Travel notes from our voyage across northern India, soaking up the colour, chaos and charisma of this diverse and ancient country, during the month of October 2015.
For our favourite photos of India, please visit our Highlights reel.
Arrived by Emirates flight from Dubai. Upon arrival we immediately noted the combined heat and humidity (compared to the relatively dry heat of previous countries of travel), the aromas (read pungent smells), and the road chaos of swarming motorbikes and tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws), stray animals, erratic driving, and endless horn-honking. Welcome to India.
Our first day in India happened to be the AFL Grand Final 2015, with my team West Coast Eagles vs Hawthorn. Met with our friend Emily Harrison of Innovaid who had invited us to an AFL Grand Final Event at Grand Hyatt Hotel. Let’s not talk about the result.
That first evening, it was also the big Rugby World Cup 2015 match between Australia vs England. The Wallabies played an electric game running out winners 33-13, eliminating England from the competition, and setting the tone for the rest of their tournament. Our time in India was punctuated by watching the World Cup matches from various towns and cities along the way. Go Wallabies!
Sports aside, we visited the Colaba area, the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel. Also in the area, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Jehangir Art Gallery were worth a look. We capped off our day in Colaba by visiting some of the examples of grand colonial architecture such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) train station, the station formerly known as Victoria Terminus.
Keeping it real: I visited the infamous Dharavi slum with Emily and met with the dynamic duo of National Slum Dwellers Federation founder Dr Jockin Arputham and Sheela Patel, founder of SPARC. I learned about their inspiring work to improve the rights and living conditions for slum dwellers in Mumbai, across India, and internationally. It was a humbling experience to meet these influential and charismatic leaders. Between them, they have improved the housing, sanitation, and political influence of millions (literally) over the past 5 decades. It was an incredible and personal introduction to the history of the slums in Mumbai.
We also spent a full day touring with Reality Tours and guide Nilesh. It was an action-packed day including the Dharavi slum, Reality Gives NGO, Dhobi Ghat laundry, Gandhi’s house at Mani Bhavan, Banganga Tank, and Malabar Hill area. Cécile wrote a nice account of that great day here. We highly recommend their tours for a balanced view of life in Mumbai.
Visited the Wadia Children’s Hospital, where we met Ms Dipti Gandhi and learned about the life-changing work of the Muskan Foundation, helping rehabilitate children with impaired vision and multiple disabilities.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (quite a mouthful – also referred to as the Former Prince of Wales Museum) was also a great introduction to the history of India and a preview of what to expect in the month ahead as we made our way across some famous locations across northern India. Highly recommended.
Accommodation: Grand Residency serviced apartments, Bandra. The staff at the Grand Residency gave us our first taste of exceptional hospitality and customer service that we would experience in most of our stay. Everyone from the doorman to the concierge to the general manager went out of their way to get to know us personally, and make our children feel welcome. We stayed in a suite with bedroom, living room (with mattresses for the kids), and kitchenette, and two bathrooms, which was perfect for our needs. The location, in suburban Bandra, was pretty convenient for transportation, lively, and far preferable to the touristy Colaba area.
Arrived by domestic flight on Jet Airways from Mumbai. Reassuringly uneventful.
Visited the awesome Mehrangarh Fort which dominates the city skyline, and got an insight into the history and opulent lifestyles of the Maharajahs and Maharanis of Rajasthan.
Walked through the town square, market place and streets of the famous Blue City of Jodhpur. We had our 15 minutes of fame when photographed by a local journalist and, unbeknownst to us, featured in the Rajasthan daily newspaper the next day. It was brought to our attention when we were surrounded by excited locals several times the next day and, finally, one retailer took us aside and gave us a copy of the paper that afternoon, explaining the fuss!
Accommodation: RAAS boutique hotel, Jodhpur. Beautiful, contemporary architecture in the shadow of the Mehrangarh Fort. The kids spent hours each day in the pool! Perfect location and friendly, welcoming staff. We had a relaxing, chilled out time there, including a great massage at the in-house spa, and would love to go back some day.
Arrived by car (driver Mr Vijay Singh) from Jodhpur. A long drive through the Rajasthani desert, eventually arriving in the town of Khuri (40km from Jaisalmer) just before sunset.
Accommodation: Homestay with Mr Badal Singh and his family. This was one of the highlights of our entire stay in India, enjoying local hospitality, simple food and clean lodgings, in the absolute peace and quiet of a small desert village. A welcome break from the constant bustle, noise and honking horns of most Indian cities.
Mr Singh organized camel rides for dawn and dusk, and shared many interesting stories over home-cooked dinner.
His son, Narpat Singh, is the teacher at the local primary school and invited us there for a morning visit.
We observed the traditional lifestyle from the camel rides – observing the landscape, the farming of cows and goats, daily water collection from local wells, and the beautiful colours of the Rajasthani saris. Angélie and Améline in particular loved riding their own camel and playing in the desert dunes – basically an enormous sandpit!
Our girls thoroughly enjoyed sleeping out under the stars of a glorious Milky Way with clear skies and the new moon. Simply magic.
Arrived by jeep from Khuri. Our kids enjoyed hanging on for dear life in the back of the open jeep!
Visited the Jaisalmer Fort, which is unique for still being an active, living fort and home to over 2,000 residents, as well as the former palace of the Rajput kings and several Jain temples. Learned about the fascinating and bloody history of Jaisalmer, which sits at a critical and strategic location close to the Pakistani border and once part of the Silk Road network.
Walked through the town observing local arts, handicrafts especially textile manufacture, and sampling some local delicacies.
Enjoyed memorable sunrises and sunsets over the charismatic desert fort town.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr Bhim, invited us to join in local celebrations with his family and neighbours. It was the Dussehara festival and we learned the typical dance involving twirling and striking two wooden batons (somewhat reminiscent of the Filipino martial arts!). A warm welcome from new friends and a wonderful experience for us.
Accommodation: 1st Gate Hotel, Jaisalmer – a nice and clean, modern hotel with traditional decor, perfectly located only a 2 min walk from the main entrance to Jaisalmer Fort. We stayed in a large family room. The staff really went out of their way to help us enjoy our stay and give us a local perspective of Jaisalmer. Special thanks to the two gentlemen at the front desk – Chandan and Bhagwan – for making it a very memorable visit.
Arrived by overnight train from Jaisalmer – our first introduction to the joys of travel on Indian Railways. Despite some of the challenges of booking, and the apparent chaos at most railway stations, it was a pleasure travelling by rail and quite cosy in the 4-berth sleeping compartments – we looked forward to each train journey across India.
Our girls were in desperate need of some downtime by this stage, with Louisa in particular having meltdowns at the prospect of yet another fort or temple visit, so the courtyard pool at our guesthouse was a welcome respite. I spent much of the visit here swimming with the girls, while Cécile toured more of the sites on her own.
Highlights: the streets and markets of the old Pink City of Jaipur; the imposing and historical Amber fort; the much-photographed Hawa Mahal; the pretty Jal Mahal built in the middle of a large lake; sunset viewed from the Nahargarh Fort overlooking the city.
Spent a day with the elephants at Elefantastic. We were a little apprehensive of the potential exploitation of these magnificent animals by unscrupulous operators, but after doing a lot of research, we visited the team at Elefantastic and were convinced by their long family history of elephant-tending and their commitment to the welfare of their animals. It was really a labour of love for them and we got to appreciate the beauty and intelligence of these incredible giants over a day of feeding, cuddling, painting, washing, riding and generally bonding with two gentle elephants, Saku and Chander. (They are far more gentle and endearing than the usually grumpy old camels we encountered!)
Accommodation: Jas Vilas, Jaipur. Family run guesthouse, with large, clean and traditional style rooms. Mr Singh and team were very welcoming, and even looked after our girls one evening so that Cécile and I could enjoy a rare evening out – we watched a Bollywood movie at the grand Raj Mandir cinema. Very cool!
Arrived by car (driver Mr Mahadev Singh) from Jaipur. A bumpy drive, but uneventful other than experiencing over an hour of gridlocked traffic and road chaos within the small city of Agra. We agreed that travelling by road in India was far less pleasant than travelling by rail.
Woke early for a dawn tour of the infamous Taj Mahal. It was worth enduring the aggressive touts to enjoy a splendid sunrise over the Taj.
Agra Fort, the poor cousin to the Taj Mahal in terms of tourist attractions in Agra, was still worth a visit for its historic significance, grand architecture and mosques dating back to the Mughal Empire rule.
But Agra for us was really about spending time with our Tibetan god-daughter, Tenzin, whom we finally met in person for the first time, after 15 years of long-distance correspondence with Cécile. Tenzin lives and studies in the Tibetan community in Dharamsala. She travelled down to Agra to meet with us and we cherished a few days together to strengthen our bond.
Accommodation: Gateway Hotel, Agra. Very comfortable hotel a short distance from the main attractions, great service once again, with an all-important large swimming pool – always a welcome respite from the heat in India as well as perfect entertainment for the kids!
Arrived by overnight train from Agra – another comfortable and memorable journey by rail.
We spent our time here mostly resting and recuperating, with the occasional boat ride on the Ganges river or walk along its banks, hopefully seeking a little spiritual enlightenment.
Accommodation: Palace on Ganges heritage hotel, Varanasi. This was probably below our expectations, with the rooms suitable in size for a couple but too small for a family. The location, on the Ganges river, was good, but the staff and service levels here were only mediocre. This was in stark contrast to the exceptional personal service and hospitality we had experienced throughout India. We suspect this is more to do with Varanasi in general, and being located in a bit of a tourist ghetto.
Overall, Varanasi unfortunately fell below our expectations. I am not sure if that was only relative to the extraordinary experience we had across the rest of the country until that point, or whether in fact Varanasi is simply over-rated. We don’t mind roughing it occasionally, and immersing ourselves in local customs and culture – in fact that is usually what we seek. But in Varanasi, we struggled to deal with the run-down city, the filth in the streets, and the constant haggling and hassling of the aggressive touts, every step of the day. For a spiritual and reflective holy city, we never had a moment to our own thoughts without being offered another tuk-tuk, boat ride, or trinket. It really detracted from the charm.
It was not a great experience overall with the children, and maybe we didn’t give it enough time, but we experienced all the worst of Varanasi (as the guidebooks had forewarned) without ever really capturing the elusive magic or fabled spirituality of the ancient city.
Anyway, by the end of our five days there, we were really ready to move on to our final destination in India, the former British capital of Calcutta.
Arrived by overnight train from Varanasi. On the way, we watched the classic movie “Gandhi” with the kids. It was fitting and poignant as we were travelling the same rail route that Gandhi himself had travelled almost a century ago, and we had witnessed some of his lasting legacy during our travels through India.
In Kolkata, our last stop, we toured the old city and colonial landmarks from British rule, and savoured the culture and cuisine of the City of Joy. The immense Malik Ghat flower market, where the vendors showered Améline with floral gifts, and the impressive Victoria Memorial, dubbed as a cross between the Taj Mahal and US Capitol, were particular highlights.
It is a charming city, with a distinct culture from elsewhere we had visited across northern India. The colonial remnants, a degree of Communist influence more recently, and the friendly, easy-going nature of the West Bengal people all made for a very positive first impression of the city.
Accommodation: Oberoi Grand Hotel, Kolkata. As we only had a short stay before travelling onwards to China, and Cécile was able to negotiate a fantastic room rate, we opted for a little luxury to finish our stay in India. The Grand Hotel is a gem of colonial architecture that was reminiscent of a bygone era in Calcutta. And, of course, it had a great pool that the girls loved!