Travelling from Kathmandu to Delhi
Gap Year Travel Expert Lucy Goldston recently returned from an amazing tour which took her from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, down into India via Chitwan National Park, through Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur, before ending in New Delhi.
Her two week journey was organised by Geckos Adventures, an ethically-minded tour company known for employing expert guides who were born and bred in the regions they work.
I had a chat with Lucy to find out more about her trip.
Welcome back, Lucy! So, you began in Kathmandu: what were your first impressions?
Kathmandu is an absolutely amazing place to fly into, the scenery is so beautiful. I loved the city itself: so many people are there for trekking in the Himalayas, so you end up hearing about all kinds of exciting adventures and there is a great backpacker atmosphere.
Obviously, earlier this year the massive earthquake struck, so there are areas of destruction and many people who are still homeless. But they are doing such a great job of putting everything back together after the biggest natural disaster in living memory. I did speak to many local people, who are so sweet and lovely, but it was difficult to know what I could and couldn’t ask.
We visited Durbar Square, where all the main temples used to be, but unfortunately most of them are completely destroyed now. We also visited the Monkey Temple (aka Swayambhunath) which I would recommend to anyone.
Awesome. Did you do anything else there before moving on?
We took a flight over Everest!
As you do…
Yeah! That was very cool. It was one of the added on extras you can pay for (£125). We flew out at 5am, so we saw the sunrise from the air as we approached the mountain.
The air stewards were all trained guides, so they talked us through which mountain is which in the range. At one point we were at eye level with the peak of Everest. And the end we got a certificate saying: I did NOT climb Everest, but I did see it with all my heart.
Fair. Right, next up was World Heritage-listed Chitwan National Park. Suitably spectacular?
So incredible. We stayed in a beautiful lodge there for two nights. We took a jeep safari and saw some amazing wildlife, like rhinos and elephants. We searched everywhere for tigers but they are extremely rare and we didn’t see any. The guides were so good: they alerted us to so many things that we definitely would have otherwise missed.
One morning we took a trip down a river in canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. We also did a bike ride through part of the park, cycling through tiny villages and stopping to talk to the locals. At the end we dumped the bikes and climbed a steep hill, and from there watched the most amazing sunset, and could see rhinos drinking at a watering hole and elephants strolling about.
Incredible indeed! And from there you travelled into the chaos that is India…
Yes, it was definitely a bit of a shock coming from Nepal which is so chilled out. We spent two days on the bus, which I was initially worried about but ended up loving because of the scenery. And then we arrived in Varanasi, the oldest and holiest city in the country.
I was just like: “What on earth is going on. This is actually mental!”
Well, it was just so full on! People everywhere, tuk-tuks everywhere, cows everywhere, just total carnage. And the noise was constant and deafening. As soon as we arrived, we took a boat ride on the River Ganges and immediately saw the public cremations taking place in open view at the burning ghats, something Varanasi is famous for. The Ganges is very sacred to Hindus, and they believe that to die here and have their ashes cast into the river gives them moksha (release from the cycle of life and death). It was a very spiritual experience.
We took a second boat ride while there, this time at sunrise, and the city just looked so beautiful reflected in the water of the river. We lit floating candles and made a wish as we sent them off down the river. We spent the rest of our time walking up and down the riverbank, visiting temples and getting plenty of shopping done!
Your next stop was Agra, famous for the Taj Mahal. Did the most famous building in the world live up to the hype?
Yeah… it’s certainly beautiful. But if you have a choice between seeing it at sunrise or sunset, I would definitely recommend sunrise. We were there at sunset, and it was incredibly busy, thousands of people. I spoke to someone who saw it at sunrise and apparently it was much quieter. But the building itself was obviously amazing.
We also visited Agra Fort while we were there, which was originally built 600 years ago for a Hindu king. From there we could look out over the whole area, including the Taj Mahal. We had local guides wherever we went, and they always told us the history of places, so that was nice.
Also, there were always so many Indians taking photos of us; more than once a baby would be thrust into my arms and I would have to pose for a picture with the whole family.
Must be what being a celebrity is like! Okay, after Agra you went to a village called Tordi. Can’t say I’ve heard of that one…
Ah, yes, this place was amazing. Geckos are the only tour company that go there. There is nothing touristy, not even hotels, so independent travellers and non-locals just wouldn’t visit. There is a palace (dubious) and this is the only place in the village non-locals can stay. All the locals came and cooked for us and the children came and did henna tattoos on our arms. We took an early morning walk in the village and the children loved us, all running out their houses to meet us.
The best part was walking to the top of a nearby sand dune and watching the sun set over the whole landscape.
Sounds amazing! So, next stop Jaipur…
I really liked Jaipur – they call it the Pink City. We were really excited to get some shopping done because we had been told the jewellery was amazing, so we went a bit mad!
We saw the Pink Palace and the Amber Fort, which was cool, and our tour guide took us to some great hidden restaurants.
We also went to see a Bollywood movie, which was… different.
How does a Bollywood movie differ to a Hollywood movie?
A lot. The venue was actually beautiful, like a really nice theatre in London. And for Indians, going to the cinema is a proper event. The movie was three hours long, but it was more like a combination of a film and a musical, and there was even an interval halfway through the 3 hour running time.
Definitely different! Where did you go from Jaipur?
We then went to New Delhi, which was our last stop before flying home. I was a bit unsure about what we could do there that could come close to the rest of the trip, but it turned out to be as amazing as everywhere else. We explored quite a bit – they took us into a Sikh temple, which was more of a commune: they eat, sleep, pray and shop there. We even went behind the scenes into the kitchens, something you’d never get to do if you were by yourself.
It really does sound like an amazing trip. Now, India has a bit of a poor reputation when it comes to the treatment of women. As a female, did you feel safe when you were there?
Normally, I would have no issues with travelling independently, and I’m not necessarily a massive tour person. But there is simply no way I would have done that journey by myself. And that’s not so much because I would have felt unsafe as a lone female, more that the things we got to do as a tour group were things I never would have got to do if I was alone, such as having a spontaneous cooking lesson in a local home.
There were times where we felt a little bit intimidated because of the crowds – it was just so busy. There isn’t a great deal of Westerners and many Indians are just not used to us being around, so a lot of the time they were very surprised to see us. There stared a lot and took lots of photos. They would crowd around us saying: “Selfie! Selfie!” Sometimes it felt like we had the paparazzi following us around. It took a bit of getting used to.
Finally, what type of person would be best suited to this trip and what would you say to parents of younger people considering going on it?
Well, in terms of the type of person, I would say someone who is happy to explore, to get involved in everything and to try out completely new things. There is a lot of moving around, which I was worried about, but I actually ended up loving it. So you need to be prepared to spend plenty of time on buses, but know that the things you see when on the bus are often just as good as the things you see off it.
In terms of what I would say to parents, just that doing this journey in a tour group made me feel so, so safe. I never felt uncomfortable and our tour guide was brilliant, always making sure we were happy with everything. The hotels were always secure and safe and the restaurants were always really good. Personally I would be concerned about doing this trip alone, but doing it as a tour made it so easy and safe.