“ Address: Khasara No. 48M/50M, Opp. Dudhadhari Temple / Bopatwala Kalan / Dudhadhari Chowk / Haridwar-249 410 / Haridwar / Uttarakhand 249410 / India / Tel: 01334 663333 „
~There's Something to be Said for Consistency~
I'm often rather scathing about chain hotels and the tendency they have to offer exactly the same thing regardless of where you find them. I'm less scathing in India where there's actually a lot of comfort and reassurance to be gained from knowing what you're going to get beforehand. I often get a slightly sick feeling in my stomach when we approach a new hotel and this is caused by the nagging doubt that I might just possibly have booked us into a hovel with hot and cold running cockroaches and cholera. Of the six hotels I booked for our recent trip to India, the one where I knew exactly what we'd get and what to expect was the Ginger in Haridwar.
On our trip to the south last year we stayed at the Ginger in Mysore and we liked it a lot. So this year we went looking for more Gingers and found two that fit our itinerary. These were in Delhi and in Haridwar. Delhi was a disaster - despite repeated mails to the hotel they weren't accepting bookings any more than 2 weeks in advance. I like everything tied up nice and early so we gave up on that idea, but the Haridwar Ginger was still available. We booked a room for one night for my sister and her girlfriend and a room for two nights for ourselves. This was because we had a night train booked for the second night but thought if we kept a hotel room, we could at least all have showers and some dinner before we left. The price was 1999 rupees per night - at current exchange rates it's about £30.
~A Bit of Ginger Background and Philosophy~
Ginger is the budget hotel arm of the famous Tata empire. To put it into some local context, you'll find plenty of local hotels for just a few hundred rupees a night - so this is 'budget' only when looked at relative to the hundreds of pounds per night Taj luxury hotels. It tends to attract travelling salesmen and middle class families looking for reliable quality rather than a total dice-roll bargain. The Tata empire includes the trucks that most people are familiar with, Tetley Tea and the super-luxury Taj hotel chain. There's no luxury with Ginger though. They've taken the policy of what they call 'Smart Basics' and put together a deal in which service is reduced to the minimum and you literally get what you pay for - or more importantly perhaps, you don't pay for what you don't need.
So nobody will take your bags to your room and hover for a tip. If you want food, they've sold the rights for the coffee bar in the lobby to the Coffee Day chain (a local coffee bar chain with awful service) and the rights to run the buffet restaurant to someone else. If you want tea or coffee, there's no need to go to Coffee Day and nobody will come running with it to your room but that doesn't matter because they've given you a kettle and teabags and coffee sachets and there will even be a couple of bottles of free mineral water which you can top up from the cooler when they are empty. In our case the water cooler was out of order so we were just given a lot more bottles of free water. There's a travel counter where a local agent can arrange cars for you and probably sort out other travel issues but it won't be the Ginger staff in their natty red shirts who'll be doing it for you. Conveniently this means that anything that goes wrong isn't their fault!
~Wi-Fi? Why Not?~
There should be internet access - there wasn't in Mysore last year and that didn't matter because we didn't have my netbook with us. There wasn't any in Haridwar either and after repeated enquiries the girl on the front desk said it would probably be a week before it was fixed. I fought down the urge to screech "Just switch it off and switch it on again" and instead gave a little head wobble back at her. With a 100% failure rate on the wi-fi based on our two Ginger visits, I'm left wondering is it just coincidence or are they consistently buggered up on the wi-fi front? There's an ATM machine just at the entrance but they helpfully told my husband that it was empty. He managed to get them to change £50 into local money but that broke the bank and cleaned them out. Meeting rooms are available and they have safety deposit boxes and washing machines behind the check in counter. At the Mysore Ginger they had the services of the world's worst beautician who hacked my fingernails so badly that I wasn't sad to spot that service wasn't available here.
~Check in and Room~
Check in was calm, efficient and courteous with three young red-shirted staff lined up behind the check in counter. One took our passports, a second got out the forms to fill in and the third urged us to make ourselves comfortable whilst he completed the formalities. Our passports were returned with our room keys and we headed up to the 2nd floor. We had room 214 and the others got 215.
So what surprises can you expect? Well the main uncertainty will be what colour your room will be. In Mysore we had a yellow room and in Haridwar it was blue - or rather the end walls were blue and the side walls were white. My sister's room was yellow so that blew my theory that colours were done by floor. We had a double glazed window whose clarity was massively compromised by the outer pane of the double glazing being well and truly smashed like a windscreen. This led my sister to insist that when we gave back one room and all moved into the other, hers should be the one we kept on the grounds that there were either fruit bats or weaver birds outside their room and they also had a pigeon with a crossed beak.
There was a tiny little desk and a comfortable work chair, a massive double bed with sheets that looked 'clean enough' but slightly on the grey side of the whiteness scale. Bedside tables were built into the bed frame on either side, there was a small cupboard that smelt oddly damp and musty, a mini-fridge with a kettle and tea tray over and a bag stand. There was a teensy flat screen TV on the wall opposite the bed and the lighting and fan were controlled from a panel on the wall next to the bed. Unfortunately the luck of finding the only bedside lamp was on my side was tempered by the disappointment that it didn't work.
The bathroom was small but well equipped, well maintained and clean. There was a powerful shower with an orange shower curtain that flooded the entire room each time we used it. I think the banging my sister claimed she'd heard the night before might have been Mr Noah building an ark for surviving in our bathroom. The sink was a good large one with a soap dispenser to one side and just about enough flat space for all the stuff you need in the bathroom. The toilet was clean and western but the toilet paper ran out very quickly.
Downstairs in the lobby there was a tiny gift shop which we never saw open, a Coffee Day coffee shop and a very small buffet restaurant area. On the first evening this area was very hot and muggy which seemed a bit strange. It was actually cooler outside than it was inside. The travel counter was only manned a few hours a day with a sign that the chap had gone for lunch but luckily he reappeared in the evening though we couldn't get much sense out of him. We managed to work out that a drop off at the railway station cost a price that was completely different from all the ones on his sheet and he refused to sell us a half day sightseeing tour, insisting that we take a full day which we didn't want and weren't willing to pay his crazy prices for. I had the impression that most of the guests had come with their own transport and the large hotel car park seemed to support this, along with the general lack of interest of the travel service.
We eventually managed to agree a drop off at the railway station for 550 rupees using the travel service - if we'd wanted pick up from the station they charged a massive fee of about three times as much. We considered taking two auto-rickshaws but realised on the first night that there was no guarantee that any would be hanging around outside the hotel so late at night. If you have a day time train then you could probably get there for about 150 rupees without too much discomfort.
~Getting to the Action~
After settling in on our first day we decided to head into the city. Luckily the reception staff were more helpful in giving us a list of tourist sites than the absent travel counter man could have been and they gave us info on roughly how far away the city was. At a distance of about 4km it's well beyond the walking distance of most people on a hot day but we had no problem to get an auto-rickshaw as several were lined up outside the hotel and we started a bit of a bidding war when we wanted one. Like Rishikesh and Dehradun before them, Haridwar is a big tuk-tuk town - the auto-rickshaws here seat about 6 normal sized people which means you can probably get 10 in if you've got the local concept of 'full'. We paid 80 rupees to get into the city (about £1.25). I was initially a bit peeved to be so far away from the action until we got into the city and realised just how mad a place it is and that there's a lot to be said for escaping from one of the most 'full on' cities in India. All the hotels we saw in the city looked pretty grim and the non-stop intensity of 'beggars and pilgrims' would probably have been very draining. Our out of town location was surprisingly quiet and quite a haven after visiting the city.
Getting back to the Ginger was more of a challenge after the tuk-tuk driver who seemed so confident that he knew our hotel took us to one at the wrong end of town. It was the only time in the two week trip that I was tempted to blow my top but with his crackly distorted sound system blaring at great volume and the driver knowing almost no English, I just had to sit and fume as he took us off in vaguely the write direction along a completely different route. Yes, I was imagining us all lying dead and robbed in a field but eventually the Ginger hotel's distinctive logo came into view and we were back. My advice - take a couple of hotel cards with the logo on and don't rely on the drivers understanding what you say.
On our first evening we ate in the city in a down at heel hotel restaurant. The dining options were not great inside the city walls since this is a place people go to pray and to die rather than to check out the cuisine. On our second night whilst preparing to take the night train back to Delhi we decided to keep things simple and eat in the Ginger where the dinner buffet was just 188 rupees (about £2.80) which was excellent value. Since the city is holy, it's completely vegetarian so we got a good choice of dishes on offer compared to the buffet we'd tried the year before in Mysore where only half the dishes had no meat. We rounded off our meal with hot drinks from Coffee Day which does a pretty acceptable cappuccino for just about 60p which is very welcome if you've been getting sick of crappy Nescafe. On the first morning we fortified ourselves with cakes and snacks before heading into the city and these were expensive by local standards but still very inexpensive in general though there's a sad tendency that whatever you buy they will stick in in the microwave - not too bad for a samosa, not great for a sticky chocolate fudge cake.
~Rooms to Avoid~
My husband and I slept well on our night at the Ginger although my sister's girlfriend Joyce was very grumpy the next morning because she'd slept really badly. Their room (215) had been above the kitchens and a bank of air conditioning units and she'd been badly disturbed. By contrast my sister had earplugs and could sleep through the end of the world and hadn't been bothered by the noise but if you are noise sensitive, try to avoid the odd numbered rooms between 11 and 29.
~Why go to Haridwar?~
Very few foreign tourists go to Haridwar. Most visitors are Hindus visiting for pilgrimage to one of the Hindu world's seven most sacred cities. It's a big place with a population (according to a guidebook that's a few years out of date) of about 175,000. I would imagine the transient population of pilgrims bumps that up many thousands more. Haridwar is also the location of the famous Kumbh Mela, one of the biggest religious festivals in the world which takes place only every 12 years (the latest was April 2010). Many millions of people visit during the festival and I really can't imagine how they squeeze them all in to a relatively small city.
If you are looking to wash away your sins and those of a few previous generations and possibly a few yet to come, then Haridwar is for you and you don't have to wait for a big festival to do it. The river Ganges dominates the city and the ritual cleansing of a dip in its rather grungy water is a life changing experience for Hindus. The daily Ganga Aarti ceremony is the big draw and takes place at sunset. There are also some fascinating temples on the hills that overlook the city including Mansa Devi and Chandra Devi temples. The first of these also throws in the fun and excitement of a pretty impressive cable car and the pilgrim trail seems to be set up well with cheap buses shuttling visitors between the temples. Aside from those few established attractions, there's a lot to be said for just drifting around the streets and markets and soaking up the intensity of this very strange place. You will see some seriously weird stuff - ash covered nearly-naked sadhus with long unkempt beards, 'newly-weds and nearly deads' looking for blessings, plastic bottle sellers and flower basket makers and more beggars than you can possibly imagine.
Haridwar's twin city of Rishikesh is about a 40 minute drive away in a proper car, much longer in a tuk tuk. By contrast with Haridwar, Rishikesh is full of western hippies seeking gurus and yoga instruction or sitar lessons in the footsteps of the Beatles. We were just four more amongst many white people in Rishikesh but I saw only two other white faces in Haridwar. It's not a place you'll want to linger for too long but at only 4.5 to 5 hours by train from Delhi, it's a chance to see a side of India that's certainly a bit special. You can easily stay in one city and visit the other if you don't want to make life complicated and find two different hotels. However, I'm rather glad we gave each city its own visit and if you have time, I'd recommend to do the same.