India. How to do a DIY travel in a very large country.

India has it all: Splendid architecture, deserts and towering peaks of the Himalaya, holy men, sacred cows, wild tigers and elephants, women in colorful saris, food for every taste, tea plantations, yoga retreats, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and many other religions; Holi Festival and Pushkar Camel Fair; the country of the mighty Ganges, the holy city of Varanasi, Rajashtan with it’s endless forts, the mighty Taj Mahal and the otherworldly Hampi. India is one of the biggest, the most populated and the most diverse countries in the world. Whatever you are looking for, chances are India has it.

Street scene, Varanasi.

You’ve probably thought of traveling to India. Traveling with organized group might be an easy option, but DIY travel offers more flexibility, and often saves a lot of money. But…. where to start preparations and planing? How to decide what to see? And what about practicalities? Is it difficult to travel on your own?

The first to thing to decide when planing any travel is when you travel. There are two ways of looking at this: First way is if you want to see a particular place then it is best to choose the optimal time of the year to visit it. Second way is if you are off at a particular time of the year and you try to find the optimal destination. For my travel to India, I had time off in January, this is the best time to visit most of the subcontinent. I had 3 weeks to use and this is plenty of time, if the trip is carefully organized.

Green Gate in Pitam Niwas Chowk, Jaipur.

Next thing, and this is the most time consuming part, is to decide what you want to see!!!. I love mountains, nature, history, food and local culture. Unfortunately January is not the best time to walk in the Indian Himalaya, so I had to give it a miss. There are a few National Parks with a population of wild elephants and tigers. Food and local culture were everywhere, so this part was easy. For history and old buildings, here the choice was huge. I bought a guide book and started reading. First I read the general description of every part of India. Some resonated with me more than others, so I started reading in depth about every part I liked. Once I had an idea about my itinerary I booked my flights. I was arriving in Kolkata and leaving from Delhi, with 3 weeks time in between. I used the back of a huge wall planner as my ‘map’ of the trip. I put on it names of places I wanted to visit and then I checked how easily I could move between them. If any of the places was too difficult to travel to, I looked for an alternative. After a few weeks of research I narrowed my sightseeing schedule down to Varanasi, Hampi, Rajasthan and Agra. I decided as well where I could fly, and where I could take a train.

This part of preparing for a trip is the most time consuming, but in my opinion it is the most important one. This is the time when we shape our further travel. Careful, thorough planing is a key to use the holiday time well and to see and experience a lot.

Agra Fort, Agra.

Printed guidebook and online resources are very useful for doing the practical part of planning. Accommodation, guides, tours etc, most of them have a presence online. On my travels I like to hire local guides. Good local guides are not only a mine of information, but your money will go directly to the local community. They can take you into true off the beaten path showing you their country in a very local way.

At the local weeding, Shekhawati.

After 2 months planing, my travel itinerary was ready. Before I left for India I had a few fixed points of travel and a few flexible ones, but all were thoroughly researched.

My first port of call was Kolkata. I arrived there just in time to do a morning photography tour. I spent rest of the day walking around, slowly taking everything in. The following day I flew to Varanasi, where I spent two days sightseeing, sampling local food and taking loads of photos. My next port of call was Mysuru, with a lovely relaxed atmosphere. I went to nearby Bandipur National Park to see wild elephants. I spent the rest of my time there shopping and eating local food. I took an overnight train to Hampi. I spent two days visiting nearly every ruin there, watching sun sets and sun rises, cycling between the sights. My next destination was Rajashtan. I started in Jaipur, where I hired driver. I did a lot sightseeing in both Jaipur and Shekhawati. I learned how to cook Indian specialties with a local family, went to a village wedding and rode a camel. One of the highlights was a visit to Ranthambhore National Park were I saw a wild tigress. My next stop was Agra with the famous Taj Mahal and then I traveled to Delhi, where I finished my holidays. In my opinion it was a good mix of sightseeing, relaxing, meeting locals and enjoying my time.

Agra Fort, Agra.

Activities, places and people I recommend:

Calcutta Photo Tours http://www.calcuttaphototours.com for more click here.

Brown Bread Bakery Guesthouse, Varanasi http://www.brownbreadbakery.com

Hotel Maurya, Mysuru, booked on bookings.com

U. Hanuman Reddy, Hampi, cycling tours, uhanuman_2003@yahoo.co.in

Vicky’s Guesthouse, Hampi, booked on bookings.com

Mango Tree eatery, Hampi

Karni Nivas Guesthouse Jaipur http://www.hotelkarniniwas.com

Salim Khan, Rajashtan, custom tours, indiatriponwheels@gmail.com

Practicalities:

Flights: Flights to and from India were booked with http://www.trailfinders.ie. Local flights I booked online while in India. Local air companies are reliable and very good value. Flights connect most of the big cities. The airports are easy to navigate, checking in and boarding are quick and very efficient. There are police/military checkpoints at the airport entrances. To walk into the airport building you must have air ticket and your passport.

Visa: I applied for an e-visa, which is easy and quick to obtain.

Local Travel: Train travel is a very Indian experience. I booked all my tickets through my hotels. Even if there are no tickets online, you still can get one. The clue is to talk to the ‘right person’. A good idea is to take a sleeper train to travel between far away destinations. Clean bedclothes are provided, and at the stations food traders enter the train.

Cooking with local family, Shekhavati.

There are two types of buses. Government ones, which are very old and very, very cheap and more expensive, but comfortable private ones. The later ones can be booked online.

Taxis, rickshaws etc. Plentiful and cheap. Warning: tourists are seen as prime prize for the drivers, and fares can be sky high. Agree for the fare before hand and always have a lot of smaller notes, as taxi drivers are notorious for not having any change. The best option is taking a registered taxi. In some airports it is possible to pay for taxi in a booth. If you travel on your own, insist there is only you and the driver in the cab. If there is boss/cousin/friend inside, take your luggage and look for a different taxi. In general taking this form of transport requires good haggling skills.

Street scene, Krishnaraja Circle, Mysuru.

Food: I ate in local eateries and from food carts. I always bought food from places that very busy and frequented by locals. Local food is delicious and fresh. The taste is superb!!!. My favourites were dosa masala (a type of crepe with spiced potatoes) and chai, Indian milky tea. In most eateries there is a outside sink with hot water and soap.

Making juice from sugar cane, Hampi.

Accommodation: Is very easy to book online. I used my guidebook recommendations, when choosing my stay. One of the most important deciding factors are for hotels that give advice and help with travel. I found it more important than price, localisation etc. Price range for accommodation in India is big and there is huge selection of budget options. Remember that a basic room is very, very basic in India. It might be a tiny room with bed only, tattered bedclothes and bathroom shared with numerous people. Important tip: even in mid range hotels there is no toilet paper in the bathroom, so always carry your own.

ATM’s are plentiful, but not always working. Credit/debit cards are widely accepted.

Prices: India is definitely paradise for budget travelers with low prices for food, transport and accommodation. While shopping, taking taxis, organizing travel arrangement you can often haggle. If you think the price quoted is way too high, you are probably right!!!. Bear in mind that many people in India are on low income, and haggling price to the lowest possible is not always ethical.

Reading: I used ”India” guidebook by Lonely Planet. While in India I bought ”Shantaram” by GD Roberts, this book gives good insight into many aspects of life in India. Another good read is ”Na wschod od zachodu” by W Jagielski.

Now, that it is all. Enjoy your travel!

Amber Fort, Jaipur.

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