When We Were There: September 9-30, 2009
Places We Visited: Delhi, Shimla, Dharamsala, Amritsar, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Agra, Orccha, Varanai, Kolkata
View all of our posts about India here.
Exchange Rate: $1 = 48 Indian Rupees
WHAT WE DID
We only had about 1.5 days in Delhi, so we were quite busy, especially since we had to arrange all of our train tickets while there. We did manage to see the National Museum, walk the Rajpath from the India Gate up past Parliament to the President’s house, poke around Connaugh Circle, tour the Red Fort (250 Rupee each), and check out the Jama Masjid Mosque.
We take the narrow-gauge “toy train” from Kalka to Shimla. It rains for quite a lot of the trip, but it’s still very scenic. We arrive on a weekend, and there are lots of local travelers enjoying the area, so we mill about in the square, observing life. We also check out the pretty church, hike through the Glen and to Chadwick Falls, and tour the Vice Regal Lodge (50 Rupee each). It’s a very pleasant town with gorgeous scenery, and we enjoy it very much.
Also known as Little Tibet and home to the Dalai Lama in exile, Dharmsala is very different from the rest of India. We like it, though it is definitely a hippie mecca. We’re fortunate to be visiting when the Dalai Lama is not only in town but giving a talk, which we attend. We also visit the Tibet Museum and the Tibet Library and Archives (20 Rupee each)Â and we walk to the village of Bhagsu and visit their waterfall.
Amritsar doesn’t have a lot to recommend it, but its two attractions are quite notable. The first, the Golden Temple (free), is the most important place in the Siekh religion, and is thus an important pilgrimage site. The temple is quite beautiful and is surrounded by a pool that reflects it. The only attraction is the border with Pakistan, where every night there is a border closing ceremony. Literally thousands of Indians come and sit at the border and cheer for India, running up to the border and back with the flag and then observing a rather interesting ceremony with marching and saluting and other displays of patriotism. It’s bizarre.
In Jaipur, known as the Pink City, we climb the Iswari Minar Swarg Suli (10 Rupee each) for the view of the city, explore a very interesting Jantar Mantar observatory (100 Rupee each plus 100 Guide), peek out the windows of the Palace of the Winds (50 Rupee each), and tour the City Palace (300 Rupee each). We also see a Bollywood movie at the Raj Mandir (80 Rupee Each), India’s most famous theatre. It’s a fun experience, with the crowd hooting and hollering at the screen throughout the movie.
Jaisalmer exists on the edge of the desert, so we did as all tourists must do and took a camel safari (1100 Rupee each plus 100 tip) into the desert for an overnight stay with Mr. Desert. The scenery was pretty but a bit repetitive, and my camel tried to throw me. Sleep was elusive with howling winds blowing sand at us all night. It was interesting nonetheless, but one night was all I needed of that. We also wandered the fort, where we ended up sharing tea with a local teacher.
With only one day in Jodhpur, we set our sights on the Meherangarh Fort (300 Rupee adults, 250 rupee students), which unlike Jaisalmer’s fort is uninhabited. It’s also very cool, and we made good use of the audio guide. We also found time to visit the bazaar in the old city and do a bit of shopping.
Like everyone else, we came to Agra to see the Taj Mahal (750 Rupee each). We spend a good part of one day doing that. We also take a daytrip to Fathepur Sikri (250 Rupee each), which has been highly recommended to us, but which we don’t really enjoy. We get no map, brochure, or guide of any sort with our admissions, and there is no signage, so it’s really hard to comprehend what we’re looking at. Additionally, we’re absolutely hounded by large groups of young men who want to take Theresa’s photo. They’re very aggressive and make for a very unpleasant visit.
We make a pit stop on the way to Varanasi to visit the ruins at Orchha (250 each, 25 camera). It’s an interesting stop, where we’re allowed to wander the temple and palace complex without too much hassle.
Thanks to the fact that my purse was stolen on the way to Varanasi, we spend a fair amount of our time in the police station. We do, however, manage to take an early morning boat ride (160 Rupee for two) on the Ganges to observe the ghats and all the activity that takes place at them.
Kolkata is primarily our exit point from India, so we don’t actually do a lot there besides wander around the Sodder Street area.
WHERE WE STAYED
Cottage Yes Please (Delhi): Within walking distance of the train station, this hotel is a pleasant place, with large clean rooms with AC and nice bathrooms with hot and cold water. Arriving in Delhi with no idea what we’d find, we were pleased to get a room at this place and would stay here again. 900 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Woodland Hotel (Shimla): It’s a long uphill walk from the train station to this hotel, which is fine but not great. It’s a little bit grungy, and there are always some creepy monkeys hanging around so lock your doors and windows, but it’s sufficient. 450 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Lhasa Hotel (Dharamsala): All of our first choices in Dharamsala were completely full, so we ended up here, which was again fine–a little sparse and a bit grubby, but overall okay. It might be worth booking ahead here at one of the more popular hotels. 350 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Grand Hotel (Amritsar): Because of it’s status as a place of pilgrimage, Amritsar is overpriced. We checked out a few properties, many of which wanted an inflated rate for pretty sparse offerings, such as bucket showers. We ended up at the first place we checked out. It’s a business style hotel, with Western style bathroom and clean rooms. 1,000 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Umaid Mahal (Jaipur): Our splurge hotel, Umaid Mahal is a heritage hotel that is really very lovely. The walls are covered in intricate murals, and the rooms are large and very comfortable, furnished with handmade four-poster beds and other traditional furniture and decorated with murals on the walls and ceilings. The hotel also has a nice little pool. Highly recommended. 1975 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Shahi Palace (Jaisalmer): The rooms at this hotel, with nice views of the fort from its rooftop restaurant, vary widely, and when you arrive, they show you everything they have available regardless of whether you already booked something. In fact, the thing you booked may not be available at all, so you need to be flexible. If you see a room you like, you need to claim it right away because they will give it away to someone else if you don’t. The rooms are overall pretty nice, though some don’t have windows. 75o Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Govind Hotel (Jodhpur): It’s late when we arrive in Jodhpur and we’re only staying the one night, so we opt for the first decent hotel we come across as we walk from the train station. The room is very simple but sufficient. 500 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Shanti Lodge (Agra): Many of the hotels in Agra have inflated rates as you might assume, but the Shanti Lodge seemed to offer fair prices. Our room was pretty large, with room for a couch in addition to the bed, and we had a view of the Taj Mahal through our windows. When the city-wide power cuts would roll through, the room could get quite hot, but that’s not their fault. 500 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Jhansi Railway Station Retiring Rooms (Jhansi): With five hours to kill before our train to Varanasi arrived to transport us from Jhansi (the Orccha area train station), we didn’t want to just sit on the ground with the rats. Instead, we decided to take two beds in the railways stations retiring room, primarily so that we could take a shower before boarding the overnight train. The retiring room had about 16 beds arranged dorm style with a shared bathroom. We were the only two that occupied it during our wait. For the shower alone, it’s worth it, but the ladies running it are awful. They are very mean and rude, and they continually come in and stare at us while demanding a tip. 160 Rupees for two beds.
Shanti Guesthouse (Varanasi): A popular tourist spot close to the Ganges, Shanti Guesthouse is an okay place to stay. The rooms are clean enough, though the stairs are steep and narrow, making the trip to your room on the sixth floor not that awesome. The staff is okay, some more pleasant and helpful than others. 500 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
Super Guesthouse (Kolkata): Our room here is rather small, but it’s perfectly fine for one night’s stay. The layout of the hotel is also odd, with random staircases leading up to landings with just one room. 500 Rupees for a double room with private bathroom.
PLACES WE ATE
We grabbed a fair amount of street food in India or quick to-go bites, including samosas, channa masala, naan, and other goodies. In Dharamsala, we particularly enjoyed the potato momos. We didn’t have any trouble with the food, and we rarely got tired of eating Indian food either. There’s such variety. It was one of our favorite cuisines on the trip.
Malhotra (Delhi): Located across the street from our hotel, this restaurant served tasty and well-priced typical dishes. The lassis were very good.
Haldiram’s (Delhi): Mainly known as a sweet shop, Haldiram’s also serves some nice thalis in their upstairs section. TheyÂ have a lot of savory snacks to go as well.
New Plaza (Shimla): Good Indian food.
Himani’s (Shimla): More good Indian food.
Nick’s Italian Kitchen (Dharamsala): A very popular tourist spot with attached hostel, Nick’s does good pasta dishes if you’re looking for a change from Indian. The spinach momos weren’t that great, however.
Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen (Dharamsala): Craving Italian, we also tried Jimmy’s, which we thought to be better than Nick’s if it’s pasta you’re after.
Lhasa Hotel Restaurant (Dharamsala): This hotel restaurant served traditional Tibetan food, which we found to be very good. The soups are good if the night is chilly, and the other dishes are also tasty.
Peacock Rooftop Restaurant (Jaipur): We enjoyed the Indian food at this guidebook-recommended restaurant.
LMB (Jaipur): A pseudo-fancy place to eat in the old city with tableclothes and finely dressed waiters, we found the food to be pretty good and the service to be nice.
Deepak (Jaisalmer): Recommended to us by a local school teacher, Deepak is a good place to go for a drink to watch the sunset over the desert. The food was also tasty, and we liked the rooftop atmosphere.
Shahi Palace (Jaisalmer): Our hotel restaurant is sort of hit or miss. Some dishes are very good, but the naan is just plain awful. Service can be a bit slow as well.
Natraj (Jaisalmer): Though service is rather slow at this rooftop restaurant, the food is good.
Little Italy (Jaisalmer): Right inside the fort, this Italian place has a nice atmosphere as well as good pasta dishes if you’re looking to change things up.
Fort at Jodhpur: We ate at the restaurant at the fort and really, really enjoyed the thali. It wasn’t too expensive for being in a tourist attraction, and service was good.
Midtown (Jodhpur): Close to the station, this restaurant had nice little booths in a pleasant atmosphere. The food was good, and the servers were friendly.
Sheela (Agra): This hotel restaurant had okay food and okay service, but isn’t worth going out of your way for. It’s not bad in any way, but there are plenty of places offering the same for less money.
Joney’s Place (Agra): Our go-to place in Agra, Joney’s had delicious food (especially the malai kofta) that was served in big portions at good price. Service was very quick and friendly. It’s popular with travelers but for good reason. It also opens pretty early if you want to get breakfast before visiting the Taj Mahal.
Jhansi Train Station: We took advantage of the train station restaurant in Jhansi (Orccha area) and enjoyed two pretty good thalis, which cost only 22 rupees each. Not bad.
German Bakery (Varanasi): Tasty treats if you’re looking for some good breads and pastries, as well as cheeses and other non-Indian foods.
Shanti Guesthouse (Varanasi): Though the rooftop restaurant has good ambiance with views of the kabootar baz flying their pigeons and out toward the Ganges, service is ridiculously slow. The Indian dishes are pretty good, but do not order the pastas or other Western dishes, as they leave a lot to be desired.
*Everything everyone tells you about India is true and then some. It’s incredible. There really is nowhere else on earth like it. It’s infuriating. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. Basically, it’s a roller coaster. You need incredible patience, a willingness to look beyond the obvious, and persistence to enjoy it.
*Do not drink the water. Everywhere else we went, we ignored this advice and were fine. In India, we took the advice and were fine. Then, on the very last night in India, Theresa forgot and accidentally brushed her teeth with the water from the faucet. Her stomach bothered her for the next week. Otherwise, no problems.
*Be careful with your belongings. India was the only place we had anything stolen, and it happened on the train on an overnight trip. We took a lot of precautions, locking our bags to our beds and putting our most important documents in the secret pockets of our pants. Theresa was sleeping with her purse, literally had it in bed with her, and someone reached in and stole it. By the time she woke up and realized what happened (probably only seconds), the thief was gone in the madhouse of a station. Luckily, the purse didn’t have anything too valuable in it, though it did have things that were important to her.
*When booking train travel, take advantage of the Foreigner’s Booking Office in the major city’s train stations. The offices are very orderly, and the attendants trained to help foreigners. It’s much, much better than the madhouse of the regular lines. Booking in advance is also highly recommended for popular routes. Even three weeks in advance, almost all routes between Agra and Varanasi were booked up when we were there in September.
*India is cheap, but what you get for your money varies dramatically. It’s very easy to get a decent room for under $10. You can get rooms for much cheaper than that, if your standards are low. If you have a mid-range budget, you can live very, very well. For $40 you can get excellent heritage hotels that would cost $200 or more in the U.S.
*Bargain. Bargain. Bargain. On everything. Starting rates are usually at least double what you need to pay. But at the same time, be reasonable. Don’t get in fights over what amounts to a few cents, especially with people like rickshaw cyclists who are doing very hard work for pennies. If you can afford to be generous, particularly with the less well off, than be generous.