After a couple of weeks in Rajasthan (see blog part 1), I was finally hitting the road by myself to travel independently through northern India. Taking a private car from Delhi I headed north towards the mountains with my first stop being Rishikesh, a town set along the banks of the mighty river Ganges.
I settled down in Rishikesh for around 10 days, as I wanted to use it as a chance to unwind. It’s known for its spirituality and is a home for yoga and meditation classes. Sadhus (holy men) and pilgrims mix with tourists along the river at dusk for the nightly ‘Ganga Arti’ ceremony where the Hindus give thanks to the mighty river in a worshipping ceremony. I’ve since experienced this ceremony in several places and it’s a sight to behold; chanting and candles, with hordes of people and an occasional feeling of mass hysteria – it’s quite something!
This area is also great for rafting which I had a go at and I also hired a guide and took a daytrip to Dehradun to visit the largest Buddhist monastery in India. Trains arrive and depart from nearby pilgrim site Haridwar, so upon leaving Rishikesh I spent a day in Haridwar on safari (where we saw snakes, elephant and birdlife galore) before jumping onto a train north to the Sikh city of Amritsar, to see the Golden Temple.
One of my best experiences ever was visiting the Golden Temple. I spent 3 nights in Amritsar and visited the site each day, at different times. It’s open 24 hours a day and was designed to be a place of worship open to men and women from all walks of life and all faiths. The kitchen provides meals at no cost to over 100,000 people every day. The feeling of being there, listening to the chanting, seeing the daily rituals, meeting so many people – was very special indeed and somewhere I’ll never forget.
Another popular trip from Amritsar is to the Wagah border ceremony, a show put on each day at the closing of the Indo-Pakistani border crossing. It’s a spectacle that attracts many tourists, loud and energetic in style and colourful to watch!
My mornings each day began with a hot, sweet cup of chai and some fruit from the market - those daily habits you fall into when travelling become such comfort.
For me, food was a real highlight throughout this trip. I ate purely vegetarian and almost entirely Indian for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Such a joy! Many people worry about ‘Delhi belly’ when visiting India; but the only time I was witness to any issues was when people became complacent. It’s important to remain fastidious about cleaning your hands, not eating raw food or anything that needs washing (unless you know it has been washed with filtered water). If you follow these simple rules it does help to eliminate risk. If in doubt, carry rehydration salts and immodium for emergency situations!
My next train journey took me from Amritsar to Agra, home of the majestic Taj Mahal. It’s as grand and breath-taking as you would imagine, perhaps even more so since it’s nestled in Agra, like a rose amongst thorns.
Two nights here is perfect as you’ll have a full day to see the Taj at dawn and/or dusk, and then visit the fort complex too. I visited at dusk on arrival and then spent the next full day on an excursion out at Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient complex left to ruin after being built by the Mughals. It was abandoned due to water shortages but is host to three palaces (one Hindu, one Christian and one Muslim) and a mosque. It’s a really great day out, and an unexpected highlight of my stop in Agra.
The next stretch took me on an overnight train again – from Agra to another famous town on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi. As we rolled through the countryside and dawn broke the views were stunning. I arrived into Varanasi tired but happy to be there; it’s the spiritual home for Hindus and pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred waters by the Ghats or cremate loved ones. It’s a heady fusion for the senses – sight, sounds and smells are all heightened.
I stayed at a little guesthouse on the river itself so I became fully immersed in the day to day life, seeing all kinds of activity from morning to night. After dark, the Ganga Arti ceremony takes place and I was taken aback by the frantic, hypnotizing nature of it here - what an experience.
My trip through the north drew to a close after a week in Varanasi, as I took a flight south to Mumbai to continue the Indian adventure. Travelling through northern India was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s a place of contrasts and full of characters and it will throw highs and lows at you every day. For this reason India is certainly somewhere you could love or hate! If you have even a passing interest in India as a destination, I highly recommend seeing and experiencing this country for yourself.
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