India 1998

Three week holiday visiting Delhi, Sikandra, Gwalior, Orchha, Khajuraho, Shivpuri, Sawai Madhopur, Ranthambore National Park, Bundi, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Ranakpur, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Amber, Bharatpur – Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra.

Before leaving Australia, I had mapped out a rough itinerary for India which included most of the usual tourist stops in the northern Indian States of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, plus a few less traveled destinations. Not wanting to do an organised trip I just rocked up to Delhi with the intention of travelling around India by myself using the extensive rail network and local buses. However, when I went to the Tourist Office and showed them my proposed three week itinerary the guy kept frowning and shaking his head. It turns out my itinerary was very ambitious and would have required more like 5-6 weeks to complete… and not without considerable hassle. Of course the itinerary was not ambitious by western standards, just ambitious for travelling around India. The Tourist Office advised me that the best way to complete my three week itinerary was to hire a car and driver. So I ended up being chauffeur driven around India in an old Ambassador car. A more expensive option than using the trains and buses but a more realistic and comfortable way of completing my itinerary in 3 weeks. I shopped around at a number of travel agents and after much haggling the car and driver ended up costing about A$1,000 for the 3 weeks. On top of that I then had to pay for my own accommodation and food.

Stopping at Jhansi to fix the starter motor

The food in India was quite cheap, especially if you stay clear of the tourist places. The price of hotels that I stayed at ranged from A$10 to A$38 per night. Of course for places at the lower end of the scale, well … don’t expect the same level of service or attention to detail that you are used to at home. Sometimes I had to ask reception for toilet paper, soap, towels, light globes and even the power to be turned on for the room. Most of the bathrooms had a resident gecko lizard, which didn’t worry me at all, though they can gave you a fright when they dart across the wall. In a couple of hotels the toilets didn’t flush so you had to use a bucket and fill it up with water. And you can forget about shower curtains. Talking of bathrooms, the plumbing systems were nothing short of bizarre with pipes and taps everywhere. Sometimes it took a while to figure out how to turn on the hot water but then you had to figure out how to get the hot water flowing up to the shower outlet. In one bathroom I had to plug my finger into a hot water tap, as the tap was stuck, to force the pressure up to the shower outlet, and then try and wash with one hand. Of course, one needs to remember to actually turn on the hot water system before want to have a hot shower. Standard rooms came with mosquitoes, ants, hard bed, hard pillows, tatty sheets, one speed fans (high) and of course the resident gecko lizard. Deluxe rooms came with all the above plus a television. Such is life in India – full of surprises and at times quite bizarre.

Break downs and accidents were a common sight on the roads

As for the driver, he slept in the car. His name was VJ and he was from Kashmir. He was supposed to be an English speaking driver but I soon found out that was not quite true. In fact his English was quite limited and with no radio it was pretty damn quiet in the car. Just one of many little obstacles and frustrations that I encountered during my stay in India. When touring India you really do have to have a flexible, relaxed, open and patient attitude, as well as a strong mind and body. There are some fantastic places in India, the people are warm and friendly, the food is great and your senses will be continually bombarded with the most bizarre sights and experiences, however, you have to put up with some hardship and really awful places and sights along the way. If you didn’t have the right attitude I think the place would drive you crazy. Having a car to get around allowed me to travel to a few extra places that I had not planned on visiting. My itinerary included the following towns and parks; Delhi, Sikandra, Gwalior, Orchha, Khajuraho, Shivpuri, Sawai Madhopur – Ranthambore National Park (2 nights), Bundi, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur (3 nights), Ranakpur, Jodhpur (2 nights), Pushkar, Jaipur (2 nights), Amber, Bharatpur – Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary (2 nights), Fatehpur Sikri, Agra (2 nights) and then back to Delhi. Quite a hectic schedule really.

The routine for most days went something like this, on the road by 8am or earlier, sweet chai tea stop in the morning on the side of the road at a local cafe or truckie stop. Perhaps a late breakfast or early lunch as well, usually dahl & chapatti’s, again at a local road side cafe. How I never got sick on this trip is beyond me. Sometimes VJ would stop at a tourist hotel, not that we saw that many, which would cost three times as much as local eateries but were good for scrambled eggs on toast. We would arrive at our destination around lunch time or just after lunch depending on distance and check into a hotel. This was the tricky part as we used to get lost all the time. Either VJ was not too bright or the locals that he asked for directions gave him bad directions. All VJ wanted to do was go to the first hotel that we spotted. In the end I would take over and try to use the maps in my guidebook to navigate around the crowded streets. Eventually we would find a suitable hotel and after checking in we would do some sight seeing. Some places I could explore by myself but most needed a car to get around, especially some of the large forts which were strategically located on the top of big hills and spanned several kilometres. The car also came in handy if I wanted to go to a particular restaurant on the other side of town as I would get him to drop me off and pick me up afterwards. Or if I wanted to buy some bottled beer he would drive me around until we found a shop that sold alcohol as they are not always that easy to find. Another advantage was that I didn’t have to haggle constantly about fares with auto rickshaw drivers. I really couldn’t imagine doing this trip without a car and driver.

Musicians at Fateh Prakesh Palace Hotel, Udaipur

Our vehicle for the trip was a 1950’s English designed Ambassador car with carpet on the ceiling. The car broke down several times but amazingly it didn’t impact on the planned itinerary. The way things started out I thought the whole car was going to be replaced by the end of our 3 weeks! Some of the back roads we travelled on were quite rough with more potholes than bitumen. The car was pretty old and had obviously been in some previous accidents so it really was a miracle that the car made it all the way. Note for next time – check car before hiring. VJ was a good though very aggressive driver. I felt sorry for all the ox-carts, people, donkeys, goats, sheep, camel carts, cows and dogs who happened to be in our path and had to scramble out of the way. We kept getting “who the hell do you think you are” looks from people as we passed them. The car horn took such a beating from VJ that it eventually stopped working and he had to get it repaired. The only things VJ would give way to were trucks and buses, both bigger than us. However on some of the remote single lane roads he would take the trucks on, like playing chicken and veer off the road at the last second or stay on the middle of the road waiting for the truck to veer around us. I was none too keen on this type of bravado driving and on the major roads we saw truck accidents and breakdowns every few kilometres. When you see how they drive, especially the crazy bus drivers, you immediately understand why there are so many accidents. Although he was an aggressive driver we did manage to make the journey without any major incidents.

Old men on safari tour, Jodhpur

There was one funny incident though in Jodhpur. VJ dropped me off at the expensive Ajit Bhawan Hotel for a fantastic “all you can eat” buffet dinner. During dinner there was an excellent Rajasthani music and dance show. The hotel even had wood fires around the tables as everyone was seated outdoors. I got talking to an Italian couple who were seated at my table. They ran a guest house in Rome called “Fawlty Towers” and they were great company for the evening. So I was running a bit late when I eventually left the restaurant and went outside to the car park to find my driver. VJ came up to me and said somewhat mischievously “Sir, I have too many beers. I am too drunk to drive.” So I took the keys off him and told him I was going to drive. He found this highly amusing for some reason. Maybe he didn’t think I could drive an old manual car. Little did he know I learned to drive with a four on the floor Humber that had no synchro on 1st or 2nd gears. It had been a long time since I had driven a car without power steering but luckily it was late at night with not much traffic on the road and we didn’t have far to travel to the hotel. VJ had a liking for alcohol on occasions – undoubtedly due to boredom and being away from his family for 3 weeks.


Sikandra, site of Akbar’s tomb

After leaving Delhi our first stop was at Sikandra, a small town just outside of Agra and site of Akbar’s tomb, beautifully constructed of red sandstone and white marble. Akbar was Mughal Emperor from 1556 to 1605. There were monkeys hanging around inside the site and I found them at just about every site that I visited in India, except the Taj Mahal. Before entering any tomb or religious area in India you have to take your shoes off and leave them outside. Often there is a person who looks after the shoes and more often than not they will expect a small tip. If you are concerned about your pair of $180 Nike runners I would take an old pair of sandals to India. As we drove on towards Gwalior we passed through the outskirts of Agra and experienced unbelievable chaos. The streets were an absolute nightmare, people, carts, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws all over the damn place, like dodgem cars. The town of Gwalior wasn’t much better than Agra, lots of traffic, narrow streets and the pollution was extremely bad. After booking into a hotel we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the fort which was 2.8 km long and located high on a sandstone precipice 91 metres above the town. The fort, with 10 metre high walls, 7 entrance gates and its own water supply was one of the most impregnable fortresses in India. Most of the forts I visited were not very colourful but parts of the outside walls of the Man Mandir Palace were still decorated with blue tiles, elephants, ducks and peacocks, which gave you some idea of how beautiful the palace must have looked when it was built in 1517.

Orchha and Khajuraho

Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho

The next day we travelled to the ruins at Orchha located in the countryside on a bend in the Betwa river. It was a relief to be in a quiet and uncrowded place for a change. Orchha had three palaces each built by succeeding Maharajas and you can take your own audio walking tour of the palaces by hiring a portable tape player. One of the palaces had been refurbished as a tourist hotel, the Sheesh Mahal hotel, which also had a nice restaurant. Unfortunately I was staying at the Betwa cottages, about 10 minutes further down the road. Nice enough cottages but I was quite amused when the young boy showing me the room started chasing a gecko lizard around the place with a bamboo stick. Not only did the room contain different types of lizards but frogs and spiders as well. Earlier in the day an ominous rattling noise had began emanating from the car so while I was exploring Orchha VJ took the car for overnight repairs. He returned the next morning and we continued our journey to Khajuraho, famous for its Jain temples with erotic sandstone sculptures. The temples were created between 900 and 1100 and lay hidden in the jungle for 700 years until discovered by a British Officer, T.S.Burt, in 1838. I spent two hours exploring the western group of temples with an audio guide and the stone carvings on the walls of the temples were fascinating. Scholars are not sure why they carved the sexual sculptures but there are some very interesting and provocative scenes depicted. Other than the temples there is not much else in Kharjuraho.


Stopping for morning tea at Devri, lost en route to Ranthambore National Park

The road to Shivpuri was a shocker and I was grateful that the roof was carpeted. As usual we stopped for tea at a small roadside cafe and there was this drunk guy lying in a low cane table with his arse sticking through a hole in the middle of the meshing. His wife, who ran the cafe, was very annoyed with him as the husband had spent the takings for the week on whisky. VJ said that she wanted to come to Australia with me. I politely declined. I was not planning on going to Shivpuri and when I got there I could see why. It did have one attraction though, the beautiful tombs of Scindia rulers which included marble shrines inlaid with precious stones and gold. Not much else there and definitely no other tourists around. There were elections and rallies taking place in India at the time so I was advised not to go wandering around the town. The hotel was in an undesirable part of town and right next to the main road so I was woken up early in the morning by the loud and musical horns of the trucks and buses. The next day was a bad somewhat frustrating day. Thanks to VJ getting lost we ended up spending 9 long hours travelling on very rough roads. I could handle getting lost, no problem, all part of the adventure. The worse thing was that when I realised we were way off course I told him we will change the itinerary, as it was just a guide, and drive to Kota instead of Ranthambore. Apparently he didn’t understand what I said and so just before Kota he turned right and we went all the way to Ranthambore, without saying a word to me. That was the biggest problem with VJ, he wouldn’t tell me what he was doing or thinking of doing. By the time we got to Ranthambore it was getting late and all I wanted to do was find a hotel, book a safari tour for Ranthambore National Park and have a couple of beers. So what does he do, he drives straight past all the hotels and into Ranthambore National Park itself thinking I was going to visit Ranthambore fort or something. That was the last straw for me. I just lent forward and rested my head on the front seat and took a few deep breaths. He could tell I wasn’t happy. The kids gathering around the car making a nuisance of themselves were not helping the situation. I tried to calmly explain the situation to him but I don’t think it did any good. Anyway, we went back and checked into a Government RTDC tourist hotel, which were generally of a reasonable standard. For dinner I had a non vegetarian Thali, which gives you a sample of various dishes, and a much needed large bottle of Kingfisher beer.

Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore National Park

The next morning it was an early start for a fantastic safari tour of the Park, which was so relaxing, scenic and tranquil – just a magical place to get away from it all. It was also supposed to have the most friendliest tigers in India. I didn’t really expect to see a tiger as I only had one day in the park with an early morning safari drive on the canter truck and another drive in the afternoon. We didn’t see any tigers during the morning tour though we saw many other animals including, an alligator, monitor lizard, antelope, deer and monkeys. Then after lunch it was back to the park for the afternoon drive. Towards the end of the day word spread that a tiger was sighted in a particular area. So we waited and waited and I had almost given up hope and the sun was getting lower and lower. But then we saw glimpses of the tiger through the bush as it ran across the path. Then our truck moved to a new spot and we waited and it came back and our truck just happened to be in the right place at the right time and we got the best views. Actually the tiger paced up and down the path and came right up near the back of our open canter truck, which kind of scared the crap out of the people sitting in the back seats. It was an amazing experience and one that I will never forget. Unfortunately I didn’t get any decent photos, just some dark blurred images. I guess I’ll just have to go back and try again ! If you want to increase your chances of seeing a tiger on the safari tours make sure you ask for Dev as he is one of the better safari guides. I also met some nice tourists in the hotel and on the safari tours, which was a nice change as up until then I had not bumped into too many other tourists. In between the safari tours I walked around Ranthambore Fort which had great views of the surrounding National Park but the ruins themselves were nothing special. As with many of the forts there were animals grazing inside the grounds. I was walking along gazing at a building in the distance when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to my right and noticed a huge buffalo barely 20 feet away. It just stared at me and started snorting a bit and I thought, oh no this is not good. To make matters worse I was standing on top of a walled area with a 100 foot drop to a lake below, with nowhere to run. Luckily it ended up as a Mexican stand off and as I started to slowly moved backwards the buffalo took off – probably more frightened than I was. And no I didn’t get a photo of the incident.


Fame Tower, Chittaurgarh Fort

Bundi was a great place to visit, very friendly people and not many tourists about. I stayed in a family owned Heritage hotel which contained richly decorated rooms and I had great views of the palace from my hotel room. Unfortunately, the privately owned palace was not open to the public. Like any good Indian town Bundi had a large fort on top of the hill and it was quite a steep walk up the pathway to the top. When I entered the fort area there was hardly anyone else around and the place felt quite eerie. However, I did come across lots of goats and monkeys. I did a silly thing at one stage as I walked right through a large group of monkeys on a pathway and some of them started snarling at me. I was thinking that’s all I need, to be bitten by a bloody monkey in India. I snarled back at them and luckily they didn’t attack me. I also did lots of walking around Bundi where the people were so friendly that I ended up with a hoarse throat from saying hello to everyone I passed. Chittaurgarh had a massive and impressive fort with lots of temples, palaces and even a museum. The fort was that large it really did require a car to get around the place. The town didn’t have much else to offer, though I did find a nice restaurant for dinner.

View of the City Palace from my hotel room in Bundi


Afternoon tea at the Fateh Prakesh Palace Hotel, Udaipur

Udaipur was one of my favourite places in India. The city just had a great vibe, very relaxed, great cafes, palaces, museums, shops and rooftop restaurants. It was such a lovely city that I spent three nights there. I even indulged in a bit of extravagance and paid A$38 per night to stay at the Lake Pichola hotel. Udaipur had a series of three palaces build next to each other that overlooked the lake and two had been converted into expensive hotels. Starting from US$110 per night they were definitely out of my price range. However, the Fateh Prakesh Palace Hotel served English style afternoon tea consisting of cucumber, tomato and cheese sandwiches, scones, jam, cream and a pot of tea. They also had two amazing musicians playing traditional instruments. If you stayed there long enough you had good views of the sun setting over the lake – magnificent. There was plenty of opportunity for shopping at Udaipur and I ended up buying 3 silk miniature paintings – exquisite pieces of work. There was even something to do in the evenings at Udaipur as I attended a cultural Rajasthani dance show.


Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur

I had a great time in Jodhpur where there was plenty of things to see and do. I went on a village safari which was a bit touristy but very enjoyable. A jeep took us to a village called Salawas where they demonstrated Dhurry rug making, pottery, cloth printing, etc. We also visited a shepherd’s goat farm and at another place we drank an opium mixture. The magnificent Mehrangarh Fort (Majestic Fort) was probably the best fort that I visited. It was a nice change to visit a fort that was so well preserved and intact. It’s quite a long and steep walk through a series of entrance gates before you enter the fort itself. Some of the palaces were beautifully decorated and there was plenty of memorabilia on display. The fort also had great views overlooking the town which is called the blue town as most of the roofs were painted blue. On top of the walls was an extensive collection of cannons. Of course such magnificence comes at a price. Lots of tourists.

View of canons and Jodhpur from Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur


I spent a night in Pushkar which seems to attract a lot of young people. I am not sure why as there was not much there. Maybe they are looking for the meaning of life. I stayed at the White House Hotel which was a small friendly family run hotel and a lovely place to stay. Breakfast on the rooftop restaurant was just superb and very relaxing. By now I was becoming quite addicted to Marsala tea, a sweet milky tea with various herbs such as cardoman and cloves. The owner of the hotel even allowed me to try a pot of saffron tea, which was absolutely delicious. After leaving the country surrounds of Pushkar we joined a major road heading towards Jaipur. I had never seen so many truck accidents in my whole life. Every few kilometres I would see a truck up against a tree, in a ditch, remants of head-on crashes, or just broken down trucks by the side of the road surrounded by small rocks. As usual VJ was aggressively weaving in and out of the long convoys of trucks. At times I felt like saying something to him but then I thought that I might end up distracting him.


We arrived in Jaipur and I ended up staying at the Diggi Palace hotel which was a nice place though somewhat hard to find. Jaipur City Palace was okay, it seemed a bit worn out or run down. Then I found out the beer shop was closed due to the elections. Jaipur was a crowded place and the pollution was particularly bad.

Elephant rides for tourists at Amber Fort

The next day we drove out to Amber Fort. The tourists ride up in elephants to the entrance but I decided to walk. The fort was very crowded and not overly impressive. Then I walked up the steep path to Jaigarh Fort which overlooked Amber Fort. Great views of the surrounding area and not too many tourists about. The fort also had what they claimed to be the largest canon on wheels in the world. On the way back to Jaipur we stopped at a few shops and I bought some beautiful sandalwood carvings. I changed the itinerary so that I had two nights in Bharatpur where the world renown Keoladeo National Park bird sanctuary was located. I was a bit sick of big cities and I was keen to spend some time in the countryside and do some bird watching in the national park. I was lucky as I ended up with the best guide in the park, Ratan Singh. I had two cycle rickshaw trips with him, one in the afternoon and one early in the morning and we saw heaps of birds including a Night Jar (long tailed brown owl). I also hired an old bike and spent the rest of the day cycling around the park on my own and I even saw deer and blue bull. You can get quite close to them on a bicycle as it doesn’t make much noise. On the way to Agra we stopped off and visited Fatehpur Sikri. We arrived early and so avoided the hoards of tourists. The buildings are quite interesting and extensive so you need a couple of hours to walk around the place. Though I was quite used to hawkers by now I found them very aggressive at Fatehpur Sikri.

Amber Fort

Taj Mahal – Agra

At Agra I stayed at the Hotel Kant which had distant views of the Taj Mahal if you went up to the rooftop. The Taj Mahal was, as expected, quite exquisite and beautiful. Don’t visit the place on a Friday as this is free entry day and gets very crowded with locals. The best time to visit the Taj Mahal is at sunrise where you can watch the changing colours of the marble monument as the sun rises. The Red Fort was well worth the visit. Agra itself is not a very pleasant place, actually its the pits. One day I travelled around in a cycle rickshaw which was good fun as the car had broken down again. The good thing about a rickshaw is that you are close to the action and smell of the place but unlike walking you don’t get hassled by everyone. That night there was a wedding ceremony and reception at my hotel. The Groom arrived on horse back with a board of spinning lights behind him, surrounded by lanterns and loudhailers, drummers, trumpets and dancers and he certainly looked smart in his white suit. Then it was back to the hot and overbearing Delhi where the pollution is worse than in Kathmandu. Delhi is a huge overcrowded city and can be a bit of a nightmare. But once you’ve travelled around India for 3 weeks you can handle just about anything I suppose. Some of the beers I tried during my travels in India included Kingfisher, Golden Eagle, Haywards 5000, Royal Challenge, Punjab, Sand Piper and Black Fort.

The Taj Mahal is an ivory white mausoleum commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 and completed in 1653

Final thoughts on India

For me India was an amazing country to experience. There was not much to look at scenery wise as the terrain I travelled across was pretty flat, quite dry and barren in some places. There were many impressive forts and palaces but most had been neglected and ransacked over the years. So there was not much inside the ruins themselves, except awful smells, and most of the Mughal architecture was quite similar. The most memorable experiences were meeting the Indian people and watching their daily struggle to exist as everyone tries to etch out a living, seemingly improbable due to the large populace. Your whole day is jam packed full of sights and experiences that just leave you shaking your head in amazement and disbelief. I hardly ever got bored in the back seat of the car as there was so much happening, always some bizarre or incredulous thing to look at. It almost overwhelms your senses. Of course you also see things that can churn your stomach and the place can be filthy at times so I can understand why it would not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the rewards are there for those willing to put up with the not so nice experiences. As I say to people nowadays, “I like to go on adventures, not holidays”.

Abandoned Water Palace, near Jaipur

The majority of the people I came across were genuine and friendly people. The further you get away from the big cities and the places that attract lots of tourists the more genuine the people are. If your travels in India were confined to the big cities I think you would have a completely different view of India and their people. Also, the further away from touristy places you travel the more “celebrity status” you gain and you end up with crowds of people around you and everyone practicing their English with you. At some of the remote places I would get out of the car, quickly take a photo and then have to jump back into the car before being besieged by inquisitive locals. I met and talked to lots of school kids and other Indian tourists at various forts and palaces. They were all very friendly people and they loved to have their photograph taken with you.

School girls visiting the City Palace, Udaipur

The children also enjoyed practicing the English they had learned at school. Of course once they find out you are from Australia the conversation quickly turned to cricket. They are absolutely cricket mad in India. You see kids playing cricket anywhere and everywhere. I used to love saying to them, “Who is this Sachin Tendulkar fellow”. Luckily they laughed at my joke. I can highly recommend the Ambassador car and driver as a means of travelling around India. Make sure you inspect the car and driver beforehand and be prepared for lots of haggling. Actually the cost would be quite reasonable if shared amongst 2 or 3 people. The food in India was superb and good value. I tried lots of different meals and there wasn’t one meal I didn’t enjoy. I even got used to their hot vegetarian curries. As many people will be able to testify, India can be a bit of a risky place to travel both health and safety wise. For me, travelling to India was a fantastic experience and one that I will treasure for a very long time, even more so as I made it back in one piece and in good health. Until next time. Namaste.