INDIA DRAMATICALLY straddles the ancient and modern worlds: as well as having a space programme, it is home to layers of ancient civilisations, leaving an intricate cultural legacy. But an under-developed service sector used to make it difficult to enjoy India as a holidaymaker. I wanted to find out if the tourist industry was keeping pace with the rest of the country’s development.
Visiting India used to be termed an “experience” rather than a holiday. Tales abounded of gastrointestinal crises, terrible hotels and devastating bureaucracy. The notion was that, by enduring such challenges, the visitor would come away enlightened and toughened by the adventure. Delhi was a particular challenge, seen as a necessary evil through which one had to transit in order to enjoy the natural and cultural rewards of the sub-continent.
In the ten years since I last visited, India has worked hard to improve its image and bring itself up to world-class standards. As the country becomes a significant player on the diplomatic and economic stage, Delhi has had to cater to a growing number of visitors who expect the same service that they would elsewhere. Like China, it was an international sporting occasion that dragged India’s tourism infrastructure into line with the rest of the world, and forced third-party operators to pull their socks up too.
From the outset, my interaction with contemporary India was a delight. Qatar Airways’ transit hub at Doha splits the journey nicely, with only 30 minutes in transit, and I couldn’t believe Delhi was the same airport that I had flown into ten years ago. Back then, it was hard to correlate the anarchic building with the engineering marvel of flight, but the new terminal, built for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, put Heathrow’s T5 to shame – it was less than 30 minutes from touchdown to exit.
From there, it was a short stroll to the air-conditioned Metro, another boon from the Commonwealth Games, which whisks you to the heart of Delhi in under 15 minutes. Some of the strategies employed in the run-up to the Games, such as using advertising hoardings to hide slums from view, were controversial, but the legacy has been extraordinary: all of the city’s public buses and auto-rickshaws switched to compressed natural gass, meaning the air is much cleaner; new bypasses, and road-systems mean that Delhi is surprisingly quick to get around by car or taxi, and thousands of trees were planted to compliment the city’s Forest Reserve, making Delhi surprisingly green.
All this make the city’s hidden gems more pleasant to discover – for Delhi has one of the richest histories of any city on Earth. Before the British arrived, Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughal Empire: descendants of Genghis Khan who built the Taj Mahal in Agra. Chandni Chowk – now a swarm of bicycle-rickshaws and tradesmen – was the main street of this walled city and is still one of India’s largest markets. Narrow lanes, or ghalis, lead off the main strip into the old residential areas, with the ground floor shops selling everything from microwaves to macaroni. On every corner stands a Dilli-Wallah, (street-food vendor) filling the lanes with the scent of tender lamb kebabs. Tucked away in hidden courtyards you can find mansions and havelis, where the descendants of Mughal traders still live.
The gigantic Red Fort at the end of Chandni Chowk was an imposing reminder to the population of the Emperor’s authority, with huge sandstone entrances easily big enough to accommodate elephants. The palaces and gardens inside, where the Emperor’s court played and plotted, are a sanctuary from the bustle of the city and the mahals, whilst not as large as the Taj, show the incredible inlaid stonework and delicate lattice carving that reached their zenith in that great monument to love.
India’s greatest draws still remain beyond the capital, and heading north you enter a land of myth and legend. Rishikesh has been a magnet to Western tourists ever since the Beatles visited in 1968, turning the Hippy Trail’s stream of visitors into a torrent. Styling itself as “The World Capital Of Yoga and Ayurveda,” Rishikesh is still the place to train under a master, with yoga school signs hanging over almost every shop-front and doorway.
It’s also a great place to simply relax and enjoy a holiday. The Ayurvedic schools offer hour-long massages for 500 Rupees (about £6) so you can indulge your limbs to your heart’s content. But Rishikesh now offers a whole new range of activities, making it one of the most popular destinations in India – extreme sports.
The Ganges River rapids were first charted by Sir Edmund Hillary, who was also the first man to climb Mt Everest. Today, those rapids bear the names that he gave them, and you can descend by raft or kayak on sections that reach a thrilling Grade 4. The gorges and forests lining this part of the river are simply stunning, and the cold Himalayan melt-water is the perfect place to cool off from the hot summer sun.
The fact that extreme sports have come to India (and with internationally-qualified guides) is testament to how far the tourist industry has come on in the sub-continent. Visiting India is a joy, particularly if you make use of the local tour operators (see right) who will organise everything for you. For affordability and variety, it’s hard to find anywhere else that can offer so much to such a high standard.
In Delhi I stayed at the ITC Maurya (built to resemble a Buddhist Stupa) and experienced the best hotel service I have ever encountered. It is a favourite with visiting Heads Of State – Barack Obama stayed here on his last tour. The staff are outstandingly well-trained, knowledgeable and helpful, whilst the in-house restaurants are excellent. I particularly recommend My Humble House for Wasabi Prawns that are imported daily from Orissa.
Doubles at ITC Maurya start at £133 (11,500INR), inclusive of breakfast.
In Rishikesh, I stayed at the Ganga Yatri Niwas, which has balconies overlooking the river for beautiful sunset views. The rooms are clean and the owner is very helpful. Rishikesh is “pure veg” meaning you cannot buy meat or alcohol in the city, but the delicious and delicately flavoured vegetarian dishes more than make up for that.
Doubles with AC start at 500INR. To book, email email@example.com
Fly First or Business Class with Qatar Airways from London Heathrow Airport and experience the award-winning airline’s recently opened Premium lounge. Return business class flights to Delhi with Qatar Airways start from £1,682 departing London Heathrow. Return economy flights start from £532. For enquiries or to book, go to www.qatarairways.com / +44 870 389 8090. Prices correct as of 9 November 2012.
A taxi from Delhi to Rishikesh is 4000INR each way. To arrange, contact Lucky Helpline Services (2440166), based in Lakshman Jhula, Rishikesh.
Lucky Helpline Services have an office by the Lakshman Jhula Bridge. They provided excellent packages including rafting, Ayurvedic massages and a tour of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where the Beatles studied.
16km of rafting from Shivpuri to Rishikesh takes half a day and costs 550INR, transport included.
Chandni Chowk has a Metro link. Alternatively, an auto-ricksaw from the ITC Maurya to the Red Fort will be around 150INR. Entrance to the Red Fort is 250INR.