Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, Rajastan

Hawa Mahal is an iconic building in Jaipur, which looks majestic from the roadside. I finally got to visit this place. One can either have a free view of Hawa Mahal from outside or chose to go inside and explore a bit, with a Rs 10 ticket. I did both. Outisde view is the best. From the inside, one can’t feel the beauty of the building- it feels like any other old palace. Tourists can go till the top. Below are some photos of Hawa Mahal, inside and outside.
Located amidst a busy commercial area, this building doesn’t get much protection from natural elements or human intrusion.
Audio tour is available for the benefit of tourists. Refer Wikipedia for history of this place, I don’t intend to repeat the same.

Another point to be noted: if we go early morning, sun light will be on the Hawa mahal. I went in second half of the day, hence above picture has sunlight behind the mahal

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Shahar Palace Hotel, Jaipur

While I was searching for a budget accommodation in Jaipur, I came across Shahar Palace on the internet. After comparing few other hotels, I zeroed in on Shahar Palace and called them to check if they’ ve rooms available. I got a reply in affirmative and I told I’ll arrive by late evening.
 There were couple of key reasons why I chose Shahar Palace.
·         First was the price- starting at Rs 875 per night (as per their website, but I was charged Rs 1500, more about it at the end)
·         Second, this place was very close (1.5 kms, walk-able) to Jaipur Railway Station. I had a 6 AM train (Jaipur-Delhi double decker), hence staying close to Railway station would save me the trouble of hunting for an auto at 5 AM in the morning (as well as the cost)
·         3rd reason was that this hotel is being run by a retired army personnel and his family (Colonel Virendra Singh, Retired). Felt such place will be more homely than a commercialized hotel
·         Campus photos shown on the website were good. It had a small garden around it
·         The website said “We have parking space for Caravans”.  I hoped I might be able to spot a caravan in the campus and get to take a close look (there were none though)
I arrived at Jaipur by 8 PM and reached the guest house. This post is a quick review of the Shahar Palace hotel in Jaipur, Rajastan.

Checkin: The owner greeted us upon arrival and completed check-in formalities quickly. I offered to pay an advance and asked how much they’re going to charge me. Military uncle asked me if his son has quoted any number. I said “No, we didn't take about rent, I only checked if you have rooms available. I’ve seen the rent on your website”. “Ok, I’ll check with my son” was the reply. The owner walked me to the room and explained the facilities.

About the room: I was offered a corner room, which was small in size but good enough for one person. The building is a bit old and so are the electrical. The water heater was starting to get rusted and power sockets were lose. My room didn't have any dedicated balcony, but once I step out, I could use common balcony. No heaters were available in the room to warm its occupants. No TV, No dressing mirror/table/cup board. It had only bare minimum furniture to keep my bag on or to sit. If you’re particular about these, either opt for next class or rooms or confirm in advance that you’ll get these facilities. Only one power socket was working properly. I didn't initially mind these short falls, considering I’ll be paying just around 900 Rs per day (only to be charged Rs 1500 per day in the end, details later) 
About the location and ambiance: Apart from occasional disturbance from speeding train, the location is away from city traffic and is quite silent. Shahar palace campus has a small garden, in which one case easily spot 3-5 kind of birds. The garden is good for spending a relaxed evening. A small stage is also available, useful for parties etc

Hospitality: Was good. Both colonel and his wife were very friendly, they spend good time with guests talking to them, providing information and entertainment. Doesn't usually happen in a hotel.

Security: There was no security guard at the entrance and the gate was left unlocked whole night. On my first day, at about 6.30 AM I left for a morning walk (went to central park). Not a single person was awake and gates were not locked (To be noted: the community has another gate near the main road, but was unguarded whenever I passed by). I opened the gate and went for a walk. On Day 2 I had to check out at 5 AM next day, I was told to settle the amount post dinner and leave early morning alone, as no one will be willing to compromise their sleep at that time in the day. May be it is a safe location with near zero theft risk, but I feel locking the gate and or having a chowkidar to be around (even if he spends most of the night sleeping instead of patrolling) would constitute basic security.

Checkout: As the internet published tariff was Rs 875 per night for single occupancy in the standard room, I was expecting a bill of around 2000 Rs for 2 days, rent + food included. However, I was charged Rs 1500 per night, under the pretext of Jaipur literary festival. I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have complained if the same was communicated during check-in. I would have fought back, argued or negotiated a bit, but respecting the old man for his hospitality and army background, I silently paid additional 1250 rupees (Rs 3000 for 2 nights, instead of Rs 1750 as per website). Not many good accommodation options are available for under 1500 Rs per day in Jaipur- even if I was informed of the hike during check-in, not sure if I would have opted out.
The hotel had good number of international tourists.

Food: Tea/Coffee costs Rs 50, other items priced in similar ratio. No complementary breakfast. I had a veg thali on Day 1, 2 Aloo parathas on day 2 and asked for curd rice on Day 2 dinner and bill amount was Rs 400+. Made by hired cooks, taste was fine, no complaints. No other restaurants anywhere nearby in 1.5 km radius, except road side tea shops.

Another fact I learnt later was that all big shots of Jaipur stay very close to this place-civil lines. Chief Minister's residence, Governor's residence are all just about a km or two from Shahar Palace in Civil lines.

The under construction metro also passes nearby. A fuel station, a Hanuman temple, 2 ATMs are nearby. A CCD outlet seem to be under construction.

What I liked at Shahar Palace
·         Homely feeling when owner and his wife sit with guests and having general conversation
·         Their pet dog
·         Overall ambiance of the campus
·         Closeness to Railway station

What I didn't like:
·         Instead of charging me extra during check out in the excuse of literary fest, they could have either updated their website with correct rate/note or told me about actual rent during check-in. They weren't running full anyway and I was a last minute customer and room would have been empty if I’d gone anywhere. A little more transparency would have won 100% satisfaction. Next time, I need to double confirm rent during check-in.
·         Food price could have been made a bit more affordable
·         Little more furniture/accessories in the room would have been nice
·         No security, gates unlocked all through the night. Not much help/service available early morning hours
·   No complementary breakfast

Do I recommend this place? I do, because it is cheap, decent and has good ambiance  But just take precautions to ensure what you're getting and what you'll be paying is  up to your satisfaction.

Visit their website for details:, do double confirm the rates and don't assume anything. If you're expecting something (may be free breakfast or a TV in a room etc, get confirmation before hand)

Similar hotel reviews: Hotel Pattaya Garden, Pattaya * Peninsula Excelsior, Singapore * Le Fenix, Bangkok

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jaipur Delhi Doubledecker Train experience

Once I decided to make an impromptu visit to Jaipur (more about it later), I was looking for possible transportation options back to Delhi. While checking through available trains, what accidentally caught my attention was the double Decker train. It would have gone unnoticed if I had not read the news that there’re plans to introduce this double decker train between Chennai and Mysore. Double Deckers are not common in India, so I decided to try this train, even though it meant losing couple of hours of site seeing opportunity in Delhi (This train reaches Delhi by 10AM. If I’d taken some other transportation to reach Delhi by say 7 AM, I could have visited few more places)
For my planned Sunday morning journey, when I checked on Thursday afternoon, 100+ seats were available. Since connection was slow, I thought I’ll book later. Friday morning 4 AM I suddenly woke up and remembered that I’ve not yet booked the ticket. Logged into IRCTC, last 2 seats were remaining. Happily booked one of them. While booking the ticket, there were no option to indicate if I want upper deck or lower. Only Window/Non Window could be specified. Luckily I got a seat in upper deck, an aisle seat.
Sunday morning 5.30 AM I reached Jaipur railway station, which was at a walkable 1.5 km from my guest house (Shahar Palace). Within minutes the double-decker train pulled into platform number 2. Its scheduled departure was 6 AM. Like me for many it was new experience, many people were clicking photos of it. My attempt to board the train first and take some good photos of empty train before passengers rush in failed, as many eager passengers boarded as soon as it halted took their seats half an hour before departure time.
Fare: For a journey of 294 kms between Jaipur and Delhi Contt, the ticket fare was Rs 385+ 20 Service fee + payment gateway charges. Almost proportionate to Shatabdi express fares. No complementary food like in Shatabdi.

From the outside: The compartments are a bit higher than regular compartments, but not two times as one would have expect. This is because Lower deck sinks below the normal level. Train had some 14 compartments in total, each with some 120 seats. I didn’t notice any first class compartment.

From the inside:  All compartments are chair cars, with a 3+2 configuration. Similar to Shatabdi or other chair cars, at the centre of the compartments passengers face each other. As mentioned earlier, lower deck sinks below platform level. A small set of steps takes passengers to upper and lower decks. There’re few solo seats as well and some seats at middle level (near the steps). There’s no provision to indicate where you’d like to sit. Only luck can get you best seat. Charging points and window curtains are provided.  There were few extra passengers standing all through the journey.
Train was clean and neat, couple of armrests, including mine were damaged a bit here and there.

I felt leg room is more than Shatabdi by an inch or two. Seat recline was only marginal. Couldn’t really feel it.
Travel experience: Overhead luggage space was soon filled up and passengers started feeling shortage of the same and began re-arranging bags to make more space or find other places to keep their luggage. Very few hawkers strolled through my journey that lasted 4 hours. In fact people felt hungry and there was hardly anything coming by. Some passengers started asking any seller for tea and other things, for which the reply was "its over" or "it'll come". Once a seller enters a compartment, he'll either take upper deck or lower deck to go to next compartment. Going back one more round to cover the other deck might seem like waste of time to him. Almost all vendors who sold food stuff emptied their baskets in no time. Sample rates: Water bottle: Rs 15, Samosa Rs 11 per piece, Frooti tetra pack: Rs 20, Cakes at MRP.

I didn’t feel the speed of the train, but compared to 7 hour bus journey 2 days earlier (Gurgaon-Jaipur), I feel 4 hour travel time by this train is pretty fast. Double decker doesn’t stop at too many places. It has only 4-5 stops in its entire journey. 

A nice sunrise by the side and green country side of Rajastan/Haryana made the journey pleasant.
Train pulled into Delhi Cantonment at about 10.15, 10 minutes beyond schedule. Overall a very good service by Indian Railways running this double decker train. They should introduce more such trains and I hope Mysore-Bengaluru-Chennai double decker starts plying soon.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Indica Vista D90 ZX review

Tata Motors' next launch, Vista D90 ZX is expected to happen by this month end, Jan 28th most likely. D90 is a powerful variant of existing Vista Sedan Class, with a 90PS engine and Tata Manza interiors.

Thanks to Tata Motors and Blogadda, about 30 bloggers all over India were given a chance to experience this new car for 3 days. I happened to be one of them. Drove this car for close to 1300 kms in 3 days and this post is my review of the car.

You may read the first impressions here and a set of detailed photos here

What's new in Indica Vista D90 ZX?
Looks: On the outside, lots of chrome on door handle, window frame, special D90 and ZX branding, and contrasting roof are the key differentiators. Otherwise the difference is not noticeable.

Dual colour  alloy wheels add to looks (almost every other model in the market comes with single colour white alloy wheel.

On the inside, console has moved to the conventional position. A DIS or driver information system, steering mounted audio controls, bluetooth will pamper the passengers.

On the safety front, there're dual SRS airbags, ABS and steel reinforcement on doors.

How does it feel to drive?
I enjoyed my 1300 km drive. Driver seat is height adjustable, steering column is adjustable, mirrors can be adjusted from inside. So I could try various positions and settle for the most convenient driving position. The all night drive was not an issue.

I could touch a top speed of 162kmph. Was expecting the 90PS engine to go a little faster (since many other under powered cars touch 160 easily), assume that'll be possible after a service or two

Vista handled curved roads well. Not too many downshifts for uphill drive, ground clearance is adequate to handle bad roads thrown at us and suspension absorbs most of the impact.

0-100 kmph took 14 seconds for me.

Acceleration and braking was brilliant-gave added confidence on the highway. DIS or Driver information system was also useful. It shows instantaneous mileage or what's the mileage you're getting for your current driving style. I kept an eye on this while driving- while climbing uphill in first gear, it showed a mileage of as low as 3.8-4.2 kmpl. While cruising at 160 kmph, it showed 8.1-9 kmpl. The optimal fuel economy was observed between 40-60 kmph, of about 15+kmpl. Any time we lift the foot off the accelerator, DIS shows its max fuel economy of 25kmpl. This information helps improve our driving style and in turn save some fuel money. The Average fuel economy I got was some 14+ kmpl.

DIS also shows outside temperature, time, distance to empty.

Entertainment and Features
Audio control on steering wheel and blue tooth connectivity is cool. I'm told there will be a ZX Plus variant which will have navigation system (one available in Manza Club Class)

Blue tooth connectivity works very well, but music system used to reset to FM each time vehicle is started, forcing us to re-select BT streaming each time. May be I am missing some settings.

Space: Like any other Tata Vehicle, space is not a constraint in Vista. Rear seats can be folded in seconds to create extra luggage space. 5 people can sit comfortably. Back seat gets a headrest which is adjustable.

Safety: I'm told doors have additional re-enforcement for added safety. A 90PS powered engine needs added braking abilities, hence ABS with EBD is provided. (Rear wheel still has drum brakes though)

Two Airbags are provided, passenger airbag can be turned off. (But will one remember to turn it on each time someone's sitting? If you forget to turn it ON and unfortunate crash happens, it is as good as not having airbag)

Braking was good. The Safari I'd driven last month used to make some noise if braked hard (it was old vehicle), Indica Vista D90 never complained or hesitated to respond to stop requests instantly.

What improvements I would expect in Indica Vista D90?
1. Make the door hold 1 litre bottle. Why should small car owners always carry small half litre bottle only? With a slight design tweak, 1 little pet bottle would fit into the door.

2. Make the system remember my preference. If I've set the digital display to Trip Meter A, each time I restart the car system goes back to Odo. I'll have to re-select trip meter A. Will be nice if this effort is saved.
3. Similarly music system should remember users' preference. It will be annoying to reset every time. (May be there's a setting I'm not aware of)
4. Can we have a shorter name please? Tata Indica Vista D90 ZX90 so many words. May be loose Indica and call it Vista D90? (Tata did the same with Grande, Sumo was dropped and now it is called Tata Grande)
Price: Exact pricing is yet to be known (we'll know during its launch next week), but it is expected to be priced bit above Swift and slightly below i20, thus giving great value for money and a perfect combination of power, space, safety. Low spec VX would cost about 6 lakhs ex-showroom (add 10% for on road price), ZX might cost 6.7 lakhs.

With a more powerful engine and sedan like features, Vista D90 would  compete with i20 and Punto.  I wish the call all the success

Update: Vista D90 is officially launched today, with price range starting from 6 lakhs for VX and 6.83 lakhs for ZX+, both ex showroom Delhi

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tata Indica Vista D90 ZX photoshoot

Below are some photos of soon to be launched hatchback from Tata Motors- the Indica Vista D90 ZX.

I was given this car for 3 days and we drove off to Kodaikanal to explore the place and the car. I've been to many other tourist spots in TN and around, hence chose Kodai (had been there in childhood, 2 decades ago). January is not the best time to visit Kodai and I am not very pleased with the photoshoot.  Kodai had few viewpoints, but they were crowded to take nice pic of the car, water falls had dried up. There wasn't anything exciting on the way either. Didn't have time to go greater distance and take better photos.

Sharing only photos in this post. Detailed vehicle review will be next.

Could have done better with this photo shoot.

Also read: Tata Aria [Review, Pic Set 1Pic Set 2Set 3] and Tata Venture [ReviewPic Set 1Pic Set 2, Set 3]. Recently took out a Tata Safari EX 4x4 on a self drive and I haven’t had enough of it yet.[Photos]

Painted Stork closeup photo

Bird photography is tricky
Birds don’t give a damn that you’re trying to click a beautiful photo of theirs and hope to get 100s of likes on facebook. They don’t care to pose for you. So we need to wait with patience for that one good shot.

Birds don't trust humans. Of all the living creatures humans are probably least trusted ones by other species (and within too). This means birds won't come closer to you so that you can take better photo. We need to use telephoto lens and bigger ones at that. Even 300mm is usually not adequate. 

Birds are hyperactive and won't stay still. What this means is we need to be fast. Birds won't wait till I take the camera out, fix the lens, set up tripod, position, focus and click. Most of the time camera takes a second or two to focus and in that critical moment, birds move away and a potential good shot is lost.

Hence in order to photograph birds, one needs to be either extremely lucky (all the above works in our favor) or one should have lots of time and patience to wait for hours and get a good shot. Being weekend traveler, I don't have luxury of time and I usually rely on the former- luck.

Why I said all these is because of below shot. While exploring birds at Vedanthangal, I accidentally managed to click the below. A painted stork flew relatively close and I managed to click this. I feel it is the closest bird in flight I've clicked properly so far.

Two other close up photos (nothing unique about them)- First one is Black headed Ibis and other one is Pelican

 View more bird photos: Birds at our village Set 1 * Set 2 * Birds at Bheemeshwari * Birds on a powerline * Birds at Karanji Lake, Mysore * Macaw and other birds, KL