Backpacking India: Trip Summary

India - Jaipur - Amber Fort
After 4 months backpacking through India, we have a lot of fond memories and unforgettable stories. We did our best to see as much of this amazing, diverse country as possible. We took dozens of trains, buses, and shared jeeps, covering more than 13,000 kms (further than the distance from Vancouver to Delhi) traveling between 35 destinations. There are individual blog posts about each stop on our trip, which you can read if you have hours of free time. Otherwise, here’s our recap.

The Highlights:

Hampi Ruins
Hampi
We spent four days exploring the massive ruins around Hampi and the boulder strewn landscape. We could have spent more. Every day was special, but there were two very memorable moments. On the first day we hiked over a ridge and found ourselves alone with a sprawling ruins below us just begging to be explored. On our last day, we rented a motorbike and explored the north shore. We got lost on small dirt roads amidst rice paddies, hiked up to a monkey temple, and ate lunch at a packed, chaotic restaurant where no one spoke English, there was no menu, and the only thing they had was an unlimited thali with the tastiest food served on a banana leaf – no plates or cutlery.

India - Holi in Varanasi
Festivals
Indians know how to party and we got to celebrate a few big festivals. We were lucky to celebrate India’s most colourful festival, Holi, in its most holy city, Varanasi. It was a riot of colour – fun but intimidating too. We brought in the New Year in Kochi with elephants, fireworks, and burning Santa Claus.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
Camel Safari in Jaisalmer
Riding a camel might not be the most comfortable or fastest way to travel, but it sure is memorable. We slept under the stars at night and played cards under a shade tree during the day. Our camel ride left from Jaisalmer, one of the most relaxed and picturesque towns we visited in Rajasthan.

India - Pushkar yoga Swamiji and us
Yoga in Pushkar
Yoga in India is much more spiritual than the purely physical form you find in Vancouver. We really enjoyed many of the classes we took and our excellent instructors, but the highlight was meeting Swamiji in Pushkar, who we formed a deep personal connection with during our short stay. He really impressed us with his teachings on the fundamentals of yoga and his wisdom. We plan on making yoga part of our daily routine in Vancouver.

India - Gokarna
Beach Time in Goa
Far way from the chaos of India’s cities, the beaches of Goa and Gokarna are in a different world. For 10 days we slept in dirt-cheap huts and spent our days doing yoga, hiking, and reading on the beach. It was a great opportunity to recharge our batteries after our first month in India.

Chandrashila Trek
Himalayan Trekking
Our first attempt to hike the Himalayas along the Singalila Ridge didn’t go as planned, but we knew there was something special about the worlds highest mountains and signed up for another trek. The second time, Dan joined us for an epic 3-day hike to the top a snow-capped Chandrashilla Mountain. It wasn’t easy, even with porters carrying our gear and cooks making our food, but we survived and were glad we did it.

India - Calcutta
Karma in Kolkata
We met a lot of fascinating people throughout India, both locals and other travelers. In many ways the people we met were more memorable than the sights we saw. In Kolkata we were lucky to meet Karma and his friend Priya. We spent two days talking with them, sharing stories, and talking about our hopes for the future. They also showed us a part of the city we would have never found on our own.

India - Udaipur
Udaipur and Krishna Ranch
We spent a whole month in the Rajasthan, a state rich with history. After a while many of the cities started to blend together. Every one had an imposing fort, and ornate palace, and divine temples. But Udaipur really stood out from the pack with its beautiful setting on a lake with floating palaces. We also spent 3 relaxing days just outside the city at Krishna Ranch, enjoying the tranquil setting and doing some adventurous hiking/bushwhacking.

India - Tashiding, Sikim
Sikkim
The northern state of Sikkim, next to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan was another unique Indian gem. Rich in Buddhist culture, we loved the views of the towering Himalayas, ornate monasteries, Nepalese food, and our epic shared jeep rides between towns.

India - Munroe Island - backwater canoe tour
Kerala Backwaters
The tropical, jungle atmosphere of the Kerala backwaters in South India stole our hearts. We stayed in a lovely guest house on Munroe Island and enjoyed exploring the canals that connect the local villages by canoe. We also stumbled upon a Hindu festival with drummers and actors dressed up like gods and demons from the Hindu scriptures.


Mischievous Monkeys
Monkeys in India are like racoons in Canada – cute but mischievous pests. But monkeys are not afraid of people and are active during the day. We lost count of the number of times got close to an adorable monkey, smiled (big mistake), and ran away when it bared its teeth and hissed at us. On Christmas morning at Karuna Farm, monkeys stole food from our outdoor kitchen while I was cooking breakfast. In Varanasi, one tried to pee on us from a rooftop. And in Hampi, we sat and watched monkeys jumping from roof to roof and making a mess of clothes lines and water barrels.

Bonus Photos
India - Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort

Rafting the Ganges
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Backpacking India: Amritsar

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple
Instead of spending our final Indian weekend in Delhi, we decided last-minute to take the train to Amritsar. The trains were all sold out, but we had no problem getting foreign tourist tickets. We were excited to visit Punjab, see the Sikh holy city, and also check out the border with Pakistan. It was only after we arrived that it was right before Vaisakhi, one of the 3 major Sikh holidays.

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple

The city was extremely busy, especially around the Golden Temple. The lineup to get into the temple was 4 hours long, so we only got to see it from the outside. Even without going inside, we were struck by the beauty and awesomeness of the temple complex, with the golden temple floating in the middle of a lake. It’s a site on par with the Vatican in Rome.

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple

Even though much of the city was closed for the holiday, we did manage to take a walking tour of the historic buildings and check out the Jallianwala Bagh, a park memorial to the Indians who lost their lives to trigger happy British soldiers in 1919. Considering the horrific events that took place there, the park had an oddly festive atmosphere. We weren’t the only ones posing for pictures with the shrubbery soldiers.

Shrubs with GunsIndia - Amritsar

Amritsar is located close to Pakistan border and the nearby town of Wagah has historically been the only crossing between the two nations. Every evening, the border is closed in an elaborate ceremony that would delight any Monty Python fan. There was plenty of high kicking, muscle flexing, and funny hats. But before the guards took the stage, each side of the border blasted tunes and pumped up the crowd. On the India side, women were invited to run around with the Indian flag and dance to Bollywood tunes. I think it was designed to show the Pakistanis how free the women are in India. Emily noticed it was the first time we had seen women dancing in public. On the Pakistan side, a one-legged boy wearing Pakistan green danced and spun around with a flag. On the India side, the crowd was overfilling the stands and people cheered loudly. On the Pakistan side the women sat in burkas with the children, separated from the men, but the cheering was equally passionate, even if the crowd was a quarter of the size. The ceremony was mostly comical but I don’t think the nationalistic fervor that is encouraged does anything to help the tense relationship between the two countries.

India - Wagah Border Ceremony

More pictures on Flickr: Amritsar.

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Backpacking India: New Delhi

India - Delhi
New Delhi is the capital of India and home to some 13 million people, and our last stop on our journey through India. We flew home on April 15 from the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Much like in India’s other big cities (Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Chennai), we enjoyed the top-notch restaurants, fusion of people, large market areas, and efficient public transportation systems. Delhi seemed to take these to the next level, with the dozens of bazaar areas for shopping and the most modern and extensive Metro system in India. We relied heavily on the Metro to get us around. Delhi is a really sprawling city and the attractions are spread throughout the city, and the traffic is horrible.

India - Dan in Delhi Leela
Our highlights from Delhi include accompanying Dan on his first authentic Indian dining experiences and Bollywood movie, exploring the winding lanes of Old Delhi and the spice market, visiting the ruins of Qutab Minar, and going to Akshardham – which I can only describe as a Hindu temple and Disneyland combined together, complete with a Small World-esque boat ride and a reenactment of the life of a Hindu saint featuring animatronic robots. Needless to say, Akshardham was bizarre but amazing. We also crammed 4 months of souvenir shopping into our last few days, visiting many of the the markets around the city and picking up clothing, spices, and tiffin containers.

India - Dan in Delhi

There is a constant smoggy haze over the city, which makes it difficult to appreciate the impressive buildings, especially around the Rajpath, which connects the President’s official residence to the India Gate. It was no surprise to us, that Delhi is ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Our first few days in Delhi didn’t go well. We were staying in the touristy Paharganj neighbourhood, where pickpockets and touts prey on tourists. Emily had her sunglasses lifted and I had my cellphone pick-pocketed. Those experiences clouded our experience of Delhi a little bit, but we still enjoyed the city. Maybe not as much as Mumbai or Kolkata, but it was a good place to end our trip.

India - Delhi

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Backpacking India: Shimla

Shimla
Our time in Shimla might be the low point of our trip through India, and one of our few places we regret even visiting. All three of us got sick (luckily not at the same time), the weather was miserable with thunderstorms and frigid temperatures, and we spent more time getting to Shimla than we did touring around. It’s a shame because the city is quite beautiful – much more charming than Darjeeling, but we never got to appreciate it fully.

Shimla

Shimla was the summer capital of British India, a mountain retreat to escape the unbearable heat in Calcutta, Bombay, and Delhi. As such, there are a lot of beautiful old buildings. It reminded us a lot of Darjeeling, with plenty of twisting roads and steep staircases, but more pleasant to explore. Many of Shimla’s streets feel like they haven’t changed in the past 50 years. The main tourist areas like The Ridge, The Mall, and the Upper and Lower Bazaar are all car-free. Dan thought we had travelled back in time, with the old buildings, school boys in suits, horses instead of cars, and lack of good internet. When we went searching for a wifi hotspot, the tourist info centre honestly sent us to the telegraph office (which, for the record, still exists but doesn’t have wifi).

Shimla - Beard Trim
There isn’t a lot to do in Shimla, especially when the weather isn’t great. We walked around in the rain, Dan got his beard trimmed, we enjoyed the gruff service and authentic charm at the Indian Coffee House, we ate momos from a street vendor, we did some souvenir shopping, and we took turns being sick in bed and on the toilet. Fun times, but nothing we couldn’t have done in any other Indian city.

Train from Rishikesh
The journey to Shimla was exhausting. We left Rishikesh at 6 am and didn’t check in to our Shimla hotel until after 9 pm. In between there were three rickshaw rides, two trains, an interstate bus, a local bus, and a long uphill hike in the dark. Our first train was 90 minutes late and we barely caught the second one. Our journey took us through Chandigarh (the capital of Punjab and Haryana), the cleanest large city we’ve been to in India. We wanted to do some sightseeing there, but we didn’t have the time or energy. We got in after lunch and still had a 5 hour, stomach-twisting bus ride before we got to Shimla.

Kalka Shimla Railway
One of the reasons we wanted to visit Shimla was to ride the narrow-gauge toy train, which we did on the way down. It was slower than the bus, but it made the return trip to Delhi much more enjoyable. I took more photos on the train than I did in Shimla. Our moods brightened considerably when descended the mountain and the sun came out. The dark part of our trip was over.

Kalka Shimla Railway

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Backpacking India: Rishikesh and Haridwar

Rishikesh
Rishikesh is an eclectic city that attracts an interesting mix of tourists – including yogis, adrenaline junkies, foreigners, and middle-class Indians. The city is located at the foot of the Himalayas and along the banks of the holy Ganges River. It’s the epicentre of India’s yoga scene, with dozens of ashrams and hundreds of yoga instructors. It’s also a huge adventure sports hub, with river rafting, trekking, bungee jumping, and zip-lining all available.

Rishikesh

In early April, the weather is perfect (just when Delhi is getting hot and the hill stations are still cold). We were there for the Easter long-weekend, which we didn’t think would be an event in India, but apparently it is one of their busiest weekends. The streets and hotels were packed with thousands of Indians from Delhi, Punjab, and Haryana. When we got back from our trek, we had a panicked hour while we struggled to find a hotel, but eventually found a great place in the quiet Swiss Cottage neighbourhood.

Rishikesh

We squeezed as much into our time in Rishikesh as possible, but still left wishing we could have spent a few more days. It would have been nice to check ourselves into an ashram, do yoga, and explore the city at a leisurely pace, but we only had a few days with Dan’s tight schedule and the city was too busy with Easter crowds. In our short time, we managed to take a cooking class, raft down the Ganges, and do three yoga classes. When we did find time to wander, the city rewarded us with many interesting temples to explore, really good restaurants (including a cafe with vegan pizza), cute souvenir shops, and great views.

Cooking Masala Class
The cooking class was really good. This was our third cooking class and we got to choose the menu, so we focused on simpler recipes that we would be more likely to cook at home. We learned how to make aloo gobi, baingan bharta, dal fry, parathas, and a simple chutney. After the class, we went and bought a number of the masala spice mixes so we can hopefully replicate the recipes at home.

Rafting the Ganges
River rafting was a blast. The rapids were pretty tame, but we still had fun. We were able to jump out of the boat and float down the river for stretches. It was cold, but not unbearable. We also brought our leftover dyes and played Holi in our boat. It left a real mess, but I was happy our guide and the other tourists in our boat enjoyed it too.

Rishikesh
Rishikesh
One of Rishikesh’s claims to fame is the ashram that The Beatles stayed in while writing the White Album in 1968. It’s now abandoned, but you can bribe the security guard (we paid 50 rupees each) to let you go explore. It’s a cool space, with Beatles-themed graffiti everywhere and funky buildings slowly being taken over by the forest.

India - Haridwar
Haridwar is just downstream from Rishikesh and is one of the 7 most sacred sites to Hindus. We spent a day there checking out the temples and ghats. Skillfully turning away the priests who kept trying to bless us (and ask for money), we made our own aarti ceremony and offered a prayer to Mother Ganga while floating flowers down the river.
India - Haridwar

More pictures on Flickr: Rishikesh and Haridwar.

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Backpacking India: Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek
After our failed Singalila trek a few weeks ago, we were a bit nervous to try another one. As we’ve discovered, there’s a lot that can go wrong on a multi-day trek when you’re not feeling 100%. Further complicating things, this time we were traveling with our friend Dan, who only had two days to acclimatize to Indian food and the time change before we launched into our 4-day Chandrashila Trek into the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Luckily, we all made it through with only minor discomfort and the trek was amazing.

Chandrashila Trek
We hiked through blossoming Rhododendron forests, swam in a lake (well, Dan and the Norwegians swam), had epic views of the high Himalayan peaks, watched a mongoose playing in a tree, visited a Hindu temple, and capped it off with a snowy climb to the top of Chandrashila at over 3500 m.

Chandrashila Trek
Our trek was organized by Red Chilli Adventure, and they did an excellent job. The guides were knowledgeable and fun, the food was plentiful and tasty, and the tents and sleeping bags kept us warm during the frigid nights. We were lucky to have a good group of fellow trekkers, including a pair of Norwegians, two other Canadians, and three French girls. Trekking seems to be a great way to meet the most interesting people from around the world.

Birthplace of the Ganges
Even though it was a 4 day trip, we only had two long hiking days. The first and last days were mostly driving. The roads were some of the best we’ve been on in India, and the views were excellent – Lots of lush valleys and a viewpoint over the start of the Ganges River. If it wasn’t for the motion sickness,the drive would have been completely enjoyable.

Chandrashila Trek
The first day featured only a short 2 km hike to our campsite next to Deorital Lake, which only took 1 hour.

Mongoose
The second day we covered 14 km through beautiful forests with a few great viewpoints. Midday we stumbled upon a mongoose. They can be viscious animals, but this one was just playing in the flowers.

Chandrashila Trek
The third day was the most intense, as we spent 5 hours walking up to a temple, climbing to the mountain peak, and sliding back down. The route was heavily travelled until the temple, after which we had to break trail up to the peak. The views from the peak were spectacular. It was hard work walking in the snow and breathing the thin air, but sliding down was fun and fast.
Chandrashila Trek
Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek

We got really lucky with weather. We had pouring rain and whiteout conditions, but most of our hiking was in sunny, dry conditions. Our hike on the third day started with drizzle and clouds, but cleared as we neared the peak.

Chandrashila Trek

We were really happy we did the trek. When we were planning our 2 weeks with Dan, we weren’t sure that a trek was a good idea – too much time in one place and too much that could go wrong. But in ended up being a real highlight for all three of us.
Chandrashila Trek

More photos on Flickr: Chandrashila Trek

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Backpacking India: Kolkata and the Sundarbans

India - Calcutta

Most tourists we meet can’t stand India’s big cities. They are too crowded, polluted, and overwhelming for many Westerners. And yet, for some reason Emily and I have really enjoyed the big cities, and Kolkata was no exception. We loved the grand buildings, efficient metro, tank-like street cars, lean rickshaw pullers, cosmopolitan restaurants, and surprises that awaited us down every street.

India - Calcutta

Some of my favorite parts of the big cities are the market areas. If you can find the right street, you can buy or fix almost anything. In the electronics bazaar, in between the hundreds of mobile repair shops, we found camera lane (that is actually what the locals called it) with dozens of camera stores. A small shop there repaired my camera’s jammed lens for 1100 rupees ($22). I probably overpaid by local standards but was happy to have it fixed and it only took a few hours.

India - Calcutta

The heat and humidity was a bit of a shock after coming from Darjeeling, but a welcome one. Even though there are plenty of shade trees and buildings with verandas that made it possible to avoid the sun, we were drenched in sweat after walking around each day.

Sundarbans

For my birthday, we had lunch at an upscale vegetarian restaurant with good reviews. We didn’t realize it had an unusual prison theme until we arrived and were seated in a locked cell and served by inmates. It was definitely a unique experience, and the food was excellent, especially by prison standards. Sadly no photos as my camera was being repaired.

India - Calcutta

The most memorable part of our time in Kolkata was meeting a local character named Karma. Midway through our trip, Emily and I made a pact to embrace the bizarre situations that presented themselves. Which is how we found ourselves in a taxi after dark, going to a remote residential neighborhood for candle lit rooftop dinner with strangers. Part of my mind was running through the things that could go wrong, but sometimes you have to let go of your fears, and we did have some evidence that Karma wasn’t a serial killer.

India - Calcutta

We had contacted Karma after reading glowing reviews online of his city walking tours. Although he had stopped giving them, he offered to hang out with us and show us the city for free. We spent a day checking out the hidden gems of the city and tasting some excellent street food. Karma is one of the most travelled Indians we’ve met, so he was a great person to talk to about our experiences in India and the questions we had built up over nearly 4 months backpacking (questions about tipping, religious practices, wife wanted ads in newspapers, and the lemons and chilies hanging from doorways). In addition to our mundane questions, we got to hear his views on the challenges India faces, mostly around poverty, corruption, and sexism. We also spent a good time talking with his friend Priya, a lovely Bengali woman, who was just as curious about our lives in Canada as we were about hers in India.

Sundar and

Our 5 days in Kolkata was interspersed with an overnight trip to the river delta south of the city known as the Sundarbans. The area contains a massive protected reserve for the great Bengal Tiger, but sightings are rare and it was too hot when we visited. I didn’t expect to see any wildlife, with the heat and our loud tour group, but we did see spotted deer, wild boar, and giant monitor lizards. We were content to relax on a boat for two days and experience a little piece of rural life.

Sundar and

Sundarbans

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