1) Trekking in Ladakh. Even though India offers a great variety of landscapes when it comes to trekking (like Himachal, Uttarakhand and Sikkim), Ladakh is a different piece of earth altogether. The moon-like surface with no vegetation and bone-dry air makes the mountains seem closer than they appear. Objects like blue sheep or wild dogs that look about a kilometer away are actually a full day’s walk. The Chadar walk where you trek over the frozen Zanskar river in winters and camp out in caves at night is what I would highly recommend. Other popular treks are Stok Kangri (read my experience here), Markha Valley and Kun. For a reliable operator try White Magic Adventures.
2) Stay in a Haveli in Udaipur. They may not be the Venetian Macau in design but some of them are actually hundreds of years old. The small passages, intricate carvings, marble floors which look like they’ve been painted, all add up to an immense sense of timelessness. The narrow alleys to reach them, the overwhelming amount of stonework (even beds, tables, washbasins) all show the brilliance of the people who designed them keeping in mind the materials they had to work with. Some of them have become star-rated hotels, but I will still recommend the ones which are family owned. You’ll see a lot more of the traditional life before your eyes in them. Try Jaiwana Haveli, or Shiv Niwas Palace.
3) Scuba dive in the Andaman Islands. The wealth of marine life as well as the relative ease with which one can view them up close, makes these set of Islands a haven for those who enjoy beaches and water-based activities, but find Goa too touristy and crowded. Places like Chidiyatapu, Jolly buoy and Havelock Island have world famous dive and snorkeling sites. You’ll find professional operators here to make your experience memorable. All of them offer a discover scuba dive where no prior training is required, and you do your PADI certification if you are more serious about diving. You’ll get a chance to swim with Manta rays, Giant Trevaly, Reef sharks (not to panic, they are quite harmless and very graceful!) and sometimes the odd curious dolphin. The colourful coral reefs will reward even snorkelers, as the water here is warm (26-28 degrees C) and visibility normally above 15-20 meters. In Havelock try Barefoot Scuba which has its own dive resort. Read my experience here.
4) Stay in one of the fraternities in Auroville. Instead of just making it a day visit, some of these fraternities allow you to stay within them. Most people living here are foreigners and each fraternity has a different purpose – candle making, women welfare etc. The sustainable architecture that is practiced here is a refreshing way to live. Mud brick houses which use locally available materials with very little energy content along with imaginative green building principles will make this the most energy conscious habitat you’ve ever stayed in. The sewage treatment consists of using certain types of fish and anaerobic bacteria to generate water for gardening. You can eat in the common dining hall which has a huge parabolic dish for solar cooking. This community takes the environment very seriously especially since it doesn’t get much by the way of government services. You can take part in the daily activities and contribute to their unique way of living. Of course there’s also the huge golf-ball shaped Matri Mandir to see. Click here for the different fraternities.
5) Live in houseboat in Srinagar. The thought of getting up on a slightly chilly morning with smell of steaming Kahwa tea being prepared for you, with the mighty Dal lake inches away from your feet, as you sit in your own little two room boat, is an unforgettable experience. These traditional houses-on-water are a centuries old tradition and let you enjoy the remarkable calm of the lake with the added bonus of Kashmiri food all at once. Sizes will vary, as will the prices, and make sure you get to see the boat before renting it.
6) Go for a desert safari in Jaiselmer. The camel safari takes you across the dunes, with a night out under the stars. For people used to sleeping under a roof, getting up at night and looking up to see a clear ink blu sky really disorients your system. You have lunch along the way and some safaris even put up a show of Rajasthani folk dance and music at night. The stark landscape along with the brilliantly blue sky and the gyrating camel’s gait makes you feel like Lawrence of Arabia. Try Royal Desert Safari resort.
7) Stay at a bamboo hut in South Goa. Live like the hippies did before, and what backpackers do now. A little hut made out of grass and bamboo, preferably on stilts and overlooking the ocean. It’s the most magical way of absorbing the experience that is Goa. Oh, and it helps that it’ll be the cheapest way you’ve ever lived. Some allow you to choose between private or shared toilets, and almost all have great common area within the grounds where you can easily mix with other travellers. Patnem beach is the least crowded of all Goan beaches mainly because it’s really small with very few restaurants and shops, and also being at the southern most part of the state. It has small beach bar scene that should keep you busy in the evenings. If more action is needed, just walk across to the bigger Palolem beach, with its plethora of bars and restaurants. Try Bhakti Kutir, Secret Garden Resort or Bougainvillea.
8) Get lost in Old Delhi. The labyrinthine alleys, bustling crowds, crazy rickshaw drivers and screaming hawkers will immediately discourage the sensible amongst us. But take a deep breadth, widen your shoulders while walking, forgive the little bumps and nudges and you’ll be in for an experience of a lifetime. It’ll help if you have someone local enough to guide you, even if it’s only to find your way out. Don’t be afraid to talk to the owners who stay in those 200 year old houses with 3 rooms and 24 residents, all cramped up like sardines yet going about their daily lifestyle without complaint. Happy sardines I call them. The alleys are sometimes 3 feet wide with doors that are 5′ high, so a lot of bending over and stepping sideways will be required. Visit the Chunnamal haveli, near the Fatepuri masjid, which is nearly 400 years old and with over 200 rooms. Ask around for Mirza ghalib’s (the famous 19 century poet) house in Ballimaran, the lane opposite the Chunnamal haveli. Shop for dry fruits in Khari baoli, lights and chandeliers in Bhagirath place and clothes everywhere else. For those with strong stomachs, try the kebabs of Karims and the biryani near the gates of the Jama Masjid. In winters try the Daulat ki chat (whipped cream made with frost) and the hot jalebis made in Katra Neel.
9) Track tigers in Corbett National Park. Even though Bandhavgarh has a higher density of tigers, Corbett still rules as far as the tiger habitat is concerned. A combination of the mighty Himalayas, river banks and dense forests, it’s the perfect setting within which to spot a tiger. Stay inside the camp at Dhikala and get an experienced guide to take you through the jungle. They know the individual tigers, their territory, their water holes and feeding habitats. Add a little bit of luck and you’ll get to see them either sleeping in the shade (they are cats after all) or crossing the roads while going into the grasslands where they hunt at night. The tiger is a majestic animal up close and a sighting will show you why he’s considered the king of the jungle – the grace with which they walk, their ability to completely ignore you as you stand on the jeep clicking away, their blood-curdling roar when they are disturbed, all of this will leave you with a deeper respect for them than any other animal. The park also has much more to offer, like leopards, swamp deer, Himalayan bear, elephants, crocodiles and alligators. This is one place you’ll never go back with an empty memory card.
10) See the Taj Mahal. At night. The irony of seeing one of the greatest monuments in the world in the absence of light may seem like a waste of time, but you’ll experience a sight which is nothing if not heavenly. So much so, that even the authorities recognizes this and allow 50 people to enter the gates at night for a couple of hours, 2 days either side of the full moon every month. You will finally be able to have a photo without anyone on the background, an impossible task unless you’re Lady Diana. The curved surfaces and white Makrana marble lends itself to beautiful attenuation by the moons soft lights and highlights the sharply pointed domes and minarets even more. The monument’s geometry is more discernible without the distractions of trees, clouds, background, people and the vast relief of intricate filigree work. Go a day earlier to book yourself a ticket and bring back the rarest photos of the world’s greatest monument of love.
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