Incredible India: Join us on our journey across India by Train
Share our amazing journey as we travel across India by train
I’ve wanted to travel to India for a long time and it’s been sitting firmly near the top of my bucket list of must-see destinations for far too long. So earlier this year, at the end of January to be precise, we finally boarded our flight from the UK bound for Kolkata in India. It was a very exciting moment for me I can tell you. Some apprehension, of course, but mainly just pure excitement.
Of course, India’s a very large country and we couldn’t see it all in one go. Choosing where to travel in India was very difficult indeed. I started with an itinerary of more than a month but we only had just over two weeks so, sadly, some places had to go. Although I was very disappointed when I removed some of the fabulous places we had on our list, it does mean that we have to go back and travel to India again. That’s always a good thing, right?
Let me outline our trip to India
Firstly a few facts about the trip. We travelled for 17 days in total and spent most of that time in Northern India before heading down to Mumbai. As you may know, I love travelling overland and so the plan was to travel by train once we arrived in India. We started in Kolkata, towards the eastern side of India then travelled west towards Delhi, spent some time in Rajasthan and then headed south to Mumbai. It was a whistlestop tour, there’s no doubt of that but it gave us a great taste of what India has to offer. So, here goes with the trip report for our travel in India.
India by Train – Index
First Stop Dubai as we travel to India
Although this is very much a tour of India, we flew with Emirates from London Gatwick and that gave the option to see a bit of Dubai. Neither of us had been to Dubai before and we always like to try somewhere new. When I was booking the flights, I realised we could easily schedule a long stopover in Dubai and save money on our flights by playing around with the connecting flights. So, I booked an overnight flight to Dubai, arriving around 7 am the next morning. I then booked an onward flight to Kolkata for 2 am the next day. That gave us a whole day and evening in Dubai.
The flight with Emirates was very comfortable. We’ve not flown with them before but I was quite impressed. We both ordered vegetarian meal options and they were pretty good. The seats were comfortable enough, as much as flying long haul economy ever is and I slept most of the way.
We checked our main luggage all the way to Kolkata so just had small overnight bags with us in Dubai. This would have been better if I hadn’t packed my change of clothes, in particular, my scarves in my main baggage. I didn’t feel comfortable wandering around Dubai in a strappy top and no scarf so the first thing I wanted to do was head to the shopping mall.
Arriving in Dubai Airport
I’m always interested to see what the airport is like when we arrive at a new destination. Firstly, Dubai airport is enormous. We walked what felt like miles to immigration but it is fascinating to look around at all the other gates, shops and things on the way. Fortunately for us, the signs are in English as well as Arabic so finding our way around was easy. I always feel that it’s polite to learn at least a few phrases in the language of any country we visit. However, I must confess that I don’t know any Arabic at all. Something I must rectify before I visit again.
UK passport holders get a visa on arrival in the UAE so no visa to worry about beforehand. I did have a minor panic when I realised that a lot of UK medications are restricted in the UAE but I did a thorough check online and was relieved to discover that my asthma medications are ok. As always when travelling, I keep a copy of my prescription with me. Although I take my meds out of the boxes for ease of use, I fold the boxes flat and pop them in my bag just in case anyone asks to see them. Nobody ever has.
Despite the crowds, Dubai is a very busy airport, we were through passport control in no time at all. Next, we just needed to find the hotel shuttle.
Millennium Dubai Airport Hotel
First, we went to check in to our hotel. Even though we weren’t actually staying overnight, I decided to book a hotel room anyway. It was a great decision as we were able to rest and shower before our connecting flight. By late afternoon, we were both exhausted after an overnight flight and a day walking around Dubai so we definitely needed that room.
We stayed at the Millenium Dubai Airport Hotel. I chose it because it was so close to the airport and had a free shuttle. It was also very good value at under £100 for the night. We found the hotel shuttle more by chance than design as we couldn’t find the signpost. However, the minibus arrived just after we did so that was one problem solved instantly. Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived but it was so early we weren’t expecting it to be. We just left our bags and coats with the concierge and he kindly provided us with a map and directions to the nearest metro.
Although it’s only 5 minutes walk from the hotel, I don’t think we’d have found the metro without his directions. We walked through the car park at the rear and through what looked like a building site. Then through a gate which we thought was a dead-end but no, a nice security guard swung it open as we approached. The area around the hotel is very quiet but we felt quite comfortable walking. Already, we noticed how clean Dubai is. It’s really a pleasure to walk around.
We purchased a one day ticket for the metro. At 22 AED, around £4, it was excellent value for money. There are lots of different ticket types for the Dubai metro but for tourists, the one day card is the easiest. The pass also covers the buses and tram system so although the metro doesn’t take you everywhere in Dubai, you can still get around. We bought a Red ticket but you can also get a Gold version for the first-class carriages. I must admit, I didn’t see any so I can’t comment on whether it’s worth paying twice as much. We did see the ‘women only’ compartments though. I think this is an excellent idea although obviously, I couldn’t use them as I was travelling with Paul.
Deira City Centre Mall
Firstly, we headed to the Deira City Centre Mall. Now, Dubai is full of malls so choosing one to visit first isn’t easy but this one was closest. We actually arrived far too early and nothing was open yet. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a shopping mall that was quite so empty.
We eventually found a supermarket that was open and I was able to find a lovely pink scarf. I know lots of people do wander round in skimpy clothing in Dubai, I saw lots of them, which did make me feel a bit better for a while. However, I’m a bit sensitive to local traditions when travelling and I prefer to be a bit more conformist. So I was much happier once I got my scarf.
As I have said, Dubai has a lot of malls. After spending some time browsing the Deira City Mall we found a nice coffee shop for breakfast and then hopped back on the metro to the Dubai Mall. Now, I’m actually not a great holiday shopper. When you travel light there isn’t much space for souvenirs. However, I do like to wander and these huge shopping malls. They’re far more than just shopping meccas. You can do some great people-watching too.
At the Dubai Mall, you can also see the amazing Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. So this is why we wanted to go there as well. If you’ve ever stayed in on New Year’s Eve as we do then you’ll have seen the Burj Khalifa lit up with fireworks at the centre of Dubai’s celebrations.
After a quick browse in the Apple Shop, we made our way back to the metro. Although the Dubai Mall is connected to the metro by overhead walkways it’s still quite a long way. You get some great views of Dubai on the way though, so it has its advantages. Our next destination was Dubai Marina. By now it was very, very hot in Dubai and so my brilliant idea to wander around the marina was a bit tiring. Still, it is fabulous there. We both enjoy looking around marinas when we travel. Paul would actually like to sail somewhere on a small boat but I’m not so keen. I like looking at them though.
I was very keen to see the artificial island, The Palms, while we were in Dubai. It’s one of those places that just fascinates me. I love the idea of an island created in the shape of palm fronds for some reason. Actually, it’s not the easiest place to get to by public transport but there is a way! We took the tram from the Marina stop to Jumeirah Beach. As I have noted, the tram is included on your one-day metro ticket. However, make sure you validate it before you get on the tram and when you get off. You’ll see the machines if you look for them but they’re inside the tram station not before you go in.
From Jumeirah Beach, you can take the monorail to Atlantis which is the furthest point of the Palms Island. You have to pay extra for this as it isn’t included in the metro ticket. It costs 30 AED, about £6 return, and you just buy a ticket at the station. It was very quiet. We managed to get the front seat so we had a great view of the island as we made our way across. You can actually see the palm fronds shape of the island which is rather cool. The few other people who travelled on the monorail with us all headed for Atlantis on arrival. We chose to walk along the pink boardwalk and take a look at the sea. I really appreciated the lovely breeze here as it was a very hot afternoon.
A change of plans
I actually had great plans for visiting the Dubai and Emirates museums this afternoon but in the end, we were worn out. A combination of the heat and the lack of sleep on the overnight flight meant we’d really had enough by late afternoon. As I said, we were very grateful we booked that hotel room. So, we retraced our steps, monorail, tram, metro and found our way back to the hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Dubai and I’m sure we’ll be back again and then I can see all those fascinating museums. All we managed for the rest of our stay was to sleep and then eat dinner at the excellent Mexican restaurant in the hotel.
Just before midnight we checked out of our room and took the shuttle back to the airport. Oddly enough, we weren’t alone. Who knew that so many people do this! It is emphatically not any fun catching a 2 am flight. Despite resting at the hotel we were still tired. Next time, I think I’ll be a bit more sensible with the flight timings.
For more information on our time in Dubai take a look at my Dubai in Photos article.
Ready to explore Kolkata
So, our travel to India really begins. We arrived in Kolkata 4 hours later, on time and without much sleep. Our first time travelling in India and we were definitely a bit apprehensive. Even more so when our luggage took forever to turn up on the baggage carousel. Latam Airlines lost our luggage last year when we flew to Santiago and so I was quite horrified that it might be happening again. Fortunately, our bags duly arrived on the conveyor and we both heaved a sigh of relief. I think it was because of the long stopover in Dubai and Emirates probably loaded our bags first. Thus they came off last. Still, we had our bags and we headed out to see what India had to offer.
Getting to our hotel
Our first task was to find a taxi to our hotel. Now, I’m a planner so I’d researched this thoroughly and I thought I had it all figured out. However, when you get to a big, busy airport like Kolkata things look much more confusing than when you read about them. Fortunately, I got an Indian SIM for my iPhone before we left the UK. That isn’t as easy as it sounds though so a big thank you to Raj at Train Tickets Please who organised it for me. Fortunately, I got an Indian SIM for my iPhone before we left the UK. That isn’t as easy as it sounds though so a big thank you to Raj at Train Tickets Please who organised it for me.
It was incredibly helpful to have the SIM for this trip and I would highly recommend that anyone travelling independently in India gets one. You can buy them at the airport on arrival. Look for the kiosks when you arrive. They are very cheap and you get loads of calls and data included. Far more than my UK package. A must for travel in India in my opinion.
We took an Ola cab from the airport. I couldn’t get the app to work at first but there are Ola and Uber kiosks everywhere in the airport so I just went up to one to ask. The Ola rep soon had our car booked and we found it easily in the pick-up area outside.
Oberoi Grand Hotel Kolkata
We arrived at our hotel to high security. Turns out there is a government meeting at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata so we were greeted with the press outside and half the Indian army at the door. The security guard waved us forward and we were whisked through although the poor driver was a bit bemused as they scanned his taxi. Although we later discovered that they scan the cars entering all the big hotels in India. You get used to it when you travel in India.
Apparently, some high ranking Indian politicians were meeting inside our hotel and so the press were waiting for a glimpse. Despite their much more famous guests, the Oberoi Grand welcomed us very warmly. Due to the overnight flight, we arrived at around 9 am but they offered us some complimentary coffee in the pool cafe while they got our room ready and then we were straight in.
The Oberoi Grand Kolkata is a beautiful hotel. I’m so glad we booked it. It wasn’t cheap although I got quite a good deal on it and we were only staying one night. It’s such an oasis of calm after the chaos of Kolkata and it was the perfect hotel to stay in for our first night in India. It’s very British Raj! You feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
We showered and changed out of our flying clothes and feeling refreshed decided to take a walk around Kolkata. Since we have a tour booked for tomorrow we just wandered out of the hotel and followed our noses. The first obstacle was crossing the road. As you can see in the photo below, the roads are busy. We stood patiently waiting for ages and couldn’t cross. Fortunately, the traffic policeman that you can see in the bottom right-hand corner appeared and stopped the traffic for us. No idea where he was hiding before that but he certainly saved our sanity and we were headed off to the park.
Cricket in the park
Despite the traffic, Kolkata is a good city to start in when you travel to India. It’s a friendly city and we felt quite comfortable walking around on our own. You’ll notice that I started this section on Kolkata with a photo of cricket in the park. The main park area in Kolkata is the Maidan and they really love their cricket in India. We arrived on a Thursday so a lot of people were at work but there were still plenty of cricket matches taking place.
As you can see above, the park is quite peaceful in places. All the grass has gone brown though due to the hot weather so it’s not a green paradise. However, it’s an open space away from the traffic. Not so much in other parts of the park though.
As seen above, the road cuts through the park so you need to cross over it several times to walk through the entire park. However, these roads weren’t as busy as the main street and we managed just fine without a traffic policeman to help us.
Our main destination for today was the Victoria Memorial. Keep walking south far enough through the park and you can’t miss it. It’s a fabulous marble building, built right at the beginning of the 20th-century. It’s dedicated to Queen Victoria who was Empress of India. Although she never managed to travel to India herself.
Outside the memorial park, it is busy and it was a bit of a scrum to buy a ticket. However, once you’re inside it’s much quieter and most importantly, I think, it’s kept really clean. It was my favourite place in Kolkata. The building is just so beautiful. The white marble stands out against the lovely gardens. It makes a great backdrop for a photo but it’s also a wonderful place to explore.
Kolkata Food Tour
For our second day in Kolkata, I booked a food tour. During our travel in India we did a lot of food tours. We don’t usually take a lot of tours as we prefer to explore places on our own. However, this was our first trip to India and I thought we’d get more out of it if we added in some tours. Booking a food tour seemed an ideal way to see more of the city and also taste some of the fabulous street food. So, I booked a food tour with Calcutta Caravan. We were going to do the tour at lunchtime but due to the political gatherings which were planned for later the same day, we agreed to go earlier. On the downside, this meant we’d just had breakfast but we didn’t want to risk getting caught up in any political demonstrations.
Mark from Calcutta Caravan met us outside the Oberoi and we set off. Our first stop was just around the corner at the market street behind the hotel. We were still getting used to the traffic and the fact that you have to walk in the road most of the time which can be quite scary.
When we entered the market, the first area was full of chickens. Paul’s been a vegetarian for over 20 years and I’ve recently converted as well so it was pretty grim viewing. From there we walked very quickly through the meat production area. The smell was awful. I didn’t want to breathe in while we were walking through. Once Mark realised we were vegetarians he moved us quickly out of the meat and poultry areas which was a relief. It did prompt an interesting discussion though because I thought India was predominantly Hindu and thus non-beef eaters. However, there are quite a lot of Christians and Muslims living in West Bengal and of course, they do eat beef. Thus, it was on sale at the local market. You think you know things about India but when you travel in India you discover there’s plenty you don’t know!
The market is divided up into different sections and we gratefully moved on to the spices, flower and general produce. This is typical of the markets we saw during our travel in India. Here, we started to sample some of the delicious foods with a stop in a cake shop for sweet, pink cakes.
As you’ll see if you keep reading, we went on a lot of food tours during our travel in India and we got used to seeing some of the Indian favourites right across the country. However, this was our first time sampling Indian street food so it was all very new. We happily tasted most things though, as long as they were vegetarian.
As we’d started our food tour early, we had plenty of time before we had to catch our train. So Mark offered to take us on another tour to the Dalhousie area of Kolkata. Since we were keen to see as much of the city as we could to make a great start to our travel in India. Especially as we only had one day in Kolkata. So we all jumped in one of the yellow Kolkata taxis.
The first thing you notice when you start walking in the Dalhousie area is its connections to the British Raj. So many of the buildings have a Colonial British feel to them. Sadly, many of them aren’t in a good state of repair but work is starting to renovate some of them.
We started this part of the walking tour by the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. It was the first 5* hotel in Kolkata and had many links to the Raj. Interestingly, I originally planned to stay at the Lalit and then changed to the Oberoi to be nearer the Victoria Memorial. It was the right decision for our first trip but if we ever return to Kolkata I think we’ll give the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel a try. It looks like a fabulous hotel with a lot of history and it’s in a great location for sightseeing in this historic part of Kolkata.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about our time in Kolkata, click on the image below to read more about our Kolkata City Tour at the start of our travel in India.
I’ve included more details of the places we visited on our Kolkata City Tour, what we saw and ate on the food tour and of course, more photos. It was a fantastic day sightseeing and we saw so much more than we would have on our own so it was definitely the right decision to take the tours.
Howrah Railway Station
Although we checked out of our room at the Oberoi before we went on the food tour, they kept our bags and so we headed back there. We had some time to spare so we had coffee by the pool. Very expensive coffee. I suppose we shouldn’t have been so surprised since the Oberoi is a 5* hotel. In contrast, their restaurant prices are very reasonable. However, I’m sorry but their coffee is very overpriced. Still, we did get a biscuit with it. I’d say complimentary but at £5 a cup I think we paid for them. On the other hand, I think that’s my one and only moan about the Oberoi as it really is a fabulous hotel so I’ll let them off.
Getting to the station
In preparation for this trip, I’d signed up with Ola Cabs and Uber so that we could use their smartphone apps to order taxis. I thought this would be the easiest and cheapest solution for getting around. So, I booked a taxi to take us to the train station, allowing far too much time just in case of heavy traffic. What I hadn’t allowed for was that Indian taxis ring you when you book to confirm your booking and find out exactly where you are. This is great if they speak some English but many of them don’t. Which is fine, they’re Indians and I don’t speak their language at all. However, over the phone, it’s very difficult. Fortunately, the door security officer had seen all this before an immediately offered to speak to the driver for me. A few minutes later our taxi drew up outside the hotel.
Howrah Railway Station is enormous and it’s full of people. The photo above shows part of the general waiting area. It went on further across and around the corner. There are hundreds of people waiting. You stand or sit in a kind of pen with railings around it. They seem to be divided by train but I don’t think anyone actually takes much notice. We were really early so we had plenty of time to look around. Fortunately for us, if you’re travelling in the AC1 sleeper, you can use the First Class waiting room upstairs.
Our travel in India continues on the train
All in all, the train station was an experience. Apparently, the Indians call it organised chaos. When you travel in AC1, you need to find a printed sheet on the notice board. This tells you which compartment you’re in on the train. You don’t know until just before boarding whether you’ve got a 2 berth or a 4 berth. Fortunately, we got a 2 berth so plenty of space but a bit basic. I was a bit worried about cleanliness on the Indian trains but although it was a bit old and tired it wasn’t too bad.
On Indian Railways, you can use an app to order food online. It is then delivered to your seat. We preordered food online from the local restaurant and had two veg thalis delivered to our seats. We only paid £5 for 2. Moreover, it turned up on time and still hot – very tasty too.
So we settled into our seats for the overnight trip to Varanasi. One of the odd things about the trip is that we didn’t see a ticket inspector until much later that night. I suppose it could be because the train is so long. We walked along quite a bit of it looking for our carriage, so I know. However, I’ve never been on an overnight sleeper train, where they don’t check your ticket when you board. This meant that some passengers were trying to sit in the wrong compartments. Another passenger tried to persuade us that we were in a 4 berth and he should be in ours. However, we weren’t falling for that and when he realised it was futile he wandered back to his own space. A ticket inspector did come along eventually so I guess that’s just how it works.
We arrived in Varanasi early the next morning. It’s always a bit disorientating arriving at a new place at the crack of dawn with no real idea of where to go. As usual, we followed the crowds and hoped they were all heading towards the exit.
When we walked out of the exit we were met with a crowd of hopeful taxi drivers all telling us to follow them. I’d been advised beforehand to look for the pre-paid taxi booth so I looked around frantically whilst trying to ignore all the eager drivers. Finally, I spotted it just across from the exit in the car park so we walked across. Followed, of course, by a crowd of taxi drivers who all thought we should travel in their taxi.
This is something you get used to when you’re travelling in India but we’d only been in the country a few days and we were still getting the hang of it. However, the elderly gentleman in the pre-paid taxi booth shooed the other drivers away and indicated that we should follow our allocated driver. A few minutes later we were on the road to Assi Ghat and to our hotel.
Hotel Temple on the Ganges
Our chosen hotel, Hotel Temple on the Ganges, was located right next to Assi Ghat and so was the perfect base for sightseeing in Varanasi.
Assi Ghat is one of the most important ghats in Varanasi and the morning Aarti ceremony takes place here. As you can see in the photo above, the ghats seem to stretch along for miles. There’s certainly a lot of them. This is a fascinating place to explore.
As far as I know, Varanasi is always busy and rather chaotic. It was even more so while we were there though as there was a religious festival taking place nearby. A lot of the visitors were visiting Varanasi as well to make an offering at Vishwanath Temple. As we walked around the city we could see the temple queue which snaked back for miles. Apparently, people queue for up to 6 or 7 hours just to enter the temple for a few minutes.
We took several tours in Varanasi with a local company called Roobaroo Walks. You can read all about them in my detailed Sightseeing in Varanasi page. These are small group walking tours although we were the only ones on two of the tours. We took a food tour which was fabulous and allowed us to sample some delicious street food. Then we did a morning boat trip on the Ganges followed by a walk in South Varanasi. Later, we did an evening walk in North Varanasi followed by a sunset trip on the Ganges. Click on the picture below to read all about our time in Varanasi.
While we were in Varanasi we took a day trip to nearby Sarnath. We were going to take a taxi as it’s about an hour from the city but we had trouble getting taxis near our hotel as it wasn’t a very traffic friendly area. Over the last few days, we took a lot of tuk-tuks and had got friendly with the local drivers who waited outside our hotel. So we decided to take a tuk-tuk to Sarath instead. It was quite a ride! We even went on the dual-carriageway at one point. Still, we all got there in one piece and the driver waited for us while we explored Sarnath. It was the right choice. Tuk-tuks are definitely the best form of transport for the Varanasi area.
Sarnath is the site of Buddha’s first sermon and you can see some fascinating sights there. See a giant golden Buddha, visit the archaeological museum and stand next to Dhamek Stupa where Buddha spoke to his disciples. To read all about our fabulous day out in Sarnath click on the image below.
Our travel in India reaches the capital – New Delhi
From Varanasi, we took the overnight train to Delhi. We were late leaving and so inevitably late arriving in Delhi as well. We took a tuk-tuk back to the station as it was so much easier to organise than a taxi from Assi Ghat. Surprisingly, the driver had no trouble fitting us and our two cases inside. I didn’t realise but they have a little shelf behind the seat which is perfect for bags.
We find people watching at stations quite fascinating which is probably just as well as we spend a lot of time waiting at them. In the photo above you can see just how many people still risk their lives by crossing the railway tracks despite all the signs telling them not to. In some places, I can understand it as there’s no real alternative but I was stood on the crossing bridge.
The platforms are always busy at Indian Railway stations. Especially just before the train arrives. So, it’s a good idea to get in the right place before your train pulls in. You can see where your carriage is on the Indian Railways app which is very handy as the trains can be very long. Our train was 3 1/2 hours late so we were quite relieved to finally get on board.
Arriving in Delhi
Delhi station is busy and somewhat chaotic and so it’s not the easiest place to navigate when you’re tired and a bit bewildered by it all. Before we travelled to India, we were advised to use pre-paid taxis from stations. However, first, you’ve got to find the pre-paid taxi booth! As you wander vaguely around looking you get accosted by what seems like hundreds of taxi drivers claiming to be the official taxi. We found the booth eventually though and were soon on our way to our hotel.
Taj Palace Hotel
Sometimes when you travel in India you just need a bit of luxury. We treated ourselves to a stay at the 5* Taj Palace Hotel during our time in Delhi. It belongs to the Taj group of luxury hotels and if you have trouble finding it online, it seems to change between the name Taj Palace and Taj Diplomatic Enclave. No idea why! I was quite confused before we stayed there but the Diplomatic Enclave just refers to the area it is located in.
Getting to the Taj Palace Hotel
While it is not in the centre of things, it’s south of the main centre of Delhi, it is a really nice area. It’s quiet here and mainly residential, and I mean posh residential, with several large embassy buildings. Even the traffic is pretty quiet here so it’s very easy to get around by taxi. In fact, you really do have to use taxis if you stay here. Although we used the metro once we were in the main tourist areas, there’s nowhere within walking distance.
You can take a taxi to Durgabai Deshmukh South Campus metro station to get onto the metro network. In the opposite direction, you can easily get an auto-rickshaw to drop you back at the hotel. At first, we were a bit worried that taxis from the hotel might be overpriced but actually, they were very cheap. We did try to get an Ola cab but the drivers just couldn’t find the hotel so after that we just asked the doorman and he would instantly get us a taxi. One thing I must say about the doormen at the Oberoi and Taj hotels is that they are simply amazing. Whatever your problem or need they swoop in to help. They are definitely one of the major advantages of staying in a 5* hotel.
My thoughts on the Taj Palace Hotel
Our experience at the Taj Palace hotel was 90% positive. It’s a beautiful hotel. We arrived tired and a bit grubby from our overnight train journey and they welcomed us and made our room available from 9 am in the morning. When we arrive so early we always hope that we’ll be able to get into the room early but we never expect it. Complimentary tea and biscuits were delivered to our room along with our luggage. In addition, they upgraded us to a room with a garden view which was very nice.
As can be seen above, our room had one of those bathrooms with the window into the main room. I love these as you can soak in a hot bubble bath and watch tv at the same time. After an overnight train trip and a day walking around the streets of Delhi, there is nothing better than soaking in an oversized bathtub. Our room was fabulous. Not cheap by any means at around £250 a night but definitely worth it.
A few irritations
I said 90% positive and from what I’ve said so far you must be wondering what on earth the 10% was. I’d say it was 10% not so positive rather than negative and I must stress that I’d stay here again without hesitation. We did have really poor service in the Capital Kitchen, which is the main breakfast/lunch restaurant. We ate in there 3 times and every time the ladies on the door were off-hand, bordering on rude. Certainly not the kind of service you expect in a 5* hotel. We complained when we checked out and they were very apologetic and comped our meals. Breakfast was already included and to be fair, the food was excellent. The service inside the restaurant was ok too – not amazing but acceptable.
The second thing that went wrong was at checkout. We had to check out at 6 am in the morning and I didn’t expect a queue. Especially one which didn’t move for 20 minutes. However, in the overall scheme of things, we enjoyed our stay at the Taj Palace and we would return. When things went wrong they were quick to apologise and make amends and I think that’s all you can ask for really.
Sightseeing in Delhi
We hired a taxi for the day to go sightseeing in Delhi. We don’t often do this and prefer to use public transport wherever possible. However, the Taj Palace is quite a way from the sights we wanted to see. Moreover, I have asthma and the air quality in Delhi was scarily high during our visit. Fortunately, it had dropped from ‘Hazardous’ the week before to merely, ‘Very Unhealthy’ according to the Air Quality Index. I worried about this before we came as that level of pollution can cause breathing difficulties in even healthy people. Fortunately, it didn’t affect me too much. However, it did tire me out a bit and so we thought the taxi was a good idea.
We were in two minds, to be honest when we got in the taxi in the morning. However, we were lucky to get a really tidy, modern taxi and a lovely driver and he offered us a reasonable rate for the day. So we thought why not and agreed he could drive us around. It was a good decision. He looked after us really well and of course, we didn’t have to worry about finding places.
We had a list of sights that we were really keen to see. If you would like to read about them in detail then click on the image link below.
A Slight Detour
We also saw some places we hadn’t planned to visit. Whenever you take a taxi in India, they always offer to take you to somewhere for shopping. So, we went to a little shop on the outskirts of Delhi on our way back from Qutub Minar. It was a lovely place with some amazing silk scarves but so expensive. I had great fun looking around but we didn’t buy anything.
I’m glad we stopped there though because in the gardens we saw these fabulous ornaments. A miniature Taj Mahal and a colourful statue of Ganesh.
Delhi Food Tour
One of the highlights of our time in Delhi was the food tour we took with Reality Tours. Our guide took us all over the city to sample different foods. We started in Old Delhi where we visited Chandni Chowk, a busy shopping area with markets, shops and lots of food stalls. The tour included a visit to a Sikh Temple, a first for me and so was just as much Delhi sightseeing as a food tour. We had a fabulous time. You can read all about it by clicking on the photo below.
Next stop on our tour of India was Agra. You really can’t visit Northern India without seeing the Taj Mahal now, can you? Unfortunately, our original schedule put us in Agra on a Friday and the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays so I did a bit of juggling with the schedule to fit it in. It meant an early start from Delhi though so we checked out of the Taj Palace Hotel at 6 am and headed to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station.
Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station
Now, this is not the railway station that we arrived at in Delhi so it was all a bit unknown. Fortunately, our taxi driver knew exactly where he was going and we were there in plenty of time. Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station is in South Delhi so it was actually quite easy to get to from our hotel which was also in this area.
Since we arrived quite early, Paul had time to take some train photos. He’s quite keen on taking photos of trains when we travel. Perhaps this is because we spend a lot of time at railways stations! As you can see in the photos, Indian Railways trains come in different types. What they all have in common is that they’re all quite old and rather grubby. But don’t hold that against them, they do move an awful lot of people around every day.
Our train from Delhi to Agra was the new high-speed Gatimaan Express. By new, I mean newly added to Indian Railway’s schedule and not new in the sense of new and shiny. However, it was punctual and fairly clean so that was a bonus.
Despite being the flagship express train on Indian Railways it reminded me of an old British Inter-City train. In fact, it likely is an old British train. It was pretty packed inside. Fortunately, you get an assigned seat reservation when you book so nobody is left standing. Chatting to people around us, I realised that a lot of foreign tourists who don’t normally travel by train had been encouraged to try this trip.
Not all of them were happy with their choice. Although we love travelling by train, it can be challenging in India. For some, it was definitely a culture shock although this is probably the best train for a first-trip on Indian trains. It’s a very popular route for tourists going to the Taj Mahal. In fact, it’s possible to go there and back the same day using express trains so it’s ideal if you want to stay in Delhi. The Gatimaan Express leaves Delhi at 8.10 and arrives at Agra Cantt Railway Station at 9.50.
Breakfast on the Train
During the trip, they serve breakfast so we kept our beautifully packaged hotel breakfast bag and sampled the delights of Indian Railways cuisine. Breakfast is served at your seat. First, they give you a tray with various cold items, sugar, dried milk, plastic coffee cup. Very similar to an airline. Then they bring round further items. Muffins, cereal with hot milk (never cold milk in India), fruit, toast and even a hot dish. It was very impressive for train catering and all served with a smile. This is definitely something the Indians do well.
Coral Court Homestay in Agra
I spent ages looking at reviews for hotels in Agra near the Taj Mahal, hoping to find the perfect place to stay. There’s plenty to choose from but reviews are mixed and many hotels are a long way from the Taj Mahal. I really wanted to stay close even if it meant compromising on the quality of accommodation. As it turns out, no compromising was required. We stayed at the Coral Court Homestay which is located in a quiet residential street just a few minutes walk from the Taj Mahal. This was a fabulous find and at around £30 per night for a double room with ensuite, an absolute bargain. You can read my full review of Coral Court by clicking on the picture link below.
As we arrived in Agra on a Thursday we went straight to the Taj Mahal when we arrived. You should be aware that the Taj is closed to the public on Fridays. We only stayed 2 nights so our first day was spent exploring this famous landmark.
The downside to arriving late morning is that lots of other people have got there first. As you can see in the photo above, many people were already inside the gardens and monuments when we got there. On the other hand, the queue to buy tickets and enter the grounds was short. In fact, we hardly waited at all.
To get to the Taj Mahal you must either walk or take an autorickshaw from the end of the road, near the car park. The road in the immediate area of the Taj is traffic free which is rather nice. As our accommodation was actually closer than the car park, we walked down. We met a lot of autorickshaw drivers along the way, all keen to save us the walk. Some of them are very persistent but this is the nature of travel in India. Just smile and keep walking.
First View of the Taj Mahal
Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time is every bit as amazing as you think it will be. This is a tourist attraction which definitely lives up to its reputation. Inside the complex, you can explore the extensive gardens, visit the Taj Museum and see the twin mosque buildings. However, the star of the show is, without doubt, the white marble mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. It was very hot and very crowded but we still had a wonderful visit.
For more detailed information on the Taj Mahal and the other sights and things to do in Agra, take a look at my, top places to visit in Agra blog post. Just click on the image link below.
Agra Street Food
After visiting the Taj Mahal we went back to the hotel for a rest since we’d been up since 6 am. Refreshed, we headed down to the front of the hotel where our tour guide, Amit from Agra Beat collected us by car. We collected an American couple at their hotel and then set off into the centre of Agra to begin our Flavours of Agra food tour. We did quite a few foods tours while we were in India, as you may have noticed. It’s a new thing for us so a bit of an experiment to see if we found them worthwhile. We did! In fact, I thoroughly recommend taking a food tour when you travel. We would never have tasted the foods we did without one and it’s a good social experience too if you do a small group tour.
Some of the foods we tried were very similar to those we’d eaten in Kolkata and Delhi but there’s always some new, local food to try. You get the fried potatoes in most places but usually with a local twist. I love these, the perfect veggie snack.
Mosque and Monkey
The Food tour is not all just about eating though. You also get to see the local sights in the evening and you get a different experience at night to when you visit during the day. In India, there’s always something to surprise you. While we were standing on the bridge across the railway, listening to our guide tell us about the mosque, a monkey leapt from the eaves and landed on Paul’s back. He was very shocked, I can assure you. The monkey then jumped onto one of the Americans. Fortunately, all the shrieking and jumping up and down scared it away before it decided to land on me!
More Indian Sweets
As you may have realised, I love my sweets and we had some fabulous jelly type sweets made from gourds in Agra. On the tour, we went inside the production area behind the shop to see them making the sweets. Above, you can see the huge piles of gourds waiting to be cooked. Then it is put into huge vats and boiled. The atmosphere inside is very hot and humid and must be really hard work especially in the Indian summer.
The sweets are called Petha and they are like a form of Turkish delight in texture but quite different in taste. They add different flavourings and you can see the selection in their shop in the photo below. I thought they were delicious and wanted to buy some but they were so delighted that I liked them they insisted on giving me them as a gift. Such lovely people and so genuinely hospitable. If you find yourself in Agra, make sure you pop along and buy some Petha.
For more info on the Food Tour we did, take a look at my top things to do in Agra article which goes into more detail. Just click on the image below.
Fridays in Agra
Our second day in Agra was a Friday and the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays. Anyway, I don’t think I’d visit it twice in two days. It did mean, of course, that we needed something else to do all day. So I found a company on Tripadvisor who offered bike tours of the countryside. This sounded like something a bit different and so we met up with our tour guide, Moses at Agra by Bike.
We are not normally cyclists so I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this after all. What seemed like a good idea when I booked it somehow was a bit daunting when we set off. However, we both really enjoyed it. The cycling was easy so don’t be put off if you’re not a cyclist. We cycled past the closed Taj Mahal entrance and off into the countryside and it was an amazing experience.
We made regular stops on the cycle ride to have a rest and also to meet different people in the community. One of our stops was at a small farm just outside Agra. Here, they keep cows for milk and also buffalo for food. Apparently, they eat buffalo since they are not actually cows, whereas they do not eat the holy cows. They also collect the cow pats, dry them out in the sun and then sell them as fuel. Very entrepreneurial. Also, that explains why there are always cow pats drying all over the place.
We also saw this shrine where the villagers go to make their offerings. Different statues are for different gods and they will make their offering to the one which best suits their needs.
On the way back into Agra, my bike got a puncture. The ground is pretty hard on bike tyres. Our guide took my bike back to the nearby shop to get it repaired while we waited by the side of the road. Some people in the house opposite saw us standing there and rushed out with some plastic chairs for us to sit on. You really do meet some amazing people in India especially out in the countryside.
Sightseeing in Agra
We finished our time in Agra with a tour of the main market and city area. Although we’d seen some of this during the food tour we were able to see some new sights as well.
We spent some time wandering around the market area which, as you can see in the photo above, was very busy. We also went inside a Hindu Temple and made an offering. Hindu temples are fascinating places. Really colourful with lots of flowers and incense. They treat their gods like people so they give them food and drink to sustain them. Additionally, they cover them with a sheet for several hours a day so they can rest.
Agra is a fascinating place. Before we went I read a lot of complaints about the hassles you get travelling here but we really didn’t experience that too much. Yes, there are plenty of people trying to sell you things. And yes, they can be very persistent. However, they were generally pretty good-natured and we didn’t feel it was any worse than anywhere else in India really. Don’t let it put you off. Agra is well worth a visit.
My main regret is that we didn’t make time to visit the Red Fort while we were in Agra. We saw the outside and it looks really impressive. Next time then. With India, there is always a reason to come back.
On the train to Jaipur
Our train from Agra to Jaipur was scheduled to leave at 7 am so the hotel booked an autorickshaw to pick us up at 6 am. Unfortunately, our train was delayed and so we let the hotel know and had a bit of a lie-in until 7 am. Sadly, nobody told the driver who waited patiently outside in the cold for us. We felt really bad and Paul gave him a huge tip when he dropped us at Agra Cantt. He seemed more than happy with that though.
The ride to the station was really freezing. Although it’s generally hot in India even in February, the wind can be bitter in the early morning and particularly so in an open autorickshaw. As it turned out, our train was really late arriving so we still had a long wait at the station.
To make matters worse, Indian Railways had allocated us different compartments on the train. However, the train was pretty empty and a nice gentleman agreed to swap so we ended up in a 2 berth apartment anyway. He got a 4 berth to himself. Nobody else was in our carriage which makes it even weirder that they put us in separate compartments. In reality, there is often no sense to the things that happen here so you just have to work with it.
Our travel in India continues with a very late arrival in Jaipur
After that, the train just got later and later and we finally arrived in Jaipur around 3 hours late. The hotel we booked had sent a driver but we couldn’t find him. Fortunately, I had my trusty Indian SIM in my phone and was able to contact the hotel who assured me he was at the station somewhere. I told them exactly where we were standing and within minutes the driver appeared. I don’t think he minded that he’d been waiting for hours. He was drinking coffee and relaxing. He said he was checking every 30 minutes for news of our train but they told him a few minutes ago that it was still an hour away.
We were very glad to see him. He saved us from what seemed like thousands of over-enthusiastic unofficial taxi drivers who just wouldn’t leave us alone. Normally, I try to stay calm in these situations but I must admit, Jaipur station was all a bit much. Probably because we were so tired.
Once in the taxi we could sit back and relax. It was a lovely new taxi with air conditioning so the journey to the hotel was much more pleasant.
Umaid Bhawan Hotel
We stayed at Umaid Bhawan Hotel which is a lovely heritage property. Everything about the hotel is customer-focused from the moment they welcomed us and throughout our stay. Another really great hotel. It seems that in India the best properties to stay in are the smaller boutique hotels as you get fabulous customer service and great value for money. They upgraded us too so that was another bonus. Click on the image to read my review of the Umaid Bhawan Heritage Hotel in Jaipur.
Sightseeing in Jaipur
When we decided to travel to India, top of my sightseeing list in Jaipur was a visit to the Amber Fort. Since this is some way outside the city we hired a car and driver through the Umaid Bhawan Hotel. It’s quite a luxury for us to have an air-conditioned car at our disposal because you’ll usually find us on public transport. However, it’s rather nice now and again and it was more practical in Jaipur. You can get around by bus if you prefer but we only had one day for sightseeing and we wanted to pack in as much as possible.
The Amber Fort and Palace, also called Amer, is just amazing. In fact, Jaipur is a real gem for people who love beautiful historic buildings. They call it the Pink City and all the buildings inside the inner city area are made of traditional sandstone to keep the authentic look. You can read about our day sightseeing in Jaipur in detail plus see all my photos. Even some of me, exploring the Amber Fort! Just click on the image link below.
We made a stop at Jal Mahal, the floating palace, on the way back to the city. Unfortunately, you can’t go out onto the island but it makes a great photo stop. Once within the city gates, we were able to spend some time exploring the City Palace and its textile museum. We also visited nearby Jantar Mantar which is an extraordinary place. Don’t miss it!
We finish our Travel to India in Mumbai
Our final stop on our tour of India was Mumbai. Another overnight train journey from Jaipur and we arrived early morning at Mumbai Central station. This isn’t the iconic and rather striking CST or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus which you always see when anyone mention trains and Mumbai. Instead, it’s a more utilitarian building north of the main city. It’s possible to get from the station to central Mumbai by local train but we didn’t fancy it with luggage so we decided on a taxi.
As usual, we headed out of the station in search of the prepaid taxi rank. Couldn’t find one. Went back inside to ask and were assured it was just outside on the left. If it was we couldn’t find it! I decided to try an Ola cab. We’ve not had much luck with these as the drivers ring you to check where you are and they don’t speak English. Since Kolkata, we’ve only been using them when there is someone to help us out such as at the hotels.
Luckily we were allocated a driver who spoke great English and we were able to let him know where we were. Being able to see where the taxi is on the app is also really handy. Soon we were in a taxi on the way to Nariman Point and our hotel.
Trident Nariman Point Hotel
I chose the Trident Nariman Point hotel partly for location, it’s in a quiet part of Mumbai overlooking the bay. There is a wide boardwalk all along the bay and it was very peaceful. Even the roads around here are very quiet so it was definitely a good choice. Since we were so early our room wasn’t ready but they took charge of our luggage and treated us to a complimentary breakfast.
We had a look around the hotel and discovered a fabulous rooftop pool. We actually hung out here on our last day before leaving for the airport and it was very quiet. The pool attendant even brings round bottled water and there is bar service if you want it. The water was pretty cold though so we didn’t venture in.
Gateway of India
We were able to walk to the Gateway of India which was great as we like to be able to explore on foot if possible. One thing I noticed immediately is that Mumbai is not as chaotic as the rest of India. It’s still busy but it feels more organised somehow. Not sure how to explain it really but it’s just a feeling you get. Mumbai was the most modern Indian city we saw during our travel to India.
The area around the gateway is pedestrianised so you can wander about without fear of traffic. It was busy, of course, because it’s a big tourist attraction here. However, it wasn’t uncomfortably crowded. We met a lovely family who wanted a selfie with us. We came across a lot of selfie requests during our travel in India. Normally, I’m not keen on this but they were a friendly couple with a small child and so we were happy to oblige.
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
Near the gateway is the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I really wanted to stay here but I could only get rooms in the tower annexe and not the main building. It’s an impressive sight for sure. However, I think we saved a lot of money by staying at the Trident and still got a fabulous 5* hotel so probably for the best. Both the Taj Mahal Palace and the Trident were targets of the 2008 terror attacks and you can see the security barriers in place. The Trident has a memorial near the pool to commemorate those who lost their lives at the hotel. Sobering indeed.
Public Transport Tour
One of the things I was really looking forward to during our travel in India was doing a Mumbai public transport sightseeing tour with Reality Tours. If you’ve been following my tour of India you might remember that we used them for a food tour in Delhi. They’re a really excellent company who do a lot for charity so we were happy to support them some more.
We met our guide, Janna, in central Mumbai and we all immediately hopped on a local bus. Now that makes it sound really easy but they don’t seem to actually stop so you have to be really quick when you hop on. I went first and I thought for a moment I might be travelling on my own! You’ll notice the bus is really empty. That’s because everyone else got on the first two that went past when I was too slow to hop on.
Mumbai CST Station
We got off the bus in front of Mumbai CST station or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It used to be called Victoria Terminus actually which is easier to say but I think the Indian name is more appropriate. Indeed, CST is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in Mumbai.
Now, we travel a lot by public transport so this is the ideal way to get about for us. Sightseeing and travelling alongside local people. It was great fun too to travel by public transport in India.
I watched a documentary about trains in Mumbai on the BBC a while ago and it looked really busy and chaotic. Fortunately, although it was busy we were travelling north and everyone else was going south so it wasn’t too bad at all.
When you travel around India you quickly notice how much they love their flower displays. Particularly the garlands which hang in the cars, lorries and buses. Our next stop was the wholesale flower market in north Mumbai. Just a short walk from the local station. As well as basket after basket of flowers, you can see men making up the beautiful garlands.
Another quick train journey and on to Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry. This is quite a sight to see.
Lunch in the park
We finished our tour with lunch in the park. We had a delicious meal delivered by dabbawala. This is a fascinating process which takes place every day in Mumbai. Lunchboxes are collected from home or catering outlets and are delivered all over the city. The dabbawalas or delivery workers carry tiffins (metal containers) with the food inside. Ours was still piping hot and the picnic made a great end to a fabulous tour.
Not such a great ending to our travel in India!
Unfortunately, not long after this Paul started to get really bad earache and felt really unwell. We had to cancel our two further planned tours as he just wasn’t up to it. At least we had a lovely hotel to chill in. The Trident also has excellent room service so we just spent time relaxing and hoping he’d feel better before our flight home.
That wasn’t to be either! On the flight home, Paul’s eardrum burst and he was feeling quite poorly for the rest of the journey. Emirates staff on board were lovely and tried to help but really it was a pretty long flight for him. Fortunately, a course of antibiotics once we got home has fixed him up and he’s fine now.
Ironic because I spent the entire time during our travel in India worrying about getting a stomach upset but w were both fine. Never thought about an ear infection but I guess it’s just one of those things. Wouldn’t put us off going back through! India is amazing. Quite incredible and so different from anywhere else we’ve been. The trip was quite exhausting at times but well worth it and I think we got a good taste of the country for our first trip. We will definitely travel to India again.