Author: Fiona Ludbrook
Date of Trip: May 2016
India is a huge country, so with limited time it is best to select a particular region for your visit. For this reason, I selected Rajasthan, because major priorities for me were fulfilling dreams of seeing the Taj Mahal, as well as seeing a tiger in the wild.
Many wildlife lovers head to India with the hope of seeing a tiger, but tiger sightings are actually extremely rare. Most would be tiger observers leave India disappointed. I researched the best time of the year to sight tigers in Rajasthan and discovered that May, being the hottest time of the year, is when tigers head to the waterholes to drink, due to the scarcity of water, before the monsoon season. Knowing the temperatures would be over 40 degrees celcius for my entire visit, I was willing to maximise my chance of seeing a tiger by enduring some climatic discomfort.
I was rewarded at Ranthambore National Park, spending an hour or more obseving a young female tiger, named Lightening, by the rangers, as she walked through the marshes zone and laid down to rest, having made a kill earlier that day. It was an exquisite and privilleged experience to witness her majesty, as well as a crew of some renoun international wildlife photographers capturing her every move to boot!
My trip began in Delhi, a city which, from my experience can hold its head high against any of the great cities of the world. Its National Gallery, traditional Arts and Crafts Museum, shopping, hotels and glorious Lodhi gardens are all worth thorough exploration. High Tea at the historic Imperial Hotel, with its glorious antique furniture, exquisite architecture and grounds, along with extraordinary staff has to be on a ‘must do list’!
Food is another highlight of India. I began with a street food tour with Urban Adventures, this was a great initiation to negotiating my way through bustling streets, dealing with the many street kids and beggars and the various means of transport, from the wonderful and efficient metro system, to bicycle and auto rickshaws, locally refered to as “autos”. All the food we tried was selected as safe for tourists and I got to try some delights, such as momos and puffed rice with pistachios, tamarind and pommegranite, stick kulfis and fruit beer.
The ancient spice and wedding markets are also fascinating and in the area where both Hindu and Sikh temples welcome tourists.Also fabulous was the Nepalese market, around the corner from the Imperial Hotel. Connaught Place was hectic and full of shops to lure in monied tourists.
From Delhi, I travelled on to Agra, to experience the incredible and extensive Amber Fort and Taj Mahal. The Taj truly is breathtaking and worthy of its iconic status. I hired a guide to get me to the best photo spots given my limited time.If I were to return, I would allow a full day at each of these sites!
One of the joys of Rajasthan is staying at old palaces and traditional havelis, designed around an internal courtyard. These come at all budget levels and are not to be missed.Two palaces I can recommend most highly are the Bhanwar Villas Palace, complete with original art deco furnishings, rambling grounds, a horse and cattle stud and Raj museum. The other is Castel Bijaipur, with activities including horse riding, bird watching, henna painting and more. Both have exceptional staff and are run by the local royal families. Both offer excursions to the local rural villages. Such places are where the traveller can feel the beat of the ancient heart and traditions of Rajasthan. Another fascinating glimpse of traditional skills and lifestyles was a safari out of Jodhpur to the Bishnoi villages, where locals have fought to preserve local habitat and wild deer species and rich birdlife can be observed. We also saw a local home and the making of the traditionl dhurrie mats, with the opportinity to purchase these highly prized and exquisitely crafted, colourful mats in a range of sizes and patterns.
Towns in Rajasthan are all quite unique, Jaipur and Jodhpur have incredible palaces and nearby forts of world heritage significance. It is possible to ride an elephant up the hill too the Red Fort in Jodhpur. Architectural heritage and cultural treasures abound at every fort and palace, but the city that truly took my breath away was Udaipur, built around lake Pichula. A sunset cruise here was a trip highlight, along with a visit to the Monsoon Palace, that was a major set in the James Bond ‘Octopussy’film. Views from here are awe inspiring and the road journey up the winding road is also unique. Try the Rainbow Restaurant, just around the corner from the ferry departure point. An excellent traditional dance and music show is held at the Udaipur palace, with acts including puppets and women balancing heavy water vessels stacked high on their heads.
At risk of sounding cliched, India truly is an assault on the senses. From the incredible sights of cart pulling decorated camels, the indigenous Mawani horses, sharing the road with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws, to sharing such busy roads as the only footpath in many pedestrian zones. The sight of women in colourful saris and men in turbans, sometimes with manicured moustaches and a myriad of small businesses and sometimes pushy lone vendors. Women drawing water from wells, to camel hauled irrigation. Open sewers persist, even in major cities in some areas. The incessant honking of horns on roads. The poverty, the wealth, the street dogs. But the people are welcoming and generous, almost invariably. Take the time to have extended conversations with them and you will leave enriched.
If travelling in summer as I was, you will need little more than three pairs of lightweight trousers and three very lightweight shirts, a bathing suit, if you are a swimmer, toiletries and a first aid kit, including rehydration tablets. A pair of sandals, a hat and a scarf for entering islamic temples, if you are a woman.Make sure you have an electric adaptors and a universal plug for handwashing in bathrooms was handy. Pack at least one toilet roll as toilet paper is a luxury item and scarce, in all but 5 star hotels. Hand wipes, or sanitiser is also a must!
In winter add layers as the desert night temperatues can plummet to below zero.
Don’t be put off by negative media reports implying India is a dangerous destination, especially for women. I was travelling alone during my time in Delhi and was never harassed, or felt unsafe. The women only carriages at the front of metro trains are fantastic, but mixed carriages also felt safe. Use the same safety protocols as you would at home. If you too have always longed to see the Taj Mahal, or a tiger in the wild, don’t deny yourself the opportuity.
I loved India so much I am already planning a return solo trip!