Northern India, Ladakh & Nepal 2013

 This is truly a North India tour to end all North India tours–or better yet, to start a lifetime of North India tours!!  We land in Northern India just as the autumn’s festival season is gearing up.  *UPDATED, DETAILED ITINERARY! Skip to the bottom of the page for details!*

 

A young monk at the Thiksey Gustor festival.

You have a few options with this North India & Kathmandu trip–if you choose to just visit India with us, you will arrive in Delhi on Thursday night, 11/7.   If you choose to continue on to India from the full Nepal tour (10/21 to 11/6), you will have a day of downtime in Delhi on 11/7.

 

On the other side of the trip, you also have some options.  We start our second full tour of Nepal on 11/26, if you are interested in combining the tours that way.  In addition, we can customize the tour for you if you choose to skip Thiksey Festival or Amritsar and fly back home.

 

Our tour will move us quickly from Delhi to Pushkar for its world-famous Camel Fair.  Held during November’s full moon, Pushkar Camel Fair is one of India’s most celebrated travel experiences, attracting 300,000+ people and up to 20,000 camels, cattle and horses to this otherwise quiet town.  Pushkar also boasts Hinduism’s only Brahma temple (if you use the word “only” loosely).  Next up is the Taj Mahal in Agra, one of the most universally loved pieces of art or architecture the world over.

 

A boat ride down the Ganges River in Varanasi is a must.

Then we move on to Varanasi–a wonder unto itself.  In his 1898 book, Following the Equator, Mark Twain remarked that Varanasi “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” This “city of lights” is the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, and one of the oldest in the world.  Regarded as a holy city by Hindus, Buddhist, and Jains, Varanasi’s thick and colorful tapestry of sensations will astound you.

 

From Varanasi, we’ll shake things up and head to the beautiful and welcoming Nepal.  We’ll spend two and a half days exploring the Kathmandu Valley, with an optional flight around Mount Everest. We’ll spend time at the magnificent Hindu temples and Tibetan Buddhist stupas, including Boudhanath, Swayambhunath, and Pashupatinath.  Let the colorful sights, rich sounds, and heady smells transport you to a more ancient time.

 

From Nepal we’ll head back over to India–to a region more similar to Nepal than to the India we left behind. We’ll arrive in  Ladakh just in time for Thiksey Monastery‘s annual festival, Gustor.  Music, masked dances, meditation–there’s something for everyone at Thiksey, our home away from home.  From Ladakh, we make our way to Amritsar, to see the inimitable Golden Temple.  A Sikh temple, or gurdwara, the Golden Temple’s liveliness and sincerity touch people in a deeply, regardless of personal beliefs.  Just outside Amritsar, we’ll take a short drive to witness to nightly border closing between India and Pakistan.  This highly energetic ritual is a great way to cap off a fun-filled trip to Northern India!
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Check out the day-by-day itinerary below::

India & Nepal (19 days in country):

7-Nov     ~Group arrives Delhi at night (stay in Gurgoan or near airport)

Arrive in Delhi.  The United flight (UA82) usually arrives around 9pm.  Some other airlines arrive around 1 or 2 the following morning.  No matter which flight you take, please make sure your scheduled arrival is before 3am on 8th of November.  We will coordinate meeting everyone at the airport and getting them to the hotel in a city near Delhi called Gurgoan.  It’s the tech capital of northern India.  We will only be spending the night there before leaving the following morning to Pushkar.  We can assist you with arranging your flight to/from India.  The optimum flight is United Airlines (UA82) leaving on November 6th from Newark to Delhi and returning on November 26th from Delhi to Newark.  Of course you would originate from your hometown (Tampa, Sarasota, Chattanooga, etc).


woman herding goats in pushkar desert8-Nov     ~Gurgoan to Pushkar

We would leave on our nice private bus for the ~6.5 hour drive over nice roads to Pushkar.  We’d be able to stop along the way for food and bathroom breaks.  If there’s ever a bathroom emergency it’s common practice to pull over on the side of the road and go behind a wall/fence where there is privacy.

We’ll arrive in Pushkar in the early evening and will stay at Hotel New Park (http://newparkpushkar.com/).  It’s away from the hustle and noise of the Camel Fair grounds.  We’ll have very nice rooms and the place even has a pool (though the water is sure to be a bit chilly).  The restaurant uses vegetables from their small organic garden.  The owner and manager and staff are all really nice and it’ll be a wonderful place to stay.  We were going to stay in the tented camp (Thar Camps) but the location was quite far from the main action.  We had the experience recently of staying in their tents and they were not as nice as billed.  We’re sure you’ll like this hotel MUCH better.

We can relax in the evening or head to the fairgrounds for sunset photos.  We can even just explore around the famous Pushkar Lake and surrounding temples.


9-Nov     ~Pushkar Camel Festival

Pushkar is a sleepy town that comes alive for this now very popular/famous fair.  There are a lot of people, but you won’t feel crowded.  People and their camels are spread out across the desert landscape.  This is the perfect place to experience Rajasthan culture.  Much of it is for show for western tourists, but a lot is for pilgrims going to the Brahma temple and other nomadic types that don’t come in from the desert very often.  It will be the most colorful spectacle you will ever see and will surely be a lot of fun.

 

 

10-Nov     ~Pushkar

Another day of exploring the fair and coming back to the hotel periodically to relax.  Have your walking shoes on.  You’re sure to walk several miles during the course of the day.  You can always, however, hitch a ride to/fro on a camel or camel pulled cart.  We’ll set up something like that during our time there, just for fun!  For anyone bringing a camera, you will surely get a lot of great photos at this event!


San Francisco meets the Taj Mahal during our May 2012 tour!

San Francisco meets the Taj Mahal during our May 2012 tour!

11-Nov     ~Pushkar to Agra

We will leave in the early morning (probably by 7am) to start the long drive to Fatehpur Sikri and Agra.  The drive will be nearly seven hours over nice roads (except a couple miles leaving Pushkar) with lovely landscapes.  We will stop periodically along the way (and whenever requested).  We will come upon the famous UNESCO World Heritage site Fatehpur Sikri.  This is a former (short-lived) capital of the Mughal Indian Empire.  The architecture is fantastic.  After spending 1-2 hours here and then we’ll head to our hotel in Agra.


12-Nov     ~Agra (to Varanasi by night train)

We will awaken and leave the hotel before sunrise to get into the Taj Mahal early.  It is, by far, the best time of the day at the Taj Mahal.  After ~8:30 am it starts getting very crowded & busy.  We’ll explore the grounds of the Taj Mahal for a couple hours with an excellent tour guide.  We’ll give people some time to sit/relax or explore on their own.  From there we’ll head to Agra Fort for a guided tour of this enormous fort that is astonishing in size and “fort technology.”  There were ways they air-conditioned rooms; there was a wet moat with crocodiles and inside that was a dry moat with tigers and lions; there was a sloped entrance ramp where they could roll huge boulders down at incoming forces; places to pour boiling oil on attacking armies and lots of turrets from which to shoot arrows and such.  This fort is where the builder of the Taj Mahal ended up being imprisoned by his son for spending too much money on building projects.  He had a small window from which he could see his masterpiece from a couple miles away.

We would leave in the evening via a very nice sleeper class train.  The beds are quite comfortable.  Sheets, blankets, pillows and food will be provided.  The ride will be ~14 hours and we’ll arrive in the morning into Varanasi.  Trains typically run on time in India, but have been known to be late.  We’ve planned for that possibility but we’re hoping things run on time.


A boat ride down the Ganges River in Varanasi is a must.

A boat ride down the Ganges River in Varanasi is a must.

13-Nov     ~Varanasi

We will arrive in the morning into Varanasi.  We’ll head to our hotel where we know and love all the staff.  This hotel has the finest view along the river of any hotel in Varanasi.  It is a spectacular place to see the goings on along the Ganges.  We’ll explore the streets of Varanasi in the day.  At night there will be a special festival going on that entails the banks of the whole river being lit up by candlelight.  It’ll be a special evening and a great way to experience the holiest place in Hindu culture.


14-Nov     ~VNS to KTM

In the morning we will take one of the famous boatrides along the river.  We’ll start off before sunrise and will go until 8:30am or so.  We’ll head back the hotel, grab our bags and go to the new Varanasi airport.  We’ll have a 12:30 flight to Kathmandu.

We will stay at Rokpa Guesthouse.  It is run by the world renowned charitable organization Rokpa.org.  Near the guesthouse there is a children’s home (orphanage)(http://www.rokpa.org/zim/en/projects/nepal/childrens-home/)  and fairtrade women’s workshop (http://www.rokpa.org/zim/en/projects/nepal/womens-workshop/); the women make all sorts of fabric items like purses, wallets, and so much more).  This organization assists more than 10,000 children in Tibet every year and is really wonderful.

We will be staying about 139 steps from the most famous Tibetan stupa, Boudhanath.  This is the most visited pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists around the world.  It is a beautiful and relaxing place to walk around, meditate, shop, explore and eat some delicious food (Tibetan, Nepali, American/Continental, even Japanese!)

While at the guesthouse we will have all breakfast meals & some other meals prepared by the skilled guesthouse cook–her dal bhat is to die for.  You’ll have much to choose from here and the food will be enjoyed by all!  Did you know that Boudhanath can be seen in the movie Baraka?  http://barakasamsara.com/

 

 

nepal1215-Nov    ~Stay at Rokpa Guesthouse

People will have the opportunity to take a flight on Buddha Air to view Mt. Everest.  The cost is an additional $189, approximately.  Every person on this Everest flight has a window seat.  See http://www.buddhaair.com/everest/ for details.

Those who do not want to do the Everest flight can explore Boudhanath (morning time is especially active for the Tibetan pilgrims) or people can relax in the gorgeous garden area of the guesthouse.

In the afternoon we can visit Swayumbhunath Tibetan Buddhist Stupa, also known as The Monkey Temple (for reasons you’ll soon see).  This site is very important to Buddhists but also, interestingly, to Hindus.  (Remember–Buddha is considered the 9th incarnation fo the Hindu god Vishnu.)  It’s more complex of a site than Boudhanath.  Everyone has their favorite between the two sites, but they are quite different experiences.  We will be driven to the top of the mountain and can walk down the long set of stairs.  Swayumbhunath/Monkey Temple can also be seen in the movie Baraka.  http://barakasamsara.com/  (Can you tell we love that movie?)


16-Nov    ~Stay at Rokpa Guesthouse

Early morning trip to Pashupatinath Hindu Temple, the largest Shiva temple in Nepal and a very important site for Hindus.  At this temple Shiva is represented not in his scary form (“Shiva the Destroyer”), but in the form of the “Lord of the Beasts.”  Animals are prominent at this huge complex both in carved stone form and REAL flesh-and-blood form.  There are hundreds of monkeys here (totally safe, but you’ll have to walk right past them) as well as deer and other animals.  In the early morning hours people from around Kathmandu not only visit the site for religious reasons but also to socialize and exercise.  It’s the place to be to play badminton, volleyball or soccer or do calisthenics or jogging.  There are many sadhus (Hindu holy men that wear orange);  some are only there to have their photos taken for a small donation of ~$1, and others are there strictly for their own practice.  This complex is prominent in the beginning of the movie Baraka (of course).  It’s where the holy man with the long dreadlocked hair is sitting and reading.


17-Nov    ~Kathmandu

In the morning we’ll drive ~ 30 minutes to the town of Bhaktapur.  This city just outside Kathmandu is like walking back in time.  The entire town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Everything is made from brick, and we mean everything.  Much of the town has restrictions on cars and/or motorbikes and it is quite relaxing.  It’s a popular tourist destination but doesn’t seem overrun.  People just go on about their business and one often feels like you’ve stepped back in time 100+ years.  It’s a great place to wander and get lost in the picturesque alleys, but it’s always easy to find your way back.  We’ll have a tour of the town and thereafter people can explore on their own.  The square can be seen–you guessed it–in the movie Baraka.  You’ll notice the stone lions and a woman sweeping the square.  There always seems to be a festival going on in Bhaktapur…what will we encounter today?


18-Nov    ~Fly KTM to Delhi (stay in airport)

The whole morning and early afternoon everyone is free to explore places they have been most drawn to in/around Kathmandu.  We’ll have an afternoon flight back to Delhi.  We’ll stay near the airport as we’ll have a VERY early morning tomorrow for our flight to Leh.


The sunrise flight to Leh is breathtaking!

The sunrise flight to Leh is breathtaking!

19-Nov    ~Fly to Leh (r/t flight)

The only flights each day are around 6am which means we have to get up around 4:30 am to get to the airport.  We promise it will be worth it.  This is the best commercial flight you could ever imagine.  We’ll fly up and over the Himalayan Range in land on the Tibetan Plateau.  It’s only about 50 minutes (but to drive it takes 4 days).  We’ll do our best to get everyone a window seat that wants one (seat assignments are always first to check-in gets their choice).  We’ll be landing at ~10,500ft altitude.  Many people are scared about getting altitude sickness.  It’s actually quite easy to prevent.  Starting the day before, everyone will be encouraged to take ibuprofen or aspirin every 6 hours for the 24 hours before our flight and 24 hours after we arrive.  Keep hydrated (but not overly hydrated) and there you go!  Not even a headache!  You’ll be a little tired (as we will have awoken before 4am) and you won’t be running any marathons, but you’ll be fine.  Don’t forget, you’re also traveling with a physician (Lauren).  She also strongly encourages people to start taking the herb Rhodiola about a month before the trip as another prevention.  Last resort, we travel with the pharmaceutical Diamox for people just-in-case our sure-fire prevention steps don’t work.

We’ll be picked up at the airport by our monk friends Chamba and Stanzin.  We’ll rest in the morning and eventually take a drive ~25 minutes to Thiksey Monastery.  We will stay in a guesthouse in Leh as the guesthouse at the monastery will be closed for the winter.  Therefore we will have heat inside our rooms!  Expect nighttime temperatures to be around 30F and daytime temperatures to be around 55F in the shade and maybe 70F in the sun.  For those that don’t have cold-weather gear we recommend going to Burlington Coat Factory to get a heavy coat (usually ~$30).  If you get a red coat, you can give it to one of the monks when you leave; if you get any other color, their family members will be sure to appreciate it if you choose.  Long underwear are good to have and don’t forget a hat that covers your ears.

We’ll have a relaxing day today.  We’ll explore the monastery and spend time with the monks (we’ll surely have dinner with them tonight).  We’ll see the practice sessions and preparations for the big festival tomorrow.  You’ll never have experienced Tibetan/Ladakhi culture like this before.  Have your camera on you at all times!  This festival and the preparations are so colorful and beautiful!


146-BJG_846620-Nov    ~Thiksey Festival

Today is the main day of the festival.  We’ll have VIP seating to watch the colorful Tibetan Mask Dances (put on by all the monks).  These dances depict stories relating to Tibetan Buddhism and Ladakhi history.  They go on for hours so it’ll be OK to get up and explore at your leisure.  There will be more than 1000 Ladakhi people that will have come from many miles around to witness the ceremonies.  There will be an unveiling of some gigantic thangkas (they are only displayed for a couple hours each year–spectacular!).  We will have lunch in the home of the Head Lama (Rinpoche) who runs this monastery and others in Ladakh.  He is very close friends with the Dalai Lama and is one of the most influential & important persons in the Gelug-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  We are likely to have a brief audience with him where we will file past him and he will bless each person.  No matter your beliefs, it’s a pretty special moment.

We’ll probably eat dinner at the home of either Chamba or Stanzin tonight.  We can help prepare a traditional Ladakhi meal (very tasty and not spicy).

Wait until you see the stars at night!  At this altitude with very little light-pollution they are pretty spectacular.


21-Nov     ~Thiksey Festival

Today is the 2nd and far less important day of the festival.  People will be able to watch the festival happenings, or take a walk through the village below the monastery or we can even arrange a visit to other monasteries in the area.  It’ll be a nice, relaxing day with the freshest air you can imagine.  Since our hotel is in Leh you will be able to explore on your own.  there are many shops and some sights around town.  It’s an ancient town and you’ll be sure to enjoy it.


amritsar golden temple22-Nov      ~Fly Leh to Delhi to Amiritsar

Today we will leave in the early morning from Leh airport and fly to Delhi.  We’ll have a short layover before heading to Amritsar.  Amritsar is the home of the Golden Temple and the center of the Sikh religion.  It is not often visited by western tourists, but everyone that goes there consistently says it’s their favorite place in India.  The Sikh religion practices/preaches complete equality (between genders, religions, races, etc).  Though the men are imposing looking with their perfectly wrapped turbans (they are typically also taller than other Indians) they are perhaps the nicest people on the whole that exists on the planet (my opinion, but shared by many who meet them).  The Golden Temple is a wonderful place to explore, relax, read, meditate, and soak up the awesomeness surrounding the temple.

Our hotel is called the Hotel Sapphire and is only a 1 minute walk to the gate of the temple.  People can go anytime day and night.

 

 

23-Nov     ~Amritsar (border ceremony)

Today we’ll have time to explore the temple but in the afternoon we’ll head to the border crossing ceremony.  You can see a video with Michael Palin at the ceremony at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9y2qtaopbE.  It’s quite a spectacle and a lot of fun.  It’s totally safe even though it’s on the border with Pakistan.  There are thousands of Indians chanting, singing, screaming and having a blast.  There is a special western tourist seating area quite close to the main action.  You’re sure to have fun.


24-Nov     ~Amritsar

It’s a free relaxing day in Amritsar.  Some people have expressed interest to leave early or explore other parts of India.  In either case the cost of your trip will be reduced.  We would still get you back to Delhi by flight or help you design a trip to other parts of India (our services are free of charge).  Please contact us if you desire to end the trip early or visit other parts of India.

 

 

25-Nov     ~Amritsar to Delhi (stay at Oberoi) [-$250 if leave on 25th]

Today we will fly from Amritsar to Delhi.  We will plan on staying at the famous and luxurious Oberoi hotel in Delhi.  It is an expensive hotel but absolutely gorgeous and decadent.  It has pools, a spa, saunas and steam rooms, shopping and incredible restaurants.  We will give everyone money for simple meals (you can spend hundreds of dollars a plate, but can also eat simply or even go into town and eat for very little–thus pocketing the allowance).  It’s super relaxing and really fun.  Though we have to check out usually around 1pm, we can store our bags and continue using the pool and facilities before going to the airport at around 7pm for the flight home on the 26th.  Again, if anyone wants to save money on the trip or has to go home early, you are welcome to forego this section of the itinerary.  We will reduce the price of the trip accordingly and arrange for you to go home or visit other parts of India.


26-Nov     ~Leave at night

As stated above we would spend the day relaxing at the Oberoi and will leave around 7 pm thus concluding the tour (as we take you to the airport and say farewell).   Where will you come with us next?