Your guide to travelling North India
Are you planning on travelling North India? Well, here you will find all of the information you NEED to know about creating your dream trip to this incredible part of the world. You will also find my free top ten tips on how to save money and maximise your time. I am sure you will find these infinitely useful in the future, and you can use them throughout your travels.
I know travelling North India can seem both alluring and terrifying at the same time. We have all heard about the grand palaces of the Maharajas and seen the tiger filled jungles on wildlife documentaries. We have also all heard of the extreme poverty, the maddening crowds, and it being a little iffy for female backpackers.
I am not going to try and lie to you and say travel here is without its challenges because there are plenty. However, the truth is that like anything in life, nothing is ever as bad as you think it’s going to be. No blog will be able to shield you from the intense culture shock that comes with travel here. However, by reading this you will at least have a better idea of what is coming and how to get the most out of your time.
North India is enthralling behind belief, and its people are incredibly hospitable. Those grand palaces of the Maharajahs are indeed grand, and those tiger filled jungles are so much more exotic than those documentaries could ever give justice to. In fact, there are dozens of reasons to come to this whimsical corner of the universe, from the mouth-watering cuisine to one of the most vibrant and colourful cultures on the planet. Whatever it is that puts the wind in your hair, India has you covered. So let us jump straight in and have a look at what you need to know about travel here.
The climate in Northern India.
Like anywhere in the world right now, seasons are not as regular as they used to be due to global warming, but what I am about to tell you will make for a pretty good framework.
Unfortunately, the rains can fail altogether, and this spells disaster for the people whose lively hood depends on regular weather patterns. This happens naturally, of cause, but it has happened a lot more frequently in recent years. The problem has been made much worse by brutal and prolonged summers. In a part of the world where there is a massive population that depends almost solely on groundwater, it does not take a genius to see the possibility of disaster.
There are three distinct seasons in the North of the country, and I have travelled in them all. I am in a position to be able to tell you there are pros and cons to each of them. I will now give a brief overview of my experience, and you can decide what one suits you best. I know for many of you it will be a case of whatever time you can get off work is when you will be travelling, but at least you will have a good idea of what is coming.
- Winter is everyone’s favourite time to visit the vast portion of North India. It is cool, and everything is still green from the monsoon that has hopefully soaked everything for months. You will need a jumper for the nights in the desert, and if you plan on visiting any of the hill stations such as Mount Abu, It can get damn right cold. However, it is a pleasant respite from the baking heat that forms most of the year. The winter runs from approximately October to January, and there is no denying this is the most pleasant time to travel, although you will pay through the teeth for it.
- Spring turns into summer quickly. It starts getting hotter from February and culminates into everything being baked senseless by April. The fun does not stop there as those painful months waiting for the rains can easily run right into June, and the thermostat will be circling fifty degrees centigrade daily. At this time, the benefits of travelling if you can stand the searing heat are many. For a start, you will get everything at much lower prices. Not only that it is the best time to visit national parks as everything is dead so you can actually see wildlife.
- The monsoon arrives at some point, hopefully in June or July, and there will bring a deluge over the whole of north India for months on end. That by no stretch of the imagination means the temperature comes down straight away. In fact, June and July are my least favourite times to travel as all that dry heat quickly turns into a steamy sauna. You never really ever get dry while this is going on. Few tourists come at this time so you can continue to enjoy low prices. National parks largely close down, and diseases such as Dengue fever start to make an appearance.
So there you have it. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the climate of Northern India. You can now decide what you can live with and what you want. I hope my no-nonsense evaluation was helpful to you.
The culture of Northern India.
The diversity of culture is one of the definite joys of visiting the north as many faiths coexist side by side, albeit not always harmoniously. Most people are Hindus, and as many of you know there are many gods and there are many ways to practice this faith, presumably because it is so old. That means Hindus can worship in whatever way feels right for him or her. There are temples dedicated to every conceivable god somewhere in the country. There is even a temple dedicated to Royal Enfield motorbikes or even a famous cricket player.
Islam is the second most dominant religion in the country. Muslims can trace their roots back in India for centuries. The Moguls have left an indelible footprint on the architecture, cuisine and culture of north India. Grand mosques can be found in almost every town, and despite them having the same essential layout, some are far from ordinary, like the epic Jama Masjid in Old Delhi.
Sikhs make up the vast population of Punjab, and they have a very different culture from the rest. That means to travel in this state will be quite unlike elsewhere. They follow the teachings primarily of the Guru Nanak, and like Hinduism, there is a big focus on being a good person. Both Jains and Buddhists also live all over north India. These are both ancient cultures that are very much in touch with the environment. Spending time with these people is sure to leave you wide-eyed and asking questions.
A large number of tribal communities are sprinkled across the north in states such as Bihar. The tribes in the Kutch area of Gujarat and the deserts of Western Rajasthan have very distinct customs that are unmistakable. Visiting these places makes for a vastly different experience from everywhere else. The rich diversity of all of this is sure to enrich your journey and must be one of the key reasons why so many of us make a beeline for this country in the beginning.
North Indian food.
North Indian food is heavily laced with spices and tends to contain more oils than the cuisine of the south. It makes everything taste luxurious and rich. It is all delicious, and despite the length of time I have travelled here, I am continually discovering new dishes.
A lot of the food is extremely heavy, so there will is little need to eat three times a day. I would suggest going easy on the local food until you train your belly. The food being so rich will probably give you an upset stomach despite it being so damn nice. When I start a long journey, I often start with a western breakfast if possible and then eat local in the evening until my stomach becomes acclimatised to the new cuisine.
There are a million good restaurants to travel your tastebuds in. It can seem overwhelming to work out where to start. I have a whole post on where to get the best food based on my own experience. If you would like to give some of the same places a whirl check out my post on Indian cuisine.
For more tips on how to stay healthy while you are on the road, please feel free to check out my post on that. In all my years on the road, I have lost count on how many times I have been poorly. Oddly, it has been the same few issues that have come up over and over again. This post is well worth the time it takes to read so that you can avoid some of these pitfalls for yourself.
My top ten tips for travelling North India.
Some of the tips I am about to give you may seem harsh, but they are realistic. Follow them closely, and you will be travelling like a pro in no time. These little tricks come with years of experience and have served me again and again. Now I want to share what I have learned with you in the hope you won’t make the same mistakes I have. It is always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes if you can, after all. Finding this stuff out has been painful and costly. So read on and let me know what you think.
- Tip number one has to be, embrace the chaos. You won’t ever escape the dust, grit, and grime, so don’t try. A whole lot of people live in northern India, so chaos is inevitable. Getting offended every time you see an open sewer in the city will just work out to be bad for your mental health. It’s just the way it is, so accepting it will make you enjoy your trip a whole lot more. Believe me when I say the upside of visiting this incredible part of the country far outweighs the bad.
- Learn the etiquette of crossing the road. That is to just shuffle across the road with your hand out, by the way. The cars just drive around you. Much of the country is devoid of traffic lights but if they are there, use them. Crossing the roads can be genuinely hazardous, and I have seen many fatal injuries over the years. Especially involving young men and motorbikes. If you have to get on the back of one and trust me, sometimes that’s the only way to get somewhere. Check to see if your taxi driver is drunk or not, and insist on a motorbike helmet. Yes, these are genuine issues.
- Save your small change as you will need loads of it. Genuine or not, many places won’t seem to have any. Sometimes they need it fair and square. For example, you can’t pay for a ten-rupee ticket with a two thousand rupee note on the subways. The staff are unlikely to accept it and quite rightly so. However, I find it hard to believe that toilet attendants dont have any when all they do all day is collect the stuff.
- Resist the urge to try and help everyone. It seems against many of our ideals, but there are far too many people who need your help. Not only that, there are countless scams and schemes to get your cash. I always buy food for the needy because, as sad as it seems, food cannot be returned. I like to donate to the disabled as there is no social security system what so ever set up, and if you cant earn, you cant eat. Your money is much needed everywhere, but you should resist giving cash as it seldom gets spent the way you want it to be.
- You will find countless stray dogs and feral monkeys around the cities. As cute as some of them are don’t even think about petting them. They can carry diseases, and some are very dangerous, indeed. Rabies is university fatal once the symptoms begin to show and is a real issue in India. Resist the urge and stay safe. If you do get bitten, clean the wound properly and make your way to the nearest hospital as fast as possible.
- Use government booking offices when planning a train journey. You will find them in every large tourist-friendly city, and they are super helpful for you to know about. They have access to something called the tourist quota, and that’s something an agent or the internet can’t help you with. Trains can get booked up months in advance, and these offices can make seats for the journey you created in the past few minutes on a whim materialise from thin air. To find out more, check out my post on getting around India.
- Bartering is a way of life here, and it is not in our culture. It stands to reason you don’t pay the first price you are quoted, so how much do you pay? My Advise is to start at about half what you were told and meet in the middle. I used to worry about being fair as I don’t want to take food from someone’s mouth. However, no one will sell anything at a loss, so you don’t have to worry too much about paying a fair price. If you want to buy whatever, it is just something you will have to do, so be firm and assertive but not aggressive. Before long, you will get the hang of it and even enjoy the process.
- When organising a hotel room, do not book in advance unless you know it will be super busy like in Jaisalmer in December. I know this can seem scary and even foolhardy. The truth is if you book through a website, you leave no wiggle room for bartering and will automatically pay the maximum amount. If you go through a middle man like booking.com, you will be paying considerably more. As I said, if you come in the peak season, it may be in your interest to simply pay the difference.
- A real pro tip is if you are more than one, dont carry any luggage when searching for your room. One of you can wait with the bags and a cup of chai. While the other can go hotel to hotel searching for the best possible deal. You now have the advantage as it insinuates you already have a room, so the owner will be reluctant to let the custom simply walk out the door. Trust me, it works, and it has saved me thousands of rupees throughout the years.
- My last tip is for the lady readers. Dress modestly, or you will draw a lot of attention. Unless that is what you want, I would strongly advise you to cover up and cover up good. I have seen western girls walking around in their hot pants, and I think, oh my……. They are in for a tough holiday! Not only is it insensitive to the local culture, but you will be sorry when men are asking for the one billionth selfie with you. If you are a female traveller, please take the time to check out this in-depth post on tips that you will almost certainly find helpful.
There you have it. These are my top ten tips that I have not just strung together. These are all things that have helped me throughout the years. Let me know how they work for you when you get the time.
North Indian states.
Where exactly do I mean when I talk about travelling to North India? Well, I checked on google, and I can tell you with some confidence that it is very subjective. Different organisations consider different parts to be the north. So I will talk about the parts I think it is. The purpose of this section is to see what appeals to you and see where it is that gets you going. I often focus on this as the second step in my 5 step plan for planning your perfect trip to India is working out what you actually want out of your trip. It sounds easy, but in truth, it is the hardest part.
Many organisations consider Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttrakhand as part of North India. However, they are very different beasts, and I will write a separate post on these states. The states I will discuss in this post are vastly different from each other, but they all follow a theme.
Gujarat is like Rajasthan in many ways but without the crowds and no less to draw the intrepid traveller’s attention. There are plenty of historical wonders to grab your attention, and you will have many of them largely to yourselves.
The state boasts the whole world’s population of Asiatic Lions and a whole truckload of spectacular wildlife in its harsh interior. There are several national parks where oddly enough, biodiversity gathers in vast numbers. The sun-baked plains create every photographer’s dream, and the impressively unique topography of Kutch plays host to a distinct culture. Towards the border with the infinitely more famous state of Rajasthan, the cultures begin to merge, bringing a kaleidoscope of colour.
This state is not without its downsides, though. Almost no foreign tourists make it out here, so there is no infrastructure what so ever to help you. What’s wrong with that, I hear you say? I am there to experience the local culture? That is, of cause true, but that means there will be almost no budget rooms anywhere. Expect to spend at least one thousand five hundred for a nights stay. It also means there are minimal alternatives to local food. While the food is lip-smackingly good, it can be harsh on the fragile untrained belly.
Hold on to your hats, as this place is sure to blow you away! There is an excellent reason this is one of Indias most visited states. There are not just a couple of places that draw you in. There are dozens, and seeing this Rajasthan in-depth would take you months on end.
Imposing forts and elegant palaces are liberally sprinkled across the whole state. In all reality, it is tough to know where to focus your attention if you only have two weeks. There is just too much to experience here in that tiny amount of time, and it can seem overwhelming to have to decide. I have a whole section of my website dedicated to Rajasthani travel. This will hopefully help with a little inspiration on that massive subject. Also, check out my post on tips for travel in Rajasthan, as it pays to be in the know when it comes to dealing with the intensity of it all.
Even the state capital of Jaipur has oodles to keep you entertained. There is a whole portion of the city that is like one giant museum thats painted red. The Halwa Mahal is a Palace that was built for the Mogul emperors harem. Today it still dominates the skyline of the old town and it is incredibly elegant. Amber fort is simply the crowning glory of Jaipur. This city alone can keep you busy for days. It is within close proximity to many of the countries premier attractions such as Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Dehli. Most peoples trips to Rajasthan will include a visit here and for an excellent reason.
Rajasthan has approximately eighty million people living in it. Or about a quarter of the whole population of the United States of America is all crammed in an area the size of Texas. Despite that mind-blowing fact, there are still vast swaths of land dedicated to preserving its natural heritage. What’s more, the Hindu people themselves have a great reverence for life. Rajasthan has a distinct feel of a timeless culture awkwardly meeting the 21st century going on.
Ranthambhore is, without question, the premier park in this state. This national park boasts one of the highest concentrations of tigers to be found anywhere on earth. However, dont overlook the smaller protected areas as the state is blessed with an unusual collection of characters that call them home.
Rajasthani food is spectacular, and you will find your self spoiled for the choice with all hearty local cuisine to feast on. The harsh conditions of this state are reflected in the food, and as a chef myself, I find the diversity and complexity of the dishes here to be so very innovative. The people of Rajasthan are overwhelmingly devout Hindus, so there is scarcely a better place you could think of to be a herbivore. Carnivores need not despair as there are plenty of trademark meaty dishes available across the state, and my personal favourite is Lal Mass, and I would implore all whos diet allows it not to miss out!
It is honestly hard to summarise why you should come to this state in just a few sentences. Rajasthan is the epitome of incredible India. When you close your eyes and think of the country’s romantic ideals, you will probably envision Maharajas living in grand palaces. Tigers roaming around incredible landscapes that could be straight from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Yeah, well, that’s here! So dont miss out on your chance to absorb yourself in everything this state has to offer.
New Delhi is an epic city and deserves a portion of my post all to itself. Many travellers rush off from Delhi just as fast as possible to get to the nearby show-stopping sights of this part of the country. It should surprise no one to find out Delhi has plenty of its own incredible sights to enjoy.
For those who can push past the bustling intensity of this city, you will be blessed with ancient monuments and a fantastic cultural experience. Few people will spend time strolling around Old Delhi and leave thinking it wasn’t worth it. There is so much here to explore, and it is all connected by a super-fast subway system. That means you can get from one point of interest to the next in almost no time at all.
Not to mention a beguiling array of places to eat out and some of the very best food to be had on the whole subcontinent. Let’s face it, travelling our tastebuds is one of the true joys of travel, isn’t it? That is why I have written my brand new blog on the best places to eat in New Dehli, so check it out if you are heading here.
If you don’t believe there is as much here as I am making out, open the Lonely Planet and see how many pages are needed to describe all the places for travellers to visit. Please give New Delhi the respect it deserves. Although I know it can seem daunting to spend time in its congested and polluted streets. Trust me; if you can push past that, you will not be disappointed. If you like my recommendations, feel free to check out my post on my favourite things to do in Old Dehli. Lord knows there are so many to choose from.
Punjab and Haryana.
The undisputed heavyweight attraction here is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and what a sight it is too. The temple is the focal point for the Sikh people, and devotees come in mass to see it. Experiencing it for yourself is intense and deeply moving. It is so much more than just a temple. It is what I consider the closest thing to altruism that you could possibly hope to find.
The Golden Temple is home to the busiest kitchen on earth. It caters for at least 80,000 people a day and as much as 100,000! From a chefs perspective, they are mind-boggling numbers and what is way more extraordinary is that it is all free. It is paid for out of the pockets of the Sikh people themselves, who also come to cook for the rich and poor alike. The Kitchen runs around the clock and always delivers tasty vegetarian food.
If you do make your way here, do not stay anywhere else but with the pilgrims inside the temple. There are proper beds available, and its a humbling experience indeed to know the devotes sleep on the marble floors to make sure visitors have a bed. There is no sales pitch, and no one wants anything from you except maybe a selfy. Buses even pick up people from the station and then take you to the temple at no cost. The people are so unbelievably kind it is easily overwhelming.
When it is time to leave, there is no hard sale, or you secretly owe this. No, I just got a big genuine smile and a thank you for coming. There are donation boxes, of course. I gave generously as I have a conscience after all, and I would hate to take advantage of an incredible act of kindness. However, no one enforces this or expects it. You could just walk out if you wish. I have never seen anything like it, and a trip here will most certainly stay with you forever.
For another off the chain kind of experience in India, head to the Wagha border. Here you can witness the daily closing ceremony between India and Pakistan’s border. Thank me later as it is so deliciously weird, and the sense of national pride is incredible.
Outside of Amritsar, you will be hard-pressed to find many backpackers, and that is not to say there is not a smattering of places to enjoy. I found Patiala to be very interesting but get ready for no infrastructure and a lot of curiosity from the local people.
Before I wrap up what’s good in this part of the world, I have to mention the food. It would be rude not too as it is amazing. Sikhs seem to eat a lot of meat. The dishes are rich and complex in flavour. If I had to choose one single dish, I would say Kulcha is absolutely incredible, although the amount of oil used in its production could probably kill you faster than a crack addiction. Honestly, speaking, who cares when it tastes that good?
Bihar and Jharkhand.
These are Indias poorest states, and if you ask most travellers or even locals, they will probably advise you not to go anywhere near either part. I have travelled quite extensively across the two, and I have experienced no ill-feeling but a lot of curiosity towards outsiders. In my personal opinion, these parts get a bad rep. The landscapes are incredibly scenic, and culturally both states are fascinating.
Again there is one clear standout drawcard here, and that is Bodhgaya. It is the place where the Lord Buddha came to become enlightened all those years ago. Today it draws in devotes and visitors alike from around the world. If you do come to this state, please do not neglect to come here. It is an unforgettable experience, even if you are not looking to meditate under a bodhi tree yourself.
Outside of Bodhgaya, there are few tourists, and it is a real adventure to travel here. There are a couple of fine national parks and a merge sprinkling of historical ruins. Some are so ancient they are not much more than foundations, as in the case of Nalanda. Dont be fooled into thinking there is nothing here, and yes, there is an element of risk. However, for the intrepid travellers among us, this place is an almost untapped source of wonder.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but this insanely overpopulated and polluted state is one of the countries finest to travel in. You could be asking yourself, how does that work? Well, Uttar Pradesh is home to some of Indias most iconic sights, including the Taj Mahal Fetipur Sikri and the holy city of Varanasi, to name a few.
There are also holy towns galore where the people faiths give rise to a rich tapestry of cultures. Ayodhya and Chitrakoot are my two favourites, and they both rank far higher in my heart than the big hitters.
It should be obvious that centuries of human habitation have worn down the once very fertile Gangetic plains when it comes to wildlife. There are some national parks here, but nothing that stands out from the crowd. Although the Dala Corridor runs from Bardia National Park in Nepal into Dudwa national park in India, and that should be interesting to explore. In all reality, I think I have an Infatuation with the stunning sal forests of the Terai.
Food lovers can rejoice as this part of the globe is home to the infamous Muglai cuisine. Many of the countries most iconic dishes can trace their roots here, so just eating the big hitters can take time. The Times Of India made an article on the top 100 Mughlai dishes! Check it out, see how many you recognise, and then imagine how long it will take to sample the authentic versions.
Places like the Taj Mahal and Varanasi have become so synonymous with India that few tourists will make their way to the north of the country and not make a visit to this great state. There is so much to do in Uttar Pradesh it deserves its own post to put things into perspective, and here it is.
Kolkata and West Bengal.
Kolkata is known as the city of joy, and it certainly is for me. It is hands down my most favourite city to visit in the whole country. It is associated in the west with extreme poverty, and there is certainly a lot of that, but there is so much more. It is not just the grand colonial architecture or its splendid religious buildings that wins my heart.
The whole city exudes charm, and I would not plan on rushing off from here if you have never visited as there is a lot to see. Again here is the link to my in-depth post on what to do in Kolkata, and it is well worth checking out if you will be spending any time here.
Outside of the big city, there is plenty to keep you entertained. There are plenty of ancient places that follow the Hooghly river northward, and the mighty Sundarbans create the worlds largest delta to the south. This place is not just a haven for wildlife; it is essential for preserving ecosystems across the whole of the subcontinent. The Mangrove swamps are well worth your time to visit if you are a nature lover. There are plenty more national parks to choose from that end in the mighty Himalayas to the north.
As you head towards the Himalayas, everything changes. The scenery and the people, wildlife, culture, and food all turn into something else, and it is here in this state where I consider North India to end. The town of Darjiling does not bear any resemblance what so ever to the towns down south, and I think anyone who has been to both would agree when it is you leave North India and move into the much more rugged northeast of the country, But that’s another post.
The food in this part of the world is so good. Strangely most people would not have heard of the many dishes you can get here, and they remain a secret for those who take the time to discover them. Well, aside from Bhuna, that is. When you are in Kolkata, seek out a Kati roll, and dont persecute me if you get fat. One of these things is never enough.
In summary of my post on travelling North India.
So sorry this post was so long, but there is no way to condense down so much information any further when this part of the world is so damn exciting. Remember, the section above is only for inspiration and a brief and honest overview of my experience in each state. If you want any more information on the places listed, pick up a copy of the lonely planet or look at the government website. It is called Incredible India.
Alternatively, you can leave your questions in the box provided, and I will give you a no-nonsense honest answer if I can help. I have actually been to all the places I talk about, so if you want to find out more about somewhere, I would love to be of assistance if I can. If you have any comments about what I am doing wrong or can do better, then I would love to hear them as I want to Deliver the service you need. Let’s make this interactive.
I hope you have enjoyed my work and have found it of value. Despite how long this post is, I actually really enjoyed writing it, so I hope you enjoyed reading it as half as much as I enjoyed writing it. Well, with that said, my post is done. So until the next time, my fellow intrepid traveller’s happy trails.
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