Picture this: the summer of 2019, Geiranger, Norway. My girlfriend at the time and I were craving adventure, something out of the ordinary, something that would push us out of our comfort zone. We were determined to make the most of the time between the end of the summer season and our next ski season in Zermatt.
Our initial plan was to head to Vietnam and embark on a motorbike tour from south to north. But as luck would have it, monsoon season put a damper on that idea. Undeterred, we put our heads together and came up with an even crazier plan: backpacking from Delhi to Mumbai over the course of a month.
But let me tell you, planning for this trip was no walk in the park. We had to do copious amounts of research on navigating India, avoiding scammers, getting the right vaccines…the list goes on. We had never taken on such a daunting challenge in such a big country without the aid of a hired car.
But you know what they say, nothing worth having comes easy. And the memories we made on that backpacking trip will stay with me for a lifetime.
As September drew to a close, our time in our summer destination came to an end. We had just 15 days to pack up, drive back to the UK, get our vaccinations, and gear up for our next adventure. We were literally shoving everything we owned into our backpacks and hitting the road.
Our first stop? Dubai, baby! We snagged a flight with a layover in this glittering metropolis and we couldn’t wait to explore. With just enough time to catch some much-needed shut-eye and check out some of the city’s iconic attractions like the massive mall and bustling souks, we were excited to soak up all the sights and sounds this new destination had to offer. After all, we had never been to Dubai before, and we were ready for anything.
Next stop: New Delhi!
After a relatively comfortable flight, we touched down in India’s bustling capital city late at night. Stepping out of the airport, we were hit with a sensory overload – the sights, sounds, and smells were unlike anything we had ever experienced before.
We quickly tried to find a taxi to take us to our hotel, but we were immediately targeted by a scammer, who tried to lure us into his “friend’s” taxi. Thankfully, we had read up on these types of scams and managed to avoid falling prey to his tactics. Instead, we made our way to the official taxi booking office and purchased a ticket for our ride to the hotel.
With no internet connection and limited cash, we had to trust that we were doing everything right. But our troubles weren’t over yet. The same scammer reappeared, still trying to trick us into his “friend’s” taxi. We played along for a moment before making a quick escape to an official taxi that was waiting nearby.
As we embarked on our first car journey in India, we were already feeling the adrenaline pumping. To make matters worse, our driver scolded us for trying to put on our seatbelts, which was apparently not a common practice in India. Despite the chaos and confusion, we eventually arrived safely at our hotel, ready to take on whatever adventures India had in store for us.
Our first morning in New Delhi was an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. We woke up early, eager to explore the city, and decided to book a Tuk Tuk using the Ola app on the hotel Wi-Fi. But, as it was our first time, we weren’t sure if it had worked. As we waited, we were constantly approached by other Tuk Tuk drivers who tried to convince us to ride with them. Being new to this, we politely declined and continued waiting for our booked Tuk Tuk. After what seemed like an eternity of being pestered, our driver finally arrived, and we were able to start our adventure in the bustling city.
Lesson 1: “Visit the official government office”
Our top priority in New Delhi was to get SIM cards and cash, so we asked our Tuk Tuk driver to take us to the Airtel shop in Connaught Place. However, upon arriving, we were told that the shop did not sell SIM cards and had to wait for the neighboring shop to open. While waiting, a man approached us and claimed that we couldn’t purchase SIM cards at the official Airtel shop because it was for Indian residents only. He insisted that we had to visit the official government office for tourist SIM cards and even offered to guide us there.
Believing him to be trustworthy, we followed his directions and met another gentleman who took copies of our passports and began setting up the SIM cards. While waiting, my travel companion Fran discreetly showed me reviews on Google indicating that it was a scam. We quickly made an excuse and left, pretending we needed to go to the ATM to get cash. Once we were out of sight, we hurried back to the official Airtel shop and purchased real SIM cards at the proper price.
This taught us an important lesson: never follow a random person who tries to take you somewhere, regardless of how convincing and polite they appear.
We spent the remainder of our first day exploring Connaught Place, Humayun’s tomb, and a beautiful abandoned observatory, immersing ourselves in the local culture, sampling the regional cuisine, and getting accustomed to the layout of the area. We adapted to the environment with remarkable speed and began to feel increasingly at ease.
Exploring Old Delhi!
On our second day in Delhi, we decided to visit the Red Fort in Old Delhi and then continue our journey from there.
As we searched for the ticket booth, we were approached by locals who wanted to take selfies with us. Although it was flattering at first, it soon became exhausting as more and more people joined in. We later discovered that this was because some of them had never seen white people before and wanted to show off to their friends and family.
Eventually, we found the ticket booth which had a separate line for non-Indians and entered the fort. It was massive, and we spent several hours exploring before the heat became unbearable. We then headed out to find some lunch and were offered a ride on a cycle rickshaw by a local. Initially hesitant, we agreed to the ride and were taken on a wild journey through the crowded streets, dodging buses, cars, cows, and other obstacles.
Thankfully, we arrived at a restaurant in one piece and enjoyed a delicious meal of butter chicken and roti while being entertained by a group of monkeys on the roofs. After lunch, we decided to take a walk through the Old Delhi spice market, which was a shock to the senses. The streets were extremely crowded, with cows wandering around and street food stalls everywhere. It was an overwhelming experience, and we struggled to navigate the busy streets.
On our final day in Delhi, we continued sightseeing and eventually headed to New Delhi train station to catch a train south to Agra. Since it was Diwali, we prebooked our tickets well in advance, with specific carriage and seat numbers. At the station, we found the right spot on the platform to wait for our carriage, since Indian trains are long and finding seats on the correct carriage can be difficult. We also learned to avoid scammers offering “cheap tickets” and instead book online or at the official office.
Upon arriving in Agra, we had trouble locating our hostel, which turned out to be in a remote area amidst farms. Nevertheless, we found it and were pleased with its cozy and social atmosphere. We were advised to visit the Taj Mahal at 5am, so we ate at the hostel’s café and got some rest.
The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am and headed to the Taj Mahal, which was only a 10-minute walk and 5-minute golf cart ride away. Despite arriving early, we were soon joined by tour buses full of people eager to take pictures. I quickly rushed in to capture “the shot” without the crowds and it paid off.
The Taj Mahal is truly awe-inspiring and surpasses any photo of it. It’s a must-see in person! The grandeur of its pure white marble construction is truly remarkable. We spent a considerable amount of time exploring the interior and even ventured to the tombs. Then, we settled in one of the guest pavilions to watch the sunrise behind the Taj, an unforgettable experience!
Afterward, we strolled back to the hostel for breakfast and a brief nap. Our plan for the afternoon was to visit Agra Fort and the mini Taj.
En route to Agra Fort, our Tuk Tuk driver picked up an older gentleman who happened to be his brother. This could have meant a typical tourist trap, but instead, we were treated to their personal stories about life in Agra. It was a brief, but pleasant ride filled with insightful tales from the locals.
Having finished our tour of Agra fort and the mini Taj, we found ourselves with ample time left in the day. Thus, we opted to visit Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO World Heritage Site situated an hour away from Agra. We negotiated a price with a Tuk Tuk driver who agreed to ferry us there, wait for us to explore the site, and drive us back.
The city was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire by Emperor Akbar in 1571 and served as that role for a short 14 years. Akbar abandoned it due to a campaign in Punjab, and was completely abandoned in 1610. The abandoned city was absolutely stunning, and very well-preserved.
We had only half a day left in Agra, so we stored our luggage at the hostel and went for a stroll until it was time to catch the train.
When we arrived in Jaipur, a young boy approached us, insisting that we take his Tuk Tuk, but we had already arranged for a ride. He persisted and followed us to the car park, but eventually our driver arrived after what seemed like ages. On our way to the hostel, we encountered a carnival or festival, and even in the dark inside the car, people were waving at us. It was a fantastic feeling to be noticed.
The next day, we took a Tuk Tuk to Amer fort, which was located just outside Jaipur. We saw elephants carrying people up from the car park, but we opted for the walk instead.
Constructed in 967 by the Meena tribe, mainly found in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh regions of India, Amer fort is a captivating place with a rich history, definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Elefantastic is a refuge for rescued elephants in India. We conducted thorough research to ensure that we spent time with elephants that were being treated well, as it is common for these magnificent creatures to be exploited for tourist money in India. The sanctuary is renowned for its ethical treatment of the elephants, with each one having their own caregiver who feeds them, takes them on daily walks, and gives them refreshing showers. We wanted no part in the exploitation of elephants.
We were picked up from Amer fort and taken to the sanctuary, which was located nearby. Upon arrival, we met Chanchal, a gorgeous Asian rescue elephant that had been mistreated in a circus. She had a cataract in one eye and severe damage in the other, caused by the circus workers. It’s disheartening to learn about the cruel treatment of these intelligent mammals for entertainment purposes.
We took some time to get to know Chanchal so she would feel comfortable around us, and then we were allowed to feed her. As you can imagine, she ate a huge amount. Once we were acquainted, we took her for a nice stroll around the grounds. Elephants need to walk a lot; they average around 25 km a day, but can walk up to 195 km a day. And here I thought my step count was high!
When we returned to the sanctuary, we were given a pallet of animal-safe paint and told we could paint Chanchal as we wished. After this, we were taken to give her a shower and were shown how to clean her. Most of the water ended up on us rather than her, as she found it funny to spray us with her trunk. Cheeky Chanchal!
Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend visiting Elefantastic if you’re ever in Jaipur. To top it off, we were treated to a meal at the owner’s mother’s house when we finished spending time at the sanctuary. It was a really nice and personal touch.
The Holy City of Pushkar was our next destination on our India tour, known for its spiritual significance. However, reaching there was not an easy feat. We took a train to Ajmer, which was the nearest station, and planned to take a local bus to Pushkar, as we found it to be the most economical way. But locating the bus station proved to be challenging. Despite asking for directions, we were offered a ride for £10, which was quite steep compared to the 50p bus fare. Eventually, we found a Tuk Tuk driver who took us to the bus station, but unfortunately, he dropped us off at the wrong one. Thankfully, the correct one was just across the road. Finally, we managed to board the bus to Pushkar, and little did we know, it was going to be quite an eventful journey.
As we drove through the mountain roads, all I could think about was the safety of the vehicle. The roof was flapping, the interior was in disarray, with missing chairs and debris scattered around. It was by far the most precarious mode of transportation I had ever been in, and I hoped that the brakes were working properly. Despite the initial discomfort, we arrived at our destination in one piece. Looking back, it wasn’t as terrible as I had thought, but it definitely made for a thrilling experience.
During our stay in Pushkar, we didn’t have a specific itinerary, so we spent our time wandering around the temples and shops, taking a break before our journey to Jodhpur. However, I fell victim to a scam while there. A man approached me on the street and convinced me to throw a flower into the holy lake to bless my family. When we reached the lake, another person approached me and introduced me to a supposed “priest” who would perform the blessing. At first, it seemed legitimate until the “priest” demanded a donation of 1500INR (around £15) per family member, totaling £90 for my entire family. I knew that was an outrageous amount, so I gave him a small note and quickly walked away to avoid any further harassment. It’s unfortunate that people would use religion to exploit others in this way.
Our next destination was Suncity, and we took a Tuk Tuk to our accommodation as usual, but this time the ride was quite terrifying. As we entered the blue city, the streets were overcrowded with people, motorbikes, and other Tuk Tuks. The streets were only wide enough for a Tuk Tuk and one person on either side, but this didn’t seem to bother our driver. He drove like a maniac in full GTA style, weaving through the streets at breakneck speed. At one point, he got stuck on a speed bump and when he tried to move again, we realized he was stuck. I offered to help push the Tuk Tuk, but he insisted I stay put. He shouted at some people, and they rushed over to help us push the Tuk Tuk over the bump. It was certainly an unforgettable experience!
We booked a room in a Haveli, A traditional Indian townhouse, it was absolutely stunning and featured a restaurant on the roof with an incredible view of the Mehrangarh Fort!
Our plan was to stay in Jodhpur for only two days, but we ended up extending our stay because of the poor transportation options to Udaipur. During this time, we decided to take it easy, catch up on rest, and explore the sights. We visited local palaces, the fort, and wandered around the charming old blue city, where we interacted with locals and learned about the city’s history. Even though it was a popular tourist destination, the locals treated us with respect and didn’t pressure us to purchase items while we browsed their shops and stalls, unlike in other cities we had visited. The blue city ended up being one of my favorite places in India.
During our trip, we had planned to visit some temples in the desert. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the temple was in ruins and covered in blue tarpaulin. Disappointed, we took a stroll around the local village and then met up with our driver. He offered us a camel and jeep tour around the desert, but we opted for just the jeep tour. We joined a friendly Indian family in the back of the jeep and headed into the desert. The ride started off smoothly but soon turned into a thrilling adventure as we drifted around sand dunes and rolled down steep hills. It was an unforgettable experience!
Our next destination was Mumbai for Diwali, but we didn’t want to endure the 16.5-hour train journey from Jodhpur. Instead, we decided to break up the journey by stopping in Vadodora for a night and then visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site in Halol. The Champaner Pavagadh is a vast archaeological park that surrounds the historical city of Champaner. It was founded in the 8th Century by Vanraj Chavda, the most prominent king of the Chavda Dynasty. The park holds a significant amount of history and has stunning disused mosques. We highly recommend visiting this site, and the locals in the village are lovely. Additionally, we had the whole place to ourselves!
Mumbai and Aurangabad Adventures
We arrived in Mumbai just in time for Diwali, the Festival of Lights! During our stay, we visited the usual tourist attractions and explored the streets at night, where we witnessed the locals setting off fireworks in the middle of the roads. It was an incredible sight, and at one point, the police had to intervene and clear a blocked-off road!
After the Diwali celebrations, we had one last stop to make before heading back home: Aurangabad. We took the train and arrived early in the morning, where we met our driver and set off towards the famous Ajanta Caves. The road was chaotic, with the aftermath of recent floods causing complete destruction to the muddy path. We saw trucks stuck in ditches and motorbikes swerving around the chaos, making it an unforgettable experience.
Despite the chaos, we made it to the Ajanta Caves, and the journey was worth it. The cave complex is stunning, with exquisite rock-cut sculptures and paintings that date back to the 2nd century BCE. It was a perfect end to our adventure-filled trip to India.
The Ajanta Caves, located in the Aurangabad District, are a collection of approximately 30 Buddhist caves constructed into the rock. They were built from the 2nd century BCE to approximately 480 CE. The caves are home to paintings and sculptures carved from the rock and are widely recognized as some of the finest examples of ancient Indian art. The paintings are known for their ability to convey emotions through gesture, posture, and form.
The Ajanta Caves were created in two phases, with the first phase occurring around the 2nd century BCE and the second phase taking place between 400 and 650 CE. These caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and are a protected monument that is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India.