How to travel India in 30 days : A trip to the most iconic landmark in India

Agra, home to the magnificent monument dedicated to an Emperors eternal love.

Day 8 – Agra

Our overnight train from Varanasi is delayed so we don’t arrive until closer to midday. Delays are fairly common so it’s handy to have a supply of food just in case, as you might not know when you’ll next be eating. Unlike our previous train journey which served a breakfast option, this train does not, so we are both famished. We take a short ride in an auto-rickshaw to our hotel which is the Seven Hills Tower, and I am pretty impressed. Kevin has decided to splash out on two

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The perfect way to spend a birthday!

nights of ‘flashpacking’ (basically swapping the cheap hostels for something a little more fancy) for my 27th birthday. There is also the possibility to do a day visit to Agra from New Delhi if you are tight on time, as there are various trains running daily between the two cities. It’s such a nice luxury to have our own room with a huge king-size bed, a TV, amazing AC, and there’s even a rooftop pool. We spend my birthday by the pool with a few Kingfishers beers. I was certainly in need of one of these days, simply recharging from the travelling and the constant hustle & bustle that India throws at you.

The hotel has a rooftop restaurant too with a varied menu so we head there for dinner. A full Indian feast is served and it is delicious, a perfect way to end my birthday, I guess 27 isn’t too bad after all!

Day 9 – Agra

Today has definitely been one of the highlights of the trip so far for me. An early start and a 5 minute rickshaw ride takes us to the Westgate of the Taj Mahal. The sun is yet to rise so its still quite dark as we walk towards the ticket booth, where the tourists are already starting to arrive. As expected, yet another crazy difference in ticket prices, 1000 INR for foreigners and 40 INR for Indian nationals! Something that would be highly discriminatory if enforced back home in the U.K.

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Upon purchasing our expensive ticket you receive a free bottle of water and a pair of shoe covers to use in certain areas. When visiting the Taj Mahal, I would recommend taking as little as possible; camera, sunglasses, sunscreen if visiting during the day and maybe something light to keep you warm if visiting during the early morning hours for the sunrise. The more you take, the more likely the staff will ask you to put your bag in a locker which is a 10 minute walk from the main entrance and you will be charged 20 INR too which is what happened to us! Thankfully this doesn’t cut too much into us managing to get through the gates before the sun rises.

As we walk through the main archway entrance, the spectacular site comes into view. It’s quite a surreal feeling to actually see the Taj Mahal in person, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There is an option to have a guide show you around, however if choosing to do so make sure to prearrange, or else you may end up with an unregistered guide who may charge a much higher price than a genuine guide.

There are so many photo opportunities so take advantage whilst enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Unfortunately you have to be lucky to get a snap without the crowds of people getting in the way, just like the iconic photograph of Princess Diana back in 1992 who didn’t have that same problem.

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Making the most of the photo opportunities 

After a few hours of admiring the Taj Mahal we visit the Agra Fort before the midday heat kicks in. If you decide to visit both attractions, it’s useful to keep hold of the entry ticket from the Taj Mahal as it allows a small discount on the ticket price of 50 INR.

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Agra Fort 

The sky still appears misty, possibly due to a blanket of pollution, and in the nearby distance the Taj Mahal looks even brighter and exactly how it looks on photographs. We decide to spend the rest of the day making the most of the pool before heading back to true backpacking life.

Find out what we got up to at our next destination here.


Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal? What do you think about the huge difference in ticket prices? We would love to hear about your thoughts & experiences!


Feel free to let me know what you thought of this article, I always love feedback and finding ways how to improve my writing!

 

 

How to travel India in 30 days : Embracing the spiritual capital that is Varanasi

Dirty, deathly and smelly, but Varanasi certainly didn’t disappoint.

Day 4 – Varanasi

After a 14 hour train journey we finally arrive in Varanasi to be greeted by the intense morning heat and a bunch of hassling auto rickshaw drivers who persist in driving us to our hostel. This is a common sight at train stations, and everywhere for that matter, where each driver frantically competes to agree the cheapest price. Our accommodation is only a 15 minute rickshaw ride away to the Zostel Hostel, India’s first chain of hostels on the backpacking scene which is gradually growing. The staff are very helpful and offer various trips to ensure you get a taste of all that Varanasi has to offer.

After catching up on some sleep, we head out into the even bigger chaos that is Varanasi. Despite having a lower population, the roads are insane with no structure, not even paths, so the aim is to walk along with the traffic and attempt to avoid running into cars, rickshaws and even cows!

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Hustle & bustle in Varanasi streets

As you approach the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, the streets become lined with vendors selling all types of things. I notice some older Indian men dressed in orange robes, all with long beards and wearing white face paint. These are in fact holy men known as sadhus in the Hindu religion, spending most of their lives away from everyday society. The ghat is filled with people, as preparations are being made for the nightly ceremony whereby the River Ganges is worshipped. Taking in all of the chaos, we take a moment to reflect that we are in Varanasi, the most holy place in India.

We are recommended by the hostel to try Keshari, a nearby restaurant serving mostly vegetarian dishes. The meal consists of five small dishes containing different curries, rice and of course the necessary chapatti and poppadom. Our first proper Indian platter and it is absolutely divine!

Delicious curry dishes at Keshari restaurant
Delicious curry dishes at Keshari restaurant

The evening ceremony known as Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire) which takes place each night along the bank of the Ganges is certainly worth a visit to get a taste of the Hindu religion. The performance is lead by a group of priests wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Sun, Fire, and the whole universe.

Day 5 – Varanasi

Another ghat which is certainly worth a visit is the Assi Ghat, around a 2km walk through the busy streets from Zostel Hostel. The area is full of cafes, many of which supporting local charitable causes, so we pay a visit to the Open Hand Cafe, which serves some great breakfast items as well as delicious sweet treats! The cafe is one of two in India, functioning as a fair trade shop which sells handmade products made in the local community, as well as a shoes off cafe where you will be sure to get a good coffee!

We decide to take a rickshaw for the journey back rather than walk amongst Varansi’s traffic. It can often be a slightly less stressful way to enjoy the sites of this holy city and to avoid stepping in cow poo! Due to it’s holiness, the streets of Varanasi are full of roaming cows as they are considered to be extremely sacred creatures in the Hindu religion. It is believed that by honouring this gentle animal, Hindu’s are honouring all other creatures. With this highly regarded status, cows have a pretty good life in India and can do whatever they want. You often see them standing outside shops or homes waiting for food!

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Architecture along the Ganges

Another one of our recommendations is the Brown Bread Bakery, located in the heart of Varanasi’s network of alleys just a short walk from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat so its very easy to become lost. Don’t be fooled by several fake Brown Bread Bakeries which unfortunately exist! The bakery started off in 2006 as the first organic eatery in Varanasi and now offers an amazing selection of cheese and bread all produced by the women empowerment group of the Learn for Life society.

As a Holy City, alcohol is banned on the banks of the river at the ghats and is relatively difficult to get hold of otherwise. However you will find that many places do serve it in a very hush-hush manner for a higher than average price. We did manage on a few occasions to have the odd beer whilst eating, but Varanasi is not really the type of place for late night drinking. The hostel does however have a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a beer up until 11pm, after a day spent exploring the chaotic city streets.

Day 6 – Varanasi

Our hostel offers various trips around the city and today we decide to venture a little further to visit some of the many temples in Varanasi. It’s a great way to see areas which you probably wouldn’t otherwise visit, from the back of a rickshaw. Let’s not forget the typical trip to one of the many local silk shops, which is extremely common in India as the rickshaw drivers often receive commission from the shop owners if their customer decides to purchase anything.  By no means feel pressured to buy , as you are under no obligation to do so. Although I did feel slightly guilty for not buying anything after the

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Teaching us the traditional methods

shop owner had took out all of his silk samples and talked us through each one! We also pay a visit to the place where the products are made, a small room with an older man intricately making a silk scarf using a foot mechanism made of bamboo. Very impressive and interesting to see that so many of the traditional methods are still used despite the current era of mass manufacturing.

Later in the day we take a boat ride up and down the River Ganges to see the city from a different angle. This only costs 150 INR each and is another trip offered by the hostel, possibly a better option than going with one of the local touts down by the main ghat who prey on tourists and may charge a much higher price! The boat takes us up past Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat where the non-stop burning of corpses takes place. In Hinduism cremation is the most common practise after death, with the ashes being dispersed into a sacred body of water. On the banks of the River Ganges, bodies are washed in the holy waters then wrapped in orange cloth and carried on bamboo to the burning platform. From the boat we are unable to see much however being so close to such a holy procedure is an extremely surreal experience.

Day 7 – Varanasi

After seeing the cremations from a distance we decide to visit the Manikarnika Ghat from the ground to truly understand the Hindu religion, as grim as it may seem to us coming from a culture where we are not used with such customs.

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The River Ganges

On approach you can instantly feel the heat from the fires, however there is no pungent smell as you would expect because the banyan wood which is used for cremations prevents this. We are befriended by a local man who tells us about the cremation process and that in fact not everyone is cremated, as certain people are considered to be pure and put straight into the River Ganges, such as pregnant women, children and animals. Many of these bodies then float to the other side of the river where the story is that there are tribes living on the banks of the Ganges who eat the flesh as part of their Hindu belief. Our new local friend then takes us through the burning ceremony, which we are slightly unconformable about but he persists and points out the remains of skull in amongst the fire! Walking though the ghat is a little intimidating as you feel as if you are an uninvited guest at a funeral, but it does not seem to be frowned upon as much as you might expect. A visit to this ghat after dark is not advised as it can be dangerous so we were told.

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Exploring the Ganges by boat

It seems that the so-called friendly local man who only wanted to show us around is actually seeking a donation of money towards the wood used for cremations of those who are unable to afford it once they pass away. When we offer him 40 INR each, between four of us, he isn’t happy , demanding that we give more as this amount will not buy anything. Despite first having asked for a ‘donation’, it’s very strange how he was now asking for an amount of 100 INR each! We decide to give him the 40 INR and leave before the situation escalates. Thankfully as we were in a group we felt like we could say “no” and walk away, however we did hear of others at our hostel who had the same thing happen with some being unlucky and having paid around 200 INR for something that wasn’t exactly official. It’s best to try and avoid these people and say “no” from the start.

After hearing about the wonderful Blue Lassi, it’s top of our list to do before leaving. Here you can sip the amazing yogurt drink topped with a choice of toppings from one of the shops rustic clay pots, whilst watching the constant procession of bodies through the narrow streets as they are taken to the river. It’s tucked away in the depths of the Varanasi alley network but is very popular with visiting tourists, due to their use of traditional methods and recipes! You might also see signs for a Bhang Lassi, which involves the addition of cannabis and possibly more narcotics. As Varanasi is the only city in India where it is legal, proceed with caution if you are planning on trying it, as we heard that it can leave a lasting effect!

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Yogurt drinks at Blue Lassi – an absolute must when visiting the sacred city

That evening we take the night train to Agra, on this occasion swapping the tight fitting three bunk-beds for a more spacious two with a privacy curtain. Despite the slightly higher price, it is certainly a much better choice than our previous journey, and this time we come prepared with plenty of snacks!

Find out what we got up to at our next destination here.


Did you try out Blue Lassi of Varanasi? What did you get up to in the Holy City? We would love to hear about your thoughts & experiences!


Feel free to let me know what you thought of this article, I always love feedback and finding ways how to improve my writing!

How to travel India in 30 days : First stop Kolkata, West Bengal

Welcome to India! Find out our first impressions after stepping into this colourful, intense and incredibly diverse country for the first time!

Day 1 – Kathmandu > Kolkata

Today is our final day in Nepal, and what an amazing two weeks it has been! The trekking here is great and we would definitely recommend it. We have found the people very friendly, especially those living in the mountainous areas where they all greet you with “Namaste”, meaning “Hello” in Nepali.

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Masala Omelette

In Nepal festivals are numerous, one of the most anticipated being Dashain, as it is the longest and most auspicious. This particular festival celebrates the victory of good over evil. One of the main days of Dashain is in fact today, so many street vendors and eateries are closed and the streets of Thamel are much quieter than normal. We try our luck at Phat Kath, a cafe that we eaten in the day before and surprisingly they are open. According to the water they are open 365 days a year, perfect! I sample a Nepali breakfast which includes a chapatti of course, a masala omelette, fried potatoes with onions & peppers and a lassi style yoghurt (you will find out more about these later on). Apparently the chapatti should be dipped into the yoghurt, and it is strangely tasty!

Upon arriving at the airport for our flight, we discover that the visa forms for India I have printed are in fact the application forms and not the actual visa! Thankfully the check in staff allow us to use the Wi-Fi to access our visa and the issue is resolved, but a word of advice, the confirmation to say the visa has been granted is what you actually need!

After a slightly bumpy start, but a short journey of 1hour 15minutes  with Air India we start to descend into a very green looking Kolkata. Once off the flight and through to immigration, it’s clear that the man behind the desk isn’t happy about our lack of correct paperwork. But after a signature verification and a few questions about the where’s and when’s of our trip we are finally into India!

The best way into the city is with one of the trademark yellow taxis of Kolkata. If you pay in the main arrival area, the cost should be no more than 455 INR which will get you into the central areas. I get the impression that not all taxi drivers are very familiar with the city as they should be due to the constant asking for directions, but we eventually arrive at our accommodation which is in the Taltala area of Kolkata on Doctor Lane. From looking online, hostels in the city don’t appear to be plentiful, so we opted for the Georgian Inn, a basic yet relatively comfortable guesthouse.

We steal some tips and advice from the few Western tourists staying there too, and decide to head out with one Australian guy who recommends a local eatery just yards away. Stepping out into the evening streets and already we feel the intensity that is India, lots of gawping stares, beeping mopeds and crazy smells.

The food is a spicy vegetable style curry served with slightly mouldy chapatti bread, but for a small price of 70 INR how on earth can you complain! Its certainly not somewhere where you will bump into many other tourists, however that’s the joy of these places. You really get a true taste of the local culture!

Day 2 – Exploring Kolkata

Without any particular plan for the day, we head out into the street of Kolkata. They are exactly how I imagined India to be, and it is certainly not a country for those afraid of embracing the wonderful culture India has to offer.With a population of just over 1.3 billion, and many of the countries people living in poverty,it really opened our eyes as to how lucky we really are.

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Bustling streets of Kolkata

We wonder further through the streets, map in hand, as it is very easy to get lost and despite much of the population having knowledge of English, it can often be difficult to communicate especially when asking for directions.  The train booking office is on our route, located on Fairlie Place, so we pop by in the hope of booking a ticket for our onward journey to Varanasi the following day. However be warned, this process is not as quick and easy as you may imagine. For purchasing tickets you must fill in an application form and wait for the number to be called, and remember to carry your passport when doing so or else you could be refused a ticket! The wait in this particular office was around 3 hours, so it may be worth buying several tickets if you have an itinerary planned, to save further waiting elsewhere. In our experience, this was the longest we had to wait for tickets, however there are always unorganised queues in many of the booking offices so be prepared to be patient.

The remainder of the day is spent walking what feels like miles throughout the city, with a very shameful stop off at a Dominoes Pizza outlet. From now on we’ve agreed its local cuisine only!

Day 3 – Kolkata > Varanasi

Today we take the night train to Varanasi, our next destination, leaving us with the full day to see a little more of the city. Another wonder through the crowded streets takes us to Victoria Memorial, a popular spot for tourists and slightly similar looks wise to the Taj Mahal due to its white colour and grand gardens.

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Victoria Memorial

Its a small fee of 70 INR to enter the gardens, however to the price to enter the palace itself is a slight difference between 100 INR for Indian nationals and 700 INR for foreign tourists, something that we noticed with the price for a lot of other things! Its a beautiful break from the hustle and bustle of the chaotic streets. We soon realise that the memorial isn’t the only thing being photographed, and that we ourselves are a popular attraction amongst the Indian tourists! It’s a nice feeling to make their day, as many of them don’t often see Caucasian people. St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral is another interesting site to see the history left behind following the British rule over India.

To compensate for our lack of Indian cuisine so far, we eat at Blue Sky Cafe located in the Sudder Street area, which is a must if you are looking for a tasty and varied menu at budget prices.

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The chaos at Howrah Junction

Our train leaves from Howrah Junction railway station, which is in fact the oldest and busiest in India. The station itself is as hectic as you would imagine, people rushing to and from trains, and we even spot a tiny puppy wondering aimlessly amongst the chaos. You will find that there are also lots of beggars, and its difficult not to give them money, however we were always recommended not to, as this will only encourage it. Trains in India are divided into classes from 1st to 5th, some of which have AC and basic bunk-beds, others have no windows and have minimal space for sleeping. We opted for 3rd class tickets, which is essentially means that there are three bunk-beds per row as well as much need air-conditioning! I imagine that 1st and 2nd class are much nicer, if your budget stretches to this.

We were advised to buy a chain to lock up luggage onto the bars beneath the seats, as there have been reports of thefts so its better to be safe than sorry! As this was our first experience on a sleeper train we decided to keep our backpacks on the the bunk-beds while we slept, slightly uncomfortable being two tall people. The train is compact with not much space to move around especially when there are six people in one small compartment, but the advantage is having your own bed with complimentary towels and sheets.  It is possible to buy food and drinks on the train, but only to purchase from the those working on-board and not strangers, as there have been reports of items being drugged, so beware! Many of the Indian travellers on the other hand are very much prepared for the long journey, bringing with them a selection of food.

Once we both manage to get comfortable, after a few disputes over who’s seat was who’s (something which happens on almost all trains), it was time to try and catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep  on the 14 hour journey!

Find out what we got up to at our next destination here.


What were your first impression’s of India? How did you find the sleeper train experience? We would love to hear about your thoughts & experiences!


Feel free to let me know what you thought of this article, I always love feedback and finding ways how to improve my writing!