INDIA: Wonderful, but for the damn touts.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Photo by Ken (his info below.)
Relief map, so you can click to study the bordering neighborhood ...

Putting things in perspective: An evidently fair and free election was completed in the world's most populous democracy, just as we entered it. The elected government's platform was in part, to employ anyone who wants to work, for roughly $1/day x 200 days/year. Millions rejoiced, like farmers on BBC-TV who wish they could feed their families but for drought. $200/year makes millions happy, about the cost of two days of travel for us here.

---------------

Travels: The Pakistan-India Border. There is only one road crossing between the nations, and that is 40 km from Lahore at Atari on the India side. The excellent four-land road there was under construction, sand-trap hell in parts with spinning rear wheel and almost-stuck. We were a true dusty sweaty mess after this short 43˚C sprint.

Once we got there, it was a well-organized, polite, graft-free process. The large, spacious, well-staffed border posts were almost empty of travelers, an unhappy sight and cause for concern re trade between two important nations.

---------------

Border Closing Ceremony: Thao had read about the daily Pakistan-India border ceremonies from 6:00 to 6:30 PM – a marching competition between the two sets of guards you watch from bleachers at either side. So we hung around for a couple hours.

It's precision fast-marching extraordinaire. When the Indian soldiers get to the border they kick above their heads, a bold aggressive display at the other team, kind of like mooning them with boot bottoms. It's all football-match friendly crowd shouting and loudspeakers blaring in good spirits.

The Indian crowd was huge and dancing, shouting, celebrating, cheering 'Hindustan, Hindustan' while from the less-attended Pakistani side came 'Pakistan, Pakistan' – it was fun and civilized as international competitions go.

In the end the two flags are slowly lowered in unison, with the crowds standing, kinda touching.

Indian border guard in resplendent uniform.
Flags about to be lowered. Notice lower attendance on Pakistan side ...
They have other things going on right now.
Before ceremonies start, Indian dancers go wild on the street.
Indian crowd ... that's the India gate at the back.
A movie of the cheering India crowd.


---------------

Travels; Sikh Golden Temple, Amritsar. Post-ceremony, drove 30 km to Amritsar [map link] home of the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple [link] [link]. Great thing to see, quite special culturally and beautiful; if in India do not miss it.

. . . . .- It has a violent importance in modern history [TIME link.]
. . .. . . Just a quick read on-line reveals the tip-of-iceberg in India's political
. . .. . . issues: Sikhs, Pakistan, Tamils, Bangladesh, former rulers' families.
. . . . .- In 1984 Indira Gandhi, India's 2nd Prime Minister and daughter
. . .. . . of Jawaharial Nehru the 1st PM post-Britain, decided to put down
. . .. . . Sikh extremists with a military raid on the Temple, killing about
. .. . . . a thousand.
. . . . .- A few months later she herself was assassinated by her own Sikh
. .. . . . bodyguards, parenthetically while leaving her tiny 1300 sq. ft.
. .. . . . bungalow home, to meet with the great actor Peter Ustinov.
. . . . .- Her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as PM, was re-elected, then was
. .. . . . killed by a bomb in 1991, planted by Tamil Tigers. [BBC link.]
. . . . .- It goes on from there; the subsequent death numbers are huge,
. .. . . . many thousands.
. . . . .- A short Gandhi bio [link.]

We stayed 2 nights at C J International Hotel [link] at €35, it has the advantage of being a hundred metres from the Temple and they provided indoor bike parking – luckily, because otherwise we'd have left, Black Bike being swarmed by lookers and touchers. Nice big room. Being so close to the Temple it's an all-veggie 'dry' neighborhood; however upon request the hotel sends someone out to bring any food you want, even beer – a house employee gladly sold me a beer privately for perhaps quadruple the store price. But cold, good Indian beer, what a luxurious treat after a few dry countries. Anyhow, this place is handy for tourists and although not luxe, is perfectly fine.

The Golden Temple has become the primary sacred shrine of the Sikhs, houses their three most sacred texts. It mostly dates from the 1500s. From early 1600s to mid 1700s the Sikh Gurus were constantly involved in defending both their religion and temple against Muslim armies. On numerous occasions the Temple was destroyed by the Muslims, and each time was rebuilt more beautifully by the Sikhs. From the late 1700s onwards, the Sikhs became strong enough militarily to repulse foreign invaders – although bloody battles were waged with the modern Indian army just a couple decades back.

Sikhs are neither Hindus nor Muslims, Google finds many explanations of their faith.

Way too long a line to go inside, but the outside is stunning and is coated in what appears to be a considerable layer of real gold. The surrounding buildings are also splendid. The free kitchen for anyone who is hungry is manned by volunteers. Quite a beehive and a touching thing to witness. Everyone is very friendly to us obvious non-Sikhs as well, even kindly offered us a meal. A memorable experience.

A specially noticeable fact, especially in view of the 'anti-touts' warning which follows: No hustlers or touts at the Golden Temple or in the neighborhood. This was the big exception during our India trip. It says something about the faith and its culture we believe.

A ceremonial Sikh guard.
Free food is served all day to countless thousands. The kitchen.
Apparently free food is common to all Sikh temples.
All volunteer labour. Peeling onions & garlic.

---------------

School kids encountered on a side road detour en route to Delhi.

--------------

The India TMT money-grab. Many countries have Too Many Tourists, but here, add a shameless grab-what-can, penny-wise-foolishness. Sorry to be harsh, but we both have a global basis of comparison with relatively thick skins.

Besides TMT is likely an exaggeration. [World tourist ranking link.] India has some 5 million tourists per annum, similar to Brazil, Denmark, Sweden; which is not that many considering it is relatively safe, exotic, and inexpensive except for the travel distance. Canada for example has 18 million; Turkey 22 million; Spain 60 million. India has much room for growth in tourist volume.

This was very low season; during a world recession; the front-page Mumbai terrorist bombing followed by a USA Travel Advisory (exaggerated in our view, but that's beside the point) – all combined to made matters worse for India tourism. One would expect lower prices to increase volume under such circumstances, especially in a low-wage nation. Perhaps a tourist shortage made for relatively more hungry touts all over us.

For whatever reasons, Indians we encountered – not all, but in the 80% range – mistook us for sucker-targets. They tried, re-tried constantly. The syrupy pretext of 'friendship' becomes old quickly, wet-blankets the desire to come back. One closes off defensively. Both of us certainly left with an unfavorable impression of how they think of us and our wallets.

Indians reading this, take it constructively – we cheer for India and want to see you continue to kick butt. You have changed many things nationally to the better, have a great and booming nation, so address this too. A big hint: Many countries we visit have 'tourist police' who control the aggressively greedy; you need some, they will pay for themselves in added foreign income.

By being out of control, you are driving away business, tourists and industry alike, and handily winning First Prize as the world's worst nation in this one regard. Out of some twenty-five countries on this trip so far, India by far beats Egypt even at the Pyramids. It wallops Tunisia; the Istanbul souks; challenges Palmyra Syria – the latter winning as worst single town on earth for street hustlers.

In India though, it's not just at the tourist sites. And it's not about poverty, we have been to many poorer places.

It is the English-speaking quasi-smooth guys on the fast-buck-hustle. Hotel employees, cab and rickshaw drivers. Hotel/restaurant hustlers seeking finders' fees. The 'new helpful friends' who appear instantly if you dare stop to look at your map, always forcing upon you the pro forma conversation. Hardly an hour goes by, sometimes not five minutes. In big cities and in the country. Plus a few aggressive beggars, but they are not the issue.

On the street it's non-stop. You can't even walk somewhere and just absorb.

At tourist attractions, they physically swarm. I tried to help an elderly European woman who was being robbed by a grasping mob of fifteen at the Jaipur fort, her lady-friend hauled her away in panic, losing a shoe on the run, followed by the mob. Where was security, knowing the horrid behavior of their local hustlers? Just standing around, is where they were.

And hustlers do not quit when you tell them nicely 'no thank you.' You must stop, look the guy hard in the eye, with an unsmiling, absolute 'NO!' That works and is frequently necessary. For Thao it's worse because she is petite, soft-spoken and female.

Melodrama? Not a bit.

---------------

Telling Delhi hotel example. We had no reservations, it's not how we travel in this flexible lifestyle. We don't know when we'll arrive due to weather, traffic, plus we like to allow for oft-propitious serendipity.

So we arrived in 16 million population Delhi, in mid-40's heat, just needing to stop. Chanced upon the Connaught Hotel [link] close to quite central Connaught Place.

Haggling in near-walk-out negotiations with the to-become-famous duty manager, the price dropped from 9,000 to 4,000 Rupees, i.e. from US$180 to US$80 = 55% off. He tried 20% 'special discount for you for a weeks stay', I started to walk away dismissively. 'Wait, what can you pay?' I told him 4,000 is my upper limit tax-in, take it or bye-bye. He accepted it on the condition of a week payment in advance. I was too hot to ride and didn't care about the insult – but the distrust is culturally revealing as well.

$180 is a for-foreigners price, Indians laugh at it. Starting way high and discounting is often the modus operandi here. Superior rooms can be had for less in USA/Europe with their far higher overheads.

In India, always see your room before taking one. It's not even close to 5-star as bragged by the duty manager, becoming a Quality Inn would improve the rooms. We had two quite different rooms in two stays; the decorator of the second one is better suited to the car-wash business, failing badly in an imitation of some Japanese-Italian hybrid. We're not fussy biker trash, but bad taste is bad taste.

Their pay-extra internet is very on-off and slow, due to a bad IT supplier in the land of internationally famed geeks – US$2 an hour, negotiated from $4; we used many hours. The loud-Musak lobby is the only place to work due to a log-in system in the room where you must re-sign-in hourly; one second too late, you lose all your on-line work, which happened a few times – man, is that dumb. In the lobby, at least you can stay logged in.

Internet cafés a few blocks away, charge 30¢/hr – 1/13th this hotel's price; Thao used them a few times, got a better internet connection.

Bottled water is 700% higher in the hotel, than literally across the street.

Bike parking and many people having our phone number kept us here during two visits.

The main duty manager tried constantly for tips, in vain. He's corrupt actually: Keeping the room an extra few hours on the last day while killing time for a late-departure flight, especially when the hotel was far from full, especially after two weeks there – he claimed he paid half our room rate from his own pocket (!) in order to get a half-day ($40) cash tip. 'Look after me' were the exact words I ignored.

Showing us to the room and not knowing there is an air conditioner on-off switch, when asked. Bad directions twice when asked. Making us come to the lobby for a food delivery. Four times he and staff peskily asked about our check-out within 24 hours, without making note of the repeated answer, including awaking morning phone calls. And so on ... an annoying, unhelpful, hands-out man who argues with customers as if he knows better. Except he doesn't.

A few of the other hotel staff were quite nice. The breakfast and parking are good.

Some good hotel staff do exist, we met them, see below – but this unfortunate other kind does too.

Moral of the story: In India more than other places, book ahead and research.

It is not physically dangerous if you look at the long odds – just fiscally so.

------------------

Pollution: Delhi is the world's most polluted city, although it was not evident just being there. It looks clean, is reasonably modern and the air felt fine, compared to choking Cairo which ranks #2. But the scientists gave it first place in 2006 [link] in terms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air. Evidently a serious campaign is under way to clean up, taxis/buses now evidently run exclusively on CNG, compressed natural gas.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games are coming to India's capital city, so it will likely be polished up nicely for that. We liked Delhi, nothing earth-shattering but a big, visually clean, safe, functional city.

------------------

Driving and roads: India generally and Delhi specifically, has mostly good left-driving roads and drivers. Major congestion in some towns and intersections, some stretches of bad roads, but not a huge problem.

There are very few fancy big cars, mostly small compacts. We encountered no crazy-fast drivers. One just has to get used to their necessarily aggressive lane-grabbing and turning habits, no biggie.

Gas prices are about like Canada, around $1 per liter.

The millions of bicycles; 150 cc motorbikes often with an entire family aboard; pedestrians; free wandering cows; camels; animal-or-human-drawn wagons, etc. – these are the constant dodge-em issues.

I found going over 100 km/hr was taking a risk, even on four-lane freeways. A cow will decide to cross the centre island out of the blue, becoming your avoidance problem. Cows have become spoiled and aloof, they care less about your horn or you. Ditto a human carrying a huge load on the head, or a wagon or ... steel just yields to flesh, on two legs or four.

-------------------

Phone: Our normally excellent Magic Jack VoIP phone connected on-screen, but did not work in the hotel – we don't know if it's India's or the hotel's fault, most likely the latter. Someone successfully paid to have VoIP blocked. Phoning from there was difficult except for paying ridiculous hotel prices, which we did as minimally as possible. Or if you have a cell phone which we do not. A couple very short calls to Germany cost a couple month's long distance at home. No phone cards evidently exist in India, we looked.

Across the street was a kiosk that had soft drinks and overseas VoIP somehow, he charged 50¢ a minute to stand outside and talk, but we passed.

Our phone works flawlessly in Vietnam whence we write this. Ditto almost everywhere. But not in the Connaught Hotel.

--------------

A Delhi stop is bikers' must-do: We ultimately stayed almost two weeks in Delhi, too long but bourn of necessity. Things take a bit more time, which is fine and expected.

Black Bike's 50,000 km maintenance took a few garage days. Plus pick up new passport; get Vietnam visas; try again in vain for a Burma/Myanmar visa; study alternative routes how to get to SE Asia; new eyeglasses; some clothes; some banking; finding the (closed) American Express office; then the complex arrangements to travel onwards. It all takes time.

The two weeks were separated by a week's ride through Rajasthan. That was the right thing to do and well timed; perhaps another Rajasthan week would have been fine too, but no big regrets. If it hadn't been so damn hot we'd have explored more of India, would have loved to.

If you are riding a bike through this part of the world, stopping in Delhi is necessary. Look at a map – where else to do a major clean-up of yourself and your ride? Getting the bike serviced and finding parts elsewhere is difficult, if not impossible.

Kaulson Racing [link] was formerly highly recommended if you are on two wheels. They did a thorough end-to-end maintenance of the bike. See separate next section in the blog: 'India Bike Service' [link].

However in the end it was a huge disappointment, they knowingly defrauded me by installing either completely fake, or 15-yr-old, wrong-type brake pads. Why do that? Risking killing us in order to make a few extra dollars, small money, on top of some $2,500 spent there? Very disappointing.

But otherwise an apparently good shop, just watch and check the authenticity and correct type, of every part installed – like a hawk. That's not easy to do, standing there and watching every part go in for days. One is motivated to trust the shop, its people, as I mistakenly did alas.

Big But: Your lives are daily at stake on that machinery.

Next time, I'd try find another shop in India. They undid much goodwill and free advertising to squeeze an extra $50 or whatever small money out of me. Ugh.

Makes me worry about what else they did to shave a few bucks, I'll do a thorough check in Singapore.

Rony Singh Service Mgr at Kaulson Racing.

--------------

Shopping in downtown Delhi: Everything is available, often very inexpensively if made in India. You just need to be willing to shop around.

Indian Kingfisher beer is quite fine and maybe 50¢ outside the hotel; they charge Europe/USA prices within the hotel; again with the rip-off.

Import duties in India are high; beware of foreign goods.

I bought two pairs of new glasses having broken mine, at about double Canada prices for comparable quality. That was after shopping around; it would have been triple had we bought first try – $1,000 for two pairs of un-fancy glasses? Haggling got a 10% discount for two pairs. But they work.

Some things like locally made clothes, are remarkably cheap. Thao got cotton loose clothes custom made for $5 or so. I got a great cotton shirt I still wear months later for $5. Plus picked up United Colors of Benetton shorts in a house brand store, for around Canada prices. Big price variances, made-in-India wins by miles.

--------------

Local area eateries: Countless inexpensive and good eateries are nearby. Indian food is great of course. Many deliver from the hotel's yellow pages, 'the other' duty managers let them deliver to our room. A serious meal and drinks for two is perhaps $8, pronto-fast. Surprisingly, lots of Chinese items on the menu, even burgers and fries, except chicken natch, not beef. Many places are vegetarian only, so select accordingly.

Wenger's Bakery, old and famed in Connaught Place is highly recommended, they have excellent pastries, breads, fudge etc. Bangla Foods is also recommended, they deliver. See the Yellow Pages.

--------------

Delhi travels: Jama Majid [fine photos link] is India's largest Mosque dating from 1656, was built in old Delhi by the same Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. [Photos and details link.]


--------------

The Khan Market is where you go for imported food items at higher than at-home prices, big brand names, fashion goods. A high security area where the touts are replaced by well-heeled snootiness. But it's a treat and a break.

--------------

Walking around after dinner, we heard some drumming, saw some dancing on the street. So we approached what turned out to be a wedding celebration. The movie below was taken on a little still camera, but watch the man dancing at the end, he was very good, and danced a lot ...


--------------

The Red Fort [Wikipedia link] is a UNESCO world heritage site, again built by Emperor Shah Jahan of Jama Majid and Taj Mahal fame. Befitting an emperor's residence, which it was among other things.


--------------

Baha'i (Lotus) Temple in Delhi. Lovely and free.
Interior as simple as can be.
Sydney Opera House Jr?


Photo by Ken, riding out of Delhi for Rajasthan.
A holy cow's mating instincts are triggered for Black Bike.

--------------

Rajasthan Province: Excellent government web site & photos [link.] Probably the best area to experience a taste of Old India, formerly the land of the fearsome Rajput warrior clans with gilt-edged swords, plundered wealth, the Maharajas, and complex chivalrous codes. Today it's known as the Land of the Kings. Many of their former ornate palaces or 'havelis' have been converted to great charming hotels, among the finest of which we visited, below.

The largely rural population lives on the barren northwest desert next to Pakistan, or in the hilly southeast. Jaipur, the dusty pink capital, has become a fast-paced, modern city. The land is harsh however and droughts are a constant threat.

About a third of the five million tourists a year that visit India, come to Rajasthan. It is reputed as an especially hot part of India, certainly was when we toured, so cooler seasons tourism is highly recommended.

--------------


Rajasthan one-week trip: In ten months of this trip to date, we had never previously booked ahead. But time was tight and Krishnendu AKA Ken our new biking guide, photographer, journalist acquaintance knows the turf well, having biked/guided it often.

He's a professional tour guide we met at Kaulson's who speaks superb English and French, taking many groups a year through Rajasthan. If you and/or a group are seeking a very nice, smart guy and guide – contact him: krishnendukes@yahoo.com

BTW his photos are superb, on many India-oriented subjects, I believe you can order printable files by email. [Ken's photo website link]. Below a dramatic example of India geography + culture in one frame, entitled 'Monk in Recluse.'

Monk by Ken. Click to enlarge.

Click Link Here for a nice article with photos that Ken did on us.

--------------

Travels cont'd – Rajasthan 7-day trip: [Map Route link]. (Google Maps cannot find Deogarh, so we approximated it.)

Through Ken, Tushita Travel [link] arranged our one-week trip; Asrar-ul-Haq [email asrar@tushita-india.com] did a very professional job, we recommend them.

The following sections are the one-week Rajasthan route they booked for us.

Riding days started at 5:30 AM to beat the June heat. In each town, a full-day air conditioned cab was pre-arranged, the only way to go – it sure surpassed trying to park Black Bike a few times a day, secure from the inevitable crowd of curious men, and finding our way around a strange town. Hotels and taxis came to about C$1,000 for seven nights.

. . . . .- Jaipur (270 km drive = 4 hrs from Delhi)
. . . . .- Udaipur (430 km drive = 6 hrs from Jaipur)
. . . . .- Deogarh (150 km drive = 3 hrs from Udaipur)
. . . . .- Agra (500 km drive = 9 hrs from Deogarh)
. . . . .- Back to Dehli (200 km = 4 hrs drive from Agra)
. . . . .- Total = 1,600 km, a good one-week circle.
--------------

Travels cont'd – Rajasthan #1: Jaipur (2 nights) is the capital of Rajasthan province. At the historic Madawa Haveli hotel built in 1896 [link] we were in a charming room with four poster bed, nice pool, fine dining room and breakfast. It is highly recommended. Owner Pradumn Singh had drinks with us one evening, a fine intelligent fellow, mountaineer, multi-hotel entrepreneur and charming raconteur, with handlebar mustache and suspenders. [Email: pradumn@castlemandawa.com]

A journalist also did a piece on us while we were there, will add a link when we get it.

Jaipur is also recommended; attractive, largely-pink city and with very interesting old architecture.

Jaipur in heavy traffic
Only in India have we seen camel-drawn wagons, many of them.
Hawa Mahal in Jaipur.
This is where women of the royal household could look out on the street.
Temple outside Jaipur, the village of Amber [map link]
Monkeys enjoy the view too.
Town of Amber outside Jaipur.
View from 1592 Palace-fortifications.

------------------------

Travels cont'd – Rajasthan #2: Udaipur (2 nights):
Bulletin: In June 2009, Travel + Leisure Magazine readers [link] awarded Udaipur 'Best City In The World To Visit' for 2009. We liked it very much, but 'best in the world'...?
In any event, we stayed at the Hilltop Palace Hotel [link.] The room was quite OK, ditto the breakfast and staff. Not central, not fab, but just fine.

Nice island castle view from our balcony.
Water level was evidently too low to take a boat to the castle.
City Palace.
City Palace detail.
City Palace, magnificently preserved, lovely columns.
A fine old piece in City Palace museum.
Cenotaphs garden in Udaipur.
Deceased royalty were splendidly cremated!
A fine cenotaph sculpture.

--------------

Travels cont'd – Rajasthan #3: Deogarh (1 night, wish it had been 2-3): A small village 130 km north of Udaipur, not even on Google Maps, but a destination in itself, just to stay at the magnificent Palace or 'Mahal', the great, great Deogarh Mahal. [Hotel link with great photos.] [More photos link.]

A hotel? Wrong term – actually a historic work of art [link to art examples from our suite] one can live in and enjoy; a 16-17th century Indian family castle passed down through the current owner's generations. The Smithsonian Institution's director of the Freer Gallery wrote about the importance of works painted on our very bedroom walls.

Photos below of our suite cannot do it justice. Stunning, tasteful and wonderful, preserved beautifully. Here's a [photo link]. This is a memorable destination the very rich or average folks can afford and appreciate equally. In our hotel experience, a once-in-lifetime. No exaggeration.

Conde Naste Traveller's Peter Pophan wrote a piece entitled 'Jewels in the Crown':
'If someone who had never before been to India wished to be immersed straight away in the most beautiful and amusing aspects of this country, this would be the place to arrive ... In fact, the only real problem with Deogarh is that after spending a few nights there, one's expectations of the next place on the itinerary are likely to become impossibly high.'
And The New Millenium in UK summed it up our feelings:
'Winner of the Tatler award for the best hotel under £100 a night, 1999 ... To go to this magical hilltop fort is to fall in love. Deogarh is definitive, a paradise. It is worth travelling all the way to India just to stay there ... This hotel epitomises luxury on a budget, with character and charm that's elusive even in the world's smartest establishments.'
The charming, highly hospitable Prince/owner Veer Bhadra Singh, showed us his antique car collection and took us out in an open-top 1948 Dodge for an hour in the countryside. This is a side of India tourists seldom see.

Repeat: A desirable world destination in itself, worth a few days of just chillin', walking the town, seeing the lovely countryside and wildlife – and dining very well. A romantic escape for one or two couples, for two days or five.

We give Mr. Singh highest praises for the fabulous, impeccably good taste, restoration of his family property. He didn't do this for the money, it is self-evident. Were he to try do a re-painting restoration of the wall art, it would destroy its authenticity. Just perfect as-is.

The indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar are superb. Service impeccable. Do go there if you can, even just fly into India for a week's memorable break from the usual, whether you are a backpacker or Four Seasons person.

17th Century, unprotected painting on our bedroom wall!
Front of castle/hotel.
Bedroom corner.
In our room – make that a stunning suite of art.

--------------

Travels cont'd – Rajasthan #4: Agra (2 nights) is actually not within Rajasthan but ... Famed Taj Mahal & Baby Taj [map link]; the former having been built by the same construction-brilliant Emperor Shah Jahan who completed it in 1648 – after 20,000 men worked for 22 years full time.

Baby Taj was the architectural predecessor of the biggie. So much has been written about them, we'll pass, but here's one [link.]

Hotel pan #2: We stayed at the Mansingh Palace [link], part of a small chain. Although a medium-large, clean, modern hotel, the staff have frankly become leeches, no concept of privacy or space, overbearing constant interruptions, even when they know customers are trying to sleep.

One room service guy pounded insistently on the latched door to get back his damn room service trays, after I'd told him clearly we'd leave them outside, we need to sleep, please leave us alone. No such luck.

Plus 300 Rupees/hr for internet = US$6 an hour, at which I didn't hide my displeasure. After a face-to-face with the manager, it went down to US$4 per day – that's a zillion-percent difference. But I resent being forced to make noise and the attempt at overcharging, again.

Then the housekeeper stole (!) our two fine stainless steel cups from the bathroom; not a mistake, clear petty theft of stuff that looks nothing like hotel property. They reappeared in an hour or two – only after I raised hell with housekeeping repeatedly. Nice try, creep; we need those excellent cups daily which are irreplaceable on the road.

Finally: Not many Canadians show up on a camera-friendly Goldwing in these places; none in fact. Where it helps, we delight in helping others with PR – indeed doing so on this web site on my time 'n dime. Marketing is my biz, however the manager at Mansingh Palace took advantage, after I bent over backwards to help him the first night, there is nothing in it for us to become famous in Agra. Hence both nights, instead of sleeping off the heat and tummy issues – I left interviews repeatedly to throw up – spent a couple hours looking after the 5-10 local press guys he had arranged; my privacy and choice were not an evident factor.

Breakfast was OK. Facilities are akin to a mid-range US chain.

--------------

The Taj Mahal is of course deservedly famous – three million people visit per year. But attempts at being taken advantage of, from town entry to town departure, accumulate to cast a shadow.

To see the Taj best, go quite early to avoid enormous crowds that make it harder to appreciate, or go late to catch sunset shots.

It's a costly entry ticket, fine – maintenance requires money. No shoes, fine, it's a Muslim tomb.

But no video cameras, heaven forbid you should take a movie to show family after an India visit! Aggressive guard-type guys actually hauled me back, they didn't like the look of my little Canon. Still cameras, phones, iPods etc. are unlimited, even big fancy ones with mega-flash and tripod – of course virtually all electronic devices take video today.

I debated with the supervisor about the stoopud illogic, until he admitted he was just a 'little guy' and was merely enforcing a rule; he ultimately let me take my camera in 'at my own risk,' whatever that means. (Anyone want to buy pirate videos of the Taj Mahal? Heh, heh.)

What are they afraid of, a triple-X Taj movie on the black market? Puleeze. You are paying countless thousands to even be there – to punish you and deter any amateur shutterbugs, the Taj management (government) prevents anyone from taking home electronic memories? Screw 'em.

It's a lovely building, an architecturally stunning tomb for a lost beloved, worthy of a couple hours. In both our opinions however, there are abundant tourism choices elsewhere, assuming you have limited time and budget; so many places in the world are worthy of days, not hours. Even in India.

A visit to Deogarh Mahal beats it handily as a several-day culture-history experience you can't get from a National Geographic DVD rental, to name an example in just that week. The Egypt Museum. Cappadocia Turkey. Much of Jerusalem. Many things in Europe. All have mind-blowing art that's worth way more than a couple hours. As romantic as it sounds, and famed as it is, visiting the Taj is to us, an optional should-do once in the area, but not a lifetime must-do.

Click to enlarge and read.
Taj fine details of inlaid stone.
Taj viewed from across the river.
Clothes washing businesses beneath the Taj.
A Guru and strange Wise Man in suit
he represents, across from Taj.
Click to read who he is.
Thao runs from Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah,
often regarded as a 'draft' of Taj Mahal
AKA 'Baby Taj'.

Baby Taj details.
Agra stand-up and eat excellent chicken place.

--------------

Non-travels: Something we didn't do, only due to timing and transport, but really wanted to: Northeast India above Bangladesh: The remote, blessedly un-touristy region of Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland [map link.] It's a restricted area where you need a special permit to travel.

Artist, writer, classic car restorer, biker, traveler and cool guy Shahwar Hussain who owns Chain Reaction India [phone 098103-20041; email chainreactionindia@gmail.com, web site link] is a professional guide, someone you could spend a great couple weeks with. He'll take you there, arrange everything and show you around at a quite reasonable price. He is also a native of the northeast region, which helps.

Shahwar stands out in our memories as a rare India example of a helpful nice guy who is not seeking short-term cash (he refused a deserved tip!) We like and trust him; while arranging exotic travels from afar, trust counts more than normally.

A week or two in the mountains, visiting local tribes, evidently great mountainous scenery in a remote part of the world, by bike or AWD, he provides either. It looks like a great adventure and seeing another side of the world if you seek a break from the 4-5-star circuit.

It's about 2,000 km from Delhi to the region, one-way by road. Even in the June heat we'd have done it, except research revealed simply no way to get from there to Vietnam by road, boat or plane with a bike. Burma/Myanmar is a really big problem for overlanders. Plus, monsoons were starting, adding time pressure.

It would have meant riding 2,000 km back to Delhi, just to catch a plane out.

The most sensible way we know of, is to fly in-out and use Shahwar's evidently good wheels. Once you have seen Rajasthan for a week or two, we'd take this recommended adventure. Or do this first: It's part of what you do not see on the TV travel shows that we find most interesting. If you are of similar mind ...

We couldn't get there en route to Vietnam, or would have done it.
Perhaps we'll come back just for this. Photo by Shahwar.

--------------

Economy: It's about sheer size and potential, versus perhaps-complimentary competitor China. India and China have: (a) The two world's biggest populations and; (b) the two fastest-growing dynamic big economies, both in the 6%-10% league in recent years.

They are of course next door neighbors, so power and regional influence comes into it.

It's also about alleviating world poverty. India still has some 40% of the world's malnourished children; 25% of India's total population is still below the poverty line (reduced by 10% in recent years) – comparing unfavorably with China's 8-10% poverty rate.

Growing fast, but far from rosy: India's GDP per capita (PPP) is still very small at just $2,700 [source link], merely $100 higher than Pakistan, Vietnam, even Sudan.

That's about half China's comparable $5,300 – or even Cuba, Egypt, Albania, El Salvador, all in China's per capita league.

The big world difference is, you multiply those numbers by 1.15 billion Indians. Big numbers, $1.24 trillion in India's case.

And India is a largely English-speaking democracy, albeit a cumbersomely bureaucratic one. China of course is nothing like democratic, and has a horrid legal system which is of business concern – although it is catching up in the language part.

This is not the place, nor are we qualified, to contribute to analysis. But it has been heartening to witness growth in recent decades. Fingers are very crossed for India's continued success; we all need it to keep happening. Abundant big-corporate names from the developed world are here, very actively, some evidently doing well. And Indian firms are dominant players in a few international fields. So it's looking hopeful ...

..........- Here's a BusinessWeek article that is insightful [link].
..........- An Economist one [link.]
..........- The CIA Factbook all about India [link.]

--------------

Honda India: Vijay at Kaulson's who does some business with them, spoke to someone – the three of us were invited to tour the Honda bike plant about an hour outside Delhi. Most hospitable of Honda – the VP marketing and four others met with us (one from Japan, four Indians), showed us around the assembly line floor. No photos allowed unfortunately, because I was mighty impressed. Would love to show you here ...

They make about 4,000 motorbikes per day at that one clean modern high-security campus; have 4,000 total employees; so it's one man-day per bike at (my wild guess) an average of $20 a day in wages & benefits? Repeat: Guessing the wages here, but not the other numbers. The 125-200 cc various models go for ballpark $1000-ish average retail.

I do not believe the profits are rapacious however, it costs money to build and run a plant like this, marketing, engineering, head office, etc. My guess would be $100/bike pre-tax profits; I could be way off though.

It is not just assembly of foreign-made parts: Everything, every tire, piston, wire, O-ring ... is made in India. We were told 100%; that is hugely impressive. It means India has serious industrial infrastructure: A chain of local manufacturer-suppliers; transport; engineering; skilled labor; thousands of other details. There's not much room for error when you contemplate a few hundred bikes per minute being produced.

The assembly line is something else to watch; a climate controlled, ultra-clean, state-of-art factory, conveyors move the pieces just-in-time. We saw no robots. Men standing a couple feet apart, with pneumatic torque-tolerant wrenches, put it all together, all pretty simple, but extremely well done.

We watched the cylinder housing being clamped onto the engine with no gasket, for example – that means perfectly machined, oil-proof tolerances. Each bike is QC-tested by riders on computer controlled 'stationary road' machines. And so on.

Not to bore you – but as a former manufacturer (of complex yachts) myself, I have a rough idea of what it took to get this far. I remain deeply, respectfully, impressed.

But get this: Hero Honda [link] is a separate Indian-owned company that has plant(s) in a partnership with Honda Japan. They are elsewhere, did not visit, but their Honda-like logo totally dominates the 2-wheeled streets.
Hero Honda manufactures over 17,000 bikes/day; that's 700/hr x 24!
– Add Hero's 17,000 + Honda's 4,000 = 21,000 motorbikes/scooters/day produced by them in India!
– Assume 300 days/year = that's 6.3 million a year.
– Made in India; just by Honda & Hero.
– Even if it's a lousy 5-6 million bikes manufactured and sold, that's $5 billion-ish in retail value?
--------------

We saw a teensie bit of India: In total, under a month and a couple thousand road kilometers in an enormous country – so this is not pretending to be a national summary, not at all. To see it properly, a few months to a year would be needed. Preferably in winter.

--------------

'Finding oneself' in India? A tired cliché, but it still evidently happens.

Aside from a fairly modest number of 'relatively average' white tourists in India this time of year – we did see a surprising number of white guys and gals, right from the first border-closing display – in hot 'n dirty dreadlocks, often wrapped in a bun on top of the head. Perhaps it's some new/old 'Jamaican-Ethiopian-Rastafarian-Hindu' movement? A couple short paragraphs on the Rasti-Ethiopia connection [link.] It's weird but still alive; how it connects to India however ...?

Whites with loud tattoos; baggy hippie-era and semi-goth clothes with Birkenstocks; backpackers sitting in gaggles impolitely shirtless in sufficiently air conditioned eateries; other such white quasi-rebel self-expression. It's embarrassing to be a fellow western person in this context, even though back home we do not care in the slightest. Even in the hippie 60's-70's living in the African bush, I never understood such counter-culturals wearing yet another uniform – they're supposed to be anti-conformist, yet conform.

By being badly dressed and dirty, perhaps it's an 'I'm poor too' preposterously illogical, even hypocritical statement – their travel costs alone are the equivalent of many years' wages for a local.

There are many gurus to teach meditation here, even on a mountain top, and to be clear I don't dismiss that part: Eastern-style meditation per se has medical validity, a very simple mind-clearing technique can be learned within a few hours in Minneapolis or Hamburg. It has practical value, even for corporate execs under stress. I formerly did TM [link], but when Beatles-era Maharishi Mahesh Yogi started selling his 'levitation' crap (pay a few thousand bucks and you too can defy gravity) I turned my back in disgust – not just at the con, but also at the gullibility of his followers. TM, as most movements eventually do, went w-a-a-y overboard.

Oh well. They may not all be the sharpest pencils in the drawer, but at least they don't carry guns. Looking for eternal answers is part of human nature; the cliché costume stuff however is just so 1960's.

Most gurus, even here, are yet another religious money-grab for the gullible. Jimmy Swaggart, even sitting cross-legged, is still a religious carney.

--------------


Next Leg: We biker trash of lesser wisdom just ride on. Our Toronto house is rented for another year to a very nice family, so we can keep exploring for Year Two. Gotta try make it 'round the world ...

Here's a map [link] of the general area so you can see our big itinerary dilemma.

Vietnam is next: That's where Thao was born, she hasn't been back since leaving as a baby refugee, so it's obvious. But how to get there? Borders and geography are a big problem.

One cannot drive through Myanmar AKA Burma. Period. I really tried; even wrote their Ambassador in Canada, who could not bother replying.

Driving through China from India is possible, but awfully hard to arrange. Three months in advance (!) you apply for an officially-approved mandatory China guide and many permits.

Costly, but that's not the real issue, it's how: The only land route India –> China is via Kathmandu Nepal, through the Himalayas into Tibet, via the foot of Mt Everest, on a bad road during (this time of year) the monsoons.

You have to be at the border crossing at an exact date, picked months in advance, or you are out of luck. We wanted to do it. It would be gorgeous and scenic. Himalayas and Everest are extremely tempting; Nepal has a civil war ongoing, but that didn't deter us.

It is physically feasible but more dangerous than we care to risk, especially on this big bike sans knobby tires. Plus your Wheezy Rider suffers from elevation sickness; the steep, oft-slippery road goes to about 15,000 feet we hear. It is a scary place to become sick, dizzy or over-tired. There are no hotels in the immediate border area that we've read about.

This is a rare case where, were we in a 4x4, we'd have likely done it. In a car if you feel unwell, you just pull over.

Bikes are obviously a trade-off versus cars; every bike is a trade-off versus other bikes. This is our biggest trade-off so far.

Hence we chose to fly to north Vietnam, riding southwards from there ...







BECOME ONE OF OUR FOLLOWERS BELOW!
You will be notified of updates automatically.

POSTING + READING COMMENTS also below.






6 comments:

  1. Dear Peter,
    First of all, thanks for writing to us.For all your Imported Big Bike Repairs , Spares and Services, you are welcome at the biggest and most Professional Works in the heart of India.
    We have huge stock of consumable spareparts like tyres, brake pads, oil seals, oils etc..
    We also help in Crating & shipping of Bikes world over.............

    Kaulson Racing (KRP) / Kaulson Motorcycles & Scooters Pvt. Ltd.,

    Office & Showroom : B-101,Nariana Indl. Area, Phase-1, New Delhi-110028 INDIA
    Tel : 25893-777, 25896-777 & 3058-7777
    Fax : 011-3058-7777 E-Mail : kaulson@vsnl.net

    website link: www.goforkrp.com and check showroom link........
    Contact Person: Vijay Kaul - 0091-991136-7777 & 0091-981008-3030
    GPS CO-ORDINATES : N 28037.912' E 0770 08.091

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Peter and Thao:

    Amazing photos and blog. India appears to be a more amazing country than I had ever anticipated. Hard to believe that you can two can eat for two (with drinks)delivered for equivalent to $8.00(cdn).

    An interesting story of your visit to the Honda plant. I am stunned to learn that every part and component that goes into the final product is manufactured in India.

    Great Blog. You have accumulated enough for a book thus far.

    Happy Trails.

    Mark Borkowski
    Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions Corp
    Toronto, Canada

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Peter,
    I actually read your entire India blog just now and I agree with you on most of the things that you said. The touts are a real pain and to an average tourist, they give the impression that the whole of India is like that which is not true.
    You are right about those badly dressed tourists. They give the impression that they are poor but like you said, their travel budget in India is many years wage for an overwhelming number of Indians.But then, it is their money, their time, their life lifestyle and I guess we dont have a right to comment on that.
    I hope you are having a great time. I thought a lot about the missed oppurtunity to ride through North East India with you. maybe sometime...And thanks a lot for that mention of me in your blog. Ride safe

    ReplyDelete
  4. Re: the high-priced bottled water in hotels. There's a lovely scene in Slumdog Millionaire where one of the brothers has a menial job in a hotel kitchen... refilling water bottles from the tap and crazy gluing caps back on. I wonder where the filmmakers got such an idea?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bill, So true. It's everywhere. I actually watched a restaurant owner do this on the sly in Venice (!) in a costly canal-side bistro. Then he served us the "bottled" water we'd ordered, conveniently 'opening' it on the way to the table. The pyrrhic gaining of a couple bucks on us, cost him and his waitress a $15 tip on the meal for three. - Wheezy

    ReplyDelete
  6. David Learmonth8/4/09, 2:39 AM

    Enjoyed this write up on India.Pity you didnt make Jaisalmer & Jodphur when you were in Rajastan.Lot of history here too.Didnt have any trouble at all with any of the hotels we stayed in, but I was travelling with an Indian friend who spoke many of the dialects.Hustlers were a problem especially one idiot who was convinced my friend was my manservant & kept offering him 20% commission if I bought any of the rubbish he was trying to sell.It is a beautiful country but I do feel their government needs to do more for the tourist industry.

    ReplyDelete