So I thought I would write a blog post to wrap up our trip to India, in the hope that it might be interest to someone planning a trip, and also to get down on ‘paper’ some of the things that the daily travel blogs didn’t cover.
I will split up this blog into sections to deal with the relevant areas of information, but these are just my random musings so I apologise if they don’t flow together well.
( Note: click on any of the photos below to see them I’m more detail )
Overall India experience
Here are my thoughts on India in a single sentence:
India is loud, busy, crowded, beautiful, hot, smelly ( good and bad ), peaceful, friendly and the hardest place I have ever travelled in.
At the time we were leaving Delhi after 18 days in India I was sitting in the car on the way to Delhi airport and thinking; “this is the only country I have visited that I do not want to come back to”. But with the hindsight of 4 weeks back home to reflect on the experiences and sights of India, I think I want to go back again. That is what India did to me.
India is one of the places that I have wanted to visit for a long time, and once we made the decision to go then the more I read the more excited I got about what it would be like. But I was not expecting the harsh realities that travel in India would bring.
To preface this slightly we spent 6 weeks in SE Asia last year ( Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia ) where we had nothing planned ahead, we booked everything as we travelled and it all went really well. The only time someone tried to rip us off was in Hanoi where the taxi driver took the really long route to our hotel.
Within a few hours of being in India we were being lied to by people wanting to get money off us. This set the scene for the whole time in India.
95% of the time we spent in India was amazing, with those magical moments that I will always remember like siting at a restaurant in Jodhpur watching the sun set over the Merangarh Fort, watching kids jump into a stepwell to cool off in the heat of the day, riding a camel across the Thar Desert on the way to our dinner location, walking through the real markets of Agra watching people go about their shopping, having people want me to hold their baby to get a photo of him with a foreigner, walking around the garden beside the Taj Mahal at sunset and of course the amazing food which even the most humble looking restaurant would serve up to us.
But the other 5% was hard. Really hard for me.
Again we are not naive travellers, we have been around, we lived in London, we know how to keep ourselves reasonably safe and to know when we are being scammed. But even knowing what is happening doesn’t stop it becoming tiresome and frustrating. In case you haven’t read the daily travel blogs here is a summary of the scams/tactics we had:
every auto rickshaw driver overcharged us compared to the local rates
every auto rickshaw driver tried to scam us, some were more ambitious than others, but they all tried something including:
trying to hard sell us to go to a different location
trying to hard sell us to book them for a tour the next day
changing the price of the trip after we had already agreed a price at the start
telling us that we didn’t want to go where we were going because it was unsafe / too expensive / too far
agreeing to take us somewhere when they had no clue where they were going, and then spending the whole trip asking for directions and/or going in completely the wrong direction
a man told us that our train we were getting on wasn’t our train ( it was ) , and to wait for the next one ( which there wasn’t one ).
3 people tried to harass us into going to the local information centre and would not leave us alone until we went into a shop to get away
we were told that the fort we wanted to go to wasn’t open for another 2 hours so he could give us a tour of Dehi, when it opened in 5 minutes
people wanting to be our guides would take the tickets out of our hands and not give them back until they had given us their speech
hawkers / shop owners / guides / auto rickshaw drivers would physically block our path to get their story across
an auto rickshaw driver tailed us to try to get us to use him, even when we doubled back a couple of times
everyone whose photo you took wanted money for it
Each of these instances in itself was not a big deal but cumulatively they led to a huge amount of frustration at not being left alone to do what we wanted to do or go where we wanted without harassment, and also it stopped me from trusting anyone that approached us for no reason. Even when people just wanted to take our photo I was always weary that they wanted something else from us.
That said I never felt unsafe for ourselves or our belongings while we were out exploring ( except for the “monkey attack” incident in Agra ), just for my sanity at the constant harassment, and it was always about getting money from us.
A point to note is that we largely travelled independently, which probably made us a target for scams. The times that we had a guide or driver with us we were not harassed as much or at all. As much as I enjoyed the freedom to walk where we wanted I would consider getting a guide / driver for the trip if I did it again as I think the overall experience would be more enjoyable.
It was interesting to have 2 visits to Delhi ( even though the second visit was not very productive for various reasons ) as the place felt different the second time around.
We weren’t overwhelmed or shocked by Delhi because we had experienced similar things in Bangkok. Hanoi etc. but you immediately realise that you ‘are not in Kansas anymore’ as soon as you step out of the airport ( which is like any other airport; shiny and bright ) and head out into the real Delhi. Our taxi ride ( in a van that would have been removed from the road in NZ for safety reasons ) quickly introduces the noise, bustle and organised chaos that is Delhi.
Delhi is all of the cliches that you hear about: dirty, crowded, noisy, smelly at times. But Delhi is also a modern city with an amazing metro system, people walking around in suits, Nike shops, lush green parks, monuments / temples / tombs everywhere.
On our first visit I was keen to get out of the place and see ‘real India’ but on our return I saw a different side to it that would have me staying a few days if I come back this way.
My tip for Delhi would be to get a hotel in a good area, and explore one of the lesser know areas like Lodhi Road and Khan Market. But also walk through Old Delhi and get lost in the maze of alleyways that are there.
This was probably my favourite city to stay in of the trip. This might be because it was such a change from Delhi where we had come from, or maybe because it was still at the start of our trip and everything was still new to us. I think our experience was also helped by staying in the Fort and experiencing the relative peace of that area after the tourists had left for the day.
The city sits in the middle of the Thar Desert so the climate is hot but a dry heat which makes it a bit more bearable.
The whole city had a very relaxed feel to it, and I almost felt like the locals didn’t really feel a strong connection to the rest of India, and they were happy about that.
While there were lots of tourists it was nowhere near as busy as any of the other cities we visited, but there were still lots of things to see and do, and we spent many hours just walking the streets of the Fort watching life.
My tip for Jaisalmer would be to stay in the Fort. There are various guides ( notably Lonely Planet ) that will tell you that the extra pressure of accommodation in the Fort is causing damage to the structure itself, but from what we saw there were lots of derelict / crumbling buildings that were being restored to provide guesthouses / hotels, that would otherwise have been left as ruins. The small village feel inside the Fort is something I will always remember.
The main attractions of Jodhpur are the Mehrangarh Fort and the area around the Clock Tower Market. As much as the setting of the old part of the city is incredibly picturesque, once you have walked through these areas and experienced all that they have to offer I didn’t think that there was a lot more to see in this city. We had a couple of brief excursions into the other parts of the city and it didn’t look that appealing.
That said I could easily spend a week in Jodhpur just wandering and exploring the old town and the fort, and just relaxing. The view from one of the many rooftop restaurants looking up to the Fort, with the ‘calls to prayer’ coming from the surrounding mosques and temples, is something that needs to be experienced to appreciate.
My tips would be to stay in the old part of town, between the Clock Tower Market and the Fort, or over in the Blue City valley, and to just walk the alleyways and streets and enjoy the buzz of the place. And if you have the time and the energy walk up to Merangarh Fort the back way from the Blue City, it is much easier and more scenic that the main route up from the Clock Tower Market.
Jaipur is the city we spent the most time in on our trip ( due to a combination of having a layover there between Delhi and Jaisalmer, and the way the trains in and out of the city are timed ), and it is fair to say I wasn’t overly excited about the place when we first arrived, but over the course of a few days it grew on me. Being there for the Teej festival was certainly a highlight of the visit.
The city is really in 3 parts in my mind:
the Pink City. This is the area inside the original city walls and is a grid pattern of roads and alleyways with lots of pink painted buildings. Most of the tourist attractions are located in this area, and while it is quite a large area most things are within walking distance of each other. This is also where our hotel was located, albeit on the very southern edge of the City just inside the city wall at New Gate.
outside the city walls. This area is much like other Indian cities we saw; busy, disorganised, streets laid out with no real sense of planning. But this area is where the train station is, most of the high / medium price hotels and the western type shops are located ( mainly around MI Road ) and where there are few tourist attractions as well.
out of the city. In the larger area around Jaipur there are dozens ( if not hundreds ) of forts, temples, lakes etc that can be explored. As well as the more well known locations ( Amber Fort for example ) there are many more that are a little less known but from what we saw equally impressive.
Jaipur is also in the process of upgrading the transport options. At the moment there is no train or bus from the airport into town, and the only Metro line starts on the western edge of town and finishes in the western suburbs without going past anything of interest to most tourists. But soon there will be a metro from the airport in the south linking through the city to the northwestern part of town, and an extension of the current line through the main part of the city.
Most of the main streets in the Old City are shopping streets and its fun just to wander the covered walkways that form the footpaths and see the different areas and what they sell. For example near our hotel most of the shops were selling second hand medical books as there is a training hospital nearby, but if we headed west to Ajmer Gate there were mainly motorbike shops and mechanics workshops.
We could easily have spent another week in Jaipur exploring the temples and forts that surround Jaipur City.
My tip would be to stay in the Old City if possible as being able to walk the shopping streets in the early morning before things got busy was a real bonus, and being able to walk back to the hotel if the traffic was jammed up ( as it was most afternoons ) was great as well.
For tourists Agra exists only as a location stay to visit the Taj Mahal. And to be honest from what we saw of the rest of the City that is a fairly accurate reflection of the place. Other than the Taj Mahal there are a few other tourist attractions like the Fort and the Baby Taj, but the Taj Mahal will always be the main focus of a visit.
We stayed in an area called Taj Genj which is immediately south of the Taj Mahal, and it seems to have been tidied up with paved roads and consistent signage on the hotels and restaurants. It had a nice relaxed feel and I was actually surprised at how few tourists there were staying in the area. The hotels are more of the budget variety, but where we stayed was as nice as any other hotel we had during the trip, and the restaurants are fairly basic and small, but there is a good selection of both in the area. And the huge attraction of Taj Genj is that it is walking distance to the entry gates to the Taj Mahal.
We made a decision early on in the planning of our trip that we wanted to experience and enjoy our visit to the Taj Mahal, and to do whatever a few days. A lot of people come in to Agra, stay 1 night, go to the Taj Mahal and then get out of Agra as fast as possible. While I can understand the reasoning behind that I really appreciated the we had to visit the Taj Mahal twice and also to see it from the other side of the river. We did not rush our Taj Mahal experience and I think we appreciated the place more because of it.
If you haven’t been to many Forts in India, and Rajasthan specifically, then a visit to Agra Fort is worth it. If you ( like us ) had been to Red Fort in Delhi, Jaisalmer Fort, Merangarh Fort in Jodhpur and Amber Fort in Jaipur, the Agra Fort could have been avoided. However walking around the area to the west of the Fort, through the bazaars and around the Hama Masjid mosque, was well worth the effort and gave more of an insight into the real Agra.
We also went to Itmad-ud-Daula’s Tomb which was well worth it, as again most tourists only have eyes for the Taj Mahal and it was relatively quiet and peaceful.
My 2 tips for a visit to Agra: stay in Taj Genj with everything you need within walking distance ( hotels, restaurants, food shops etc), and also see the Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh which is a beautiful garden on the other side of the river to the Taj Mahal itself, but provides what I think is the best view of the Taj Mahal to be had, and it is still unknown enough to give that view in peace and quiet.
Hong Kong is Hong Kong: busy, crowded, a bit western and a bit Chinese, A great place to spend a few days exploring a big city.
With the exception of our first Delhi Hotel I would recommend all of the places we stayed during our trip. Generally the staff were friendly, helpful and we never had any problems with the cleanliness of the rooms or the facilities offered.
When we were booking hotels we weren’t looking for 5 star ‘western’ hotels, and our main criterior for choosing a hotel was location, price, air conditioning and good reviews about the quality of the hotel ( bearing in mind that there will always be someone saying that any hotel was the ‘worst we have ever stayed at’ ).
So some brief thoughts on our hotels follows:
Delhi 1 - Le Cadre, Kailash Colony
A fairly modern hotel located right next to the Kailash Colony Metro Station, which is 11 stops from Old Delhi. The staff were really helpful and friendly and there was security on the door. There is a cafe next to the ground floor lobby which is open late, and the hotel has a lift. The only downside to the hotel is that neither the hotel or the area around it has restaurants or anything like that ( there is a small supermarket ), so you will need to catch the metro somewhere else to eat out ( Khan Market is only 5 stops away ). We caught a taxi from the Airport to the hotel for NZ$14 / 700R
We paid NZ$58 / 2900R per night, which wasn’t cheap by Indian standards but not too bad for Delhi.
The hotel had free wifi which worked well.
Overall the hotel was good for the price, just the location and lack of surrounding amenities let it down.
Jaisalmer - Desert Boys Guesthouse
This old style courtyard hotel is built into the walls of Jaisalmer Fort and looks out west over the city of Jaisalmer from the rooftop and balcony. I think only 3 rooms have views over the city with the rest of the ( about 15in total ) rooms opening into the courtyard on 4 levels ( no lift ). There is a restaurant on the top of the hotel which served a good range of very tasty food, and has views both out of the fort and across the rooftops of the fort itself, including the nearby Jain Temples.
Super friendly staff ( the guesthouse is run by 2 brothers ) and really helpful at organising trips etc.
There was wifi in the hotel but only in the entry lobby and in the restaurant, but neither was particularly stable or fast.
We paid $NZ48 / 2400R per night including breakfast.
The rooms were spacious and the entire place had a good relaxed feel to it. It can get a little noisy with people coming and going through the central courtyard but not too bad, and at least there is no traffic noise inside the fort.
The guesthouse was about to undergo major renovations so it might not look like the photos we took.
Jodhpur - Geeta Mahal
This hotel is located in the busy guesthouse area of Jodhpur between the Clocktower Market and the Mehrangarh Fort. This area is full of narrow alleyways that twist and turn, and are also living streets where people live and work so it has a nice real feel to it. There are also lots of restaurants and shops nearby. It is worth getting a map of the area as it is very easy to get lost when trying to find the hotel: we still got lost even after 3 days in the area.
The main building ( where we were staying, we think there must be another building that is part of the hotel as well ) only has 5 rooms in it on 3 floors ( no lift), and it was once a house so it is not necessarily designed as a hotel. The hotel is painted a strong shade of pink on the outside and is located on an alley that doesn’t get a lot of traffic. The room was clean and big enough, but had dark stone on the walls and ceilings and odd small doorways into the room and into the bathroom. There were shutters over the windows which we could have opened if we wanted light, but it was quiet nice have the room quite dark. The stairs are very steep and there are lots of low beams and ceilings throughout the building.
There is a small 10 seat breakfast restaurant on the roof, which seems to be run independently from the hotel serving the normal fare of toast, pancakes, cereals etc, and was a very nice place to sit and watch the city wake up.
The owner of the hotel was really friendly and helpful, and happy just to chat about anything you wanted.
We paid NZ$33 / 1500R per night, not including breakfasts ( which cost us NZ$13 / 640R for the 2 breakfasts we had ) which was fine for the location and the quality of the hotel.
Jaipur - Sweet Dreams Hotel
This hotel is located just inside the walls of the Pink / Old City which is a great location to get to all the tourist spots and to just wander the bazaar’s. There are a few restaurants and small convenience shops nearby. The hotel entrance is off a side alley which can be quite busy with motorbikes and auto rickshaws.
The hotel is 4 storeys, with an old lift complete with permanent lift driver, with a restaurant on the rooftop, and what appears to be a conference space above that. The restaurant is an enclosed room with a large open terrace fronting onto the street, with views mainly over the street and surrounding buildings.
Our room was large, with a massive bathroom, clean and tidy. The AC unit was located in the wall next to the bed and when it was turned on it created a breeze across the bed, even at it’s lowest setting, but it worked. The hotel appeared to be getting an upgrade, with new decor for the rooms and a tidy up of the lobbies.
Again the owner of the hotel was very helpful and went out of his way to make sure we were ok and things were going well for us.
There is good wifi throughout the hotel even in the restaurant. The restaurant served a full range of meals from snacks to dinner.
We paid NZ$111 / 5591R for 3 nights including breakfasts which was pretty good considering the location and the quality of the hotel.
Agra - Hotel Sidartha
This hotel was chosen because of it’s proximity to the Western Gate of the Taj Mahal, and it didn’t disappoint. But as well as being 150m from the gate it was also a nice hotel.
The rooms are on 2 levels ( no lift ) on 2 sides of a triangular courtyard, which also has the restaurant in it. The restaurant served breakfast and main meal options which were basic but ok.
The rooms ( we had 2 different rooms because of a problem with the AC unit after the first night ) had been recently renovated and were very nice. The bathrooms in the rooms had a grill at high level which connected to the next door units' bathroom so if the neighbours were noisy then you could hear them through this grill.
The AC unit in our room was an in wall unit, with a steady breeze blowing. Also during the day the AC units were sometimes turned off by the hotel to save power, so sometimes there was only the ceiling fan active.
Overall a nice hotel in a great location, close to the Taj Mahal and also on the edge of the Taj Genj area with lots of restaurants and shops. The street outside the hotel ( which lead to the Taj Mahal ) was barricaded off from traffic so it was a very quiet street. There were always autorikshaws at the barricades ( and police ) so getting one was never a problem.
We paid NZ$71 / 3500R for 4 nights, not including breakfasts. This was by far the best value hotel we stayed at given the location and amenities. Staff were as always friendly ( even if the owner thought an Australian accent was close enough to ours and just greeted us with “Gidday, Mate” everytime he saw us ).
Delhi 2 - Bloomrooms @ Link Rd
We booked this hotel while we were in Agra, and after staying in mainly cheap hotels we decided we would spend a bit more for our last 2 nights in India and get a hotel in a good area with a more ‘western’ feel.
This hotel is part of a chain which has a yellow and white colour scheme. Immediately upon walking into the property it felt different to the other hotels we had stayed in. The ground were well tended with gardens and the staff had little name badges on.
The rooms are on 3 levels ( no lift ) and they are fairly basic but nice and clean and well maintained. The wifi was good to all areas of the hotel.
In a small building next to the hotel block is a restaurant/cafe ( Amici ) and above that is a guest lounge with chairs, couches, wifi and a toilet. The restaurant is part of a chain and serves a mix of Italian and Indian dishes, as well as snacks, muffins, drinks etc.
The staff were friendly and polite, but in a very formal way which felt strange after 2 weeks of very relaxed staff interactions.
The road outside the hotel seemed to be lacking in passing traffic so it was hard to get an auto rickshaw at times, but on the plus side it was 500m to the Jangpura Metro station ( on the same line as our Hotel Le Cadre / Kailash Colony Station , but 3 stops closer to the centre of Delhi ). The hotel also had a car and driver available which we used to get to the airport for NZ$22 / 1100R
The room rate was NZ$220 / 5000R for 2 nights, including breakfast at Amici ).
Hong Kong - Holiday Inn Express Soho
This hotel is a standard Holiday Inn type hotel, located in the Sheung Wan area which is only 1 stop from Central Station on the MTR. The area has lots of restaurants and cafe’s, both western and chinese, and lots of other street life going on. The hotel is about a 5 minute walk to the Scheung Wan MTR station
The restaurant was located on the 2nd floor ( of 31 ) and was ok as far as buffets go, but if it hadn’t been in included in the room rate we probably would have gone elsewhere. We paid NZ$350 for 2 nights including breakfast.
The wifi worked well and the room was modern and clean.
I wrote a blog post ( here : http://ankhphotography.net/blog/2018/7/9/photographer-travel-setup-part-2 ) setting out what I was taking to India in the way of photographic gear.
Overall the setup I used worked really well, especially having a small mirrorless camera ( Fujifilm X-E3 ) which didn’t stand out from the multitude of point and shoot cameras that most people had with them in terms of size and looks. I was very happy with the way the images turned out and the ability of the camera to cope with the demands that I put it through. Despite it having to endure my sweaty hands for most of the trip, and a good dunking in the sand as I dismounted a camel, the camera never missed a beat.
In terms of lenses it is interesting to look at which lenses I used the most out of the 3500 photos that I took:
Fujifilm 18-55mm: 1680
Fujifilm 50-230mm: 680
Laowa 9mm: 940
Fujifilm 35mm f1.4: 180
Fujifilm 27mm: 0
The 18-55m Fujifilm lens is a great travel lens and I really only changed away from this lens if I had a specific need for something different ( generally to get wider shots, longer shots or to get the look that the 35mm lens can give )
In terms of other photographic accessories that I took the tripod was used a handful of times ( most sites in India ban tripods ), the ND filters were used 2 - 3 times.
On numerous occasions we met / saw people with much larger camera setups than we had ( many people were travelling with 2 large DSLR bodies on them at all times, often with 70-200 size lenses ) and we just felt sorry for them because it did not look like they were enjoying the trip at all.
Also I had a setup for copying photos of the cameras to ensure that they were backed up and as safe as they could possibly be ( blog post about that here: http://ankhphotography.net/blog/2018/7/4/travel-setup ). This setup worked really well and we had no problems at all getting photos into lightroom and shared to the Adobe Cloud system to let them be edited on our mobile devices, apart from the slow internet access at times.
Weather / Time of Year
We chose to go to India in August for a few reasons: it tied in with a quiet period before I starting shooting weddings in the NZ summer, it was a year after our last big trip to SE Asia, and we knew it was a quiet season for tourists in India. The downside to the time of year was that we knew the weather would be hot, humid and possibly wet as it was classed as the Wet Season in northern India.
Coming from New Zealand’s relatively dry climate ( humidity wise ) and especially as we were coming from Hawke’s Bay which is one of the least humid areas of New Zealand, we knew it would be hard going in the heat and humidity during our trip. We left Napier in 15°C temperatures and landed in Hong Kong to 32°C+.
We knew that the heat / humidity would take it’s toll on us so we had planned the trip with lots of downtime and opportunities to rest and recover when we needed it. That said it was still hard to get motivated to heat out to see the sights when you knew within 2 minutes of leaving the hotel you would be sweating and uncomfortable.
The upside is that all the tourist attractions we visited were quiet, and sometimes we were the only people at those locations. The experience of walking through the Jain temples in Jaisalmer with no one else there but our guide and the holy men was in itself worth the penalty of being there in the wet season. We never felt that anywhere we visited was overcrowded or so crowded that it ruined our experience.
Unfortunately being so few tourists probably meant we were targeted more vigorously by the guides / touts / trinket sellers as the ratio of them to us was quite high.
As for it being the ‘wet’ season, we had 3 days where we had rain, and luckily for us 2 of those days we were travelling between cities anyway, but the rain never lasted more than a few hours and didn’t effect our trip at all.
Here is a summary of the costs of our trip. Obviously your costs will vary but it should give a guide as to budgets for a similar trip. I will put some other thoughts below on the general costs of things like meals and transport based on what we found.
These prices are for double rooms, and for 2 people.
NZ to India vis Hong Kong in both directions: NZ$2,683
Delhi to Jaisalmer ( via Jaipur ): NZ$238 ( this was a special rate based on our cancelled direct flight, the normal cost of Delhi to Jaipur then Jaipur to Jaisalmer is higher )
Le Cadre, Delhi: NZ$116 ( NZ$58/night incl breakfast )
Desert Boys Guesthouse, Jaisalmer: NZ$146 ( NZ$48/night incl breakfast )
Geeta Mahal, Jodhpur: NZ$108 ( NZ$36/night )
Hotel Sweet Dreams, Jaipur: NZ$125 ( NZ$42/night incl breakfast )
Hotel Sidartha, Agra: NZ$71 ( NZ$18/night )
Bloomrooms, Delhi: NZ$221 ( NZ$110/night incl breakfast )
Best Western Express Soho, Hong Kong: NZ$350 ( $175/night incl breakfast )
Total cost of Hotels for 19 nights accommodation: NZ$1137 ( NZ$60/night )
Cars between cities:
Jaisalmer to Jodhpur ( 5 hours): NZ$78
Agra to Delhi ( 4 hours ): NZ$102
Trains between cities:
Jodhpur to Jaipur ( A/C seat, 4 hours ): NZ$38
Jaipur to Agra ( A/C sleeper, 4 hours ): NZ$50
For everything not listed above: NZ$2791 ( NZ$132/day )
this includes food, drinks, auto rickshaws, entry fees at tourist attractions, souvenirs, hospital visits / vaccines, etc and is the price for 2 peoples spending.
Total cost of 21 day trip: NZ$7117 ( NZ$338 or NZ$175/person / day )
Meals at a restaurant, with beers: NZ$14-$20 for 2 people
Autorickshaws ( short trips of <30minutes ): NZ$2-$5
Tourist attraction entry fee: NZ$5-$10 each, except the Taj Mahal at NZ$20 each
So that is my thoughts on our 3 week trip to India. If you have any questions please comment below.