India



My six-months backpacking India

I think it best to start with some tips that may help fellow travellers to India. India is such a huge country, if you are working and coming for your annual two week holiday, it's best to simply book a package tour from your home country. tajYour tour operator will take care of all travel arrangements which is no mean feat.

My previous time in India, was over 20 years ago, on a 21-day Kuoni Golden Triangle Tour. Even at this higher end, things sometimes seemed rushed. You have to take a fair number of internal flights and trains to cover the huge distances involved. That Kuoni trip presently starts at a whopping £3,385, although that does include flights from the UK...that amount of money kept me going for my whole six months as a backpacker!

It's going to sound crazy, but apart from my extended time in the various beach towns in Goa (two-months), my time in India also seemed rushed. The thousands of miles I covered in order to somewhat see everything, particularly when on a budget and wanting to experience the real India by taking long train journeys was immense.

Itinerary

My plan was to start in the south and slowly work my way north and eventually east, flying out of Kolkata back to South East Asia. You can see my detailed itinerary below or online. I would estimate for those with less time, that covering a similar itinerary to mine, could be done in around two months, if pushing hard by drastically reducing your time at the beaches of Goa.

Weather

It is recommended to come to India after the monsoon season and when not too hot. After reading online blogs and looking at weather patterns, September to March seemed to be the best choice. I did not arrive in the south until October 10th. To my surprise, the tail end of the monsoon was still lingering, on talking with locals, I was informed that the monsoon often extends to mid November...note to self for a future return.

Downpours were usually late afternoon or early evening, and pretty severe, I simply adjusted my day accordingly. I was informed by other travellers, that Northern India was also pretty cool/colder until February, thus my decision to stay at the beach towns in Goa, longer than originally planned. By the time I left India on the 5th of April 2024, things were definitely hotting up ,with temperatures regularly hitting hitting 93/33 degrees as the summer approached...perfect to get me ready for the similar heat in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Visa

Us Brits and many other nationalities, are fortunate to receive a 1 year visa, this allows us to stay in India for up to 180 consecutive days. If you wanted a longer stay, simply leave and come back to continue your 365 days...the cost around £30.

Names

Many cities have different names to what you may be used to. Some were renamed to reflect their original/traditional names, others to honour historical figures or events. A few well known examples include: Bombay to Mumbai and Calcutta to Kolkata. Most hotel/airline/train/bus search platforms tend to have both versions, native platforms will tend to respect the historical version. When searching, if you cannot find the destination it may be due to this reason. Where applicable, I have included both names with the new one first.

Budget

Unlike what I usually do, I decided to set a budget for my six months in India. I set aside £3,600, equivalent to £600 per month or £20 per day. I was simply curious if I could manage on this amount, which would turn out to be around £10 per day for accommodation and the remainder for travel, food and drinks. When I checked my bank account at the end of my trip, I had spent £2,898, an average of £483 per month or £16.09 per day!

Money

For us Brits, India is easy, 1 rupee = 1 pence, 100 rupees = 100 pence or £1. As long as the exchange rate continues around 100 to the pound, every transaction is very simple. I have also found everyone (apart from tuk tuk & taxi drivers) to be very honest. In general there doesn't seem to be a tourist tax apart from some of the more popular monuments. One area that is a problem, is paying and withdrawing money. My experience with my Mastercard Debit Card was a hit and miss affair. I had a 50% chance a transaction would go through at hotels, restaurants or online. palaceWhile we may casually go up to any ATM expecting to make a withdrawal, In India, many simply do not accept international cards.

In my experience, only Canara and SBI, would not charge any withdrawal fees, all the others would charge £2 per £100 (10,000 Rupees) in fees. If you are heading to more remote areas, make sure you cash up before you go. What is big, is QR code or UPI payments. You scan the code at the payment counter at a restaurant etc., with your mobile phone and make a transfer. This only works if you have a local Indian SIM card and download the appropriate app. On occasion where there was no other option, a local made the payment on my behalf and I handed over cash in exchange.

Trains

This is the preferred method of transportation for locals, when there are 1.4 billion of them, this creates booking problems. Train tickets are often booked months in advance, which even if you are a slow traveller like myself, doesn't make things easy.

Registering with the Indian National Rail Service is a must, so you can plan and book online for yourself. Registering is a little painful, I suggest reading this article. An easier experience can be had using the ixigo app, available on Apple and Google, as recommended to me by a local guy on a train.

The railway system sets aside a few seats for foreigners known as "foreign allocation" so its a good idea to check this option when general tickets are unavailable to see if there is an allocation for your particular train...I used it three times in total. Another tip is to check the website after 11am the day or day prior to departure as this is when previously booked tickets are cancelled and available for sale once again. The train system works well, albeit with delays especially on the longer journeys, I suggest adding 10% of the travel time to your actual arrival time. Many of your journeys will be huge ones, I think in total, I completed over six 12 hour our plus trips. It's best to write off your transit days for this reason.

Buses/coaches are available with websites such as RedBus. You can often select a recliner seat or full flat bed for longer journeys. One tip, if travelling alone, select the single bed option, otherwise you will be sharing with a stranger! Another useful general travel booking is 12go.asia.

Tuk Tuks

These are everywhere and cheap, despite the mandatory 'tourist tax' which ranges between 25-50%. In the larger cities, they are occasionally metered, but usually this only applies to locals. You will have to negotiate a rate before getting in, simply laugh at the first price and negotiate down.

A scam that occurs outside most tourist spots, is to offer a cheap price of 50p for a 1 hour tour. This involves them taking you to a shop, then onto your destination. The taxi driver gets paid by the shop, mine dumped me at my destination and didn't wait, so in effect I didn't pay him...never pre-pay or leave personal items in the tuk tuk. Having said this, they are the perfect way to see multiple tourist spots with little effort for a cheap price.

Accommodation

I spent most of my time staying at low end guest houses and hotels, with the remainder at hostels. At weekends (Fri-Sun), everything seems to book up quickly, in particular the beach destinations in Goa; I would suggest making sure you have secured yours in advance. During the Christmas and New Year period, all prices went up dramatically while staying in Goa.

Dorm rates would triple costing over £22pn. I was able to navigate this to some extent, by booking directly with hostels in person, and not the online booking platforms that everyone else was using. Having hot water at the low end is another scarcity, sometimes they will have hot/cold water dispensers so you can have a wet shave or partial shower by filling a bucket!

Amenities

Travel with your own soap/gel and importantly, toilet roll. Budget accommodation rarely supplies either. Most establishments including restaurants and trains will not have these...prepare in advance, especially in preparation for likely Delhi Belly!

Food

As most know, I tend to eat at the bottom end of the food pyramid, enjoying street food in particular. Often I would have breakfast with tuk tuk taxi drivers at chaiwala tea shops, eating deep fried samosas and other similar savoury and sweet pastries, downed with milky masala tea...remember to ask them to hold the sugar...they tend to add a lot by default.thaliIf you are British, you will know how fond we are of Indian food. If you are vegetarian, India probably has some of the tastiest food you will ever try.

A vegetarian thali for lunch and a chicken or seafood biriyani tended to be my default when unsure, otherwise I would simply point at what looked good and go with the flow. A low end breakfast will set you back under £1, a simple vegetarian lunch of a thali or curry will be under £2. A mutton or fish biriyani usually under £4. Budget eating establishments are everywhere as locals love to eat out. For mid-end restaurants double those prices, high-end ones multiply that by four. Even the top end is reasonable by European standards, so it's nice to have a treat more often than back home.

Delhi Belly

You can't avoid it as you really don't know when or where it's going to hit you. I would not worry about it and just get on with enjoying your time in India. I had two mild food poisoning sessions, I recovered only for the very next day to get a second food bout from a posh western type restaurant. Another one lasted 5-6 days, again not too serious, apart from an unfortunate incident that is better not described! There is zero logic as to where or when you may succumb to it, my advice is to enjoy your travels without worries. Unlike twenty years ago, pretty much all eating establishments, even at the low end, use clean filtered water rather than tap water. Instead of buying bottled water, I always chose the free filtered water and never had any stomach troubles.

People

The sheer number of people that will approach you to strike up a conversation to know where you are from and wanting to take a photograph with you, will surprise you. School children in particular have a genuine interest in taking a selfie and simply overflow with enthusiasm. kidsDuring my six-months of travels, I would estimate that the number of people, especially children saying "Hi" or "Hello" would easily be over 300...I will never forget their smiling faces, hundreds of memories etched into my mind.

Begging strangely, has most of the time it, come from very old men. It makes sense to keep a few ten rupee notes (10p) in your top pocket so you can hand them out as you feel fit. I treat each case on an individual basis depending on how I feel at the time. Begging in India has evolved into an art form, so much so, that even someone as street wise as myself was caught out. Men in particular, with good English, will strike up a conversation while simply walking in the street. Hello, where are you from is the usual opener, they then ask lots of questions to find a way in.

I explained to on particular gentleman, I was looking for a bar to have a cold beer. He brought me to such a bar and ordered for both of us. My confidence was high as he ordered free filtered water for himself. As my cold beer arrived I noticed a small snack arriving, I thought it was free...it was not. As I drank my beer, the stranger said he didn't want a beer but wouldn't say no to food...that was my ah ha moment. He made his excuses and left very swiftly once he saw my face.

Another situation was a very old man at a train station, again with very good English, explaining he needed help to pay for a train ticket, fortunately, I had already read about this scam elsewhere. kidsI take each encounter like this, as is, and try not to paint every person with the same brush...however, I am always on the lookout for possible scams. In the same vein, touts, especially in the larger cities such as Delhi around Connaught Place are an endless pain. On one occasion, I counted three in the space of just one minute. They simply walked up, saying they were not touts and simply wanted to expand their English only to then recommend a shop. I got to the stage of simply telling them to go away in a stern voice...they always got the message.

Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum

This was my arrival point by plane from Bali, nothing much to see here apart from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and Napier Museum. I was allowed in to visit an art college I randomly passed on one of my walk, seeing sculptures and other artworks from students.

Kovalam

Kovalam is a 30 minute tuk tuk taxi ride south of Thiruvananthapuram. A tiny beach town with two small circular beaches, again not much to do here apart from working on your own projects as I did with my writing. Eating at the very reasonable beach side restaurants devouring fresh fish was a favoured pass time. A detour to the large mosque just outside town was interesting, seeing local life with the added benefit of finding another fantastic fish restaurant.

Varkala

This high cliff coastal town has quite spectacular views along the seafront. There is a very long cliff top/beach side promenade walk which is a great way to pass the time, stopping off for breakfast or lunch at some of the restaurants with great sea views.

Cochin/Kochi

Down town, where the train arrives is just another inner city, busy and bustling which again I would probably spend little time in. Head over to Fort Kochi, a 20 minute tuk tuk ride which is the historic heart of Kochi. Buy fresh fish straight from the fishermen, take it to one of the local restaurants where they will baste your fish in either masala or garlic butter and cook it for you for a small fee. My one kilogram plate of huge tiger shrimp, squid, bread and water came to £11 in total

Mysuru/Mysore

Trains from Kochi to Mysuru were fully booked, while I wasn't looking forward to a 14-hour overnight train journey, I knew taking the bus was going to be hell. I booked the cheapest ticket for £6 on a non air conditioned bus. That was the only thing I got right. The roads along the 10-hour journey were mainly bumpy, the old bus had knackered suspension and a loud engine...sleep was impossible. Mysore was a pleasant enough city, I visited the Rail museum, Devarja Market, Mysore Palace, Mysore Zoo and a few temples in my few days here.

Bengaluru/Bangalore

Bengaluru is an easy way to experience a larger city without the sheer madness of the biggest such as Delhi, there is enough chaos to get you acclimatised. 01I wondered where the constant beeping from cars and bikes came from...I think I got my answer, when a learner driver went past and noticed the driving instructor kept leaning over, using the horn!

A visit to Vidhana Soudha is a must, even though tourists are not allowed in. It is the largest legislative building in India and often referred to as the 'Taj Mahal of South India' for its grandeur and pristine white architecture. A few temples of note include, The Bull Temple and Sringeri Mutt. The National Gallery of Modern Art is also a gem as is Bangalore Palace, where I got to talk to Michael the curator, who used to work for Sotheby's and spoke with a pure British accent...jolly nice chap.

Hampi

A mere 12.5 hour train journey for £3.50, has me arriving at Hosapete a town 15km from the World Heritage Site of Hampi. Tuk Tuk drivers will try and sell you a £20 half day tour package visiting the vast ruins surrounding Hampi. If time is short, that may well be an option, although you should get that down to £12-15. As a backpacker, I took the local bus for 17p straight to the centre. While it is somewhat spread around, I believe you don't need a taxi as all temples and ruins can be seen on foot in about 4-5 hours. I suggest making an early morning start to avoid the build up of heat.

Some of the popular backpacker hostels are very far away from the centre of Hampi and the ruins, so check carefully their locations otherwise an expensive taxi is the only way to get to them. I decided to not spend time chilling at one of these hostels for this reason and cut short my planned stay from a week to a few days instead.

Goa

When we hear of Goa, we tend to think of it as one destination, however, Goa spans a huge coast line and is a State within India...bigger than many countries! North Goa has more of a party scene, South Goa is laid back with Goa's capital, Panaji, having historical roots back to the Portuguese. goa beachI decided to split my time between the various facets that Goa has to offer.

Another long train journey from Hosapete/Hampi has me arriving at Madgoan railway station for a short two-day stay near Benaulim Beach in Margao. The beach is long and wide with a multitude of restaurants to pass the day away. A short 30-minute train journey, south to Canacona Railway Station for Palolem Beach known to be one of the jewels of Goa does not disappoint. A small curved beach with low rise beach huts, restaurants and bars, somewhat reminds me of the Caribbean. I found a beach hotel that also offered clean dorm rooms. I settled in very well here, spending almost two weeks on the beach. I didn't wear shoes or sandals for my total stay here...bare foot every single day.

My daily routine consisted of an early morning walk along the beach to build up my vitamin D levels. Then grabbing my laptop and heading to a beach bar for coffee, research and writing. A short afternoon siesta would lead to a late afternoon walk before showering and heading to eat fresh King fish at one of the many beach restaurants. Mai Tai cocktails at £2.00 a pop, or large bottles of ice cold beer for £1.35 were a no-brainer.

Panaji/Panjim

Panaji, is the state capital of Goa with a lovely small town/village feel to it. The Portuguese influence here was high, with cobblestone streets and colourful colonial era buildings and churches. I extended my stay to four nights, although 1-2 would be sufficient.

Goa: Candolim/Calangute/Baga Beaches

These beaches all combine into one long beach just a 30 minute bus ride north from Panaji. Candolim in the south, is the quieter one, more local in nature and more posh with lots of nice open air restaurants with ambiance. Calangute, in the middle is regarded as the main beach with a nightclub scene and Baga in the north also has a fair share of beach clubs.

One day, after a long walk, I sat down for a nice cold beer, I was just about to place my order and watch the beautiful sunset unfolding, when the restaurant decided to pump up the music...myself and five others left immediately. I could still hear the music after walking over 500 metres away! beach One particular weekend, I would go on my usual long afternoon beach walks, but the beaches were very busy with locals on holiday.

I became quite the Bollywood star, I lost count after 16, how many times I was asked for a selfie. Usually it was from a bunch of lads that had one too many beers, but it was always extremely friendly, with interest of where I was from, hands were shook afterwards. I was a little taken back, had they forgotten the colonial history and genocide or were simply a new generation, never exposed to this sad part of history?...I suspect the latter. There was a time when I would be surrounded by women during my flying years...I guess I have to make do with men instead now!

Goa: Anjuna Beach

From Calangute there isn't a direct bus to Anjuna, you have to first go to Mapusa bus station to pick up another one...a taxi is too easy! Anjuna was a popular hippie hangout in the 1960s, while there are still many hostels, some basic in nature, I think this small village has moved on. Toward the northern end of the main beach, cool beach clubs overlooking the rocks have a modern theme with prices to match. vagator The beach itself is small and curved in nature lined with restaurants selling overpriced beer compared to the beaches further south of Calangute.

Hidden in the backstreets, you can again find simple cafes serving various types of thali's for £1-1.50, with the rest of Anjuna being made up of trendy coffee shops. Anjuna is quite spread out, so walking along country lanes in low light is a little hazardous due to the cow pats and mopeds whizzing by, that's probably why most choose to hire mopeds, I preferred to walk.

I was in Anjuna during Christmas and New Year and had to move a few times from hostel to hostel, to lesson the effect of the mass influx of rich city dwellers ready to party. I was happy to find a good Italian restaurant to call home for Christmas & New Years Eve dinner. I also found a very decent posh beach bar, offering a soft-launch promotion between 4-9pm of a short list of unlimited cocktails for only £11...the mixologist was actually very good, whisky sours became my close friend on my visit! Indians travel from far and wide to visit Goa for not only its beaches, sunshine but also rave scene with many to choose from every single week. Goa also has The Sunburn Festival, a three-day annual electronic dance music (EDM) event.

Goa: Vagator Beaches

From Anjuna, it's roughly a 1-hour walk to little vagator beach, from here you can simply walk along the beach north bound to the larger beaches of vagator. The usual array of simple shacks provide a break from the sun and a welcome beer or two.

An uphill walk up to Chapora Fort is worth it for the view alone across the sweeping beaches. Despite initial appearances, there is no entry fee, as all that remains of the fort are its outer walls. The village of vagator by night is a party destination with raves and events, by daytime, another sleepy place to enjoy coffee and lunch.

Goa: Arambol Beach

There is no direct bus connection from Anjuna to Arambol, instead you have to first take a bus to Mapusa, then another one to Arambol. This can take up to a few hours. On this occasion, I treated myself to a taxi ride via the GoaMiles app which was very reasonable at just over £5 for a 45 minute journey.

After staying in hostels for three weeks, I settled on a simple room in a guest house only a 1 minute walk to the beach. The room was far from perfect, but had the essentials and a nice balcony to while away the hours on my laptop. The beach at Arambol is a very wide and long, perfect for my afternoon walks, with a wide variety of beach shacks, restaurants and bars. There is definitely a hippy vibe here compared to Anjuna, fortunately this means prices for everything are lower than Anjuna. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, massages and ayurvedic medicine take centre stage in this beach town, with life revolving around these daily activities. I ended up spending a total of 3 weeks here as the vibe was very chilled.

Mumbai/Bombay

I purchased another long overnight, sleeper class non air-conditioned train ticket from Pernem in Goa, to Mumbai's gorgeous Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) train station, built in 1887 and now a World Heritage site. At the train station, a young Russian man asked me if I was going to Mumbai and if I knew which platform to use. We got into a short conversation, it turned out, he was going to Mumbai to play a Russian soldier in a Bollywood movie. He said he needed the money, I suspect he was another that had fled Russia to avoid the war as he told me he was living in a tent in a forest in Goa.

Mumbai is known as being the centre for financial affairs and was ruled by the Portuguese and British. I arrived a few days before Republic Day, (26 January 1950 - the 75th anniversary), on the formalisation of the new Constitution of India after the handing over of India from the British on 15 August 1947.stationRooms were hard to come by at reasonable rates, I ended up finding a downbeat hostel for £2.50pn with old fashioned standing toilets.

I guess it got me in the frame of mind for Mumbai as this is a city of extremes. I was sharing a dorm with 40 other men who were mainly working during the day and sleeping there at night, one guy owned a factory in Mumbai but preferred the dorm rather than a private room. I could see why, everyone was so friendly and curious why a middle-aged western guy was in Mumbai and staying in such a place.

The fantastic film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was filmed in the slums of this city. I found an official government map giving the locations of these slums and made the choice to visit over three of them, not the ones on the tourist maps. I was moved, shocked and could see why some would choose this life. Yes, they are poor and Mumbai is expensive, but these slums were in fact communities in and of themselves. I was not just housing, but everything a community needed, in the way of shops etc. Everyone was again very friendly, asking for selfies and curious why I would be there. One reason was photography but also curiosity. While conditions were indeed bleak, all I could see were smiles, children playing in bare feet with abandonment with made up games with what was available to them, which was usually scraps.

Aurangabad

This city is the best place to stay to visit the famous caves of Ellora and Ajanta - a "short" 6-hour train journey from Mumbai. cavesEllora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world, while Ajanta is carved into hillside rock, both dating back to 600 AD.

I would recommend allocating a full day for each site, as they are full on days, involving lots of walking. If I had to choose between the two due to lack of time, it would be the closer cave, Ellora, despite it being heavier on the walking side.

Jaisalmer

I briefly went back to Mumbai to catch a short two hour flight to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan bordering on Pakistan, in the north east of India. The main attraction here in this desert city, is Jaisalmer fort. A huge hill top fort that is inhabited, unfortunately, as the main source of income is tourism, you will get hassled from the taxi drivers, tour guides and shop sellers. Let this not deter you for Jaisalmer as this is a charming place to settle for a while. jaisalmerThe cobbled streets and diverse architecture, I called home for six days as I would wonder the streets in search of the perfect photograph to add to my collection.

I clearly had become too accustomed to walking past bulls/cows on the streets here in India, that my comeuppance was long overdue. In a narrow side street, a rather large black bull, decided to toss me to one side to get out of its way. Fortunately it lowered its head to do so, rather than use it horns. I was briefly shocked and shouted out "stupid cow", which some nearby British tourists found amusing.

Jodhpur

A comfortable short 6-hour train journey to my next destination to Jodhpur became interesting. All was well and good for the first hour until the train pulled into an overcrowded station. Hundreds almost rioted to get onto the train. My comfortable seat for one, would suddenly become communal and shared with three others. Every space in the carriage/train was taken. People where sat everywhere they could. I guess this was my turn to experience "The needs of the many outway the needs of the few". Train goers where fascinated I chose the cheapest seat on the train and would look over and smirk. I would suggest staying in the old centre of Jodhpur, near the clock tower, which means you can easily walk to the fort, other points of interest and explore how locals work and live in the old town.

Udaipur

The simplest way to get from Jodhpur to Udaipur, is by a 6 hour bus as there are no direct trains, but also take longer than a bus. The lake city of Udaipur has an amazing palace in the middle which now houses a heritage Taj hotel. I will definitely return for a stay at this majestic palace...rooms are around £325pn!

Udaipur is known as Rajasthan's "white city". I would suggest getting a room in a guest house as close to the main lake as possible. Most accommodation will have a roof top area to spend the hours mesmerised by views of the lake. It is for this reason and the amazing sunsets that Udaipur if often referred to as the most romantic city in India. lakeUdaipur's lakes and palaces provide a fantastic backdrop for a coffee, drink or meal, at the many restaurants with amazing views of the lake. I was initially surprised on how many tourists I saw upon arrival compared to Jodhpur, but after just one day, realise why, I had one of those special moments while here. I was wondering the streets across the lake where hardly any tourists go and came across a tiny game of cricket amongst three 6-7 year old boys, one of them suggested I join. I hit two decent shots at one-quarter power to wondrous applause...I was out on the third shot...wonderful moment.

My morning walk to my local coffee house took an interesting turn one day. I passed a photographer's studio and peered into the enticing window. Out came the owner and we got talking about our passion for photography. We continued our geeky discussion over a cup of coffee. It turned out, he took over from his grandfather's passion for photography, which involved using watercolour paints to add colour to black and white photographs. To cut a long story short, I ended up being a model for some photographic ideas he had...what a small world!

To say, I fell in love with Udaipur would be an understatement...when I return, I will be staying at the Taj hotel in the middle of the lake for an altogether different experience.

Bundi

This small town is often overlooked by travellers as there isn't really much to see, so one day is more than enough. stepsBundi is known for its water harvesting wells. These are deep water storage wells with steps leading down to the water.

The main one in the centre is probably 100-150 feet deep and not for the faint hearted when viewing from above. The other main attraction is the palace and fort ruins with great views of Bundi, the fort has its own amazing step wells...however, be prepared for a long steep walk.

Pushkar

The best way to travel from Bundi to Pushkar is again by bus as the train route seems to go backwards and takes longer. The bus drop-off point is at Ajmer, 14km from the centre of Pushkar, so another chicken bus ride journey is required, the quicker option being a rickshaw ride. The holy town of Pushkar is known for its 52 ghats leading down to the lake and its Brahma Temple, which is one of the few existing of its kind in the whole world. Pushkar lake is spiritual in nature so shoes are not permitted when near the water's edge. Pushkar definably has a hippie charm to it and getting to know other travellers during numerous sunsets overlooking the lake was a great experience. I even came across another backpacker I met in Chiang Mai over a year ago...small world.

Jaipur

Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" and the capital of the state of Rajasthan, with an estimated population of over three million. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the "golden triangle" tour offered by many tour operators covering Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. I booked a low end hotel for my stay (£4.50pn), after two noisy nights I asked for a different room and was eventually offered the "Maharaja" room with a king size four poster bed and palatial bathroom...I accepted! fortThe Amber Fort and Palace is outside the centre of Jaipur and best explored by taking a tuk tuk for around 200 rupees / £2.00. Make sure to stop off at the remarkable Jal Mahal (Water Palace) along the way.

Approaching the fort is truly impressive due to its stature upon the hill, again once inside, while its scale is impressive, the rooms are baron apart from a few wall paintings. Getting back to town is easy with many tuk tuks outside the gate or hop on the local "chicken" bus and enjoy the ride as I did for 20p.

Nahargarh Fort is visible from the streets of Jaipur, while tourists will take an air-conditioned coach, backpackers will take a tuk tuk. I decided to walk the 1.5 hour trek from my hotel. When they say the journey is often better than the destination, today was the case. My GPS enabled MapsMe app, led me down some dead end roads, only to be helped by smiling kids showing me the way. I passed some of the poorer neighbourhoods of Jaipur, yet everyone was happy to see me, smiled and more often than not, asked where I was from and what my name was...what a fantastic experience. The fort itself was a little disappointing, made up of empty rooms with nothing to see apart from the great view of the city below.

Agra

Agra is the home to The Taj Mahal and a must see for all visitors. Agra Fort is another draw for tourists which tend to either do a day trip from Delhi or stay for 1/2 nights maximum. I ended up staying for 5 days due to a number of factors. taj mahalFirstly I wanted to take a special photograph of the back of the Taj Mahal next to the river. This entailed me going there every morning and sunset in search of the perfect scene...I'm not certain I got the shot.

However, the back streets of Agra, away from the cleaned streets leading up to the Taj Mahal, possibly provided a few interesting shots that may end up in a future book. I also managed to find a really clean, comfortable and reasonably priced hotel for only 600 rupees / £6.00pn so couldn't argue with the value offered.

Delhi

Most backpackers I met in India all seemed to spend the minimum time possible in Delhi, often flying in and moving on straight away. Old Delhi is crowded, crumbling and hectic with motorbikes, tuk tuks, hand pulled carts, cows, dogs together with people, all vying for space, this was precisely why it was interesting to me. New Delhi is the other side of the city, where the British influence took hold in regards to architecture and governance with wide roads, palatial mansions, government buildings, posh hotels and so orderly to an extent.

I ended up staying a week as there was more than enough to do and see with long daily walks taking me to different part of Delhi. I settled down in the Paharganj area a mere ten minutes walk west of the central train station. This is known as the backpackers area with hostels and low end guest houses and hotels. I found a reasonable hotel for only 700 rupees / £7.00pn which seemed good value compared to hostel dorms costing about half that amount. delhi Paharganj is a market area full of clothes and nick knack shops with loads of low end food options.

A fifteen minute walk south gets you to the posh area known as Connaught Place, two huge circles of Georgian-style buildings with posh shops, western food and bar options. A short walk south is the Agrasen ki Baoli step well water reservoir which is well worth a visit. Continuing south head towards the India Gate war memorial and the expansive gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I ended up spending a few hours at the National Gallery of Modern Art also only a few minutes away.

Another long walk south brought me to the Lodhi Gardens with a small lake and extensive flower beds with a few impressive tombs, a mosque and memorials. Heading back north its worthwhile visiting Khan Market with its small independent upmarket shops and restaurants which sits strangely next to an area where cars are repaired...a perfect examples of the extremes of India. During my last two days in Delhi, there was a significant increase in the daily temperature hitting 93/33 degrees, it seemed that I timed my departure perfectly as the summer beckons and the temperatures sore.

Kashi/Varanasi

An 11 hour overnight sleeper class train gets me to the sacred city of Varanasi early in the morning but all didn't go well with the journey. I arrived at the train platform 40 minutes prior to departure yet was unable to board my allocated carriage as hundreds of people without tickets blocked the doors and covered every single inch of the train. I walked toward the posher air conditioned carriages and had to charge past a ticket agent that wouldn't let me board. ghatsI perched myself onto an empty seat, another gentleman joined me and finally the lady who had booked that seat came too.

She explained it was OK for me to carry on where I was, as she understood the overcrowding situation and the fact it was impossible for me and others to get to our allotted seats...it turned out, she works for Barclays Bank! As the evening wore on and the sleeping hours approached, she lay down so my seating ending up being an edge only. This was my journey for the remaining 10 hours with the occasional spot of standing, my vision of lying in my own bed shattered. Worse still, the air conditioning became extremely cold as the night progressed...one reason I always buy a non-ac carriage.

I took a tuk tuk to my hotel located near The Ganges River and was fortunate the night attendant allowed me to check in despite it being 6.30am and check-in was usually 12 noon. gangesThousands every year come to Varanasi to close out their last few days, weeks or months on planet earth. Varanasi's "Death Hotels" as they are known, cater to those of faith with daily rates as low as 20 rupees / £0.20pn. According to Hindus, dying here brings liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. Walking along the Ganges River, various "Ghats" or river steps and temples lead down to where many take a wash as it is said to cleanse away sins. At night, Manikarnika Ghat, and a few selected others, is the location where an estimated 32,000 open air cremations are carried out each year. Bodies are wrapped in a white bed sheet and placed on top of burning wood embers. It's hard to prepare yourself at the sight of a burning body, many were in tears, a very emotional event that gets quite startling once the sheet burns away to reveal the body...the circle of life and death complete.holi

I wake up early on the 25th of March, lots of commotion outside...of course, it's Holi. This yearly colourful, vibrant Hindu festival, marks the end of winter, the start of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It's a jubilant celebration of camaraderie and happiness with colourful powders and coloured water used to smear each other with an exchange of greetings.

I was somewhat prepared, I had a shirt that was near the end of its life so would be disposed of, as I doubted I could ever get those bright colours out, my hat would double duty to protect me from the sun but also the powders going into my hair. It was lunch time so time to head out, I walked less than 100m before getting hit by a water pistol from some kids, the powder to my face came shortly after. Things quickly descended as others could see I was game.

Everyone was in a great mood, mainly because they were drunk. It was difficult to find food as everything was closed, but I managed to find one place for a biriyani. My intention was to come out again at night, but having seen two minor motorcycle accidents, I decided to call it a day. It was only kids, teenagers and young men that were on the streets, if the guys were this drunk at midday, I can only imagine the scenes at midnight.

Kolkata/Calcutta

After almost six months in India, I am down to my last 6 days visiting my last destination Kolkata. I was dreading my 14+ hour overnight train journey to Kolkata, more so because of my previous train journey with severe overcrowding and not being able to get to my sleeper seat. Fortunately, this trip went according to plan with me getting my reserved seat and the train leaving on time at 5pm. KolkataAs night time drew closer, the day-time seats converted to beds and because this was not an air conditioned carriage, the night went by at the perfect temperature...I think I even managed a few hours of sleep.

Exiting Kolkata station, I was surprised by there not being any tuk tuks, a taxi driver came up and offered his services for 1,200 rupees / £12...I declined. As I walked out of the station, a motorbike "taxi" offered his services for a much more reasonable fare...one-tenth!

The centre of the city is crazy busy, chaos is the best way to describe it. Every inch of space is taken up with street stalls selling everything from gadgets, clothes to delicious food. There are over 50 landmark heritage buildings dating back to the British era, at times, it felt as though I was walking the familiar streets of London.

The poverty was more apparent than any other place I had visited so far. Whole families were living on the pavements in make shift homes, with beds and cooking facilities usually powered by wood...really quite shocking and sad...and yet, somehow many seemed in good moods, especially the kids that were playful, not knowing what life was really like.

History

I have close personal friends in the UK and been exposed to Indian hospitality afforded to me over decades from their families. I doesn't seem correct to spend so much time in India, without briefly touching upon genuine history, rather than his story, that most in the UK still to this day beLIEve.

Britain ruled India for nearly 200 years (1757-1947). Prior to its colonisation, India was the richest country in the world due to its colossal 24% share of world trade, after the British left, that went down to around 1%, while Britain become the biggest empire ever known! Between 60-165 million excess deaths of Indians, were a direct result of British rule. The wholesale massacre and looting of India, in exchange for railways, buildings or governance is simply abhorrent, anyone still arguing these points are stupid at best or simply morons. India has finally overtaken its old colonial rapist to take fifth place in global trade, I can only wonder where it would have been?

Return

After spending six months in India would I come back? I would, but do things differently. Instead of hostels and guest houses, I would veer toward the luxury end, staying at unique heritage hotels and palaces. India is so large that there is still lots to see and do, I'm not sure when I will be back, but certain I will. India, I thank you for your hospitality and taking care of me.

HOMEPAGE

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