Guide to India
- Submitted by: Kaye Stott, Australia
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
Input for this guide came from many netters; individual contributors are listed at the end, Thanks to all - your input has been most valuable. Special thanks to Mark Nowak , who compiled the original postings on the net.
When using this guide, be aware that it is compiled from edited comments of various people on the Internet, who may or may not have been to India, at times distant or recent. Remember this when assessing the usefulness of all information.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to India. It reflects the personal impressions, opinions, and recommendations, of your fellow netters, and may not cover the areas you require. In addition, the guide may have errors of fact or omission, although unintentional. Should you find such errors, or wish to add anything to the guide, please contact me. I do scan rec.travel for your items, but may miss some, and your comments and suggestions are welcomed.
This guide is split up into 13 sections.
-- Important Information/Latest Updates
-- General information
-- Philosophy of travelling in India
-- Health and safety
-- Money and foreign exchange
-- Things to bring with you
-- Places to visit
-- Things to do
-- Things to buy
-- Women travelling alone
Important Information (July 13, 1993)
There is current unrest in some parts of India. If in doubt, enquire from the Department of Foreign Affairs (or its equivalent), before planning your trip.
There are some areas of India that it might be inadvisable to visit. For example, it is certainly unsafe to travel to Kashmir, particularly Srinagar at this stage. One of the fundamentalist groups had issued a 'directive' asking all foreign tourists to leave. Ladakh, which is a part of Kashmir state but is not affected by terrorism, should be OK, but then you should take the flight to Leh and not the land route through Srinagar. Similarly Jammu city and the neighbouring districts are in Kashmir state, but are comparatively safer places. Similarly, the Punjab is another state affected by terrorism, and may be unsafe to travel in.
Certain areas of India require restricted area permits. It is certainly required for visits to Punjab, but not if you are merely passing through on your way to another state. When you apply for your tourist visa for India, mention all the places you need to visit so that the necessary permissions can be obtained.
The #1 most important piece of advice offered is: rush out and buy the book 'India: A Travel Survival Kit' published by Lonely Planet. It is the bible of travel in India, both for the budget and the luxury traveler.
There are other guides -- either Insight travel guide or Insider's guide, (whichever is the book _without_ the glossy colour photos) comes strongly recommended. It's a series that comes from outside the U.S. and is geared toward low-budget travelers. You'll see it all over India (in the backpacks of fellow travelers).
India is a huge country, with as much diversity as Europe, probably more. There is an extreme variety of languages, from Tamil in the south to Bengali in the north. In the north one language (Hindi) is almost universally used, but each state has its own language, and English is the link for the most part. There are also extremes in climate, from the Great Indian Desert to the humid swamplands of the northeast. In terms of social class, the variety is even more enormous, from the farmers you see everywhere, to those living in shanties everywhere, and those living the lives more closely attuned to Western nations, yes, everywhere.
Because of the geographic and climatic changes, you should take some care in planning when and where to travel on the sub-continent. Most short visits are timed for spring or autumn, avoiding the pre-monsoonal and monsoonal months. Summer may not be the best time to go, but if you don't have a choice you should just go ahead with your plans. For example, Bombay might be a bit rainy in June but the Himalayas can be great. June is, in fact, the best time to visit the hill stations on the Himalayan ranges, for example: Kulu, Manali (Himachal Pradesh), Haradwar, Rishikesh, Mussorie, Badrinath (Uttar Pradesh) and Darjeeling (West Bengal). The thing that might trouble people who are not used to the hot weather conditions in India is not the heat but the dust and the hot winds that carry it. If you have trouble with the heat, use hotels, buses, trains that are air conditioned.
Without question, anyone should visit India, particularly those coming from western nations. The culture, living styles and the way things work are about as different from the west as it can be. If you can, go around with an Indian who can show you around and explain things to you. If you know Indian people, you can stay with them, and gain an insight into their lives.
The government of India Department of Tourism has offices in many countries to provide tourist information to people who wish to spend their vacation in India. They are called India Tourist Office. These offices are very helpful, a source of maps, pamphlets, addresses, etc. Get in touch with the nearest Tourist Office for information; there are some great plans that you probably never knew existed. Most of them are however for NRI or Foreign Citizens and require payment in Dollars. Some US addresses are:
New York India Tourist Office L.A. India Tourist Office 30 Rockefellar Plaza, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 15, Suite #204, North Mezzanine, Los Angeles,New York, NY 10012. CA 90010-2485 (213) 380-8855
Chicago India Tourist Office NY Govt. Of India Tourist Office, (312) 236-6899 c/o Drawer S (312) 236-7879 Bellport, NY 11713-0519
The FAQ from soc.culture.india is now archived, and is available via anonymous ftp from pit-manager.mit.edu (220.127.116.11) or sending email to: email@example.com with Subject: send usenet/soc.culture.indian/FREQUENTLY_ASKED_QUESTIONS
Philosophy of travelling in India
Keep an open mind, and enjoy the experience; India can't be described, it must be experienced! It seems to be the sort of country that people either love or hate.
Good advice in a country like India is to take it _slow_. Don't try to see a ton in a short period of time; that can be stressing even in the easiest of countries, and India is not an easy country. A favorite method for getting around towns is to just wander; India is the perfect place for this because you continually run into surprises. There are endless things that you will see that you can't even begin to understand, and that is half of the pleasure - the small day-to-day activities that go to make up the culture.
The main thing you should know about India, is that the notion of personal space is very different there. Once you step out onto the street, people will immediately begin to approach you offering to sell you things, perform services, etc., or just to ask for money. People will not go away if you say 'no'. If you're not prepared for this (and even if you are), it can be a very tense experience.
Indian queues can be amazing - you have to abandon all courtesy in queues if you ever wanted to be served. If you want to buy a ticket at the railroad station, you have to 'actively queue'- defend your position or else someone will simply shove his money into the little counter window before you, and there will be someone next to him with money in hand trying to do the same. On the other hand, you may sometimes receive a little more respect than local people do because you 'look different'; this can be useful at times, and distressing at others.
Also, don't complain too much - it bothers Indians to the point where they become unfriendly.
Health and safety
Be careful about the food/drinks etc., especially with regard to drinking water. You should take water-purifying tablets, and drink bottled water, widely available (only a few rupees per bottle). Try to avoid fresh vegetables or fruit unless they're peeled, and steer clear of salads.
It is still possible to get amoebic dysentary in India, so recognize the symptoms. For those unfamiliar with this yucky affliction, it's different from plain old diarrhoea; usually, there is blood involved and no fever (if fever is present, it's bacillic dysentary and will either go away by itself or can be treated with antibiotics). If left untreated, it can get very nasty. Treatment is easy but not real pleasant: go to a drugstore (there in India, or in other Asian countries) and ask for metradiazenole (sic?), often known as Flagyl or Flagyl-forte. You don't need a prescription for just about anything in most of Asia. Get ten days worth (40 tablets) and eat them after eating because they're very hard on the stomach. Drink NO alcohol, or you'll throw up. If your urine turns brown, don't worry. That's apparently a side-effect of the drug.
It is, of course, better to see a doctor than to try to diagnose yourself, but experience with doctors and this condition can be very frustrating; it's hard to diagnose. It's better to buy the medication overseas (i.e. not in the USA), because it'll cost you maybe $20 as opposed to the $150 it costs locally. In Australia you will be able to talk your GP into prescribing a course of tablets for you to take with you.
India has some areas where malaria is still common. Ask your doctor to prescribe the appropriate prophylactic to suit the region in which you will travel, and carry some insect repellents and ointments to prevent insect bites.The mosquitoes can be fierce. Another deterrent is mosquito coils (you light one end with a match), and a $6 Japanese-Indian electrical device called Good Knight gets good press: 'Within hours hundreds of mosquitoes were literally dropping from the ceiling. Amazing. Next trip I'll buy one of those cause there was usually an electrical outlet in my room'.
Physically, India is a very safe place to travel. Each city like everywhere else in the world has the safe spots and some unsafe spots, but generally there is nothing to worry about but keep your eyes open and ENJOY!
When travelling overnight on the trains chain your luggage together, to make it difficult to pick up any one piece.
Money and foreign exchange
Bank rates were as of February 1993, 25 rupees to $US1, black market 31 rupees to $US1.
Banks and money-changing authorities will issue you with receipts of all cash and travellers' cheques changed. Keep these receipts - they will be required when paying for hotels, trains, flights, or for exchanging money for foreign currency when you leave India. Many hotels require foreigners to pay in hard currency (not rupees) unless you can show that your money is exchanged through official channels.
New Delhi airport only has money exchange booths _inside_ the international arrival section. If you pass through immigration and out into the ground transportation area, there is no way to get back in to exchange money. This could result in your having to find a taxi driver willing to take foreign currency, something they would no doubt be happy to do, but only at an exorbitant rate. So be sure not to rush past that exchange booth in your eagerness to get on to your destination.
An alternative is to go to the departure lounge of the domestic airport (nearby), where State Bank exchange booths do exist. So, if you're connecting to a domestic flight you could exchange your money there. Getting there might require you to get cab though and then you are again faced with the problem!.
You should try to ensure that the rupee bills you get are in good shape, i.e. no tears or large ink stamps or corners missing. Damaged notes will be very difficult to spend. However, in most major banks there are separate counters which will accept damaged notes and give you new/better notes for no charge. This may only apply to major cities, as there have been numerous reports of difficulties in exchanging notes, including at the bank branches in the Delhi airport.
You may also experience the perennial problem of 'no change' from Indian shopkeepers. It can be very difficult to get small change, and you should hoard whatever you get, producing it only when necessary.
When leaving India, remember to exchange all rupees back into foreign currency. It is illegal to export rupees. You must do this _before_ going through customs, and you must produce the official receipts at the time.
How much money should you budget? Some people live on $US5 a day; others say that $US100 lasted about 3 weeks. It depends on the quality of hotels you expect to use, the amount of internal flying you want to do, and the number of things you can't resist buying!
Things to bring with you
One simple tip: bring a combination lock, a good one. Many of the cheaper hotels don't have locks on their doors, so you need your own. Combination locks are more difficult to jimmy than key locks.
You are recommended to carry as little as possible. This can't be overemphasized. Most guest houses will hook you up with a local laundry person who will take your clothes, beat the tar out of them, and return them clean as a whistle for a low price. So take few articles of clothing, and expect them to receive rough treatment. Carrying a flashlight and mosquito repellent (strong stuff) is also a good idea. Reading material is easy to find in second-hand book vendors in the major towns.
Don't think of renting a car and driving yourself. Hire a car and a driver, or just take taxis. The rules of the road are very different.
To quote one contributor:
'Speaking of driving in India, my wife and I had several interesting and harrowing experiences with driving in India, while visiting for three weeks in Winter 1990. We discovered some rules of the road:
He who is loudest wins.
Urban traffic in India is a miasma of vehicular and non-vehicular traffic, including such diverse things as cars, semis, motor-rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis), bicycle-rickshaws, motor scooters, elephants, goats, dogs, children, chickens, bearers, push-carts, camels, buses, etc. These things are all moving. If you want to pass anything, honk your horn. Everyone else will start honking too. If you don't have a horn, shout. He who is loudest gets the right-of-way. Everyone else moves over to the left (unless they are in a hurry; everyone in India is in a hurry). If the other vehicles and livestock don't yield to the loudest horn, that vehicle with the right-of-way enters the lane of oncoming traffic and passes those ahead. Especially on a busy street at rush hour.
This especially fun when you are in a flimsy motor-rickshaw, with a semi bearing down on you.
Don't hit the cows.
In addition to the moving traffic, you have a number of stationary targets, er, obstacles, including cows, beggars, street repair crews, double-parked cars and trucks and elephants. You are in the right as long as you don't hit the cows. The cows can be ANYWHERE in the street. Usually they sit on the median, but you can find them sitting in the middle of the road. All traffic flows around the cow. Other animals or people are not so lucky.
All roads shall be repaired once every 20 years, whether they need it or not.
The state of road surfaces in India is a miracle of hand labor. Everything is done by hand, including the removal of old asphalt (burn a fire on top of the road until it gets soft), laying the stone underlayment, mixing concrete (usually right on top of the street), and leveling the surface. The tools are shovels and picks and brooms. This insures that the maximum amount of work for the repair crews. This also insures the maximum amount of disruption of traffic, because the process of resurfacing a stretch of road will take a minimum of five years. When they are done resurfacing, the condition of the road is nearly identical to previous, meaning full of potholes, very uneven, etc. And since most vehicles lack any sort of suspension, a short ride around town is a bone-jarring, exhausting, white-knuckled adventure. The process of building a one mile stretch of new road takes about ten years.'
The meals on Air India (and for the most part on the domestic Indian Airlines flights) were pretty good and somewhat spicy. Vegetarians will be pleasantly surprised to be offered a no-meat meal as 'standard.'
Always get prepaid taxis at the airport unless you are taking public transport.
There is an Indian Airlines Airpass available for $US400 which entitles you to unlimited flight privileges for 3 weeks. Keep in mind that India is huge in terms of distances so if time is limited and $ not, this is recommendable.
Air reservations: The Indian Air Pass is a good investment provided you can get reservations on the flights you want. The most reliable way to do this is to be completely flexible about your itinerary and get to the Indian Airlines office nearest you upon arrival. If you make reservations in the US before departure, IA may have no records in India. Flying standby is NOT recommended: it creates such pandemonium that someone not versed in the ways of handling it is unlikely to be successful.
Indian trains are great, and are good value, You can take trains everywhere, going overnight to save on hotel fare. Even travelling first class most of the time is still cheaper than staying in most guest houses and is much more comfortable (and private) than second or third.
Trains in India are very cheap in any case, so you may not want to bother with any kind of pass.
Rail passes may have benefits, though....the 2 month pass is around $300 or so, and while you may not gain much price wise, you are likely to get priority reservations. Most trains in India run at maximum capacity (the supply-demand at work), and getting a reservation is one of the major hassles of domestic travel. It may be that people carrying an INDRAIL pass (which is the equivalent of the EURAIL) get some sort of priority in that each train may have 1 or 2 seats kept aside as a quota to be first given to INDRAIL holders.
There is some debate on whether or not you must buy your INDRAIL pass outside India - some contributors say that they are available at major stations in India, on production of your passport. If you know you want a rail pass, it may be prudent to buy it before you go to India.
The Indrail Pass gives unlimited rail travel within India in the specified time period. It is available to non-Indian citizens as well as Indians residing outside India. It can be purchased through the General Sales Agents (details below), though any competent travel agent should be able to fix you up. It can also be bought from major stations in India. Main plus points include eliminating the need to buy tickets for every trip, though reservations are necessary. There are special reservation quotas on some trains for Indrail holders. It is available in 3 categories: AC, First Class, Second Class. It is not advisable to take the AC pass since not many trains have AC First Class. The First Class pass also covers AC Sleeper and AC Chair Car. GSA details: Hariworld Travel, New York. 212-957-3000 Also in Toronto, 416-366-2000
Fares: AC First Second
1 day 65 29 12 (all in USD)
15 270 135 65
30 410 205 90
90 800 400 175
(Also available for 7,21,60 days. Kids below 12 pay half)
There are also odd rules like a foreigner can buy a pass for his/her spouse. Another plus point is that you can make reservations up to 360 days in advance, i.e. even through your travel agent in the US, though you would have to have the pass in hand before making reservations.
Much useful information about the Pass regulations (in fact, about the Indian Railways as a whole) can be found in 'India by Rail', by Roylston Ellis, published by Bradt Publishers. Some information is also available in 'Eurail Guide' and 'Thomas Cook's Overseas Timetable'
The problem with Indian railways is that it is nearly impossible to get reservations at short notice.Most of the major trains have a quota for tourists (you have to show a foreign passport), but you may have problems using this quota at stations in small cities (e.g. Varanasi). These quotas generate revenue for ticket clerks and on-train ticket inspectors! Be prepared to fight, bribe, and bully your way onto trains!
One thing to remember is: make reservations for all your journeys. They are not easy to do, take time, and availability is always limited. If you miss your flight or train you probably will not get any refund. Public services in India are poor, don't expect restrooms around the corner. Try to make all your reservations in advance.It is now possible to reserve seats on trains between the major cities from any of these major cities and it would be a good idea to make sure that you can get back to your starting point before you start your railway odyssey. For example, if you start from New Delhi, and want to visit places near Delhi, Madras, and Bombay, make sure that you have reservations from Delhi to Madras, Madras to Bombay, and Bombay to Delhi. The rest should work itself out.
If you do use the InRail Pass, the first thing to do is buy the Indian Rail system timetable. It's usually sold at book stalls inside train stations. Make sure you pick up the English one. The information booth at train stations can be TOTALLY useless; you may be given either the wrong or incomplete info. With the schedule in hand, you can plan your trip much better.
If you are really short on money travel second class by train. It's hard, dirty, and exhilarating, if you go for that type of thing. About a year ago a reserved ticket (2nd class) from Bombay to Calcutta, a distance of 1250 miles, was 210 Indian rupees (about $7). First class is about 5 times that much, and for the same price you can get an airconditioned ticket in the so called A.C. Sleeper coach. AC First class fares are about the same as air fares. Air fares in India are cheap, and fixed. Air fare for the above journey would be about $100 or so Upper class reservations are hard to get at short notice, even 2nd class seats are not always available. DON'T TRAVEL WITHOUT RESERVATIONS.
Places to visit
Madras: Fort St George, the Kapeleeshwara Temple and Madras's beach front. Also a day tour run by either the Tamil Nadu or Indian govt to Kanchipuram (beautiful silk and temples), Tirukkalikundram and Mahabalipuram - wonderful temples and other things like the five rathas
Madurai: Another temple town; the Sri Meenakshi temple is wonderful.
Tamil Nadu: The day train from Madurai to Quilon - the scenery as you cross from the plains of Tamil Nadu to Kerala is truly magnificent.
Kovalam: Beach, peace and quiet and the wonderful fresh fish
Cochin/Ernakulam: Bogharty Island, Chinese fishing nets, temples. Boat trip from Aleppey to Kottayam - about two hours of STUNNING scenery, and an easy day trip from Ernakulam (a bus Ernakulam to Alleppey, the boat, then a train back from Kottayam to Ernakulam - all in eight unrushed hours)
Bangalore: Daytrip from Bangalore, to Belur, Halebid and Sravanabelagola for some wonderful temples, which are very different to the Tamil Nadu temples. Excellent climate and a beautiful city.
Goa: A place to experience the Portuguese influence - Panaji is a wonderful city, and Old Goa is terrific. Great food.The beaches there are quite spectacular. Panaji is the capital of Goa about 20 miles from the Goa Airport. By all means rent a scooter (about 120 rupees or $4 per day) to see the country side and see the beaches. There are plenty of rental places in Panaji. Be sure to carry an international driver's license or you may be hassled by the local policeman for not having one.
Each night, there is a cruise along the river in Panaji with some local entertainment on board. The cruise lasts 2 hours and is popular with European tourists. Old Goa has some interesting Portuguese churches. Also worth seeing is a flea market about 15 km. north of town at Anjuna. Taj Village is quite an upscale hotel with a inviting swimming pool, cabanas, resort atmosphere etc. But it is not cheap at probably more than $100 per night as compared to $10-$20 at other motels.
Other impressions of Goa. Good place to buy cashews and a cashew liquor (feni). Goa is also the cleanest and least crowded out of all the Indian states in the area
Bombay: A the hotbed of commerce. If you want to see the vibrant economy of a new India, this is the place. The stock market may be of interest. Do the city tour, go to Elephanta Island, and look at some of the architecture - London in a tropical climate.
South of Bombay are a collection of some great and undiscovered beaches (south of Alibag actually). From Bombay, you can access the Sahyadris, a small but interesting range of mountains with a lot of history in them. You can hike in them but the information needed may not be readily accessible to western visitors.
Rajasthan: It is a great place! Travel by bus - if you can, take the 'deluxe bus'. They usually have one service a day. It will cost more than the regular bus service, but is very comfortable. Several years ago a journey from Jodhpur to Ajmer (about 200 miles) cost 40 rupees (at that time $4). Visit Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur for sure.
There is prolonged drought in Rajasthan, and the local people may feel a measure of desperation and some anger against the wealthy tourists (i.e., you). This shouldn't discourage people who want to travel there, but remember that there may be slight problems.
Jaipur: The 'pink city', so named because of the salmon colour of many of its buildings. This is a great place for shopping, eating out, and visiting the wildest movie theater in the world. You can hire a driver to take you around Jaipur for a day; such drivers will, no doubt, take you to endless jewelry and carpet outlets - however, it can be interesting to visit the jewelry factories in town, as well as the carpet factories. Another great thing to see is Rambagh Palace, now a fancy hotel; very Hollywoodesque in some of the incredible rooms; one of the local room cleaners took us around when we asked him to and we saw all the empty luxury rooms.
There is an impressive jewelry market here - worth buying semi-precious jewels - amber, turquoise, etc. About 45 rupees for one strand of semi-precious stones. Also worth seeing is Amber Palace about 20 km. outside Jaipur. This is a fort set on the Hill built in the 1500s by one of the Moghul rulers. Monkeys roam the palace as well as elephants (10 rupees for a ride around the courtyard). Views are quite spectacular from the top.
Udaipur: Moghul buildings, lake, palaces, museum; what most people think of as 'typical India'. It is a city built between two lakes, actually resembling Mediterranean type cities with windy, narrow streets and lots of small shops. The two lakes by Udaipur have two small islands which are quite picturesque. A ferry will take you to these islands.
There are lots of palaces worth-seeing ... especially the Lake Palace, a palace located right in the middle of the lake. Do not forget 'Palace on Wheels', a exclusive royal train ride in this desert region.
Jaisalmeer: It's become quite touristy but this golden coloured city rises out of the desert sand like something out of the Arabian nights. Jaisalmer is a very quiet town with a spectacular fort in the great Indian Desert. It's a medieval town, very warm and dusty but very nice. The sun set is particularly spectacular. Be sure to take a camel trek out into the desert as well. Spend at least one night in the desert just to get the feel of it. It's at the end of an 8 hour train ride from Jodhpur -- Go out during the day (to see the desert from the train) and returning at night (the return trip is the same as the way out).
It is incredible to wake up in the morning and be surrounded by sand and deep blue sky. Jaisalmer is a small town gradually becoming overrun with tourists, but it's worth it. There's one expensive hotel in town, a palace, where Princess Anne stayed. The price is reasonable, and there is often music and dancing for entertainment. Hotel Swastika is a decent place for just a couple of dollars a night.
Just wander in Jaisalmer, particularly around the Old Fort. You can walk the entire town easily. If you happen to be there during the desert festival (February/March), that's fun. Many people recommend taking camel treks; if you decide to do this, you may want to take a short one before plunging into a longer (1 week or more) one. It takes getting used to, and some people found themselves in a lot of pain after a week on a camel. Your local hotel can fix you up on one, or ask your fellow travelers which one they recommend.
Jodhpur: At Jodhpur station, there is a foreigner's rest room, which is literally a room for resting. It's a good place to stash your backpack (lock it first) and head out from to see Jodhpur. The Jodhpur 'rest room' is also a great place to pick up travel tips from other travelers.
Go and see the Blue City, a section of town painted entirely blue. Apparently those of the brahmin caste can paint their houses blue (feel free to correct me here), and a bunch of them in this area did.
Calcutta: Definitely, the most crowded of all major Indian cities. Visit the Victoria Memorial if you are interested in historic places. the Calcutta Zoo is the largest in animal population but too crowded for comfort. Try the hand pulled rickshaws for a novelty. Busy shopping centers in the cowrungee area. Lots of theatres and artsy places. Good seafood. WATCH YOUR POCKETS. Crazy soccer fans in the city so if you like the game try to see a match. Try a magic show by SIRCAR [if he is still performing]. If you are there at the FESTIVAL SEASON the city will be at its best. They have all night festivities dancing etc at that time. Visit the goddess KALI temple.
Plenty of culture to see - Jain Temple, Victoria Memorial are worth seeing. For souveniers, the New Market is filled with souvenir shops, tailors, etc. Beware of the folks who stand outside with trays ready to carry your purchases. There is an Indian Museum of Natural History that is worthwhile. Calcutta is famous for plenty of cultural activities - Bengali dance troupes, etc. There's also a new underground which is surprising clean and inexpensive at about 2 rupees = $US.06.
Calcutta is the kind of city where it depends on what type of person you are and what you like to see. On the plus side, it is a bustling city teeming with life, something you wouldn't even come close to seeing in a place like Detroit, for example. It is definitely the intellectual capital of India, as people here seem to be more concerned with worldly matters and education. There are many beautiful places to see, from the pretty plazas in the city to the spectacular beaches within a few hours from it. Also, it has a very relaxing pace of life, similar to the rest of India.
And now the disadvantages, which are many and serious. First off, the crowd. Calcutta is probably the most crowded place in the world. Not that New York City is any less crowded, but in Calcutta the streets are too narrow and many of its residents live on the streets. Slums dominate Calcutta much more than they do the rest As a result of ugly, shanty-filled streets and total of organization, many tourists refer to Calcutta as the ugliest, most polluted city they've ever seen, and certainly with justification. What else could be so bad? The climate. Because it is located in swampland and near the ocean, Calcutta is a very hot, humid city. If you dare to venture into the city during summer, bring plenty of fluids with you, for the humidity and heat together can be searing. Only in winter, the climate can be pleasant. But in the summer, expect high heat and humidity, along with the 60-plus thunderstorms the city receives on average.
So if you would like a completely different perspective on life, visit Calcutta. People from the Western world will see a life that they couldn't believe existed. Again, with starving overwhelming the city streets, this may be too depressing a sight for you. Don't visit the city in the summer and NEVER drive in it! Unfortunately, Calcutta brings some of the best but most of the worst aspects of India. However, it is this incredible city that can alter the way a person sees life.
Benares: Fantastic, wonder place - maybe the best place in India. What else can be said!!! Benares is crowded - both with people and as a city, pressed up against one bank of the Ganges. Go down to the gats, visit the burning places, go out onto the river (I've even been swimming there - ed), and just enjoy this city that has so much zest for life amongst so much death.
Puskhar: One of the holy cities. There are a lot of weird people there, the town is very crowded.
Ganges River: Possibly most interesting upstream of Haridwar. Beyond that she loses very little height till the ocean. At the very start, when she is Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, she is terribly beautiful.
Garwhal: One of the India's greatest wildlife parks is there -- Corbett National park.
Himachal Pradesh: A good state from which to access the Himalayas.
Kashmir: May not be a good place to visit given the religious disturbances. Just check if you can fly into Ladakh. It is a peaceful group of Buddhists and some of the craziest terrain in the world (all > 18k feet). Staying on Dal Lake is an unforgettable experience, but the area has been intermittently closed to tourism in the recent past
If flying into Leh remember that you will need some time to become accustomed to the altitude. The advantage to taking the bus is that it gives you time to become accustomed to the altitude gradually. Both the bus ride (a long dusty trip with a `memorable' overnight stop) and the plane trip are spectacular.
New Delhi: A British-built town. You can smell the Mughal empire in Old Delhi if you have read enough history. Delhi is the capital of India. Some historic sites to see like the Qutub Minar, Red Fort etc. Cosmopolitan City, Good shopping in Connaught Place and Connaught Circle from the street vendors. Go to the jantar mantar [maze]. Modern amenities, good restaurants. Eat in the street side.
Agra: Home of the TAJ MAHAL of course - '_The_ most impressive thing I saw on the trip. (And I saw a lot of impressive things)'. Fantastic and easily worth 2 full days minimum. Stay near the Taj gates and go at opening and just before closing, when the crowds are thinnest. In town, the Red Fort is fantastic, with a great State owned apple juice stand, and there are other temples that a pedicab can take you. Do not try to find your own way around Agra; it is utterly hopeless and pedicab drivers will hound you. Arrange for a cab driver, making it clear what your route will be, and whether or not you wish him to take you to any places for shopping.
Be sure to go to Fatehpur Sikri. Car and driver hire from tourist office was $30 (1986) with up to 4; the available public transit is worse than usual, with rickety (even by Indian standards) equipment and inconvenient schedules. There are other places on the outskirts of town that the driver will take you as part of a trip to Fateh.
Hill Stations: Musoree, Nainitaal, Ooty - all worth a visit.
Things to do
You should try and witness some festival celebrations, and these vary from region to region, with most emphasis usually on one particular festival. The festivals are dependent on the calendar and full of colour(normally), and so your itinerary will probably decide which ones you could witness.
If time permits take a hike or nature walk, to the interiors of India, passing remote villages, and their really hospitable people. Its not what the 'typical' tourist' would do, of course, but it may leave you feeling something you haven't ever before.
Trek in the mountains - for example, Sikkim and Darjeeling. Sikkim is very different from tea-house trekking in Nepal; you are obliged by the government to go through a registered trekking agency, and must have a guide and a police liaison officer, and a minimum of 4 trekkers. There are no villages with supplies on the route up to and beyond Dzongri, so all food, bedding, cooking implements, etc must be carried up with you. This makes it a lot easier to just register with a trekking company and let them bother about the logistics. The companies all have a set daily fee of $US35 per person, and treks are usually 9 or 12 day duration. After having trekked on a do-it-yourself basis in Nepal, this seemed a bit extreme (for 4 trekkers there were 13 men and 4 yaks to get up the mountain!). There are trekker's huts at each overnight stop, but you need your own cold-weather clothes and sleeping bags. Trekking out of Darjeeling is more like Nepal. It is through more settled countryside, with villages or trekking huts at fairly frequent intervals. Go without a guide, carrying your own pack. On the 6-day trek up to Sandakphu and Phalut it isn't even necessary to carry a sleeping bag, since all hotels or huts have blankets. All places to stay have food available. Not a lot of variety, but for such a short trek you can live on dal bhat without many problems.
Trek in Uttar Pradesh. You can start from the road just before Badrinath. Five hours or so to the guest house near a sacred gudwhara (Sikh temple). From there, two beautiful day hikes can be made: one to the Valley of the Flowers National Park, the other is to Hemkund Lake at 15500 ft. A holy place for both Sikhs and Hindus.
Try local sodas like THUMS UP, LIMCA, GOLD SPOT. Beer is stronger like German (tastes like water to Aussies - ed). Try to catch the ethnic sites which could be more fun then regular tourist spots.
Go to the cinema - you don't have to understand Hindi. The greatest entertainment is your fellow cinema goers. As one traveller relates... 'At this point we were six - two guys and four women - so we went to the 'Ladies Queue'. The funny thing was, all the locals were asking us to buy their tickets. Optimists... Then along came the police, waving their lathis (BIG batons). We were ready to hit the deck, but they went around us, belting the locals! (Mind you, it was getting close to a riot..) Once this was done, the police bashed on the ticket window, organised our tickets for us, and escorted us upstairs, before everyone else ! THEN, before they opened the doors, we were again escorted in to our seats. Good thing too, because when they opened the doors... A great night's entertainment.' In Jaipur, visit the wildest movie theater in the world. It looks like nothing from the outside, but the inside is like something from Hollywood in the 40s. Incredible. 'We enjoyed the film, too, one of the ubiquitous Indian musicals. You didn't have to understand Hindi to follow the plot, such as it was. My favorite scene had the hero and heroine dressed up like spiderwoman and superman, flying over Bombay. Wonderful.'
Things to buy
Bargaining over _everything_, including the taxis, and sometimes even the hotels.
India is packed with things to suit all tastes. There are many handicrafts and goods, but, as with all such items, don't rush in and buy the first thing you see at the going price. Get some feel for what is available and what the real price should be first.
Jaipur is a great place to buy gems and semi-precious stones. You can choose the stones, draw a picture of the setting, and have your personalized jewelry made up for you overnight. Benares has wonderful silk and brocade. Saris can be great presents for relatives and friends that sew - there are any different grades of silk, and a sari can be turned into shirts, blouses, dresses...
Carpets and furniture can be bought and shipped home, but be careful that you deal through a reputable firm if you pre-pay. Maybe one time in ten the goods don't arrive, so be warned!
Women travelling alone
A word to women traveling in India, particularly without men: it can be quite a hassle, although southern India is less of a problem than the north. At any rate, the best thing is to always cover your upper arms (not go sleeveless) and to cover your calves (not wear skirts). You will be hassled the least when you wear the Pakistani-style tunic with pants outfit. Hassles often consisted of being grabbed and having elbows, hands, etc. 'accidentally' brush against your private areas. This isn't just due to crowded streets. Men may follow you back to your hotel and try to get into your room; keep it locked, even when you are there. On the whole, don't let this discourage women from traveling alone or without men to India; it won't ruin your trip.
The best suggestion to avoid this problem is to do as Indian women do in India. The problem is India has different value system than Western world. It is not an accepted practice in India to show skin above knees, a large portion of your back (from shoulders to hips), the area between neck and breasts in addition to womens private parts. Also wearing clothes which are slightly translucent (which show bra or outline of panties) is a no-no. Clothes which fall under this category are shorts, a thin t-shirt, mini skirts, skirts which fall below knees, and going around bra-less. Also all actions by women which expose the above mentioned skin should be avoided - e.g. Sitting in manner which exposes knees and calves, moving arms around which exposes area just below armpits (junction of back and side of breasts) even while wearing a bra, leaning over and giving a view down neck etc and kissing in public. As you can see clothing, actions etc should be done keeping the above in mind. Perfectly innocuous actions and normal clothing becomes translated into come-ons, 'loose women' etc.
To quote an Indian national: 'Yes, travelling in India by a single woman is UNUSUAL. I should say that that you should NOT attempt to do so without sufficient precautions. My wife has had pretty tough experiences travelling in India being an educated and enlightened Indian herself. People look 'funnily' at single 'foreign' female.....even though we have millions of tourists from all over the world, people in India still haven't got over it, I suppose. You just CAN'T AVOID it....To avoid men brushing against you, harassing you........DON'T SMILE at people; this encourages them!'
For women going to India, it helps a lot to dress conservatively: covering legs, loose clothes, etc. Remember also that in places there are separate queues for men and women, and take advantage of that. Local buses in some cities, such as Hyderabad, have women getting in and remaining in the front of the bus, while men use the back. Trains usually have women-only carriages, and you may want to ask for them. This will certainly help reduce the number of unpleasant experiences. One basic rule is to be very considerate to an Indian custom: women (and even men) keep their bodies covered. Don't wear shorts, or sleeveless shirts. Jeans are OK (though a bit risque in some parts. especially the eastern states - like Bihar). Your best bet might be to wear a Salwar-Kurta, an Indian dress that some American women tell me is very comfortable, and _very_ Indian.
You will meet all sorts of men, some very courteous and helpful, and some downright nasty. Being a single woman is not normal in India, don't be surprised to be asked why you are alone. A family is a very important thing in India, especially for a woman. If you don't have one to show, you may be treated as a failed human being, or simply a wierdo. You may find men who will try to feel you (especially if you are 'scantily' clad), so always be very fiesty if you suspect someone did that. Complain loudly, and clearly. Generally, _most_ Indians treat a woman traveling alone with respect, and will be helpful. Some are downright nasty. But I suspect that this changes a little to the worse for a 'white' woman traveling alone. Not much worse, but noticeably so. It is well known that 'western' culture is sexually more permissive, and this is misinterpreted by Indian males far too often.
Delhi is very bad for women - in general eastern India (Bihar and UP) is bad for single women of any race. Southern India is better for the most part. Some large cities are surprisingly safe (even for a lone woman late in the evening, though you don't have to test this!), like Bombay and Calcutta.
Please remember that Indian men are not all nuts. Most are actually very decent people, who will treat you with the respect you deserve. However be prepared for a few bad eggs. Your being a foreigner will bring them out faster than anything else. On the whole, I think you will have a great time. In Indian culture women are regarded with great respect, but there are many, many, many rules, and too often some frustrated man will decide to dump it all anyway. So be prepared.
In situations in which you anticipate unwanted attention, cover your hair with a scarf or light shawl. This is a sign of modesty used by many Indian women; in fact, very traditional Indian women will sometimes cover their faces as well when in the presence of male strangers. The clueless sort of man who believes the usual myths about western women may be tuned in to this bit of Indian body language and leave you alone. This practice may help the single female traveller get on better with the local women as well.
Grateful thanks for views and suggestions from the following netters:
Lauren L. Crawford
Stephen J. Mezias
Stanley A Orrell
M G SriRam
Maren E. van
James J. White
Anonymous or unknown contributors