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gange experience on north india tour package

I had always been told that India is that sort of places that either you love it or you hate it.

Honestly, it was not on my top destinations list, until I bumped into a fantastic North India tour package by Intrepid Travel my preferred responsible travel tour operator ever.

I knew little about India, a part from what it is world- popular for and a fascinating documentary on the Gange and Varanasi I had watched on tv.
I had travelled before with Intrepid to Thailand (see my article about Authentic Thailand) and loved the way they plan itineraries with a perfect balance between must-sees and off-the-beaten path highlights.
Miles had already been to India 10 years earlier to Kerala and Chennai for to be the best man of a 3-day 800-guest wedding. He was already among those who love India and always wished to return, so it was not difficult to convince him to book this North India tour package that actually continued to Nepal, finishing in Kathmandu.

Because of work, we were both very busy and could only take holidays during the Christmas break.
We booked our flights on Christmas Day in order to save some money, and were super excited about the itinerary:

1- North India tour package must-sees: Delhi and Agra
2- Orchha: the off-the-beaten path highlight of our North India tour package
3- Gange experience: NYE camping and Varanasi

India is a Country of big contrasts, incredible beauty and ancient culture as well as shocking poverty, poor hygienic conditions and pile of trash and smog.

Few weeks before our departure, the international news broadcasted images of the Taj Mahal covered in a orange thick fog caused by the excess of smog. I couldn’t believe my eyes and was on the urge of crying.

I was about to visit one of the 7 World Wonders and I may not be able to see it from a short distance because of the smog?

Luckily, within a couple of weeks the situation got better and when we visited on our North India tour package there was nothing left but clear blue sky.
On the other hand, we experienced some problems related to the local currency because November 2016 (only a month before we visited), the Indian government had taken the 1,000 and 500 rupiah notes out of the market, willing to tackle the black money, so you had to pay attention to not get any of those as a change as they were valueless.
Also, they had set the daily limit to withdraw from cash machine at 2,000 Rps which was more or less 70$ (the limit was then removed in 2017). Not easy for us who were going to travel to non-touristy areas and needed some cash to take with us.
Anyway, a part from long queues at the cash machines, we managed to withdraw just enough money for our trip.

North India tour package must-sees: Delhi and Agra

Our North India tour package started on Christmas day when we travelled by plane from Milan to Delhi in order to get cheaper flight fares.
We wanted to travel light since in the itinerary many local transfers and different hotels were involved, so we managed to take our backpacks as cabin luggage (if you want to know how to make the most of your backpack, read the article What to pack).
We landed early morning and took a taxi to the hotel where the group meeting was scheduled at 6pm. Since we knew we would arrive in the morning, we had already booked an early check-in so that we could take a shower and get some rest.

The taxi ride immediately confirmed my image of the crazy and noisy Indian traffic where honking cars, scooters undertaking from any side, rickshaws risking their lives and careless cows, move side-by-side without disturbing each other. An art typical to many Asian metropolis and unimaginable for Europeans.

We got at the hotel at dawn and the front door was closed with a rolling shutter. Tired and worried, we got closer to look for an entry phone and almost walked over a small man sleeping on a piece of carton on the pavement. The man, who we discovered to be the hotel night guard, woke up promptly and disappeared to open the entry gate.
Checked-in, we went straight into bed setting our alarm clock at 5pm, just in time for a quick shower before the group meeting, we thought…
We were wrong, in fact we got waken up by our guide phoning us from the reception and hurrying us up because the group was leaving!

Half asleep and confused, we rushed down to the hall, to discover that it was only 3 pm and part of the group had gathered to go for a walking tour of Delhi centre. Not a big deal, we soon got back on track and actually appreciated the opportunity to visit the city, that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see since the following day we had to leave early for the start of our trip.

Delhi temple & mosque

We visited the Sheeshganj Gurudwara, better known as the Sikh Temple .
Sikh religion is the 4th biggest in India and derived from Hinduism in the 15th century but refusing the cast system. Sikh devotees respect the 5 Ks which are:
1- Kesh: uncut hair, that men cover with a turban
2- Kangha: wooden comb
3- Kara: steel bracelet
4- Kachera: cotton underwear
5- Kirpan: steel weapon

The religion enhances people to share and volunteer that’s why at the Sikh temple every day hundreds of volunteers help to serve thousands of free meals.

To enter the temple, you are required to leave your shoes outside, which means you have to walk barefoot for few meters on the pavement before entering the marble courtyard through a pool of cleansing water. You also have to cover your hair with a turban or scarf (available locally to borrow).

The most impressive part for us was the common kitchen called Langar , where volunteers prepare chapati bread and a huge amount of food into big pots to cater thousands of people.

common kitchen Delhi Temple

Next we moved to Jama Masjid, the Delhi’s largest mosque, with two 40m tall minarets and 3 marble domes. Built in the 17th century in red sandstone and marble, it is a true masterpiece of architecture, featuring a courtyard able to host 25,000 people.

The mosque is free entrance but you are asked a fee to take pictures. You have to leave your shoes outside and be properly dressed.

Delhi Mosque

We tried to catch a rickshaw to come back to the hotel but got stuck in the traffic so after 10 minutes and only 10m ride, we made a U-turn and opted for the metro.

Agra: Taj Mahal & Red Fort

Second day of our North India tour package started with an early departure towards Agra. Here we visited a carpet factory, one of the very few that still produces hand-knotted carpets (about 80 per day, considering that to make one it takes 3-4 months!) employing around 40 families in the area, including this cute grandpa who had the arduous job of counting the knots and check if any mistake occurred in the pattern.

After lunch we headed to what we thought to be The Highlight of the trip: the Taj Mahal.

Being sunset the busiest time of the day and Christmas holidays the peak season, both for international travellers and locals, there were thousands of visitors!

However, the site is so big (a complex set in 17 hectares of English garden), that walking around you can find a quiet spot where to sit down and enjoy.

Taj is undoubtedly a masterpiece, both for its architecture (it’s not by chance that it is a Unesco World Heritage listed site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World) and for its story, celebrating for a change not a religion but love.

Indeed, Taj was built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his wife who died giving birth to their last son. It took more than 15 years to finish it, though some buildings were added later.

We spent 3 hours at Taj Mahal and frankly could have stayed even longer. Three hours is a good amount of time to take pictures, visit the octagonal tomb chamber and sit down to simply contemplate its beauty while painted by the warm colors of sunset. Definetaly one of the most memorable moments of our North india tour package.

Mind there can be quite a long queue to get inside the mausoleum where both tombs of the Emperor’s and his wife are, though international visitors are granted a priority ticket that allows you to skip the 2 hour long line that locals have to patiently wait.

In Agra, we also visited the Akbar’s Mausoleum, a beautiful sandstone and marble tomb commemorating the greatest of the Mughal emperors, featuring a huge courtyard and gardens where monkeys and deer can be spotted, because it used to be an English hunting palace.

Another really impressive complex is the Agra Fort, also known as Red Fort for the 2,5 Km red sandstone walls that encircle it. The stronghold was partly a palace and partly a prison. Built in the 16th century by Emperor Akbar as a military structure, it was later turned into a palace by his grandson Shah Jahan, the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal.

One of the most beautiful part is the Khas Mahal, white marble vaulted structure and the nearby octagonal tower where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son and from where he could look at Taj Mahal and his wife’s tomb.

Orchha: the off-the-beaten path highlight of our North India tour package

Each itinerary by Intrepid Travel always includes an off-the-beaten path highlight and a responsible tourism project. On our North India tour package both highlights were in Orchha, a small rural town in the State of Madhya Pradesh.

Set on the banks of the Betwa River, where all the action takes place, Orchha appears today as a quiet and laid -back town that you wouldn’t imagine it was a glorious reign for almost 300 years, of which many beautiful Mughul temples and palaces are left.

We spent three days here visiting some of them, such as the massive Orchha Palace Jahangir Mahal. This 3-storey palace with 100 rooms overlooking the inner court ,was built in the 17th century by King Vir Sing Deo for his friend Mughal Emperor Jehangir, who apparently only spent 1 day there.

Orchha Palace

On our free time we visited also the Chhatris, a complex of 14 funerary memorials of the royal rulers of Orchha, set in a park on the riverbanks from where you can enjoy a lovely view on the river and spot vultures.

Though local tourists prefer to take pictures with Miles 🙂

Picture with locals in Orchha

Our favourite spot in Orchha was definetely the Laxmi Narayan Temple, located on a small hill only 10 minute drive by tuk tuk, with its unusual shape and lovely frescoes in Mughul and Bundel style.

During our stay in Orchha we also took part to the Ram Raja Temple puja ceremony in the evening when hundreds of devotees join in to pray. In fact, Ram Raja is a Hindu pilgrimage temple that receives thousands of visitors, mainly domestic, per day.

Besides the temples, we soon realized that the real action in town was at the river, so we enjoyed spending some time at morning or sunset to sit on the riverbank steps watching the display of daily activities: people bathing, doing laundry (including bedlinen and towels from our hotel), loaded trucks and workers travelling to work.

We could easily tell it was not a touristy town from the curious way locals looked at us, that sometimes became almost embarrassing, though we also saw some interesting attempts of tourist activity 🙂

Orchha river rafting

It was nice also to stroll along the town lanes to see the local artisan shops and jobs.

For those who really cannot make it without coffee and internet, you can stop at the Ramraja Café, small restaurant open all day long, offering good affordable food, free wifi and a terrace.

The hotel we stayed at was supposedly an heritage property, but the cleanliness of the rooms was a bit poor, though it had a nice garden and a swimming pool.

As always, very interesting was the visit to the responsible tourism project. Taragram is a paper making factory that supports the local community employing tribal women, producing a sustainable product, paper made out of wool pulp and recycled clothing.

Last night, just before boarding a 15-hour overnight train, we attended a home-cooking class at Vandna, a young woman who welcomes travelers at her house teaching you the secret of typical Indian dishes like chai tea (spiced tea), aloo palak (spinach and potatoes), curry dhal (lentils with curry) and, of course, chapati bread (unleavened bread).

common class Orchha

I must admit that when we first arrived in Orchha, we were worried that three days here would have been overrated if compared to the little time we spent in other more popular locations, but by the end of the trip we learned to appreciate Orchha and its laid-back atmosphere, a place you could spend some time just wandering off its streets and be able to witness the authentic soul of India.
It turned our to be an expected highlight of our North India tour package.

daily life Orchha

Gange experience: NYE camping and Varanasi

overnight train India

You cannot visit India without a Gange experience. And what an experience!
After 15-hour overnight train from Orchha to Allahabad and another 2 hr minibus drive across rural India, we reached the riverbank from where we set off for a real Gange experience.
First of all, we were late. Normal in India where you cannot rely on train schedules. Instead of arriving early afternoon, we reached the Gange banks at dusk. It was foggy and we didn’t know where to nor how long the boat trip would have taken us.

We boarded 3 rowing boats that travelled for more than 2 hours in a surreal misty and dark atmosphere.

boatmen Gange India

We were sitting on cushions and wrapped in blankets as the air was quite chilly. Luckily we got distracted by the most amazing food we ever tasted on this trip, cooked by local boatmen on the “floating kitchen” travelling with us and handed over from one boat to the other. Aloo matar (potatoes and peas), roasted baby aubergines that melted in your mouth and other delicious vegetarian dishes seasoned with a mixture of tasty spices and accompanied with rice and chapati bread.

We had no idea where we were going, the boats were not provided with any light so we tried to help with our head lamps until we literally hit the land and disembarked on a tiny sand island in the middle of the Gange with no life whatsoever. The boatmen set up 6 tents for the 12 of us and a “toilet tent”, before cooking another delicious dinner including also French fries!

On our North India tour package we also experienced one of the most unusual NYE ever!
Indeed, we celebrated New Year’s Eve chatting around a bonfire and with some fireworks that our guide Sana surprised us with.

Next morning we travelled for another 3 hours approximately with our trusted rowing men to reach Chunar, from where we continued by minibus for 2 hrs drive to Varanasi.

During the boat trip we spotted dromedaries and freshwater dolphins (never heard of them before) and also met some fishermen boats. Our travel mates travelling on the other boat were less lucky and apparently saw a floating dead body!

Varanasi embodies for me the essence of India with all its contrasts: big, hectic, crowded, smelly as well colorful and spiritual.

The city is world popular for its ghats (riverfront steps) used to get access to the water for bathing, rituals and cremations .
The first night we headed to Dasaswamedh Ghat, where each evening the Ganga Aarti (devotional ritual to Ganga, goddess of the holiest river in India) takes place. A choreographic ceremony performed with incense and flaming lamps overlooking the river where flocks of devotees alongside with tourists appreciate the show from their boats.

Ganga Aarti ceremony Varanasi

On the way back to the hotel, we took part to a sunset candle ceremony, lighting candles that we released on the Gange expressing our wishes for the new year.

candle ceremony Gange river

Next day, we took a walk through the alleyways of Varanasi as far as the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats (where the cremations take place), experiencing a mixture of smells and sensations that punch you straight into the stomach.

There are more than one cremation taking place at the same time and the fire is said to never die out as many Indian families take their beloved here for the ceremony, being Varanasi considered to be the holiest place in India.

It is moving on one hand to see how much Indians pay respect to their dead people and how fully devoted they are to the Gange. On the other hand, it is pretty shocking to see the juxtaposition of the crematorium, people bathing and washing their teeth together with cows, hotels doing their laundry, one next to the other.

We also had some free time to stroll around Varanasi and do some shopping before continuing to Nepal. We stopped at a cashmere shop at the local bazaar where we have been taught how to tell a real cashmere scarf from a fake one.
Do you wanna know?
Simple, you have to lit fire to one thread (I know, it sounds scary) and if it burns it means the fabric is synthetic so no real cashmere. Good to know, though I find it difficult when you are contracting in the street or in a shop to ask the vendor to burn the scarf in order to give you proof of its authenticity 🙂

silk shop india

For our last night of our North India tour package before crossing the border to Nepal, the group decided to indulge in some international food after a whole week spent on a vegetarian and alcohol free diet (in the Gange area is forbidden to eat meat and drink alcohol, which is not bad to detox).

Funny enough, the only pizza I ate during the whole trip made me tremendously sick! I won’t get too much into details, but just to give you an idea I woke up 7 times during the night rushing to toilet and had to gulp about 4 tablets of Imodium to control the severe diarrhea before boarding on a 14-hour minibus drive that would have taken us to Lumbini.
Don’t ask me how I managed to make it safely to the other side, especially when the driver dropped us with our backpacks and told us we had to walk our way across the border going through both Indian and Nepalese immigration offices. I was pretty hysterical at that point, but made it through and happily reached Nepal, were I immediately felt at peace.

Did I love or hate India?

Hard to say, I think I am actually in the middle. I can’t say I hated it because I had such great experiences and good memories. Truth is, India is hectic and dirty but also colorful, spiritual and full of flavors. I wouldn’t say it is beautiful, but definetely interesting and fascinating, and I think that everybody should visit it once in a lifetime because, in the end, it truly is Incredible India.

Want to plan a tour to North India?

We are usually kind of indepent travellers but sometimes we like to join groups and have a guide to get a better experience and simply lay back and enjoy. Planning a trip to India can be quite a challenge, that’s why we suggest to book a North India tour package with Intrepid Travel.

Intrepid Travel

Be aware that if you book tour package you still need to book your own flights and travel insurance.
We usually book our flights with Skyscanner because it is the best to find the cheapest rates but you can also use the green filter to select the most sustainable flight!
For the same reason we use World Nomads travel insurance as they are not only the leader insurance company for intrepid travellers, but they also commit in a give-back program.

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