Tag Archives: backpacking

Backpacking India: Travel Tips

India - Calcutta
My biggest tip for someone backpacking through India: Be open to new experiences and learn to let your guard down. It won’t be easy. The most frequent word you will say is ‘no’, as you duck away from rickshaw drivers and merchants trying to sell you things you don’t want. There are people who will try to take advantage of you, especially in the heavily touristed places where you’re likely to start your trip. But once you get past that, you’re more likely to find genuinely hospitable locals who just want to spend time with you.

There is no scam when they offer you food, ask you personal questions on the train, invite you over for dinner, teach you to play cricket, share their religious ceremonies, or if you’re really lucky, attend a wedding. It took us too long to realize it, but once we did we met a lot of amazing people, and we got a wedding invite, but it was unfortunately 3 days after we flew home.

We also learned some more practical tips useful for anyone going on a multi-month trip through India.

Packing
You can’t bring everything you will need, so don’t. Most items are cheaper to buy in India than at home anyway. Clothing, toiletries (although we never tried to buy deodorant or feminine hygiene products), laundry soap, and food are all cheaper in India. That said, there are a few essential items you will want to bring from home.

Essential Items
Hand sanitizer
Nail clippers
Ear plugs
Eye mask
Sunglasses
Travel towel
Head lamp
Sleeping bag liner
Clothes line
Power adapter

Although it’s not essential, I’d recommend taking a few bills and coins from home. The Indians we met loved seeing Canadian money. Luckily we had $5 and $10 Canadian bills on us. I wish we would have brought some small coins to give to the kids.

We bought water in plastic bottles as we went, but hated all the waste that was produced. The one thing we wished we had packed was a travel water purifier like the SteriPEN.

India - Mysore
Shopping
Expect to do a lot of bargaining. We initially found it intimidating, but it gets easier as you learn what the prices should be. You will overpay at first. Packaged goods have a maximum retail price (MRP) labelled on them, which acts as the price tag. For negotiable items, like things you buy in the market, expect to be offered inflated foreigner prices.

Rickshaw drivers are the worst offenders for trying to gouge foreigners. There are some techniques to keep prices reasonable. If you’re at the airport or train station, look for the government regulated prepaid stands, but make sure the driver you get knows where you’re going. You should almost always ignore the drivers who meet you at the train and try to snag you before you have left the station. If they’re targeting foreigners, they charge way too much and often sell “sightseeing tours”.

Itinerary
We only had a rough idea of where we wanted to travel when we arrived in India. It’s a big country and every corner offers something unique to see. It’s a good idea to pick your travel itinerary based on the weather. There is a big difference in temperature between the north and south and the monsoons start and end at different times. We got really lucky with weather, starting in the south in December and slowly making our way north, with Rajasthan in February and ending in Delhi in April. There are also hill stations (like Darjeeling and Shimla) to check out if it gets too hot, but they can be frigid the rest of the year.

Here’s a summary of all the places we went.

Cellphone
Having a cellphone and a local SIM card is extremely useful. Getting a SIM card is a great introduction to Indian bureaucracy and the country’s love for paperwork. We got ours through Vodafone. I just show up at one of their stores with a copy of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photo, and an address from my hotel. It shouldn’t take long, but it does. The rates are super cheap, and 3G internet (2 GB for less than $5) was often faster than the hotel WIFI. The only annoying thing is the SIM card will only work for 3 months (Indian government regulation). After 3 months, your phone will stop working, any money on your account will disappear, and you will have to start the whole process from the beginning.

Kalka Shimla Railway - Monkey Thief
Trains
The best way to travel in India is by train. You can’t beat the combination of speed, price, and entertainment value. However, booking your first train ticket can be intimidating. You can visit a travel agent and pay a commision to have them do the work, but we prefered to book tickets ourselves online. Really short routes we went unreserved, medium length trips we booked about 2 weeks ahead, and most of the long distance routes we booked a month ahead. It is very difficult to get a reservation on and around holidays.

There are three invaluable sites when figuring out the train system – India Mike, India Rail Info, and Cleartrip.

India Mike has the best guide to the Indian Rail Network, amongst other things. Some of the content on the website is getting old and stale, but it’s still one of the best resources for foreigners in India. Any question you may have about traveling through India has probably been answered on this website.

india_rail_info
The best website for figuring out the train schedule is India Rail Info, which also has an excellent app. The user interface is intimidating at first glance, but it’s packed with essential information – like the average delay (some passenger trains are routinely 6-8 hours late), how many tickets are available in each class, and it will let you search for foreign ticket availability.

The easiest way to book tickets is through the Cleartrip website (or app), which accepts foreign credit cards.

Some extra information we figured out as we travelled:
– For overnight trains, you can choose between Sleeper (SL), 3 level air-conditioned (3A), 2 level air-conditioned (2A), or a private compartment (1A) with prices close to flying. We spent most of our time in very affordable 3A compartments, but also booked a number of super-cheap tickets in Sleeper class. Even though Sleeper and 3A officially sleep the same number of people (8 per compartment), you will find more people cramming into Sleeper (with families often sharing a single bed). 3A is generally more comfortable and the beds come with a pillow, sheets, and blankets (in Sleeper you have to bring your own). 3A is temperature controlled, so it is more comfortable when it is both hot and cold outside.

– Trains are given priority on the tracks based on their type. The fancy, express trains (the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Expresses) go the fastest and are hardly ever late. The slower passenger trains stop at more stations, have to pull over and wait for faster trains to pass, and are frequently several hours behind their schedule.

– Most trains reserve 2-10 seats for foreign tourists, which are great when you’re making last minute travel plans, but can be a real pain to book. They can only be booked in person at the major train stations. Again, India Mike has the best guide to Foreign Tourist quota tickets and a list of train stations where you can buy them.

– If the train is full and you can’t buy a Foreign Tourist Ticket, the next option is the Waitlist. We tempted fate on the waitlist twice and got lucky both times, but it was very stressful. If you are near the top of the waitlist, you might get a ticket when someone cancels, but most tickets are handed out 4-12 hours before the train leaves, allocated from unused quotas in special classes. You best have a good backup plan. There is also last-minute Tatkal tickets that go on sale at 10 am the day before the train leaves. The train station reservation offices are madhouses in the morning as people push and shove to get a chance at these tickets. We never bothered.

Buses
India has a great network of private bus operators that provide comfortable Volvo bus connections between most cities. Unlike the train, which can sell out weeks in advance, the buses were usually easy to book last minute. You can search and book tickets for most operators on a single website – Redbus. Some of routes are served by “sleeper buses”, which have horizontal beds (doubles and singles). Depending on the road conditions, the sleeper buses can be just as comfortable as the train and a great way to travel. There are government buses, which are cheaper and less comfortable than the private Volvos, and in some states they are the only option.

Laughing Buddha - Arambol
Hotels
India has a great selection of budget hotels, but don’t expect Western cleanliness or service. Many hotel rooms won’t have towels, sheets, or toilet paper when you check in, but if you ask they will provide them. You won’t find a clock, telephone, hair dryer, or daily room cleaning but most hotel rooms will have a shower in the middle of the bathroom with a bucket to wash clothing, a Western toilet, and a fan or A/C. Sometimes you will find a TV, mosquito nets (especially in the south), and included breakfast.

Money
We spent around 3000 rupees/person/day (full breakdown).
Almost all of our spending was in cash. Using a credit card was rare, especially outside of the major cities. Luckily there are a lot of ATMs that accept foreign cards. The best were the State Bank ATMs, which don’t charge any fees and are plentiful throughout the country.

Reviews
The best source of reliable reviews was TripAdvisor, especially for hotels and attractions. For food, Zomato was the best for finding great restaurants – the curated “Legendary” lists never let us down.

Language
Luckily most Indians speak good English, so you can get by without learning any other languages. We learned some tourist Hindi, but its usefulness was limited. Many states, especially in the South, have their own languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.). However, it’s always nice to be able to greet and thank people in their own language.

India - Gokarna
Have a great trip. India is a special place, full of amazing memories.

Backpacking India: Travel Expenses Breakdown

India is a very cheap country to travel through. Our biggest expense was flying in and out. Surprisingly, even after over 4 months travelling, we paid more for our flights than accommodation or food.

So, how much does it cost to backpack through India? Less than $1000 per person per month. Our average daily expenses were $63 per day, and that includes everything – hotels, food, trains, a cellphone with a data plan, haircuts, toiletries, and all of our souvenirs. To put that in perspective, our rent alone in Vancouver costs about the same.

Two round trip flights in and out of India cost us only $1,236 each – we got lucky there. Pre-trip expenses like visas, vaccines, and a guide book cost another $342.20.

Our hotels averaged 1100 rupees or $22 per night. The beach hut in Gokarna was the cheapest place we stayed, costing only $5. We splurged to stay in a boutique resort for our anniversary in Darjeeling, our most expensive night but still only $55. The hotel in Mumbai was almost as much and not nearly as nice.

Trains were the cheapest and most atmospheric way to get across India. We travelled in the unreserved carriages a few times – which are unbelievably cheap but often very crowded. It cost us only $1 each to travel the 250 km between Jodhpur and Ajmer in unreserved second-class. Even our most expensive day train, the high speed train from Amritsar to Delhi, was only $16 a ticket. Our best value was probably the overnight train from Goa to Mumbai, when we paid $11 per bunk bed in a non-AC car. The average overnight train ride in air-conditioned carriages cost $20 each.

Our trip slowly got more expensive as we moved north. Our first 50 days through South India were the cheapest – mostly because there weren’t any expensive sights to see and we weren’t buying any souvenirs. Then we hit Mumbai, the most expensive city in India; Agra, with the Taj Mahal and other tourist traps; and Jaipur, where we paid too much money for an elephant experience. The most expensive part of our trip was the 4 days treeking through the Himalayas with porters and cooks, but it was worth it. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of our souvenir shopping happened in the last week of our trip.

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
Continue reading Backpacking India: Trip Summary

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

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

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.

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

Backpacking India: Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling is the famed British hill station and tea plantation centre. It is also a good base for trekking in the Himalayas and exploring Sikkim. As such, our time in town was split into three visits and by the last one we had finally got a feel for the city that vexed us on our first visits.

India - Darjeeling
We arrived in Darjeeling in the back of a shared jeep that winded up bumpy switchbacks and made me motion sick. We then spent an hour wandering hopelessly lost with our big packs on, trying to find the Vodafone store (to get a new simcard) and our hotel. Navigating in Darjeeling is extremely difficult. Maps fail to show the elevation or hidden staircases that connect the twisting streets. Even asking for directions, it felt like we were sent in circles, going up and down hills.

India - Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a fascinating town. It is perched on the top of a mountain, at over 2000 meters above sea level. It’s cleaner than the rest of India and many of the upper streets, like The Mall, are car-free. Local porters, with stooped backs and heavy loads strapped to their foreheads, are a common sight as they deliver packages to businesses.
India - Darjeeling

Even though the British are long gone, Darjeeling revels in Western culture more than anywhere else we’ve been in India. We heard more 80s soft rock than Bollywood tunes and the main shopping strip features a Glenary’s bakery, Frank Ross Chemist Shop, and Oxford book store, all of which look preserved from the 1950’s.

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling has amazing views of the neighbouring Himalayan mountains, especially Kanchengjunga (3rd highest in the world). Our guide book recommended getting up at 4 am and taking a shared taxi to the top of Tiger Hill to get an amazing view of the sun rising over the mountain. It seemed awfully early, but we set an alarm anyway. We layered up as best as we could (we didn’t pack a lot of warm clothing) and tried to leave our hotel. The doors and gates were locked tight and we couldn’t wake anyone with knocking. We thought of going back to bed, but instead decided to break out of our hotel. From an inner courtyard, we found a spiked gate that we were able to climb over without killing ourselves and escape onto the street. An hour later, after many Eagles and Bon Jovi tunes, we arrived at Tiger Hill which was packed with tourists. However, the sunrise views were epic as promised. At the time we didn’t realize how lucky we were, but every other day we spent in Darjeeling was cloudy and the mountains were impossible to see.

India - Darjeeling

The cool temperatures and mountain views were originally what attracted the British to the area. They loved coming here in the summer when temperatures in Kolkata were over 40 C. But in March, it feels more freezing than refreshing, and after our dawn adventure we realized we lacked the proper clothing for the mountains, especially for trekking. We spent our first day shopping for wool socks, sweaters, scarves, and mitts. We probably went a little overboard and now a third of my pack is taken up by a heavy fleece sweater and thermal underwear that will be useless in Kolkata and Delhi, but I might get to use them again when we visit the mountains north of Delhi in a few weeks.

India - Darjeeling
India - Darjeeling
Darjeeling has a great little zoo and mountaineering museum. The zoo is home to many endangered local animals, like red pandas, snow leopards, and Himalayan wolves, and is famous for its breeding and conservation programs. They also have a majestic Bengal tiger. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum is co-located with the zoo and has a fascinating exhibit on Everest expeditions, including a lot of info about Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa that summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
India - Darjeeling

For our 3 year wedding anniversary, we splurged a little and got a room at the Little Tibet boutique resort. It was worth it for the romantic dinner, modern washroom with little soaps and lotions, and a comfy heated bed. You know we’ve been traveling for too long and staying in budget accommodation when free shampoo gets us excited.
India - Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling
A trip to Darjeeling wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a tea plantation, so we spent a day and night at a homestay at the Makaibari tea estate. We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway toy train down to Kurseong, which is as far as the train currently runs since a landslide wiped out the tracks further down the mountain in 2010. The train is slower than taking a jeep but a much more pleasant ride. Unfortunately my camera lens jammed during the train ride, so I only have a few cellphone photos from the tea estate. It’s a beautiful place. We went on a factory tour and learned how tea is made and what the difference between black, green, oolong, and white tea is – they’re all made from the same leaves but go through different rolling and fermenting steps. But the most informative and interesting part was staying in the home of a local family. Our host, Bomaka, cooked us meals and we spent time chatting with her and her kids about our lives and theirs. I even spent an hour helping her son with his computer science homework. I loved it.
India - Makabari Tea Estate
India - Makabari Tea Estate

Backpacking India: Sikkim

India - Pelling, Sikkim
Sikkim is a small Indian province between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan with some spectacular Himalayan mountains. We spent 5 days enjoying the unique culture, eating momos, visiting Buddhist monasteries, enjoying the mountain views when it was sunny, and drinking millet beer when it was thundering and hailing outside.

India - Pelling, Sikkim
We expected it to be cold and snowy but the temperatures were warmer than Darjeeling, probably because the places we visited were at lower elevations. We did a tour of the towns in West Sikkim, spending time in Pelling, Yuksom, and Tashiding.

India - Yuksom, Sikkim

We liked Sikkim. The weather in March wasn’t great, but when it was clear there were great views of the towering Himalayan mountains like Kanchenjunga. The food and culture are very different from the rest of India, with strong Nepalese influences. The main tourist attractions are the Buddhist monasteries that seem to occupy the top of every peak and trekking. We didn’t do any overnight treks, but spent most of our time walking to monasteries and other sites. There is a hike between Yuksom and Tashiding that passes by three monasteries and takes 5 hours that is apparently worth doing. You can send your luggage by jeep so all you have to carry is a day bag. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about it until we arrived in Tashiding. Although that might have been for the best, as it thundered and hailed while we would have been hiking.
India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Yuksom, Sikkim
Traveling around Sikkim was an adventure in itself. There aren’t any trains and few buses. The main mode of transportation is shared jeeps that drive between the towns. Some have schedules, but most just wait until they are full (10 passengers plus the driver) before leaving. The roads are steep and bumpy and even though the distances between most towns is less than 30 km, it took hours to get anywhere. Traveling between Darjeeling and Pelling involved 3 shared jeeps.

India - Sikkim
Getting into Sikkim
Foreigners need permits to enter Sikkim, which we were able to get in Darjeeling. It is free but time consuming to get. First we had to show our passport and fill out a form at the Foreign Registry office near the clock tower. Then we had to walk 20 minutes across town to the District Magistrate Office and get our passport stamped and get an official entry permit. The office is only open Monday-Friday until 4 pm and we showed up with 2 minutes to spare on Friday afternoon. Our guidebook said we needed extra passport-sized photos, but no one asked for them. Our entry permit allowed us access to the main southern towns of Sikkim for 15 days. For more you have to get another permit in Gangtok. Upon entering Sikkim near Jorethang, we had to show our passports and entry permit at a border check.

Backpacking India: Singalila Trek

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

The Singalila Range forms a ridge of hikeable mountains along the India-Nepal border that offer awesome views of the Himalayan mountains including Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (8598 m). We set out to do a 5-day trek from Maneybhanjang (near Darjeeling) to Phalut, but unfortunately didn’t make it all the way. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

The first day I was really slow going up the 11 km with over 800 metres elevation gain. That night I was so chilled and achy I couldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning. All night all I could think about was the 21 kms we had to cover the next day and the ascent up to 3636 metres above sea level. I was feeling better the next morning but knew I didn’t have enough energy to complete the day. We were lucky to have views of Kanchenjunga that morning before heading back down to Maneybhanjang. We were both disappointed about not making it to Sandakphu and Phalut, the two peaks with amazing views, but knew it was the right decision.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
We weren’t in the national park yet so we could do the descent without a guide, at least a human one. We had three different dogs join us for different parts of the day. They were just village dogs that seemed to want a little company and a journey. They responded better to petting than treats.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
This one was our favourite, we named him Charzing.

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

Tour companies will arrange all-inclusive Singalila Trek expeditions for around 3000 rupees per person, but we’re cheap and resourceful so we planned our trek on our own. We wanted to create a comprehensive guide to the trek for others to follow, but since we never made it past Tumling (near Tonglu peak), our knowledge is incomplete. But here is what we figured out. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are two standard treks out of Maneybhanjang. A 3 day-trek to Sandakphu and down to Rimbik or the 5 day trek that goes to Phalut. Phalut has 360-degree views from the peak (3600 m) so that was the trek we chose.
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
We took a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Maneybhanjang in the morning. Apparently it’s not a very popular route. There were three other foreign tourists going to do the same trek and no one else. After waiting for 30 minutes we paid for the remaing five seats so we could get trekking at a reasonable time. We ended up trekking with our new friends to help share the costs.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Most of the hike is in the Singalila National Park, which requires visitors to be accompanied by a guide. If you’re not using a private tour operator, you can get guides through the Society for Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare (link), whose mission is to preserve the park and create employment opportunities for youth. The cost is 1200 rupees per day, including food and lodging for the guide, no matter how big your group is. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are government and private lodges along the way, as well as snack, water, and lunch huts. We only stayed in one, which was lovely. We had our own room with three beds, lots of blankets, and a washroom (cold water and squat toilet) for 800 rupees. We spent most of our time in the main house with the other guests by the fire. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Lunch was either chowmein or noodle soup for 50 rupees and egg could be added for 20. Tea and water were a little more expensive than usual, 15-20 and 30 respectively. The one dinner we had was amazing (although I didn’t eat much) – dal, rice, veg curry, potatoes, fried bitter gourd, egg curry, raw veggies, and apricot dessert – for 150 rupees each. Breakfast was porridge, Tibetan bread, honey, jam, and a boiled egg for 100 rupees.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

We didn’t hire a porter and carried our own gear. We probably brought too much stuff. I would recommend packing lite – only bringing a few days of clothing, warm hat and gloves, and a headlamp. We rented down sleeping bags in Darjeeling for 80 rupees a day from Trek Mate. We didn’t need them in Tumling as there were plenty of blankets. We also foolishly brought snacks from Darjeeling that we could have bought at any of the tea stall that dotted the trail.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1