Image courtesy of Intrepid Travel

October 2012

I knew I couldn’t miss India from my world trip.

My first visit to the country back in 2008 had been the sensory overload I’d imagined it would be.  So far Thailand is the only other place I’ve been that comes close to the total sense of difference.

It’s difficult to fully describe to someone that has never been quite how it feels. And yet I know I’ve merely glimpsed at the country, from the rooftop of a Pune restaurant or a taxi window driving through the streets of Mumbai. My hope is to get a better understanding of this fascinating land, but in a country so vast I could have spent most of the year here alone. So where to go?

Coming from Manchester, it’s well understood that the other side of the Pennines is considered God’s own country by its proud Yorkshire folk. In India the region claiming this title for themselves is Kerala, in Southern India. Now I’ve seen a bit of Yorkshire in my time, but in India I’ve so far ventured no further south than Hyderabad. The sheer number of my Indian friends that holiday in Kerala made this most Southern area of the country my whistle-stop number one.

Say what you like, but Princess Diana never really did it for me, and that photo of her in front of the Taj Mahal just made me want to give her a jolly good pep talk.  But the building, and its story, did catch my imagination. As did the rich tones of palaces across Rajasthan. Add the slightest possibility of seeing tigers (sadly remote these days I realise) and I’ve found my top two.

Image courtesy of Intrepid Travel

Most of the time I’ll be travelling in a tour group. Whilst India has always felt to me a safe country, excepting the odd internal flight with duct tape holding together bits of the cabin, the amount of places I want to visit in these four and a bit weeks makes a pre-arranged tour the best option.

Fingers crossed that monsoon season will be on its way out by the time I fly into Delhi on the first of the month (as at the 23rd September the weather forecast is looking promising).

For those of you that fancy knowing a bit more about where I’ll be going and when (mum), here’s the planned itinerary:

Classic Rajasthan Tour

Days 1 to 2 – Delhi

India’s capital is an exciting, busy, and often chaotic city but it’s also one of the most interesting in the world with historical sites from different eras, museums and galleries, shops and endless bazaars. Visit the World Heritage-listed Mughal masterpiece of Humayun’s Tomb. This was the first garden tomb in India, built way back in 1570. Wonder at the tall brick minaret of Qutub Minar, which was started back in the 1100s. Explore the mighty Red Fort of Delhi. Part palace and part fort, it plays an integral part in the history of the city with former residents ranging from royal families to British soldiers.

Join your group leader on an excursion into the sights and sounds of Old Delhi! Set off on the city’s modern metro system, then get a taste of India’s famed public transport with a cycle rickshaw ride through chaotic streets, such as the famous Chandni Chowk. Make a visit to the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s oldest mosque and one of its most impressive buildings, then visit the Sheeshganj Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) to learn about the Sikh religion.

Day 3 – Agra

Take one of India’s fastest air-conditioned trains to the Mughal city of Agra (approx 3 hrs).

Hop on to your cycle rickshaw for a tour of the city – a truly fun and Intrepid way to see the monuments of Agra.

Visit the Taj Mahal – a masterpiece of shimmering white marble set amid beautiful formal gardens. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz, this ‘teardrop on the face of eternity’ (as it was described by Rabindranath Tagore) lives up to all expectations.

See the Agra Fort on the banks of the Yamuna River. Built in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, the fort was originally designed to be a military structure. It was converted to a palace in Emperor Shah Jahan’s time and eventually became his prison after he lost power in 1658.

Day 4 – Rural Heritage Stay

Take a local bus to Bassi, a small town in the middle of rural Rajasthan (approx 4 hrs). Travel by private jeeps right to the heart of the village where we stay. On an exploratory walk through the village, you’ll see local craftspeople at work and have plenty of opportunity to meet with the villagers. Stay in a beautiful heritage property that belongs to one of the royal families of Rajasthan.

Days 5 to 6 – Jaipur

Travel in private vehicles to the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, via the Amber Palace (approx 4.5 hrs).

Stop at the old capital of Amber and explore the hilltop fort complex known as the Amber Palace.

A friendly, busy town crammed with palaces and bazaars full of jewellery, textiles and folk-based arts, Jaipur is a firm favourite with travellers. Make a stop at India’s most photographed building after the Taj Mahal, the Hawa Mahal or ‘Palace of the Winds’. Take a walk to the city’s crowded and colourful bazaars, which sell a wide variety of artisan goods. Semi-precious stones are the local speciality – be sure to wander by the stalls at least once.

Discover the extravagance of a Bollywood blockbuster, with all the Hollywood-style elements of action, romance, drama and music (sometimes all rolled into one), at the spectacular Raj Mandir Cinema.

Day 7 – Ranthambhore National Park

Travelling by private vehicle, head north-east to Ranthambhore (approx 5 hrs). Ranthambhore National Park is one of the original Project Tiger reserves, although with its lakes, crags and ruined pavilions, it’s well worth a visit in itself. One of the biggest and most renowned national parks in northern India, Ranthambhore was once a famous hunting ground for the Maharajas of Jaipur, today it’s a major wildlife tourist attraction.

Take 4WD safari vehicles and go searching for tigers and other wildlife inside the park.

Explore Ranthambhore Fort. Founded in 944, few of the buildings inside have survived the ravages of war and time, but among the remaining ruins, two pavilions – Badal Mahal and Hammirs Court – give an idea of its old grandeur.

Day 8 – Bundi

Take private vehicles to the small rural town of Bundi (approx 4 hrs). A delightful town teeming with Rajasthani life, Bundi’s narrow streets are packed with shops of all kinds and the downtown market is an interesting spot to mingle with the local people. This is a fantastic place to explore on foot and there’s plenty of time to visit the baoris (step-wells) and experience local street life down in the bazaars.

Explore Bundi Palace and its famous murals. Built during the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s a classic piece of Rajasthani architecture.

Days 9 to 10 – Rural Heritage Stay

Take a slow but interesting train journey with rural villagers and locals to the small town of Bassi (approx 3 hrs). Enjoy a drive in open jeeps out into the countryside visiting rural villages – a special and unique experience indeed. Spend the night camping (in relative luxury!) beside a lake and under the stars. Our tents have attached bathrooms, electricity and hot & cold running water. It gets cool in the months of November & December, but quilts are provided.

Take jeeps to explore the surrounding villages. Be treated to a night of luxury in a wonderful heritage stay, a fortified mansion still run by the erstwhile local landlord and his family. It is a perfect place to take a break and immerse yourself in the local culture and lifestyle. The place is warm and people and staff friendly, welcoming all their guests and treating them as part of the family.

Days 11 to 12 – Udaipur

A short journey takes us to Udaipur (approx 4 hrs). Udaipur undoubtedly lives up to its reputation as India’s most romantic city. Rolling hills, white marble palaces and lakes come together appealingly and it’s a centre for artists, dancers and musicians. Take a walk around town to help gain your bearings and explore Udaipur’s twisting alleys filled with silver, shoes, bags, leather goods and miniature paintings. Visit City Palace, one of the largest royal palaces in India, and check out the unbelievable treasures within – from vivid murals to antiques and royal utensils.

Days 13 to 14 – Pushkar

Depart from Udaipur by train to Ajmer (approx 6 hrs). Take private vehicles from Ajmer to our hotel in Pushkar (approx 45 mins). Pushkar is one of the India’s holiest places. It’s also a market centre for many of the local village people and a great place to sit back and relax. Walk around the lake, with its bustling ghats and temples, to watch the devout as they worship at the holy waters. Visit the only Brahma Temple in India.

The highlight of our visit to Pushkar is a camel ride out into the local desert area. For those who don’t want to ride a camel, there’s a camel cart option. Early risers can make the sunrise hike up the hill to the Savitri Temple for magical views over the town. There could also be a wonderful steaming glass of chai waiting for you if the chai man is there – certainly well worth the trek.

Board the overnight train to Delhi (approx 9 hrs). Sleeper trains are clean and air-conditioned, a great way to travel long distances and still get maximum time in each place. Beds are padded berths with sheets, pillow and blanket provided but some people prefer to bring their own sleeping sheet. Please note you may be sharing with locals in a same gender/mixed gender situation.

Day 15 – Delhi

Return to Delhi.

I’ll then be spending a few days in Delhi and Kochi before joining a group travelling around Kerala and region.

Image courtesy of Intrepid Travel

Classic Kerala Tour

Day 1 – Kochi

Spread over several islands, Kochi is a fascinating place full of Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English influences. Head out to explore the major sights of Fort Cochin and visit the spice bazaars and antique shops. The best way to get around the islands is by using the ferry network. Visit the Dutch Palace, built by the Portuguese in the middle of the 16th century. It was taken over by the Dutch in 1663, who added some improvements before presenting it to the Rajas of Cochin.

Be part of a Kathakali dance performance. This classical dance is a highly charged and powerful drama that combines devotion and physical virtuosity with symbolic storytelling to produce one of the most impressive and vibrant forms of theatre in the world. It requires lengthy and rigorous training to attain complete control of the body and sensitivity to emotion so as to be able to render all its nuances through facial expressions and hand gestures.

Day 2 – Munnar

Travel in our private vehicles to the small hill town of Munnar (approx. 5.5 hrs). Cradled in a picturesque valley, Munnar is an old British hill station. At a height of 1,525m (4,575 ft), this area is generally much cooler than the lower altitudes so it’s wise to bring sufficient warm clothing. Drive to the nearby tea garden and spend some time in the lush greenery. Depending on its erratic schedule, we’ll also visit the tea museum.

Days 3 to 4 – Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Drive through lush pineapple and rubber plantations to Periyar (approx 4 hrs). Set high in the ranges of the Western Ghats is the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve. This wildlife sanctuary surrounds a picturesque lake, formed by the building of a dam in 1895, which meanders around the contours of the wooded hills and provides a permanent source of water for the local wildlife. Though it’s a tiger reserve, tourists come here to view the Indian elephants in the act of ablution and playfulness by the lake.

In the evening, enjoy a tour around a local spice plantation and a delicious meal prepared by the owner’s family. Venture into the acclaimed Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary for a guided nature walk in the hope of glimpsing sambar, bison, elephant, spotted deer, tiger and leopard.

Days 5 to 6 – Alleppey/Kerala Backwaters

Drive downhill towards the backwaters of Kerala (approx 5 hrs). Alleppey’s sleepy, palm-shaded backwaters are Kerala’s hidden treasure. Once an important trading port and now famous for its August ‘snake boat’ races, Alleppey is the starting point for most journeys into the backwaters and also hosts a mid-December musical festival.

Take a leisurely boat ride around the lake and enjoy the outstanding scenery. Enjoy a walk through nearby villages, strolling under palm trees and weaving in between the rice fields that cover the island, discovering the local lifestyles. Experience the rejuvenating bliss of an ayurvedic massage.

Days 7 to 8 – Varkala

Travelling in our private vehicles, head south towards the temple town of Varkala (approx 2.5hrs). Stop off en route to witness age-old Hindu traditions of worship at the Mannarasala Nagaraja (Snake) Temple where women go to pray in the hope of being blessed with a child.

Make another stop at the Krishnapuram Palace. Noted for its characteristic style of Kerala architecture featuring gabled roofs, narrow corridors, dorma windows and pent roofs, it also houses one of the largest single panel mural paintings so far discovered in Kerala, known as Gajendra Moksha’.

The picturesque temple town of Varkala boasts a number of yoga and massage centres, but its dramatic cliffs are its most distinctive feature. Sit back in one of the many clifftop cafes to admire the glistening Arabian Sea below, or walk down to the beach for an afternoon of seaside relaxation.

Wander the peaceful gardens of Sivagiri Ashram, which is devoted to Kerala’s most eminent spiritual and social reformer, Sree Narayana Guru. Explore the mystical Janardhana Swarmy Temple, which is said to be 2000 years old and has a Vishnu shrine.

Days 9 to 10 – Trivandrum/Kovalam Beach

Drive to the beach town of Kovalam – meaning ‘grove of coconut trees’ (approx 2 hours).

About 30 years ago, Kovalam was a sleepy coastal village mainly producing coconuts and fresh fish, today it’s one of the most sought after beaches in India.

See Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, one of the ancient temples of south India and popularly described as ‘Sabarimala of the Women’, as women form the major portion of devotees.

Visit Anchuthengu Fort. Constructed in the 17th century, it’s a brilliant symbol of British architectural elegance.

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