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Annie's Adventures in India

Rumbak   Leh Ladakh

DelhiThe Itinerary:


Time period: 30 days exactly

Budget: About $35/day + $500 for buying textiles, jewelry, gifts. 

My travel history: While I've never been to Asia before, I consider myself an experienced traveler. I've done 4 or 5 trips of 1-3 months in length, in Europe, Australia/New Zealand, Latin America and here in the United States.  

Why India?? I'm now in graduate school. Which, while putting me on a tighter budget than I've had to travel with lately, also provided me with a rare chance to run free of work obligations and plan a more ambitious trip than I've been able to in a while. I went with another close friend who also had the summer off. 

My first pre-traveling piece of advice for India is: buy your plane ticket 6 months in advance, at least! Though we checked prices regularly starting in January (for a flight in late July), we waited to buy tickets until the spring. Prices had risen considerably we ended up spending about 30% more on tickets than we could have if we'd bought them sooner. We flew Virgin Atlantic, which I praise for its endless supply of water, snacks and tasty meals, along with really good TV to watch when you're squirming in your seat 7 hours into your 11-hour flight. 

We had a smooth flight and arrived in Delhi, got our bags promptly and changed our USD into rupees at a kiosk at the bank. After one last latte in the airport, we held our breaths as we walked into the steamy, crowded taxi area Delhi Trafficoutside the gates. 

Unfortunately, the 2013 Rough Guide we brought with us seems not to have checked up on its hotel recommendations in a few years. After a cold shower and a change of clothes at our Delhi guesthouse, we wandered into a local tourist office to find a map of the city. According to all experienced travelers in India, no tourist office is official and they're all trying to scam you. In spite of our hesitation, we haggled our way into a fair price for approximately a weeklong hire of a private driver, tours and hotels for a three-city tour of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Luckily it worked out well; we immediately moved to a better hotel in Delhi and for the rest of the week our guest houses were clean and in nice neighborhoods.  Our driver, Prim, was a gentle and attentive guide for our first week in India

We spent those beginning days easing into the sensory overload that is Delhi. The city of Delhi is often the least favorite of travelers; its enormity and the aggressiveness with which everyone tries to haggle, lure you into purchases, or become your tour guide for the day can be quite draining. In spite of that, Delhi has an incredible history and it is a patchwork of palaces, forts, wandering alleys and colonial influences, with each empire built upon the next. The first order of business was to have salwar kameez made, the tunic-legging combo Taj Mahalthat has become a more practical apparel choice than the traditional sari. We loved the vibrant colors and wearing them helped us feel comfortable amidst the crowds. 

In Agra, the Taj Mahal was an unbelievable sight. We got up at 5 am to see it in the morning light. Sleepily, we wandered through the tourist gates and gardens that precede it. The cool white marble was delicious to walk on barefoot; the tiny
Amer Fortinterior holds the tombs of a Mughal emperor and his favorite wife for whom the Taj was built. Our stomachs began rumbling too much by about 8am, so we took a brisk exit to find some masala chai in a hotel courtyard just outside the
Taj. Chai tea is like the blood of India, saplike and so sweet that your sugar high helps propel you through the overwhelming busyness and barely-organized density. India is not for the hangry, that I have learned. 

Next, Jaipur. The only hotel we'd booked in advance was Naila Bagh Palace, an elegant heritage hotel run by one of the 
royal families of Jaipur. It surpassed our expectations after the five days of culture shock and jet lag we'd been experiencing. At about $65/night, it cost at least 3x more than anywhere else we stayed. Colonial furniture, crystal handeliers, and a claw foot tub were all remnants of the British Empire's influence.

Jaipur itself is called the "Pink City", and all the buildings in the old city are still required to stay the same color pink that a former emperor once commanded. The Amer Fort, overlooking Maota Lake, was the favorite historical site we visited, even surpassing the Taj Mahal. The level of detail and scale of its size are incredible; its 450 year-old air cooling systems and mirrored halls provide a level of detail that brings the imagination to life. 

As two twenty-something American girls we spent most of our time in cities with quite a few Indian men straggling around us, asking to take pictures, and wanting to know the details of our love lives. The open staring and avid curiosity is definitely hardto adjust to coming from NYC where most people would barely blink twice at a drag queen walking down the
Srinigar del lakestreet. It was only upon our flight to Kashmir that we encountered any real hostility from men, where the Muslim culture and fewer Western tourists made us stick out like a sore thumb. For the most part, women were not out in public on their own and we were surrounded by male guides, hotel staff and waiters. While educated Indian women have joined the workforce, I did not get the impression that women work much outside the home. 

ShikaraFrom Jaipur we took a quick, security-heavy, flight to Kashmir. There in Srinigar  we stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake by the "floating gardens" in a quiet corner filled with lotus flowers and exotic birds. The owner was a
weird mystical guru follower whotalked about his "baba" to no end and smoked lots of hashish, quite a contrast from my perception of your average Muslim-Indian man. We went on paddle boat (shikara) ride s around the lake and read novels on the front "porch" of our houseboat. Kashmir is heavily militarizedwith armed soldiers placedevery few hundred meters in sandbagshelters they keep watch from. It was a constant reminder of the conflict in the area, but the peacefuless of the lake made it seem impossible that something bad could happen. Throughout the day you could hear the Muslim call to prayer echo across the lake from all directions. With the Himalayas rising up in the distance it was truly otherworldy. We did two wonderful hikes, our favorite on the mountain of Sonamarg, where we passed encampments of mountain people whose children skipped up and down the mountains in flip flops while we huffed and puffed behind them. 

From Srinigar, it was a two-day bus ride to Leh. We paid an extra 150 rupees (about $2.25) to bribe the bus driver for seats at the very front, which was well worth the money when your bus is bumping and heaving up and down treacherous mountain highways. At one point our driver did a three point turn off the back of a 4k meter cliff; needless to say I almost kissed the ground upon our safe arrival in Leh. The drive through the Himalayas was incredible, and the transition into Tibetan buddhist territory was tangible in sight and feel. I ate a bag of fresh apricots and tasted my first "mo-mos" with delight at the end of the
harrowing ride in a little village outside Leh, laden with poplars and Tibetan prayer flags. 

Leh Tibetan flagsWe spent a week in Leh at the Oriental Guest House in Changspa, an extremely hospitable and well-run place with tasty food grown right from their garden. We hiked up the hill to the Shanti Stupa, a devotional monument dedicated to world peace. We befriended the delightful Sikh owner of Jeevan Cafe, where we gorged ourselves on cocoballs, pineapple cakes and fresh salads to relieve our altitude adjustment. (Be sure to give yourself a couple of days to rest and revive when advancing in elevation; lots of water, ginger tea and carbs help). A two-day hike to Rumbak, up to the Stok-Kangra pass, and back was quite incredible. In Rumbak we did a home stay with a Tibetan mother and daughter where we tried yak butter tea (not for everyone). Home stays are as expensive as a guest house, but help prevent tourist hotels from overtaking
1234233 10100117531019045 1238645654 ntraditional villages while supporting their livelihoods. The weather in Leh was incredible in August, their peak trekking season, with dry, sunny weather in the upper-70s in Fahrenheit. 

Both my travel buddy and I are into Buddhist philosophy and meditation, so we hit up a couple of meditation classes at the Mahabodi Center in Changspa. Another cool organization is Open Ladakh, which helps preserve Buddhist practice for young Tibetans and offers retreats to travelers as well. The laid-back energy and considerably more noticeable gender equality were also a welcome change. I wish we'd had time to visit the high-altitude lakes in the area, but I'll have to do that next time. 

With just over a week left, we picked up the pace and went through a rapid sequence of cities with about 3 solid days of travel in the midst. First, an 18 hour jeep ride over the 2nd highest drivable road in the world, the Rohtang Pass (the word means "pile of dead bodies" if that's any indicator of our experience in the car). A heavy dosage of Dramamine 1234995 10100117531068945 1386787798 ngot me to the end, where we ended up in the backpacker paradise of Manali. Old Manali is where a large numer of Israeli travelers hang out after they serve in the IDF; we unfortunately hit it in prime monsoon season and had little to do but drink the plentiful coffee and wander around town. We took a scalding soak in the free hot spring-fed baths at a Hindu temple in Vashist, wandered through the alpine trees in the nature park, (full of monkeys, quite cool!), and chitchatted with fellow backpackers. 

En route back to Delhi we stopped for a night in Chandigarh, the Indian city designed by Le Corbusier in the 1960s and quite unique in nature. It is laid out in grids, with each "sector" designated for specific industries or purposes. It also happens to be one of the more affluent and clean cities of India. The Rock Garden, one of our favorite tourist sites, is a sort of imaginary city/sculpture garden built out of recycled materials over dozens of acres by a former Indian government official. Quite cool and even better for the people-watching since its visited mainly by Indian tourists. 

During our last 2 days back in Delhi we had a jam packed itinerary. We visited the Bird Hospital, where the Jain temple runs a sanctuary for injured birds, and finished up our shopping at the government emporiums (where items have fixed prices) and in Chandni Chowk, the main shopping bazaar (unbelievably crowded where you can haggle like crazy for almost any item). We enjoyed a final biryani rice and malai kofta for dinner, took our last morning chai tea, and headed to the airport to say Namaste to Northern India.

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523341 395967853746861 1869128841 nWhen Annie isn't traveling, she resides in NYC where she is a graduate student in nonprofit management and is working to start a food truck for social justice. You can learn more about her here.


Read 1879 times Last modified on Monday, 03 February 2014 00:06
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