Searching for Tranquility in Northern India

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No matter how much research or planning you do before your holiday to India, nothing can prepare you for the culture shock of arriving in Delhi. Having been on a relatively tranquil holiday to Goa and Kerala 5 years ago, I thought I was prepared for a bit of jostling and staring on our trip to Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, but this was another level. I had planned our two week trip to be a taster of the royal state, plenty of palaces and forts and vibrant towns bursting with colour and street food. But it wasn’t long before the bubble burst and we realised it wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought. The noise of the horns beeping was unbearable compared to the blissful beaches of Thailand we’d been sitting on 2 days before. I was stared at relentlessly and shocked numerous times on the first day by the beggars and dying cows in the road. I was going to have to make some serious changes to this trip if we were to enjoy it.

(All photos in this post are from our trip, and mostly credited to my partner, Mickael Augello)

The Main Bazaar, Delhi
The Main Bazaar, Delhi
We found some peace in the Lodhi Gardens Delhi
We found some peace in the Lodhi Gardens, Delhi

It seemed like the perfect plan…

The state of Rajasthan in India is high on many people’s lists of places to visit in their lifetime, it offers an opportunity to visit some of the most impressive palaces and forts in the world dating back hundreds of years. The Taj Mahal (not technically in Rajasthan but usually visited on the same trip as it’s close by), the pink city of Jaipur that is home to the Amber Fort, the floating palace of Udaipur are just some of the many heritage sights you can visit. I planned the perfect itinerary, or so I thought, starting and finishing in Delhi, going through Agra to see the Taj Mahal, the pink city of Jaipur, Bundi a hidden treasure I found on a blog, Udaipur with it’s floating palace, the blue city of Jodhpur and finally Pushkar, the holy city of Pushkar, famous for its annual camel fair and the perfect place to dip into the desert if you don’t have time to visit Jaisalmer. We planned to do it all by train, and I spent hours figuring out how to sign up to and use the local website, probably the most complicated in the world, so we wouldn’t have to rely on travel agencies to book the tickets for us at a higher price or book tickets in person by queuing for hours on end. If you think the booking process is complicated, it’s got nothing on the process of actually taking the train. One look at New Delhi train station was enough to put me off, a few conversations with fellow travellers about their experience on the trains so far convinced me to change our plans entirely. This is a part of the country you have to be strong, willing and ready to travel in. You must be prepared for the harshness, the differences and the things that don’t make any sense. You can’t fight it, you must simply roll with it. I wasn’t in that state of mind when I arrived in Delhi. We’d already been travelling for 7 months by this stage, I was tired, I was looking for something Rajasthan couldn’t give me.

Time to make a change

To make the trip easier we decided to hire a driver, it was the best decision we ever made. This is how most visitors get around unless they’re backpacking, and in fact if you get a good deal (hard to find in the main bazaar of Delhi I assure you) it’s worth it for your sanity. We paid 29,000 INR per day (about £29) for all our transport with the lovely Sharma, a guy who was our age, had a great sense of humour and knew all the best spots for good food. Having a car is the best way to see the country, getting a train once in a while is an experience (I recommend doing so in Kerala instead of Rajasthan as the network is much cleaner) but driving is relaxing, you can stop off at a brick making factory or national park if you happen to pass them, which we did, and it made for two of the best experiences of the trip.

Kingfisher, Keolado National Park
Kingfisher, Keolado National Park
Keolado National Park
Keolado National Park

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Ticking the boxes

We went straight from Delhi to Agra which anyone who has been to this part of India will tell you it the absolute worst idea ever. It’s an incredibly dirty city, unbelievable when you consider how many million tourists visit each year to see the Taj Mahal. Sensible people visit at the end of the trip, when they’re more accustomed to the harshness of the touristy parts of India. It is a poor country, and people come to Agra knowing there are tourists here and tourists = money. So of course there are waaaay too many people, and scams and no need to try particularly hard to make it a nice place, because we already get the Taj Mahal, what more do we need? Of course, the Taj Mahal was incredible, it’s hard not to be moved by the immensity of the structure and intricacies of the architecture, just make sure you get a registered guide and go early to avoid the crowds, if you can.

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We got out of Agra as soon as we could and head for Jaipur, a long drive that thankfully had Keolado National Park on its route. We arrived to a delicious meal at a local spot, Sharma knew by now to keep us far away from the touristy spots. However, if you don’t want to get food poisoning, touristy spots are the only place you should eat. Trust me on that one. Jaipur was a disappointment. It’s not particularly pink, and to walk around the city’s best sights you must navigate endless piles of rubbish. The Amber Fort, just outside the city, made it all worth it. 

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The best of Rajasthan

We arrived in Bundi to find it was exactly the place we had been searching for in our minds. A small town with a looming, decaying fort perfect for exploring without the hordes of crowds you find elsewhere in Rajasthan. It was a peaceful town that offered respite from the previous days, and although there’s not much to do here, there’s enough. We had a fabulous heritage hotel that our driver got us an incredible deal for, $$$$ in the lonely planet, 1200 rupees a night (£12) if you trust your driver to take you to the places he knows. He usually ends up getting a free bed for the night too, as he’s brought business, so everybody wins.

Our hotel on the lake
Our hotel on the lake
Not quite as blue as Johdpur, but it'll do
Not quite as blue as Johdpur, but it’ll do
The tranquil gardens on top of the palace
The tranquil gardens on top of the palace

At this point we decided to change our route. Our driver knew the kind of thing we wanted and it was clear it wasn’t Rajasthan. We decided to go straight to Pushkar, a convenient stop on the way back to Delhi, and then head into the mountains on his recommendation. Pushkar was an interesting town full of hindus on pilgrimage and plenty of hippy backpackers. I ate some delicious falafel here, a welcome home comfort after endless food poisoning.

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Into the mountains

I’d been told of a place called Haridwar by a charming couple in Bangkok, and it happened to be right next door to our driver’s favourite place in India, Rishikesh. I did some reading and decided it looked like a great bet. Both towns are located on the Ganges, close enough to the source to run clear and cool, making it overwhelmingly apparent why it’s known as a holy river. You’ve never seen water so beautiful in your life, I can assure you. Haridwar is a popular pilgrimage town, taken over by devout hindus that walk, yes walk, here from all over the country. Rishikesh is a popular place for yogis, with many teacher training schools located here. It’s a wonderfully calm place to visit and the perfect retreat after the madness of Rajasthan.

He told me my future without being prompted, unfortunately I couldn't understand anything he said...
He told me my future without being prompted, unfortunately I couldn’t understand anything he said…lovely guy though!

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We took a trip further into the mountains to see the Himalayas, a full 12 hours round trip, a hike to the ideal camping spot and a very cold night of eating deliciously warm indian food and drinking chai and rum to keep us warm. Believe me when I say it was all worth it when we woke up in the morning to this view from our tents.

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So what did I learn from our adventures? Visiting India’s most beautiful temples and palaces isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It’s far easier if you couple this type of adventure with one that also explores the more tranquil side of India, which can certainly be found, and made all the hard times worth it. It’s not an easy country to travel in or understand, there’s so much poverty here and so much that doesn’t make sense. Don’t try to make sense of it, appreciate it for what it is and learn about another culture and yourself in the process.

Read my tips for surviving and thriving in India here.

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