India Travelogue 1996

This covers my second visit to India 1995/6 (6 months over Xmas) the first visit was 1994/5 over Xmas. You can read about that visit on this website too.

This travelogue is about the journey I took in 1996 from Goa to Goa via Darjeeling, and the rest of India. The text originally appeared on my personal website and was there for a long time, however this is a complete re-write.

In 1994 I was a fish out of water, and I had no idea what I was doing, by 1996 I was very savvy on how to move around and exist in India. Being very bored of Goa I decided to see India. The target was Darjeeling via the rest of India, clockwise around the country.

Leaving a quiet Anjuna (yes, it was quiet in 1996) via Mapusa (pronounced Map-sa) for Pune (Poona) on a 12 hour overnight bus ride nightmare, I witnessed the terror of lorries leaving survival up to the Gods when they pull out and overtake. The driver was pretty disturbed by it too. I avoided Bombay going north and Pune is the quickest bypass route as Bombay is best avoided for travelling through (when I wrote this it was still called Bombay). Coming down the hills into Pune through the mist was quite magical.

It was a staging post for me, hotels were thin on the ground. The hotel Ritz was out of a Dickens novel with the men running it all sporting huge white beards. The bathroom ensuite was as big as the bedroom. The light was dim and you couldn’t see the mosquitos to swat them. There was an open area at the back in a balcony for the dining room, reached by wacky external stairs on stilts. I shunned the cell block rooms with no windows at the station restrooms but in hindsight there might have been less mosquitoes in them.

To get away I took an early morning luxury bus 7 hours to Aurangabad. And here we can see the  Taj Mahal, well no actually, it is the Bibi-ka-Maqbara built in 1679 the ‘poor mans Taj’, still: a pleasant place and it does look like a mini-Taj Mahal. The Panchakki (water mill) was well worth a visit, very calming in a hectic city. Aurangabad was a nice place and the locals were friendly. The roadside omelette with chilli powder was to die for. I met some other tourists here and for some reason other tourists were very friendly in Aurangabad. The hotel Natraj was thick with mosquitoes, but good value. The mosquitos were so bad though, they would pour in through the vents in the bathroom. I slept with my hammock pulled over me, head and all, like a body bag.

The Ellora caves are a short trip by local bus from Aurangabad through stunning scenry. They are many temples carved into the hillside, of which the Kailasa is the most over the top and unlike the others open to the air. The Buddhist temples by contrast are calm and considered. Ellora is a totally fascinating place. The temples just go on and on, many are exuberant and unfinished. Unfortunately catching the bus back from Ellora was impossible. In the end I shared a jeep back with other fellow travellers.

I took a local bus from Aurangabad (3 hours daytime) to Ajanta caves. It’s the same style as Ellora, but in my opinion nowhere near as impressive. Ajanta is more about painting the walls rather than carving things out of them. I saw it in a very short time, unlike the whole day spent at Ellora. I then went on from Ajanta to Jalgaon by local bus (short daytime journey). The hotel at Ajanta was always full I was told, and expensive. It is not really worth staying there anyway, you can see Ajanta in no time.

Jalgaon is an industrial city, I found quickly getting a luxury bus away was best method (9 hours overnight).

I arrived in Indore and had a mad ride with a rickshaw walla after getting off the bus at 6:00am. He took me to far to expensive hotels or ones that looked like squats. In the end I decided to pay out for a nice place at 300 rupees. The hotel Tulsi, which I would recommend. TV, hot water, soft bed, good restaurant, well I needed a splurge. I managed to get a long time here for only one night’s payment due to arriving early in the morning

Next day I moved to the Hotel Shalimar at 45 rupees a night. Indore is a good place to have a walk around, the local museum is interesting.

The Rajwada is the gateway of the old palace, there is not much to see beyond the gateway, only a courtyard, as the palace has burnt down many times. Even so it was a quiet refuge.

Disappointment awaited at the Lal Bagh Palace. The place was in a bad state of repair and the features were unviewable due to being herded along a set narrow route around the building. As the actual building is whitewashed and quite modern looking it was less than eye candy. The saving grace were the quiet gardens. Even these were thin but quiet.

I tried to get to Mandu from here but it was impossible to travel there and would have meant returning to Indore afterwards. So I took a lux bus (10 hours overnight) I found myself being violently sick at each stop, had a bad Thali in Indore: nice.

Ahmedabad (pronounced Am-da-bad) was like a small Delhi, smelly and noisy. At the time I did not like it here. Food was quite hard to find, so was good transport away. I had to hang around at the hotel Naigra for a few days to recover from my bad Thali. They had bad earthquakes there several months after I was there, and I worry for what happened to the city. To get away I took a nice train, 7 hours overnight to Bhavnagar. This was a cute quiet town with inquisitive locals! Probably they saw very few foreigners in those days.  

I then took a local bus to Una (near Diu) 7 hours daytime and then a rickshaw to get into Diu. Diu was supposed to be another Goa, it wasn’t. Interesting but mostly unremarkable, it is a little island tacked onto the side of Gujarat state. The fort was very good though. Nagoa beach was worth a look but not very exciting. Food was a hit or miss affair in Diu. I arrived late at Diu and found the hotels full. To get away I took a 9 hour daytime lux bus (well they called it a luxury) but there was a distinct lack of leg room.

In Rajkot I saw little. The Watson Museum was closed on a Wednesday, so I failed to see inside it. I spent too much money on my hotel here. Next day took a 5 hours daytime lux bus to Bhuj.

Bhuj was an Interesting town, quite in the back of beyond. The Kutch Museum was interesting and also full of stuffed animals. The Aina Mahal (old palace) was good but I got a warehouse feeling as all the exhibits were a laid out in rows on the floor.

They had big earthquakes there after my visit, and I worry for what happened to the town.

It was very hard to get away from Bhuj as transport was a little shady, the trains were no good and the station was hard to find. I took a overnight lux bus back to Ahmedabad! Could find no other way. Then on to Jodhpur on a lux bus 10 hours overnight. That was the last of Gujarat for me. There was something very honest about Gujarat. A poor state, was mostly a salt export county but the locals let me be, I had no trouble there and good memories of the place.

Jodhpur has two interesting things: the amazing fort and the name! The Mehrangarh Fort towers over the city. A really fine lump of bricks. In the streets here it was not unusual to come face to face with the odd working camel. I fell into a tourist trap here, the Lonely Planet guide book said I had to try the “special lassi” as it was the best drink ever. I walked into the place it said and the man called “ah special lassi!”. It was foul, nice joke Lonely Planet! To get away I got a 7 hours early morning lux bus booked from the tourist bungalow.

At first I thought Jaisalmer was going to be a flop. Arriving at the tourist bungalow the touts were held at bay while we were farmed out to jeeps going to hotels. I was charged a very small amount for the hotel but told to leave when I didn’t want to go on a dessert ‘safari’. I then moved to another hotel that was very nice.

The huge fortified town is quite something to see and a trip to the Sam Dunes is a slice of ‘genuine’ dessert. Got away on a 11 hour daytime lux bus to Pushkar.

Then Pushkar was a very nice place. The holy lake had half dried up, but it was a nice place to stop a definite place to relax. Great food and excellent bookshops. Here I met other travellers again for chats at dinner time. I’d been the only traveller for sometime until that point. One thing to watch there was when you book a luxury bus they dumped you on the a state bus. It is only a 3 hour journey to Jaipur.

Jaipur was a total tourist trap. The rickshaw drivers latch onto me and charged to much. They also think they can become your personal guide. I think the ‘sites’ are here are vastly overrated. I just couldn’t wait to move on from the place. I took a 6 hour daytime lux bus.

Bharatpur was the next stop. It’s next to the Keoladeo National Park: a bird sanctuary, one of the most amazing places I have ever been, the birds were there because they wanted to be and there are so many it blew my mind. Best time was early morning, but I spent all day from dawn to dusk there. Painted Storks, Cormorants holding out their wings to dry, Vultures, Deer, Crested Great Tits, Kingfishers diving into the water, Pelicans at a distance, Coot and the constant calls of thousands of birds. The birds were so close. Stunning. I don’t know what happened to Keoladeo as I heard the water was diverted away for farming, The lakes were man made in the days of the Raj so they could shoot the birds. There is a big plaque in the middle which lists the shoots and how many birds they killed. Also the people who did the shooting, Kitchener was one of them.

I seem to remember the town wasn’t very interesting. I stayed in a dorm. At a café near the park I met some other travellers I’d met previously in Aurangabad. I got away on a 3 hour daytime lux bus.

Next stop: Agra. O.k. so I had to see the Taj didn’t I? One thing I never realised was the fact that the walls are inlaid with jewels. I never realised that the Taj is a big tomb. The gardens and buildings around the Taj add as much to the place as the main building itself. The Taj really is a ‘must see’. All the other places in Agra can be safely overlooked and the ‘torn money’ scam was simply annoying. This is where they will not take a note if it is slightly torn, which was a description of most Indian notes.

I took a short lux bus journey to Gwalior. I came there to look at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum, it was interesting, but perhaps not worth the diversion. ‘Leda & the Swan’ is a very kinky statue. Seeing how the Raj used to live is the experience to be gained there.

Gwalior was another nice place to simply walk around. When I first got there I was taken on a mad ride with a rickshaw walla. I told him the hotel I wanted and we went round and round. There was some sort of carnival that evening going on with loads bands with lights walking the streets. They were carrying mains powered fluorescent tubes. My rickshaw walla kept showing me dreadful, cheap, hotels and then we’d be back in the streets with all these bands. I thought he was going to fleece me. But in the end we arrive at the hotel I had asked for originally and he charged me very little. Odd. I think he felt guilty for the mad ride.

To get away I got a daytime train 9 hours. When in the station the Indians kept asking me if I was there for the cricket as the world cricket match was on.

Then to Lucknow to see the old British residency. Beginning place of the ‘Indian Revolution’ a spooky ruin. The cannon ball shelled gateway and all.

Then I took the daytime train to Varanasi. This place is a ‘must see’ like the Taj. A city on the river Ganges with the ghats leading down to the water. Unfortunately I never took a picture of it. There is something about seeing the Ganges for the first time for sure.

My favourite place to eat here was the ‘Aces New Deal Restaurant’ not only because the food was good but because the owner was mad. His daft Basil Faulty esque running of the place kept me quietly amused.

Only cycle rickshaws are allowed closer into the ghats. So a motor rickshaw will quote you a price and then half way there say he can go no further. Then you pay again for a cycle rickshaw!

Booking a way out was very hard. There was a tourist quota on the trains but the tourist lounge was always packed. I went to a travel agent in the end who did all the hard work for me. Got a daytime train 12 hour journey away. I was pretty tired in Varanasi and didn’t see that much of it but for walking the ghats a bit. Most of my time was spent trying to book some form of transport away.

The next stop was Patna. A town with a very British feel to it, and the best museum I saw in India. A good place to walk around and see the Ganges again. The railway retiring rooms were a great place to stay, very British Raj, and excellent mosquito nets. The view of the Ganges from on top of the Golghar (grain store) was great. Patna was quite nice really, the restaurant I ate in was super dark inside, which was a trendy thing in India at the time.

It was tricky to get away. There was no tourist quota on the trains. In the end I booked a lux bus for Silligri the closest stop for Darjeeling.

Darjeeling: you can go up the hill to Darjeeling from Silligri on the toy train, a small stream train. But it takes 10 hours or so! Less romantic but far quicker you can take a bus which takes 3 hours. Arriving after a 12 hour bus ride on very bumpy roads at 6.30am I was in no mood for a slow climb up the hill.

Darjeeling was my ultimate destination and I spent 2 weeks here. A sort of holiday within a holiday. It fulfilled all my expectations and more, was a really nice place in the hills, with very British overtones and lots of tea! Sipping tea with a fresh cake at Genarys Tea Rooms was superb. The Botanical Gardens were a quiet oasis with many types of tree and a wonderful glass house. The natural history museum was a collection of moth eaten stuffed animals. The town was great for walking around and being amazed at scenery and old British architecture. It is also a good idea to tell yourself not to buy too many books here! My favourite restaurant was the Dekevas restaurant. They did great breakfasts and it was a really cozy place to relax before a day exploring. 

Snow Leopards: I sew them at the ‘special’ part of the Zoo. As the actual Zoo was too harrowing for me, with Indians teasing animals and some cramped conditions. The Snow Leopards had their own part of the Zoo a little distance away and had a permanent caretaker. I was lucky and at the time there were young cubs. They say that they are disinclined to breed, so I think I was lucky to see them. At one point I heard someone doing very bad cat meow impressions, until I realised it was a Snow Leopard meowing. They say that Snow Leopards in captivity lose their spark, but the ones here were certainly in high spirits gambling about and having cat style games with each other.

The Windamere Hotel was for posh people. The Gymkhana Club for the faded Raj feel. Oxford Book Store still stocking a good selection.

They had ‘strikes’ when I was there. All the shops close and you cannot get any food.

The Shamrock hotel was wooden and not that cold compared to the concrete one I stayed in at first.

It was my 26th birthday when I was in Darjeeling and on that day I felt my first wisdom tooth coming though. I was also very ill with bum troubles, I think I got Ghadia in Goa and was still suffering in Darjeeling, I felt so bad it was a close thing me even getting to the Snow Leopards. On my birthday I treated myself to a day’s membership of the Gymkhana Club. Interesting, though not much to do: an empty ballroom, empty tennis courts and some ancient roller-skates. The library was interesting and I had my second ever Club Sandwich. In the evening I had a mixed grill and Genarys. The Ghadia loved that.

To get away I avoided that toy train and went down to Silligri on the bus, from there I took the train as I was advised that the roads were too bad for the busses, and it would be a journey from hell. The night train took 12 hours to Calcutta.

Darjeeling was the place I wanted to see most in India and it was certainly worth it.

I got to Calcutta (was there before they renamed it) and as the train came into the city it was rush hour. Quite something to see fast commuter trains with people clinging to the outsides of the carriages.

Calcutta, was a nice city. The British ‘Victoria Memorial’ was pretentious nonsense, but a nice building all the same, the ‘Lonely Planet’ suggested they were tying to build a better Taj 

To get away, I was a bit fed up, and I just wanted to get back to Goa a.s.a.p. I bought a ticket for the Coromandal Express 2nd class air con for an easy ride for 28 hours cutting out an awful lot of distance in one go. I missed a lot of east coast, I know, but i was getting tired after 2/3 months travel.

In Madras (again, this was before they called it Chenai) I was in and out very quickly, so I can’t say much. I arrived at 5:30pm, booked a lux bus and was out by 10:30pm

Bangalore was very cosmopolitan and has an English language cinema and a KFC. There were also many really nice and almost gone wild parks. It was nice back in 1996, but I went back many years later and it was a very busy place (2013) with hordes of webdesigners on motorbikes.

I got away on a night lux bus to Panaji and motorbike taxi into Anjuna took 15 hours. Back in Goa, from Calcutta to Anjuna it took me 5 days! Whereas going the other way had taken just under three months.

Bombay (it wasn’t called Mumbai when I was there in 1996). On my first visit to India I flew back to Bombay to then got my flight home, but the second time I fancied trying the bus. Taking a night bus fitted with bunks for 17 hours which leaves from Mapusa. Arriving at the Colaba Causeway to hang around until the evening. The Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel to look at made an interesting day. In-fact it was nice back then at Colaba. Before my flight home I took a taxi to the airport, (as usual) beating the taxi drivers down on the price. That journey from Colaba to the airport was one of the journeys of my life. The road cuts along by the bays on which buildings thrust out into the sea. At night with the lights reflecting on the water of the bays it was an amazing sight. Then you’d come into the populated areas each time with swarming humanity and a unique Inida vibe.

2024 note: I have been back to India several times again over the years, it has changed there a lot.

This trip greatly inspired my novels Burning Wolfhound and Codename Wolfhound and I used my India knowledge to a great extent in those books.