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TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

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TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

TRIP REPORT: Savvy Travel Tips for Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

I spent three weeks in December 2011 traveling through the greater Rajasthan area of northern India. This area has major historical sites, including the Taj Mahal (which is actually in Uttar Pradesh, but is part of this circuit).

I’m an experienced, solo, female traveler, 35 countries. I go independent, budget, and typically equipped with only a couple of guidebooks, one 21” rolling bag, and a reservation for my first hotel – but, heads up to those who freeform, that style of travel doesn’t work well during India’s crowded high season, unless you have a long open-ended schedule that can withstand significant delays and itinerary changes based on availability.

Travel information is well documented elsewhere – this trip report is mainly about logistics and savvy tips that I hope will make life easier for fellow travelers. India is tricky to navigate on many levels. Thanks to people I met on the road, for generously sharing their advice with me. I am passing it forward. I’ll go over some general tips first, and then give details about the specific cities I visited:

MY ITINERARY: I was interested in learning about the history, so I chose to tackle Rajasthan, which does not include any beaches.

Arrival in New Delhi → drive to Agra (Taj Mahal) → drive to pink city Jaipur → drive to holy city Pushkar → drive back to Jaipur to catch overnight train to Jaisalmer (near Pakistan border) → overnight camel safari in the desert near Jaisalmer → drive back to Jaisalmer → day train to blue city Jodhpur → day bus to lake city Udaipur → overnight train back to Delhi.

DISTANCE AND TIMING: Three weeks was enough time to visit about 70% of the sites in Rajasthan, staying 2-3 days in each location. I also met travelers who skipped through the area in one or two weeks. The route called the Golden Triangle only includes three locations, and takes only about a week.

India is much bigger than you realize by looking at a map. There are great distances between cities, somewhat limited transportation, and if you have little time, it is best to spend more time in fewer places. Most people who have weeks (rather than months) to spend on a vacation will decide on a region to visit, and leave the rest for future trips.

Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to get from one city to the next. Not only are they far apart, but also any number of unexpected things, such as hours-late trains, weather, traffic or road conditions, will significantly affect your timing. A short drive between towns is 3 ½ hours, most are more like 6 hours, and some at 8 to 15 or more hours are best spent asleep on an overnight train.

GUIDEBOOKS: The Lonely Planet 30th Anniversary India is the must-have survival manual for this complex country. Even if your trip is arranged in advance or by a travel agent, you need this book at your fingertips. Things don’t go perfectly in India, and if you need to find an alternate hotel at the last minute, or wonder about how much you should pay for something, want a site description, or need a reliable place to eat, this book is comprehensive.

But, I also want to applaud Frommer’s for being so forthright with their scam alerts, even detailing the dialog that you will hear on the street, “Scammers rely largely upon human psychology to either win your confidence or tap into your irrational sense of guilt...” Heed their every warning, they’re very accurate, there are scams around every corner, and naiveté will only get you in trouble.

RESERVATIONS: If you don’t have an open-ended schedule and it is the high season, definitely make reservations to ensure that you can efficiently stay within your timeframe. Either 1) plan it yourself before you leave home, or 2) use a reputable travel agent to set up a package.

Planning your trip yourself in advance of travel, will save you from spending undue amounts of time searching for rooms and waiting for transportation – and save you the cost of using a travel agency.

Since I did not make advance reservations, I ended up using a local travel agent to book part of my trip. Other independent travelers I met also succumbed to travelers aid in varying degrees, on arriving in India and finding that it was nearly impossible to freeform travel during high season.

I met some frustrated and exhausted independent travelers who did not give in to using an agent, usually due to the cost, and they spent more time and energy trying to figure things out than on sightseeing.

TOURS AND PACKAGES: I’m not a fan of tours. But in India, I’m not opposed either. I think a tour can insulate you from much of what is bad about traveling in India – I met groups from both Gap Adventures (American company) and Intrepid (Australian company), with local leaders who understood the haphazard way things are done, and who seemed to efficiently get their small groups from place to place, while allowing them some freedom for authentic experiences.

But, most independent travelers I met went with a “package” for at least part of their trip, as I did. Even some travelers on months-long trips bought a package for the portion of their trip falling during the crowded high season. A package consists only of confirmed reservations for hotels and transportation. It requires you to have a set itinerary because of the reservations, but you are still on your own for all tourism activities. So you go to the cities you want, always have a hotel to stay, and never worry about getting transportation. The down sides are lack of spontaneity, and that it’s more expensive than booking it yourself.

TRAVEL AGENTS: When I got to Delhi and found that it would be four days before I could get a train to the Taj Mahal in Agra, I enlisted the services of a local travel agent that was connected with my hotel. He was an educated young man, spoke perfect English, and had a professional office in a nice area, a rarity. He set me up with a private driver and hotels for two weeks of my trip, neatly wrote up my itinerary details on a contract, gave me a coupon book of prepaid hotel vouchers, and I was able to leave Delhi the next morning: India Travel Organizers, 9A/31 W.E.A Channa Market Karol Bagh, New Delhi-110005, Tele: +91-11-47702132, ind.travelorg@gmail.com

Let me report that some of my fellow travelers were happy with the agencies they used, and others were not. I even ran across one young guy whose entire payment had been stolen by the agency he used, and his home consulate was unable to help him in any way. There is lots of crime in India, and you have to be careful at all times. You will hear the Indian people say over and over “You can’t trust anyone!” It is unfortunately true.

Even the agency I used was not perfect. But, the agent didn’t steal my money, he gave very good service by daily reconfirming reservations with all of my hotels, and delivered an overall nice travel package. He was a bit pricey, but I was satisfied with the service. And I met another satisfied western tourist who had used this agency on a number of her trips to India.

There were some glitches I’ll mention, just so you know the kinds of details to mind: For example, my private car was supposed to have AC, but there was none. A problem happened when the agency left it up to one of the hotels to book my deluxe bus ticket to the next city, and the hotel instead booked me on a nightmarish local bus – and even though my agent said he owed me money for that mishap, I never saw a refund. On one leg, I was booked on a 3rd Class overnight train (patronized by local men) instead of 1st or 2nd tourist class or a flight. Pickup from the Delhi train station to my hotel was included, but there was no specific meeting spot and it was impossible to find the driver in the thick crowds.

You can’t set the bar too high on logistics, things do not go perfectly in India – BUT being vigilant about agreed-upon details will decrease the number of mishaps. Whether you use the agency I used or any other, research and compare prices before you leave home. TIP: Here are some guidelines:

1) Only use travel agents that come recommended by the guidebooks or by satisfied travelers. Every other business on every street claims to be in some form of tourism. It’s highly competitive, they all talk badly about each other’s services in an effort to win your business for themselves, most are unlicensed, and many are outright scams.

2) Be sure to tell the agency and everybody you meet in every hotel, restaurant and every form of business, that you will write about your experiences on TripAdvisor. Tourism in India lives and dies by TripAdvisor, and you are less likely to be ripped off if they know that you will reveal their practices.

3) Carefully review each day of your itinerary, and only pay for what you actually get that day. Agencies like to quote a flat rate per day – and it’s usually based on what they think you can afford, not on the actual cost of things. My agent started at a ridiculous USD $100 per day, then he came down to $65, which I accepted – but I met fellow travelers along the same route who paid less than $50 per day for the same hotels and with private drivers.

4) Pay with a credit card. If there’s a problem, your credit card company can usually hold up the charge and go to bat for you. If you pay with a debit card or cash, you are out of luck.

Nobody is going to give you a good deal – but the key to getting a fair price from any agency is to carefully scrutinize your itinerary. You will save money by looking closely, doing the math and insisting on adjustments: e.g. Don’t pay for a driver on the days you don’t have one. Don’t pay for hotels on nights you’re sleeping on a train. A 3rd class train ticket is cheaper than a 1st class ticket. Even the nicest hotels in small cities are much cheaper than in big cities, etc. Take the time to look at every detail, and make sure that your per day rate reflects an average based on what you are actually getting. There are no standardized prices, and there’s plenty of room to negotiate.

HOTELS: You will see stars, but there is no real ratings system. Always look at your room before you pay. On prices, keep in mind that they are always trying to get as much money as they can from you, based on the country you’re from. TIP: Make sure you always get a price “including all taxes.”

USD $45 buys the nicest possible hotel, clean, beautifully decorated, roomy, private bath, breakfast included, air or train pickup included, taxes included, during high season – it’s not necessary to pay more for a great room. And depending on the season or occupancy, you may get the same room for much less if you ask.

Study your Lonely Planet – you can find acceptable places to stay for as little as USD $7 per night – when you book yourself. Hotels don’t ask for a deposit or advance payment, so you can secure a reservation by email from home – just reconfirm before you arrive. There are plenty of fine rooms for under 1000 rupees ($20). Fellow travelers have reported to me that they even paid less than 100 rupees for homestays, a very authentic experience.

Remember, the cost of living in India is pennies on the dollar – and in every situation if they agree to the price, you can be sure they are making plenty of money on you, even if it seems well below your home cost of living. The prices are all whatever the traffic will bear, so if you just say what you’re willing to pay and be ready to walk away, you’ll probably get it.

CONFIRMATIONS: If you make your own reservations, reconfirm and print out all the emails showing the agreed terms before you leave home. You want to have in writing the tariff per night, airport pickup included, breakfast included, all taxes included, etc. TIP: Always ask your hotel to pick you up on arrival at the train station or airport.

BUSES: The best advice I read was “never ever get on a bus.” There are rumored to be some luxury (clean) Volvo buses for tourists, but I did not see any. The one bus I took was supposed to be this bus, but instead turned out to be a horrible experience, a filthy local bus that took all dirt roads for 7 ½ hours. All the tourists I met had bad bus stories, so I must advise to avoid.

TRAINS: Not all the stations have foreign tourist offices, but when you do find one, it’s the easiest place to confirm your platform and time.

In some of the train stations, they have a special “ladies only” waiting room – these are clean and quiet, seek them out if you have a long wait. The Jaipur and Udaipur train stations were pretty nice, and both had ladies waiting rooms.

They don’t announce upcoming stops on the trains, and the stops are not clearly signed – you have to know how long it takes to get to your destination, and then set your alarm when you start to roll, and then ask nearby people when the time gets close. (Since the trains rarely run on time, you can’t just watch the clock.)

Some fellow travelers who booked last minute ended up taking General Class – which they described as cramped, smelly, people sleeping in the aisles, awful bathroom situations, etc. Alternatively, 3rd Class AC is a regular size cabin, but with six berths – no reading lights and too tight to even sit up, you will lay down the whole time, but it’s preferable to General Class. TIP: I took one 3rd Class train, and I was the only tourist and female in the whole car, so I can’t recommend for women.

1st Class AC and 2nd Class AC are the trains you want – they are not fancy at all, but there are only 4 berths per cabin, so you can sit up and read.

Men who sell stuff board the trains. Some just get on and off at stops, others sneak on and stay, walking up and down the cars. Some are touting for hotels or car services, some are selling food or magazines. One guy tried to chain my suitcase to my berth – I shooed him off, as that would be a good way for someone to hold your suitcase hostage until you pay some fee.

PACE YOURSELF: I am used to no-frills travel. But, this region is exhausting because you have to travel so far between points, and it’s always very dirty and dusty and mentally taxing. So, my best recommendation as you set out to plan a trip is to factor in extra time for everything, go at a comfortable pace and stay in at least some nicer hotels (midrange hotels are lovely). You need to rejuvenate between jaunts – plan some down time to relax, and to recover from bouts of food poisoning.

HEALTH AND SAFETY: It is amazing how fast you can get really sick here. Everybody says, “Watch what you eat!” and they are not kidding. I met many fellow travelers who had become sick enough to need shots at the hospital, and had lost valuable vacation time recuperating – most told me that they had tried some street food recommended by their driver or someone they trusted. This isn’t the place you want to experiment with food. I had food poisoning only one night and did not need a doctor, but it was really bad.

On safety, the most disturbing thing I learned is that people in India do not help injured victims of accidents – because if you lay your hands on someone who ends up dying later, the police will accuse you of murder. I confirmed this with several Indian people, and this is apparently common knowledge. I saw a man laying in the street with a bloody head, motorcycle accident, with at least 20 people standing around him, nobody even put a towel under his head. I don’t know what the policy is for tourists, but my guess is that the average person doesn’t know either, and is unlikely to help you. Just be really careful.

CELL PHONES: You need a cell phone here. Get your phone “unlocked” before you go, and then buy a $2 local SIM card when you get to India – your calls will only be about 10 cents per minute. On charging, you will be able to plug your USB into computers – but the ports don’t always work, so you may have to do it at the hotel front desk or look for someone with a laptop.

CURRENCY: They only trade in Rupees – pre-arrange with your hotel to pick you up at the airport, so you don’t have to change money there.

ATMS: Bank ATMs are the easiest way to get money – your home bank will charge a fee every time you withdraw money, so you’re best off to draw out your limit, and keep it safe in your money belt. TIP: Not all cities have ATMs, and not all ATMs work – so definitely map out your budget and get what you need when you are in bigger cities with working Bank ATMs like Delhi and Jaipur. TIP: On the menu, “CURRENT” is the button to withdraw from your checking account.

CHANGE: Nobody ever has change. The ATMs will give you Rs 500 notes, but it’s hard to spend them – that’s only USD $10, but that is a LOT of money in India, so you won’t find that people readily have Rs 100 notes to give you back. Sometimes your hotel will change a Rs 500 for you, but you are best off stepping into a bank when you find one. Hoard as many Rs 10 notes as possible – even if you have the exact change to pay for something, pay with a little larger note to try and get a little more change. You need small notes to negotiate low prices. TIP: I kept my Rs 500 and 100 notes in colored paperclips to keep them separate from smaller bills – good practice in case you’re distracted.

SALES TACTICS: Everywhere you go you’ll hear people say, “You can’t trust anybody but me!” – just before they sell you something. They purposely instill suspicion in you to try and win your allegiance and ALL your business. Whether it is a restaurant saying that tourists get sick at other restaurants, or a hotel telling you to eat at the hotel restaurant because you'll probably get robbed if you go to the ATM for money to spend elsewhere, or a pashmina seller saying only his pashminas have colors guaranteed not to run, etc. It’s non-stop.

STEERING: Most people you meet have an ulterior motive to turn their exchange with you into a commission they’ll collect from someone else that you do business with, and they will steer you toward people they can collect from. Someone is always referring you somewhere – because they get kickbacks.

Your driver will say that you should only buy things at the shops he takes you to because only he knows which shops are “trustworthy” and you “can’t trust the quality” of anyone else. Or, you’ll be looking at a building, and a seemingly innocent passerby will tell you the history of the building, and then segue into asking if you have already PAID for your hotel because his cousin owns the “safest” hotel in town – then, he’ll give you a coupon for 10% off if you go to this great restaurant with the “safest” food in town. Or your tuk-tuk driver will purposely take you to the wrong bus stop so that he can collect a commission from the bus owner that he knows.

There’s almost no avoiding this – but you can reduce the number of times you are led astray by knowing what you want and where you are going, and not allowing yourself to be hurried or shuffled off without knowing exactly what’s happening. People will try to mix you up, and they smile the whole while. Mind your best interests, stop in your tracks, and do not give anyone control of what you are supposed to be doing.

SCAMS: Here’s just one example – I saw this identical scam being conducted by three different “artists” in two different cities, Pushkar and Udaipur…

There was a guy sitting on a rug chiseling at a piece of granite. He appeared to be a sculptor. There was a little table next to him where he had displayed these little statues. I watched him for a while, until he said "I artist, I make this." He even went so far as to show me his tools and make me feel all his sandpapers that he uses to make the shiny surface. So I thought I was getting something unique and helping the family of this guy, and I negotiated to buy one little elephant statue for about $6. Well, the only kind of artist he was is CON artist – I bumped the statue and it broke. It was made of CLAY, not any kind of stone. He probably buys them for 3 rupees and sells them for 300 after his elaborate scam job.

This kind of thing is rampant. I told this story to several Indian people who laughed and said, "Welcome to India!"

TICKET WINDOWS: This happened to me almost every time I bought a ticket to a museum or other tourist site. The ticket seller will give you part of your change, and then look away, as if he is done with you, sometimes even chatting with the clerk next to him, as if he is casually waiting for the next patron to step up. Don’t walk away before you count your money. Stay put and don’t take your eyes off the clerk – when he sees that you are alert and not leaving, he will reach into another drawer to retrieve the rest of your change. Count it in front of him. One clerk actually told me he didn’t have change – I gave him the ticket and asked for ALL my money back, and then he came up with the change.

BARGAINING: The guidebooks do a great job of describing what to expect. The sellers are relentless. You can walk 200 meters and be asked 200 times “Where you from?” – if you are polite, smile or respond in any way at all, they will harass you, even follow you down the street! I found the best thing to do is to put up my hand in a stop motion and don’t say a word, don’t make eye contact, just keep walking.

If you ask the price of anything, even just out of curiosity, they will engage you in a negotiation that they will win. You will be giving them money before you know what hit you. So do not ask the price of something unless you want to buy it – and probably for more money than it’s worth.

Lots of them will say “Just look, don’t buy” to try and get you in the store. If you DO want something, here’s the best negotiating technique I learned:

I stopped at a store, never asked a price, just looked until they started telling me prices. I responded, “I don’t care about the price because I’m not interested in buying!” I kept looking, they kept talking, I kept saying, “I don’t care about the price!” over and over. Finally they asked, “How much would you pay if you were interested?” The original price was 300 rupees for a cheap scarf – I responded, “At the most 50 rupees if I were going to buy, but I’m not interested!” The seller said, “You can have 50 rupees each if you take three.” I moved to leave and he sold me just one scarf for 50 rupees.

Another good technique: After you tell them what you’re willing to pay (and you should always be willing to walk away if they don’t meet your price), tell them that’s all the money you have. They will say “Show me!” – if you open your wallet and show that’s all you have, you’ll get your price. So only keep what you’re willing to spend in a little shopping wallet. Remember, all the prices are at least 5 times higher than they should be, so they are not losing by selling to you at a fair price.

Bargaining is a dance in India – they want you to play along, they want to arm wrestle you for the sale. They are making money on any sale they agree to.

CLOTHING: I wore exactly the same outfit every day, washing it in the hotel sink every night: lightweight cropped jeans, tank top, long sleeve shirt. I always take a change of pants in case they rip, because pants with the right fit and fabric are harder to come by than tops. But, aside from a spare pair of pants, my best packing tip is to not to duplicate anything – e.g. take only one tank top, one short sleeve top, one long sleeve top, one hoodie, etc. Make sure it’s all color-coordinated, so you can wear them all together on an unexpected cold day.

Women will be most comfortable covered up – long sleeves and long or crop pants. I saw very few tourist men wearing cargo shorts, most also wore long pants. Indians are all covered up, they never wear shorts or skirts, so you really look naked if your legs show.

SHOES: I wore my trusty waterproof Keen hiking sandals every day, so I could wash my dusty feet and shoes with soap every night. I prefer this to lugging socks. But, there are no sidewalks, you’re always walking on dirt and rocks and chunks of concrete – so, the protection of shoes is a good choice (if you can find air-dry socks).

BATHROOMS AND SOAP: This is another one of those countries where they don’t have soap or use toilet paper, except in your hotel room. Remember your sanitizer, wipes, and bar soap for hands and sink laundry.

WATER: A liter bottle of water is 15 rupees. The occasional 1 ½ liter bottle is 25 rupees. Cokes and other soft drinks can be as much as 30 rupees at restaurants – but never pay more than 20 on the street.

TIPPING: Tipping is expected – but don’t overdo it. Keep Rs 10 notes handy, as these are sufficient for bellman and rickshaw drivers.

An Indian family clued me in on restaurant tipping – for a regular restaurant, just leave an additional 10 rupees over the check amount. But for a fancy restaurant, leave 10%.

It’s good to have a guide at the Taj Mahal – it’s a glorious site, and you don’t want to miss a detail – mine spent over two hours with me, and I tipped him 250 rupees ($5) – in retrospect, that was too much, it was at the start of my trip. But, he was highly educated, like a professor, and I got a tremendous tour from him – 150 rupees would have been right.

Your private driver will expect to be tipped at the end of the trip – you have to gauge this on how many hours per day he is driving you, whether he also acts as a guide or only drives, and what kind of car (some tourists were in SUVs, others like me were in a tiny dirty car with no AC). Between 200 and 300 rupees ($4 - 6) per day seems about right for an average day. I’d say under no circumstances tip more than 500 rupees ($10) for a very full day. One driver told a friend of mine that his salary is about 1000 rupees total for three weeks, so it may be a case where they are living on tips. But, you still have to consider the ultra low cost of living in India, and find an appropriate middle ground.

INTERNET POINTS: Not as widespread as you’d think, you have to look for them. Your hotel will usually let you use theirs for a minute. There is a daily power outage for 2 or 3 hours in the early afternoon. At the time of my visit: Delhi had internet points, but the places I found mainly had slow and old computers, when they worked at all. Jaisalmer had good internet points. I found a great internet point in Jodhpur, and my hotel had one free for guests. My hotel in Udaipur had a free computer in the lobby.

ROAD FOOD: Your driver will stop at a tourist restaurant midway through your long drive to the next city. Great place to use the bathroom and get a drink, but note that the mediocre food is priced for tourists too, such as 450 rupees for a meal that you can get elsewhere for less than 100 rupees. You may want to get a drink and snack, and save your money for a good meal in the next city.

TAG TEAM: It’s hard to coordinate schedules with people, so I always travel solo. But in India, you are better off to have a friend along, so you can watch out for each other – and because it’s fun to laugh with somebody over the day’s amazing experiences. Every tourist I met was enamored by the sites and frustrated by the relentless hustling – let off some steam with fellow travelers and enjoy the ride. It’s a trip you’ll be glad you took.

DELHI:

Most people advise to leave Delhi as soon as possible. There are things to see like the big mosque, but I spent four days of my trip here, and it was too much. The traffic is unbelievable – you can barely walk or cross any street in the city. The train station is the most disorganized nightmare you can imagine. The Red Fort is ho-hum as compared to all the other forts you’ll see.

HOTEL: I stayed at Lal’s Haveli in the Pahar Ganj area, near the train station. Lal’s has a very nice staff, for example they sent a man to walk with me to the ATM. But, the hotel is overpriced for the area, rather run down, and had a severe gnat problem in the bathroom drains while I was there. I paid Rs 1295, about USD $25, including airport pickup and taxes, but no breakfast.

The Karol Bagh area, just 5 minutes away, is much nicer, quieter and cleaner. TIP: A good rule of thumb for any big city is to look up the five star hotels and try to stay near them, as they will usually be located in better neighborhoods.

DEPARTING FROM DELHI AIRPORT: You cannot get into the terminal building without an official printed document, such as your itinerary with your name and record locator number, or your boarding passes. If you don’t have these things on hand, find an internet point in Delhi 24 hours before your flight and print it there (or see if your hotel will print for you).

If you go to the airport without a printed document, as a last resort you can get in the very last door of the terminal, I think it was door number 8. Look straight ahead about 50 feet for a sign on a window saying “Visitor Lounge” – there is a desk just in front of it with a computer, and the agent at the desk can print out what you need at a price of 30 rupees per page, but this is not an easy process. Oddly, the tourist services are very poor.

ASHRAM RIPOFF: The Sri Auribindo Ashram is just outside the city in a quiet residential area. A friend of mine had rested there at the end of her trip, so I thought I’d do the same for a couple of days. They said at check-in that payment was “on a donation basis, whatever you feel,” and people had told me it’s typical to pay Rs 100 or 200 per night for their austere, unheated rooms. However, they charged me Rs 750 per night at check-out – for that you can stay in a hotel with heat and clean sheets. It’s freezing cold at night.

If you stay at any ashram, I suggest that you ask by email before you arrive how much is the cost per night, or suggested donation, and then print out their reply as proof, the same as you would for any hotel. Not even an ashram is a refuge from the constant hustling.

AGRA:

It’s a 5 to 6 hour ride from Delhi to Agra, depending on traffic. I was happy to spend the night in a hotel after leisurely seeing the magnificent Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort is also worth seeing here.

HOTEL: Lots of stories circle about Agra restaurants and hotels in cahoots to make you sick to collect medical fees from you – but I did not have that experience. I only ate breakfast at my hotel, and I was fine. I stayed at the midrange Hotel Agra Mahal, very good, would recommend – Old Idgah Colony, near Idgah bus stand, contact@agramahal.com - www.agramahal.com

TAJ MAHAL: Take your time, plan to spend at least a couple of hours there. The grounds are huge, and you’ll want to sit for a while. TIP: The guidebooks say go in the early morning – but that depends on the time of year. There is heavy fog in this area in December and January, enough to obscure the Taj (flights are often canceled due to fog), and a better time to see the Taj is actually after noon, after the fog has burned off. Check the weather report, and decide when to go based on that.

AGRA FORT: This is where King Akbar was imprisoned – he had a view of his Taj Mahal from across the river while in prison. The Fort is nice to see after the Taj, so you get the feeling for what happened.

JAIPUR:

Crazy traffic peppered with animals, like the other big cities. This one has lots of switchbacks and is hard to navigate – not sure how to get around without a driver. The city overall is known for shopping, but I couldn’t actually cross the street to get to the market. Other people I met also said they tried for 45 minutes and finally gave up, and I saw locals equally struggling. Monkey Palace outside the city is a long drive – dilapidated temple with countless wild monkeys and pigeons, wasn’t for me, I have allergies.

HOTEL: Must be one of the best hotels in Rajasthan, for sure the cleanest, highly recommend, I stayed at Nahargarh Haveli, B-4 Gopal Bari, behind corporate park, Ajmer Road – rack rates are about $45 per night, but always ask for a promotional rate in all the hotels, let them know you expect to pay below rack - reservation@nahargarhhaveli.com - www.narhargarhhaveli.com

AMBER FORT: Just outside Jaipur, one of the city’s two best sites to see (the other is the City Palace in town). The Amber Fort is huge, though not as impressive as others because it is in ruin – I spent about two hours there, well worth it. TIP: if you walk on the elephant path, it’s much easier than the steps.

JAIPUR BLUE: The light turquoise color is the official blue, not the dark one – pottery is heavy and can break, but I preferred a bubble-wrapped small vase to other souvenir options.

TEXTILES: My driver of course took me to a textile shop where he gets a commission. They had very high prices, but the quality was quite good, and that’s my reason for a mention here. It’s a nice shop outside the market area on a side street, Vikram is the very nice owner, and you can bargain them down, especially if you are buying a few items, take your time. They have everything from pashminas to tablecloths to bulk fabrics. Satguru Exports, 51-52 Amer Rd, near Hotel Holiday Inn, satguruexports51@yahoo.com

PUSHKAR:

This is considered a holy city because an important Brahma temple is here. But for me, the best part is that it’s a walking town – there are still speeding motorcycles and lots of cows and camels, but you can get around on foot. There is a small lake in the middle, but you can’t easily walk around it, as is sometimes reported – partly because of harassment, and partly because you have to find a way around concrete partitions. The main draw here is a slightly hippie vibe, slightly less hustling by shops, and the ability to enjoy a walk.

HOTEL: The Hotel New-Park was very nice, had English speakers at the front desk, an easy 5-10 minutes walk from the center of town, and better than staying near the crowded lake. My big room was clean, had hot water and cable, and the rack rate was $17. There were tour groups from both Intrepid and Gap Adventures staying here, so it seems to be a good bet on the budget tourist circuit. Panch Kund Road, Pushkar 305022, Tele: 009-145-2772464, manager@newparkpushkar.com - www.newparkpushkar.com

THINGS TO BUY: The sellers are slightly less aggressive in Pushkar, the prices may be a bit lower, so some people like to shop here. But I bought a scarf with a hole in it, then took it back and saw that ALL the scarves had holes, evidently some moth problem. I also heard stories about poorly sewn pants that fell apart. You’re going to buy something somewhere – if it’s in Pushkar, just make sure you carefully look it over. There are no refunds.

GOOD INCENSE GUY: Nice seller. This incense shop is near the middle of the market street – if you walk toward the Brahma temple, it’s on your right side. The owner offered to give me several sticks to try, and come back the next day to buy. I just bought some on the spot, but he went through lots of questions to determine what was right for me. And then he gave me several free sticks anyway. Pushkar Natural Incense Home, Basni Ka Mandir, Gau Ghat, Bari Basti, Pushkar, Tele: 9828674812, naturalincense@hotmail.com

GOOD FOOD: Also near the middle of the market street, you’ll see a couple of falafel stands with a few plastic chairs out front. If you walk toward the Brahma temple, they will both be on your left. Turning toward them, I ate at the one on the left because it had the most customers at the time (fresh food). Huge falafel wrap, the vegetables were washed in hot water and did not make me sick, one of the best meals I ate on the entire trip, and only 60 rupees, just over $1.

I also had a pizza at the Italian Garden, purple sign, down from the hotel on the left side as you walk toward town. Baked in a wood oven, a nice change of pace, an okay medium size pizza and a cold coke was 170 rupees, just over $3.

LAKE RACKET: As you walk past, the shopkeepers look for a red string around your wrist, signifying that you have made a donation to the lake. If they don’t see the string, they shove flower petals in your hand and tell you to go down to the lake for a blessing, pushing you in that direction. Once at the lake, here was my experience: a boy of about 18 wearing jeans and a shirt took over, claiming to be a Brahman priest. He started talking very fast about how he was going to bless me and I was going to give him a donation, the whole time looking past me to target his next tourist. At the end of his crazy little speech, he asked for a dollar, so I gave him 50 rupees which is about USD $1, and then he demanded $20. I said no, and he was so mad he didn’t give me my string. So I demanded my string from another phony priest, and went on my way. I have to give this experience a pass, you can see the lake without being blessed.

THE BRAHMA TEMPLE: They don’t let you take your camera inside – and they do check inside your bag. You can leave your camera with a guy out front if you want – I did not.

INTERNET: If you stay at the New-Park or another hotel on that street, you will walk down toward the town. After you pass the pizza restaurant and get to the end of the street, you will see an internet shop on the right side with a big red sign. Good computers, good rates, ½ hour for 10 rupees.

JAISALMER:

Jaisalmer was one of the top highlights of my trip, well worth the effort it takes to get here. My best advice is to stay at least 3 days, to see everything and so you don’t have to get on a long train again right away. It’s fascinating and unique – and it’s the only inhabited fort, so you can really see fort life. The Patwan Haveli is another must-see site here, museum fully furnished with antiquities, you get the flavor of life in a haveli.

HOTELS: I stayed at The Royale Jaisalmer twice (before and after my camel trip), and would recommend. The staff was great, the rooms were huge, clean and nicely decorated, they had hot water, the restaurant was good, internet point next door. Location was perfect, easy 5 minutes walk from the fort gate, and they pick up at the train station. On Dhibba Para near the fort gate, reservations@royalejaisalmer.com - www.royalejaisalmer.com

Another good hotel I found: Hotel Temple View. It is a newly opened budget hotel that I would have picked if I had booked my own reservations – it’s actually up in the fort, so it’s very atmospheric, it shares a wall with the Jain Temple, and the owner Luna is one of the nicest, most genuine people I met. His seven rooms are tiny (as you’d expect in an 800 year old fort), but immaculate. The one I saw had twin beds, a window with a view and a private bath. Luna charges only 350 rupees per night (USD $7). He has a rooftop deck with an endless view, where he’ll cook you dinner or invite you for chai. It’s like an oasis in the craziness. Highly recommend. Easy to find, next to the Jain Temple in the fort. Email: luna_raju@yahoo.com

I also ran across a fancy haveli just outside the fort, Hotel Nachana Haveli – their restaurant Saffron is pricey, probably the rooms are too, but it feels like the home of rich maharaja, if you’re into that – www.nachanahaveli.com

GOOD SHOPS: The other thing you’ll notice throughout India is that there are no women working anywhere, not in tourism, not in hotels, not in restaurants, not in shops – you only see them at the markets and working in the fields or sweeping. So, it was a unique pleasure to meet two women in the fort who run their own shops:

Bobby is highly educated, she owns Bellissima (near the Hotel Temple View), and part of the proceeds benefit rural women and widows. She’s interesting to talk with, an advocate for oppressed women. The other shop is Badal Creation, just a few doors away from Bobby’s shop – Sheena is a tailor and makes all the clothes she sells.

There is also a nice embroidery shop kitty-corner across from the Patwan Haveli, where you can bargain with the owner for needlework made by women in desert villages, such as pillow covers, tablecloths, etc.

CAMEL SAFARI: Mine was arranged through my hotel, The Royal Jaisalmer. The operator was Mangalam Resort, and it was perfect for me. As a woman traveling alone in a country that doesn’t regard women well, I wanted to be with other tourists. This facility is a village of modern cabanas located in Khuri, about an hour outside of Jaisalmer. The owner picked me up at the hotel, about 25 tourists gradually assembled at the camp, I went for a camel ride in the desert for a few hours until sunset, came back to the camp, the owner’s mother cooked a generous vegetarian meal of at least 7 courses for everyone, a local desert band played traditional music, we enjoyed trading hilarious travel tales until late in the evening, then you had a choice of going back out on the camels to sleep in the desert, or stay at the village. It was freezing cold this night, and all but four people decided to sleep inside. I don’t know the price because it was included in my package, but my daily rate was $65, so it was less than that with full board.

JODHPUR:

This was definitely a highlight. The Mehrangarh Fort founded in 1459 AD is the hands down winner of all the forts in Rajasthan. The markets are mostly food, so you can stroll around without being harassed, get great colorful photos. It’s actually fun here to get lost walking around the labyrinth of streets. The clock tower is the center of town, so it’s easy to find your way back. The Palace here is the biggest in the world, but you only get to see a tiny part of it set up as a photo and china museum – so it was just okay, but glad I saw it.

MEHRANGARH FORT: Huge, majestic, a great museum and the best audio tour I have ever heard – definitely get this when you buy your ticket. My hotel set me up with a tuk-tuk driver who drove me to all the sites on a loop and waited, for 300 rupees. He left me at the fort, since you just walk back to town from there.

HOTEL: I stayed at the Heritage Kuchaman Haveli, and I do recommend because the staff was nice, they have train station pickup, the building was stunning, and the location was great. They’ll also give you a good map at the front desk, and suggest which spots to hit.

But, you have to keep your expectations low – there is only one sheet on the bed and nothing is too clean. So maybe not up to western standards, but it’s India, so you can get over it. I meandered on foot from the fort to the market to the hotel, no problem, a long and colorful walk, one of my best on the whole trip.

(But, don’t let them book your bus ticket – this is the place that booked me on the bus from Hell to Udaipur. You must be assured of a Volvo tourist bus, or hire a private driver (there is no train to Udaipur), but do not take the local bus.)

UDAIPUR:

The City Palace was one of the best museums on the trip. The lake is nice, albeit littered with trash, and fellow tourists recommend taking the boat ride. But as of 2007, you cannot go to the Lake Palace unless you are a registered guest there – so circling on the boat is your only way to see it.

HOTEL: I stayed at the Hotel Pichola Haveli, and do recommend. My room was nice, the restaurant and rooftop views are lovely, and the location was ideal for walking around the town and to the City Palace museum. The staff was very good – only breakfast was not good (soggy toast every day). Edelweiss Bakery is just a few doors away. http://www.hotelpicholahaveli.com/index.htm

CITY PALACE: Really good audioguide. The entrance ticket is only 70 rupees – but the camera fee is 200 and the audioguide is another 200. TIP: If you find yourself on the back side of the palace walking along the shore or in the Tibetan Market, you CAN get onto the palace grounds for only 25 rupees – just go to the back gate, and tell them you’re going to the restaurant. This will save you from walking through the town dodging motorcycles to get back to the other side. TIP: The guard at first asked me for 450 rupees to come in, but I said no, and then he said 25 and even gave me a postcard. Go figure. So hold out for 25 rupees.

sydney
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21. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Thank you for taking the time to write this review. I admire your honesty about the hassles on your journey. I have also encountered similar frustrations with scams in different tourist places but it is much easier when you are forewarned about them. thanks also deepa for clarifying the difference between hotel categories.

teresa

Arlington VA
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22. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Thanks for the informative report. We too are interested in visiting India and your tips will prove most helpful.

jaisalmer
Destination Expert
for Jaisalmer
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23. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

it take me longgggg time to read all , from up to down , full of information ...

Definatly it will help felow travelers and solo travelers .

I don't think after this all information people get ripped off ,if they not read this all then they may .

Thanks for your time to post .

Dev

J P
Washington DC...
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24. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

where did you book your hotels and ac car from? I am travelling from April 25 to May 25 and still have to book mine.. Let me know! Also if anyone is interested in getting a group together let me know. I am 30 and from the US and I guess "Soul Searching"..

Jay

Los Angeles...
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25. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Local Delhi travel agent booked hotels and car/driver for two weeks of my trip. His contact info above in text -- he did a good job, but was pricey, high commissions. You should compare rates between agents if you use one, and only go with one recommended by satisfied travelers or guidebooks. You don't have to take a tour, you can use an agent to book ONLY your hotels and driver.

I arrived without reservations, intending to book on the fly as I usually do -- but it was nearly impossible during December highest season, trains were full, etc. That's why I used agency. MUCH cheaper to book everything on your own.

You should have an easier time April/May if you decide to go without pre-arrangements -- I have friends traveling there now, and they are booking as they go, taking trains, no problem now that high season is passed. That way you can stay shorter or longer in places, as you wish.

Check the message boards and guidebooks for recommendations on drivers, etc. Maybe post a question asking for recommendations. I found this one on TA message boards, don't know him, but he may be one to check out... Tarun Sharma <tarunsharma.delhi@yahoo.com>

Happy trails to you! :)

New Delhi, India
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26. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Thanks for a very detailed report of your experience- this should be very useful for future travelers.

I would, however, like to add a few pieces of local advice to those who are reading this (for perspective, I am a female Indian who loves traveling and has done a lot of that in India and abroad).

I do prefer budget holidays and do-it-yourself experiences myself, but from my experience, I would shy away from any hotel charging less than Rs.2000 ($40) a night. That is far too low to provide a good service even in a country like India. Have never tried dorms and home-stays though.

I agree completely with the writer that Indian rupees are pennies in comparison to the USD, but even so, the cost of living has been increasing significantly here. Rs. 500 is no longer the big amount it used to be. When tipping at a regular restaurant- even for the roadside ones on the car journeys between cities- a tip of Rs. 20 to 30 seems more suitable to me. But again, as pointed out by Deepa, this is a very personal decision.

To enter the airport, it's best to have a printed out ticket/ confirmation in your hand. However, if you don't, you could also show your e-ticket on your phone. I always do that and have never faced a problem.

To travel in buses, always try to book overnight volvos. They are generally comfortable and stop at decent restaurants/ food plazas for dinner and toilet breaks. A good source to book them yourself would be http://www.redbus.in/.

To travel comfortably in Delhi- the metro is by far the best option and stops near all the major tourist hot-spots. I also think it has a host of other beautiful places to visit than the most visited Red Fort, Humayun's tomb, and Akshardham...but then I am a huge fan of Delhi's ruined forts and palaces!

New Delhi, India
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27. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Oh yes, for more guidance on appropriate tipping, please see this thread:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g304551-i3482-k515…

staffordshire
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28. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Hi we are a party of 4 thinking or touring India ,the price for tips to car driver is that per person or car.

Los Angeles...
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29. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Hi annibear --

Per car -- it's no more cost or effort to carry more than one person in the car -- but you have to judge for yourself if you make lots of demands on the driver. I did not -- he was just my transportation between cities.

:)

Los Angeles...
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30. Re: TRIP REPORT: Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

Please do have a look at the websites for the hotels where I stayed -- the rooms were lovely, huge, clean, had European fixtures, they were in great locations -- booked by the travel agent. All were suitable for a solo female or families -- none were over $45/night, some were under $20/night.