By Simon Woodhouse
Is there a more mysterious, evocative country than India? Maybe, but as travel experiences go, the sub-continent has got to be one of the most exciting, challenging destinations. It’s a conundrum, a contradiction in terms. It’s a place where palaces sit side by side with shantytowns. There’s great wealth, but also abject poverty. There are towering mountains and clear, blue oceans. A trip to India can be described in many ways, but boring certainly isn’t one of them.
When you arrive in India, you’ll be one of over two and a half million other tourists who visit each year. Before you get that far, however, it might be worth considering when you want to go. As with everything else in India, the climate can go from one extreme to another. Geographically speaking, India is a big place (over three and a quarter million square kilometers), which means the weather at one end of the country won’t be the same as it is at the other. Out of the three seasons – hot, wet and cool, cool is the best. This generally runs from November to February.
Traveling around within Indian borders is relatively easy if you want to fly. Deregulation has recently led to a proliferation of airlines, whereas only a few years ago Air India dominated the marketplace. For a real taste of India, however, train travel will offer you a totally new experience. Perhaps it’s not for the faint hearted. From booking a ticket to understanding commuter etiquette, riding by train in India will be something you’ll never forget. But compared to the buses, the trains are a piece of cake. Going by bus takes the concept of uncomfortable, unpredictable travel to a whole other level. Car hire is an option, though perhaps driving in India should only be attempted by people with nerves of steel. If you’re a military test pilot, or a Hollywood stuntman, try the hire car option, otherwise forget it. There are numerous types of taxi style transports to be found in India, which include auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and horse drawn carriages, but don’t expect to see a working meter.
When people think of Indian cuisine, they think of curry. But curry is an English word, and a rough translation of the Indian word Kari, which means spiced sauce. Because it’s a generic term, you won’t actually be able to ask for a curry. Instead, you’ll have to choose a particular dish, of which there are many. Buying any sort of food from a street vender is probably not advisable. That’s not to say they’re all bad, but unless you’ve got specific experience of a particular vender, you won’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. Likewise, don’t drink the water. Bottled water is a must in India, and make sure the seal around the cap hasn’t been broken.
The Indian calendar is loaded with festivals and celebrations. Many of these are regional, and not always religious. The Republic Day Festival is a secular celebration that takes place in Delhi. It has a heavy military theme, but there is also a parade that comes complete with elephants. Diwali (or Deepavaali as it’s also known) is the most enthusiastic of the Hindu festivals, and lasts for five days during October and November. It’s also known as the Festival of Lights, and much of the celebrations center around lamps and lanterns.
If you’re after a more relaxing time in India, the country has some excellent beaches. The district of Kerala, in the south west, boasts quite a few. The Andaman Islands out in the Bay of Bengal are also pretty good beach-wise, as is the island of Goa. Maybe lying in the sun or swimming in the sea isn’t your thing. India has some excellent places to trek, including the mountain regions of Himachal Pradesh , Sikkim, and Leh. For something more adventurous still, how about mountaineering in the Himalayas. As mountains go, they’re the big ones. There are also an abundance of temple sites to visit in India, with the most well known being the Golden Temple of Amritsar in the Majha region of the Punjab.
Wherever you go in India, it’s a good idea to check ahead and see what the political situation is like. Certain areas within the country are prone to periods of civil unrest, or even armed conflict between various factions. Getting caught up in one of these fracas would not make for a good vacation. But you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting India as a whole. If you use a bit of common sense, and do a bit of research, India will make for one of the most interesting travel destinations you’re ever likely to visit.