A Privately Guided Holiday in India –
Through Himalayan Foothills & India’s Intoxicating South
This was first and foremost definitely the “Holiday of a Lifetime”! It was not without some trepidation that we left for a 5wk stay in various parts of the subcontinent especially, from my point of view, the first 10-day section, walking from village to village in Binsar. Considering my age (68), a rather dodgy right knee, slight breathlessness due to altitude and being quite a bit less fit than my husband, I managed pretty well. I would, however, strongly recommend walking poles if you do have any knee issues etc, they helped enormously.
Due to unplanned flight changes at the start, we arrived in the Delhi hotel at midnight, got 4 hrs sleep and off to the huge main Delhi station for the train to Kathgodam! We had 6 rail journeys altogether in the 5wks and they certainly are an experience – the 5 hours to travel 275km to Kathgodam was the most “luxurious” as it was “executive class” and besides air con we were given several courses of food and lots of tea, all served to us in our seats. The other journeys had air con but were a bit more primitive in comfort and you had to pay for the food which was hawked up and down the train all through the journey by vendors carrying it on their heads.
• Take toilet paper, most toilets don’t have it.
• Don’t use porters, firmly say that you’ll sort out your own luggage and eventually they’ll stop pestering you. It’s really hard to know which ones are legit or not.
• You don’t need to show your ticket till you’re in your seat on the train. Once you are on the way an inspector will ask to see it.
• Look out for a platform guide which will tell you where your coach will stop – usually AC 2 chair class coach C1 (or 2 or 3). The trains are HUGE and you need to know where to stand as trying to run down the other end of the platform at the last minute with all your luggage is not practical. The trains often don’t stop for long at the station. The air-conditioned coaches are the only ones on the trains with glass in the windows!
The Khali estate at Binsar was a lovely atmospheric colonial bungalow, a remnant of the Raj era, but it was COLD! If you go in January (as we did) the temperature is likely to be the same as Britain so take plenty of warm layers, thick socks, hat, gloves and top-quality waterproofs. We had one day of rain all day and snow for the last 40mins of the walk! Challenging and exhilarating all at once.
The scenery is breathtaking, guides fantastic and the villagers very welcoming. How they manage to cook such lovely tasty food on such basic equipment (open wood fires) is very impressive. Be aware that the village accommodation is basic too – shower room and toilet are outside concrete boxes with no heating. You get a warm shower IF there has been enough sun for the solar panels, otherwise it’s a typical Indian bucket bath with a jug to pour the heated water over yourself, very chilly at 1-2C in the morning! None of the rooms have glass in the windows, just mesh and shutters so we really appreciated the little fan heater that was transported with our luggage from village to village.
Our guides were superb, just two of us, so a guide each. We are keen bird watchers so asked for a guide who was knowledgeable about wildlife and Hemu did not disappoint – we saw over 60 different species. Another highlight was the morning after the snow, at Gonap, when we were awakened at 06.30 to climb just above the village to a point where there was the most spectacular view of the sunrise over the Himalayas – magic!
As Inntravel say, the village committees are SO welcoming and couldn’t do enough to make our stays as pleasant and interesting as possible. Each village has its own character but the little guest houses are all built in the same style as the local dwellings so you really feel as if you are living as they do (in fact quite a bit more luxuriously!).
The last night of the trip was back at Khali where we were accommodated in the house itself instead of one of the freezing round cabins. We were the only people there and they gave us supper in front of the log fire in the sitting room – a real treat as the dining room was totally unheated. We gathered that the peak season, when they are often full, is March, when it would have been a fair bit warmer! We had, however, timed our trip so that it would not be too blazingly hot for the second part in the south of India, so the cold was inevitable. If you did both trips back to back at that time of year we would recommend doing the south first and north slightly later and hopefully a bit warmer – we couldn’t do that as we were visiting a charity in the south and the dates were set.
After this, 3 days in Delhi, staying at the gorgeous Lutyens Bungalow (thoroughly recommended, so much character and like staying with a family). We then started on the southern part of our journey. It rapidly became warmer and the village houses here were a little more comfy in that they had en suite shower rooms and loos. Seeing the life of the villagers was once again fascinating, highlights being:
• The betel nut harvest at Hulgol.
• Buying a sari and having the top of it made to measure in 24hrs and then fitted, with much laughter, by the ladies at the guest house.
• Ancient stone temples in the woods.
• The fish market, tuk-tuk ride and walk around Pavinakurva.
• Mysore and its stunning palaces, the lovely Green Hotel.
• The fantastic bird life.
• The ladies’ drumming demonstration.
• Really superb food, especially delicious lunches on banana leaves at Mothakkara – the whole thing run by ladies (incl. guiding).
• Trip to a tea plantation.
• The delightful houseboat “The Good Earth” and seeing all the little villages where we moored. The lovely ladies’ cookery demo was excellent fun.
• Fort Kochi is a charming, interesting city, very photogenic and the owner at Walton’s Homestay could not have been more helpful with dozens of tips about things to see and where to eat.
• It was very hot in the south – 38C and 66% humidity on the boat. You will need DEET mosquito repellent here. (We didn’t need it in the north, there were no mozzies as it was too cold!)
• Food on the boat was great with lots of fish – pretty spicy though!
• Would recommend restaurants “Rasoi” next to the Vasco de Gama house and the “Farmers Cafe” near the post office in Fort Kochi.
• Be aware that there is an Indian tendency to say “yes” when you ask a question to which they do not know the answer! This can lead to misunderstandings, so beware.
• An alternative to getting a local SIM card for your phone (for which you have to produce a photo and be in the same city for a couple of days while it is activated) is to hire a phone OR Wi-fi “dongle” from Trabug (they have a website). However, there is little or no reception in the foothills so don’t hire either till back in Delhi or if you are only doing the southern route starting in Mumbai.
• Make sure that you discuss the trips your guides are taking you on as soon as you arrive at a guest house. We found that although there was meant to be a choice, they had usually mapped out exactly what we would do each day before we got there.
• Ask for the tip book and the review book the night before you leave each village – make sure you stop at an ATM whilst in the towns as there are none in the villages and although you need hardly any cash there, you WILL need some for tips and the book will show you what past guests have given to guide you as to how much is appropriate.
The concept of Village Ways is an excellent one. We were so glad to think that we were helping folk to stay in their villages rather than having to leave to find work in the city and it was inspirational and humbling to see how they lived with so little compared to us in the West.
As we said at the start – truly the holiday of a lifetime, thank you Inntravel for alerting us to it.
Mrs Monsell, Bedfordshire, 22 January 2020