Adventure Travel in India: Exploring the Northern Subcontinent
Adventure travel in India is epitomised by the northern swath of the subcontinent. North India is big, and actually that’s a huge understatement. It’s so geographically and culturally diverse a handful of webpages just can’t do it justice. From dusty Delhi to the ancient desert fortresses of Rajasthan, the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh through to Kashmir; its diversity is staggering and so are the distances!
Here I’ll cover some of the key destinations in Northern India, places I’ve visited over two trips to the sub-continent. Weeks of bus, train and rickshaw journeys with the ubiquitous heat, dust and many cups of chai; my adventure travel in India.
The Taj Mahal; a symbol that embodies adventure travel in India for many
Having spent a bit of time in Delhi, I’ve found it’s a city that grows on you. In my first visit, I arrived fresh from the sensory exuberance of South East Asia metropolises. Having arrived at night, I awoke the next morning to a Delhi with a certain lackadaisical charm. Weak sunlight filtered through the haze of Paharganj, rickshaw drivers sat on street corners awaiting their first fair of the day, cows lazily grazed rubbish heaps, shopkeepers were setting out their wares; a leisurely start to the day’s hustle and bustle.
To me Delhi is a city of contrast; the unplanned chaos of Old Delhi set against Lutyen’s order and symmetry of New Delhi. And of course there’s the unprecedented urban sprawl that permeates in all directions from the traditional heart of the city. To visit Delhi is to understand the challenges that face 21st century India; the unequal divide between the haves and the have-nots, the unrelenting thirst to develop and the clash of global culture against traditional values.
This dusty metropolis is usually the starting point for adventure travel in India. Click here for my experience of Delhi’s hidden secrets; the city I’ve come to love with My Delhi City Guide.
The idea to go to Kashmir wasn’t exactly planned. While arranging our driver for Rajasthan, the decision was made to head to Srinagar for a week on Dal Lake. After months of non-stop travel, we were easily sold on the enthusiastic description of Sultan’s house boat and the idea of being in one spot for one week and not moving far from it; do nothing but float around on a lake and drink Kashmiri tea. So that’s what we did, and it was well worth it.
Click here for my brief foray to Srinigar. Coming soon.
An all-day, all-night bus combo delivered us back to Delhi cold and jaded. With no messing around, we transferred the next day into our pre-arranged car with intrepid driver Raju for the assault on Rajasthan. Raju’s driving, rather combative in style, provided the assault. Breaks are for wimps, horns are for heroes and blind over-taking manoeuvres come as standard was his mantra. To my white-knuckle admiration this was strictly adhered to and I learnt adventure travel in India comes in many guises.
Our first stop was Jhunjhunu, a dusty town well known for its beautiful Havelis (houses built around a painted central courtyard depicting everyday scenes - like a visual storyboard). Havelis were built to act as a sanctuary from harsh desert life, the paintings a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise stark landscape. Jhunjhunu gave us our first taste of being 'stared down' by hordes of onlookers; we might have been the first foreigners in town for a while!
To peruse my short stay in Jhunjhunu, click here. Coming soon.
From Jhunjhunu we headed to Bikaner and adventured around the rambling fort of Junagarh. But the highlight had to be the Karni Mata temple (rat temple) where holy rodents scamper everywhere - apparently auspicious if one jumps over your foot or you see a white one - neither happened - and we left feeling we had caught numerous foot diseases (you can only go barefoot) and that our adventure travel in India was well underway.
Click here to peruse my brief foray in and around Bikaner.
Rising above the Thar desert, Jaisalmer Fort is an oasis from a by-gone era. Crowning Trikuta Hill, driving into Jaisalmer truly felt like entering a frontier town. Made prosperous through its position on major trade routes from central Asia through to India, decline slowly came with Partition and the formation of Pakistan.
For my rambling preamble on Jaisalmer, click here. Coming soon.
The Blue City’s colour and vibrancy sits in stark contrast to its desert surrounds. All-pervading in presence, Meherangarh Fort dominates the skyline. There’s something seemingly impossible about its presence. Sheer stone faces are more cliff than castle wall, entrances are protected by elephant ramming proof gates; there’s a brutal strength and scale in its construction that attests to skill of the people who created it and the wealth that funded it.
Click here for the joys of Jodhpur. Coming soon.
On the dusty drive to Udaipur we called into the small town of Ranakpur, famed for its intricate Jain temple; it didn’t disappoint and is one of the high-points of my adventure travel in India. Between Ranakpur and Udaipur me and my travel companion mutinied against our driver’s deteriorating driving culminating in an amusing road-side walk out. Adventure travel in India is challenging at the best of times without the added bonus of blind-corner overtaking and high-speed cow dodging!
Udaipur provided us with some respite, with serine Lake Pichola and its enchanting lakeside palaces.
Click here for Udaipur’s lakeside grandness. Coming soon.
Another fingernail biting ride delivered us to the town of Puskar where 400+ temples jostle for space around its holy lake. We visited Savitry temple situated on the highest point around Pushkar, doing battle with monkeys halfway up - the early morning views from the top were great. We tried to watch the sunset near the lake but ended up being bribed by fake holymen wanting to save our souls for a mere 100 rupees. Only 100 rupees!
For my highlights of Pushkar, click here. Coming soon.
Initially Jaipur came across as a dirty, dusty industrial city. But it was its historical gems that redeemed this city’s first impressions. From the observatory of Janta Mantar, the pink sandstone Hawa Mahal and the grandeur and elegance of Amber Fort, Jaipur’s cultural importance and rich history is vividly plain to see.
Click here for a few of Jaipur’s gems. Coming soon.
On the road to Agra we stopped off at the small town of Abhaneri to check out Chand Baori, a 20m deep well of zig-zagging steps and an amazing geometric sight; reminiscent of an upside down pyramid! The mighty Taj Mahal dominated our stay in Agra, and rightly so. We set off at 6am to see it at sunrise; an architectural master piece in marble. An Indian icon and a building that is not easily forgotten; a symbol that embodies adventure travel in India for many.
For my stay in Agra, click here. Coming soon.
We left our fearless driver Raju in Agra and boarded a delayed, cold night train to Varanasi. This is a city that resonates with significance; not only for the Hindu faithful but also for travellers such as me who witness the striking rituals along the banks of the Ganges. It was a real privilege to watch everyday scenes unfold along the waterfront; the whole spectrum from drying coloured cloth through to open-air cremations.
Click here for a more in depth take on Varanasi. Coming soon.
After the extremes of Varanasi, we trained back to Delhi and continued through to Chandigarh for Christmas with friends. All of us being architects, we were there for one thing; to see Le Corbusier’s monumental state capital in all its crumbling concrete glory. A frantic day building spotting and experiencing India’s only fully planned city satiated our architectural thirst. It was then time to depart for Amritsar.
For our brief tour of Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, click here. Coming soon.
A cold five hour bus ride from Chandigarh delivered us to Amritsar and to our main point of call; The Golden Temple, Sikhs’ holiest place of worship and one of my highlights of Northern India. An equally memorable destination was a short drive away; the theatrical pomp and ceremony of the Waga border crossing. A veritable march-off between India and Pakistani border guards.
Click here for Amritsar. Coming soon.
Six hours of bus tedium finally saw us at Dharamsala. With bags retrieved off the roof by headlamp we took a shared taxi up the hill to McLeod Ganj and our base for one week. On the doorstep of the Himalayas, this small town is home to a large Tibetan community and their government in exile; seat of the Dalai Lama. Walks in the hills, lots of rest and Tibetan dumplings (momos) restored energy levels.
For more on the hilltop McLeod Ganj; adventure travel in India's Himalayan foothills, click here.