Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, February 2013 (20 days)
Mumbai – Junagadh – Sasan Gir – Diu – Palitana – Ahmedabad – Mount Abu – Udaipur (day trips to Kumbalgarh/Ranakpur and Chittorgarh) – Mumbai
Trains for long distance. We booked tickets on-line in advance via Cleartrip (http://www.cleartrip.com/). Booking in advance is crucial, as tickets get sold out on most routes several weeks in advance. We even booked some backup tickets to be flexible in case of a flight delay or a change of plans, which we then cancelled, as cancellation charges are quite low. For last minute bookings, there is also a batch of Tatkal tickets which are released a few days before departure and sold at a higher price.
Since early 2012 setting an account from abroad is not as straightforward as before, as an Indian mobile phone number is required. There is a way around it by e-mailing the IRCTC customer service and requesting the mobile password via e-mail. The whole process is explained here: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside
I managed it quite easily and got my password e-mailed from the IRCTC within a day or so.
For checking trains, prices and availability I found http://erail.in/ to be most user-friendly and comprehensive, although Cleartrip website is also useful. For railway buffs, here’s the official website, quite confusing but ultimately has all important information: http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/
For first-timers, a useful introduction into Indian railways is found here:
Buses for shorter distance. We found state buses in Gujarat quite easy to use and not particularly crowded – we always managed to get seats. Tickets on state buses in Gujarat are bought on the bus. Schedules can be found here: http://www.gsrtc.in/site/ but the site apparently does not include all local buses. For longer trips, trains are much more comfortable, as buses are quite run down and roads often bumpy.
Site for local buses in Rajasthan: http://rsrtc.rajasthan.gov.in/ We only used them once on a short distance, so cannot give any opinion.
There are also private buses in most places, a bit more expensive but more comfortable than regular state buses. We used them once in Rajasthan.
Changing money was a bit hit and miss on this trip. We found no place to change money on a Sunday in Mumbai (Fort and Colaba area). In Junagadh (a bank) and Diu (a moneychanger) rates offered were only slightly better than costs of using an ATM. The only place we found much better rates than ATM conversion rates was in Udaipur, at a moneychanger in a touristy area between the Jagdish Temple and the lake.
Guidebooks: we used chapters from both latest Lonely Planet (2012) and 2010 Rough Guide and this time RG was much better. Lonely Planet has lost much with its latest changes – city maps are much less readable than before and we found the it much less practical than previous editions.
Malaria prophylaxis: Gujarat is marked as high-risk area on NHS travel advice maps, so we duly took malarone pills. However, the only place with many mosquitoes during our trip was Mumbai airport (literally infested) and we saw just a few mosquitoes in Diu but not a single one in Gujarat.
We used local Odomos cream as mosquito repellent, available at almost every shop.
We only stayed in Mumbai for one day at the beginning and at the end of our trip. It was just a scratch on the surface, as the city is fascinating, with plenty of interesting places to explore.
Mumbai Airport: one of the worst airports we ever visited. Bad organisation, huge queues to both immigration and security control. We arrived more than 3 hours in advance for our flight home and barely made it in time. The airport, including inside terminal buildings, has also a serious mosquito problem – little suckers were almost everywhere, including inside the plane on our flight back. It is a good idea to use a lot of mosquito repellent before going to the airport to have a small-sized container of repellent on the plane.
Transport from the airport: we took a pre-paid taxi from the official taxi booth, on the left side just before the exit from the arrivals terminal. Cost: 750 Rs to SBS Road in Fort, near Victoria (Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus.
Sleeping: we stayed at Travellers’ Inn in Fort (Adi Marzban Path, SBS Road, within walking distance to Victoria Terminus). Priced 1350 Rs for a small double room with ensuite bathroom, very clean. Free wi-fi. The place is small and they were quite busy, so booking ahead was a good idea (it is possible to book via agoda.com, with a bit higher price, ca. 1500 Rs). Website http://www.hoteltravellersinn.co/ (warning: you can come across their false website under the same address ending with “co.in”, with much higher prices and redirecting to another hotel for booking). On departure they happily arranged a taxi to the airport for us for 550 or 600 Rs.
Getting to and from railway stations: we left Mumbai from Mumbai Central station, a 100 Rs taxi ride from Travellers’ Inn. On our way back we arrived to Bandra Terminus, much farther from the centre. As we arrived at ca 2 p.m., out of rush hour, we decided to take Mumbai’s notorious suburban train to Churchgate near Fort. We needed to walk ca. 15 minutes from Bandra railway station to the nearest suburban train station. The train was not crowded at all. From Churchgate station it was a 40 Rs taxi ride to Travellers’ Inn.
Getting around in Mumbai: Fort area is very walkable and best covered on foot. We took a few bus rides in Colaba – not so easy to figure out, as bus numbers are in Marathi. Autorickshaws are not allowed in downtown Mumbai (south of Mahim creek), so cabbies rule. We took some taxi rides and the drivers were always equipped with electronic meters and willing to use it. We found drivers of older Ambassador cars more trustworthy than cabbies in newer cars.
We really enjoyed Fort area within walking distance of Travellers’ Inn. Wide walkable streets, usually without much traffic, some greenery, a lot of nice heritage architecture, some interesting spots, in particular related to the Parsi (Irani) minority. There are two Parsi fire temples (called “agiary”) in the area, sadly closed for non-Parsis. There are also a few Irani cafes left in Fort. Cafe Universal, one of them which went upmarket, is just on the street corner near Travellers’ Inn. We enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, nice Art Deco design and wide windows open on the street. Quite pricey by Indian standards – beers for 220-250 Rs, meals from 200 Rs up. Later we learnt that it was a less famous sister property of Leopold’s in Colaba.
On our way back in Mumbai we visited Elephanta Island. Ferries depart from near Gateway of India. Tickets were in the 120-150 range for return trip, getting to the island takes ca. 1 hr. It is worth paying a few rupees more for the “deluxe” one which is much more comfortable and better for views.
Entry into Elephanta caves was 250 Rs (foreigner price). For anybody with even minimal interest in Asian art and culture history the caves are an absolute must-see, we found them by no way overrated, even if we usually prefer “living” monuments to archaeological sites. The guys at the ticket counter apparently run some kind of racket with the ticket checkers, collecting whole tickets (instead of only the control coupon) from visitors in order to resell them. We insisted on having our tickets back and they were extremely reluctant but finally handed them back to us.
Mumbai – Junagadh
The most useful train for reaching places in Saurashtra, Gujarat directly from Mumbai is the daily Saurashtra Mail (schedules and prices on http://erail.in/, we booked it much in advance via http://www.cleartrip.com/). The train is split in Rajkot, with one part going to Veraval via Junagadh, another one to Okha via Jamnagar and Dwarka. If there are no tickets to the farther destination, it is worth checking whether there are places to Rajkot and then separately from Rajkot to the destination.
A very friendly and picturesque place, with some fantasy-like architecture resulting from fascination of the local maharaja with neo-Gothic Victorian style mixed with Indian and other oriental elements.
We stayed at Relief hotel (http://www.reliefhotel.com/), a short rickshaw ride or maybe 20 minutes walk from both bus and train stations. 650 Rs for a decent double with bathroom, there were also smaller rooms for 500 Rs. The manager is incredibly helpful and will happily provide any useful information you would need for visiting Junagadh and surroundings. Hotel restaurant did not work at the time of our visit (but the manager guided us to a very good place nearby), wi-fi was planned in a short time.
A definite highlight of the visit to Junagadh was climbing Girnar Hill with its Jain and Hindu temples. There are stairs to the very top of ca. 1100 m, Gujarat’s highest point (Girnar Kaleti, the starting point, is below 200 m), so the hike is quite punishing for the legs. Starting early (7.30 a.m. at the latest) is definitely a good idea, as the sun gets scorching afterwards. Rickshaw ride from Relief to Girnar Kaleti was 100 Rs. The owner of Relief hotel warned us against having any food along the trail on the mountain and he was probably right, as there was no clean water available anywhere on the path. Bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks are available all along the way.
Junagadh – Sasan Gir
There are GSRTC buses every 1 hr or so, 30 Rs, ca. 1,5 hrs. We took one at 10 a.m. and it was not crowded. There is also one passenger train (unreserved class only) at 07.15 a.m. (exact schedule on http://erail.in/). As we learned later, the railway goes directly through Gir Forest and with some dose of luck it should be well possible to spot a lion from the train. Actually, the lion we saw on our safari in Sasan Gir was maybe 100 meters from the railway track.
Sasan Gir – hic sunt leones
An otherwise nondescript village which is a gateway to Gir Forest, the last place in the world with wild Asiatic lions. As a backgrounder, it is worth to see a BBC documentary “Last Lions of India” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEL2f90L_kY), which is also shown daily at the park office.
On arrival we were met by Nitin Ratanghayara, a local guy running a small guesthouse in his home. The owner of Relief hotel in Junagadh can contact him in advance, alternatively Nitin’s e-mail is ratanghayaranitin [at] yahoo.com. He seems to know all the strings, helped us with safari booking, and – most important – found other foreign travellers to share the safari cost. He seems to do it quite routinely, so if not in a group and intending to share the cost, it is definitely a good idea to look for Nitin. He does not charge anything for his help and his guesthouse is decently priced (400 Rs for an acceptable double room + 100 Rs per person per all-you-can-eat meal).
Safari details: it is booked at Sinh Sadan lodge in Sasan Gir. It can be booked a day in advance (at 5-6 p.m. for the next morning) or directly before starting. Despite a limited number of vehicles being allowed for each safari, foreigners should have no problems with booking, as paying much more, they enjoy unofficial priority. Safari timings are 06.30 a.m., 09.30 a.m. and another time in the afternoon (I don’t remember exact time). The first one at 06.30 is apparently best for seeing lions.
The costs were as following (for foreigners, Indian nationals pay considerably less):
2000 Rs for permit for a group up 4 persons, 2500 Rs if the group size is 5-6 persons, to be shared among the group
1000 Rs for the jeep (or ‘gypsy’), to be shared among the group
150 Rs for the guide, to be shared among the group
500 Rs photography fee for EACH camera above 7 megapixels.
Permits are valid for one safari only. I am not sure about the photography fees but it’s probably the same. Altogether it is not prohibitively expensive if you find other foreigners to share a gypsy. It is not possible to share a vehicle with Indian tourists as in such case Indians would be charged according to foreigner rates. Weird but so it is.
Most important – we saw a lion! A big male walked within maybe 20 meters of our jeep. It is far from certain – our companions took altogether 3 safaris and had 2 sightings, one of them a lioness from very far, a kilometer or so. We can consider ourselves very lucky, as we took only one safari.
It is also apparently easy to spot crocodiles while walking along the river on the northern outskirts of the village but this time we were not lucky. Having read about a crocodile breeding centre in Sasan Gir, we asked around and were directed by the locals to a glass pavilion inside a camping ground just right (east) of Sinh Sadan, with a few small reptiles inside. Afterwards I checked on Google Earth and there seems to be some sort of bigger structure deeper inside the camping ground, so probably we missed the proper breeding centre.
Download: [Sasan Gir train schedule]
Sasan Gir – Diu
The early morning safari ended just in time for us to grab our bags and catch the 09.57 a.m. train to Delvada (ca. 3,5 hrs, 20 Rs). There are also some buses to nearby Una later during the day, so getting from Sasan Gir to Diu is easy. From Delvada we took a rickshaw to Diu bus stand for 150 Rs.
A very pleasant place to chill out for a couple of days. Some interesting Portuguese-Indian cultural mix, slow pace, a few beaches (but not really a swimming place) and a welcome oasis in the middle of prohibition-parched Gujarat. Because of the last element we were initially a bit apprehensive before visiting on a weekend, but it the weekend crowds of Gujarati visitors turned out to be not so big and much more sober than expected.
We stayed in Herança Goesa, a family-run guesthouse listed in all the guidebooks. Every word of praise is justified – the rooms are spotless, ours came with a balcony with nice view, and the price was very reasonable (a negotiable 700 Rs per double). In addition to English, the hosts speak excellent Portuguese.
We tried some places for food. O’Coqueiro near our guesthouse was OK but we found Apana restaurant on Fort Rd at the waterfront the best place.
On one day we rented bicycles from a repair shop close to the mosque in Diu bazaar area (80 Rs per day) and rode to Vanakbara, a fishing village on the opposite end of Diu island, some 15 kms from Diu town. Probably most interesting: a bit south of Vanakbara village (accessible by taking a road to the left just before entering proper village) there was a boat yard with wooden fishing boats being built by traditional methods.
Diu to Palitana
We took a 9 a.m. bus from Diu to Talaja (bus destination is Bhavnagar), 5,5 hrs, ca. 80 Rs.
Download: [Diu bus schedule]
There are many more buses from Una if you miss the last one from Diu. In Talaja we had to wait ca. 1hr for a local bus to Palitana (1,5 hrs). Altogether getting from Diu to Palitana took 8 hrs of quite bumpy bus rides and after arrival and checking in we still had some time for a late afternoon walk from our hotel across the bridge into the center of Palitana.
We stayed in Hotel Shravak just opposite the bus station. It was basic and rather gloomy but OK for one night. 450 Rs for a large double with bathroom. Staying for one night is enough, as there are onwards buses to Ahmedabad every hour in the afternoon. We had to check out in the morning but the receptionist stored our luggage until we were back from Shatrunjaya.
The main if not the only reason of our stop in Palitana was visiting Shatrunjaya, the sacred Jain temple-hill above Palitana. The stairs uphill were a 50 Rs rickshaw ride from the bus stand and Hotel Shravak. Entry is free but there is a photography fee of 100 Rs, paid at a booth to the left from the starting point of the stairs. The climb uphill is much shorter and far less spectacular than to Girnar Hill near Junagadh but there are much more temples to visit on the top, so a visit to Shatrunjaya takes most part of the day. Again, it is very recommended to start at dawn, as the sun becomes unbearable later on. Contrary to what some guidebooks say, nobody objects to having bottled water on the hike uphill and in the temples. It’s definitely needed, as the sun was scorching. All along the path uphill there are no food and drink stalls, only small kiosks offering drinking water from big tanks (we did not risk it).
Palitana – Ahmedabad
State bus, departures every hour in the afternoon, 5,5 hrs, ca. 120 Rs.
Ahmedabad turned out to be a very interesting city and definitely worth staying a couple of days. As we stayed only one full day (two nights), we visited only the old town, exploring its fascinating mosques, Sufi shrines, bazaars and semi-enclosed neighbourhoods called “pols”. While arriving by bus we also saw some ultra-modern and rich-looking districts with glitzy malls and posh cafes but they were quite far from the old centre.
Accommodation: we stayed in Hotel Volga (http://www.hotelvolga.in/) in Lal Darwaja area in the centre. It attempts without much success to be a half-smart “business-class” place. Ca. 950 Rs for a double with bathroom, decent-looking but it turned out that there were cockroaches in the room. On leaving we were unpleasantly surprised by an additional charge for wi-fi which did not work properly. Not recommended, there are several other decent-looking places in the close neighbourhood.
Ahmedabad – Mount Abu
We took a train from Ahmedabad to Abu Road (ca. 4hrs, booked much in advance via Cleartrip schedules and prices on http://erail.in/) and continued by a local bus to Mt Abu (1 hr, ca. 20 Rs).
In Mt Abu we stayed at Shri Ganesh hotel, a short walk from the centre. The managers were friendly and helpful but the room was quite basic – small and musty, with some humidity on the walls. Priced at 650 Rs per double with bathroom. Hot water available on request.
Mt Abu was OK for a short stay but nothing very special. It would be great to hike in the hills around the town but all the guidebooks warn against the danger of assaults or muggings in less-frequented places and the hotel owner confirmed that it was an issue. No guided walks were available for the day we were there. It was definitely worth to visit Delwara Jain temple, a 100 Rs rickshaw ride uphill from the town centre, with even more exquisite carvings than those in Palitana.
Mt Abu – Udaipur
Private bus, booked at Gujarat Travels agency on previous afternoon, departure 8.30 a.m., 220 Rs, 5 hrs.
First impression: Udaipur was very touristy! Compared to almost tourist-free Gujarat, there were literally hordes of tourists around the lake and the area near Jagdish temple was full of souvenir shops and similar places. Anyway, the town is really charming and real life in full coulours of Rajasthan was always just a short walk away. Shopping for spices in the bazaar area near Hathi Pol is especially recommended, as is getting lost in narrow streets of the old town.
On arrival in Udaipur we took a rickshaw to Jagdish temple and walked across the footbridge to look for accommodation in the Hanuman Ghat area. It turned out to be a perfect idea, as the area was much more peaceful and relaxed (even if still touristy) than the main tourist spot between Jagdish temple and the lake. We stayed in Panorama Hotel (http://www.panoramaguesthouse.in/) and really loved the place – 900 Rs for a clean comfortable double room with bathroom, with paintings on the walls, balcony and – most important – full spectacular view of the Lake Pichola and the City Palace. There is a rooftop restaurant with even more spectacular views. We also had some meals at the nearby Dream Heaven which seems a similar place, as regards charm, views and standard.
One place to be avoided in this area is Hanuman Ghat Hotel. On a Saturday night its unscrupulous owner threw an incredibly loud disco party on the roof, flooding half of the town with thumping noise. In Panorama some 100 meters away we had to shout to hear each other.
Day-trips fro Udaipur
We made two trips from Udaipur by car with driver, hired via the reception of Panorama:
– Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur, 1600 Rs. Entry to Kumbalgarh Fort was 100 Rs. Only part of the fort can be visited on a day visit but it gives a good idea of the whole and almost the whole fort can be seen from the citadel.
– Chittaurgarh, 1800 Rs. Entry to the fort was 100 Rs. The fort is very large with sights spread across the whole area, so our driver drove us around stopping at the sights.
Udaipur – Mumbai
By train, Udaipur Bandra SF Express, schedules and prices on http://erail.in/.