Are you backpacking India soon? After years and years of just wishing for it, I finally made it to India early this year, visiting six northern cities for three weeks (I’m a slow traveler!).
Some of the beliefs I’d had of the country was merely confirmed (yep, cows are everywhere), while others were relegated to the realms of myths.
One thing was clear, though: Incredible India was everything I had expected, and more! Here’s a brief write-up of the cities I visited when I backpacked in northern India.
Kolkata, the City of Joy
Kolkata was my entry and exit point in India. Somehow, it didn’t occur to me that I could arrive there and fly out in another city, otherwise, I could have saved a lot of time. However, I do love taking overnight trains, and the Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Kolkata was certainly the best one I’d taken.
My first impressions of Kolkata included it being very noisy; I couldn’t understand why, even when there was no need to do so, motorists persisted in honking all the time. Honk, honk, honk.
Still, I found Kolkata warm and welcoming. My Couchsurfing hosts—Swarnab and Rita—pulled out all the stops to make sure that I had fun in their city. We went out to local restaurants, watched a three-hour movie documentary about the revolution in Bangladesh, and went to dinner with Swarnab’s mother.
The icing on the cake was the couple’s cats; they could have been horrible to me (fortunately, they were the opposite!) and I would still love them, all because of their babies!
After four days, I bid goodbye to my hosts and their cats and made my way to Howrah, Kolkata’s railway station, to go to Bodh Gaya. Nothing prepared me for it; the station was so big and so full of people that I finally realized I was no longer in familiar territory. This was, indeed, India.
When my train pulled into the station, I had mistakenly thought that the last car was where I was supposed to be. I saw hordes of people lining up to enter it; and thinking it was what everyone was supposed to do, I lined up as well.
Using all my guile and wiliness, I managed to get a seat by the window, besting quite a few people who had also made a beeline for it.
With seemingly hundreds of people rushing to get a seat, it definitely was a huge feat for me to get one by the window! Minutes after I had secured my seat, virtually all available space around me was taken up by other passengers. The long seat meant for one person (lying down) had five people in it; a similar single seat across me was taken up by two people.
Even the luggage rack above my head had people sitting down on it, too. It was definitely crazy.
Some people had tried sharing my single seat but I resolutely refused. I had paid 800 rupees for my ticket and I thought I deserved a seat all to myself. I remember thinking that it was definitely not worth the money I’d paid.
“Is this how I’m supposed to travel in India?” I remember thinking, dismayed by the thought of the discomfort of the hours-long trip. There were people all around me—no space was wasted; people were even sitting down on the floor.
Suddenly, a railway official doing last minute checks spotted me. From the train window, he asked for my ticket, then he told me I was in the wrong car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the next station that I was finally taken to the seat I had paid for (stepping on quite a few fingers and toes on my way out of the train)—a sleeper in an air-conditioned compartment, with none of the crowd in the general compartment.
I was amazed; people travel so differently in India, even on the same train!
Bodh Gaya, the Birthplace of Buddhism
From Kolkata, I spent two nights in Bodh Gaya. I made my rounds among the temples there and spent some time in Mahabodhi, the place where Buddha gained enlightenment.
I had lassi, went around with other hostel guests, celebrated Holi in advance with the schoolchildren, and saw my picture get published in their local and national newspapers. (Read: Celebrating Holi Festival in Bodh Gaya)
If you ever make it to Bodh Gaya, do stay in the Bowl of Compassion, the guesthouse where I’d stayed. Founded by a Couchsurfing member from Germany, it’s the fundraising arm of a non-profit which gives free education to over 80 children in the area. For only 200 rupees a night, it’s definitely worth it!
Life and Death in Varanasi
From Bodh Gaya, I took the overnight train to Varanasi, India’s oldest city and one of its holiest. It lies on the banks of the Ganges River and still practices the death ritual it’s known for: the burning of their dead. When I was there, I saw no floating dead bodies on the river, but I had indeed seen bodies being cremated the traditional way.
It was in Varanasi when I felt, for the first time, how vulnerable I was as a solo female traveler. Walking along the river bank with two Canadians, I became a victim of Eve teasing. I had met so many wonderful friends in my four days of stay in the city, but I will never forget how it felt to be so helpless that day.
When it was time to leave for Agra, I couldn’t wait. Taj Mahal was there, and I knew that Agra would in some ways make me forget what happened in Varanasi.
I had initially planned on staying two nights in Agra, thinking I’d go to the Taj Mahal on my second day. However, I arrived there at 6am, and with my hotel so close to the West Gate, I had decided to see the sunrise immediately after my arrival.
I have read in blogs that Agra—being a highly touristy city because of the Taj Mahal—could be tough to foreigners. However, compared to Varanasi, it felt very tame to me.
I went to the Taj Mahal (use the West Gate and go early to avoid the crowds) and stayed there until 9am, then walked around afterwards. By dawn the next day, I was on my way to Jaipur.
The Pink City of Jaipur
Jaipur was the India I had wanted to see for a long time. It is an old city, gritty and grimy and full of touts accosting you on the streets and taking you on a ride to get commissions from shops selling silks and bags, scarves and other knickknacks.
However, Jaipur had so much charm I was completely bowled over. I had originally planned on staying only for two days, planning to see Udaipur afterwards, but I decided to extend for two more nights, content to just walk around the city. Whatever love for India that I felt had vanished in Varanasi returned tenfold in Jaipur. I could have stayed there forever.
Going Around Delhi, the National Capital
Finally, though, I had to make my way to Delhi. I took the bus, and was met at the terminal by an Indian Express journalist who interviewed me about my experience of solo travel in India. I stayed in the house of a local family—a father, mother, and two sisters so kind that I only felt love and care in their house.
I went out and explored Delhi everyday that I was there, and they were full of advices and suggestions for me, including going on a food tour in Delhi. My stay in the city was made much more memorable with the friendships of Shipra, Neha, and Priyanka, three modern Indian women whose friendship I will always treasure.
Months after my northern India backpacking trip, I wondered if my experiences would have been different if I didn’t go by myself. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter; I travel whether I had companions or not, and not even Varanasi could make me afraid of continuing to travel alone.
I had taken all the precautions I could as a solo traveler there, and what happened had already happened.
India had not always been kind to me when I met her, but I know that someday, I will be back, not only for the food that I loved there and for the friendships I had made, but more importantly, for the country itself with so much history and contradictions. It is Incredible India indeed!