It’s Crazy. But In A Good Way.
Yes, India is crazy. But in a very good way. The colours, the sights, the sounds. Not to mention the smells – in my mind the smell of India is a mixture of car fumes and sweet incense with just a hint of sewage. In parts India is overwhelming and yet amongst the pandemonium you can find places of serenity and peace. I guarantee everyday you will see something that will make you stop and say: “What the f*ck?”
The Taj Mahal
Sometimes in life you experience what are called “Wow” moments. I can think of three times I have experienced this on my travels. Spotting the picture of Chairman Mao above the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing; seeing the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; and the first time I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal. No amount of postcards or photos prepares you for the astounding beauty of this building. You approach the Taj through an archway that perfectly frames the structure giving it a sense of the surreal. The perfect symmetry of it, the way the light reflects off the creamy white marble and stone inlays, and the surrounding landscaped gardens all combine to create a sense of majesty. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife who died giving birth. It is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There will be crowds. But this is India. There are always crowds. Everywhere. Don’t let this stop you. For more information visit the official website: https://www.tajmahal.gov.in
The Fresh Food. And The Beer
India is blessed with an incredible range of fresh food. And if you are vegetarian? Welcome to heaven. This is where you will find the best vegetarian food, ever. Think spicy, aromatic curries. Hot pickle. Salty aloo paratha. And mouthwatering street food. And after those hot days of sightseeing and travelling there is no better thing to do than sit on a rooftop, well above the pandemonium below, and take that first sip of an ice-cold Indian Kingfisher beer. Sublime.
Travelling By Train
India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world. Indian Railways is the largest utility employer on earth, with roughly 1.5 million workers. There are almost 7000 train stations scattered across the country. So travelling by train in India is something you must experience, at least once. On my first trip to India we used the train network to travel from Kolkata in West Bengal, up to Darjeeling then down to Mumbai via Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur. It was a very effective way to travel, and extremely entertaining. The network is well utilised and some trains book out very quickly. Bookings are highly recommended. I booked all our tickets via Cleartrip, a very reliable private agency. It can be a little tricky to get signed up and you now need an Indian mobile number but persevere. Some sites suggest putting in a random mobile number and then using only email to communicate. They can be found here: https://www.cleartrip.com And don’t forget the suburban trains to get around the major cities. But a word of warning. They are packed. And not just at peak hour. They are packed all the time. Unless you travel in the Ladies Only Carriages – they are a nice respite. And no risk of wandering hands.
Colour Is The New Black
Many of the delights of India are visual not least of which are the colourful array of saris and salwar kameez that adorn the women here. Beautiful deep jewel colours; bright reds and pinks, emerald greens and sapphire blues. Gold and silver detailing. Flowers, stripes, embroidered lace details. Silk and satin. And such beautiful scarves. You will never want to wear black again.
The Howrah Flower Market
Officially named the Mullik Ghat Flower Market, it has been nicknamed the Howrah Flower Market due its location at the southeast end of Kolkata’s famous Howrah Bridge that spans across the Hooghly River. A visit here is a must if you are in Kolkata. Busy and colourful virtually 24 hours a day, the best time to visit is in the morning when the trade is at its most active. Flowers play a large part in Indian daily ritual and here they trade in marigolds, carnations, daisies and roses. And any other flowers you can possibly think of. The pace is hectic, the colours kaleidoscopic. Take care in the crowds. Chris got pushed over in the melee while taking photos. It was okay though. He landed in a huge pile of orange marigolds.
Taking Tea in Darjeeling
Tea is serious business in India and what better way to experience it than at its source. Darjeeling is a hilltop town in the mountains of West Bengal well known for its tea (and its views to Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world). There are a number of large tea plantations in the region which you can visit for tea tours. Or visit one the many tea shops in town and do a little tasting. There are many varieties available so ask for recommendations.
They Have Snow Leopards
Yes India has Snow Leopards! Do you need any other reason to go? Last year I took a trip dedicated to finding snow leopards in the wild mountains of Ladakh. The Snow Leopard – or Shan as it is known in Ladkahi – is an endangered species. It is estimated that there are around 200 in Ladakh. But it’s not only their rarity that makes them difficult to find. They are masters of disguise. They don’t call them the Grey Ghost for no reason. Check out my story of our quest to find this enigmatic beast.
At some point in your stay in India you are going to want to shop. Everywhere you go you will find open air bazaars choc full of stalls selling all manner of craft and artisan items, it is a shoppers heaven. But be prepared to bargain, and hard. From original art works, to patterned leather lampshades, jewellery, incense, candles, leather bags, clothing, bedspreads, saris, ceramics, handmade leather sandals, perfumes and decorative items there is something for everyone. And when you get sore feet and have bargained for your last purchase there are always a number of food and drink stalls to satiate your hunger or thirst. Pull up a chair, order a mouthwatering Aloo Paratha with hot pickle and curd and watch the the other tourists get fleeced – just like you have been. These people are masters at their craft.
The Cows Have Right Of Way
According to animal husbandry statistics there are about 44,900,000 cows in India, the highest in the world. You will see them everywhere, in the streets, on the beaches, at railway stations. Cows are highly revered in Hindu culture and hence in India. In the Hindu tradition, cows are honored, garlanded and given special feedings at festivals all over India. The cow’s nature is represented in Kamadhenu; the goddess who is the mother of all cows. In most cases they are harmless but I almost got gored by a bull in the streets of Jaipur. Give them a wide berth.
Morning Boat Rides on the Ganges
The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus, worshipped as the goddess ‘Ganga’. It flows through India from the high Himalaya out to the sea through the Bay of Bengal. It is a lifeline to millions of Indians who rely on it for their daily needs. At Varanasi, the holiest of all Hindu cities, pilgrims come to the ghats lining the Ganges to wash away sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. Varanasi is a particularly auspicious place to die or to have your soul released, with the promise of release from the cycle of life. Watching sunrise from a boat on the river is an unforgettable way to experience the sights, sounds and smells of this intriguing city. While it is all too easy to romanticise this river, it has been ranked as the 6th most polluted river in the world. As the river flows to its final destination it passes through 100 towns and cities absorbing all their human and industrial waste. Experts estimate that more than 3000 million litres of untreated sewage from these towns along the Ganges are pumped into the river every day. By the time it reaches Varanasi it is little more than a sewer. Think of that next time you see some dopey Western pseudo-hippy bathing in the river in an effort to have an ‘authentic’ experience. Best viewed from the safety of your boat.
Living on the east coast of Australia I rarely get to see the sun set on the beach. Here in Goa on India’s west coast the sunsets over the Arabian Sea are legendary. Each evening the sun presents as a fiery ball bathing all around in an tangerine glow. People from all walks gather to witness this as if it will never happen again. Crowds of Russian package tourists, yoga enthusiasts saluting the sun, groups of backpackers toasting it with a beer, and Indian families taking a well deserved break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. And cows. There’s always lots of cows.
And Goan Beach Huts
If you do go to Goa, you must stay in a beach hut. There are literally hundreds to choose from – some more rudimentary than others so choose wisely. There are three main areas to check out. Palolem Beach, with its stunning curve of white sand, is a backpacker heaven (hell). It’s crowded, overdeveloped and noisy. But if it’s party central you are after, look no further. Patnem Beach is for those who don’t want to be right in the middle of the action but would still like some entertainment close at hand. Agonda Beach is for me the best – a beautiful 3km stretch of golden sands lined with a more sophisticated style of beach hut. There are also a number of lovely restaurants nearby. We stayed in the Agonda White Sands complex – highly recommended. Bookings are essential. Keep in mind that the more rudimentary and cheaper beach huts only operate in the dry season, dismantling the huts before the typhoon season arrives.
Trekking in Ladakh
If you get the chance to head up to Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya be sure to take some time to do a trek. Be it a couple of days in the Hemis National park, or tackling the 10 day Markha Valley Trek, you will be rewarded by soaring mountain vistas, you will explore deep river valleys, see a myriad of wildlife, and meet some of the friendliest people on earth. We have done two treks now in this area and can’t wait to go back. If you want to do a guided trek we highly recommend Overland Escape – they can do a customised trek to suit all levels and needs.
So Many Forts and Palaces
Being a country with a long of history of conquest and domination its no surprise that India has its fair share of forts and palaces. From Old Delhi to Rajasthan to Kerala, you can’t go anywhere without encountering a crumbling fort or a majestic palace built in honour of some fallen empire. Most are worth a visit. In Old Delhi – The Red Fort, and Humayun’s Tomb; in Jaipur, visit the Amber Fort just outside of the city; take the leg-trembling walk up to the Leh Palace in the Ladakhi capital; and in Agra of course you can’t miss the Taj Mahal.
It’s All About the Spiritual
India is the birth place of four of the world’s major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and as such religion is intrinsic and imbues everyday life with meaning and gravity. From the Hindu offerings you see placed at shrines, the worshipping of the River Ganges, the festivals and daily rituals, India’s lifeblood is religion. Everywhere is dotted with temples, mosques, shrines and Sikh gurdwaras. And it would not be uncommon in your travels to come across a sadhu – a scantily clad, sometimes naked, holy man often living by themselves on the fringes of society, spending their days in devotion to their chosen deity. Some are even worshipped as ‘gods on earth’.
It’s Easy To Make New Friends
By far the best part of India is its people. Friendly, welcoming and often smiling it will not be long before you make new friends. They are inquisitive and will want to know all about you. Are you married? Do you have children? What do you do for a living? And don’t be surprised if some random local approaches wanting a photo with you. Just smile and oblige. And rest assured your photo is likely to end up on their mantelpiece at home – you, their new Western friend.
And There’s Always Time For A Game of Cricket
Any time, any day there will a game of cricket in play. From the high Himalayan outposts, to the ghats of Varanasi, to the sweaty jungles of Kerala, cricket is India’s true religion. If you are lucky you may even be invited to join in. India is just that kind of place.
All photos ©Julie Small & Chris Wilson.