Destination Review: India and Nepal

Sometime in March through May of 2012, I’m hoping to explore India and Nepal.  Being a sub-continent, India is quite diverse in landscapes and religion, but I’m primarily drawn to the opulent, royal historical sites and the rich colorful culture.  Nepal is known for its spectacular Himalayan vistas with trekking expeditions around Mount Everest and the Annapurnas.  Since I’ve never been to these two countries, I did some basic research. . . .

Major Cities / Things to See and Do

Like most tourists to India, I hope to see the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra.  Also on the list is to cruise down the Ganges River in the Hindu holy city of Varansi and explore the Amber Fort in Jaipur.  Ever since seeing the James Bond movie, Octopussy, I’ve been fascinated with the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. This floating palace is like a large, regal pearl in the middle of Lake Pichola and I can’t wait to see it up close and personal!  Heading South, I want to get into the Bollywood spirit in Mumbai and walk the beaches of Goa.

I’ll most likely start exploring Nepal by flying into the capital city of Kathmandu and, after getting a feel for the urban center of Nepal in the “traveler’s ghetto” of Thamel, I’d like to check out Boudhanath (the Buddhist Stupa/shrine) and Durbar Square. Next, I want to head to Pokhara’s lake valley for fantastic Annapurna views.

Taj Mahal

How To Get Around

India is well connected transportation-wise by a railway network, a national highway, and frequent flights between Indian cities.  Trains are more comfortable, but buses are more frequent and, in some areas, buses can be quicker than trains or may be the only way to get to a destination.  I’m told to check all bus options and compare as options can range anywhere from non-air conditioned, bench-like seats, to reclining ‘sleeper’ seats and air conditioned comfort.  For long-haul trips, I will try to find express buses that make fewer stops AND check for reserved seats (otherwise, I’ll be fighting for a seat). Additionally, secure bag storage will be a concern, but sometimes it is worth it to pay more for the peace of mind.  The Indian internal railway system is the largest rail system in Asia and the second largest in the world. Indian railways offer six classes of travel: first-class air conditioned, second-class air conditioned, second-class sleeper, third class air conditioned and air conditioned chair car. For long travel, the best way is an overnight train via ‘AC Second Class Sleeper’.   I’ll be provided with a blanket, sheets, pillow, a towel, and a sleeper berth.  The journey by train in India can be frustrating at times, but is an unforgettable experience and an integral part of the Indian culture.  I will purchase tickets in advance, through a hotel or agent (buying a ticket at the station can be frustrating with unsolicited ‘helpers’, confusing queue’s, and lack of signs in English).  For more information about travel in railway, routes, availability, and prices, visit www.indianrail.gov.in.

Unless I am hiking, the most common mode of traveling from place to place within Nepal is by bus. Domestic flights run between some towns, but it may be difficult to get a seat reservation to popular tourist spots. Railroads are almost non-existent as well as highways (except in some parts of the southern plains). There are two types of bus services: tourist and public. Tourist buses are run by private bus companies or travel agencies and are more expensive than the public buses, but are more comfortable, faster and less crowded. I can get tickets at any travel agency or hotel manager. It is a very good idea to buy tickets in advance and reserve a seat.

 

Major Events

India celebrates many festivals and fairs since just about every day of the year there is a festival (most of them religious) celebrated in some part of the country!  Given my chosen itinerary, I will miss India’s Republic Day (independence) on January 26th, but can look forward to Holi – the first major Hindu (and most colorful) festival of the year – in early March.  Holi celebrates the beginning of Spring and of joy and hope.  The last day of Holi is when locals throw bright, colorful powder at each other – truly a sight to see.The Nepalese Ghode Jatra (Horse Racing Day) occurs in March/April. A large horse parade takes place at Tundikhel, in Kathmandu (previously the largest parade ground in Asia).

 

General Cost Per Day

On average, I can expect to pay roughly US$25 per day in India by staying in the cheapest hotels, traveling on public buses, doing limited sightseeing and eating basic meals. I’ll need to dish out about US$65 per day for nicer hotels, better meals, and more sightseeing. By contrast, in Nepal I could live on $7 dollars a day by staying in budget accommodations and sticking to a basic Nepali diet, however, it’s more realistic to budget about US$20 per day for tourist-oriented restaurants and extra sightseeing.  If I decide to set up an organized trek, I’m probably looking at US$50 per day (gotta cover my extra gear and a guide).

 

Top Cultural Do’s and Don’ts

I found similarities with Thailand & Cambodia while researching cultural do’s and don’ts for India & Nepal.  Mainly, not to touch or point your feet at someone; public displays of affection is frowned upon; and women must dress modestly. Additionally, you should not touch or hand someone anything with your left hand (it is considered unclean as it typically used for one’s “morning business”).Some notable cultural conduct I’ve read for India is that men and women do not usually touch, haggling over price is expected, belching is not offensive (but drinking alcohol and smoking in public is), and people don’t usually converse while eating.  It is also good to know that the shake of the head from side to side in India does not mean ‘no’.

Pokhara

In Nepal, I need to seek permission before entering a Hindu temple and I am prohibited from bringing leather articles inside a temple.  Walking around stupas is traditionally done clockwise and I am counseled to ask permission of a local person before taking their photograph.

 

Outlook on Americans/Political Situation

I’ve read that people in India generally perceive Americans as rich (since even poor Americans lead a much better life than most Indians in poverty), that we don’t have strong family relationships, and that we operate under double standards. I’m sure there is a case for each of those viewpoints.  The U.S. government warns of active anti-western terrorist groups in India and I am cautioned to maintain a heightened situational awareness and a low profile.  Additionally, as a woman, I am urged to respect local dress code, not to travel alone in secluded areas or at night, and use pre-arranged transportation (instead of hailing a taxi on the street).  More information on travel warnings can be found on the U.S. Department of State website , but also check other sources.

American travelers are cautioned about civil unrest in parts of Nepal (Southern regions) as strikes or “Bandhs” can disrupt transportation or become violent.   Nepal has a controlled/fixed, currency exchange rate pegged to the Indian Rupee and the Government of Nepal requires travelers to declare any cash currency carried that exceeds $5,000 in value.  Consequences for violating this requirement could include seizure of all cash carried, fines, and imprisonment. It is illegal to possess 500 or 1,000 Indian Rupee notes in Nepal.

 

Scams and Other Stuff to Watch Out For

Scam artists prey on travelers at major airports, train stations, popular restaurants, and tourist sites.  Also, taxi drivers and train porters can solicit travelers with “come-on” offers of cheap transportation, hotels, and/or tours and goods. I’ve been advised to exercise care when hiring transportation and/or guides and use only well-known travel agents to book trips. Some scam artists have lured travelers by displaying their name on a sign when they leave the airport. Another popular scam is to drop money or to squirt something on the clothing of an unsuspecting traveler and during the distraction to rob them of their valuables.

 

Finding Internet

In December of 2010, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Chairman talked about the Government’s upcoming broadband plan. By 2012, every gram panchayat (local government) in the entire country will be connected to broadband Internet, but for now, 3G services will be concentrated in urban areas. As of June 2009 there were 5,280,000 broadband subscribers. Nepal has broadband, but the quality may be poor.

 

Food


I stumbled upon Food-India.com
that filled me in on what to expect with Indian food.  I learned that the essence of good Indian cooking revolves around the appropriate use of aromatic spices. The Hindu vegetarian tradition is widespread in India. The Muslim tradition is most evident in the cooking of meats – think tandoori (clay oven) and curries. Most meals consist of chapatis or naan (unleavened bread baked on a griddle), rice and an assortment of accessories like dal (lentils), fried vegetables, curries, curd, chutney, and pickles. Meat such as chicken, lamb, and pork are added in many dishes, while coconut and fish are included in Southern Indian dishes. Desserts are derived from a milk pudding or rice base and are usually soaked in syrup. Kheer a form of rice pudding, shahi tukra or bread pudding and kulfi, a nutty ice-cream are other common northern desserts. A meal could be rounded off with the after-dinner paan or betel leaf which holds an assortment of digestive spices like aniseed, cloves, and cardamom.

 

Nepalese cuisine is somewhat basic, but spices and flavorings are used extensively; such as, ginger, garlic, coriander, pepper, cumin, chilies, cilantro, mustard oil, ghee and occasionally yak butter. In most parts of country, especially rice-growing areas, Dal Bhat (pulses and rice) is the staple food of the Nepalese and is eaten twice a day. Snacks include bread, chura (beaten rice), roti (flat bread), curried vegetables, and milked tea. Some famous Nepalese dishes are Gundrook- Dheedo  (maize and dried green vegetable), Alu Tama (Potato Bamboo Shoots), Vegetable Pulao (Fried Nepali Rice), Masu  (curried meat with gravy), Vegetable Thukpa (Egg Noodles), and Chatamari (flat bread “pizza”).

 

From all of the blogs and guidebooks I’ve read, the Indian and Nepaleseare some of the nicest, gentle, and friendliest people I will come across.  I am so looking forward to diving into all these countries have to offer – head first.

Taj Mahal image by DJ SINGH on Flickr
Pokhara image by izahorsky on Flickr 

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