Taj’s Nedesar Palace Hotel is a petit boutique intimate palace hotel. There were no elephants welcoming us, but rather two men playing seashell trumpets along with the, now expected, dot placed on our foreheads and decorative bead necklaces around our necks. Again, as expected, the sign-in formalities are completed in our suite. This maharajah’s townhouse (formerly a 19th century governor’s mansion of the British East India Company) has only ten guest rooms (as compared to the vast stone rotunda of the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel (Jodhpur) or the rambling vast Taj Rambagh Palace (Jaipur)), but makes up for it by a level of personalized service not to be found elsewhere and food whose preparation and presentation is worthy of a Michelin star restaurant. We are in the “Laos” room (named after the King of Laos who used to stay here, but there are larger suits named after Pandit Nehru and Lord Mountbatten who used to hang out here as well). There seem to be more employees than guests and the personal level of attention is palpable. We took a tour of the palace grounds in the maharajah’s horse drawn carriage which was pretty cool.When it came time to check out, they brought in a local priest to bless our journey and offer us yogurt laced with sugar. There is a Taj Gateway hotel just outside the palace gate which seems a very nice alternative for those trying to conserve shekels (as the Taj heritage palace hotels are far from gentle on the pocketbook). While we woke up early the first day, it was raining, so we’ve elected to do our boat trip along the ghatts on our second morning here (despite waking early). I blame the rain on a British lady who says that it always rains on her vacations (as it almost never rains on mine). Fortunately, she is leaving today for Delhi. This city is filthy beyond all belief. It is interesting to the tourist because it is the destination of sick and elderly Indians who come here to die and be burned on the banks of the Ganges River. There are huge piles of expensive firewood for those who can afford this luxury and electric crematoriums for those who can’t. The caste which specializes in these matters works for a “king” who apparently is very wealthy. It is customary to cremate people with whatever jewelry they happen to have on when they pass away and there is a team of men sifting the piles of ash for valuables (and casting large bone groups which don’t fully turn to ash – such as women’s pelvic areas and men’s chest cages – into the river. Groups of dogs hang out on the ghats hoping for scraps as well). This is not a destination for the faint of heart, but it is a unique environment that is part of the tapestry of India.Silk weaving is perhaps the most popular art of Varanasi and Banarasi silk saris form an indispensable part of an Indian bride's trousseau. The world-famous gold and silver brocades and richly worked saris are known to have passed on from generation to generation much like family jewels. The guides will show you a weaver working on complex designs by hand using a jacquard digital card method for the pattern and conveniently ignore the electric motor drivel looms around the corner weaving the same patterns. Needless to say, anyplace your guide takes you to will cost you at least double.After breakfast, we drove to Sarnath - the buried Buddhist city where Buddha preached his first sermon 2,500 years ago. Apparently, after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya the Buddha went to Sarnath; and it was here that he preached his first discourse in the deer park to set in motion the 'Wheel of the Dharma'. We took a look at the ruins, the stupa (skipped the entry fee and looked through the fence at dozens of Buddhists circling the large pile of bricks in a clockwards direction), the Buddhist temple & the museum (closed on Fridays). At the museum is the Ashok Pillar with its four guardian lions, used as independent India’s national emblem.Afterwards we visited Varanasi’s highlights, including Banaras Hindu University with its large temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the 18th-century Durga Temple, devoted to the Hindu deity, Durga; and Bharat Mata Temple, dedicated by Mahatma Gandhi to Mother India.Since it’s evening, we’ve decided to take an early seat on the ghats to watch the bramin priests chant blessings and swing fire around for about an hour in nightly ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat (you can also watch from a boat, but it’s static, so it’s a bit of a waste). There are vendors who will sell you a lotus flower candle (Rs 10) and set it adrift on the water, kids selling body-paint make-up, coffee venders and a cast of thousands. We have a boat included for the morning tour, but should you be interested, the rate for hiring a boat that takes up to four people is Rs 70 to 100 per hour, but the boatmen usually ask foreign tourists for up to Rs 600 before agreeing to much less. Deal directly with a boatman (rather than a tout) and be patient but firm. Just in case, the hotel offer boats at 200 rupees per hour. The following morning, we took a dawn rowing boat ride along the Ganges to view the ghats and former palaces from the Ganges is a quintessential Varanasi experience. The best time to make the trip is from 5.30am when it is cool, the early morning light is particularly good as the sun rises, and all the color and clamor of pilgrims bathing and performing puja unfolds before you. We did about an hour-long trip south from Dasaswamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat and back, and watched corpse burning at Harishchandra. Incidentally, the place is covered with ash (hopefully wood) so dress accordingly. (In a poor pun, I called the assorted chanting “gangi-din”).Throughout our trip, we have regularly seen Indian school children at poorly maintained public schools waiting around into the late morning waiting for their teachers to show up. Even the poor try to send their children to private schools if they can afford to because the education received at state run schools is so poor. In the late afternoons the young boys take some time off to fight their kites (trying to have their kite strings cut through those of their competitors). There is currently a controversy because some kite string imported from China is so sharp as to be dangerous if it wraps around a young kids arm or neck.India is a poor country. A couple of decades ago, Indira Gandhi replenished the country’s coffers by taking the treasuries of all of the maharajahs (through revoking the unfavorable part of a treaty they had signed handing over their sovereignty to the Indian government in 1948 in return for keeping their assets). The corruption of politicians is rampant and, with the exception of a few major companies like Tata, the ability to pursue mass production in its infancy, the chance of this country to burst from its bonds (like Singapore or even China) before its growing population buries it is slim.Feb 17 Today we take an Air India flight to Delhi (which left ½ hour late) and are met again by Ranbeer who has relocated back to Delhi (along with our luggage) while we’ve been in Varanasi. In Delhi we have rooms booked at the modern luxury “The Oberoi”. Frankly this modern luxury hotel, with rather small but adequate rooms, could be in almost any American or European city and not feel the difference. That said, there is a much higher level of personal attention from the staff (with small touches like the restaurant waiters addressing you by name and making breakfast suggestions and customizing platters from the Indian side of the menu). They do also have a superb swimming pool and health spa – a welcome oasis from the heat of the city. While some of the boutique hotels we stayed in gave us very nice parting gifts, this much larger one did go the extra step of bringing a cake from their pastry shop on a plate labeled “Bon Voyage” in pastry icing at our last breakfast. For a more “character type” luxury hotel (giving the feeling that one is locked in an art deco time warp), Delhi also offers “The Imperial” (on Janpath, near Tolstoy Marg).After a bit of driving past New Delhi’s government buildings and monuments (such as Delhi’s version of “India Gate”) and an inspection visit of The Imperial Hotel, we had to drop into a bank for a while (as reality kicked in for an hour or so). We then decided to short-circuit Ranbeer’s presumed plans to bring us to some “special” shops and told him to drop us at the row of governmental run state emporiums and the Rajiv Gandhi Handicraft Bhawan (where each state has a shop selling their products – supposedly fixed price, but since the shops competed with each other, there are frequently discounts available. Be aware that many unaffiliated shops pretend to be government emporiums elsewhere) along Baba Kharak Singh Marg. He looked pretty crestfallen when we returned with some purchases after an hour or two of shopping. We then had him take us to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium (on the corner of Janpath and Tolstoy Marg – across the street from The Imperial Hotel) – a department store sized shop selling a vast variety of good quality products at pretty reasonable prices (absolutely price fixed). Again, there are many shops whose names sound like this one and who will tip cab drivers (who might tell you this shop is closed or just say they are taking you there, but mislead you). Again, I did not leave unscathed. Delhi, like all other places in India is infested with beggars including people missing various body parts or twisted in imaginary ways, girls carrying even younger babies making motions of how hungry they are (bringing back stereotypes of similarly dressed and appearing Rom women in various European cities) and assorted holy men and elderly ladies. There are, of course, interludes of fun as in a young (about 12 years old) magician who insisted on entertaining us with his tricks.As Ranbeer is being assigned to another client tomorrow (and has to drive to Udaipur), I tipped him for the days we had together and we will have his boss Lucky Kereshi to drive us around Old Delhi tomorrow.In Delhi we visit Red Fort (large, but the one in Agra is better, though the covered market here seemed to have some very reasonable prices – after haggling – on touristic knick-knacks), Raj Ghat - a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, Humayun’s tomb - Delhi’s finest example of Mughal architecture (this is worth a visit), the famous Lotus Temple of the Baha’i faith, the India Gate (virtually obscured by Delhi’s air pollution – now the worst in the world – during the daylight hours), QutbMinar, the Parliament House, etc. As India’s capital, Delhi has some of the finest shopping and bazaars this side of Mumbai. That, of course, has to be taken in the context of a large Indian city’s bazaar. We take a rickshaw ride, just for the fun of it (another negotiated “throw-in”) through the throng for a couple of miles. The driver lugged the three of us (me, the wife and himself) for a few kilometers through the throng, up and down hills and over pavement with enough potholes and rough spots (with us in the spring-less double seat) to make me wish for a camel ride instead.While one of our meals in Delhi was at a “local’s favorite” food place for south Indian cooking (which had my wife giving me the “hairy eyeball” as even the food “without any spice” was too spicy for here and she was equally impressed by going back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk which took us to the “servant’s entrance” in the back before being redirected to the front entrance where we had to walk from the gate (as this lowly level of transport is not allowed to see the front of the hotel). My wife ordered her dinner from room service (I had eaten bother my and her dinners). As the food in the hotel is excellent, we had dinner there the rest of the time.Feb 17-Feb 20 3 The Oberoi, New Delhi Drivers-India rickshaw rideFeb 20 Drivers India transfer to Delhi AirportWe had a bit of confusion in the morning as I didn’t have the name of the driver who was sent. I sorted out the problem by doing the socially unacceptable and walking to the car holding area myself and flagging our driver. The traffic to the airport was understandably bad (being rush hour as well as just the normal abysmal state of traffic here), but we got to the airport in time to deal with the very thorough Indian airport security procedures (no one cares how much liquid you take or whether you are wearing shoes, but everyone gets a full pat-down and very complete mag-wand search. All luggage gets X-rayed and all electronics is separately picked apart (not like the silly security theatre we have in the States). We have ended up on a brand spanking new Boeing Dreamliner 787-8 to Shanghai China. Post-Mortem on India:While we are in Shanghai right now for a few days, I’m going to delay writing about our stay so that I can finish my thoughts on India as a separate entity.Our trip through India was an eye-opener. Well, actually, except for trivial travels, one doesn’t take a “trip” through India (except in the 1960’s hippy context), one journeys. Transportation from point to point is frequently punctuated by hours of driving through crowds and livestock over roads which have never seen anything resembling pavement. Each stop is a new challenge to balance your driver’s and guide’s protection against the local riff-raff and touts and their dipping their own beak at the shops they point you towards.But that’s not to say all was a chore. The sights were varied and extraordinary nearly every day for a month. The hotels, as a group were among the best we have ever had the pleasure to stay at. The food was great (and even my wife’s gentle pallet was able to be accommodated) and, no doubt through good luck as well as careful attention to clean water protocol (and with only a couple of exceptions paying extremely close attention to where we were eating – with a much higher percentage of the meals taken in hotels than we generally do) we never suffered a single bout of “Delhi Belly” and all of our remedial pharmaceuticals remain unused.While the cities pretend to be modern, the vast tracts of rural India live pretty much as they did hundreds of years ago. While the country has a thin veneer of wealth – some of it jaw-dropping in magnitude – the vast majority of the population lives on a few dollars a day. The small middle class here lives well, with multiple servants and tailor-made clothing. Weddings here run constantly at this time of year and both pump a huge amount of money into the economy (from new sari, fireworks, wedding halls, museums, gold purchases, musicians, electrical generator rentals, animal rentals etc., etc.) and act as a demand factor, driving the prices of fresh food higher.Our trip to India was an experiment to see what would or would not work from a transport/logistics standpoint. The timing of the trip in late January and early February was pretty much optimal as it comes after the rainy monsoon season and before March when it really starts to get unbearably hot here (we were told that all prices plummet during the summer – but it’s a poor trade-off to try to do this trip in 50 degree Celsius weather). The trip’s strategy was also designed to compare two of the world’s top hotel chains (both Indian based) as well as a handful of “outliers” at locations not covered by the primary chains. We compared a “big city” Taj hotel in Mumbai to an Oberoi one in Delhi. We compared three “heritage” Taj palaces to three new Oberoi’s. We compared an “off-brand” (Greenhouse at Pushkar) luxury tent to an Oberoi luxury tent hotel near Rathambore Park. We compared a Vivanta by Taj to the top tier Taj hotels. And there was a Radisson thrown in just for variety.As we leave for lands where hotels are unlikely to welcome us with elephants, trumpeters, showers of rose petals, dancing girls, drawn baths and suites lager than an aircraft hangar we reminisce about the trip. So, how did we do?Overall, I think we did very well. On the traveling side, the independent chauffer driven car made a lot of sense. The train ride to bypass rough/long drives worked well enough that I would even have considered repeating something similar between Jodhpur and Jaipur (skipping Pushkar) and/or between Rathambore Park and Fatehpur Sikri (skipping a long boring drive). The down side is that we got overcharged a number of times when we couldn’t ditch the driver before buying something in a shop, getting a message or when eating in restaurants he suggested (but in the grand scheme of what the trip cost, this was more of an annoyance and a personal strategic (and ego) challenge than a real significant cost factor – and it comes with the territory if you decide to have a local accompany you). I’d make the side trip to Aurangabad and “option” as it was time consuming and expensive. While the Ellora Caves were impressive, it’s a lot of work to squeeze out that benefit. Otherwise, the itinerary worked out pretty much perfectly.In general, the hotels were a fantastic mix. There were many high points and a couple so lofty as to be stratospheric and only a few dips below completely excellent. One observation is while the Oberoi and center city Taj hotels attracted personnel from across the country (and I’ve not ever spoken to an Oberoi employee who grew up local to the hotel they are working in), the Taj “heritage” palace hotels, while managed by Taj personnel from elsewhere, generally employ local personnel – some of whom were members of families which had been there working for the royal family for generations. The only hotel which we would have changed (and it really wasn’t bad, just not the best choice in the area) was the Radisson Hotel Khajuraho, and possibly with a bit of research, the Taj Vivanta in Aurangabad (but that’s really nit picking). While some may prefer the “real India” of traveling by bus and second class train, staying in ashrams and havali’s, and eating in side of the road places, I would point out that the experience – while an order of magnitude or two less expensive – would have been dramatically different (in a way that I felt was best left to college students who we young enough to recover from the abuse of this mode of travel – been there, done that, got the tee-shirt when I was a kid).A detailed hotel breakdown in chronological order:The Taj Palace Hotel, Mumbai (New Wing) – This is a modern “big city” luxury hotel. It could be transported to New York City, London or Vienna and still be considered as one of the iconic hotels of the city, with its shopping arcade of high end stores, great restaurants, Sandeep one of the hotel’s cleff d’ore certified concierges (who was a font of useful information) and modern lobby. On the other hand, because of this it lacks very much Indian “character”.Vivanta by Taj Aurangabad Hotel – The property is lovely. The hotel, however, suffers from an almost surly front desk and a poor bread/pastry chef. I have been told that this is the best hotel in the town. I have also been told that this hotel is attached to a local Taj training facility and has many trainees working there. In any case, while the hotel was adequate, it is not a “destination” to be sought out. The Taj Palace Hotel, Mumbai (Old Palace Wing) – This side of the hotel has quite a bit of character. The swimming pool is an oasis of calm in a manic city and the decor of the floors and lobby is right out of a museum. While a “grand hotel” able to compete with any other on a global level, it is clearly an Indian hotel.Oberoi Udaivilas Hotel (Udaipur) – The architecture of this hotel is breathtaking. It has to compete with the equally famous Taj Lake Palace Hotel – and it does so very well. The design is a fantasy of a maharajah’s palace and pulls it off.Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel (Jodhpur) - superlative in all respects is an understatement. With a world of superb hotels to choose from, this one is the best so far.The Greenhouse Resort (Luxury tent in Pushkar) – not a bad place and better than any other I found in Pushkar. Somewhat far from town and about a kilometer down unlit, unpaved roads. This place is at least pretty new as the alternatives are a bit creepy.The Taj Rambagh Palace (Jaipur) – another superb Taj heritage palace. While this one has the potential of living up to the standard of its sister palace hotel in Jodhpur, it never quite gets there. Still an excellent hotel.The Oberoi Vanyavilas Hotel (Rathanbore National Park) – Wonderful luxury tent hotel slightly flawed by a less than perfect restaurant for dinnerOberoi Amarvilás Hotel (Agra) – About the best view (from every room) that anyone could hope for from a luxury hotel – the Taj Mahal dangling like a Christmas ornament in every window. A spectacularly attractive hotelRadisson Hotel Khajuraho – A glorified motel level hotel with a nice curved marble staircase to the (no-elevator here) second floor. A better choice would have been the LaLit Temple View Khajuraho Hotel.Taj’s Nedesar Palace Hotel is a petit boutique intimate palace hotel. This maharajah’s townhouse has only ten guest rooms, but makes up for it by a level of personalized service not to be found elsewhere and food whose preparation and presentation is worthy of a Michelin star restaurant. “The Oberoi” in New Delhi is a modern luxury hotel, with rather small but adequate rooms, could be in almost any American or European city and not feel the difference. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Oberoi, for a more “character type” luxury hotel (giving the feeling that one is locked in an art deco time warp), an alternative would be “The Imperial” (on Janpath, near Tolstoy Marg). Give more of a personal feel than most European or American hotels would have.While I don’t think there is much here to draw us back for a repeat engagement (except for the truly extraordinary hotels), we are certainly happy that we made the effort to experience the broad variety of places we touched during this trip. While the planning was not simple and there were many subtle choices we had to make along the way, the trip was achievable without the assistance of any party other than ourselves. This country is truly worth the effort to see and devoting more than the week or so people take to see the “Golden Triangle” (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) for a week and then move on.Well, that’s the first third of our three month trip finished –now let’s see if we can change the tune a bit.Jeff
Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel (Jodhpur) - superlative in all respects is an understatement. With a world of superb hotels to choose from, this one is the best so far.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umaid_Bhawan_PalaceJeff, Here's one of several available videos of this storied palace, which apparently was built by a charitably-minded majaraja as a works project to keep people in the Jodhpur area employed and fed during a famine circa 1930's:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfobUr4PozsThe Umaid Bhavan, together with all the Oberoi properties you mention, seem like the way to experience India in the manner to which the 1% wish to become accustomed. In fact, one might plan a fantastic "maharaja style" India tour just using your list of hotels to plan an itinerary.For those among the 99%, here's a video of how a young couple documented a more affordable visit to the Jodhpur, Rajasthan area - including a charming 500 year-old hotel just a bit different from the Umaid Palace :)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOOsLvkbRFkI can't wait for your next missive.Take care & enjoy!-Hound
I was at the bank the other day, and, for some reason, the teller mentioned she was from India, from Mumbai.I mentioned that a person I correspond with was touring the Indian interior, by car. Her eyes bugged out and she exclaimed "that's dangerious!"Jeff is one intrepid traveler. Here in flyover country, I only have to worry about being splattered by an 18 wheeler on my road trips.Steve
I only have to worry about being splattered by an 18 wheeler on my road trips.SteveWhile looking at your badly placed brand new GPS. }};-D**** not me ****
While looking at your badly placed brand new GPS. }};-DGruppenführer Helga is in the lower left corner of the windshield, where she doesn't block my view and, due to the curve of the windshield, is closer that if she was in the middle., so is easier to reach, particularly as I am left handed.Helga also mispronounces the name of the grocery store I go to. It's spelled Meijer, pronounced Meyer, but Helga calls it Meeger.Steve
I like these travelogues, Jeff.As a woman, I will probably never go to India because of the awful things that have happened to tourists and native women there. It's pretty shocking and dangerous to women, accompanied by men or not.Did you see any Indian women traveling by themselves?
In general, one of the advantages of using a local driver is that he will keep you out of trouble and provide some local protection.Outside of western Europe, North America, Japan, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and a small handful of similar "civilized" places a woman traveling alone may be taking a larger risk than she realizes.Jeff
Oh, one other comment about women traveling (alone or otherwise). It's only since World War I that Western women have shown bare arms and legs to one extent or another. It's not much longer since a modest woman's head had to be covered and wearing makeup made it clear that a woman was of questionable morals. As I pointed out, rural India is a couple of hundred years "behind" us in social development. The same is true for a very large part of the earth's land mass. Blond hair, blue eyes, loud voices and height make Western women stand out from a crowd of locals. "Lewd" behavior consisting of waving bare arms and legs around as well as keeping their heads uncovered can be very provocative (and/or impolite, depending on the circumstance). The social gestures we in the West have accepted as the norm frequently are interpreted in other parts of the world as invitations by "loose" women.To avoid misunderstandings, it is important that "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" rather than decide that it is either unimportant or that you are waging a one person campaign against another country's social structure.I am in no way justifying the abusing (or worse) of women or even saying that "they bring it on themselves", but am simply advocating that a pragmatic approach to being a polite visitor to someone else's culture will be far safer than being obvious or (even worse) being obnoxious.Jeff
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