Wednesday, March 16, 2016

India trip 24 February – 13 March 2016

The genesis for this trip occurred 12 months ago when looking at my bucket list of things to do I realised that Vivienne and I had never spent time in India.  Various friends had recommended going to India with one constant message – only stay in six star hotels.  CAM, the alumni magazine for Cambridge University, consistently runs advertisements promoting Martin Randall Travel so I booked a tour starting on 26 February 2016 and finishing on the 11th March called Essential India. 

The only airline that flies direct Sydney – Delhi is Air India so I booked a return trip departing 25 April and returning 11 March.  Numerous flight changes later the flight dates were finalised as 24 February and 12 March.  I came to dread emails from Air India as this meant booking addition hotel nights.  Also when I told every travel agent that I subsequently met in Australia that I had booked with Air India their faces were a combination of stunned surprise and admiration for my bravery.

The flight left Sydney on time and arrived at Delhi airport on time.  We felt immediately as if we had arrived at London Heathrow.  There were Indians everywhere. We were met by a rep from tour co who had arranged a driver to take us to hotel.  We followed him out into lower car arrival/departure area which was a huge blast of noise, honking horns, hordes of people massing in all directions. The traffic was utterly chaotic; overtaking on both sides, everyone weaving in and out, each intersection a game of chicken.  There were two added touches: motorbikes and cyclists, sometimes a car even, unbelievably came towards us against flow and every so often a group of sacred cows were planted on the road as a mandatory diversion.  We got the Taj Mahal hotel at around 8:30 pm and as we had been well fed on the flight we showered and crashed into bed.

The next morning we asked the concierge about going to Jaipur for the dayand he said if we wanted to spend 10 hours in a car it would be a great choice.  Instead he recommend a number of places to visit that proved excellent.  We attempted to walk to local Khan market which is supposedly more European. A chef from hotel returning to his lodgings walked with us to ensure safe crossing of roads. Then a autorickshaw driver stopped by us, the chef said he should take us to an Indian market as the Khan market did not open till lunch time, advised what to pay etc. it was most entertaining, weaving through the traffic. The driver then just waits for you whilst you look around. Then we went to the Gandhi Smriti a museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, where he was assassinated. Very impressive to see his extremely simple living area, read all the newspaper reports of events leading to the final day. Then we returned the Khan market which opens midday. It was not glamorous looking at all, but lots of little shops selling sunglasses, Indian clothes.  We found a pastry shop L'Opera which Vivienne had read about in magazine on the plane and picked up some pastries.

That night we ate at The Grill Room on the top floor of the hotel which must be one of the most expensive restaurants in India.  There were loads of pictures of politicians who ate  here including Julia Gillard and David Cameron. The chef prepared great gluten free courses for my wife.  We had our first bottle of Indian wine.  Not bad at only $100, (by comparison the Jacobs Creek was $150).  Total cost was $300 but in Sydney the equivalent meal would be twice that.

The next day we again followed the advice of the concierge.  We walked out of the hotel picked up an autoRickshaw with a Sikh driver, which proved fortuitous as the first place we were visiting Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, which is a major Sikh temple.  It was an extraordinary place with hundreds of people.  It also has a massive communal kitchen with old and young people,chopping, peeling vegetables to make curries in massive pots. Then all sit in a vast hall and get fed including people just for a meal.  The Sikh religion only started in 1490s yet to me is perhaps the most impressive.  Then we went to the Laxmi Narayan Temple, which is  a Hindu temple with lots of gods and Buddhas but no free food so surprisingly a lot less people.  The driver unsurprisingly took us to several shopping emporiums.  My wife is a very cautious buyer and drives the salespeople mad.  I just tell them that she is the economic decision maker and that I am like Ghandi I just want a simple life with very few possessions.  That night we had a very pleasant meal at a new restaurant the hotel had set up as an outside BBQ.  I had chicken and an artichoke salad, Vivienne had salmon and roast potato.  Then I finished with the signature dessert of the hotel, a "bullseye".  This is a melted chocolate mud cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the centre.  Being a celiac Vivienne was unable to share it.

The next day we met our four guides and 16 fellow travellers.  Hubert Giraud, the tour manager, is a relocated Frenchman, who had the perfect personality for his task.  Dr Giles Tillotson was the mandatory academic.  A fellow Cambridge alumnus (Trinity) he had the sceptical perspective that Cambridge ingrains into you plus the pleasing wit.  Bindu was the India link fluent in Hindi, English and German.  She acted as the Indian Freelancer for German television.  Finally Utpal acted as the sweeper making sure no one in the group was let behind.  The 16 travellers were nearly all retirees.  In our early 70s Vivienne and I neither raised nor lowered the average age.  The group was a true representative of the Anglosphere comprising representatives from Australia, New Zealand, UK, and USA.  Those that had worked in the private sector were conservative/Republicans; those who worked in the public sector were liberal/Democrats.

We started at the Red Fort which is sort of the spiritual home of the Indian nation.  It is a series of palaces built by the Mughal emperors.  Unfortunately most were in disrepair; there isn't a lot of money for conservation here.  It is also the scene of the 1857 India mutiny now described as the First War of Indian Independence.  Then had a wild ride through old Delhi back streets in a rickshaw. The poor driver nearly died when he saw me but I gave him a good tip (even though tips were included in the tour price).  We ended up at the main Delhi Mosque which is open air and can take 25000 worshippers.  The Iman is a fierce fundamentalist who gave a sermon saying all young Muslims should go fight in the Middle East against the west.  A minister in the Indian government who was formerly a Bollywood actress. suggested he should lead by example.  He said he did not take advice from dancing girls.  In the afternoon went to the President's palace.  This was originally designed by the British when India was part of British Empire and built and finished post WWI as home to the Viceroy.  Massive building and parks complex and now put to good use.  That night had our first joint dinner.  The other members of group in shock at poverty.  I told them that it is getting better and what do you do? 

The next day we flew to Varanasi which is the religious centre of the Hindu religion.  We stayed at the Gateway Hotel which is the best in town and has good cooking.  That night we took a boat trip to see cremations and then along with 15,000 people packed on boats and the embankments watch the day to night transition led by Seven Hindu priests.  Bells, chanting, conch shell blowing, waving of 108 candle pyramids, and incense was everywhere, it was spectacular sight.   The river is filled with mosquitoes and I was spraying Aerogard like you would not believe.  Then the next morning we got up at 4:30am to do the reverse ceremony.  Again it was an amazing welcome as the sun rises.  People were washing themselves and clothes in the Ganges which is unbelievably filthy.  On the banks of the Ganges (known as Ghats) there are corpses wrapped in blankets and huge of piles of wood everywhere waiting to be used for funeral pyres.

After a breakfast on a roof top balcony we then did a walk through the back streets and visited a temple.  We had to take off our shoes and as we walked around in our socks the floors were wet, sticky and filthy.  When we got back Vivienne dived into the shower and then washed her hair. Again shock of the poverty was overwhelming.  Still we had a pleasant lunch and then went to Sarnath about 9km where Budda preached his first sermon.  This is a very impressive layout and museum.  There were lots of overseas buddist pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Myanmar but very orderly and peaceful.  What is surprising about India is that although Bhudda was born and lived there and Ashoka, the first major India Emperor, promoted Buddism, the religion is now only followed by around 1% of the population.  By contrast around 80% of the Indian population follow the Hindu religion. 

Day Six of the tour saw us fly to Khajuraho.  We stayed at the Lalit Temple Hotel which is the best in town and was excellent.  The afternoon was spent visiting Jain temples (Jain is another Indian religion) and the next day we did a full visit of the Western and Southern temples which have all the erotic statues.  Quite amazing as you get your eye in. 
Day 8 was our first rest day.  I started by having a Swedish massage.  I thought it was going to be a blonde nubile Swedish backpacker working away to the music of ABBA.  Instead it was a 50 year old man accompanied by Hindu chants.  The afternoon we went to the Panna nature reserve which is famous for its tigers.  Unbelievable roads and driving getting there.  We saw monkeys deer antelopes vultures and eagles but the tigers who had GPS trackers in their collars were sleeping.  We were leaving the park when suddenly we saw a magnificent leopard sitting down and looking at us about 5 metres away.  He sat there for 5 minutes yawned and then disappeared into the bush blending unbelievably quickly with the undergrowth.  It was a highlight of the trip and a rare event.  As soon as we got out of the jeep the driver was on his mobile telling everyone he had seen a leopard.

Day 9 saw started with a long 4 hour coach ride next day to Orchha.   The drive as usual was terrifying.  First there are no traffic lights so every intersection is a game of chicken.  Secondly overtaking is done on either side by the overtaking vehicle and if the vehicle is smaller than you say a bike, tuk-tuk or a car you expect them to swerve off the road.  Thirdly every kilometre or so there is a collection of cows which, because they are sacred you have to slow down and manoeuvre around.  The afternoon of our arrival we visited the Jehingar Mahal a large palace which Lonely Planet accurately describes as an assault course of stairways and precipitous walkways.  Not many tourists come here and it is quite laid back.  We were staying at the Amar Mahal hotel, Orchha’s most luxurious and noteworthy because the bar had no gin.  The next day we first visited Ram Raja temple going up the hill and back in autoRickshaws.  Then we caught the train to Gwalior.

The train trip was ok for us as we were in first class and had reserved seats.  You would not believe the crowds of people trying to climb into the already packed 2nd class carriages.  We went by train because the tour guide said the road between Orchha and Gwalior was quite dangerous and full of pot holes (like so far the roads were safe and smooth).  The next day day started with a visit to the Gwalior fort which is spectacularly located on the top of a ridge overlooking the town and even contains a frieze of yellow ducks.  It was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1857 Indian Mutiny.  After lunch we then visited Jai Vilas palace which is where the Maharajah of Gwalior lived.  It was started in 1874 and contains in the main hall two of the largest chandeliers ever suspended from a ceiling.  They tested the ceiling by suspending live elephants.  The dining table is so long that the is a model railway track running around it that carries a silver train filled with brandy, port and cigars.  It seems as if all the heads of state go there on their India trips.  We stayed at the Usha Kiran Palace hotel which was built as a guest house by the Maharaja.  Not only was there no gin in the bar, there was no bar.  The hotel had lost its liquor licence.  However Hubert did a fantastic job we had great meal in the Bada Bar with our own sourced liquor. 

Day 12 saw us take the coach from Gwalior to Agra. We arrived for lunch in the afternoon and guess what we went to the Agra Fort which is one of the finest Mughal forts in India.  We then went to the Itimad ud Daulan or baby Taj which is a beautifully carved mausoleum on the river bank.  It was the first to be built in Agra and was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal which we saw the following morning getting up at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise.  It is fabulous and truly one of the great buildings of the world.  After two hours there we returned to the hotel for breakfast and then went to, yes you guessed it, another Mughal fort, this time known as the Fatehpur Sikri which was another impressive building combining the red sandstone and white marble.  We stayed at the Trident Hotel which although the rooms were smaller that we were used two easily had perhaps the best food.  The head chef was terrific in ensuring that Vivienne had gluten free food.

Day 14 saw us drive to Guragon.  Our first stop was to see the Akbar Mausoleum in Sikandra.  This another outstanding building with an impressive gate and huge garden courtyard containing gazelles and peacocks.  We then had a six star lunch at the Dakshin restaurant at the Sheraton in Delhi.  All of us felt conspicuously underdressed.  After lunch we then saw our final sight the Qutb Minar which is the earliest Islamic building in India, built with plundered masonry from 27 Hindu temples.

We then had our final group meal at the Leela Kempinski Hotel.  This adjoins one of the largest shopping malls in India and was another complete contrast to the rest of the shopping.  The rest of the group flew out the next day while we went shopping.  The hotel was again excellent.

Summing up:
Before we left a good friend, Andrew Horsley, said that India was a place you wanted to leave shortly after you arrived but then wanted to return after you left.  Our trip was pretty intense on the site visits with lots of information but only at the end was I feeling I have had enough.  The guides were good with a well selected range of site visits.  The food was excellent.  I was eating the salads and having ice in my drinks (at the 5 star hotels) and did not reach for the Imodium bottle once.  The religious and wealth diversities are amazing.  Of course a big pleasure was being able to say Australia number 1 cricket team and watching the Indians grit their teeth.  Everywhere there were advertisements for the International T20 championships which started just as we were leaving.  Last night India, almost unbackable favourites, lost their first match to New Zealand; the feeling in the country must be the same as in New Zealand when the All-Blacks lose.


Chris Golis Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence website: Linkedin: Email: mobile: +61-418-222219

No comments:

Post a Comment