Tag Archives: backpacking

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

India: Chittaurgarh and Bundi

India - Bundi Fort

Chittaurgarh and Bundi are two off-the-beaten-path towns in Rajasthan with gems to offer the few tourists who see them. We spent 3 days visiting the sights and enjoying the beautiful, but dilapidated buildings.

India - Chittaugargh
Our first day didn’t go well. I was suffering through travelers diarrhea. We had more rain in Chittaurgarh than we’ve seen in 3 months. A moody cow didn’t want us to go to Bundi (maybe we should have listened).

When we did arrive, the rickshaw our hotel arranged wasn’t there. We should have taken a different one, but when we called they insisted we wait. The rickshaw finally showed up 10 minutes later. Midway to our guesthouse, the driver had to stop at a garage to quickly replace the starter motor. It only took 5 minutes, but as we pulled away smoke started pouring out as one of the wires caught on fire. Fire extinguished, motor fixed, we almost made it the hotel. We had to walk the last block because the clutch was acting up.
India - Bundi rickshaw maintenance

Wet, tired, and frustrated, we finally made it to our guesthouse. Unfortunately they didn’t have hot water for showering (they boiled a bucket full for us to wash) and the power kept going out. Luckily the sun came out the next day and the rest of our visit was brighter. All in all, we were still happy we stopped in Chittaurgarh and not too bothered by all the roadblocks (we must be getting used to this place).
India - Bundi Palace

In the sunlight, Bundi was very pleasant, but literally crumbling. All of the main attractions – the palace, fort, and step wells – are in advanced states of decay. In some ways that added to the charm and made them more interesting to visit. The fort was particularly fun to wander around, as nature has slowly reclaimed it and monkeys are the main inhabitants.

India - Bundi Fort

India - Bundi Palace

India - Bundi Palace

India - Bundi Palace

India - Bundi Fort

India - Bundi Fort

India - Bundi Fort

India - Bundi Stepwells

India - Bundi Stepwells

Backpacking India: Udaipur & Krishna Ranch

India - Udaipur
Udaipur is the most beautiful city we’ve visited in India. Between the clean waterfront, majestic palaces, and epic sunsets, we were content to just sit and relax for much of our visit.

India - Udaipur
The lakes are cleaner than most we’ve seen and doesn’t smell like poop – a rare occurrence in a country where most sewage flows through open drains to the nearest body of water. There is even a machine that cleans the water in the lake. The waterfront is dominated by the main palace, havelis, temples, two floating palaces, and now dozens of guest houses jammed in between. Most of our time in Udaipur was spent taking in the beauty. We hiked to the top of one of the hills to get a view from above, went on a boat tour around the lake, and paid to get a look inside the main palace.

India - Udaipur India - Udaipur India - Udaipur India - Udaipur

We also took a vegan cooking class at one of the healthier restaurants we’ve come across in India – Millets of Mewar. Besides being vegetarian, they do most things vegan and many gluten free (using millet). We learned to make millet chapatis, kidney bean dal, dum aloo, veg biryani, and veg kabobs. Now we have South and North Indian recipes we’re looking forward to replicating at home.
Vegan cooking class at Millets of Mewar in Udaipur

To recuperate from all that relaxing, we fled the city to Krishna Ranch, a tranquil oasis nestled next to the hills of a wildlife reserve. Most people go for the horseback riding, but we just wanted to spend more time in nature.

India - Krishna Ranch - Sun Salutation
When we asked the owner about good hikes, he suggested climbing to the top of the hill in the wildlife reserve for a view of the Monsoon Palace. It sounded like a lovely hike. We should have realized we were in for an adventure when the hike started by scaling a 7 foot wall with barbwire on top and sneaking into the wildlife reserve.

Indian Poop Vaulting
We brought walking sticks with us to keep balance and scare away leopards. They were very handy (no leopards spotted), but a machete might have been more useful. We picked our way through the spiky thorn bushes following what was likely a goat trail.

India - Krishna Ranch
The views from the top were spectacular, as promised. We ate an excellent tiffin lunch at the top, packed by our hosts, sheltered under one of the few shade trees. Getting down was a bit trickier, as we had a hard time finding paths and the route seemed steeper than it had on the way up. But 5 hours after we left, we finally made it back, filled with the happy exhaustion that physical labour brings.

India - Krishna Ranch
Emily enjoyed a nice mid-afternoon nap, but I spent my rest time chewing through my book. I probably should have had a nap. It might have kept away the fever I got that night and the diarrhea that has been with me since.

Luckily the next day was rainy, so I didn’t feel bad spending most of it either curled up in bed or on the toilet. It’s the first rain we’ve seen in a long time.

Backpacking India: Jodhpur

India - Jodhpur
Jodhpur went by in a blur. Maybe it was the opium and marijuana lassi I consumed.
India - Jodhpur
Jodhpur was a relaxing stop for us. When we arrived, Emily was running a fever, so we spent the day in the hotel. She slowly gained energy, but it was so hot during the day we never felt like doing anything too strenuous.

India - Jodhpur
The main attraction in Jodhpur is the massive Mehranghar Fort – the most impressive fort in Rajasthan. It towers over the city and the blue painted houses below. The inside wasn’t as interesting as the Amber Fort in Jaipur, but it did have an excellent audio guided tour.

India - Jodhpur
We also went on a car tour of the nearby Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi are a local religious sect known for their fierce defence of plants and animals. They are real tree huggers and refuse to cut down trees. In 1730, a confrontation with the maharaja over tree cutting lead to 363 Bishnoi, led by the women, sacrificing themselves to protect the trees. As a result of their sacrifice, no tree cutting is allowed in the area to this day.

India - Jodhpur
The tour wasn’t great, but we visited a new Bishnoi temple under construction (the first new temple we’ve seen in India) and a memorial to the 363 Bishnoi who sacrificed their lives. We met a local family and shared some ceremonial opium – ingesting a piece too small to cause any high. We also had demonstrations from traditional potters and weavers, and then got ushered into their gift shops, of course. We bought a nice block printed table cloth.
India - Jodhpur

The neighborhood we stayed in was out of the tourist area and the local kids took delight in circling us whenever we walked by. They convinced me to join their pickup cricket game one afternoon. I enjoyed it, but I need more practice before any of the big kids invite me to play. We also got drawn into the big Shivaratri festival. When walking to dinner a group of young kids ran by and sprayed my face with a perfumed water. I thought they maced me at first, but it didn’t sting and they offered me nuts and dried fruit once the hazing was over. On the way back, a group of young men, partying at a temple with a rocking sound system, got a little too excited when we walked by. It was intimidating at first, but they really wanted to share their culture with us. They gave me a milky drink, that they assured me was just a regular lassi. I’m pretty sure it was a bhang lassi (made with marijuana), which is traditionally consumed during religious holidays. I didn’t consume enough to get a buzz, as I was more worried about the lactose. All the religious fervor is just a taste of what we can expect during Holi (the colour festival) in a few weeks.

India - Jodhpur

India - Jodhpur

Backpacking India: Halfway

February 11th was the halfway point in our trip. Two months in, two months to go. Feels like we’ve seen a lot already, but we still have moments when we have to remind ourselves in disbelief that we’re in India.

We’ve made a few stops in northern India and are starting to get a taste for the region. We had been told that there are a lot of differences between north and south. So far, we’re finding some of them to be true and others not. The weather is different, the food, and our fellow travelers, but we’re not finding the touts and scammers to be more aggressive as we’d been warned.

India - Fatehpur Sikri

Agra was chillingly cold weather (at least it felt like that to us), but now we’re in the desert and it’s getting hotter fast (it’s dry and 33 degrees). I’m glad I didn’t buy a second sweater. It’s still reasonable at night and in the shade, which we’re very thankful for. But you really can’t do anything in the middle of the day.

Hindi is widely spoken amongst locals and that will likely be the case until we’re in West Bangal. So we’re finally taking the time to learn the basics. So far we have hello/goodbye, 1 to 5, OK, and thank you. Generally everyone is appreciative and actually seems to understand what we’re saying. Somehow it seems that people’s English is better too, probably because there are more foreign tourists.

India - Jaipur

The food has changed – more wheat, meat, and dairy; less rice and fresh fruit juice. We’re happy that it’s still easy to find vegetarian food, but are having to be more vigilant about paneer. We’ve sampled a bunch of new kinds of deep fried bread and sugary sweets. Our favourite new kind of food is anything done in the tandoor oven, like tikki vegetables, kebabs, and naan. Tandoori is not just for carnivores in India.

India - Taj Mahal

A lot more foreign tourists visit northern India, especially on short term trips (less than one month). This tends to change the dynamic of restaurants, activities, and sites. People are willing to spend more money because they are constantly converting to their home currency. There are more coach tour buses and quick ways to “experience” quintessential Indian things. But we’re generally on a different path (sometimes literally) than these folks except for some of the big, must-see sites.

India - Jaisalmer haircut

Our bodies and our belongings are managing to hang in. No more stomach issues (knock on wood), but we keep catching colds. I think I’m on my third and this one really knocked me out. Our skin is getting brown, or at least the tops of our feet and back of our necks. After a few weeks of looking pretty shaggy, Chris got a haircut at a roadside barber. Our clothes have mostly survived hand washing, wringing, and sun drying. Chris got his sandals sown up the other day where they were beginning to tear. We’re starting to take bets on which items won’t make it home – odds on favorites include Chris’s underwear and Emily’s sandals.

India - Jaisalmer

A few people have asked what our travel plans are for the remaining time. We have sketched out a plan to March 9 and then have some things we want to see with no specific dates. Our friend Dan is probably going to join us for 2 weeks which might alter our course slightly. This might not mean much if you don’t know India, but here is goes:

Jodhpur
Pushkar
Udaipur
Bundi
Varanasi for the Holi colour festival
Darjeeling
Sikkim
Sangilila trekking
Kolkata
Corbett National Park
Rishikesh
Amritsar
Delhi