Incredible India. It’s the phrase being thrown around by the Indian government to promote tourism. Having never been to India before we were keen to use time before and during our volunteering to see if this was an appropriate term to use.
We were lucky to arrive in India several weeks before we were due to start our Plan My Gap Year (PMGY) volunteering project. This time allowed us to see several areas of the country from the Himalayan foothills to the sandy beaches of Goa. We were also able to tour the famous Golden Triangle. Having seen most of the key destinations prior to arriving at our project, we spent our weekends travelling further-a-field using Faridabad as a base. Faridabad’s close proximity to the Delhi hub of the Indian rail network made it easier to get to a range of destinations. Choosing to travel overnight in sleeper class allowed us to combine accommodation and transport costs at very low prices so that we could wake up in new places each weekend. Here’s an overview of places visited in India outside Delhi (which is covered in a separate post):
- Mussoorie – Mussoorie is one of the many old British hill stations that can be found dotted over the foothills of the Himalayas. Used by the British to help troops suffering from tropical diseases to recover, you can see why they fell in love with the landscape. Rolling green hills soar into the clouds and on a clear day the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas are even visible. Visiting here in order to support a UK charity (VPO) we were fortunate to visit and even stay in some of the villages that take you further onto the beautiful sides of this deep valley. Although there aren’t a list of tourist attractions to tick off, a visit to a former hill station will give you a view of India you’ll never forget. Add to this a little hiking to see (& swim in) cascading waterfalls, breath in some fresh mountain air or reach the many peaks and it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget. On your return back to Delhi you will most likely travel via Dehradun which is a decent place to wile away a half day walking past the old clock tower and haggling in the markets or sampling some North Indian cuisine.
- Goa – A short flight (or 2 day train journey) from Delhi and you could be sitting on a deserted, sandy beach in southern Goa. If booked early enough, the cost of the flight won’t even set you back too much even on a strict budget. We opted for a resort in the much quieter southern part of Goa just before the high season began. This gave us beautiful weather, sandy beaches as far as the eye could see and warm sea water. The best thing – no one to have to share it with. Having the resort restaurant and pool to ourselves made us feel like royalty as we watched a Goan sunset, sampled fresh fish from the day’s catch or relaxed around the pool without having to fight for a sun lounger. Although we opted not to, it’s a straightforward process if you want to head to northern Goa to see the Portuguese colonisation that took place in the 16th Century. There are also natural wonders to explore including drives out to waterfalls and boat trips to islands.
- Mumbai – It’s loud, it’s busy and the poverty gap is ever more striking here. This is a big city known for Bollywood cinema (who hasn’t seen Slumdog Millionaire?), the Mumbai attack of 2008 and its strong association with British imperial days. However, there’s even more than that to see and take in with history and modern Indian culture juxtaposed at every corner. Be prepared to be hassled, to haggle and except at some point you’ll get ripped off. But don’t let that stop you from going out and exploring the Gateway of India opposite the Taj Mahal Palac Hotel in Colaba; the Christian churches and delicious food in Fort or the Haji Ali Dargah Mosque and Mahalaxmi Temple. Like museums? – there are plenty to choose from; want to see the world’s largest washing machine? – then head to Dobi Ghat; and when you’ve had enough, then take a boat trip out to Elephanta island.
- Jaipur – Capital of India’s largest state (based on land size), part of the famous Golden Triangle and one of the best places to get at the heart of Rajasthani food and culture. For many volunteers this will be one of the first places they visit as they spend that first weekend doing the Golden Triangle tour. The Pink City (that’s not even that pink – more an orange!) will leave you spoilt for choice on what to see and do, making you wish you had more time. Highlights include: a visit just out of the city to Amber to see the fort; a selfie outside Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace); a visit to Jantar Mantar – one of India’s oldest observatories and location of the world’s largest sundial; or an evening spent at the bizarre heritage village of Chokhi Dhani. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on a traditional Rajasthani meal (we had our best one at Chokhi Dhani) and leave some time for shopping as the handmade items here are strikingly beautiful.
- Ranthambore National Park – Want to try and glimpse a tiger in the wild? Then this is your best chance of doing so. Ranthambore National Park is 1334 sq km of nature reserve with hundreds of species of birds and wildlife to view. Additionally, there are a number of historic hunting lodges, mosques and forts scattered across the park with the ruined Ranthambore Fort at its centre. We were fortunate to fit in both a late afternoon and morning game drive and were even luckier when we did in fact spot the elusive tiger. However, even for those who don’t, a jeep ride through the jungle, circling the fort or heading out to the grasslands provides breathtaking views and plenty of other wildlife spotting opportunities.
- Agra – No trip to the north of India is going to be complete without a visit to Agra more famously known as the location of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is the quintessential monument of India – viewed by millions each year and, even though we’ve seen the picture numerous times, it still did not prepare us for a real-life view. However, there is more to Agra than just the Taj. Agra Fort is another must-see sight, as is Fatehpur Sikri and all three should be visited to gain a true appreciation of the history of this state. The rest of Agra isn’t quite as picturesque so get in, go exploring and then get out.
Some additional images:
Even in eight weeks of travelling every weekend, we barely scratched the surface of this diverse, historic and beautiful country. We highly recommend independent travel before, during or after a volunteering project. India is easy to navigate using the extensive and affordable rail network. It is equally a relatively safe place as long as you take necessary precautions not to make yourself a target (as you would do back home) and follow local advice. However, no matter how long you have, you will still find there is so much you didn’t get to see. We hope to return to explore the south on a future trip so if you have any recommendations or questions about where we did go, then please get in touch.