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Review: Northern India

Specialist Holiday - Non-escorted tour

India - tailor made

  • By SilverTraveller Holland

    35 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • Sep 2014
  • Friend(s)

8 people found this review helpful

Some 30something years ago a friend of mine stayed on one of the houseboats on Lake Dal in the Kashmir region of northern India. She raved about the houseboat: its amazing décor, the peace and serenity of the lake and the backdrop of the mountains beyond. Kashmir subsequently became out of bounds to tourism whilst India and Pakistan fought over sovereignty. But now an uneasy peace has returned and the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office who decide to where in the world we can travel) has decreed the area open for tourism.



Cox and Kings offered a small group visit to Kashmir staying two nights on one of the houseboats followed by three nights in Srinigar visiting places of interest in the area. So we booked. But it was not to be. Although it was supposed to be the end of the monsoon season Kashmir suffered its worst floods for over 50 years. Hundreds died, thousands were made homeless. The houseboats were either badly damaged in the deluge or floated away from their moorings. Srinigar was under several feet of water. People were marooned on the roofs of their houses for days with no food or water and no one coming to help them. A visit for tourism was not an option.



Cox & Kings called us to say Kashmir was out of the question and would we consider alternatives? Within a couple of days they had come up with an alternative itinerary: Flying to Delhi, thence to Amritsar in the state of Punjab, then to Dharamsala home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government in exile, and finally to Shimla, high up in the mountains where the British made their base in the summer months to avoid the monsoons and heat of the plains.



I had never flown with Virgin before. I had booked Upper Class as I am S.K.I. (Spending the Kids Inheritance) but my Travelling Companion (henceforth for the purposes of this review known as T.C) had opted for Economy. Virgin must be the only airline that allows passengers flying in Upper Class to take their companions from Economy to join them in the Business Lounge at Heathrow, or indeed any airport. I was in row one in Upper Class and was surprised that pilots from the flight deck made use of an empty flat bed across the aisle from mine for their rest. Not all of them at once, of course, there were still two of them flying the aircraft. I always thought the crew had their own rest quarters away from the passengers. On arrival at Delhi airport we were met by a representative from the Eaton Smart airport transit hotel where a room had been reserved for us for the six hours between our arrival from UK and departure for Amritsar.



Delhi Airport was completely rebuilt and modernised for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and can now compete with the best in the world. Very modern, well signed, many new top brand western shops and food outlets. We were then met at Amritsar airport, another very modern building, by our guide and Ashok, our driver who was to be with us for the next six days. It was too late to look for somewhere to eat outside our hotel so we had dinner in the hotel. After the meal T.C. was presented with a feedback form on the meal; which she completed in full. This was to be the pattern after every meal, hotel stay or transfer: a feedback form was put before us. I wonder if anyone ever looked at them.



Next day we were met by a new guide, a very earnest young man. First stop was to the Golden Temple, the most holy place for the Sikh community who make up 62% of the Punjab population of 24 million. 50,000 to 60,000 visitors per day come here (more than to the Taj Mahal in Agra) and queue anything up to two hours to see inside the main temple. It was started in 1571 and completed in 1604, and is the third wealthiest temple in India with 1600 lbs of gold on its roof. The crowds were squashed in the queues, men and women separately. The temple is built on a lake and pilgrims are permitted to dunk themselves in the water at the edge of the lake. One naughty man set off to swim across the water and was soon apprehended by a couple of security men in a small rowing boat. We also went into the dining hall where the pilgrims were fed; thousands of them were each given a metal plate, bowl and cutlery. They sat in long rows on the floor while men went round to serve them with buckets of soup, rice and naan bread. Apparently 100,000 meals were being prepared to be airlifted to Kashmir for the flood victims who had been without food and water for days.



We were in the temple grounds for around three hours and as we were leaving big black clouds moved overhead and suddenly the heavens opened – the most torrential rain I have ever seen. Our guide said the rain would soon be knee deep; I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. We sheltered for some time in a café then took a cycle rickshaw back to our car. We were totally drenched so went back to the hotel to dry out only to find the rain had come in through our closed windows, on the fifth floor, and there was a flood in our bedroom floor! On account of the long time at the temple and the flood we missed seeing other places on our itinerary: Ram Bagh Gardens, the market and the Summer Palace of Maharaja Rangit Singh. A pity.



But in the late afternoon, after the rain had ceased, we drove out to the sunset retreat at Wagah on the border between India and Pakistan. The border guards assemble on each side of the border and do a display of fast high kicking marching and mock threatening gestures together with a lot of shouting. There were thousands of spectators, overseas visitors on the Indian side, not so many on the Pakistan side but thousands of local tourists on both sides with a lot of cheering and flag waving. I had seen this event on television in England – a spectacular show that I was happy to see for real.



Next day started with a long drive to Dharamsala. We were still in the Punjab, much cleaner than other areas of India I had visited in the past. It is known as the bread basket of India and during the first part of the drive we drove past vast tracts of agriculture: rice, maize, wheat and other crops. After our coffee stop we crossed a bridge marking the boundary between the states of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and almost immediately the scenery changed to hilly and wooded and we began to climb. The higher we drove the worse the roads became. Barely room for two cars to pass, let alone trucks and buses but they managed by a whisker. Our driver made liberal use of the car horn but was expert at judging the car’s width, and that of oncoming vehicles.



Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in 1950. Ten years later, during the Tibetan uprising. the Dalai Lama escaped and crossed the border into India after an epic 15-day journey on foot from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, over the Himalayan mountains travelling at night over harsh terrain. In India he denounced the People’s Republic and established the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala. He was followed into exile by about 80,000 Tibetans, most of whom settled in the same area, which has become known as “Little Tibet”.



After lunch and the ubiquitous feedback form completed by T.C. we met our local guide to visit an Anglican church St Johns in the Wilderness, built in 1800 something when the English garrison was stationed here. The church was locked but we wandered around the graveyard, almost like an English country churchyard but sadly many headstones commemorating children who died at an early age. On to the Hindu Temple of Bhagsu Nag and finally to the Dalai Lama Buddhist Temple. Here our guide gave a very, very long talk about Buddhism. T.C., who has lived in India, understood it all but much of it was rather lost on me. However, the two temples we subsequently visited were more interesting with bright multi-headed or multi-armed figures.. As we spent so much time in the temples we missed visiting the handicraft centre.



Next morning we went to the Tibetan Museum where a young guide, who looked about 15 but said she was 24, latched herself on to us and took hours (well, one hour) explaining everything which was already clearly written in English. She had left Tibet at the age of seven leaving her parents and three siblings. It was not clear why she had been chosen to escape but escape she did, with others to help her in the long and dangerous trek over the Himalayas. She subsequently learned English and worked her way through university, now working as museum guide. We then had a long drive down a very bumpy steep and narrow road to Lower Dharamsala to visit the Norbulingka Institute, initiated by the Dalai Lama to keep centuries old Tibetan traditions alive. In beautiful calm gardens were workshops where young Tibetans demonstrated woodcarving, painting, appliqué, metalwork, silkscreen and weaving.



To break up the long drive up to Shimla, for our next visit, we drove for about an hour and stayed that night at the Taragarh Palace hotel owned by the Maharani Tara Devi of Kashmir, A wonderful place steeped in history with magnificent family portraits and photos. After a late lunch (+ feedback form) we wandered round the somewhat neglected gardens and the next morning before we left we walked down the road to see the polo ponies. Actually only a couple of them in residence plus a very handsome black stallion. The other ponies were somewhere else where play was taking place. Polo originated in India and was taken up by the British in the early days of the Raj. Many of the photos in the Palace hotel featured polo players and teams of ponies.



Our drive to Shimla took 8.5 hours; Cox & Kings had said it would take 7 hours and Ashok said 5 hours! It was an awful road: hours of hairpin bends, potholed roads and huge trucks and buses passing by a hairsbreadth. The heavy trucks were going to one of three cement works we passed on the way up and other trucks were coming down from the mountains with loads of apples or beans, the harvest for these in full swing. Ashok made full use of the car horn the whole way but he is a very good driver and judged distances to a millimetre. Which is more than can be said for one truck driver going up who scraped into the side of bus going down entailing a good half hour delay until the police arrived and untangled them. The scenery was amazing; very, very hilly, hence all the bends, with a few villages and busy towns and odd houses perched way up high on the hillsides.



On arrival at our hotel, the Oberoi Cecil we found our room was made up with a double bed. We refused. The hotel said they could make it up with separate mattresses but one bed. We refused . Eventually they agreed to move us to a proper twin bedded room. But it took ages and I got tired of waiting and went to the bar for a (double!!) gin and tonic. I cannot believe a hotel of this standard expected two ladies, one of a certain age (me) to share a bed.



The next day was a full day in Shimla In 1864 it was declared the summer capital of British India and the entire administration was moved up into the hills from Calcutta 1,000 miles away. The Viceregal Lodge was completed in 1888 by the then Viceroy Lord Dufferin and fitted with furniture from Maple & Co in London (anyone remember them??) It was built in the style of a Scottish castle and every brick was transported up (to 2206 m.) by mule, as there was no road. The building is now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. We also visited Annandale, on the outskirts of the town, where polo and cricket used to be played and which is now an army base. Our visit to the Indian Army museum was the highlight of the day for me. It was very well set out with interesting information, armoury, uniforms, sporting trophies and the history of the Indian army. I could happily have spent much longer here.



Back in town we visited Christ Church Cathedral, an imposing building with beautiful stained glass windows and many plaques commemorating the military. The cathedral faces the main square with crowds of Indian tourists, and the Gaiety Theatre. What a great place. A man at the entrance took 50 rupees off us, then sat us in the auditorium and rattled on for at least 20 minutes recounting the history of the place. Actually very interesting. There was no electricity until 1896 and the theatre was lit by kerosene lamps; ‘elf and safety would have had a fit.



We left Shimla by the narrow gauge mountain railway, with spectacular views from the mountains down to the plains. It was built by the British and started in 1898; it took five years to complete the 96 kms to Kalka with 102 tunnels and 864 bridges, climbing from 656m.to 2,076 m. It was an amazing engineering achievement considering the access and construction problems, not to mention the altitude. Since 2008 it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Following the mountain railway we took the express train for the four hour journey back to Delhi; unfortunately it was dark for most of the journey so we were unable to enjoy the scenery. After a night in a city hotel we were taken to the airport for our flight home.



Kashmir is still very much on my Bucket List but next time I will aim for a visit before the monsoon season and not after it. But full marks to Cox & Kings for rearranging our trip at short notice and for looking after us with their local guides and representatives and above all our driver Ashok. And finally: seven days in India and not a single squat lavatory – now that’s progress!!

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • Cox-Kings
    almost 5 years ago
    Thank you for your kind words about us in this review. We're so pleased to read that you enjoyed your trip, despite the very last minute change, and hope we can help take you to Kashmir at some point. All the details of that trip are online here: http://www.coxandkings.co.uk/indian-subcontinent/india