after the British split it from India when the British gave these countries their own sovereignty, one could see where he may have acquired his negative sentiments. However, his political views got old after awhile.

I had asked him to take us to a market as we have often enjoyed the local bazaars in cities during our travels, he instead took us to a large shop that sold classic Indian items where we bought a few largely overpriced items including a scarf, tops for the kids and some spices. We knew the prices were a bit high but later learned they were way over priced. We now understand the system is that our guide received a commission from the shop for bringing us there.This is true with all the guides and drivers and gets annoying after awhile. The interesting part of the visit was an explanation of the carpet making and materials. These upscale tourist shops also provide tea and soft drinks while you shop and as with everywhere, bargaining is expected.

Day 3  – 09 Jan 2016

The next morning we were up early for the several hour drive to Agra. In this case we were just with our driver which was great because we got to know and like him very much. His name is Bram and he was with us until we took the train to Varanasi. His english is excellent and he has a great sense of humor. He is also very knowledgeable about the areas we traveled and went out of his way to accommodate our every wish.

Getting out of Deli was slow due to the traffic which apparently was much less than it could have been since Delhi has recently instituted an every other day driving scheme for cars to help with the significant smog problem. It’s based on license plates and the last digit being even or odd. Bram feels it is helpful, at least with traffic!

Shortly outside Delhi you get to fields of mustard and wheat and lots of tall chimneys where the locals bake the clay they have dug into bricks. These are not big factories, just individual fires with tall chimneys operated by a family. It was a pleasant drive and we enjoyed being away from the city.

In Agra we stayed at Hotel The Light House which was a bit off the beaten track in Agra which made us optimistic that it would be quiet at night. Alas there was a big party there and the music and dancing kept us up a lot of the night. This theme was to be repeated on many evenings around India. The hotel was pleasant, clean and comfortable otherwise. From here we visited Agra Fort. While a fort has been present on this sight since the 11th century, the major buildings in this walled city were started by Emperor Akbar in 1565, with most of the work done over 8 years  by his son, Shah Jahan. This UNESCO World Heritage sight would make Agra worth a visit even if it wasn’t in the same town as the Taj Mahal, which was built by Shah Jahan to bury his most beloved wife. Sadly for him he was imprisoned in the Fort, by his son Aurangzeb, for the last 8 years of his life in a what is a lovely building with a fabulous view of the Taj, but still a prison.

Our favorite aspects of the fort were the massive walls and doors and the mirror room. The mirror room was built with a mosaic of mirrors along all the walls and ceilings, purportedly to help heat the room as it was the “winter” living room. We had a guide for this tour and he was knowledgeable but I was finding that having a guide for everything, even though he was only guiding my family limited my ability to wonder at my own pace. In the future I would prefer to just use a driver for most sightseeing in India.

From here we went to the Taj Mahal. Having a guide here was very helpful to avoid lines. There are long lines getting through security at the Taj and getting inside to see the actual tomb (although really the whole structure is a tomb) and the guide cut through much of this. The Taj is truly breathtaking. It is an amazing sight, and having seen pictures of it wasn’t much of a surprise except that it seemed much larger than I expected. We walked all around and took a million pictures. Then we went inside to see the actual tombs. I would say that if you had to wait in a long line, the inside might not be worth it. It’s quite dark and crowded inside and they move you through very quickly. Going in does give you an opportunity to see one of the only things about the Taj Mahal that is not perfectly symmetrical. While Shah Jahan planned to build himself a similarly grand tomb he never got to do so and was instead buried next to his favorite wife.

Day 4  – 10 Jan 2016 –  

The next morning, after a very noisy night’s sleep we headed to Ranthambore in search of tigers and sloth bears. It was a pleasant drive and we enjoyed the countryside and getting to know Bram better. We also stopped to visit Fatehpur Sikri along the way and were really impressed with it.

Fatehpur Sikri description here

After a long, but excellent day,  we arrived at our hotel a bit worn out but were very pleased with the setting of our hotel. The Ankur Resort is set just at the edge of the smallest town we had stayed in to date and has a tall wall surrounding a very pleasant complex. There was a main building with a huge central spiral staircase painted to look like a tree and comfortable couches for hanging out and using the internet, a simple, but pleasant dining room where we would have our 3 included meals each day, and detached buildings where the guest rooms are. However, our favorite part was the lovely courtyard area where we could relax, enjoy fresh air and have lunch and a cool beer.

The kids room was in a different building than ours and that was a little discomforting to us and would clearly not work if the kids were younger. For us it was fine except for a bit of a challenge with the locking system that is popular in India. You are given a key to a padlock that hangs on the outside of your door, and there is only ONE key. So we did have an instance or two of  accidentally locking someone in there room. This was easy to do because you felt a need to lock when you left because the doors wouldn’t even stay shut without the lock. Luckily my son has big lungs and we finally heard him hollering after his sister locked him in.

The only down side to the hotel was the noise the first night. There was blasting music till around 4am which we were told because it was the evening after a major government exam and all the students were out celebrating the end of their months of studying. I sleep with noise canceling headphones on so I can fall asleep listening to a book tape (and because my husband snores) so it wasn’t as bad for me but my husband really struggled. It also didn’t help that we had to be up a t 5am for our first safari jeep ride.

Upon advice from Bram we upgraded our safari ride from a large canter that holds about 20 people to a small jeep for about $35 US more for all of us. The jeep held the 4 of us and a nice couple from New Zealand, and the driver and guide. It was a very chilly morning, and we had bundled up but the ride to Ranthambore National Park was bracing. Once in the park our guide and driver started the search for a tiger hunting for tracks along the dirt roads and listening for animal and bird cries that would indicate a tiger alert being issued. It didn’t take long to find tracks but they couldn’t be followed very far as the ground became hard packed. So we continued to head every which way based on indicators that were far from clear to us. It was very bumpy and holding tight was essential but we were at least enjoying the scenery of cliffs, sunrise, massive banyan trees and numerous deer and trying not to expect much since we had been told that our chances of seeing a tiger were 40% at best this time of year.

Ranthambore National Park encompasses 392 sq km, only a fraction of which is open to the public. In this vast area there are 66 tigers and cubs. In the summer months when water holes are dried up it is easier to spot the tigers because they are forced out of hiding to get water. In the winter though they are more elusive. We were very lucky though and spotted a lone tiger laying in the shade on the side of a hill just off the dirt track we were on. He was an amazing sight and didn’t seem that disturbed by our presence so we got to watch him for a few minutes before he ambled off up the hill.

Our primary goal accomplished and the morning permitted safari hours coming to a close we headed back to the resort. There we had a hot breakfast with lots of tea to warm up, then rested and had a lovely lunch in the courtyard. My husband and I even took a walk around the town. We love to walk and it was one of the few times we went out without guides and drivers to experience things on our own. However, the locals cannot seem to imagine that we would actually choose to walk anywhere. They are also always anxious to sell us something. So as soon as you leave the grounds of just about every place we stayed you are bombarded with rickshaw drivers wanting to take you. When you tell them that you want to walk they see it as a bargaining tool and just keep lowering their prices. There were times when we were surrounded by so many rickshaw drivers that we could barely walk and feared that a fight might break out as the drivers got angry about who had claimed us first.  Typically though once you got past the hotel entrance they left you alone about rides. Many shopkeepers still stuck goods in your face but if you kept walking the left you alone. Our group discussed many times that less aggressive sales techniques would have benefitted the shop keepers as even when we liked the merchandise we refused to buy from anyone who was annoying us.

After a pleasantly overwhelming walk through town we left for our afternoon safari ride. For this outing we went in the larger vehicle, similar to an open bus, called a canter where we were joined by a large extended Indian family. While we did not spot another tiger, we did see a crocodile, many types of deer and antelopes, a pair of mongoose and a sloth bear. The afternoon ride was overall not as pleasant (we ate a lot of dust and sat by the watering holes for a long time hoping for a sighting), but I was very pleased that we had seen quite a few of our favorite Kipling storybook characters: Baloo, Shere Khan and the mongoose, Rikki Tikki Tavi.

Happily that evening we had quiet nights sleep after taking cold showers to get the many layers of dirt out of our pores, hair and noses!

DAY 6  – 12 Jan – Ranthambore to Jaipur

Before we got underway for Jaipur we stopped at a women’s cooperative textile shop recommended by Bram. We had many it very clear to Bram that we wanted to shop as the locals did and we wanted no more of the commission based expensive tourist shops. He assured us that this shop was a good deal and good for the community so we gave it a try. They did have very lovely things and we bought a gorgeous bed quilt and some jewelry charms. I’m fairly certain it was still slightly overpriced and that Bram received a commission but it was far better than previous tourist shops that other guides had led us to so we were pleased.

We had seen many Hindu temples as we drove round but hadn’t entered any yet so we asked Bram to take us to one. He chose a famous monkey temple called, XXXXX. Ian was a little anxious about the selection of a monkey temple since he has been both bitten on the lip and slapped by monkeys at various times during other trips but he decided maybe he could make peace with monkeys at the temple. The temple is cut into a large cliff face and no one was reassured by the sight of dozens of monkeys raising down the sides of the cliff as we pulled up. Bram had us by a bag of unshelled peanuts at the gate so we could feed the monkeys. Ian was very afraid! However, the monkeys seem to know that he came in peace and the only one they jumped on was me, of course that was likely because I held the bag of peanuts. It was quite the experience has we climbed the cliff hewn stairs farther up through the temple, being constantly surrounded by 100’s of monkeys. We fed them peanuts one at a time and they were mostly quite gentle at taking them from our hands. They also showed off for us, especially the young ones, who would make huge, graceful leaps into the pools of water we passed as we clinbed. AT the top we entered a small sanctuary where a priest gave us a blessing, tied a good luck charm around our wrists, left for women and right for men, smeared something orange on our forehead and accepted our donation. He also taught us about the monkey god. It was a moving experience.

Jaipur was everyone’s favorite city and we loved it from the minute we saw it. You enter along a lovely, crowded, divided street with a long, 3-4 story facade lining one side. The faced was built so when the Maharajah entered with his long contingent (think Aladdin’s Prine Ali number) his wifes and harem could view the parade from behind the concrete screens without being seen in public. Of course, the face=ade is pink, or really more coral colored as are the fronts of all the buildings in “The Pink City”.


Kalwara Haveli Hotel

DAY 7  – 13 Jan –  Amber Palace & optional Elephant ride. Afternoon Jaipur tour

This morning we visit the nearby Amber Palace and can take an optional elephant ride up to the ramparts before being guided through the site. In the afternoon take a guided tour of Jaipur, taking in the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), Jantar Mantar (Observatory), City Palace and some local temples and street life.

DAY 8 – 14 Jan –  Jaipur. Free time. Tour ends

Afternoon transfer to railway station for overnight train to Varanasi  (Train Marudhar Express timing 1545/1030 AM Class – 2nd AC sleeper) highest class of travel available on this train is 2nd Class air conditioned sleeper carriage. Overnight on train (B)

15 Jan – Day 9 – Arrive Varanasi today at 1030 AM and transfer to hotel. Relax and evening visit to see an Aarti ceremony. Overnight in The New Temple Town Hotel. (B)

16 Jan – Day 10 – Today early morning enjoy boat ride on Ganges. Enjoy sightseeing tour of old city visiting narrow lanes, temples, ghats and Banaras Hindu university. Later visit Sarnath where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. Overnight in The New Temple Town Hotel.  (B)

17 Jan – Day 11 – Day at leisure to explore on own. Evening transfer to railway station for overnight train to Delhi. (Train Shiv Ganga Express timing 1930/0810 AM Class- 1st AC Sleeper) highest class of travel available on this train is 1st Class air conditioned sleeper carriage. Overnight in train. (B)

18 Jan – Day 12 Arrive Delhi and transfer to hotel. Day at leisure and late evening transfer to airport for your flight back to home at 0130 AM. (no meals)


Date Sector Train Timings Class
14-01-2016 Jaipur / Varanasi Marudhar Express 1545 / 1030 2nd AC
17-01-2016 Varanasi / Delhi Shiv Ganga Express 1930 / 0810 01st AC


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