India: The Southwest

After a short “staycation” with friends for the holidays, we were ready to spend our final three weeks in India in the warmer southern states!

Mumbai

We started off in Mumbai on January first, eager to see the amazing architecture and coastal atmosphere that makes up the bustling city of Mumbai. From the Mughal Gujarati rulers in the 15th century, Portuguese colonization in the 16th century, and a wedding gift to the British King Charles II in the 17th century, Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was previously called), has had a multicultural past.

Not every city has a municipal building that looks like this!

We went on a walking tour with YoTours, beginning at the Gateway of India arch, which was a tribute to King George V in 1911, but was not finished in time for his visit, and- ironically- was the spot where the last of the departing British troops filed out in 1947, the end of the British empire in India.

The Gateway of India, inaugurated 1924

Opposite the arch is the grand Taj Mahal Palace, which in my opinion is the loveliest hotel in India, as it was built to be. Chris and I walked around the posh interior a bit- they still had their lovely holiday decorations up.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, 566 rooms of splendor

Other stops on the walking tour were the David Sassoon Reading Room and the Asiatic Library (which has one of only two original editions of Dante’s Inferno!!), the grandest of all railway station facades, the Victoria Terminus (now officially renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja), and Marine Drive, also called “the Queen’s Necklace” for the way it glitters along the curved coastline at night. The tour guide also recommended a historic Mumbai dinner spot, Bademiya, still at their original location since 1946.

Seriously good seekh kebabs

On another day in Mumbai we took the ferry out to Elephanta Island, to see the UNESCO heritage cave temples, with 6th century carvings of various Hindu gods. You can easily take a ferry to the islands from the Gateway of India arch; it costs about $2 and takes an hour to get to the caves, 10 km from Mumbai.

Trimurti Sadashiva- the three-headed Shiva

On our last day in Mumbai, we cafe-hopped in our neighborhood near the port and strolled around the quiet lanes, draped with banyan trees. We watched the businessmen of Mumbai on their lunch breaks and the graceful ladies in their multicolored sarees, until it was time for our night bus.

Goa

Normally I hate night busses, because I cannot sleep on them, but here in India we discovered lie-flat sleeper busses! We booked a double berth, and in the morning we were in Goa- a beach state that feels more like Thailand than India! One of the few places in India where shorts or a beach dress are totally okay. We stayed at Baga Beach, and enjoyed a few days of breakfasting on the beach, napping away the hot afternoons, and strolling through the villages near Baga around dinner time. At night the beaches transform into open-air nightclubs, and the party goes on as late as you want it to.

Time for a beach break

Hampi

Another night bus, and we woke up in Hampi, 320 km inland from Goa. It’s a very small village- maybe four blocks by four blocks- and surrounding it is a huge 16 square mile plain filled with hundreds of falling-down temples dating back to the Vijayanagara dynasty of the 14th century. A World Heritage Site, it is definitely worth a visit. A small river separates the area into two distinct bits- in the south side, a full days’ (or several, really) exploration of the temples, while on the north side, there are a dozen eco-lodges and yoga camps, offering classes in yoga, meditation, sound healing, bouldering, and rock climbing. The best thing to do on the north side of the river is just find a patch of boulders, climb them, and spend some time soaking in the view.

Sunset in Hampi
Chris and Deah take it all in

January is definitely a nice time to visit these three locations! You can get a fan room (no a/c needed) for quite cheap (under $25), and the days aren’t too hot, while the nights are perfect for sipping a cold beer outside. Transport links are easy here- both by train and bus- and prices are low. By June, in Goa in particular, it’s too hot and most of the workers in that area have headed up to northern India for tourism jobs.

Next up for us: our final stops in SE India. And then…..?

India: Rishikesh, Dharamsala, and Amritsar

orange white green india flag

After a bustling tour of Rajasthan, we were ready for some down time! We took a train from Delhi north to Rishikesh, where the Beatles once holed up in an ashram for two months to write music, also called “the yoga capital of the world”.

Rishikesh

Instead of staying in the city, we stayed on a farm called Nature Care Village at the edge of a national forest. There wasn’t much to do there except take walks along the fields, sit and watch the dragonflies, or feed dough to the crabs in the thermal spring. The place had the most delicious food- all of it grown and prepared right there, and all vegetarian. I helped make parathas in the kitchen, learned how to collect watercress for salads, and picked herbs from the garden. One night, after watching the sun set, we had tea in a mud hut with the gypsies who lived next door. And I did some yoga, of course. A few other people were staying there, so we had some great chats with other travelers, including Amelia, who was also heading to our next destination.

Dharamsala

The only way to get from the farm to Dharamsala, even further north, was to take an overnight bus. I hate night time buses because I can’t sleep on them, but luckily I had BingeMode podcasts to keep me company, and we arrived at the top of the mountain just in time for a spectacular sunrise from our next “home” for three days, Ram Yoga House. Ironically, I didn’t do any yoga there, although they did have a beautiful glass yoga studio on the roof. I was basically just too lazy. After sitting on our balcony watching the sun come up, we went in and got some sleep (finally!).

Sunrise in McLeod Ganj

The only thing we did in this small town was visit the Tibetan Museum and the temple that is home to the Dalai Lama. He moved here in 1960, after fleeing a Communist China takeover of Tibet in 1959. Over the years, more than 150,000 Tibetan Buddhists have left their home country and come to live in India- knowing they can never go back. A government in exile functions here in northern India, making spiritual and political decisions for the thousands of the Tibetan diaspora.

The Tibet Museum, McLeod Ganj

Amritsar

Our last stop in northern India! Our first stop in Amritsar was the Partition Museum. The museum chronicles the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, when the British left the subcontinent. As Hindus moved into India and Muslims moved out, businesses were burned, families divided, homes were lost, and thousands, if not millions, of people were killed. Amritsar, being so close to the border, and a sister city to Lahore, was the last stop on Indian trains heading to the new country of Pakistan.

Later that day, we took a bus to the Wagah border, where every night there is a flag-lowering ceremony. More than 5,000 people attend every night, which has continued unbroken for over 50 years. Held in a huge stadium, there are songs, dancing, flags, cheering, and refreshments on both sides, with a closed border gate separating the Indians from the Pakistanis. Then an elite group from the Border Security Force comes out, in very elaborate costumes, and does a kind of military march/dance off with their counterpart on the other side of the gate. Fast and furious marching, high kicks, angry faces- it’s almost like a Maori haka but they also exchange sweets and greetings at major holidays. The whole exchange is carefully choreographed on both sides and has been building over time. Then the flags are- carefully, simultaneously- lowered, and everyone goes home.

On our last day in town, we visited the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden), the site of a massacre in 1919. Punjabi freedom fighters, agitating for independence from British rule, had gathered (along with families and young couples) in the park to hold a rally. The British commander of the area had his troops open fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. Twenty years later, a Sikh survivor of the massacre assassinated the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab region.

Jallianwala Bagh Memorial

Finally, the monument everyone goes to Amritsar to see- the Golden Temple. Considered the holiest place for India’s 20 million Sikhs, it is the temple in which the Sikh holy book is kept. Thousands visit everyday, and a free communal meal- the Langar- is served to all. Built over 400 years ago, the Golden Temple has been destroyed many times in history by Muslim armies, as well as damaged in 1984 by an army sent by Indira Gandhi when the Sikhs tried to secede from India and create their own nation.

The Golden Temple

And now that we have been all over the north, eating all the foods, trying all the sweets, seeing all the sights- it is time to fly south to visit friends and see what’s in the lower half of India. And not a moment too soon, because it is getting cold up in the north! Sunnier climes await.

Country Costs:

Visa: $100 for 60-day e-visa

Transport to: $20 train ticket from Delhi to Haridwar

Daily costs: approximately $50 for two people

India: The Golden Triangle

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

So many forts! So many palaces! The area surrounding Delhi and Rajasthan is endlessly fascinating. Chris and I arrived by overnight train in Delhi from Varanasi on December 1, and quickly realized that a car-and-driver tour would be the best way to see all the sites around Rajasthan that we wanted to get to. Happily, the hotel I chose in the Paharganj area, Hindustan Backpacker Heaven, had a tour desk (India Someday), and within an hour we were booked, paid up, and ready to start.

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

Delhi

We met our driver, Singh, and on our first day he drove us all around Delhi. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid (the Friday Mosque), India’s largest mosque- it holds 25,000. Built by the Muslim Mughal dynasty in 1644, it was and is sight to behold, sitting next to the Red Fort. Later in the day, we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site, Humayun’s tomb, the Lodi Gardens, and India Gate. For such a busy city, Delhi has a surprising amount of land still set aside for parks and memorials.

Agra

The next day, we set off for Agra, stopping in at Agra Fort first. Built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, it is a twin to the one in Delhi. His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal, and his son Aurangzeb imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life in the Agra Fort, only able to gaze across the river at the massive marble mausoleum of his beloved wife.

Inside Agra Fort

Early the next morning, we left our hotel to visit the Taj Mahal, watching the sun rise and light up the marble as the day brightened. It was an emotional moment for me, as I’ve wanted to see the Taj Mahal for many years now. It really felt like a “bucket list” item finally being achieved. Not just the marble building and the mosques, but the gardens and the water features inside the complex are amazing, and such a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Incomparable Taj Mahal

On our way out of Agra, we stopped at the third UNESCO site, Fatehpur Sikri. The Mughal dynasty kings were some amazing builders!

Jaipur

We spent the next two days in Jaipur. We visited the Hindu monkey temple, Gal Bagh. The monkeys there are very tame and quite friendly, and used to being hand-fed by tourists. I was only a little bit scared of getting rabies.

Deah at the Monkey Temple

Jaipur is famous for its Amber Fort, set high on a ridge, and we walked up the curving paths next to huge elephants carrying tourists, seated in the howdahs. Named for the Hindu goddess Amba (not the yellow color of the fort), the royal city is a blend of the cultures of the Muslim Rajput rulers and the Hindu population.

The morning elephant procession up to the Amber Fort

The next day we spent exploring the City Palace, which houses an excellent museum of textiles of the court, armaments, the two largest silver objects in the world (!), and a surprising array of photographs of the court from the 1860s, taken by the Maharajah himself.

Inside the City Palace

Pushkar

For just one night, we stopped in the small lake-town of Pushkar, which means “lotus flower”. There, one of the few temples dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma sits atop a hill. Brahma, angered by the deaths of his children, once threw a lotus flower at a demon, killing him. Where the lotus flower landed, this lake came into being.

Udaipur

Udaipur is sometimes called “the Venice of India”, because it is situated on three lakes, and you can take water taxis to different locations. However, while we were there, all the water taxis- as well as all the five star hotels and rental cars- were completely booked out, due to a massive, high-powered wedding taking place. While we were there, Hillary Clinton arrived, as did John Kerry, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Priyanka Chopra, Nick Jonas, and more. We didn’t get to see the palace, but we also didn’t mind taking a little break and just wandering around the artists’ alleyways. I bought a silk skirt and was severely tempted by some of the jewelry there.

The fort at Udaipur

Ranakpur

I am happy that we arranged to have Singh drive us around, because we got to see some out-of-the-way locations like the huge Jain temple at Ranakpur. Built in 1492, it is truly a work of art. The intricate carving is just beautiful, and it was interesting to hear about the teachings of the Jains, and share a lunch with them as well (they don’t eat animal products or vegetables that grow in the ground, but the lunch was still very tasty!).

Jain Temple

Jodhpur

Yes, this is where the riding pants come from! It is also home to Mehranghar Fort, built in 1459- which Rudyard Kipling once described as “the work of angels and giants”. The fort sits on a massive ridge and overlooks the “Blue City”, where Brahmin families could paint their homes in shades of blue (it was thought to repel insects as well). Jodhpur is known for its spices, which I would love to buy, but I can’t have my backpack smelling like turmeric for the next year! We stayed in a beautiful old haveli (a heritage home that was once a nobleman’s mansion) just outside the fort walls.

The fort above the “Blue City”

Jaisalmer

Heading into the Thar desert, we came to Jaisalmer- not very far from the Pakistan border. Here the massive fort really looks like a sandcastle rising up out of the sand. When the sun hits the sandstone, it turns it a deep yellow color, earning this city the nickname “Golden City”. Unlike India’s other forts, this one is still a working fort, in that regular people still live within it, in addition to shops, temples, hotels, and cafes.

India
Jaisalmer Castle

One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is head out to the desert for a camel safari. We rode our camels out to huge sand dunes and watched the sun set. Then we had a delicious dinner, and watched some dancing set to music using castañas and a harmonium. We slept in a very fancy tent that night, and woke up at 2 am to go out and look at the Geminids Meteor shower. With no light pollution out in the desert, the brilliant stars and the Milky Way were clear and bright.

Bikaner

On the way to Bikaner, we stopped at a cow care center. In addition to treating cows with blindness, cancer, and other diseases, they also treat cows who need surgery due to car accidents. Because cows in India are considered sacred (living embodiments of the Earth Mother goddess), most are not fenced in (and Hindus do not eat beef). While this leads to a peaceful peripatetic life for the cow, it also leads to some pretty serious car accidents, piles of cow poop in every city (except Calcutta, which does not allow free-range cows), and cows eating all kinds of trash such as plastic and paper- which can be fatal for the cow.

The Cows of India

Mandawa

Leaving Bikaner, we first visited the Karni Mata rat temple. According to a Hindu legend, the god Karni Mata was promised that all his sons would be reincarnated as rats, and so they are revered at this temple.

Karni Mata Temple

In the town of Mandawa, we walked through the quiet backstreets, gazing at the old havelis in various states of disrepair. Some are being gutted and torn down, their fixtures sold to tourists and to other haveli owners, who are renovating their family mansions and turning them into guest houses.

Finally we arrived back in Delhi, and said goodbye to our wonderful driver Singh. Next we’ll head further north in India and explore there a bit.

Rajasthan tour costs:

Visa: ($100 for 2 month e-visa)

Transport to: $40 Overnight train to Delhi

Daily costs: approximately $120 per day for two people

India: Kolkata, Sunderban, and Varanasi

Twenty years ago, I taught sixth grade world geography using a textbook that had the most beautiful pictures at the beginning of each chapter. I still remember the full page photo of India, and how much I wanted to go there. It sure took a long time, but I finally made it to India!

Kolkata

From Chittagong, it was a short flight to Kolkata. Chris and I were pleasantly surprised by how green the city is, and a slower pace than I was expecting. Our first full day, we took a Heritage Walk to see the old colonial buildings, built by the British when Calcutta was the “second city of the Empire” in the 18th and 19th centuries. I highly suggest Calcutta Walks, for their in-depth historical look at these old buildings. 15,000 colonial buildings are still present in the city, if you know where to look for them and can squint a little and imagine them in their full grandeur in the era of the Raj. Seriously, I could write whole pages on the history of these marble and sandstone buildings, but I won’t, because I know not everyone finds all that as cool as I do.

We also spent a day walking along the Hooghly River: wandering through the flower market (a riot of color and smells), drinking tea out of clay cups for five rupees, walking across the Howrah Bridge, and taking the ferry back over. No visit to Kolkata would be complete without a stroll through the Victoria Memorial at sunset, made from the same marble as the Taj Mahal.

On our last day we discovered the quieter side of the city, at the Mother Teresa Charity Mission house and her tomb, then spending some time in the Park Street Cemetery- one of the largest and oldest Christian cemeteries- but without a single cross, angel, or psalm in it. We rounded the day out with the National Library, a beautiful building which will look stunning after its current renovation.

Sunderban National Park

From Kolkata, we booked a two-day trip down to Sunderban to see the world’s largest mangrove river delta, and hopefully a Bengal tiger. The eco-camp we went to had amazing fish curry thalis for dinner, lovely hosts, and a most relaxing day on the boat. We did not get to see the elusive tigers, although we were pleased to see an otter on land, a rare sighting- as well as various birds, a few crocodile, and some spotted deer.

Varanasi

Having difficulty with the India Rail system, we gave up and booked a flight to our next destination, Varanasi (of course ten minutes later we found a rail booking agency). After a flight of only 90 minutes, we were there. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with continuous human settlement for over three thousand years. Thousands of Hindus bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges every day, washing away their sins. They consider it auspicious to die there and have their bodies cremated- it is said to send their soul to nirvana, thus breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Every day between 300-400 bodies are burned on the ghats along the river.

In Varanasi, we attended the nightly Ganga Aarti, a river-worshipping ceremony. It was quite a spectacle, both for the show and for the goings-on in the crowd. Hawkers, beggars, tea sellers, naked ascetics offering blessings; all kinds of activities going on as we sat, waiting for it to begin just after sunset.

The next morning we went on a sunrise boat tour, watching the Hindu pilgrims emerge from the alleyways of the city and descend the steps of the 88 ghats, bathe in the river and give their devotional pujas. Although I would imagine that it’s not the most sanitary thing in the world, it was interesting to watch a practice that has continued unbroken for not just centuries, but millennia.

And so now we are on an overnight train, heading for Delhi and the Golden Triangle area to see some palaces, tombs, and forts. Got suggestions for what we “must see” in the next few days? Leave a comment below.

Country costs:

E-visas: $103 each

Flight to Kolkata from Chittagong: $80 each

Daily costs: $120 for two people

Bangladesh

Bangladeshi children in colorful clothing standing

Bangladesh is crowded. It has 166 million people- the population of Russia- squeezed into a country the area of Florida. And 18 million of those people live in Dhaka, the capital city. Or, put another way, the city has 33,000 people per square kilometer.

A typical street scene full of traffic

Luckily, we arrived on a Friday, so traffic was a little lighter than on other days of the week- but still noisy, chaotic, and haphazard. The amount of honking in this country is unbelievable! Dhaka features over 600,000 bicycle rickshaws, plus tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars, and buses on its roads. And that’s not even mentioning the boats on all the waterways.

These guys can really maneuver around!

Realizing that there was no possible way we’d make it around town on our own, we booked a day tour to see the sights of Old Dhaka, and visited the Parliament Building (designed by American architect Louis Khan), the old Nizwa Palace of the kings, Lalbagh Fort (1678), a Hindu temple, a mosque, and an Armenian Church built in 1781. Bangladesh has a very interesting history, first as part of India, later colonized by the British, and later partitioned off as East Pakistan, from whom they gained independence in 1971.

Nizwa Palace

Although colorful and fun to photograph, Dhaka is not an easy city for tourists, especially women. I was stared at constantly and many (so many!) of the braver Bangladeshis asked for photos with me or with Chris. We decided to head out of town to quieter parts- and less pollution. Dhaka has a constant haze around it from all the pollution- we never saw blue skies the whole time we were there.

After staring at us for a good fifteen minutes, we finally realized they were dying for us to take their picture

Chatting online with Deshguri, a great local travel company, we managed to procure tickets on one of the “rocket steamer” boats, gifts from the British colonial period over a hundred years ago. We boarded the old wooden boat at 6 pm, and were led past hundreds of Bangladeshis camped out on the cargo deck, up to the second deck, which doubles as simple second class berths and “VIP” first class berths and dining room. Our twin room had a balcony leading out to the bow of the ship, where after dinner and in the morning, we could sit and watch the countryside of Bangladesh float by.

Chris, inside our cabin
Enjoying the slower pace of the countryside

At breakfast, we met a Norwegian on break from working with the Rohingya refugees, and he kindly invited us to join him on his day tour. We disembarked at the tiny village of Hularhat, and his guide drove us to Bagarhat. There we could visit several 15th century mosques built by the Moghuls, as well as a 400 year-old Hindu temple.

The Sixty Dome Mosque, which ironically has 77 domes

Our day tour ended in the city of Khulna, near Sunderband National Park- the largest mangrove forest in the world. Unfortunately, we already had return tickets for the next night’s boat, so we didn’t have time for a 2-day trip down into the park. We will visit the 10,000 sq km preserve from the India side next week (sorry Bangladesh, but you make booking tours practically impossible!). We took a bus east to Borisal, where our boat bound for Dhaka departed from. This one was a shinier, more modern boat, made up of single, double, and triple berths. We fell asleep and woke up in the capital city.

Early-morning boatmen ready for work. They make about ten cents ferrying a person across the river in Dhaka

From Dhaka, we took a train down the eastern coastline of Bangladesh to Chittagong. Once away from the crowded and noisy capital city, the green rice fields and watery shrimp farms alternated in the countryside, punctuated here and there by a colorful vegetable market at a crossroads. And, unfortunately, trash. Like Nepal, Bangladesh has a serious trash problem, although they are instituting steps such as banning plastic bags at retail and grocery stores. The manufacture and sale of jute cloth products is a thriving business for Bangladesh. But even on the boat and the train, trash was disposed of by tossing it out the window- by the cabin stewards themselves.

Our train left exactly on time

In Chittagong we had one of those days that makes me want to give up on travel altogether (just temporarily though really!) so we decided to not take a bus another four hours further south to Cox’s Bazaar (after reading reviews featuring statements like “most rubbish-strewn beach I’ve ever visited” and “no bathing suits or shorts allowed” and “if you (a foreign tourist) go, the main attraction at the beach that day will be you”). Although it is supposed to be the longest sand-beach in the world, we decided to skip it. Instead we stayed home, and the next day we visited the Zia War Memorial. While giving almost no information about the War of Liberation from Pakistan, it does feature dozens of photographs and artifacts of President Ziaur Rahman, including the soap he was using the night he was assassinated in Chittagong.

Taking an “admin day” to do laundry and write my blog
President of Bangladesh, 1977-1981

And that was basically our time in Bangladesh. All in all, I found it a difficult country to maneuver around in, but still am glad we came. While we were here we also applied for and got our sixty day visa to India, so we head there next, and I’m definitely looking forward to that.

Country Costs:

Flight to (from Bhutan): $235 each

Visa: $50 each

Price per day: Around $110 a day for two people for eight days