AFAR Guide to India

Brimming with regional diversity, you can dodge florescent dye at Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, one day and practice yoga in the Himalayas the next. A blend of distinct historical influences, from regional Medieval kingdoms to 18th century European outposts, the cultural differences are as vast as its geographic diversity. Travelers in India find themselves on journey of the senses.

Highlights
Hauz Khas, New Delhi, Delhi, India
Yes, Hauz Khas Village is perhaps most known for its artsy vibe, boutique shops, and trendy restaurants. But before it became a lively commercial district, Hauz Kaus was (and remains) a 13th-century historical complex with a mosque, tombs, and an Islamic seminary. Take a break from the bustle of shopping and dining to explore the sites from Muslim royalty, then spend some time at the charming lake with its swans, ducks, and other wildlife.
Netaji Subhash Marg, Lal Qila, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi 110006, India
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Red Fort, located in New Delhi, is a treasure trove of cultural history. You can spend hours wandering among the various buildings, learning much about the history of India. Tucked away within the walls of the Red Fort is the Hall of Public Audience. Don’t be fooled by the modest red exterior, for once you cross the threshold you are greeted by intricately detailed inlaid-paneled walls that run from the floor to the canopy-ceiling. It is within this chamber that the emperor would receive people from the community and hear their complaints. (I entered this building to whine about the 104-degree heat, but alas, there was no emperor available, as it was far too hot.)
Jama Masjid Rd, Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi 110006, India
Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, was commissioned by Shah Jahan, the same emperor who built the iconic Taj Mahal for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Completed in 1656, the courtyard of Jama Masjid can accommodate 25,000 devotees. Visitors must comply with a dress code; traditional robes can be rented at the northern gate. The mosque is located in Old Delhi near other notable sites, including the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk market, so schedule extra time to explore the area. Note: No visitors are allowed during prayer hours.
Kaccha Bagh Area, Old Delhi, New Delhi, Delhi 110006, India
Rickshaw rides are common in Chandni Chowk, the vast and crowded market in the Old Delhi quarter, but book a comprehensive rickshaw tour for an immersive experience that lasts longer than 15 minutes. Witness the architectural marvels, multicolored facades, beautifully decorated shops, and the fragrances emanating from the potpourri of eateries that line the historic alleys. The tour covers 20 main sites—palaces, mansions, elegant shrines, and colorful bazaars—and finishes at an 1860 haveli (mansion) where you’ll visit a gallery of photos depicting the lifestyle of Mughals, as well as a small lounge where you can relax and try some typical snacks.
Narchyang, Nepal
In the mountain village of Koto, Nepal, there is a path that branches off the legendary 150-mile Annapurna Circuit and passes—ceremoniously, tantalizingly—through a large stone gate. This trail is off-limits, a nearby sign reads, unless you have a registered guide and a special permit.

Luckily, I’ve got both. I proceed through the stone portal with my guide, Ian, and I pause to spin three Buddhist prayer wheels. With this simple gesture, I leave one of the world’s most popular trails (sadly, the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Coca-Cola Circuit”) and head north into the Forbidden Valley, also known as the Nar-Phu Valley, a Himalayan region where Western visitors are comparatively few and far between.

I’m traveling with Epic Tomato, a new expedition-focused venture from the U.K.-based travel company Black Tomato. Epic Tomato specializes in getting well-traveled, thrill-seeking clients like myself off the grid for serious adventures far away from the normal, more casual tourist circuits.

I’ve gotten off the beaten path before, hiking through the backcountry of Zion National Park in Utah and the Himalayan foothills in India. What makes this trek different is that despite the remoteness, you encounter people who actually live in the mountains you’re hiking.

This ancient route opened to limited trekking in 2003. The trickle of tourists has brought small changes such as new wire suspension bridges and widened ledges—improvements that make the journey slightly less mythic than it once was, and considerably less harrowing. But remarkably, the valley, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, are much the same as they were centuries ago.

Hours after spinning the prayer wheels in Koto, we are well on our way to the next village, Phu. Inaccessible by road and three days away by foot, Phu is one of the most remote villages in Asia.

The path is cut into a rock face high above the Phu River. To my right, a slope bursts with tall pines and firs; to my left I stare down at the rumbling river. At one point, I squeeze myself against a ledge to let a donkey train pass underneath a waterfall. Later on, I find myself behind a lone villager.

After spending the night in a rustic campsite, we start hiking at seven the next morning; soon the deep, narrow gorge opens and we find ourselves on a terraced plateau dotted with wind-bent junipers. Pisang Peak rises into perfect blue skies; across the river sits a red-roofed monastery. In the late afternoon, we pitch our tents amid a jumble of abandoned, straw-roofed homes. I sit atop one, thinking big thoughts and eventually none at all.

The landscape becomes yet more austere on day three, as we hit 13,000 feet and counting. We arrive at Phu, a honeycomb of simple, flat-roofed houses packed onto a hillside. A dusty village hemmed in by mountains, Phu is a place of scant resources. Piles of firewood, gathered on long, back-breaking walks, double as insulation. Yak herders shout at each other across the hills. “Nepali cell phone,” Ian jokes.

The next morning, I wake before everyone around me. I leave my tent to contemplate the fading stars when I notice the outline of a villager trudging toward me. He’s heading into the hills, a basket on his back, and as he passes me in the half-light, he gives me a knowing smile—as though, today at least, we belong to the same brotherhood of early risers.

The Tibetan border is two days’ walk to the north but closed to foreigners. I exit the village by the same route I entered and begin the two-day journey back. It’s a rapid comedown, and not just in terms of altitude. I felt like a privileged guest in this isolated land of rock and wind, where the solitude was as intense as any I’ve ever felt, even as I shared it with people who have inhabited the Nar-Phu Valley for centuries.

Nar-Phu Valley Trek with Epic Tomato, (888) 341-9663, epictomato.com. From $9,189 for a 15-day trip including meals, accommodations, and charter flights within Nepal. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.

Zeba Centre, Mathuradas Mill Compound,, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400013, India
Opened in 2007, Blue Frog is a theater, restaurant, club, and record label housed within an old textile mill. From a futuristic pod, you can watch live musical performances by artists such as composer and percussionist Talvin Singh. 91/(0) 22-6158-6158.
Shahid Bhagat Singh Rd
New art spaces abound across South Mumbai, notably in the districts of Fort and Kala Ghoda, which hosts the Kala Ghoda arts festival in February. The Chemould Prescott Road gallery focuses on well-known contemporary Indian artists, including the painter Atul Dodiya. Galerie Isa exhibits the work of international talent such as the sculptures of German artist Anselm Reyle (shown).
Apollo Bandar, Colaba, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001, India
Facing the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India monument, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel blends Moorish, Florentine, and Indian architecture. The historic palace wing reopened in 2010 with 243 new rooms and 42 suites, including one that houses the sitar on which legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar composed his Concerto No. 1. George Harrison checked into the Taj in 1966 to take lessons from the maestro.
Raja Katra, Jorasanko, Kolkata, West Bengal 700007, India
While traveling around India I learned to expect the unexpected. Every turn delivered a surprise. When I was in Calcutta, a traffic jam forced my guide and I to abandon our tax ride to the Marble Palace. As we stumbled out the cab door we found ourselves amidst a frenetic fruit auction. My guide, who grew up in Calcutta, told me she’d heard rumors of this fruit market but had never been able to find it. She thought it was just a myth. The fruit vendors—all men—seemed just as startled to see two women running past the piles of oranges and bunches of bananas. The market was so frenetic that became swept up in the hustle and eventually reached a dead end. Our only choice was to turn around and run the citrus gauntlet again. Vendors waved slices of oranges in our face and we finally stopped and agreed to have a taste, which brought about cheers from the fruit hawkers. I was so amazed that simply stepping down the wrong street could put me in this crazy moment.
Tarn Taran Sahib, Punjab 143401, India
Sikhs and non-Sikhs go to Amritsar for one reason – to see the Golden Temple (Hamandir Sahib) so, that is what I did on my most recent trip to India. Except, I went on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday which is a national holiday in India and because of that, I expected the place to be crowded with locals enjoying a day off. It was indeed crowded so much so I could barely walk. I returned the next day thinking it would be better and it was but it was still packed with people. I did manage to see the place but not quite in the way that I wanted to experience a holy site. So, I hopped in a taxi and went down the road to Tarn Taran Sahib. There, I found a place of religious tranquility and a golden temple that was just as beautiful albeit on a smaller scale. Sikh devotees were out and about but there was not a throng of people. It was just the place I was looking for!
Queens Rd
I happened upon this moment at a night market in Jaipur, India, which has some of the best shopping for beaded crafts, jewelry, ceramics, carpets and textiles. This jewelry stand in Johari Bazaar was crowded with women interested in the necklaces, bracelets, and trinkets on offer in abundance. Markets all over India are fascinating, colorful places and provide a great sense of nearly every aspect of the culture, whether it be the degree of religious devotion, the styles of dress and adornment, or the delicious gastronomy. Soak it all in, but give yourself plenty of time....
Babaji Ka Modh, Goner Rd, Jagdish Colony, Prem Nagar, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302031, India
Situated on 32 acres of land on the outskirts of Jaipur—but still a quick drive from the city’s historic forts and palaces—this massive hotel mixes traditional Rajasthani style with modern amenities. Although there are a number of lovely garden rooms with four-poster beds and deep soaking tubs, many travelers opt for the property’s tent-style accommodations, with campaign-style furnishings and block-printed fabrics, or splurge on one of the villas, which come with private pools. Restaurants are just as romantic, serving Indian specialties against a backdrop of gold-leaf details, cane-backed pieces, and intricately carved architecture. While The Oberoi Rajvilas makes a great base for exploring Jaipur, it also offers plenty to do right on the property, including a luxury spa, gigantic swimming pool, cooking classes, and meditation sessions with the resident Hindu priest.
B1/163, Nagwa Rd, opp. River Ganga, Assi ghat, Shivala, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005, India
Varanasi is a city of beautiful chaos. Located on the banks of the Ganges River, it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and also one of the holiest. The river is the pulse of the city and it’s worth setting your alarm so that you can be on the water for sunrise. Locals descend the ghats (the stairs leading down to the banks of the river) to bathe, pilgrims perform Hindu ceremonies, and women wash their laundry then hang it along the stairs to dry. Even more fascinating are the burning ghats that send plumes of smoke and flames into the air as they cremate the bodies of the dead. Anyone visiting Varanasi must read Geoff Dyer’s book “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.” It perfectly captures the spirit of the city.
Agra Fort, Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282003, India
Dating back to 1080, the Agra Fort still holds much of its original splendor.
11, Sido Kanhu Dahar, Maidan, Esplanade, Chowringhee North, Bow Barracks, Kolkata, West Bengal 700069, India
Sugarcane juice is a popular drink on the streets of India. It’s the perfect thirst quencher on a hot day. When I was in Calcutta I was mesmerized as I watched vendors, like the one above, extract juice by pushing raw sugar cane through a traditional wheel press. The old-school juicer looks like a whirling pin wheel as the vendor pushes the cane through. The vendor passes the cane through the press at least a half dozen or so times, extracting every bit of juice and the wheel gets harder to turn as the cane dries out. The final cup of sugarcane juice gets served with ginger or lime. Make sure you ask them to hold the ice.
Azad Nagar, Colaba, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400005, India
Every morning, the Sassoon docks in the Colaba district of Mumbai fill with locals, young and old, who load baskets, bowls, and crates with all manner of Arabian sea life. I stood mesmerized watching women in beautiful bright saris balance heavy bowls of shrimp on their heads. Then this cart rolled by, carrying the largest fish I had ever seen. I felt almost intrusive taking photos of people so hard at work, so I put my camera and even my sunglasses in my purse and quietly observed the energy of the market. The entrance to the fish market is next to the Women’s Graduate Union or the Amy Rustomjee hall in Colaba. It’s an easy walk from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. The market is most lively before 8am.
So long as you don’t mind a little bit of sand in your knickers, a night in the Thar Desert under a star lit sky is an experience unlike anything you’ve experienced in your entire life. We rode out into the desert on ill-tempered camels, bouncing and bopping so hard I thought I would crash back to earth at any moment. Our guides tossed a few bedrolls and pillows onto the sand and told us to enjoy ourselves - and watch out for scorpions (though I well and truly believe that they were only kidding). We wrapped ourselves in blankets and marveled at the constellations overhead - The Stooges, Mel Gibson, and the Flying Camel being my favorites - and marveled at the quiet of the night. Though India is home to well over a billion people, it felt as if we were alone out there in the desert. And then our camel farted, and we knew we were not alone. Just about every taxi driver or hotel operator in Delhi or nearby Jaisalmer can put together a camel tour for you - and I suggest you do it. At roughly $20, it’s a steal of an experience. Photo Note: I put my camera on a tripod for this frame, opened the shutter for about a minute and a half, and popped off a few quick flashes with a handheld speedlight to illuminate the cart and our guide. A large aperture helped expose the stars, while a shutter speed of roughly 30 seconds helped keep them in place.
Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
The Taj Mahal is referred to as “the jewel of Muslim art in India,” by UNESCO in its listing on the World Heritage Site registry. The Mughal ruler Shah Jahan had the truly magnificent white marble mausoleum built in 1632–1648, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. For its construction, artisans from all over the empire, Central Asia, Iran, were summoned and the final result of their stonework, calligraphy, carvings, gardening, woodwork, and soaring domes remains one of the universally admired masterpieces of world heritage. Allot ample time to tour the site—besides the mausoleum, there is a mosque, a guest house, cloisters, courtyards, gates, and vast gardens. In addition to being stunningly beautiful from afar, the iconic site is evocatively romantic and up-close, the intricate details in its architecture, ornamentation, and history, are revealed.