Jack Van Cooten tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about his month-long adventure travelling around India.
My adventure began in the north-western desert state of Rajasthan, in the culture-rich city of Jaipur. Inhabited by around four million people, Jaipur was once the capital of the Amber Empire. Nowadays it’s a bustling city, dotted with quaint temples and palaces, such as Hawa Mahal and surrounded by imposing forts.
Bazaars and emporiums line the streets of the city centre – also known as ‘The Pink City’ due to the colour of its buildings. Here is a great place to pick up some traditional Indian clothes or souvenirs. Like many large Indian cities, inner Jaipur is an explosion of vibrancy and noise; an overload on all five senses. Cows and camels distract you as they wistfully roam the streets whilst you attempt to dodge the speeding rickshaws.
Pushkar and Udaipur
From there, we moved further into the desert to the picturesque religious towns of Pushkar and Udaipur. At the centre of both of these towns lie large, sacred lakes. In Pushkar my friends and I were given a Hindu blessing by the lake, in a ceremony involving meditation and throwing flower petals into the lake.
These are great towns to chill out and grab a lassi (a yoghurty fruit drink) on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lakes. A sunset adds an extra bit of magic to this beautiful scene.
It was in Udaipur where we spent a day riding on horseback through the magnificent Rajasthani countryside, through numerous farms, to a lotus filled lake. It was a great experience and definitely worth the numb bum we had afterwards.
We also took a boat ride to the floating palace in the middle of the lake. Although tourists aren’t allowed to step inside this sacred building, it offers an intriguing insight into the history of Indian royalty and their love of all things splendid.
Next stop was Agra, via the famous sleeper trains. Hundreds of people cram into these compact carriages onto the surprisingly comfy beds for overnight journeys. Sleeper trains are the only way to do long journeys in India, and they’re cheap too! Don’t bother shelling out extra cash for the AC carriages; standard sleeper class is adequate enough for the cash-strapped backpacker.
Agra is home to the world famous Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Contrary to popular belief, the Taj Mahal isn’t a temple, but a giant memorial built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 22,000 workers to complete this impressive structure and it makes for a brilliant Facebook profile picture.
Spending too much time in the energetic Indian cities, as exciting as they are, can be exhausting. After two weeks of pollution and noise, enough was enough. It was time to head to the Himalayas. After a brief transit in Delhi, we took a short flight to the spectacular mountain town of Leh – Ladakh.
Situated in the Indus Valley in the supposedly volatile region of Kashmir, the former trading town is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and panoramic views in every direction. It was breathtaking… literally. Situated at an altitude of 3,500m, many travellers here suffer from the effects of altitude sickness. The air is so thin, that at first, even short walks feel like marathons, and when we played football against some local kids it felt like my lungs were going to explode.
Aside from that, any trip to Leh is guaranteed to be packed with adventure. We went white water rafting through a spectacular Himalayan valley. It was so beautiful, that even falling out of the raft into the freezing glacier melt water couldn’t take the shine off a brilliant day.
The highlight of the trip, and perhaps my life so far was the downhill bike ride. A jeep carries you and your bike from 3,500m to 5,500m, along the highest paved road in the world and leaves you at the summit. It’s a three hour descent in which pedalling is optional. It takes every fibre of your being to peel your eyes away from the stunning scenery and concentrate on the precarious road.
After a nervy start, the adrenaline kicked in and soon enough I was racing down the mountain at speeds that would make my mum quiver with fear. The town of Leh itself is a rustic hotchpotch of buildings and monasteries, some of which are centuries old. You could spend hours getting lost in the old town, or people watching from a rooftop cafe.
From Leh, we took an 18 hour overnight jeep to the northern city of Srinigar. I somehow managed to sleep despite the turbulence and woke up to the most beautiful scene. We rounded a mountain bend and were greeted by a stunning view of the Sindh Valley and the river that flows through it. Due to its proximity to Pakistan, there is a heavy military presence in Srinigar, and although this can be slightly intimidating, you shouldn’t let that put you off.
“The highlight of the trip, and perhaps my life so far, was the downhill Himalayan bike ride – It takes every fibre of your being to peel your eyes away from the stunning scenery and concentrate on the precarious road.”
One of the excursions we did from Srinigar was a day trip to the tiny town of Sonamarg, back in the Sindh Valley. From here you can do a 6km trek to a glacier through some of the most amazing landscape I have ever seen. You can hire ponies if you want, but we decided not to so that we could have our own adventure.
The journey back was an experience. It was monsoon season which meant heavy and sporadic rainfall. In the mountains this regularly causes landslides, which is exactly what happened to us as we tried to return to Srinigar. We had to get a flight the next day to return to Delhi and then home. We couldn’t miss it, and desperate times called for desperate measures. My friend and I had to wade through this landslide, stepping over logs and other debris to get to the other side of the road and take the local bus back to Srinigar.
My advice for travelling to India is: be prepared for the poverty, realise that nothing is ever on time and be aware of rogue cows! If you handle the crowds and the noise then you will have a great time. Travelling in India is a challenge – an immensely rewarding challenge; but one that I couldn’t recommend highly enough.