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Country Guide: India
Country Guide: India
We’ve only got two amazing things to say about India: sights and sounds; and you’ll find them here.
The Taj Mahal
Going to lndia without seeing the Taj Mahal would be like going to Australia without seeing the rock. Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal it lives up to its reputation as the ultimate monument to love. Beautiful at any time of day the Taj Mahal is especially fetching at night and visits are now possible during full moon.
A one time stomping ground of the Maharajas, this colourful region studded with beautiful palace represents a classic view of India. It is also home to a host of wildlife sanctuaries. Highlights of Rajasthan include the pink city of Jaipur, the blue city of Jodphur and Pushkar, site of the world famous camel fair.
Goa was once home to a large proportion of the world’s hippies, who gathered by their thousands for the beautiful beaches, relaxed way of life, the lush and tranquil countryside, and, yes, lots of very good drugs. That scene has dwindled somewhat, but Goa is still the place to go to chill out on a beach for a few days (or weeks) and soak up a region that moves to a different beat than the rest of the country.
With its tropical vegetation and tranquil beaches, Kerala offers a chilled contrast to the bustle and noise of the north. Among the chief draws of this region is the peninsula of Fort Conchin, a gateway to The Backwaters, a network of intoxicatingly beautiful waterways, perfect for exploring on traditional boats.
Set in the foothills of the Himalayas this quintessential Indian Hill station is the perfect place to enjoy mountain views and sample some of India’s and Tibet’s finest teas. Also check out the zoo for Himalayan fauna.
This massive megalopolis of 15 million is a microcosm for India’s extremes. The skyscraper homes of multi-millionaires and nightclubs frequented by Bollywood glitterati rub up against sprawling slums roofed by blue tarpaulins while minarets and church steeples sit comfortably alongside Hindu temples.
It’s all about the ghats and the Ganges in India’s holiest city. Regarded as sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, Varanasi attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, many who believe that bathing in the Ganges will deliver them from sin.
The dilemma with India is not what to see, but what not to see. Depending on the time you have available, here are some itineraries.
India in 2-3 days
Mumbai is a great destination for an extended stop-over. Among the megalopolis’ attractions are the maze of bazaars surrounding the Crawford Market and the CST Victoria Terminus, a remnant of Mumbai’s colonial past and one of the most OTT railway stations ever built. Also worth seeing is the sacred district of Banganga Tank which is just a stone’s throw away from Chowpatty Beach, another place of interest – just don’t go in the water. If you still have some time to kill catch a boat across Mumbai harbour to Elephanta Island to see the rock cut Shiva temples
India in 7-9 days
With a limited amount of time to play with you really can’t beat the classic India experience of the Taj Mahal plus Rajasthan. After spending a day (or a moonlit evening) at the world’s most enduring monument to love, you could quite easily spend the rest of the week dodging camels and exploring the havelis (painted houses) in the semi desert area of Shekawhawati further west. It would be a shame to visit Rajasthan without taking in some of the region’s beautiful cities such as the pink city of Jaipur or the blue city of Jodphur. If time permits visit the wonderful old town of Jaisalmer with its legendary fort.
India in two weeks +
Spend a week or so doing the classic India trail (see above). Then choose another region of interest as a bolt-on (see highlights). This could involve flying down to Mumbai to pick up the Konkan railway to Goa for a week of rest and relaxation on the beach, or a flight further south to Kerala Backwaters, a network of intoxicatingly beautiful waterways, perfect for exploring on traditional boats. Another alternative is to fly to Darjeeling for a week of mountain views and sample some of India’s and Tibet’s finest teas.
The easiest way to get to India is to fly to either Delhi or Mumbai. Direct flights run from the UK and North America and Australia and there are plenty of non-direct flights. For those wanting to fly to Goa, your best bet is to check out the package deal, or charter flight options or you can fly to Mumbai and take a domestic flight from there.
India is not especially accessible overland unless you want to arrive via Nepal. In which case there are direct buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Gorakhpur. These “through” tickets can be pricey so another option is to break your journey in the border town of Sunauli.
Further east you can take the bus from Kathmandu via the border town of Raxaul to Motihari and then take a train to Patna.
India has an extensive rail network making train travel one of the most efficient and enjoyable ways to see the country. Don’t be put off by Indian rail’s reputation for chaos. The system is actually very well organised and good value for money. Air
If you’re short on time, India has a raft of domestic airlines allowing you to hop from one city to the next. Bus
While train travel is usually preferable, there are times when taking the bus will be necessary, such as in parts of Rajasthan and the Himalayas, which are not covered by the rail network. Car hire
Don’t even go there unless you are a very experienced driver: Indian motorists are a law unto themselves. So are the cows. A better option is to hire a car and driver, but be sure to agree terms and conditions at the outset.
Food and drink
Regional variation makes India's cuisine very tempting indeed. The Anglicised dishes we have come to identify as Indian cuisine don’t even begin to cover the regional variations on offer in India. North India is famous for its rich, thick curry sauces and tends to use meat more often than in the south. Tandoori chicken, kebabs koftas and biryanis all derive from here and the spicy influences come courtesy of the Mughal empire. North Indian food is normally served with breads such as naan, roti or chapatti. There’s plenty of pure Hindu vegetarian to be had in the Uttar Pradesh and places of pilgrimage such as Varanasi. The food of South India tends to be based around fish and uses different spices such as coconut, tamarind and curry leaves.
Chai (tea) is widely drunk throughout India but coffee is becoming more popular down south. Soft drinks (both homegrown and big name brands) are also popular in India but for a truly authentic cold drink you can’t really go past a lassi – a chilled blend of yoghurt, spices and fruit. Beer is widely available with Kingfisher being the backpackers' choice. Spirits generally come under the banner of "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" (IMFL) which basically refers to western liquors like rum, vodka, etc. There's also plenty of regional hooch such as arak – a cheap and nasty liquor from the south – and raksi, a grain alcohol available in the Himalyas.
Whatever you do avoid drinking local tap water or drinks with ice or fresh juice, which may have been diluted with water.