Hi, so first of all thanks very much to those who answered my questions when I was arranging my trip. I only booked a month or so in advance so it was appreciated! We had a great time.
I spent 17 days travelling around Rajasthan with my husband in February 2014. Apart from the flights we travelled with Icon India Tours, who supplied a car and driver, and booked hotels. I chose some hotels and Sabu from Icon India suggested others. I would recommend this tour company as everything pretty much went to plan. Our driver Bhagwan was friendly, safe and particularly helpful with translating. One part of the trip we particularly enjoyed was the opportunity to stay for a night with Sabu’s family in their village, where we were made very welcome and got the chance to see life outside the big cities.
In general for this kind of trip I think having a driver is very worthwhile, as otherwise you would spend all your time on logistics. Of course if you have several months to spend it would be different. The drives were long but there is always something interesting to see out of the window.
The other great experience was Lakshman Sagar hotel – GO THERE!
The itinerary was Delhi (2 night), Agra (1 night), Jaipur (3 nights), Dagri village (1 night), Lakshman Sagar hotel (2 nights), Jodhpur (2 nights), Jaisalmer (2 nights), Rawla Narlai hotel (1 night), Udaipur (2 nights) – then a flight back to Delhi and one home to London.
I’ll put reviews on the hotels so will just talk about the other observations here. Please excuse me if I run out of adjectives.
- Money: Things are cheap in India (you knew that), although of course it depends where you go. I know I could have got things cheaper by bargaining harder, but mostly didn’t bother once it got to what I considered was a good price. Tip everyone, it’s expected (well unless the service is really poor, then I didn’t). I would say don’t give a lot to the beggars – especially kids who should be in schools – but DO give to a local or national charity instead.
- Food: The quality of meals bore no relationship at all to cost. I ate everything vegetarian and didn’t get ill at all. My husband was ill after a drink with ice in a nice hotel – we got careless!
- Clothing: We went in Feb which was a good time. It was hot in the day but not too hot, and at night it could get quite cold so bring layers and a couple of jumpers. As a woman I felt good in jeans and a loose top with sleeves, and flip flops. I wouldn’t wear anything revealing.
- Safety: We felt very safe actually – it does help having a driver of course. Men looked at me a lot but I didn’t feel threatened. I did have my husband walk close behind me through crowds so no one could try anything without him seeing!
- Hassle: Basically fine. People will try and get you to come into shops and tuk tuk guys can be persistent, but compared to some other places I’ve been it was totally not a problem.
We had a night flight so found our first stop at Connaught Circus quite overwhelming and I’m ashamed to admit I ended up getting a coffee in the Starbucks (not the most authentically Indian start!). The Fabindia shop is a good bet if you are ending your trip and want to buy beautiful textiles to take home. Delhi is crowded and polluted and transport by car is quite difficult, but we did find some great places.
We enjoyed the old city of Delhi much more than the modern city, as it’s much more walkable. We had a wander through the streets and the spice market. Also a visit a little out of town to the Qutb-al-minar – certainly worth seeing for the very tall red stone pillar, surrounding buildings and smaller iron pillar which inexplicably never rusts.
We ate one evening in the Imperial Hotel. This was pretty amazing, mainly for the incredible decor. The food was good (of course super-expensive for India), but after the meal one of the lovely staff gave us a tour of the decorations in the restaurant and explained all the meanings behind them – impressive.
We went on a tour of part of Delhi led by the Salaam Balaak Trust (found through TA thanks) – this is a charity which looks after street children and either helps them return home or gives them a place to live and an education. The tour was interesting and we then visited one of their centres to meet some of the kids. I would highly recommend the tour (and to give a big donation to a good cause) – the tour itself is only around £2.
The drive to Agra was interesting – lots of new developments, tall residential towers. Agra itself is on first impression pretty unattractive, but of course has attractions! In the evening we visited the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah (otherwise known as the ‘Baby Taj’. This was so pretty and we had it almost to ourselves apart from the monkeys playing, which I could have watched for ages. The building is indeed like a mini Taj by the river. We also went down to the river to get a view of the Taj itself, but it’s much more impressive when you actually visit.
We went to the Taj quite early (around 7.30am I think) – but not at sunrise as it would probably have been foggy. Well the Taj was of course amazing. We asked Icon India to arrange a guide for us, which was worthwhile. He took some good photos of us and was considerate enough to leave us alone for a while to wander around by ourselves. We were then taken to some local shops to see carpet making and marble inlay. I don’t know if anyone would have got commission (probably?), but we didn’t feel under pressure to buy anything and it was interesting to see the process.
ABHANERI STEPWELL AND BHANGARH FORT
We saw two amazing places on the way from Agra to Jaipur. The Abhaneri step well is close to the main road but in a tiny village. It looks like an Escher drawing and as I recall was free to go and see. Bhangarh Fort was one of my favourite experiences on the trip – it’s an abandoned town (apparently haunted). A sign near the entrance says ‘preserve your heritage and feel glorious’, which I liked. There were very few other people there, only lots of langurs and peacocks - you can wander anywhere including inside the buildings and around little paths leading to mysterious temples, all in different degrees of preservation. We felt a little bit like Lara Croft.
In Jaipur we had one very full day of sightseeing and then some more relaxing time. We again hired a guide for the sightseeing day, which was probably worth it although most sights are quite well explained without a guide so you would be fine without.
The Amer/Amber Fort was impressive, especially the mirrored halls and the general scale. The elephant ride up there was basically cruelty to tourists (I think the elephants were ok as they only do a limited numbers of rides per day). It was uncomfortable and short and expensive so I wouldn’t really recommend it. Close to the fort is the Anokhi museum of block printing which we found really interesting. It is in a restored haveli and you can try printing yourself (or buy a better example in the little shop).
The Jantar Mantar observatory was worth a visit – our guide was very keen on astronomy and explained how it works in some detail. The city palace had some interesting costumes on display and some really stunning painted architecture, but I’d go to the fort if you just have time for one. The Palace of the winds was pretty but we just stopped quickly outside for a photo which seems to be what most people do. Of course, it might actually be great inside – perhaps we should have looked.
Shopping – I recommend a shop called Soma in Jaipur, which has beautiful block printed clothes and household fabrics.
As in Delhi, we preferred the old city to the new in Jaipur. We tried to walk around the new city but failed completely as the street signs are in Hindi and there are not good pavements and lots of traffic. What was fun was looking into the many many wedding gardens and coming across weddings constantly with decorated grooms, guests and horses. We actually ended up eating one evening in the restaurant in the Om Tower, which revolves! The food was decent but the great thing was seeing the fireworks all over the city for all the weddings.
We were lucky enough to be invited to stay with Sabu’s parents in Dagri, a little village near Degana (Dagri isn’t even on Google maps). His family were very welcoming and his mother and sister-in-law even made me a traditional outfit of a long skirt, top and shawl. My husband got a turban! We were taken to some of the houses in the village to meet some nice families, and then the next day to a cow sanctuary.
We spent two nights in this amazing hotel in Pali – I’ll write a review for the hotel separately but please just go there. Go there right now.
Jodhpur is the ‘blue city’ and lives up to its name (it’s a lot more blue than Jaipur is pink!). We stayed very centrally, which was good. The main thing to see here is the incredible fort. It’s really huge and there is a little climb to reach it as it sits high above the city. The audioguide was really excellent and had lots of great details. If you are tired there is a cafe/restaurant inside the fort for a cup of tea or lunch. After completing the whole tour we went for a walk around the battlements where there are amazing views of the city. We then found some beautiful gardens which weren’t really signposted from anywhere, but were the perfect place to lie down and have a rest after the fort. I think you can find them if you follow signs to the zipwire. If you happen to be there around 3.30-4.00pm, look up – they feed the birds of prey from one of the towers and there were hundreds of them circling about. They call them eagles in Rajasthan but I’m pretty sure they are kites – impressive anyway!
Apart from the fort, we enjoyed just wandering around the backstreet of the old city and getting a bit lost. The market around the clocktower is fun although filled with a lot of rubbish and there are traveller-type cafes for drinks or a rest. The bad experience we had in Jodhpur was with a local tailor recommended by our hotel – they groped me, ripped me off and produced a poor-quality result! I’ll see if I can find the name and will post it as a place to avoid!
We went to a textile shop called Maharani – the guy there had the most amazing sales method. It was apparently fixed price and he claimed many of the textiles were made for Hermes, Etro, Valentino etc... backed up with magazine clippings from Tatler and the FT saying this was THE shop to go to. Well I have no idea at all how true any of this was or really how good value the pieces were compared to some other Indian shops, but they were certainly very high quality for the price compared to the UK, so we decided not to worry about the veracity of his claims and bought a couple of things.
Well Jaisalmer is a nice place but to be honest it’s a long 5 hr drive from Jodhpur, so on balance I probably would have skipped it and spent more time in Udaipur instead – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit! While we were there the desert festival was on, which actually looked like a fun programme based in a sort of stadium. However, I wasn’t feeling well so we actually ended up giving it a miss as I didn’t fancy sitting for a long time in a crowded place with (apparently) no toilet facilities. So instead we wandered down to the lake which is pretty, and then to the folklore museum next to it. Really enjoyed the museum especially an impromptu karaoke performance from the guy looking after it. The exhibitions are very quirky and there was a cow or two wandering around the galleries. We also walking around the walled part of the city a fair bit. There is a ‘german’ bakery near the entrance which was good, and lots of tourist-type shops. Good views from the top of the walls.
We spent our second night around Jaisalmer in the desert. We went to Khuri (not Sam which is apparently overcrownded). The desert here is very different to the desert I’ve been to in Morocco – for one thing it has plants and buildings! We were expecting just dunes and tents. However, it was still good fun with a camel ride to the dunes for sunset and then back to the compound for dinner. There was a music and dance display which was fun and I even joined in for a little bit of dancing (not very well!).
The next day we had a long long drive to Narlai via Jodhpur.
This was a place I could certainly have spent more time. The hotel Rawla Narlai was incredibly beautiful with our room from the 6th century covered in frescos and stained glass. The surrounding area looked interesting but I didn’t get to see too much as we left the next day for Udaipur.
On the way we visited Ranakpur Temple, which is a Jain site. The temple has some really beautiful carvings, although I left a little frustrated by the audioguide which was hard to follow around the site. Also it has a lot on Jainism but not so much on the history of the temple itself. Be warned they make women cover up a lot more than other sites (I wore jeans and a top with sleeves everywhere in any case) – take some scarves. This would have been fine apart from the men in the temple who leered at my anyway – didn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the place! But anyway the carving are lovely.
Certainly the prettiest city we went to! It’s really beautiful all around the lakes and also the easiest and most hassle-free city to walk around. This was the only place where I felt completely comfortable on my own without my husband with me all the time. We went on a boat ride on the lake and to the City Palace which was AMAZING. I thought I would be sick of forts and palaces by this point but there were just more and more incredible things. They were setting up for a wedding in the palace which was an insight into what goes into some of these events. In the courtyard of the palace there are shops including another Anokhi, good for presents. We were going to head to Ambrai for a meal, but our driver took us to a local place for a truly enormous thali earlier, so we just had drinks at sunset instead. Therefore I can’t comment on the food at Ambrai but the service was comedically terrible. Udaipur is just great for walking around, browsing the little shops and looking at views of the lake. A great last stop on the trip before heading home.