Destin-Nation India: Off the Rails on the Subcontinent


India is a much trumpeted cultural destination, but beyond the Taj Mahal and the Mumbai Gate lies a great deal of wild terrain. Deserts, picturesque lakes and winding rivers hide in the shadow of the Himalayas and all-but-empty white sand beaches line much of the southern coast. Just because a densely populated city is always nearby doesn't mean adventure is hard to find. After all, many of the most interesting adventures India has to offer are urban. India is a much trumpeted cultural destination, but beyond the Taj Mahal and the Mumbai Gate lies a great deal of wild terrain. Deserts, picturesque lakes and winding rivers hide in the shadow of the Himalayas and all-but-empty white sand beaches line much of the southern coast. Just because a densely populated city is always nearby, doesn't mean adventure is hard to find. After all, many of the most interesting adventures India has to offer are urban.

One of the great advantages offered by the subcontinent is that many locals speak English, meaning getting lost is a choice, not a problem. Because India encompasses so many different peoples and varied cultures, describing Indians as welcoming and helpful is necessarily a little naive, but such a stereotype would jive well with most travelers' experiences.

And getting around is not terribly difficult. India's national railroads are one of the largest employer in the world and, except when the workers strike, trains can get adventurers willing to pack their food (buying it on the train is a terrible idea) almost anywhere overnight. For those looking for a little more efficiency, Spice Jet and Kingfisher Airlines offer cheaply priced flights from major cities to smaller hubs.

The major expense of Indian travel is getting in, but flight prices have been dropping and there are more and more direct options from the eastern U.S. and Europe. A flight from New York to New Delhi on Air India runs travelers who plan ahead a little less than $1000; a flight from New York to Mumbai about $100 less than that.

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Destin-Nation India: Off the Rails on the Subcontinent

Controversially drawn through the village of Wagah, one half of which is located in India and the other half of which sits in Pakistan, the border here is sometimes referred to as the “Berlin Wall of Asia.”

The flag lowering ceremony is a daily ritual that might seem hostile to the uninitiated. Since 1959, Indian and Pakistani border troops have faced off at sunset every day, donning colorful, fanned-out turbans to imitate the pride of a cockerel. The ritualistic scowling, goose-stepping and unintentionally comedic high kicks are viewed by from the bleachers by patriotic spectators from both countries. The ceremony feels like a nationalistic pep rally replete with “mascots” dressed in Indian/Pakistani themed clothing leading cheers, music and a great deal of haranguing of the enemy. Although both sides have toned down the hostility in recent years - replacing a thumbs-down gesture with a smile - the ceremony ends with what can only be described as a grudging handshake.

Getting There: The Wagah Border is an hour away from the major Pakistani city of Lahore and the only 20 minutes from the Indian city of Amritsar. Both cities are home to international airports. Local agencies offer tours.

Aptly known as “paradise on earth,” Kashmir is home to mesmerizing historical and natural wonders. Dhal Lake combines hosts both a floating city with luxurious houseboats for tourists and a bobbing marketplace brimming with grocers, butchers and tailors. The houseboats here date back centuries to the Mughal era. 

Water skiing trips are offered by almost every outfitter in the area and paddling is basic the only way to access hotels or house boats. For tourists more eager to spend the day tanning on their decks, are catered to by “floating merchants,” who flaunt their wares from the water, tempting customers with silk shawls, souvenirs and fruits. 

The lake is surrounded by snowcapped mountains and hillside villages so die-hard trekkers can find excellent summer skiing. In Winter, the lake freezes and the house boats are moved to shore.

Getting There: Book packages and tours online from local travel agencies. International flights fly in to Srinagar airport which is an hour away from the lake. 

The Himalayas were made famous by the mountaineers who climbed their vertiginous peaks, but going downhill is a bit more fun. Kashmir is home to Gulmarg, a ski resort that offers great snow conditions from December through March as well as stunning views and lots of sunshine. It’s home to one of the highest cable cars in the world, which takes skiers up to 13,000 feet. For advanced skiers, Gulmarg offers heli-skiing and for beginners there are classes and guided tours, which include visits to mountainside shrines.

Another excellent skiing spot is Auli in the Northern state of Uttarakhand, which offers neatly groomed slopes and the chance to see endangered Snow Leopards and wild boar. Visitors can stay in the nearby town of Joshimath at the Himalayan Abode for $40. 

Getting There: Gulmarg is an hour away from Srinagar Airport by car or bus. To organize your trip, contact a local travel agency. Getting to Auli is slightly trickier. Visitors must take an 8 and a half hour train ride from Delhi to the chaotic city of Haridwar and then catch a bus for the tortuous ride into the mountains. The tickets are cheap, but the ride is long, nearly 24 hours all-told.

Standing still in India’s holiest city as crowds of pilgrims traipse pass, holy men offer their blessings and bodies are carried to the river for cremation is an adventure. Because dying in Varanasi all but guarantees advancement in the next life according to Hindu teachings, the elderly and the sick congregate here to bath in the holy Ganges at one of the city’s 100 ghats, mini temples to Krishna. Visitors to the city are welcome to cleanse themselves in the river’s holy waters, but might hesitate once they see what (or occasionally who) is floating downstream.

Varanasi is considered by many scholars to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, so its no surprise that city planning holds no sway here. Getting lost amid the crumbling buildings is an excellent pastime for anyone not operating on too tight a schedule. The riverside Palace on Step hotel offers cheap rooms for those who want to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of the city, which is at its best early in the morning.

Getting There: Spice Jet operates daily flights to Varanasi from New Delhi for about $50. Travelers will have to hire a car or hop a bus at the airport for the hour-long ride into town.

For water-loving thrill-seekers, Goa's got it going on. Options run the gamut from kite surfing to dolphin watching, with plenty of option for fishermen and divers tossed in for good measure. John Boat Tours is a good option for fishing trips and dolphin spotting cruises and offers treks through to see some of the highest waterfalls in India. Divers should head to Dive Goa and ask to be taken out to the wreck of the Basel Mission Company ship, where crowds of angel fish hover over broken beams.

Backwater trails are also available for those interested in seeing Goa from the banks of its nine rivers. Floating along in a wooden houseboat allows adventurers to gently move away from the region’s more heavily-touristed areas. The Proud Mary is a well known and wonderfully named cruiser that offers overnight and brief tours for a little over $200.

Getting There:  Kingfisher Airlines offers numerous daily flights to Goa’s International Airport from Mumbai and Bangalore for roughly $150 round trip.

The magnificent fort-crowned cities of Rajasthan seem like something out of a fable, but the spell they cast on travelers is often broken by the crammed roads that run between them. Adventurers looking to enjoy Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer by embracing tradition can ride camels across the desert that separates the cities. Camel safaris are popular in the part of India, which means both that tourists will have plenty of options and that tourists will have plenty of bad options. Cheap safaris can be unpleasant: Picture being schlepped across the sands by an uncomfortable camel while trying not to slide out of a cheap saddle. Stick to better known operations like Vardhman. Tours last between 4 and ten days generally and prices will have to be disguised with tour operators. 

Travelers would be well advised to spend some extra time in Jaipur, a particularly lovely, blue city with a bustling central market.

Getting There: Travelers can fly into all of Rajasthan’s cities, but Jaipur is normally the first stop. Daily flights from both Delhi and Mumbai on Kingfisher and Spice Jet cost about $100.

Real adventurers in India treat the congested streets as a massive cafeteria. The most beloved street food in India is pani puri, hollow balls of fried dough spread are so thin the slightest tap cracks the shell, pouring out a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, and flavored chutneys. Eat the whole thing quickly to avoid making a mess and enjoy an explosion of flavor! 

For travelers less adept at handling spices, there is kulfi ice cream. Unlike western ice cream, kulfi is boiled rather than churned before, which makes it much denser. The sweet also comes in a wide variety of flavors, including saffron, cardamom, pistachio and mango. 

The trick to enjoying street food without seeing it twice is making sure the vendor uses filtered water in his chutneys. Vendors may not be totally honest when asked about their filters, so savvy travelers always observe for a few moments before making any gut-wrenching (pun intended) decisions.

Getting There: Go to India. Walk outside.


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