Ladakh means "land of high passes", the height being the Kunlun and Himalayan mountains, which ‘pass’ through Jammu and Kashmir state. Trekking tourism has always been important even during the Kashmir conflicts, with a strong military presence to protect it. It is culturally fascinating with a mix of Tibetan Buddhists and Shia Muslims living in landscapes equally contrasting, from desert to remote mountain peaks.
With many bazaars now a place for touts and tat, the tradition of fine arts is off radar for many visitors. India has a long history of royal patronages for fine art, and there are exceptional handicrafts here which are important to sustain. Such as traditional hand lacquered ceramics, fine embroidery, hand woven pashminas as opposed to mass produced machine woven ones. Jaipur and Jodphur are top cities for top crafts.
Few people associate Kerala with mountains, the Himalayas monopolising the western desire for elevated landscapes in most India travel guides. Kerala’s Western Ghats range is rapturous for hikers and bikers, however. Named as a world Biodiversity Hotspot, it’s a daily festival of flora and fauna here. Plus there is no snow in winter and the beaches are never far away.
Go east into the states of Chattisgarh and Odisha to discover some of India’s tribal communities which are now, with the help of responsible tour operators, inviting guests in to their homes. Such as the Gotuls in Kanker, the Muria tribe in Jagdalpur and the Bonda tribe in Odisha, most of whose cultures and traditions haven’t changed for thousands of years.
Although a bit like Marmite, with some people loving it and others hating it, we are sticking with the lovers. Which, given that it’s a white marble mausoleum built by the grieving Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his late wife, seems appropriate. Although the touts and tourist madness can leave a bad taste in your mouth, the memory of it will last forever. And it’s best at sunrise, with a cuppa. Or maybe that’s Marmite.
Probably one of the best places if you are a newbie to India, fulfilling all fantasies you might have about India. With maharajas, pink palaces, camels in the streets, desert sunsets, fine artisanal crafts, and multi-coloured temples. It’s the whole gamut of gorgeousness.
Many don’t venture beyond the Golden Triangle, national parks or bustling bazaars. But in some tourism honeypots the honey is no longer as sweet, the culture watered down a little for tourists. By visiting rural villages and lodging in homestays, you might think you are stepping out of your comfort zone. In fact, you’ll simply be celebrating that long lost travel art of accepting the comfort of strangers.
You have not ‘done’ the south of India by just going to Kerala. Consider combining your trip with a few days in neighbouring Karnataka or Tamil Nadu to get a 3D picture of what south India really is. Such as the The Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills or Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, not forgetting the historical hub of Mysore.
Going to the beach is not actually a big part of Indian culture like in the Caribbean, for example, so there is a tendency for western style resorts, with a flatpacked, fastfood feel about them. Such as Kovalam beach in Kerala, and the Candolim-Calangute areas of Goa. Head of the beaten track, however, and there is lots of littoral loveliness to be found.
India is the pinnacle of most yoga practitioners’ journeys in life, Kerala being a top place to practice with its history of Ayurveda. However, be aware that there is a lot of bandwagon stuff going on in India, with some yoga retreats more focused on the principles of marketing than any traditional principles of yoga, so do your research well.
As you will see from our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide, Responsible Travel does not endorse elephant riding. However, we do recognise that, at Periyar National Park in Kerala, for example, the survival of the remaining tigers is simply too precarious to risk withdrawing the funding gained through elephant rides from the park; to do so would risk an instant increase in poaching and the demise of the species.
They are extraordinary, elusive and endangered, and it is extremely moving to see one. But there is a sort of mania among tourists, particularly Indians themselves, to catch just one glimpse of the big cat, when actually conservationists will constantly remind you that there are also lions and bears here. Asian lions and sloth bears as well as leopard, elephants, buffalo, rhino, monkeys, wolves and a veritable fiesta of birdlife.