Where To Go, What To Do: North
This is the follow-up post to Where To Go, What To Do: South, which showcases my travels in South India and gives some itinerary planning tips. It also has an overview of what it's like to travel around India, so make sure to check out that one first!
I spent 17 days in Himachal Pradesh (with a few days in Amritsar and Chandigarh added on) in June 2018.
Flight to Amritsar (1 night)
Early morning train to Chandigarh
Overnight bus to Manali (3 nights, including Shabbat)
Bus to Kasol (1 night)
Bus through Manikaran to Kalga (3 nights)
All day and night bus to Dharamshala (6 nights, including Shabbat)
Bus to Kangra, train to Dharamshala (1 night)
Flight to Mumbai
Amritsar - see here
Amritsar was one of my favourite places in India! It was 47 degrees when I went, but it was so interesting I hardly noticed! I stayed directly in the Golden Temple Complex, there's a special room designated for foreigners. It's nothing special, big beds shared by guests, with private lockers. Showers/toilets are massive squat-only situations shared with thousands of non-foreign pilgrims, but they're very clean. You can eat all your meals for free in the Langar, and the whole environment is so special. I would really recommend the experience, although it is rustic. It's by donation, and you can't pre-book. I spent hours in the different areas of the Temple, but you have to leave time for the Mata Lal Devi Temple a 15-minute drive from the Golden Temple, which is another of my favourite Indian Temples.
I also went for a walk through the Old City Bazaars, visited the Silver Temple (less impressive than the Golden Temple), and the Jallianwala Bhag, site of the 1919 massacre, which you can learn about in the museum, but watch the movie Gandhi for more details and context before you go. Many people go to see the border closing ceremony at the nearby Pakistanii border, and I've heard it's very interesting, but I didn't have time for that.
Chandigarh is interesting in theory (it was one of India's first planned cities, designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier), but in practice, it was large, spread out, obscenely hot, and not as interesting as other places. I went for the purpose of taking the toy train up to Shimla, but when I arrived was told that there was a severe drought in Shimla and tourists weren't being allowed in. So I spent the day on a hop-on-hop-off bus around the city that cost 50 cents. There were a number of museums and gardens that were nothing special, but the Chandigarh Rock Garden - a magical artistic labyrinth made of trash collected when the villages were razed to make the new city - was one of the most interesting and critically-constructed attractions I've visited here. Definitely worth it if you're in the area. From Chandigarh I took an overnight sleeper bus up to Manali.
Manali - see here
Manali is split into Upper and Lower. Lower (Old) Manali is full of backpackers, Lower Manali has some shopping areas, but is mostly for domestic tourists. I spent Shabbat in Manali at Chabad. There's a cute open-air backpacker cafe with beautiful views and chilled-out seat cushions up right at the top of Upper Manali, where I breakfasted most days. There are also several cute German Bakeries. If you follow the path past that cute cafe, you can walk to a village called Ghosal. For a while I followed the path through beautiful orchards and forests, but then I lost it and continued along the highway, which was quiet, but not so beautiful. Ghosal was quite remote, and they were having a village festival, which they invited me to sit and participate in. I continued on across the river, up to the Vashisht Waterfall, and through the town of Vashisht. It was a beautiful walk, and I wish I had more time to do it all. I also enjoyed walking Shabbat afternoon in the park between Upper and Lower Manali (It's usually 10 rupees but no one was there to sell me a ticket). Walking down to Lower Manali that way is quite nice, especially because the traffic on the tiny roads is insane (which is almost always), and walking is much faster.
Kasol + Villages - see here
To get to Kasol, you need to go back down the Kullu Valley where Manali is, and switch to a bus which will take you up the Parvati Valley. The roads are terrifying but beautiful. Kasol was nothing much, although I did a short trek across the river and through some small villages which was nice. There's a Chabad there. What people really mean when they say Kasol is the villages up in the hills. From Kasol you can take a bus or share jeep to the end of the road, and from there you have to hike up on foot. It's about 30-40 minutes uphill to Kalga, where I stayed. People also go to Pulga and Tosh. There's no information about it in Lonely Planet, but there's tons of cheap guesthouses. There's not much to do but walk in the forest, speak with the villagers, and relax, which was quite nice.
On the way from Kasol to the village drop-off point, the bus stops in a town called Manikaran. It's worth a few hours walking around. I had free lunch in the Sikh Gurudwara, which is nestled on the riverbank. There are natural hot springs, and a small temple right on top of them. You can see the hot water pouring into the river, and feel the heat from it coming through the tile floor around the Temple. The rice they serve in the Gurudwara is cooked directly in the heat from the hot springs.
Dharamshala - see here
Many people stay in the town called McLeod Ganj, but I stayed in Bhagsu which is a 20-minute, relatively flat walk out of McLeod Ganj. It was much more peaceful there, while still having good restaurants, and an interesting temple on the main road. I went to Chabad for Shabbat dinner, and Lev Yehudi for Shabbat lunch. I also took a cooking class (in Hebrew, but translated from Hindi to English to Hebrew) there for 500 rupees. Other than that Dharamshala is a lot of walking and looking and sitting in cafes. There's another village called Dharamkot, which is a bit of a steep walk up from Bhagsu. Lots of people stay in Dharamkot, and I found some cute cafes, but I walked down a steep steep hill from the top of Dharamkot right into McLeod Ganj and it was beautiful.
Dharamshala is the centre of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and there's many organizations that work with Tibetan refugees. You can visit the Dali Lama's main Temple, which was interesting. Occasionally he speaks, but I didn't see him. There's also a great museum there about Tibetan refugees. Many people do classes in yoga, meditation, etc, but I didn't really have enough time to get into that. The Chabad House in Dharamkot (there's also one in Bagsu) is shaped like 770, which is good fun.
On the way back from Dharamshala, I took the bus to a town called Kangra, which had a semi-interesting fort, although it was definitely too hot to fully appreciate it. From there I caught a train to a town in the Punjab called Pathankot, and another train to Amritsar, where I spent my last night back at the Golden Temple before flying back to Mumbai.
I spent 20 nights travelling from Agra back to Mumbai in February 2019.
Early morning flight to Delhi
Train to Agra (1 night)
Bus to Jaipur (4 nights including Shabbat)
Train to Ajmer and Bus to Pushkar (2 nights)
Bus to Ajmer and train to Jodhpur (1 night)
Overnight train to Jaisalmer (1 night)
Hitchhike to Khuri (3 nights including Shabbat and Camel Safari)
Bus to Jaisalmer, Overnight train to Bikaner (1 night)
Overnight bus to Udaipur (3 nights including Shabbat)
Overnight bus to Mumbai
One of the great things about Rajasthan is that there are so many amazing places to see, and the distances are perfect for sleeper trains and buses, saving you time and also guesthouse money. I think Rajasthan was probably one of my smoothest trips logistically, and I saw some amazing things! Also it was a perfect time of year, there were tourists but it wasn't crazy, and most importantly, it was not hot! During the days I wore a light cardigan and at night I wore a scarf and sweater!
Agra - see here
I loved the vibes of Agra's markets and Old City, and spent a lot of time walking. Most of Agra's sites are controlled by the Architectural Survey of India (ASI), which makes them very expensive for foreigners. My book said the Taj was 700 rupees in 2017, my parents went in 2018 and paid 1000, and I paid 1300. It's worth it though. The other sites were all 300 rupees, which is quite expensive for a minor sight. I visited the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula, which was quite nice, but skipped the others including Agra Fort (800 rupees). Some vendors were quite aggressive, but others were friendlier. I went to the Taj for sunrise, and there were less people (a friend of mine went for Taj sunrise in May and there was hardly anyone). They're quite strict at the Taj about what you can bring in (no snacks, no reading material [they sometimes try and take away guide books and notebooks], nothing that could be used as a weapon), and if you don't want to throw it away, you have to leave it in the bag area, which is a 10-minute walk away. I ate at a lovely rooftop cafe with a great view - Saniya Palace, although the food was nothing special. The Jama Masjid in the Old City is nice for a visit. After five hours at the Taj I had lunch and caught a bus to Jaipur.
Jaipur - see here
I loved Jaipur, and could have spent more time there. My first day I visited the sights in the Old City, all by foot. There's a combo ticket which includes everything except the City Palace - and I got the foreign student price which is only 200 rupees, although regular it's 1200. It's valid for two days. I started with the Hawa Mahal, beautiful from the outside, but also very nice from the inside. I went first thing when it opened so it was almost empty. The Jantar Mantar was worth a quick look around. The City Palace was not amazing, and a bit overpriced (900 rupees, although I paid student). There were some pretty things, but I could have skipped it. Most of the amazing pictures you see are from the special Royal Grandeur tour which is around $60. But if you have time/budget, the Palace is worth a visit. The markets are lovely to walk through, and I spent a lot of time on Shabbat just wandering. There are also some interesting temples hidden in the lanes.
My second day in Jaipur I hired a rickshaw for the day (700 rupees) for all of the farther sites. It was a Friday so I started early, so we could finish early for Shabbat. We started with the Monkey Temple on the outskirts of town. The walk was beautiful in the early morning light, and I didn't actually make it to the actual Temple due to some misunderstandings, but I saw some other nice temples, monkeys, cows and villagers. Then we headed to the Amber Fort, which I thought was one of the most impressive palaces I visited (although it was also the first). From Amber Fort, you can walk partly underground to the Jaigarh Fort higher up. It was nice, although not amazing. Also you can drive up, which would save time and energy. Jaigarh and Amber Forts are both included in the combo ticket. There's a Stepwell in Amber, which wasn't as impressive as I thought it would be. Then we headed to the Nahargarh Fort which I loved. It was a lot less touristy, and had views all over Jaipur. It was late-afternoon and the light was lovely. When I was there they were hosting an amazing Israeli art exhibition that blended contemporary art with the historical space, which was one of my favourites, and a total surprise! I could have spent more time there, but I had to head back for Shabbat.
Jaipur is not the most backpacker-friendly city. My first two nights I stayed at a not nice hotel at the end of MI Road, but it was a bit far from the Old City, and for Shabbat I wanted to be closer, so I switched to the cheapest room in a nicer hotel (still only 400 rupees), but it was very loud (my room was right next to the elevator and there was no glass on the windows (screens only) so you could constantly hear music from the restaurant and people walking in the hall). But being in the Old City is nice, just to be able to stroll around.
Pushkar - see here
There's not a whole lot to do in Pushkar except walk and sit and watch people and eat banana pancakes. There's a number of small interesting temples in the back lanes, but the best thing to do is walk (barefoot only) around the central lake early in the morning and late in the afternoon. It was nice to chill and knit and watch after the hustle of Agra and Jaipur, and the rituals the pilgrims do are really quite interesting. There's also an AMAZING falafel shop, where I ate three times - it was so good. There's also a grubby German Bakery at the beginning of the falafel shop street which is great for meeting other backpackers and drinking great chai! There is Chabad in Pushkar, but I didn't stay for Shabbat.
Jodhpur - see here
I only had 24 hours in Jodhpur, and I could have had more, but I still did a lot. Many of the houses in the Old City are painted blue and its tons of fun just to walk. The Mehrangarh Fort is very impressive, and has a free audio guide (with ticket). In the complex, there's a free Turban Museum, which is often closed, but I really enjoyed it. It's just up past the main entrance. From the exit of the Fort, you can follow the road left to Jaswant Thada, the royal cremation grounds. The buildings there are beautiful! Then walk back to the Fort and down to the market. The market district is bustling and nice to stroll around, but the best thing I did was visiting the Maa Jwalamukhi Devi Temple, just below the Fort. You get great sunset views over the city, and the Temple is quite lovely, as is the family who lives there. It was a bit hard to find, since you have to walk up from the city, as opposed to down from the Fort, but ask around (some locals walked me most of the way up). I stayed at the Cosy Guest House on the east side of the Fort, which was much quieter than where most people stay on the touristy west side.
Jaisalmer - see here
Jaisalmer is out in the desert, the furthest West I went in India, almost at the Pakistani border. The Old City, which people say looks like a sandcastle, is cute, but tiny. You could cover all the lanes in two hours. I found a cute cafe to sit and drink lemon soda and watch the sunset. I also went to Gadisar Lake, where I took a quick paddleboat ride and looked at the buildings. Many of Jaisalmer's buildings have elaborate patterns carved directly into the sandstone, which is beautiful. I went for pooja at the Shri Laxminathji Temple in the Fort just after sunset, and it was very interesting to watch all the people and hear their chanting. But the best thing to do in Jaisalmer is to get out of the city and into the Thar desert!
Khuri - see here
You can arrange all sorts of package tours to desert camps and camel safaris from Jaisalmer, but they are touristy, and the reviews I've heard have not always been amazing. But what is amazing (seriously - one of the best things I've done in all of India) is Badal House in Khuri. Khuri is a tiny village in the middle of the desert, and very untouristy. Badal House is an amazing homestay (when I was there it was only 400 rupees/per person including all meals!) where you can choose either a room or a little thatched-mud hut in the family compound. It's rustic (my huts light didn't work, squat toilets, etc.) but very clean, and wonderful! You can watch the sunset from the roof, or stroll through the peacefulness of the village. Badal's wife cooks amazing traditional Rajasthani food for you three times a day, and everybody in the homestay were so friendly!
I stayed at Badal House two nights (including Shabbat) and Sunday morning I went for an overnight camel safari with Badal's friend Deu. It was just me and Deu and the camel out in the desert but it felt very safe! We slept on blankets next to the campfire under the stars, and he cooked delicious food on fires he built in the sand. It was truly amazing, and half the price of the commercial safaris from Jaisalmer (only 700 rupees). I would really recommend staying at Badal House and going on a camel safari with Deu. There are several buses a day from Jaisalmer that pass through Khuri, but on the way there I caught a ride with someone.
I caught an overnight train from Jaisalmer to Bikaner, which is quite untouristy, but also lovely. The markets are extensive and busy, and the locals were quite friendly. I stayed a bit far out of town, but it was easy to get in by rickshaw. Junagarh Fort is lovely, and not packed with foreigners. The Old City is busy, but it's nice to spend a day wandering. But the highlight (or nightmare, depending on how you look at it) is the Karni Mata Rat Temple in Deshnoke, a half-hour bus ride away. There are many rats, who the locals believe are descendants of Karni Mata. I loved it, and had a great time! It's actually the main reason I came to Bikaner. But it is a lot and maybe not for everybody. From Bikaner I took a sleeper bus to Udaipur (12 hours), but it was a lovely fancy AC bus so it was quite nice.
Udaipur - see here
Udaipur is another place that's great for walking. I visited the City Palace, which was very nice, and also the Government Museum (which was amazing!). I also saw the evening dance show at Jagat Niwas Palace, which was interesting, but most of the seating is cross-legged on the floor, so go early and push a bit. Also the Jagdish Temple is impressive. Jheel's Ginger Coffee Bar is a great place for banana cake and a cappuccino if you get a good table. Ambrai Ghat is a great place to watch the sunset. A lot of Udaipur is also just sitting and walking and taking it in from a rooftop cafe. From Udaipur I caught a sleeper bus back to Mumbai (with some difficulty).
I spent 13 nights (but only 12 days) in West Bengal and Sikkim in April 2019.
Late night flight to Calcutta (2 nights)
Overnight train to Siliguri (1 night)
Gangtok (2 nights including Shabbat)
Rumtek (1 night)
Darjeeling (3 nights)
Overnight bus to Calcutta (2 nights including Shabbat)
Early morning flight to Mumbai
This was definitely not the best trip I've done. It wasn't organized as well as it could have been, and you really need more time to do Sikkim well. As well, Calcutta in late-April is unbearably hot and humid, and made me sick. The skies in the Himalaya were misty and cloudy and I didn't get the best views. All the same, it was still enjoyable for what it was and I'm glad I got to experience that part of the country.
Calcutta - see here
I spent two nights in Calcutta at the beginning and two nights at the end of my trip. Calcutta is busy and crazy, but very interesting. Also, if the weather was more tolerable the city would have been a lot more interesting. I stayed at a hostel on Park Street, which was fairly central. I visited the Kalighat Temple where they do live goat sacrifices. The Temple wasn't the most interesting, but still nice to see. In the Temple area there's a public electric cremation ghat. Nothing was happening, but seeing the infrastructure was still worth seeing. Along Kalighat Road north of Hazra Road there are rustic sculptor workshops which you can walk through. I visited the New Market which was a highlight for me, as well as the Victoria Memorial. The Victoria Memorial is very expensive (500 rupees for foreigners but I paid Indian) but really not worth it inside, take the 30 rupee ticket just to see the grounds and outside of the building. I loved the Mullick Ghat Flower Market, and the whole area under the Howrah Bridge. I took the ferry back and forth a few times, and walked over the bridge at sunset which was lovely. There are some dumpy restaurants across from Howrah Station with amazing bridge views. I also had amazing street food outside the High Court, and it's a really interesting area for street food.
Calcutta is seen as one of the cultural hearts of India, and there are tons of interesting institutions. I didn't make it to the Indian Museum, but Rabindranath Tagore's house was lovely. It gives you a glimpse into what upper class Calcutta life was like, and provides interesting cultural context. If you have time before you go, there's a Netflix series called Tales by Rabindranath Tagore which will give you a good basis to understand it better. I also visited the Mission of Mother Teresa. You don't see much, but there's a small exhibit and you can visit her grave. The atmosphere is quite unique though. I also would have liked to visit the Swami Vivekananda Museum, but the heat was too much. My last two days in Calcutta, I went out only for groceries, and spent the entire Shabbat reading in my air-conditioned bunk because it was just too hot to go out.
In terms of the Jewish sites, I found it to be quite accessible. There are three main synagogues to see, all in one area. The Beth-El Synagogue is a few blocks further South, and the Maghen David Synagogue and Neveh Shalom Synagogue are in the same compound. They're open every day until four, except Shabbat. A caretaker will open them for you, and you make a small donation. In the women's gallery of the Neveh Shalom Synagogue there's a small exhibit with photos from the community's heyday which was nice. The Jewish Cemetery is a bit further out but I really enjoyed it. It's been cleaned up quite a bit and repainted. A caretaker let me in, and a whole crowd of men who were cleaning up followed me the whole time (I think looking for tips), but it was fine (if a bit annoying). There's also Nahoum's Bakery, right inside the New Market, which was originally owned by Jews and still has a bit of Jewish flavor. The challah was much better than I expected.
There's no reason to stay in Siliguri. You have to pass through on your way up to the Himalayas, whether by bus or train from Calcutta. From there you transfer to a sharejeep to take you to your next destination. By the time I got to Siliguri (from Calcutta) I was too sick to leave so I had to stay the night, but left the next day. Most hotels weren't licensed to take foreigners so it took a while to find one.
Foreigners need a permit to go to Sikkim. It's free and you can apply online, but when I got there they made me go through the exact same process as if I hadn't, so don't bother. The only issue is that you're in a tiny sharejeep crammed with 10 other people, and they all have to wait for you to do this process, which they won't be happy about. Some drivers try to charge foreigners extra, although I bargained out of it. On the way out you have to do the same process, but there were 3 Bangladeshis with me then, so they weren't waiting for just me. You'll need lots of passport photos, you need to leave one with each guesthouse, and 2 for the permit people. They didn't like the ones I brought and made me get more from another shop (40 rupees). The permit is fine and not a big deal, it's just a bit of bureaucracy you have to deal with. Each guesthouse and many tourist sites will want to see the permit, which is only valid for 14 days (although you can extend it). They also stamp directly in your passport, which I wasn't so happy about, but there was nothing I could really do about it.
Gangtok was alright. It was quite commercial and busy in the centre, and the cheapest room I could find was 800 rupees, although most were way more. There were a few cute cafes, although I still couldn't eat much. I stayed at the far south end of MG Road, and you could walk up the hill towards the roadway and there was a nice viewpoint with prayer flags, although the view was mostly clouded over. Shabbat afternoon I walked up to the Ridge, which was also clouded over. Right at the beginning though is a cute cafe (Cafe Royale - I didn't go but would have liked to), and just behind it up a set of stairs is a really trendy contemporary art collective, where I went it and chatted with the artists. Past the Ridge, down a bit but then a lot up the hill, is the Enchey Monastery. It was very peaceful and serene, up on top of a mountain, and surrounded by fog, worth it if you have time, but not a must see. Traffic is Gangtok is set up terribly, with steep one-way roads and no detours, so taxis are quite expensive and distances are far. It was freezing and my clothes were soaked through with rain.
The thing about Sikkim is that the roads are winding and narrow, and it took me seven hours to drive 120 kilometres. To leave the central Gangtok area, foreigners need extra permits, which are only granted when travelling in a group and with a private Sikkimese driver. Rumtek is right next to Gangtok, you can clearly see it across the narrow valley (even with the mist) but it took five hours by jeep. The jeeps are very irregular in Sikkim, and you might have to wait a while. I ended up mostly hitchhiking because I just couldn't find sharejeeps, and there are no busses most places. If you really want to see Sikkim, you need to give yourself lots of time to have flexibility and wiggle room and driving days and I just didn't have that.
Rumtek did give me a nice perspective that I didn't get in Gangtok however. I stayed in the monastery area, which you need to register your passport and permit to get into. My guesthouse was called Sangay Hotel (at the top of the hill, not Sungay Guesthouse at the bottom of the hill), and it was adorable. My room was tiny tiny, just big enough for the bed, and with a tiny desk, but had a beautiful open window across to the valley. They served me chai directly in the room, and also Tibetan food. It was 400 rupees for a single room, but squat toilets only. The main Rumtek monastery is right by the guesthouse, and I walked along the road to the Old Rumtek Monastery which was enjoyable.
Darjeeling - see here
Darjeeling is expensive, touristy and crowded. But it also has a sense of nostalgia and importance which stretches beyond those things. I'm glad I went, although I've visited far more impressive and enjoyable tea towns elsewhere. The town is crowded and steep, so walking is easier than driving, although it's a climb.The cheapest guesthouses are 600 rupees, although with no bathroom or windows, so I stayed for 800 with quite a nice view. I went to Nathmull's Tea House quite a few times, which has nice windows and a cute family owner. I also had High Tea at the Elgin, which was beautiful but not the tastiest. One day I walked through Aloo Bari towards Ghoom, although I didn't go all the way. I was still quite sick at this point, and so I couldn't walk as far as I would have l