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  1. The many faces of India

    posted by Guest expert – James Kay of Lonely Planet | 0 Comments


    In our latest guest post from the experts at Lonely Planet James Kay takes a look at what’s on offer for a traveller in India and what’s worth seeing in this vast destination.

    Perhaps no other country offers travellers such opportunity to experience extremes as India; from the spiritual to the squalid, the meditative to the maddening. Unless you have years to spare, choosing what to do with your limited time is the first challenge in a country full of them. India has as many guises as Shiva: crumbling imperial citadels, mountains of lunar starkness, beaches worthy of a magazine cover...and on and on.

    To kickstart the decision-making process, here are four places worthy of their place in India’s head-spinning, department-store window display of places and peoples.

    Jodhpur, Rajasthan

    In many ways, Rajasthan represents the India of most first-time visitor’s daydreams. The Land of Kings is littered with a legacy of Maharajas and their majestic forts, hosts a handful of the country’s most eye-popping festivals, and is home to a patchwork of peoples, cultures and cuisines. It has an embarrassment of great cities, too, including Jaipur and Udaipur, but for this traveller Jodhpur is the most intoxicating destination.

    Hewn from a mighty rock more than 100m above the surrounding land, Mehrangarh Fort dominates the city. Don’t forgo a tour of this hulking masterpiece of Rajput architecture. The museum is an Aladdin’s Cave of imperial antiquities, and those with a less historical bent can always brave the Flying Fox, a circuit of zip wires to the north side.

    Jodhpur gets its nickname - The Blue City - from the cube-shaped, blue-washed houses that cluster around the base of Merhangarh. The old town radiates out from there in streets full of spice, snuff and sari shops and noisy bazaars. The century-old clock tower at the centre of Sardar Market is the main landmark, but getting lost in this medieval maze is essential.

    Don’t miss a dinner at dusk in one of the open-air rooftop restaurants. Indique is a good choice from which to watch the sun set behind Merhangarh while dining on lip-smacking Rajasthani delicacies like butter chicken and rogan josh.

    Leh, Ladakh

    Unless you like the idea of an ice trek tough enough to tire a Yeti, you’ll want to visit Ladakh during the high season of July to September. Even then, if you’re coming by road via Manali or Srinagar, access can be hit and miss because of regular landslides. Check out their website for updates on the roads. Flying up is easier (but less spectacular), and you’ll need to factor in a few days of acclimatisation to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

    The effort is worth it, though. Ladakh lies in the far north of India, a semi-autonomous region of Jammu and Kashmir, with Pakistan to the north-west and Chinese-occupied Tibet to the east. In terms of both environment and society it strongly resembles the latter, hence the nickname ‘Little Tibet’.

    It’s full of gompas (Buddhist monasteries) perched on rocky outcrops, prayer flags strung between crumbling stupas (whitewashed mounds containing remains and relics), and clusters of mud-brick houses surrounded by fields of bright green barley.

    Leh is geared up for backpackers and a great base for adventure travel. The trekking is unrivalled, but Ladakh is also good for white-water rafting, mountain biking, jeep safaris and more. Shop around for tour operators on Changspa Road.

    Leh has hundreds of guesthouses and hotels, and places book up fast in season. There are loads of lackluster eateries catering for backpackers, but try Bon Appetit (off Changspa Road), the glorious exception.

    Palolem, Goa

    As you might have heard, India can jangle the nerves of the most sedate traveller - and it’s all the better for that. But after enjoying (or merely enduring) the tumult of a big city like Delhi, you might crave a period of susegad. It’s a Portuguese term that translates as ‘laid-backness’ and nowhere does susegad quite like Goa. Its world-class beaches, friendly locals and unique cultural legacy have been seducing visitors for decades. This small state divides into three regions: north beyond the Mandovi River, where you’ll find a concentration of tourist-focused activity, such as water sports, alternative therapies and parties at the right time of year. The capital Panaji (also known as Panjim) is good for exploring central Goa, which boasts a wealth of cultural attractions such as colonial mansions, temples and cathedrals.

    But the far south is where life slows right down - and the beach of Palolem is as good a place as any to slip off the pack, book a massage, train your gaze on the Arabian Sea, and simply...be. Beach huts predominate, but there are beach huts and beach huts. Ciaran’s has the latter, a sophisticated choice in a prime spot.

    Palolem has good eating options, and local favourites include Cafe Inn at the top of the beach road, which puts on a famed evening barbecue, and Magic Italy, just a few yards away, a solid pizza and pasta joint. For info on local yoga courses, head to the Butterfly Book Shop.

    Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

    What’s Varanasi like? In a word: intense. The city where Hindus bring the dying will make you feel alive - and probably leave you shell-shocked, too.

    The ancient part of the city lining the western bank of the holy River Ganges is a labyrinth of galis, twisting alleyways too narrow for traffic (but ideal for touts trying to snare disorientated visitors). You’ll have to brave them though, because the key experience here is a walk along the ghats, or steps, leading down to the river. This is where pilgrims come to wash away their sins and cremate their loved ones. The main ghats for visitors are Assi to the south, Dasaswamedh, which hosts an elaborate aarti ceremony every evening, and Manikarnika, the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated.

    Another time-honoured way to soak up the atmosphere is by taking a dawn or dusk boat trip on the Ganges. (Prepare to bargain hard.) The area around Assi Ghat is a good bet for food, and Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe offers an unusual opportunity to combine wood-fired pizza with a slice of spiritualism. What’s not to like?

    Photos courtesy of lifebeginsat50mm, Friar's Balsam, abmiller99 and ¡kuba!. All images used under the Creative Commons license.

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