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Published: December 7th 2019
When I first decided to return to India earlier this year as a solo traveller, I had no intention of revisiting The North. I had, after all, visited the major tourist destinations between Delhi and Kolkata and further north to Darjeeling and Sikkim in 2013, and felt no need to retrace my steps.
But then my sister, Ginny, expressed interest in coming along. This will be Ginny’s first visit to India, and not to have a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal, walk the ghats of Varanasi or gaze in wonder at The Palace of the Winds in Jaipur would only make for half a trip, so the itinerary was extended. I don’t mind returning to these cities for a second look, as I have found many fascinating places to visit which I didn’t get to see in 2013.
This isn’t an organised tour, we’ll be travelling independently to an itinerary I have put together. The creation of this trip has been a journey in itself, constantly learning as I explored India through my computer screen. I found myself following Akbar the Great and his descendants, who are responsible for the creation of some of the beautiful forts, tombs
Varanasi Art on the Ghats
I’ll definately look for this again...
and palaces we’ll be visiting. I’ve also developed a fascination for India’s incredible stepwells which have been in existence for centuries, though I’ve only just discovered them.
There are many fascinating places we won’t be able to see, due to time restraints or the fact that they’re in another region, which only whets my appetite further....
So, how much work is involved in creating a private itinerary for a 35 day journey through 12 regions/cities in an overcrowded and chaotic country, during peak tourist season? A journey which includes 3 train trips, 4 internal flights, 15 days spent travelling in 2 private cars with drivers, 35 nights accomodation plus airport/railway station transfers to book. Not forgetting the pre-booked and paid walking tours in some cities, and admission tickets, so we can ‘skip the line’ at major attractions, like the Taj Mahal. Then organising a daily itinerary so we don’t waste time and get as much as possible from our days. How much work? An incredible amount, which is why I’ve been working on this, on and off, for months.
I choose Hyderabad in central southern India as our arrival point, and Amritsar (as The Golden Temple is
still on my bucket list) near the Pakistan border, as our departure point. So the first thing we did was book and pay for those international flights, then we knew we were definitely going!
Next I had to decide on the cities/regions we would visit, and how long we would stay in each. Now the hours on the computer start whilst I research the chosen destinations. I read the history, traveller reviews, India Tourism websites, and cover reams of paper with scribbled information. I pour over Pinterest photos of India and do a google search on anything that captures my interest just in case it’s possible to include it in the itinerary. I print off metro and street maps and finally decide on which palace, fort, temple, monument or bazaar we’ll try and visit and how many days we’ll need to see them all, and also squeeze in some down time.
Then there’s accomodation. I pre-booked all our rooms, months in advance, through agoda.com
making sure to book only rooms that don’t require immediate payment and have free cancellation up to a couple of days prior to arrival, should the worst happen and it all needs
to be cancelled. I double check, triple check that I have booked the correct dates….
Next thing to organise is how we move around this vast country. We have 2 overnight sleeper trains, 4 internal flights to save time and a day train between Delhi and Amritsar, recommended by my travel agent because of the eclectic mix of souls we’ll be travelling with. We have also booked 2 private drivers, one for 3 days in Goa, with pick up and drop off transfers, as Goa has no cruising taxis or Uber. At peak tourist time getting a taxi anywhere, if not pre-booked, will be an issue, so having a driver and car solves this nicely. I booked this through STA Travel in Bristol, England, who also booked our train berths (best done by a travel agent as no paper tickets are issued) and corresponding railway station transfers. Thanks to my daughter Petra, for your help with this. Petra can be found here - https://stores.statravel.co.uk/bristol/bristol.html
The other car and driver is booked for 12 days between Jaipur - Agra - Gwalior - Orchha - Khajuraho, as this was the most practical option and the easiest way to get around
a region that is a little off the tourist trail. I organised this myself with a hire car company in Jaipur - https://www.carhireinrajasthan.com/
They have excellent online reviews and I had no hesitation in contacting them and, after a few emails were exchanged, paid a 20 percent deposit to secure our SUV and driver.
Devin Hunt, my nephew and travel agent, booked our internal flights, sold us travel insurance and was always available with great advice and suggestions. He can be found here - https://www.theadventuretraveller.com/
I also looked at our other flight/train arrival or departure times, and, if getting a private transfer made sense, booked and paid for them via suntransfers.com
It gives a great sense of security to know there will be a car waiting to collect us on arrival, and we don’t have to haggle with taxi drivers, or have a taxi not show up when we need to get to the airport.
Then there’s the visa. Things have changed since 2013 when my visa was a 6 month single entry one. Now they are a 12 month multiple entry visa, but still with a maximum 180 day stay, valid from the date of issue, not
date of entry. An e-visa is also available. I spent a day in Brisbane and got my application processed at the VFS Global office in Spring Hill. All applications have to be filled out online first at the following website: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/
This website is the official Indian Government one and the only one to use.
Lastly, I created a detailed day to day itinerary, complete with some information or history on every fort, palace, tomb etc we’ve hoping to see including opening hours, admission fees, photography highlights, anything I could find that could be useful. This itinerary isn’t set in stone, but it will help in structuring our days. E-tickets to 116 'must see' heritage monuments, which are under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India, can be purchased here: https://asi.payumoney.com/
though you do need to know the date you expect to visit before booking. I have grouped together attractions in the same area so we’re not wasting time criss-crossing cities, it’s exhausting and unnecessary. Hence the reason for printing off metro and street maps. Many blogs have already been started, with city introductions written and lots of information on places we'll be visiting typed into my Notes
app, which can be copy and pasted into the relevant blog when the time comes. This will save me many hours of work over the coming weeks, and free up time for exploring.
Recent online reviews can often be a source of useful information and Google can be counted on for getting distance, travel times and routes correct. In India, a 30klm trip doesn’t mean you’ll get there in 20 minutes, more like 50 minutes to an hour. I’ve taken this sort of information into consideration when planning our days, particularly with our drivers.
I’ve retained lots of information from my marathon reading sessions online, which may or may not be useful. I know how to get us across the 16 platforms in Delhi Railway Station and to turn right when we exit, to walk to our accomodation nearby. I know there is a fabulous cafe on the rooftop of the building opposite The Palace of the Winds in Jaipur, the best photo stop ever, and that we have to turn left when we step onto the ghats from our Varanasi accomodation to walk to Dashashwamath Ghat where the nightly Aarti ceremony is held.
The trip was pulled together on a computer spreadsheet, each day listed with details typed in as they were organised. Columns of figures help keep track of costs, what’s been paid for and what needs to be paid for. Another document reminds me of the last minute things I need to do, another of what needs to be packed.
As our departure date draws near, I email and 'touch base' with our BnB host in Goa, assuring him our booking still stands. He responds with a friendly email, wanting to know if we have our local transport sorted. I assure him we have. I email our hire car company in Jaipur, giving them our itinerary and accomodation details, and checking on the status of our booking as it's been months since the deposit was paid. Deepak responds, telling me everything is fine.
Some may say we’re over organised, but I prefer to say we’re well prepared. India is not an easy country to travel in and knowledge gives me confidence. I can’t imagine doing this trip without it, we’d be travelling blind. I don't want to walk out on the street and hesitate, or doubt my ability to actually see and do everything that's in the itinerary. I look forward to honing my bargaining skills in the bazaars, dodging the crazy traffic and having some memorable interactions with the locals.
I fully expect for the daily itinerary to go haywire at times, and that’s okay, it’s just a guide after all. There are many things outside our control that could change our plans in an instant. Sickness, the dreaded Delhi Belly, is a major concern and is sure to strike at least one of us down, but we’ll have prescribed medication from home to get us back on our feet as soon as possible. Eating a vegetarian diet, fruit with skins which can be peeled, no ice in drinks, buying the recommended brands of distilled water, plus a hefty dose of good fortune, will all help to keep sickness at bay.
Finally, I’m not going to think about all the things that could go wrong. If I did, I’d never leave home and this adventure Ginny and I have been looking forward to for so long would never happen. Instead, I think of the wonderful places we’ll visit, the experiences we’ll have, the memories we’ll create and the people we’ll meet along the way. Wish us bon voyage!
First stop - Hyderabad.....
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