We spent 17 days India; most of our
time was spent on the Palace on
Wheels luxury train tour through the state of Rajasthan. We are
glad that we did the train tour because it provided us a chance to view parts
of India we would never have seen otherwise, and we met some interesting
people, some of whom we plan to see again. But it took some
expectation adjustment because of the extreme 'group' nature of
everything about the tour. We spent a few days in Delhi on either
end of the train tour, mostly hanging out near Connaught Place, a big
shopping area of Delhi. We left for Nepal and Tibet, then came
back through Delhi to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), on our way to
Currency: Indian Rupee (Rs$46:US$1)
Language: Hindi, English and many others
Internet connection speed: DSL-very fast!
English speaking TV channels (in hotel): 22!
(but HBO has commercials)
Religion: 85% Hindu, 10% Moslem, 5%
Time difference: GMT +5:30 (10:30
hours ahead of Atlanta, 9:30 after DST)
Driving lane: left side
Temperature: New Delhi 75-105°F, Rajasthan
Because we had only a couple days in New Delhi before our train tour,
and a few days after the tour, and after Nepal/Tibet, we did not do very
much except walk around the area within a couple miles of our hotel, in
the India Gate and Connaught Place areas. The roads around India
Gate are wide and everything is quite spread out with huge traffic
circles and lots of open space, making a simple path on a map a real
challenge on foot.
Connaught Place is a huge horseshoe shaped area of town that is
filled with every shop you can imagine, spanning over tens of blocks
around the huge circular area. We walked around this crowded area
a few times and it became quite clear that it was not a tourist area --
we were amazed at how few foreigners attended this area. Maybe the
tourists went the to bazaars and markets to which all the auto-rickshaw
and taxi drivers want to take them for commissions.
We considered visiting some of the forts and tombs in the New Delhi
area, but decided that we would not appreciate it enough after the
Palace on Wheels tour.
We will include some of our observations on New Delhi and India, in
general, and then provide details about the Palace on Wheels tour.
Given the majority Hindu
population, cows are considered sacred (but not worshipped) and have the run of all the towns
we visited. Cows freely roam the streets during the day, being
fed by strangers (people feed anyone's cows), and then the
cows return to their owners at night. Since cows often
walked through the streets they were a constant respected obstacle -- a
driver would honk at anyone and everything else, but not at the
cows! According to one of our bus guides for the Palace on Wheels, the penalty for hitting and killing a cow was 6 months in
jail. In comparison, the penalty for hitting and killing a peacock
(national bird) was 1 month in jail, and killing a person was only Rs5,000
(because it is too expensive to go through the courts, so you could just pay the victim's
family). We are not sure how accurate any of that is,
but cows sure had the run of India.
Auto-rickshaws are small
motorized 3 wheel vehicles that crowd the streets of New Delhi and most
of the other towns we visited in India. The auto-rickshaws have mostly
replaced the people-powered rickshaws of the past. We grew to
dislike the auto-rickshaw drivers in India for many reasons.
The first day we took a rickshaw to India Gate from our hotel because
the hotel employees said we would not find it otherwise. The hotel
that all auto-rickshaws (and taxis) have government dictated meter rates
and they gave us a print-out of the published rates. India Gate was only
about an 8 minute auto-rickshaw ride, and when we got there we realized
that the driver never started his meter, even though Dan specifically
reminded him twice to switch it on when we got in. When Dan asked how
much the ride was, he said 'do you like me?'. We asked again how
much, and he smiled and said 'do you like me?' How annoying! We
gave him some Rupees and he kind of smirked -- we realized later that it
was way too much. His damn tactics had worked on the novice
travelers to India.
Every few minutes as we
walked along the streets an auto-rickshaw would pull over to our side of
the road and honk at us. They could not believe that we would
rather walk, and they would follow us, eyeing us the entire time.
On two separate occasions
when we walked from the Intercontinental Hotel to Connaught Place (which
was less than a mile) we were dogged by auto-rickshaw drivers. On
the first occasion, the driver got out of the auto-rickshaw and told us that
there was a political protest in the area, that it was not at all safe
for us, and that we had better let him take us to a much better shopping
emporium for only R5. We said no thanks, we would be fine.
Another guy came up, clearly in cahoots with the driver, and tried to
convince us to go with the driver. We forced our way past them and
continued to Connaught Place. We saw no political protests, and
knew they were lying to get us to shop where they would get a
On the second occasion
(another day), a driver also got out of his auto-rickshaw and stood in
front of us telling us that there was a huge strike in the Connaught
Place area, that it was not safe for us to be there, and that all the
shops would be closed. He, of course, could take us to a shopping area
that was much better for us. We more aggressively let him know
that we would be fine as we moved past him. He followed saying
more things to us, but we ignored him and went on. All the shops
were open and there were no issues, of course. Later in the week
there was a taxi/auto-rickshaw strike that did make it much easier to
walk the streets unsolicited!
We found it very sad that they
felt like they had to resort to such measures to get tourist business. It did seem that
there were way too many auto-rickshaws on the streets -- way more than
the demand, at least while we were there.
One interesting point is that
auto-rickshaws are not allowed on five-star hotel property. We
learned this when we took one from the train station to the hotel,
and he had to drop us off around the corner, at the edge of the hotel
property. We understood how annoying it would be to have tons of
auto-rickshaws soliciting customers as soon as they walked out of the
On the Palace on Wheels tour,
in the small towns we visited, the auto-rickshaws did not solicit
business because they knew we were part of a group. However,
they would run right behind us on the narrow streets and lay on the horn
while we moved to the side to avoid getting hit.
We were very pleased with the
Indian food we experienced in Delhi and on the Palace on Wheels
tour. Although the food was not as spicy as we prefer (we
understand that southern India is best for spicy food), it was very
tasty. We were amazed at how many dishes were created from cottage
cheese -- it seemed like the Indian version of tofu. Although we
had a lot of good food, the best individual food dishes all came at
our day 4 dinner on the POW train. The dishes included: Paneer Rajala
(fried cottage cheese, chopped onion, cream, salt, white peeper, cashewnut
and makhana), Gobhi Achari (fried cauliflower cumin seed, red chillies, powdered mustard, kalatil, kalonji, black peeper, cinnamon stick, cardmon,
clove, lemon juice), and Mutton Sagwala (boneless lamb pieces, ground
spinach and Indian spices).
Tipping, or backsheesh as it
is referred to in India, was a bit of a stress point for us. It
seemed that too often there were too many people involved in a
transaction to easily tip. We did tip a lot, but when three
people would help us get out of a car, and two baggage people would
deliver bags (we only had 2 bags) to our room, or two people would come to deliver something
to our room which only required one person, we ended up not tipping at
all. On the second day of the POW tour, Dan counted 10
tipping opportunities where we could (or should?) tip -- a bit taxing!
At the end of the POW tour, we were all wondering how much we should tip
our very attentive cabin stewards, and the POW provided formal
guidance. One manager said people typically give the steward
US$70-100 per cabin. If you do the math, they do quite well! We
understand why Umesh, our steward, had been doing this for 12 years.
We were quite surprised at
the seemingly consistent propensity to litter in all the areas of India
we visited. Of course all smokers just dropped their cigarette
butts anywhere they pleased, but that is no different from most places
in the world. But in India we saw people on the street just drop
their food wrappers at their feet, throw their paper cups or plastic
bottles on the ground, and many instances of throwing trash from the windows
of cars or the backs of trucks. In Delhi there must have been
some organized effort to remove the trash from the main streets
because we did not see the mass accumulation we would expect with those
practices (of course, many alleys, side areas, and gutters were full of
trash). But from the railway we could see huge accumulations all
around houses and streets in many of the outlying towns.
While waiting in the parked bus on the streets of Udaipur, we watched a
business owner walk out of his shop carrying a huge package of trash,
cross the street, walk in front of the bus, and throw the package over
the wall of a residential courtyard next to us -- the courtyard was
perfectly clean except for this new trash. We were extra disturbed
when we heard from one of the POW passengers that they saw a POW steward
throw a huge package of trash from the moving train -- at least he was
embarrassed when he realized he had been seen!
Palace On Wheels
The Palace on Wheels (POW) tour is described as "a journey worthy of
kings" and by Indian standards it is very expensive. When we arrived at
the Delhi train station, there was a large white tent with music playing and
drinks to welcome us. The tent stuck out like a sore thumb in the train
station, which has seen better days. The sore thumb idea also describes the way we felt as we
entered many of the cities we visited. We definitely stood out -- in part
because of the sheer number of us.
There are four passenger cabins per train car, with a small breakfast
area at one end. Our cabin was about 72 square feet (9x8) with a
very small full bathroom. Our very service-oriented cabin attendants waited on us
constantly -- waking us up in the morning, serving us breakfast,
bringing water to the room, cleaning up the rooms, giving us cool
moist towels each time we returned from a hot day of
touring. When we were having electrical plug issues with the
laptop, Umesh, our main attendant, insisted on going to an electrician
in the next town to make sure that we had full power. When Dan was
clear that he did not need to eat breakfast each morning, Umesh insisted
on bringing at least a glass of juice to the cabin which we accepted with a smile (and then poured down the sink).
The train has a whole car dedicated to the bar/lounge area and two
cars dedicated to dining. We were quite surprised that the only wine we
were offered was US$45/bottle (later on we found out there was a US$12
comparable bottle that the bartender was not pushing.) Each meal
consisted of 10-12 small courses served by waiters. We could of
course eat as much as we wanted, and the food was good to excellent at
Because there were 60 people on the tour (the train held a max of 120), we were in a
large group every day. The tour provided three large buses for us each
day, and we traveled with the same 25 people in our bus each
day. We had to seriously adjust our expectations and attitudes to
tolerate the negative points of group touring. Fortunately, there
were some cool people on the train, many of whom also were not fond of
group touring. And, the benefit of group touring is that it
allowed us to go to some areas we might otherwise not have seen.
The following provides details of the schedule and locations toured
on the POW trip.
Day 1 - Delhi
We joined the POW tour at 4PM
at the Delhi Cantonment train station. There was a big white tent in which we waited until the train was ready. Around 5PM, the cabin
stewards came out to the terminal and chaperoned each guest to the
cabin. Our cabin steward, Umesh, must have been busy because as
most of the people moved to the train, we just walked to our cabin
car to meet him. When we left the terminal, there were several
women dressed in saris who gave us flower garlands and painted dots on our foreheads.
Umesh showed us our cabin -- all 70 square feet of it! Soon after
the train started moving, we went to the bar car, ate the many hors
d'oeuvres passed through the bar car and drank out first bottle of
relatively expensive wine. We were both in the middle of good
books, so we were a bit anti-social, reading in the bar car.
Our first night on the moving train was pretty good. We actually
slept fairly well with the rocking of the train, but it seemed that the
train stopped/started a lot, and passing trains would lay on their train
whistle while they passed!
We found it interesting that
this is a '7 day tour', when the first day starts at 6PM and is only
dinner on the train. Most interesting is that you pay by day, so
the cost is a per day cost times 7 (no option for just 6).
Day 2 - Jaipur
As we got off the train on day 2 at Jaipur, there was a big Palace on
Wheels welcome banner, flanked by two elephants with riders, musicians
playing Indian music, and the women to give us the garlands and forehead
The riders would move the elephants close for petting and pictures, then
immediately lean over for baksheesh.
We boarded the three buses and headed toward town, where we first
stopped for pictures of Hawa Mahal, which is basically a large pink
building facade in the middle of the old part of town. It is a fake
building front that used to serve to allow women to watch happenings in
the street without being seen.
Then we went to Amber Palace, where we immediately got in line
(actually moved to the front of the line) for the required elephant ride
up the road to the palace entrance. There must have been 50
elephants and 200 tourists at the bottom -- what a horrible group
scene! They put four people on the back of each elephant and
slowly plodded up the hill. The rides were included in our tour,
but of course we had to tip the elephant drivers.
Then we boarded the buses to be taken to a carpet factory to see the
entire rug making process, and to experience our first 'forced
selling/shopping' on this tour. A carpet factory manager walked us
around outside where the steps in the carpet making process take
place. The process is very long and labor intensive. He then led us
into a large, open, comfortable room with seats all around the walls and
stacks and stacks of rolled rugs, and then closed the doors. They
told us to relax and be comfortable, and they offered us cold soda
drinks/water. Then it started. They said 'please, no
pressure, we just want to show you the high quality/best price products
we produce, because you are special you get the best price, no need to
negotiate, you have seen it made so you can trust its quality...' A number of 'friendly' sales people would cover the
room and watch your eyes to see if you made any expression whatsoever at
any of the many rugs being unrolled rapidly on the vast floor.
They then approached and greeted you and then focused on selling you a
carpet at 'the
best price'. We soon determined that the best price was about 4
times higher than other 'best prices' available in a non-forced shopping
situation. The penalty for being on a POW tour!
For lunch, the bus took us to The Palace Hotel, a
palace-turned-luxury-hotel. We ate a buffet lunch and some people
Later we were taken to a 'special' jewelry store, for free cold
soda/water, and guess what, 'forced shopping'. We bucked the group
and walked around the small town instead. We enjoyed being on our
own and just walking around the town. Many of the passengers in the group were
quite annoyed with the forced shopping situation. There was much
discussion on the amount of commission the guides or POW got from any
sales at these places.
Our last touring stop in Jaipur was a huge outdoor observatory and City Palace.
The observatory, built in the 1700's, had huge
structures for viewing stars and planets and for keeping very precise
time. These structures were very interesting, although we did not
completely understand how they worked. The City Palace was a not a very impressive palace on the
inside. It was just a couple of large courtyards with some very
museums. The tour guide insisted on reviewing every piece of
clothing in the textile museum -- fortunately there were only about 15
things to look at in the whole museum. We noticed that most
of the palace museums had very few items and very little documentation on
any items on display.
We had to 'kill time', until the train was available again for
boarding, so the bus dropped us off at the Jai Mahal hotel, another
palace-turned-luxury-hotel. It had very elaborately organized
grounds, but did not have any interesting history that we could
That night Dan could not get the laptop power cord to draw power from
our cabin outlet. Umesh insisted on taking the power cord into the next town to get an electrician to look at it. The
next afternoon, the power cord was plugged in and working
perfectly! Umesh was definitely very helpful, and weenjoyed having
him as our cabin steward.
Day 3 - Jaisalmer
We started late from Jaisalmer because the train arrived late in
the train station. Jaisalmer is called the Golden City because all
the buildings are carved from sandstone which shines yellow/gold in the
sun. The town is in
the Thar desert, the second largest desert in the world after the
Sahara. Supposedly, Jaisalmer is the closest Indian tourist town
to the Pakistan border. The POW tour arrival dates are well-marked
on the town's calendar -- it is said to be the highlight of the week for
After visiting a very old reservoir that
gathers water during the monsoon seasons, we walked through many of the
streets of town. We entered one showcase haveli (stone home) and
took some panoramic pictures from the roof top. Unfortunately, the
quilt shop at the bottom worked it so that we were subjected to
forced-shopping/selling for much too long. Dan reminded the guide that we
had places to see (anywhere but there!), and he soon allowed us to move
One of the biggest attractions in the town is Jaisalmer Fort, which
is quite large, well-preserved, and is still home for over 3,000 people
(though we believe many of them are vendors). The fort was pretty
cool and had a great deal of historical significance. We were quite amazed that it had several internet/email
shops -- they were all full!
Late in the afternoon, we ventured out to Sam, a remote camel riding
development area in the Thar desert, very close to the Pakistan border
-- we saw fighter planes flying by as we drove the long distance to the
area. Fortunately, they only required two people per camel so we
had our own (vs. the 4/elephant in Jaipur). We joined the long
line of 30+ camels on a short ride through the desert sand dunes.
A very annoying situation, which the POW guide warned us about, was that
the camel guide walking in front of the camel, would offer to take us
for an 'extra long' ride. The big point was that the POW had paid
for the ride, but anything else we agreed to with the camel guide we would
have to pay for -- the guide warned us to be careful to agree on a price ahead of
time for any extension of the ride Well, the camel guides' tactics seem to have refined over time.
After about 15 minutes of riding, all the camel guides congregated the
camels/riders around an area in the dunes. Some of the camel
continued further. Our guide said 'would you like to continue.
your friends are going further?' We said, no that was far
enough. He again
said 'this is not far enough, don't you want farther?' We said
'take us back please'. Of course he mentioned no price, but we knew it would cost
more. Some of the others were taken by these tactics. On the
return a young boy kid came up and asked if we wanted
to buy a coke -- we said no -- he opened it anyway and said 'for the
camel driver, he is so thirsty'! Pretty annoying, but it was only
Rs20 (~US40¢) so we paid the kid. We later learned that the
drivers who took their riders on the extra 10 minute ride demanded
Rs200 for it. We also learned that they had not taken us as far as
the POW had paid for, so they were actually stopping early, and then
demanding extra payment for taking us as far as was already paid for by
POW. When we tipped our camel guide the Rs50 that the POW
recommended, he looked extremely disappointed.
We then drove to a luxury hotel for dinner and entertainment by the large
pool. It was a long day, as we returned to the train after 11PM!
Day 4 - Jodhpur
On day 4 we visited Jodhpur, called the Blue City because many of the
houses are painted blue. There were a few possible explanations
provided for why blue is the color of choice: show of class in their
caste system, better bug repellent, or easier on the eyes in the bright
sun. Jodhpur is also called 'Sun City' because is has the 'maximum
number of sunny days in a year' (not sure what that means!)
We first drove to the Jaswant Thada tomb which was built from the
same marble used for the Taj Mahal. During
the visit we saw a 4 foot long black cobra snake slithering
away from us on the sidewalk as we walked around the garden. We
had strayed from the group so we were the only ones to see the
snake. At first when it saw us it had its hood fully extended,
then as it escaped through the garden underbrush it pulled the hood back and
looked like any other black snake.
Then we walked through Mehrangarh Fort, one of the best preserved
forts we visited -- because it was so far inland and protected by other
districts it was never conquered. It had huge high ramparts,
complete with cannons, that provided great views of the city.
Our guide wanted to take us for 'special shopping' before lunch, but
the whole bus rebelled, and instead, we went straight to the Ummaid Bhawan
palace for lunch. This palace was run by the Sheraton group of hotels
-- we had had enough of palace/hotels at this point, so that we sat in
lobby and read our books.
Dinner on the train that night provided some of the best dishes of
the trip (see Food section above)!
Day 5 - Sawai Madhopur / Chittorgarh
Day 5 included a very early morning game dive through the Ranthambore
National Park, renowned for the 28 tigers it holds. Since we had done the
safaris in Tanzania and South Africa we were not as excited about this,
but we thought it would be cool to see some tigers in the wild for the
first time. We had three 25-person open jeeps and drove quite a
way to the park. Unfortunately, our jeep was loud, and our guide
seemed disinterested in the whole excursion. In addition, we had
some smokers who littered the National Park with their cigarette
butts. As it turned out, ours was the only jeep to
not see any tigers. Quite a disappointment.
After a big breakfast on the train we left mid-day for the town of Chittorgarh
to see Chittorgrah Fort. This fort was mostly ruins and the least
interesting of all the forts we visited.
We stayed parked in Chittorgarh train station all night for our
first non-rocky sleep -- we had gotten quite used to bouncing around in
our sleep, but it was nice to have a calm night. Of course, the other
trains coming through the station still blew their whistles all the way
through the station!