If you’ve been paying attention (and I certainly don’t expect you to; feel free to just look at the pictures and go straight back to browsing LOLcats), you’ll notice that I tend to talk a lot of trash about India. And if I’ve sounded a bit captious or even sanctimonious at times, you’re correct in thinking so. “Oh, It’s so hot, dirty, and crowded; why should I as an over-entitled world traveler have to put up with this?” So here’s the other side of my feelings, because I really don’t want to give you the wrong idea: I actually don’t think it’s a bad country to travel in. Not at all.
Despite all the stress and the pain that might come along the way, I still think India has an incredible wealth of things to offer a traveler. But there are certain guidelines one must follow to get the most out of it. Time and time again we would encounter fellow travelers in India, all with widely divergent experiences in the country. Some were far more frustrated than us, even going so far as to change their tickets to fly out sooner to the next country. And others had fallen in love with the country, explored north, south, east, and west, and never wanted to leave. But if there was one pattern that we discovered, it was that the people that had the most positive things to say about India are those who had stayed for at least three to six months.
Now obviously this correlation is not surprising, as people that enjoy a place are more likely to stay longer. But through our conversations I found that they had experienced all the same things I was going through at first, and had simply stuck it out long enough to get to the other side. All those little annoyances had become background noise for them, which had allowed them to fully appreciate everything they had missed at the beginning. More than any other place I’ve traveled, India seems to have a required minimum journey length that is fully necessary, not just to fit in as many cities or temples as possible, but simply to immerse yourself long enough so that you can get over those initial humps and begin to understand and enjoy your experience.
Knowing all this now, I will definitely need to return to India at some point in my life and give it the attention it deserves. But I certainly don’t regret leaving it after one month. We had always considered Nepal as an option on our trip, but didn’t see ourselves fitting it in with everything we wanted to do in India. But after altering our course and heading up into India’s northern neighbor, it quickly became clear that it would soon come to define our trip, and provide an incredible closing chapter to our long stay in Asia.
Our last location in India is the region of Uttar Pradesh. With 190 million people, it’s the most populous Indian state, practically a country in its own right. Starting with India’s capital of Delhi on the far western edge, one could easily follow a straight path through the state and pass through some of India’s biggest destinations.
Delhi itself can be quite intimidating at first. Far from the quirky colonial charm of Old Calcutta’s streets, Delhi is a true Indian metropolis. Its labyrinthine old roads and busy street markets overlap each other to the point where you’re never quite sure if you’re walking in one direction or two at the same time. Hawkers call out at you from every direction, selling spices that fill the air with their aroma. In the center of the city, Delhi’s growing cosmopolitan culture congregates on Connaught Place, a center of new Indian commerce. And statues of Ghandi are everywhere, reminding you that all of this, everything that you’re seeing sprang up out of a peaceful revolution that was only 60 years ago.
About two hours of of Delhi is Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, the single most popular tourist site in Asia and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And despite all of this incredible hype, the most surprising thing about the Taj is that it really is that spectacular. There aren’t that many things in this world that inspire such high expectations, and even fewer that can actually meet let alone surpass those expectations. The Taj Mahal does that. It’s such an incredibly iconic image, we’ve all seen it a million times, and yet when you actually see it in front of you, it’s quite awe-inspiring.
And finally, there’s Varanasi. All points converge on this seminal Indian city; a dazzling explosion of culture, religion, commerce, and pure chaos located in the heart of the northern plains. Varanasi has the distinction of being not only the oldest city in India, but also one of the oldest continuously populated cities in the world. Built and rebuilt on top of itself a thousand times over, its windy streets and back alleys rarely conform to any logical expectations. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from passing through every year. Located directly on the banks of the Ganges, the city is yet another pilgrimage site for Hindus. But unlike Rishikesh and Agra, it is not just another stop on the path to enlightenment, it is the final destination. With its fire ceremonies, burning ghats, and funeral pyres that glow through the night, Varanasi is the city where Hindus go to die.