Go Visit India (Part 1)
The purpose of this post is to encourage you to visit India, especially if you have the desire to do so, but are unsure about safety, poverty, cleanness, food poisoning, travel comfort, finding a hotel, etc.
As enthusiastic as I am, I have to warn you that India is very large, very hot, very loud, extremely chaotic, the beggars on the street will pester you to death, the rickshaw drivers will always try to trick you into paying a bit more, you will have to haggle over the price of every little thing you buy, and unless you are wealthy, do not expect hotels with western comfort. But I guess you won’t even notice all this because the breathtaking views, unbelievable colors, smells and sounds, friendly and spiritual people, excellent food and drink, and of course the unbeatable prices will supersede any negative experiences.
By the way, India is waking up, getting rid of its idiosyncrasies and becoming modern at an incredible pace, so if you want to see it like I’ve seen it, arrange your journey soon!
OK, so let’s get to the practical part. You basically have two alternatives. The first is to pay 2000-3000 € for a two-week trip and join an organized group with a tour-guide who speaks your language. The tight schedule and especially chartered air-conditioned bus make the best usage of your time, and you see all significant tourist attractions in the area. You can leave your valuables in the bus while visiting the monuments, buy cold mineral water from the bus driver, sleep in clean 4-start hotels, have hotel personnel carry your luggage for you, and eat bland meals that won’t upset even the weakest stomachs. My first trip to India was like this and it was great, but I constantly had the feeling that I’m too isolated from “the real India.”
Alternative two is to find a friend, buy a travel guide and go on your own. This way you’ll save a good bit of money and experience the real India, but bring ear-plugs and plenty of patience. 😕 The first thing to do is get a travel guide: Lonely Planet is quite good, or if you speak German, Reise Know-How is even better, especially the one on Rajasthan. These books not only talk about what to see, but also where to sleep, where to eat, how to travel, where the buses leave from, which mode of transportation is best for a given route, etc. One of these books, a bit of money and a bit of curiosity is all you need!
Just to give you an idea of what hotels look like, here is a typical room and bathroom that cost 450 Rs (7 €), room and bathroom for 700 Rs (11 €), and room and bathroom for 900 Rs (14 €). Rooms and prices vary a lot, even within the same hotel, so always ask to see several rooms and try a couple of hotels. Sometimes the rooms are “fixed price” and sometimes it pays to bargain. For that last room they wanted 2000 Rs, then 1600 Rs, then the guy telephoned with his boss and told me 1100 Rs, final price. The room was definitely worth that much, but I knew that I’d get a nice room next-door for 700 Rs, so I insisted on 850 Rs. As I turned around to leave, he offered me 900 Rs, so I took it. Don’t always expect such luck however, especially if the hotel is nearly full.
If this is your first trip, I’d suggest booking a room ahead of time and arranging with the hotel to send a car to pick you up from the airport (400 Rs extra if you are landing in Delhi). Since you cannot bargain over a specific room, choose a nicer hotel and book the room for one night only. Arrange all other accommodations as you arrive and in person. Your travel book will describe the hotel areas in each town or village, and in general the best budget hotels are right next to the tourist attractions. The four- and five-star hotels are usually quite a bit further away.
Eating and drinking is probably another concern. Cold mineral water can be bought just about anywhere and costs 12 Rs for a liter. As far as food goes, start with the motto “cook it, boil it, peel it, or throw it away,” but after you’ve gotten used to the atmosphere a bit, don’t sweat it too much. The freshly-squeezed fruit juices (also sugar cane) are absolutely delicious, and so are the lassies. The dark-red carrots on the vegetable market are really refreshing and unexpectedly sweet. Wash them up well with mineral water. Brush teeth and shave with mineral water.
Beware of restaurants with shops inside them. These are for rich tourists only — the prices are very high and the food has no taste whatsoever. If you want really tasty food, ask a shop owner or a fruit seller where to find a good pure vegetarian restaurant. When you get there, if you see many locals and especially some families, and if the main dishes cost 40 — 60 Rs, then you’ve found the right place. For example, if you are in Udaipur, definitely try “The New Natraj” pure vegetarian thali restaurant. (You can thank me later!) By the way, never ask for a restaurant recommendation in a hotel (they’ll invariably suggest their own roof-top restaurant) or a rickshaw-driver (he’ll drive you to the farthest restaurant he knows so that he can ask for higher payment).
Some of you might be unsure about how to get from place to place. There are many alternatives, all very inexpensive. Within the old towns you are probably best off taking a bicycle rickshaw. For distances between 5 and 20 km a tuk-tuk is better, while a car is best for trips between 10 and 200 km. You can rent a car for anywhere from half a day to a week. During my 2008 trip I rented a car with a driver for 10 days and payed 360 €. The price included gas and toll-road fees, and the driver took care of his own meals and sleep accommodations. Buses are good for trips up to 150-200 km, and trains for distances from 100 km up to maybe 400 km. Book a seat ahead of time, and on longer trips consider traveling overnight. Indian trains travel slowly and get delayed often, so it’s best to look for a train that starts its journey at the place where you board it. For any distance over 300 km consider flying. Flights are cheap and abundant, and all larger cities as well as many smaller tourist-oriented ones have airports. In 2009 I used four domestic flights, and each cost about 65 €.
In my next post I talk about personal safety, what to see and what to take along. Stay tuned…