The best time to travel from Chicago is during the dead of winter, and this year I escaped to go backpacking around India for a couple months. I had always wanted to get to know India’s sensory and spiritual overload, to savor its legendary regional cuisines, and to start to understand its long history and incredible diversity. I was interested in the friction between tradition and modernity, and hanging out in the chaos of its diverse, vibrant cities. This is the first of two stories about my trip.
The typical getaway of two or three weeks in India go quickly, but it’s possible to get a quick taste of Mumbai or Delhi, a couple of the charming cities of Rajasthan, and a requisite stop at the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Discount airlines are relatively new in India, but they serve many cities and can save precious hours between destinations. Distances between cities in Rajasthan, for example, are not so large, but a 150-mile trip could take seven hours by bus. The train system serves nearly every part of the country. Its long lines and crowded platforms can be daunting, but it’s a great experience. I liked reading or meeting other travelers over tea and snacks, as this enormous country passed along outside.
English is spoken widely and well. Good planning and a current guidebook are essential to help skirt annoyances like loud hotels and long ticket queues. There’s no preparation for other things –- intense heat, dusty air, constant noise, surging traffic and crowds, occasional power outages and dodgy infrastructure, and barnyard animals meandering in the street.
I started on India’s west coast in Mumbai (Bombay), a city of many superlatives: India’s financial engine, movie-industry capital, city of opportunity, and perhaps the world’s largest city within 10 years. It was curious to see fussy British architecture in the tropics, above the din of taxis and autorickshaws. The cafes and restaurants of central Colaba and Churchgate are popular, as is the long refreshing shoreline of Marine Drive, curving up to Chowpatty Beach. Riding the doorless, jam-packed commuter trains was unique; the real challenge was jumping off of a moving train at a station before people on the platform began jumping onto it. Rock-carved temple caves at Elephanta Island are an easy day trip. Also worth considering is a tour of the enormous Dharavi slum district by a local organization. Some consider "slum tourism" to be exploitative and crassly voyeuristic; others see benefits in that the majority of tour proceeds go to charities supporting childrens’ schools and women’s entrepreneurism.
The northern megalopolis of Delhi has a huge spectrum of things to enjoy, from high-end restaurants to chaotic Old Delhi markets. I tried to travel on the Delhi Metro whenever possible, as it’s the only clean, cool, and efficient mode of transit. In Old Delhi, the sprawling grounds within the Red Fort make for a peaceful walk, and nearby is the Jama Masjid,
India’s largest mosque. Its outside courtyard can hold more that 20,000
worshippers, and it’s possible to climb one minaret’s impossibly small
stairway for a great panorama of Old Delhi. Another iconic Delhi
monument is the Qutb Minar, a 600-year-old Mughal victory tower and the tallest brick minaret in the world. More centrally located, the Paharganj neighborhood near the train station is good for affordable lodging and eats, and Connaught Place has some upscale stores and travel offices.
The state of Rajasthan, in the northwest about 500 miles north of Mumbai, has some of India’s finest forts and palaces. Perhaps the loveliest city is Udaipur, set on Lake Pichola,
with the former Lake Palace floating in the center of the lake, the
enormous City Palace on its banks, and the Monsoon Palace perched on a
mountaintop overlooking the city. Most hotels in Udaipur have rooftop
restaurants, to savor the unrivaled views at dawn and dusk. Jodhpur’s
centerpiece is the sprawling Mehrangarh Fort, set on a high ridge that overlooks the blue-hued homes in the "Blue City." Nearby is the Jaswant Thada, an huge and intricately carved marble memorial, and further out is the Umaid Bhawan Palace, an Art Deco palace. Jaipur, known as the "Pink City," has a central walled town center, extensive markets, and several palaces. The enormous Amber Fort and Jaigarh Fort, home to ornate palace rooms and stunning mountaintop views, are nearby.
Most everyone comes to India with Agra’s Taj Mahal on the
itinerary. It did not disappoint, at any time of the day. I entered the
grounds before sunrise to see the white marble meet the changing colors
of the sky. The lovely mausoleum structure is the centerpiece, and it’s
surrounded by other masterworks, such as the adjacent ornamented
mosque, the giant entry gate that frames the view as you enter, and its
sprawling lush gardens. Most travelers spend less than a day in Agra,
to see the Taj Mahal and the sprawling Agra Fort. With an additional
day, I was pleased to see some other eye-opening Mughal-era sights by
taxi, like the old capital of Fatehpur Sikri and the ornate mausoleum of Emperor Akbar.
Here are some of my photos:
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Andrew Day, Associate Creative Director at Orbitz, lives by the motto, "Go places and eat things."