Date: October/November 2008
Places visited: Delhi, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Khajuraho
Overall impression: Where do I start? Overwhelming is the best word. India challenges all senses; sights, sounds and smells and also some sensibilities. It was one of my most memorable trips with images and impressions that will stay with me for a long time.
Delhi: After landing in Delhi in the middle of the night, which is when most of the international flights arrive, we spent the first couple of days visiting the usual landmarks, The Red Fort, Gandhi’s grave, the impressive government buildings etc. We also visited a large mosque and had a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets of old Delhi.
Darjeeling: From Delhi we flew to Bagdogra, where we were met by a guide and driver for the 3 hour drive up in the mountains to the old British hill station Darjeeling. We quickly understood why we needed both a driver and a guide. The condition of the steep and twisted mountain roads was terrible, and you wouldn’t want to take your eyes off the road for long. In Darjeeling we stayed in an old British colonial guest house where, along with the cozy colonial décor, they had unfortunately also maintained some of the old British culinary skills. We woke up the first morning to the sound of a mosque calling people to prayer to be followed later by the sound of a piano and the singing of Christian hymns from the boys’ school next door. It turns out Darjeeling is a favoured place for boarding schools, mainly Catholic. The town is located on a mountain ridge, all the hillsides are covered with the tea plantation for which the areas is so famous and it is surrounded by snow covered mountain peaks. Unfortunately, while the landscape is still stunning, the city is slowly going to seed. There is no regular garbage pick up, and the public parks are barely maintained. The area is part of the state of West Bengal, but none of the tourist dollars that the area creates seems to be put back in the local economy. This has led to a burgeoning independence movement among the mostly Buddhist Nepalese population.
We visited a Tibetan refugee self help center, hiked through some of the famous tea plantations that all the hillsides are covered with, rode on the narrow gage railway and visited an excellent outdoor zoo showing the animals of the Himalayas and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The highlight was a 3:30 wake up call for the tour to Tiger Hills to see the sun rise over Kanchenjunga Peak, the highest mountain in India and the 3rd highest in the world at 28,156 feet only 846 feet less than Everest. A stream of cars raced up there in the dark, and the place was absolutely packed. There was a festive feeling and a cheer went up as the first rays of the sun appeared over the horizon and shone on the mountain top. We were very fortunate to have a really clear morning and even managed to see Mount Everest in the far distance ….what a thrill.
From Darjeeling the trip went back down the mountain to the valley where we ran into a demonstration for land claims, yes they have that in India too! They refused to let us pass in spite of our guide pleading that we had a train to catch. This resulted in a high speed detour across the countryside to catch our train which, as it turns out, was 2 hours late anyway. Not unusual in India. We bid a fond farewell to our incredible guide and driver and boarded the overnight train to Varanasi. It was actually recommended that we fly back to Delhi, and then fly back to Varanasi as there are no direct flights between Bagdogra and Varanasi. This didn’t make much sense to me when I found out we could go there in an overnight 1st class private air conditioned sleeper train. The moral of the story: Listen to the experts: 1st class, private, air conditioned sleeper means different things on different routes. On this route we shared our “private” sleeper with a Bengali family of four. A flimsy curtain was supposed to provide the “privacy” aspect, but it remained open to facilitate conversation with the rest of the family on the other side of the hallway. We also shared the cabin with a number of interesting insects, so not much sleep and plenty of opportunity to gaze out of the window. Travelling by train or by car in the countryside gives you a whole different view of India. As westerners we tend to think of teeming cities when we think of India, but in fact 70% of the population lives in the countryside and many Indians still identify themselves by the village they come from. As the train rolls through the countryside in the pink light of the early morning you see villagers in the fields, on bicycles, grandfathers walking hand in hand with their children to their school. It all looks very peaceful and a lot more uncomplicated than our lives at times.
Varanasi: In Varanasi our movements were somewhat restricted by the event of a major political rally for a Hindu extremist politician, and the police were concerned about clashes among different groups. Our guide had strong opinions about politics and history which made for a very interesting conversation and a different perspective. For example, in the west we learn about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 whereas in India it is known as the First Indian War of Independence. Varanasi is not only a holy city for Hindus but also for Buddhists and Jains and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. You can’t get all the way to the river by car, and we walked the last part to and from through small narrow passageways. It felt like you had stepped back in the middle ages.
The early morning tour on the Ganges was every bit as fascinating as expected. There is a sense of timelessness as you move through the water, and you think of all the hopes and prayers that have been offered here for thousands of years.
Khajuraho: From Varanasi we flew to Khajuraho for a tour of the Eastern and Western temples. These are the temples with erotic carvings, and it did feel a little odd to be standing there with a very polite young guide pointing out the various sexual positions. The temples were built over 1,000 years ago and originally there were over 85 of them. As the city went into decline, the jungles took over, which possibly saved it from the Muslim conquerors who raided that part of India for several centuries. In 1858, a British officer rediscovered the temples; restoration of the 20 remaining temples began and continues to this day. Today Khajuharo is a sleepy little town, our hotel was set on 6 acres of garden with a pool and it was a good place for some much needed R & R before continuing the rest of our interesting journey.
To be continued: Agra, Ramathra, Rathambore, Jaipur, Udaipur and Shimla.
Guides: This tour was just for my husband and me to the places that were of interest to us, and it was completely organized before leaving home. We were met with local drivers and guides in every place, and we felt completely safe and well looked after. If feasible, I would really recommend travelling this way, as it adds a whole additional dimension. We learned about their families, their hopes for their children, religious beliefs and political views and it was a very enriching experience.
Duty free: Items made in developing countries, such as India, can be brought into Canada duty free. As these rules can change, it is best to confirm this before you travel if you plan to make major purchases, or like us, didn’t plan to but did it anyway. Street vendors and beggars: They can be very persistent. Our Canadian politeness worked against us because once you have responded to a simple “hello”, or “where are you from”, it was really hard to get rid of them. Our guides told us that the best way is to not respond at all and not even make eye contact. That turned out to be quite effective.
Best Time to Travel: Anytime from October to February but November is probably the best time.
Things to buy: Silk, carpets, jewellery, handicrafts