18 days, 10 places, 9 overnight transport – we have packed a lot into our tour of North India! The diversity of this country continues to astound us – from sampling street food in bustling cities, to visiting opulent palaces and forts, and even skiing in the Himalayas!
We fully appreciate that this was a whirlwind of just over two weeks, and that we cannot claim to have fully explored any of the places we visited. We already would like to rerun to explore more, particularly the mountains of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir. We feel bad that we became “check box” tourists, working our way through what the guidebooks told us to see, but this still allowed us to get a flavour of a whole other part of India that we would have otherwise missed.
The only constant we can think of during our time in India is the food being mind blowingly delicious and the presence of monkeys. Although even then, the monkeys have changed. From the small black faced monkeys of Ooty and human-like family groups of lanky monkeys on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border, to the sprightly lean long tailed type jumping along the walls of Jaipur’s Amber Palace, the sturdy stubby tailed ones patrolling the rooftops around Agra and the positively massive, stocky mountain monkeys in Manali.
On a map our route looks a little illogical, however we deliberately planned so that we could take overnight transport to limit time travelling in the day and to save paying for that night’s accommodation! We only stayed in two places for more than one night (Udaipur and Manali) and even did some crazy day visits arriving by overnight transport in the morning and leaving the same day on a night bus to the next place (Varanasi and Amritsar).
Over the few days we spent in Mumbai we managed to see various different sides to the city, from the touristy south near Gate of India, to the slums at BLP and the more affluent areas in the mid-west.
From Mumbai we caught our first of many night buses. Sleeper buses are divided into bunk beds (effectively a carpeted padded shelf!) which are partitioned by screens or little curtains. Whilst we were often too tall for the compartments, on the whole we slept well on the buses. The biggest problem being whether the bus suspension could handle the potholes without us bouncing up into the ceiling (which happened a few times!).
Our introduction into Rajasthan didn’t disappoint with its beautiful floating lake palaces and opulent city palace.
This was probably the most touristy spot of our India trip, with lots of western style cafes and backpackers wandering around. We made the most of leisurely days catching up on the blog and planning ahead. Joe even got a moustache trim in a little back street barber shop!
We watched some beautiful sunsets in udaipur , sitting on the edge of a ghat and at the top of a nearby hill sitting on a temple wall.
Our favourite of the Rajasthan cities, Jaisalmer is out in the desert in the North West of the state, close to the Pakistan border.
Jaisalmer gets its name of the golden city as it is built from sandstone which has been intricately carved so that it almost looks like lace and glows in the sunlight. We were both wowed by the architecture of the narrow lanes and overhanging balconies of the havelis. Be it a random small home or the former residence of an important noble, every building was delicately decorated it was hard to believe that it really was all sandstone.
The walled Fort and surrounding town felt like a film set for Arabian Game of Thrones spin off. Both of us loved being back in the desert and spotting camels again!
We were lucky that for our one evening in Jaisalmer the small rooftop cafe at our guesthouse had some amazing local musicians, including some very sweet and ernest young boys. Watching by candlelight with the looming Fort in the background, it was a magical evening (and topped off by managing to stream England’s first six nations match later that night!).
The pink city of Jaipur was the first time we were a little underwhelmed. Very busy, very smelly and not really that pink! The famous Palace of the Winds was located on a manic dusty street and not at all as beautiful or tranquil as Instagram would have you believe!
That said, we enjoyed our visit to the observatory to work out the giant sun dials and the Minar tower provided some great hazy panoramic views over the city.
We tried to avoid the busiest streets and found ourselves in back lanes ampling lassis from disposable clay jars, spicy beetroot samosas and delicious chats. Our strategy of choosing busy stalls, keeping veggie and ensuring food was piping hot did us well as we can now happily say (writing this having left India) that we successfully survived two months without a hint of the infamous Delhi belly.
Just outside the city stands the Amber Fort, which turned out to be our favourite of all palaces and forts we visited. Sitting just perfectly in the balance between restored and tumble down, the Amber Fort is a maze of corridors, rooms and terraces. Set on a hill, there were beautiful views along the valley, and the there were many monkeys scrambling along the high walls. Despite missing out on elephants in India, we were happy to learn that there were no longer any being forced to lug tourists up to the Fort’s main gate.
We had a single day to explore Jodhpur, the blue city. We spent our day walking around the small streets and visiting the XXXX Fort which provided beautiful views over the city (which looks even bluer from above!).
The Fort had a great audio guide (it was probably the most developed attraction in terms of set up, information boards and restoration that we had seen in India) which taught us about the history of the Fort and Rajasthan.
Jodphur also has a deep stepwell, and we spent a lovely hour or so watching locals dive in whilst catching up with an old friend who by complete coincide was on holiday in Jodphur at the same time!
There was no way that we could visit this part of India and not see the Taj Mahal! We were lucky that the Taj had recently undergone a cleaning project and so was sparkling white. Agra itself was surprisingly underdeveloped and grubby given the number of tourists who visit.
Having seen so many photographs of the Taj (and Joe had visited 15 years ago) it would have been easy to have been underwhelmed, but the beauty of the symmetrical design and intricate flowers of semi precious stones inlaid into the marble didn’t fail to impress. We had a lovely few hours wandering around the complex, and later enjoyed watching both sunrise and sunset from the rooftop of our hostel and the gardens on the opposite side of the river.
It was a while stop day in Varanasi – arriving at 9am and leaving at 10pm that evening.
We first visited some holy Buddhist sites just outside the city. Together with hundreds of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, we wandered around the stupa where the Buddha first gave a speech and met his disciples. We even had a snooze in the manicured temple garden whilst listen to the chanting pilgrims – some much needed relaxation after the bumpiest and dodgiest night bus yet!
We headed back into the city to walk along the ganges in golden hour and enjoyed watching the passing of everyday life in Varanasi. Children played with handmade kites and street cricket (the ball wrapped in tinfoil to help with viability in the fading light!). Along side this, funeral processions came by, carrying flower adorned bodies on stretchers towards one of many riverside fires for cremation. It was very surreal to watch, in fact it felt such a process it wasn’t very emotional. The worst bit was the smell of singed cows who had got too close to the flames. Enough to keep us vegetarian for a little longer!
We left by an overnight train to Delhi. Unfortunately, only one of our seats was “confirmed” meaning that although we both had a ticket, we would have to share one tiny, narrow side bunk. After watching us try to work out how we were going to consitina ourselves to try and get some sleep, two random (short!) Indians came over to offer to swap their two longer bunks and they would share our tiny one! Again, the kindness of strangers is so humbling. They wouldn’t even allow us to buy them a chai to say thank you!
We didn’t know what to expect from Delhi – having only heard horror stories about the air pollution and the statistic that the city has the same population as Australia! So we were pleasantly surprised at the green and relatively spacious city. We were very lucky to stay with an old school friend of Joe, who took us out for some great food and joined us the next day to explore the incredible Qatab Tower – a complex including Indian’s first mosque built from ransacked hindu temples, resulting in a beautiful mix of Islamic and Hindu architecture and artwork.
When we heard that it was the right time of year to ski in India, we knew we were going to have to give it a go! It was minus 6 when we arrived in the early morning and we were so excited to be in the mountains. Manali was a lovely little town and Old Manali a small village nearby (where we stayed).
Although being able to ski made it prime season for us, Manali is busiest in the summer months and so quite a few of the cafes and shops were closed. However we found a cosy spot with an open fire and enjoyed eating tibetan momos and soups.
We hired some very retro ski clothes and equipment (although Joe had to snowboard as there were no ski boots big enough!) and heading up to Salong Valley. On the very bumpy drive we passed apple farms and many yaks – which are a new favourite animal! The yaks are so big and fluffy and seemed very gentle plodding along through the snow.
Salong Valley is mainly a place where Indian tourists pose for a selfie with a pair of skis. Indeed, the hire shop was slightly confused when we said we wanted to hire things for the day and not just 10 minutes! Amazingly there is a single bubble chair lift, used to see a stunning view of the valley. For us however, it was a way to access some lovely back country off piste skiing. We were warned to stick together and told no refunds as there were no pistes and noone would come to rescue us if we got stuck! As there was no piste we could just pick our way down to the bottom. It was a really fun day and made even better when it start to bucket with snow later in the day.
Unfortunately snow in the mountains means a heavy downpour of rain in the town below, so we found ourselves very soggy on our night bus that evening!
We think we may have saved the best til last… We arrived early on a government night bus from the mountains having managed to get a surprising amount of sleep in the oldest and most basic bus of the trip. Straight away we knew we were in the Punjab – surrounded by Sikhs in an array of different coloured turbans and beards instead of the familiar twizzled moustache.
After visiting Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial garden dedicated to those who were killed whilst participating in a peaceful protest against British rule in 1919, we headed to the Golden Temple. After donning a headscarf and removing our shoes, we walked through a channel of warm water and through an archway to see the shimmering Golden Temple surrounded by the large holy lake. The atmosphere was so peaceful and you could tell that it was a pilgrimage for many visitors. We felt honoured to be there, listening to the singing of the musicians inside the temple which is played on speakers throughout the complex (and nearby streets). As we queued along the gangway to visit the temple itself, people gently sang along and smiled as they saw us mouth “wow”. We ate lunch in the community kitchen, staffed by volunteers and funded by donations which serves 50,000 meals a day (and 100,000 at the weekend!). As we sat on the matting, eating delicious curry and dahl alongside people from all walks of life, we were really humbled. If we had had more time we would have loved to help out with the huge piles of washing up or mountains of vegetables to chop!
To round off the day we took a tuktuk to the nearby Pakistan border to watch the daily flag ceremony. Unbeknownst to us, the day before there had been a terror attack in Kashmir and so tensions were high. The showboating between the Indian and Pakistani military was theatrical, with high kicks and haka-like poses. Combined with blasting bollywood music and an MC soldier with a mic and a bomb proof vest, it made for a surreal evening of entertainment!
We arrived early (!) on our final night bus and spent the day with another cricket exchange school friend of Joe being treated to homemade food and catching up. In the afternoon we headed to the airport to fly back to Mumbai, where we were reunited with the bikes and had a wonderful last evening and following day with Magic Bus’ founder Matthew and his lovely family.
This was definitely being a whistle stop tour, and we have been able to see so much in a short space of time. That said, it makes us appreciate even more how much we love to travel by bike. The slower pace lets you see more than just the highlights and get a real sense of a place and people. We can’t wait to be back on the saddles and embark on the next chapter: Mandalay to Singapore!