Eric Finley has clocked up countless trips to India as a traveller, tour leader and product manager since his first visit 25 years ago. Yet while he has visited most parts of the country, there is still so much to explore.
“People have no idea how much is hidden away in every part of the subcontinent,” Mr Finley explains. “India’s history is remarkable, as is the diversity, with most regions featuring their own languages and dialects, histories and cuisines.
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK
Due to its relative isolation in the far north-eastern state of Assam, Kaziranga is not on many travel itineraries to India. However, this region provides some of the best wildlife experiences in Asia. It is home to a large population of Indian one-horned rhinoceroses, herds of Asian elephant and swamp deer, gaur (Indian bison) and some of the last remaining wild water buffalo in Asia.
Both common and clouded leopards live in the park forests, as does a healthy tiger population. Over a hundred species of birds can easily be seen in a day, including the great hornbill and bar-headed geese visiting from their Himalayan breeding grounds.
Few first-time visitors include Kolkata on their itinerary but those who do are rewarded with a city which retains a style and culture unlike any other in India. Kolkata’s streets heave with vehicular and pedestrian traffic but are alive with colour and history. A heritage walking tour reveals some of India’s most impressive British colonial architecture, hidden temples, synagogues, churches and other places of worship, as well as the famous Marble Palace.
Visitors who stick to the main cities miss the rich and iconic sights and experiences that Rajasthan has to offer. Stay in one of the region’s heritage-inspired hotels or camps – many are refurbished country homes of local royalty, finely-restored and decorated to feature rich local fabrics and furnishings. Enjoy country cooking, meet and learn about local people’s lives and gain access to regional culture through the close relationships between most country lodges and nearby villages.
Kerala’s historic trading port is now a bustling modern city but the little peninsula of Fort Cochin retains its own historic atmosphere. See the remnants of British, Jewish, Arab and other trading communities, the little galleries and cafes alongside old street stalls, walk the messy trading streets of Mattancherry where aromas of pepper, cardamom, ginger and chilli almost bowl you over and head into Jew Town with its 17th century synagogue and many curio shops.
VARANASI AT DAWN
Along the riverside steps known as ghats, Hindus gather to reflect, pray, bathe or just take in the atmosphere. As the sun rises, gulls scatter over the still waters and bells sound from surrounding temples. Explore the narrow lanes winding into the chaotic old town; too narrow for cars but frequently blocked by cows, carts or a passing scooter. Stop for chai or lassi, explore a local market and see the city come to life, as it has for centuries.
Isolated in the Himalayas, Ladakh is a high altitude desert, with snow-covered peaks dropping into cold valleys, where locals cultivate stone fruits, nuts and barley in the short summertime when the region opens briefly to the outside world. Apart from its pristine mountain environment, it is the ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture which makes this place so different. The ancient monasteries like Hemis and Thikse sit high on rocky peaks and to hear their horns being blown across silent valleys is to truly travel into another time and world.
Insider Journeys offers trips to all these Indian destinations. For details, visit insiderjourneys.com.au