As an exotic travel destination, India is surpassed by none. The vast expanse of lands and cultures has captured the imagination for generations. Many of the best-known features, such as the Taj Mahal and the holiest sites of the Hindu religion, as well as two of India’s biggest cities, are all concentrated in Northern India on the Ganges Plain, if not on the Ganga (the proper name for the Ganges) itself. This makes for a convenient route of travel that will take in much of the best of North-Central and Northeast India.
The first issue to deal with is getting a visa, which is required of all citizens of North America and Europe. These cannot be arranged by Visa on Arrival, and must be done before arriving in India. Contact your regional Indian Consulate for details on how to apply, as this is sometimes outsourced to official third-party processors. Americans are eligible for the standard, 6 month tourist visa, or the super bargain 10 year multiple entry/exit visa ($150). If you think you might return to India, look into to taking advantage of the latter, decade long visa.
Unless you are entering the country overland from Pakistan or Nepal, travel on the Gangeatic Plain has two logical entry points: Kolkata and New Dehli. It would be best to arrange it to fly into one city and out the other, so as to not have to waste the time doubling back. If this cannot be done, arrange for a domestic flight to get back to your point of origin. India has a growing budget airline industry, and there are frequent flights between India’s capital (Dehli) and it’s second largest city (Kolkata).
India is one of those countries where you are very likely to get sick from something you eat. There are really only three rules for avoiding a case of “Dehli Belly:” if the water isn’t out of a sealed bottle, make sure it is boiled; and go vegetarian for at least your first two weeks; wash your hands and face before eating. The latter seems silly, but the soot and dirt of India has to be seen to be believed, and if you do not take care to wash your hands and face, that dirt will find its way onto your basmati.
The other word about food is to not let fears of Dehli Belly keep you from trying the simple fare of the dhabas!
Harassment and Haggling
Veterans of Buddhist Southeast Asia will find the nasty, in-your-face style of haggling and scamming found in Northern India to be something of a shock. Don’t take it personally. The aggressive auto-rickshaw wallah does the same thing to the family he has been giving rides to for years. Just remember that openly losing your temper in India isn’t the humiliation it is in a Buddhist country, and is somestimes even necessary to break a deadlock.
India has a well-justified reputation for its staring. Most of the time, this is innocent, as Indian culture does not consider it rude in the same way that a Westerner would. However, there is some truth to the groping stories that Western women travelers encounter in India. Women – particularly young women – should dress modestly and avoid traveling alone.
This intinerary is meant for a normal 16 day holiday excursion: 3 weekends plus 10 weekdays. Assuming a day and a half each are spent fying to India and returning home, that leaves 12 days on the ground. Travel on the Ganges will also demand another 4 days where part (but not all) of the time is spent on trains.
Starting Point: Kolkata (2 days)
This itinerary takes Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) as its starting point, but could easily be reversed to start at New Dehli. The city is best known as the picture of Indian poverty because of its association with the work of Mother Teresa, but this is only one (albeit deeply tragic) aspect of the capital of West Bengal. Intertwined with the poverty and pollution, which are frankly ominpresent in every Indian city, are gems from the era of the British Raj. Kokata continues to spawn poets, writers, and film makers, and simply put you don’t really known India until you have gotten to know something about it’s second largest city.
Bodh Gaya (1 day)
Using the train, your next stop is due west: the city of Gaya, or more to the point, the neighboring town of Bodh Gaya. This is the holiest of holies in the Buddhist religion: the home of the site where Gautama Buddha sat under the shade of a Bodhi Tree and achieved enlightenment. The current Bodhi Tree is a direct descendent (grandchild, to be exact) of the original. The Dalai Lama makes his winter retreat here every year, and it is the center of the international Buddhist community.
However, a visitor should be warned: Bodh Gaya is located in Bihar, the poorest and most lawless state in India. Bodh Gaya itself is very safe, but the rest of the province should be treated with great caution.
Varanasi and Sarnath (1-2 days)
Next on this very spiritual journey in the Gangeatic Plain is the holiest of holies for the Hindu religion: the city of Varanasi. This place, located on the banks of the Ganages, is the magnet for the wandering ascetic holymen known as sadhus and where every good Hindu wants to have his or her funeral. Wander the riverside ghats and take in the serene setting. Nearby is Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon.
Agra and the Taj Mahal (2 days)
Next up is Agra, which is close enough to Varanasi that if you catch the earliest train in the morning, you will have time to drop your bags and catch one of the two major attractions in the city: Agra Fort and the famous Taj Mahal. Your second day should be split between the other great monument, and then taking a hired car out to Fatepur Sikri, the great palace complex beyond the city that forms the third great Mughul monument in the area.
New Dehli (1 day)
Check out the Red Fort, Humayan’s Tomb, the Qutub Complex, and the hustle and bustle of India’s capital before you go home.