Dean and I had our first Indian adventure at the end of August; a trip by sleeper train to Mount Abu in western Rajasthan.
One of our overall aims is to make the most of our Indian experience by travelling around India and neighbouring countries as much as possible. We want to do a series of weekend excursions to places that we can get to easily from Gurgaon. Booking these excursions is my job. The places I have in mind we could get to by car but I am keen to get away from our expat life, which includes having a driver, and regaining some of the independence that I take for granted in the UK. There is no way either Dean or I could drive to these places ourselves – we’d definitely die!
Dean and I arrived in India in June, which is just about the hottest part of the year. It was a complete shock. I didn’t understand how debilitating heat can be until I lived here. Before I arrived I thought air-conditioning was for shallow whimps who had no consideration for the environment – one summer in India and I don’t ever want to be far away from it. I found out that traditionally in India the well-off get out of the cities and get up a mountain to get away from the heat. There are a range of hill stations to the North East of Delhi designed at Summer retreats mainly by the British. So my cunning plan was a weekend trip to a hill station by train, how hard could that be?!
Well buying an indian train ticket is an art in itself, one better documented elsewhere, and that I finally mastered. You need to think about 2 months in advance if you want a confirmed reservation, for two people, travelling in some degree of comfort, in the same carriage; so June was out. July brings the monsoon and most of the guide books (besides telling me to get out of Delhi because it is so hot) were telling me not to go to the hill stations because they are too wet. Flipping great!
Finally I found Mt Abu: a hill station suitable for visitors all year round that we could get to by train albeit with a 12-14 hour journey. I filled in my two forms (one each way) and took it to the post office and we had our tickets. I booked our hotel and figured that we could plan the rest when we got there. Six weeks later we were ready for our first adventure.
We arrived at Gurgaon Station at night as we were catching a sleeper. Many Indian trains are set up for sleeping because it’s such a big country, journeys are long and it makes sense to spend the time asleep. Gurgaon Station is a bit of a hole. It’s located in the old (read rough) part of town. However amongst the stray dogs and rough sleepers we had finally found Indian prices. Dean was delighted to only pay Rs30 (about 40p) for a 1lt bottle of water and a packet of crisps; Gurgaon is usually a very expensive city.
I got the hebejebies sitting at the station: I suddenly doubted that wearing my wedding ring was such a good idea and had visions of Dean finding me with my throat cut in the morning. My nerves were unfounded; travelling in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach felt very safe, our fellow travellers were friendly and we generally enjoyed it. I didn’t sleep that well on the way there but I had a better night’s sleep on the way back. The toilets both ways were dreadful.
We stayed at Kishangarh House, the former summer residence of a Maharaja, now a hotel. It was OK but the accommodation and service were shoddy, which was a shame particularly as the house and gardens are stunning. It is set on the side of the mountain with beautifully tended terraced gardens.
Overall we were underwhelmed by the whole experience. The food ranged from very average to good but standards of hygiene were very, very suspect. You can’t buy alcohol in Rajasthan after 8pm so there were no bars, there was nowhere really to hang out and just drink coffee either. Mt Abu is famous for its temples but we thought that they were all a bit concrete looking. It’s also a good place for trekking but not in the rain. And boy, oh boy did it rain. It was the first weekend of the really heavy rain; it bucketed. Of course this coloured our perceptions and it is likely that if we’d gone at a different time of year we would have enjoyed it more. I would like to correct the guide books on this point – Mt Abu is NOT a good place to visit in the Monsoon – a rainy weekend is a rainy weekend wherever you are!
In spite of being underwhelmed and getting food poisoning the day we got back, I’m glad we went and I’ve learnt some lessons. Next year excursions within India are off during the Monsoon. I’m more confident about the trains: I’ve signed up for an on-line account which makes purchasing and returning tickets much easier, I am also working out which are the best seats. Not too surprisingly in a country of extremes there is a big difference between 5 star accommodation and everything else. While I remain committed to the principle of seeing the ‘real India’, I will be careful of doing it at the expense of my health – e-coli is no fun!