The day after the funeral, I had recovered from my little illness and was looking forward to leave on our tour of northern India. Coming on the trip was Amish, his brother Tarak, Tarak’s wife Sneha, our friend Ron, as well as Tarang and his wife Roshni. We had an overnight train to catch in the city of Ahmedabad. We were told the drive would take about 5 or 6 hours on the highway depending on traffic. Thankfully, we spent the time in a 10 person bus with very comfortable seats. This made the drive very tolerable.
Once again our driver was very aggressive, swerving in and out of “lanes” and squeezing through spots that seemed too small for a 10 person vehicle. At one point of the drive we were stuck in a large traffic jam. The driver pulled onto the shoulder and drove as far as he could before having to pull back onto the road to avoid a ditch. He continued doing this as often as he could, but we weren’t making much progress. Finally there came a point where the divider on the highway had a break in it. Naturally, our driver, along with many other cars, crossed the divider into the oncoming lane of the highway and proceeded to drive against the traffic. Eventually we crossed a bridge where the traffic thinned out and we were able to cross back onto our side.
We arrived at Ahmedabad a few hours before our train was set to leave. We were all hungry, so we went to a hotel and had dinner. I think that was the best paneer tikka masala we had on the trip. Once dinner was finished, we went to the train station, picked up the tickets, and found the platform our train was at. It looked pretty shabby from the outside. Our tickets were the best tickets available on the train, but I wasn’t expecting much. Each room on the train held 4 people. There were two bunk beds with enough room in between them for one person to stand. Thankfully it was an overnight train and we spent all of the trip sleeping.
When we awoke, the train had just arrived in Udaipur. It was about 8 in the morning and the temperature was much colder than it had been in Shiker. A man from the tour agency, as well as our driver from the trip, greeted us at the station. We were pleased to learn that we had another 10 person tour bus for the rest of the trip. The interior was very comfortable. All of the seats reclined, there were curtains to block out the sun, and it even came equipped with blue lights that made it look like a party bus.
We made our way to the hotel to check in. The drive there was very nice. Udaipur is one of the more touristy cities in India. Since many people come to visit, it is kept much cleaner that other areas of India. The landscape is very beautiful. There are lots of hills and mountains with lakes in between. We were driving up the side of one hill and noticed a huge building that looked like a palace on our left. We drove a few meters passed the gate and the driver stopped. He was not too sure where we were. While he was figuring things out, a couple of small children ran up to the van and started knocking on the windows begging for money. They made the motion of putting things in their mouth like they’re eating to let us know they wanted money for food. It was sad because most of them are very cute and Amish informed me that they really do need money for food.
The driver seemed to figure out where we needed to go and started reversing the van. He backed up and pulled through the gate of the palace-like building on the hill. We got really excited as we went through the security check. The hotel looked amazing. There was a great view of a palace on top of a mountain across from us as well as all of the buildings below us. It turned out that the hotel we originally booked was still under construction, so we got upgraded.
After checking our bags into our rooms we met our driver and picked up our tour guide for that day. Our guide first took us to see the city palace. It is a huge complex that used to house royalty. Now it’s a very busy tourist attraction. The inside of the palace was very crowded while we were there. One thing I learned at the palace is that it’s common to cut in lines and push people in crowds. I quickly got used to this and started to enjoy it. You can get places much faster if you’re willing to impose yourself a little bit. Most of the rooms in the palace were filled with art that depicted the history of the rulers. Some of the stories were cool, but I didn’t like the style of painting. I found the architecture of the palace much more interesting.
After exploring the city palace, our guide took us to a garden called Saheliyon ki Bari. It had a bunch of nice fountains and huge plants. When you enter the garden there is a walkway with water spouts on either side. All of the other tour guides would tell their groups that if they clap, the fountains will shoot water higher into the air. The tourists would then start clapping at the water and the water spouts would rise. Our guide took us in and pointed to worker sitting in the garden. He told us that his job was to sit there and when all the tourists start clapping, he turns the water pressure up on the fountain. We walked over and sure enough, there was a big valve at his feet. We watched him work his magic as the next group of tourists came into the park and started furiously clapping.
Once we had explored the gardens, Sneha wanted to go see a puppet show. She had been told that it was very good, and a popular tourist attraction. I think we went to the wrong museum. The puppet show we saw was pretty sad. The room was tiny, filled with roughly 20 metal fold out chairs. The people who didn’t get a seat either stood or sat on the floor in front of the chairs. The first scene of the puppet show was a snake tamer and a cobra dancing around on stage. I’m no puppet expert, but I was not impressed by this puppeteer’s talent. Most of the show consisted of the puppets flying back and forth across the stage as if the puppet master was just swinging his arms wildly. The only saving grace was a weird scene where a puppet dressed like a woman would flip over and change into a man. That part was pretty funny.
Once our brief puppet encounter had concluded, we went to take a sunset boat ride around the lake. The nickname for Udaipur is the Venice of the East, and for a good reason; it’s gorgeous on the water. We went around the lake palace and stopped at another floating hotel to look around. We got a great view of the city palace before travelling back to shore.
The sun was down and we were all hungry, so our driver took us to a nice looking restaurant near our hotel. One thing I found is that the more we seemed to pay for food, the worse the food would taste. This was one of the first restaurants on our tour that lead me to believe this. The restaurant itself was very nice, it had marble tables underneath tents with a view of the water. The food, on the other hand, was awful. Almost everything we ordered was very bland, the opposite of what you’d expect from Indian food. Near the end of the trip I realized my favourite food I had eaten on the trip was your everyday cheap street food.
In the morning we departed from Udaipur and headed for Jaipur. The drive took about six hours and went buy quickly. Our hotel in Jaipur wasn’t quite as nice as the one in Udaipur, but our doorman had an amazing moustache (not actually our doorman). We decided to see a movie to kill the rest of the day because we were spending two nights in Jaipur. Neither Ron nor I spoke any Hindi. We thought an action movie would have the easiest plot to follow. The big flick that was showing was “Don 2“. It’s an action flick about some gangsters trying to steal some money printing plates. From what I got, the plot was very similar to “Rush Hour 2″. The movie theatre was pretty impressive. The best tickets at $3.00 sold out, so we settled for the second best at $2.00. The seats were not very comfortable, but the number of seats was crazy. There was one screen at the theatre, and it sat 1100 people. Watching the movie was a different experience as well. It was like watching the movie with a live studio audience. Everyone would laugh or hoot when jokes were made and cheer when the main actor did his big stunts.
The seven of us took two separate rickshaws back to the hotel. Riding in a rickshaw at night was very sketchy. Three of us were fairly crammed into one and I had to hunch over pretty far to see out of the vehicle. There were tons of other rickshaws, cars, and trucks speeding by us within inches of our tiny car.
The next day we woke up early and left to pick up our tour guide. He took us by the wind palace. There were some snake charmers out front showing off their cobras. The snakes looked as if they wanted no part in the act. The charmers would hit them on their heads to make them come out of the baskets. One of the snakes slowly tried to slither away, but was quickly grabbed and pulled back.
Once I had taken a few pictures of the snakes, we went to a big fort in the mountains called Amer Fort. The whole area was very picturesque. There was a small lake in front of the fort. The fort itself is on top of a hill. To get there, tourists can either walk or pay to ride an elephant the entire way. Our tour guide told us the line up was roughly 30 minutes to get an elephant. He said there was another area we could go for an elephant ride that cost the same, had no line up, and was more like a jungle safari. We decided to walk up to the fort and ride elephants later. There was a separate path for people on foot. Occasionally the pedestrian’s and elephant’s paths would cross. The fort had 140 elephants employed so the amount of traffic was very thick. Dodging the elephants was tricky. We avoided getting trampled and made it to the top of the fort where we explored. Similar to the city palace in Udaipur, it was full of artwork and some pretty gardens.
After seeing most of the fort, we went for our “jungle safari” elephant ride. Our van stopped in the middle of a bunch of buildings and we got out. In what looked like a large alley, stood a huge male elephant and a trainer. It didn’t look like much of a jungle. Sure enough the ride consisted of the elephant walking down the alley for a while before turning around and coming back. I didn’t end up riding the elephant as I had already ridden one when I was younger. My favourite part about the jungle safari was hanging out with a funny looking goat and watching it eat garbage.
We left the jungle and went to Jantar Mantar. It is an outdoor collection of old astrology equipment. There were really cool sundials and other instruments used to read constellations. It was a nice surprise as none of use expected it to be very interesting.
The next stop on our tour was Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We left very early in the morning so we would have enough time to visit the Taj before traveling on to Delhi. It was very cold that morning. We stopped for breakfast and I almost froze in my shorts and sweatshirt. The fields on either side of the road had frost on them it was so cold.
By the time we reached Agra, the temperature was much more comfortable. We reached the Taj Mahal around 10 in the morning, just after picking up our guide. The entrance fee to the Taj Mahal for foreign tourists is roughly $15. Similar to most sites around India, there was a special price for Indian tourists. I believe it was something like $0.50! Pretty big difference, but it was worth every penny. Cars are only allowed so close to the Taj. The last bit of the journey is either on foot, or in an electric car. The reason is to help protect the Taj Mahal from pollution. I would think that pollution diffuses through the air and would hit the building just as badly. I was very impressed by the building itself. I had only seen pictures of it on the internet or on postcards. In most of the pictures there either aren’t any people, or I didn’t pay attention to the people. I didn’t have any idea how big the Taj really was. It’s massive. The entire building is symmetrical, including all the buildings surrounding it. Pictures don’t do it justice. It is truly something you have to see for yourself to appreciate.
We left the Taj Mahal and drove to Delhi. We entered the city around 7:00pm, but traffic was so bad that we didn’t arrive at our hotel until around 9:00pm! By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were extremely tired. The quality of the hotel was much lower that the three previous ones we had stayed in. It was supposed to be a 4 star, but in reality it was around a 2-3 at best. The rooms weren’t cleaned very well, the showers didn’t have warm water unless your let them run for 5 minutes, and we were promised a lake view. This was our view. We weren’t pleased so Sneha called the tour company to let them know. They offered to get us a room in a different hotel, but we were too tired to switch.
The next day we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. It was the worst meal I remember in India. The only thing that tasted somewhat decent was the toast, which is hardly breakfast. Once we were done we picked up our tour guide and headed to Akshardham; a breathtaking temple in Delhi. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take my camera in. The security is very tight at the temple because they want to keep it peaceful. Construction was completed in 2007. Every part of the complex is hand carved with extreme detail. The actual temple was free to enter, but there were a few exhibits that cost a bit extra to visit. We went to a couple, both gave lots of history about the religion. Unfortunately our tour guide was near useless. It turns out it was his first time to Akshardham and we ended up having to pay for his entrance to the exhibits. The entire time he seemed to be rushing through the temple and gave us no information. Any facts he did give us were recited from a notebook he kept on him.
After Akshardham we visited the Lotus Temple. It was built as a temple for followers of any religion to visit. The interior of the temple is almost as impressive as the outside. Everyone entering the temple is supposed to remain silent.
We decided not to see any more sites after the Lotus Temple. It was still fairly early in the afternoon and we were sick of our tour guide. We decided to return to the hotel. Once there we called the tour agency again and let them know about how poor the guide was. The director at the agency decided to give us a free dinner to make up for it. We were excited and thought our luck in Delhi was going to turn around.
The agency told us that our driver was going to pick us up at 7:00. All of us waited in the lobby. Our driver didn’t show up until 8:00. We arrived at the restaurant which appeared very nice. It was very busy inside and there was a live band. We met a man from the tour agency who was there to pay for our meal. Once seated the waiter told us that we were being served a fixed menu. Most of us were alright with this, but a few of the group were very particular eaters and the menu did not really suit their pallet. The service at the place was horrible. We waited for ages to get drink orders taken. There would be 5 or 6 employees standing around talking to each other. If we wanted service we’d have to work pretty hard to get the attention of a waiter. When we did get service, the servers were very rude, and slow to put in orders. A table beside us was complaining to the manager about the lack of service. Eventually we saw the man from the tour agency talking to the group at the table. Amish went over and asked if they were on a tour with the same company as us. Turns out the were! They had a similar problem with a hotel and got sent to the same restaurant for dinner.
During the meal we called the director of the agency again and let him know how poor the restaurant was. He felt was sincerely sorry and insisted that we join him at a different restaurant for a drink. It was late and we were tired but we reluctantly accepted.
We met the director at a Chinese food place near his office. He told us how sorry he was about our time in Delhi and bought us all drinks. We told him that we were heading to Mumbai the next day and didn’t have any tickets booked for new years yet. He gave us a number for a contact he had that may be able to get us a deal on tickets to some big parties. After thanking him, we returned to our hotel and slept well knowing that we would be leaving Delhi the next morning.