Another article in our OBT series.
We took a private tour in India around the Rajasthan region which also included Varanasi and Nepal. Our fabulous tour was arranged through IVAT and included all transportation, hotels, activities, and guides in each place we visited.
While I wrote about my impressions of India in Everything is Possible in India and Mike wrote about the food in Food Glorious, Food in India, we haven’t told you about the places we visited. There is much to say, so here is part one.
The main reason to go to the National Park in Ranthambore is to see a tiger on safari and I am happy to say that we had a wonderful 15-minute tiger viewing on our second safari. It was kind of weird being the only guests at the lodge. We arrived at the very beginning of the season, so we had the place to ourselves.
We arrived at the lodge about 1:30 in the afternoon, having fought our way through thousands of pilgrims at the Ganesha festival. At 3 pm, our Naturalist and Jeep driver arrived to take us on our first safari, having to run the pilgrim gauntlet back through the festival going to the park and coming back.
The park is broken up into 10 zones and, because it was monsoon season, only Zone 6 was open to safaris and the number of vehicles is limited each day. We heard only 5 vehicles were allowed on our second day and only two of those saw the tiger. The terrain was quite beautiful and the Jeep driving was skillful.
We saw large herds of spotted deer, antelope, and Indian gazelles, a few interesting birds, a whole family of long-tail monkeys (the ones everyone calls black-faced monkeys for obvious reasons) and many peacocks and peahens. Some of the peacocks were showing off their plumage, which was an awesome sight. Overall, the light was good and the animals were interesting even if we didn’t see a tiger. The Jeep was completely open-air and the ride was very bumpy, so much so we both needed some pain pills when we got back from the first safari.
The second safari started at 6 am the next day. First, let me say that I did not have a very good night as my stomach was very upset and I was up numerous times before the alarm went off at 5:15 am. I even considered not going on the safari this morning, but my FOMO took over and I did have the feeling that the early morning safari was going to be our best shot at spotting a tiger.
We started on the same route as the previous day, but after crossing through the gate of an old temple and seeing an awesome owl, we took a slightly different route than the day before. While we didn’t see the herds of animals we had seen the previous day, we saw the 4th type of small antelope that had short pointy black horns.
We then drove into a wooded area and the guide got really animated when we saw another jeep stopped, and actually backing into the brush. The guide told us he had heard tiger sounds, which is really the warning sounds from other animals. So we stopped parallel to the other jeep and waited. Less than a minute later we were rewarded as we watched a beautiful female tiger walk towards us out of the forest.
At that moment, as she was walking towards us about 30 feet away, I was thinking, “Hey, we are in an open-air jeep and that’s a real, wild tiger”. She veered in front of our Jeep and continued walking down the Jeep track. Our driver continued to adjust our position so we had a wonderful view of the beautiful cat doing normal stuff like, pooping, peeing, and spraying trees. We were told that female tigers have a 10 -15 square kilometer territory. We figured between the two safaris, we had seen everything the park had to offer, so we decided to enjoy the pool at our private resort for the afternoon.
The Great Train Ride
In the morning, we took the train to Bhatapur. Our guide picked us up, got us to the station, and took us all the way down the platform to our assigned car. I’m pretty sure that we would have messed it up on our own. The guide also paid two of the train attendants to show us where to get off the train, which worked out well. The issue is, unlike Japan or any other place I have ridden a train, they don’t announce the next station, the train just stops for a minute and then continues on its way without a sound. I guess everyone just naturally knows where to go, NOT! Also, we got dropped off in an unexpected location on the platform at Bhatapur, so our driver was worried when he couldn’t find us right away. We figured out how to get out of the station on our own and found him in the process. Maybe we’ve been on the road too long.
People go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. But the history is pretty interesting too. All through this part of the country, the forts and palaces were built by the Muslim Mogul emperors, most notably Akbar and Shah Jahan. The Muslims built a great many ornate tombs for the dead, like the Taj Mahal, and they were fond of white marble and inlay work, originally from their homes in Persia. They also built forts and palaces with the native red sandstone.
The New City
On our way to Agra, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikhi, an entire town built by Akbar, the 3rd Mughal emperor, as his home after he left Agra. In Agra, he had one palace for his 3 queens, but in Fatehpur Sikhi, he built a separate palace for each of his 3 queens. One was Hindu, one was Muslim from Persia and one was a Portuguese catholic from Goa. Clearly, he got quite a bit smarter about getting along with his wives between Agra and Fatehpur Sikhi.
The Two Taj’s
What can I say about the Taj Mahal? It is huge and beautiful, but the inlay work at ITMAD-UD-ULLAH (the Baby Taj) is really exceptional. After seeing the Taj at sunrise, followed by a visit to the Agra Fort, we got back to the hotel for some breakfast and much needed rest. We had been up before 5 am for three days in a row.
Lucknow, a Food Tour
We went to Lucknow, the capital of the state of Utter Pradesh, for the unique food and the fact that it is between Agra and Varanasi, so we could drive over two days and not fly. Our food tour turned out to be completely in the Muslim part of town and very real street food. We also ate beef for the first time in a few weeks.
We learned that Biryani is a Persian dish brought to India by the Muslims. Here the meat, mutton, is cooked separately from the rice and then combined in huge pots with more spices and baked. These huge metal containers with a very distinctive shape are heated slowly over open coals “on the street”. Although I skipped the meat, I did have some of the rice, which was really good. Then I turned around and saw a guy moving cooked rice from one container to another with his bare hands. That kind of put me off of the food, even the cooked stuff.
Skewers and Kebabs
The next stop was a street vendor selling small skewers of beef or buffalo liver. Again, the stuff was handled by the hands of the vendor. I did have a small piece of liver, but no sliced vegetable with it.
Then there were famous kebabs, this time a few different types of cooked chicken and saffron bread. Next, we had my favorite, kebabs that melt in your mouth with a slightly different type of bread. They were created by a chef for a Nawab king who lost his teeth around 1870. The Galouti Kebab became one of Lucknow’s most famous dishes. They are fried in a giant pan and the resulting meat looks like a slider.
A Strong Finish
Finally, we had a type of beef stew called nihari, created in Lucknow by a Nawab to feed the workers. It is cooked all night in a sauce like a braise. It was traditionally eaten for breakfast also with flatbread. Nowadays it is eaten anytime. This dish was Mike’s favorite.
Rice pudding in a small clay dish for dessert. The very best part of the food tour was that we both felt fine the next day.
We arrived in one of the most sacred places to Hindus, during the Ganesh festival which has been going for the last week all over India. Fortunately, that festival isn’t popular in this area, so it didn’t affect our travels. We came here to see the Ganges River, called the Mother river by Hindus. Hindus from all over try to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi so they can bathe in the river at least once in their lifetime. We went out at 5:30 am and things were already busy. The water level was too high for boats to go out, so we went down the stairs to the river. It was wall to wall people, those coming out of the river and drying themselves and those trying to get into the river.
Apparently, there are steps all along the river where people can get into the river, but most steps were currently submerged due to high water. Then, we walked through the alleyways to one of the crematoriums along the river. Honestly, I could have done without this stop. I got ash all over me and the smoke was a breathing hazard. We were told there were over 5000 temples in Varanasi and the city is 4000 years old. It also has the most beggars and filth of any of the cities we have been to thus far. Good thing we didn’t come here first, our impressions of India would most certainly have been different.
In the evening, we went back to the river to watch the Aarti ceremony that is done every evening to honor Mother Ganges.
Where do you want to visit in exotic India?