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Category Archives: Travel

After Cleartrip, its now Meru’s turn!

Wow, it sure feels like a personal Customer Service crusade – after Cleartrip, it now seems to be Meru Cabs at the wheel. And they are taking their faithful customers for a nice big ride around town, pun intended. Now, to be fair, between the wife and I, we have used Meru Cabs for almost 3 years now (ever since the new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport opened in Hyderabad) and at least 2-3 times a month, so that’s a sample size of about 100. And incredibly, not one out of those 100 trips have been anything but an incredibly pleasant experience. I repeat, every single one of them – That is world-class service, and especially noteworthy considering the typical bar that Indian businesses set for themselves.

Here is why I love using Meru – Their booking process is straight-forward and intuitive, the service is largely secure and professional, the cabs very clean and well-maintained, and the ride extremely comfortable. All of this at what I consider a very reasonable price. A ride will cost you Rs 15 per km, which in today’s Bangalore is only 1.67 times the cost of riding an auto, but quite a bargain considering how much more comfortable the trip is. So, if it’s not clear already, I’ve been a big fan of these guys, am constantly rooting for them and telling anyone who cares to listen about how wonderful they are – doing my bit of word-of-mouth marketing for them, you know. Of course, they are only available in select cities now and I can’t wait for them to come to Chennai, a city that I frequent quite a bit and where I miss the service dearly.

Anyways, all good things come to an end – and my Meru streak met with the same cruel fate on our trip to Kumarakom last week. The first element of surprise was when I made the phone call to book our cab. I was politely told by the IVR recording that I would be tagged an additional Rs. 50 as a convenience fee, with absolutely no explanation for what the said convenience was. Did they add a new toilet to the cab, I wondered. That thought was quickly put to rest when they followed that message with the offer of a generous discount of 50% on the Convenience charge if I asked for a cab within 35 minutes of my booking – if they did add the loo, am sure it would cost the same no matter when I booked, right? So anyways, I asked to talk to the friendly agent for an explanation of the charge. Turns out the “Convenience” refers to the use of their Call Center to make the booking, and she told me the fee would not be applied if I booked my cab online! Since when did calling a call center become a “Convenience”? Did I just blissfully miss that whole era?

Seriously, the whole notion of asking Customers to pay extra when they are calling you to give you business is nonsensical. Sure, find other means to encourage customers to use the web so you can improve operational efficiency but charging them more because they call you is a surefire way to destroy any goodwill you have built. And if that isn’t enough, their fee structure of charging less for a more imminent booking completely defies logic. I would think it aids their scheduling algorithm to know their demand in advance, but clearly they prefer the last minute scramble – kinda like JIT as if their cabs were perishable entities? And to top it off, they have an equally befuddling explanation of why it is the way it is on their website. Nicely done, Meru – clearly this whole decision came out of a half-baked committee with a confused set of objectives.

Of course, I still needed the cab and with no intentions of paying any silly additional fee, I went online. And their online booking process, while reasonably straight-forward, just gave me this sinking feeling that my booking was vanishing into a black hole. A very ordinary website and an even more ordinary process. Given how well-oiled their phone booking machinery was, I expected to be able to specify my phone number and have it identify me, but no such luck. Not even close. Just out of curiosity, I played around so more with their website – their user experience could use an upgrade…actually make that a rewrite. They should take a leaf out of Cleartrip’s book, or better yet, have Cleartrip build and host it for them. Maybe they could even sell package deals – suggest a cab booking for every flight/train ticket that gets booked etc.

And Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is virtually non-existent. I tried all the 3 leading Search engines and searched for the typical queries – “cabs Bangalore”, “Taxis Bangalore”, “Airport taxi Bangalore” and in none of the cases did Meru come out on top. In fact, in some cases, they didn’t even make it to the first page. Not what I would expect for what is easily the most popular airport taxi option in the city just judging by numbers. Nope, no ads on the Search pages either. For someone that’s trying to get their online reservation system going, I thought it was strange that they hadn’t even covered the basics? And instead unfairly passing the burden to the customer?

In any case, I provided the necessary information and submitted the request, but made one fatal error – I think it gave me a confirmation number and I forgot to take it down before I closed the window. The site asked me for my email address and my phone number, so I assumed they’d either text or mail me the confirmation? Apparently, that’s too much to ask for. Last I checked, email was still almost free but it didn’t matter. So the next morning comes around and no sign of the cab or any notification around it. I finally call and the Customer Service rep asks for the dreaded Confirmation number. I feign ignorance and give her my phone number instead and her system promptly tells her no reservation was made against that number. How can that be? I swear I saw a confirmation window pop-up on their website that said booking was confirmed. So I try pleading with her and she promptly redirects me to their phone booking department so I can make a fresh booking. For a small, additional convenience charge of course! I didn’t have anything to hold them on, so I couldn’t really make my case but they definitely lost an ambassador thanks to this pleasant experience.

If you are still curious, I did not call them for that cab in the end and found an alternate option to get to the airport that was a lot more reasonable. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like I am the only one that seems to have a problem with this. Hopefully saner minds will prevail in the end!


Cleartrip? Hardly Clear and no Trip in the end!

So if you are practical and you travel by train in India, (Yes, I can almost hear the smart comments about how much of a paradox that statement is, but enough already!), chances are you book your tickets using the Railways web portal, right? I mean, gone are the days when we stood in serpentine lines that were about as long as the train you intended to travel on, and waited an hour, sometimes two, to only find out that none of the trains headed to your destination weren’t interested in taking you anymore because they were so damn full. Right?

So yeah, most of us faithfuls that had access to the Internet simply switched over to using their website to book our tickets. But if only life were that simple? The Railways, true to form, strongly believe that one form of punishment should simply be replaced by another, and that’s not even counting the actual train journey. The web site is a disaster of astronomical proportions, and on so many dimensions. It is an ideal example of how not to build a product, the usability was simply left out of the site – most functions either don’t exist, or more commonly, simply don’t exist! I still remember the very first version of this monstrosity, and I regret not having taken a screen shot back then but I distinctly remember thinking it was a read-only information portal for the Railways, and then discovering to my pleasant (!) surprise that it allowed the user to perform some basic actions, including booking a ticket. In all seriousness, the current version of the site has been a huge upgrade over its previous incarnations, but it is still largely an exercise in torture to try and reserve a ticket through them.

And so, when Cleartrip came along and offered Train bookings on their site, it was nothing short of a blessing. Their user interface is fantastic – very, very simple to use and incredibly intuitive. Of course, if users had to justify coughing up the extra fees one pays Cleartrip in addition to what the Railways charge, then the experience had to be nothing short of stellar. And while there are a couple of improvements that are possible, I think they have more or less nailed it. Alas, that’s where the good news ended.

Pardon the tech diatribe here, but here is the high level flow for their application – Cleatrip calls the Railways service first to process the reservation details, then invokes the payment module to process payment, and once the payment is approved, it then returns to call the Railways service to complete the booking. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that could go wrong in between, and considering my proximity to Uncle Murphy, something did go wrong when I tried.

I was trying to book a ticket from Bangalore to Chennai recently, and it seemed easy as cake…until I got to the payment module. Firstly, the bank module where you provide details of the payment took forever. And after what felt like a year’s wait, the payment finally made it but then it croaked on finishing up the reservation. And the message I got essentially said “We took your money. Thank you! However, we aren’t really sure about your reservation, there is a good chance it didn’t go through. Why don’t you call us at this number and find out for yourself?” Classy…very classy. I was tickled that they were polite enough to thank me, honestly. How often does someone express their appreciation in a nice fashion like that after they screwed you over? Nope, you just don’t get that kinda courtesy anymore.

So anyways, I call the number only to find out that they don’t know if my reservation succeeded either. Nope, am so not kidding. So the customer service guy (think there is just the one guy – I called numerous times and always got the same individual) so nonchalantly says “No problem Sir, don’t worry. This happens quite often. Just wait for about 15 minutes for a text message (SMS) from the Railways Reservations system and that will contain the status of your booking. If it had indeed failed, then we can initiate a refund of the money that was taken, which will take between 3 and 14 days to make it back to your account. “How incredibly awesome? It took a lot of resolve on my part to not nominate this for some kinda Customer Experience recognition award. The guy didn’t seem to think at all that this was a problem – he blamed it on technical difficulties and that it was a common problem with those Railways guys and his wise suggestion was for me to check with the Railways directly on the ticket. Why I was paying Cleartrip a reservation fee is anybody’s guess. The guy thought the refund was the primary issue and as long as that got processed, then I shouldn’t really have anything to complain about? I can’t blame him though, such is the sorry state of Customer Service today.

Anyways, I wait…and an hour passes, and not a peep from any Railways service. While I was waiting however, I did get a couple of spam messages suggesting I buy some Insurance. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. So anyways, I call Cleartrip again (all of these are long-distance calls by the way, and they clearly tell you that the calls are your responsibility) and of course its the same dude, and he tells me, with relief in his voice, that my booking failed and that he will be happy to initiate the refund process. So I had no choice but to find alternate means of travel, and abandoned the attempt to buy that cursed ticket.

Now, I understand there are technology challenges to overcome here. Building anything that works with that archaic Railways Service is an accomplishment that calls for a Nobel Prize in Bravery, and all jokes aside, I tip my hat to the Cleartrip product team for even attempting to do this and having gotten as far as they have. But aren’t they missing the point here? It is my expectation as a paying customer that I am dealing with them and only them, and that it is therefore up to them to resolve any “internal” issues and give me an experience that is as delightful as their website. Sadly, things are a far cry from there at this time!

The Oberoi Wildflower Hall in Shimla

And here is the third and final post on the trip to Shimla, after this and this. Given that we spent the bulk of our time at the Wildflower Hall, it is only fair that I devote an entire post to the place. Technically, the resort is not in Shimla – it is about 19 kms north of Shimla, and on the way to Kufri, near a tiny village called Mashobra. And although the distance seems short, it is almost entirely an uphill stretch, and quite a steep and winding climb, and will easily take you about 45 challenging minutes to get there from Shimla. But it is so totally worth the effort, the Wildflower Hall really is special and delightfully pristine.

The Wildflower Hall resort

If your objective is to just have a completely relaxed break up in the mountains, then this is a delightful location to seek out. Oberoi labels it a luxury resort (you know what that means, right? Yes, it is time to break the bank) and rightly so. From the moment you step into the property, the staff will spare no effort to make you feel like your blood is blue. One tradition that I simply love about the Oberoi – they know you before you actually get there (yes, they call you the day before or that morning to find out when you can be expected), receive you very, very warmly and at the same time with a cold welcome drink…and best of all, they don’t make you wait at the reception to check in. Instead, they take you to your room first and then they come to your room to check you in. After a long journey to get there, that is such a blessing. So simple and yet so brilliant, right? Why can’t more hotels follow their lead? As a customer, they certainly get my vote for how they handle this.

The rooms were great, they have a really spacious bathroom and a nice large bathtub to pamper yourself…and some breathtaking views, especially if you get yourself a room that overlooks the magnificent Himalayas. Really, there are few better reasons to wake up in the morning and open your eyes to that sight, in the company of a loved one.

View of the mountains

The hotel pool is outstanding – its indoor and very, very soothing but the jacuzzi is probably their crown jewel. Its outdoors on the terrace, and faces the mountains. The warm water and the cold mountain air make for a terrific combo, and once you get in, you are probably going to stay there. And the food…it was simply fantastic. Chef Mohan, who runs their kitchen is one of the best in the business, I’m sure and he was very nice about customizing and cooking it just the way we wanted – really, every meal was special and delightfully so. And the staff was great too – were eager and ready to provide anything we needed, and yet left us alone to our privacy when it mattered. We had requested a candle-lit dinner on the outside terrace one night, and they made sure it was an unforgettable experience. Everything, and I mean every single detail, was just perfect and extremely well-handled. Their resident sommerlier even called me a few hours in advance to advise me on the various wine options that will go with the menu I had picked. I wanted the dinner to be special and they made sure it was. The Oberoi is a luxury brand, and they certainly demonstrate that class. It was hospitality at its very best!

As for stuff to do around the place, there are a few nature trails that you could take – they are fairly easy hikes and will last a couple of hours and you could choose to do a picnic lunch if you like. We tried it a couple of times and were pretty happy. Sandwiches do seem to taste better when you eat them out in the wild, especially after you’ve had a good workout! Then there was the supposed white-water rafting expedition – There was very little water, it was anything but white, and we certainly weren’t rafting. In the end, it turned out to a pleasant ride in the dinghy, the only saving grace being some absolutely stunning views of the mountains from the Sutlej river. To be fair, the hotel did the right thing by refunding our charge for the activity when we complained that it was pretty lame. And there’s plenty of other stuff to keep you busy, but we chose to take it easy – our schedule typically revolved around the pool, the jacuzzi and the restaurants. Also, they have a nice projection TV setup in the bar, so watching the soccer World Cup games on the big screen was very cool.

White-water rafting

Of course, not everything was perfect – for one, a trip here costs a fortune. And the Oberoi lives by a simple policy – air and water are free, but we should be able to make money off everything else, and we are talking some serious money. I think about 30-40% of our bill at the end of the day was extras, and we didn’t do nearly as many things as we could have, so that should give you an idea. The spa was alright – it is apparently rated one of Asia’s top spas, and if that is indeed the case, that is very sad for Asia. And for what seemed like a very ordinary message, the price was anything but. It will probably remain the most expensive massage I have had in life. And they invited us to some lecture about the local arts in the region – you would think that’d be offered as a free service, but like I said, it wasn’t water or air, so the Oberoi sees dollar signs where you and I don’t. Their wireless tariff was another such joke – they wanted us to charge more for a day of wireless access than it costs me for an entire month at home. But that was good in a way because we chose not to take it and that kept us away from the computer, which was great. Their front desk could use a serious upgrade, and I don’t mean the actual desk. Not only did they not give us the special view room I had specifically requested, but their front desk staff reasonably incompetent spend hours fixing a billing error which should have taken no more than 30 seconds. The excuse they gave me for the room was that the hotel was full and they couldn’t move us, but that was such a poorly coordinated lie – it was fairly obvious that the hotel occupancy was no more than 30% when we were there. Lastly, the reservations staff will try to sell you some lame package that throws in a bunch of benefits for a nice price tag – simply refuse it. You can always figure out what “benefits” you actually want once you get to the hotel and pay the real price for those.

All that said, the resort was great and we had a fantastic break. I can’t wait to go back there again and lie in the jacuzzi all day 🙂 And I will probably want to go there in the winter this time around – it is hard to imagine the place more beautiful than it was, but we all know that snowfall can indeed work its magic on any canvas.

The flying Oryx

At a business quiz in Hyderabad a few years ago, the question for us was to name the airline that had an Oryx for its logo. We pleaded ignorance and had to pass the question, and I thought that was the end of that…but I realized last week traveling on Qatar Airways that the airline had never really forgiven me for that miss, it was payback time!

You know when you are planning your trip and you just get this sense that it is going to be a horrible experience? That’s the feeling I had, and sadly, my worst fears came true. It all started right from the get go. I wanted to change my dates a few hours before I had to fly and called Customer Service. Apparently, they can only look up booking details and answer questions about my reservation – they are not authorized to make itinerary changes, only Reservations does that. Why someone would bother staffing a Customer Service department that isn’t empowered to Serve the Customer, I will never understand. And Reservations is only open from 9-5 Mon-Fri, so they had already left for the day when I called. A little antiquated, no? I think I’d get better response from an Indian Government agency than I did with this airline, and that’s saying a lot.

So anyways, the Customer Service rep directs me to head to the airport to make the change there for if I don’t show up at the check in counter, they’d consider me a No Show and simply cancel my ticket, without any refund of course. So I religiously head to the airport and request a reschedule – of course, same answer. The check-in clerk is only authorized to check passengers in, not make changes to your ticket. The ground operations for Qatar Airways in Bangalore are managed by an external agency, which in itself is a bad sign. And to make matters worse, this agency’s staff is indifferent, incompetent, and so focused on getting you to do what they want, not the other way around. Its worth pointing out that the single beacon of hope was the lone Qatar Airways employee at the airport, who put in a sincere effort to reschedule my ticket but wasn’t successful because the flights were so full. So I had little choice but to get on that plane.

If the experience leading to the journey was bad, the travel itself was just horrid. Miserable seats that resembled park benches with a sorry excuse for a cushion set the tone. Personal TV screens on every seat – awesome…now if only they can figure out how to put them to good use by having movies that you’d actually want to watch, they’d be put to some use! The sweet-looking stewardess had seemingly signed a pact that barred her from smiling – I don’t blame her though. If I had her job, I probably wouldn’t want to smile either. The food, you ask? Barely edible! I seriously considered eating plastic instead – and if you requested a special meal like I did, you are guaranteed to be missing something or the other in your meal – happened to me every single time. And oh btw, Asian Vegetarians apparently don’t eat dessert? When I asked, they gave me fruit instead – Nice! Thank you for watching my diet, Oryx, but can I decide what I want for dessert please?

And the airport at Doha – what is with that place? Color schemes ignored for a second, it felt like an IKEA store, only smaller. More a shopping mall than airport, the place has all these weird walkways weaving around one another, and no matter which one you take, you always seem to end up in one of the duty-free shopping aisles. If you have struggled to get out of an IKEA store like I have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyways, I walk down to the coffee shop in the food court (again, more IKEA inspiration – the Swedish chain should be proud) and order a tall Americano, and the damn cup of coffee costs me $7! Of course, they served it in a container the size of a drum, but who cares? Seven dollars for a cup of coffee? I am sure it would have been cheaper to buy a barrel of oil. And it would probably have tasted better too. And oh, don’t even get me started on the restrooms. They had 4 for the entire terminal, which only housed about a couple of thousand people during that busy morning hour! And those restrooms make dirty sound like a good thing. I went to every single one of those 4, in the hope that at least one would be remotely usable, but no such luck. It was hard to even enter the place, a grim reminder of how nasty a species mankind is at times. Sad!

So, after such a delightful experience, I don’t think I ever want to fly the Oryx again – if I had to choose between flying Qatar and canceling my trip, I think I’d take the latter. I would recommend you do the same, but if you must travel, at least insist that you won’t use the airport for transit 🙂 I heard somewhere that Qatar was competing with and aspiring to be like Emirates – if my trip was anything to go by, Emirates has nothing to worry about, those aspirations will remain just that.

In Shimla

So, continuing on from here, we got to Shimla after a 4.5 hr drive, right in time for Lunch. We checked in at the Oberoi Cecil…and were told our room wouldn’t be ready for another couple of hours. Granted we were early for a 2pm check-in, but that is so not what you want to hear when you think you are really starting your vacation and just got done with a tiring trip. Yeah, we are spoiled – 4.5 hours in a chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned Toyota Innova is indeed tiring.

Anyways, we decided to make the most of the time we had by hiking up to Mall Road, getting a feel for the town and grabbing lunch. And we quickly realized, as for checking the town out, Mall Road was it – there isn’t much else to Shimla. The weather was still kinda warm considering it was June and despite the obvious attempts by the municipality to keep the town clean (I swear to God, I haven’t seen nearly as many litter bins and Do Not Spit here notices on the walls in any other Indian town), people couldn’t care less. The place is dirty, a little too crowded and kinda boring. And food? Oh, don’t even get me started on that one. Options just don’t exist, and every restaurant in town serves authentic cuisine from every place on earth that you can imagine. You thought you’d never see a Sher-e-Punjab serving authentic South Indian fare? Think again!

Hordes of monkeys (and they are perpetually hungry, of course), lots of school/college kids (apparently Shimla is a favored destination for premier education), tons of tourists – and that was about it. The locals don’t seem a very happy bunch but I don’t blame them. I would be grumpy too if I had to trek up and down steep mountain roads all day, and only to deal with millions of annoying tourists that seem to be taking over. But really, nothing else stood out as far as the town goes – the clouds were really beautiful and seemed to be constantly floating around, and the weather patterns change fairly dramatically. Sun one minute and heavy rain the next, and then bright Sun again shortly thereafter. Heck, we even got to see some Hail and it does come down with a vengeance.

I also think the folks that reside there have a terrific sense of humor – its a pity that they don’t realize they do, or worse, maybe they don’t even intend to be funny. But funny they are! A picture is worth a thousand words, they say – so here, take a look…

Well, if Mr Parkash has to go, then I guess he has to go. Deal with it, people!

Skull & Bones warning sign @ the Hospital - you were warned!

But of course...authentic South Indian cuisine from an authentic Punjabi!

Destination Shimla!

So the Missus and I decided that a break was long overdue and it was my turn to do the planning this time around. After a lot of research, given the time of year and our objective of a completely relaxing vacation, I picked the Wildflower Hall just north of Shimla. Based on everything I had seen and heard about the resort, and the reviews on TripAdvisor, it seemed like a fairly safe bet. The place deserves its own write-up, so more on that in the next blog maybe – this one is dedicated to just getting to Shimla. I had decided to keep our destination a secret – the little bit of mystery was driving the curious wife nuts, and I have to admit, the cheap thrill of keeping the secret made the painstaking efforts very worthwhile. As we sat on the plane to Delhi though, she was leafing through the Horoscope section of the in-flight magazine and guess what it says for her Zodiac – yep, it actually called out that a surprise trip to Shimla was in the offing! Go figure! They manage to get these predictions right once in a lifetime, and this is the time they had to pick?

From Bangalore, there are multiple ways to get to Shimla and all of them involve Delhi as the hub – unless you believe in the world is round theory, of course. From Delhi, one option is to do the 8-hour (or thereabouts) road trip to Shima via Chandigarh. If you decide to take this option, make sure you time it around the traffic jams that haunt the Delhi border. Apparently, trucks are allowed into the city only between 8pm and 8am, and they generally start queuing up outside right before – and can halt traffic for up to 2 hours. Folks I talked to said the Delhi-Chandigarh road was great, so once you get out, it should make for an easy drive. The summer up in the north is brutal this time of the year though, so I can’t imagine the drive being a lot of fun. Heck, I thought our flight was warm, so imagine the road!

Another option is to fly or take the train to Chandigarh – there is a Shatabdi that gets you there in 4.5 hours if I remember right but the timing of the train makes it a little challenging to coordinate, unless you have time to kill in Delhi of course. We decided to fly to Chandigarh and then drive up to Shimla. The Chandigarh airport is a make-believe arrangement, I am sure. The runway is actually a long stretch of road and no room to turn the plane around. The captain had to literally spin the plane on its axis to make the u-turn to taxi us to the terminal. The plane parks itself in what looks like someone’s backyard and the terminal is a large room with something that resembles a bench serving as baggage claim. And Jet Airways actually flew us down there in a spanking new 777 – there were 9 people on the plane, and yes, I am including the 5-member crew in my count. The most stressful part of the journey was actually picking which of the empty seats to take – window? aisle? emergency row? left of the plane? right? Just an endless dilemma for a 35 minute flight.

We had decided to spend the night in Chandigarh because we wanted to ascend the mountains in daylight – and that turned out to be a wise decision because we had left home at 5am to get on our 7am flight, and were completely beat when we got to Chandigarh around 3pm. The Taj Chandigarh was an excellent option and the service was great, just like you’d expect from a Taj property. If you do decide to stay here and happen to like sandwiches, I highly recommend the Mozzarella Pesto sandwich – was divine!

We did consider the option of taking the Himalayan Queen (a heritage train) up the mountain to Shimla. It takes 5 hours and goes thru a bunch of curvy mountain passes, tunnels etc as it makes the 6000 ft climb but was discouraged as the train was not the most comfortable (it is heritage for a reason, you know) and usually too cramped with people. And they were right, even though the train was making 3 trips daily, they were all completely sold out for the next several weeks. So driving up was our only choice, and in the end, it seemed like the most convenient. Rent a big car if you can though – as with most mountain roads in India, the uphill climb has several curves, a lot of them blind and the traffic was actually busy. A lot of trucks on the road, way more than I’d have expected . Where were they all going? In any case, a bigger car just feels more comfortable and secure. One warning – the drivers of Chandigarh just aren’t just good judges of time. No matter what you ask them, the answer always seems to be 3 hours. It actually took us around 4.5 hours to get to Shimla even though it was only 90kms away, so plan appropriately. And if you are looking for a good place to rent cabs from, Chandigarh Travelz (92160 32805) was a great option. They charged us Rs 2500 for a one-way drop in an air-conditioned Innova, and that seemed like a decent bargain and made it a very comfortable trip in the end.

There is also the option to fly into Shimla – Kingfisher has one flight everyday from Delhi but this flight is apparently very unpredictable thanks to the weather patterns in Shimla. If you do lucky to get on though, I can only imagine how pretty the flight path would be. The drive was beautiful and the view from up in the air can only be better. Maybe next time!

More on Shimla and the Wildflower Hall…

And finally back in Mussorie!

After 3 wonderful days in beautiful Nainital, we hopped on the bus on Tuesday morning bound for Mussorie. The agent at the hotel had warned us that it was a 10 hour drive and none of us was really looking forward to the long journey in the supposedly super-deluxe bus, but did we have a choice? The enthusiasm remained high though and the microphone in the bus (it was a tourist bus) helped – folks were putting their vocal chords to the test and we had our own version of Indian Idol getting started. The drive downhill was unpleasant to say the least (the oily puris we had for breakfast were NOT helping) and we had to stop several times to let folks get a breath of fresh air, walk around and do whatever it took to get rid of the motion sickness. We must have bought enough Hajmola to send their stock skyrocketing. Finally, we hit the plains and not only did the drive get more pleasant, the driver started making good headway towards Mussorie – the weather was starting to get very warm however, and some of us wondered if Hyderabad would have been cooler.

Four hours later, we saw a sign that said Dehradun (which is about 35 kms from Mussorie, at the foothills) was 110 kms away and we were elated. The 10-hour estimate was clearly wrong, and we’d probably make it in 7 hours…but wait, there was Hardwar, with its countless so-called devotees, lurking ahead. The roads were completely blocked and the unruly crowd (trust me, there was nothing devout about what the vast majority of them were doing) ensured that we had to take a detour. The bus changed direction towards Rishikesh and we ambled along the Upper Ganga canal and reached Rishikesh about 3 hours later – on a couple of occasions enroute, we actually crossed the river (no bridge mind you, we literally drove across the Ganga (the river is blazing fast, btw). A chai break and 2 hours later, we started climbing up towards Mussorie and the weather started to get cooler again. Sitting at the front of the bus and watching the driver negotiate the dangerous curves was a great experience in itself – finally, we reached our destination, the Avalon Resorts up in the Mussorie hills after 12 torturous hours and everyone was so ready to call it a day.

The next 3 days it just rained and rained and rained in Mussorie and the bulk of our time were spent indoors. A few brave folks ventured out in the few dry spells we had and did a little bit of trekking, sight-seeing etc but overall it was rather disappointing. I had been to Mussorie 11 years earlier with my college gang and amazingly, not much had changed in the city. A lot of the old structures, business establishments etc were still intact although the city had become much dirtier. People were spitting on the streets like there was no tomorrow – to say it was disgusting would be putting in mildly. The resort itself was good (clean rooms, good facilities, activities etc)  and the food very decent (its affiliated to Club Mahindra) but it was somewhat pricey – i think the cheapest cottages (sleeps 2) runs for 5500 plus this time of the year. And their service seemed to start out very well with the manager coming down to talk to us so that he could help us plan our activities – arrange a cricket match, organize a picnic, do some adventure sports etc. But then, reality wasn’t very far behind…and that was the last we saw of him. Of course, the rain would have prevented us from doing any of the things he mentioned but we were still shocked that he disappeared after all those promises. And it was NOT funny that his name was Arvind as well!

Mussorie did offer a lot of opportunities for us to shop though. Gun Hill, one of the highest points in town (you can take the ropeway to get there, or trek up if you are looking for a steep climb) offers some creative key chains where you can get names inscribed – these make for terrific gifts and are reasonably cheap. I think its a trademark Mussorie item because I distinctly remember seeing some of the same things on my previous trip 11 years ago. Shame on me if i I didnt get you one :> In addition, Mall Road has a bunch of cute shops with intersting stuff to sell – even if you dont buy anything, it makes for a fun evening walk.

Finally, after a nice long break we headed back home with a day’s stop at Dehradun. Those of us that were tired of the bus (and there were quite a few) decided to take the train to Delhi. Its a six-hour train ride and there are plenty of options through the day from 5am to 9:30pm (there are 2 Shatabdis and another A/C special among others). For those that need to get there quicker, Air Deccan has a midday flight out of Dehradun that’ll get you to Delhi in an hour or so. And while we are on the subject of alternate travel options, one can also get to Mussorie from Nainital by train – there is a night train from Kathgodam (which is the rail head for Naintail, about 35kms away) that gets you to Dehradun in 9 hours so that’s a good option as well.

Next destination – hoping it’ll be Kathmandu but that’s at least a few weeks away

Wonderful Nainital!

After sleeping like logs on Friday night, we woke up the next morning to welcome the rest of our group from Delhi. We were staying at the beautiful Sherwani Hilltop. The resort has wonderful views to offer and the China Peak serves as its backdrop. It is also reasonably well maintained, particularly the nursery and the lawns. This was also its downside as the caretaker wouldn’t allow us to play soccer or cricket on the lawns 😦 The biggest downside is that the resort is at the end of an extremely steep and winding road, but worry not – there are free shuttles from the resort that ferry passengers to and from the lake.

Once the rest of our group arrived, most of them settled down for a nice breakfast at the resort itself. A few of us were brave enough to venture down to one of the local dhabas for some authentic Nainital fare. And clearly that turned out to be a wise decision because the food comprising aalo, gobi and mooli parathaas with incredibly tasty dahi was just heavenly. The fatigue from the previous day’s journey was quickly forgotten and our vacation was off to a great start. We came back to the resort and played frisball for the next couple of hours. Lunch followed and then folks split off in various directions to do some fun stuff. The lake is about 4kms from the resort and a few of us wandered down to the lake, which is also the center of activity. After a quiet dinner at the resort, it was time to catch up on sleep for a lot of folks while the rest of us sat on the lawns for most of the night and talked about everything under the sun (or moon, in this case).

The next couple of days seemed to fly by although we didn’t seem to do much of anything – guess that’s what vacation is all about and before we knew it, the Nainital portion of our trip was coming to an end. We had a couple of interesting team activities planned while we were there. One of them was a quiz that some folks had prepared (entirely about the members of the group) and helped get people to do something together and have fun at the same time. The other was a TT tournament that was organized within the team (the resort had a TT table) that consumed a good portion of our Monday evening.

As for things we did while in Nainital, some of us hiked up to China Peak, or at least attempted to. The steep climb put my old age to test – combine that with my total lack of fitness, and I was forced to give up after a certain point. I still managed to get a bird’s eye view of the entire city and the valley below and it was simply spectacular. Its definitely worth a climb – take the road up hill from the Sherwani Hilltop and after about a km on the road, you will see a hiking trail take off on your right. Follow this trail up the mountain, all the way to China Peak. It is about 3kms or so, and will take 1.5 to 2 hours considering its an extremely steep climb. One bit of advice is to only do this climb if you believe you are fit 🙂

On the next day, a smaller group took the bus to Sattal and Naukuchiatal – i didn’t go and so cant comment much on how it was but the folks that did go thought the views, lake etc were excellent. It is about a 2 hour ride from Nainital – one hour down to the foothills and another hour or so from there. Another group went to Jageshwar, which apparently houses the oldest temple for Lord Shiva in India. They drove to the temple in a cab that cost about 2k for the day and it took them a little over 3 hours to get there.

Other attractions at Nainital include the ropeway, watching local boys play soccer in the stadium across the lake, boating in the lake, visiting the animal zoo and going to China (or Naina, as some people refer to it) Peak. Overall, we didn’t do much but that was also one of the objectives of this break. It was to relax in a scenic setting and get our batteries recharged, so not having a hectic activity schedule helped immensely. Finally, on Tuesday morning it was time to pack our bags and head towards Mussorie for our next stop!

Nainital, here we come…

After what seems like several months of tireless work in the office, my team decided to take a break and go on a morale-boosting trip to Nainital. Our flight to Delhi was at 6am and we barely managed to get there in time to catch it.

Factoring in some delay because it was Air Deccan wasn’t such a wise move, the flight was pretty much on time and got to Delhi around 8. We had hired a bus from Delhi but our group was split in two parts and the second bunch wasn’t arriving in Delhi until later that night. So the first batch had about 12 hours to kill – while most folks had plans to hang around in Delhi and take the bus, I had no intentions of staying back in the sweltering heat, so I decided to head to Nainital right away. Madhu (he’s a colleague – well worthy of a dedicated blog) said he would join me but wanted to see the India Gate – the two of us got inside a rickshaw and drove right past India Gate just so we could satisfy his requirement and headed towards the New Delhi railway station so we could figure out the quickest way to get to our destination. We passed thru Connaught place however and saw the Metro station – given all the good things I had heard about the Delhi metro, I had the sudden urge to ride it. So we jumped off the rick, went down to Nirulas for a breakfast buffet (Was 160 bucks and highly rated but certainly not worthy of either – I am trying to think of something positive to say about the food, but am drawing a complete blank) and then to the metro station.

The autowallah told us that taking a bus from the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal, I believe) might be the more practical approach because there were no trains available to Nainital in the morning, so we rode the metro to the Vishwavidhyala station, which is right outside the Rana Pratap ISBT. But as luck would have it, the buses to Nainital run from the Anand Vihar ISBT, which is oh, only several kilometres away. Plan before you leave on a trip people, PLAN! Took another auto to the Anand Vihar bus station and as luck would have it, two friendly looking agents accosted us as we were entering the station and offered to get us on a “high-tech” super deluxe bus for Nainital that was leaving in the next 10 minutes. I usually stay away from these agents, but one peek inside the bus station at the state-run buses was enough to convince me that a high-tech bus was worth a second look. So we faithfully followed the agent to the bus – there was nothing high-tech about it but it was mostly full and looked ready to leave. And my Delhite friend had warned me that there might be no state buses to Nainital at this time of the day, so we didn’t want to take a chance. We coughed up the Rs. 280 fare for the journey (to Nainital) and got two of the best seats in the house.

The bus didn’t really seem designed for humans – there was absolutely no room between seats and given both Madhu and I are reasonably tall, this 8-hour adventure was going to be a journey to hell. The bad news was that the worst was yet to come…The bus finally left about an hour later. It was 12:30pm by now and we were already tired. The agency had claimed there were no scheduled stops – clearly, we misunderstood. It just meant that none of the stops were scheduled. He was happy to stop at every street corner and pick up just about anyone that was heading remotely in the direction of Nainital. Despite all his attempts to keep us locked up like cattle forever, we managed to reach Haldwani at the foothills of Nainital after 8 hours of corporal punishment. And here is where the real shock came. He casually informed us that this was the last stop as the bus couldn’t climb the hills and that we were on our own from here on. When I asked him why our ticket said Nainital, he pleaded helplessness and blamed the agent for having made promises that couldn’t be honored. I tried arguing with him, but it was futile. And this is why you don’t ever trust the agents in India – I am very aware that I am generalizing here, but with good reason. They are all grade A crooks!

We got down and trekked to the taxi stand (there are no buses that go up the hill after sunset – so if you are planning to reach there by bus, make sure you get there before dusk) We started looking for a cab and the first guy that agreed to come wanted 800 bucks to drop us off because he would have to come back empty. We tried to bargain down, but 600 was his last offer. We refused and kept looking. An hour later, we were hungry, tired and frustrated because no one was willing to come. Finally found a jeep that agreed to take us for 650 and we happily agreed (all that training I took on Negotiation Skills and Strategies was clearly “helping”). We reached our resort an hour and a half later at 11pm – more than 18 hours after I left home and in very bad shape. After a hot shower, I was happy to hit the sack. Clearly, our vacation wasn’t starting off in great fashion, but the good news was that it could only get better from here. More on Nainital later…