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33 Awesome Ways to Travel the Planet

India and Nepal: Subcontinental Super Loops

  • Two-Week Itineraries
  • Two-Month Itineraries
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    The '60s dropouts drifting through India and Nepal in search of exoticism, enlightenment, and intoxication (not necessarily in that order) have given way to seekers of cultural richness and beauty.

    Despite the chaos and diversity of South Asia, it is remarkably accessible. English is widely spoken, and rails and roads spider into all corners. Be prepared for an assault on your senses and emotions; the rewards for enduring it are unforgettable.

    All prices in U.S. dollars


    Kathmandu Circuit

    The legendary treks of Nepal (the Annapurna circuit; the Jiri route to Everest Base Camp) require a big-time investment, but Kathmandu outfitters can arrange shorter treks with porters and cooks (Mountain Travel Nepal; +977 1 411225).

    For more variety on little time, rent a bike (Himalayan Mountain Bikes; www.bikingnepal.com/hmb) and pedal to Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, where you'll find temples, monuments, and markets with pottery, wood carvings, and puppets. Or you can arrange an eight-day trek with Mountain Travel Nepal in Langtang National Park, which hugs Nepal's border with Tibet.

    Skip Kathmandu's touristy, polluted Trisuli River and make a four-day trek out and back on the steep, technical Bhotekosi for some of Nepal's best white-water rafting (www.driftnepal.com).

    Bypass the crowds at Royal Chitwan National Park and fly west (www.neconair.com) over Nepal's fertile lowlands to Nepalganj, put-in for a Class III-IV ride on the Bheri River (www.nepaltravels.com). Float south into Royal Bardia National Park, which offers your best chance of spotting a tiger. You can also tour the preserve on foot, by jeep, in a canoe, or on an elephant's back (www.tigermountain.com).


    One Hump or Two Circuit

    To escape teeming Delhi, head southwest by train for five hours to the desert state of Rajasthan. Spend a day strolling colorful alleyways and bazaars in the walled city of Jaipur, then continue four hours southwest by bus to Pushkar, a lakeside hangout on the old Hippie Trail; prime time here is November, for the annual camel fair.

    Take a bus five hours southwest to Jodhpur, on the edge of the Great Indian (or Thar) Desert; then continue on to the fortress town of Jaisalmer, where you can embark on multiday camel treks (Ganesh Travels; +91 2992 50138). From Jaisalmer, backtrack by bus 14 hours to sleepy Udaipur, where dozens of maharajas' palaces have been converted into hotels: the Lake Palace, the Shikarbadi Hotel, and the Shiv Niwas Palace, to name a few.

    Return by bus to Delhi (14 hours) with stops in Ranthambhore National Park to track tigers (www.ranthambhore.com) and in Agra to see the Taj Mahal.



    Himalayan Circuit

    The best-known peaks of South Asia are in Nepal and Pakistan, but you'll also find fine Himalayan adventure in India. From Delhi, start your journey into the mountains at India's first national park, Corbett (www.indianwildlife.com). The 1,318-square-mile [3,414-square-kilometer] preserve shelters tigers, leopards, elephants, and, most impressively, some 600 bird species.

    Guides are based in Ramnagar (www.tigerlandsafaris.com). Continue by bus (six hours) to the pilgrimage destination of Rishikesh, a vegetarian haven situated where the Ganges River flows clear and clean out of the mountains.

    You can go white-water rafting here (www.thegarhwalhimalayas.com), though the main draw is the abundance of ashrams for practicing classical Indian yoga, such as the Sivananda Ashram (+91 135 430040).

    Twelve hours away by bus is the mountain city of Simla, the old colonial summer capital of India, known for its British-era buildings and monkey temples. Many travelers proceed from here to Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama's home-in-exile.

    Continue north by bus (ten hours) to the sporty town of Manali, in the Kulu Valley, for paragliding, summer skiing (on Rohtang La and Mahri), and hiking in a gorgeous setting (Himalayan Journeys; www.gohimalaya.com). Serious trekkers, mountaineers, and travelers with a deep interest in tantric Buddhism continue north to Ladakh and the gnostic isolation of the Zaskar Mountains, with the snowy granite spires of the Karakoram looming at the Pakistan border.


    Traipsing Through the Tropics Circuit

    Even two months will afford you only a glimpse of India, so it's best to confine yourself to one or two regions. The southbound route to languid, tropical Kerala is a great option.

    From Delhi, start on the Rajasthan circuit, but head south by train from Udaipur. Stock up on supplies in Bombay (now Mumbai), then continue south to Goa, famous for its Portuguese-era architecture and seaside rave parties. Anjuna is still the center of the scene, but the beaches farther south are much more pristine.

    From Goa, go inland by bus to Hampi (to take in the ruins of India's ancient Hindu kingdom, Vijayanagar) and the coffee plantations and hill temples near Sråvana Belgola; stay in the municipally operated Yatri Nivas guest lodge.

    Loop back to the coast at Quilon, where you can arrange a houseboat trip along the interconnected rivers and canals of the Kerala backwaters—a great, lazy way to experience the village culture (and wildlife) of India's south (www.dtpc-quilontourism.com).

    End this route with some downtime on the shores of Kovalam (near the southernmost tip of India), a town rivaled only by Goa as a beach mecca. Then grab a flight back to Delhi (Indian Airlines; www.indian-airlines.nic.in).



    Around India Circuit

    Most trips through the mind-blowing subcontinent start in Delhi, followed by a Taj Mahal tour in Agra and a one-hour flight to Khajuraho, known for its erotic temple carvings. Then head east to the holy city of Varanasi and cool down with a boat ride on the Ganges.

    Head north to trek from Kathmandu, then rejoin the India circuit at the Darjiling tea plantations. Skip south to Chennai and the temples of Tamil Nadu, then discover why South India is one of the hottest—and most chilled out—pieces of the subcontinent by making a coastal traverse through Kerala, Hampi, and Goa.

    Return to civilization in Bombay (Mumbai), then soak in the desertscapes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The heat should now drive you north to the hills of Dharmsala, the Tibetan capital-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and the place to meditate over this feast of the senses and spirit.

    —Rolf Potts



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        •  Introduction
        •  Africa
        •  Australia, New Zealand
        •  Central America
        •  East Asia
        •  India, Nepal
        •  South America
        •  Southeast Asia


    Contact: India's official tourism Web site is www.india-tourism.com. For Nepal, visit www.welcomenepal.com.

    Visas: India requires a six-month visa arranged before arrival. Two-month visas to Nepal can be obtained upon arrival in Kathmandu.

    Medical: Japanese encephalitis, dengue, and leishmaniasis are just some of the maladies that can strike travelers in South Asia. Consult your doctor about shots and other preventive measures before your trip. Malaria is a risk at lower elevations in India and Nepal. For more information, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov). Finally, Acute Mountain Sickness is a significant problem for Himalayan trekkers; read up on it before you go at

    Travel Warning: Prudent travelers to India already steer clear of the contested northern region of Kashmir, but elsewhere in the country Hindu-Muslim clashes have intensified, especially in Godhra and in northern areas such as Rajasthan. For a current, reliable local take on the situation, log on to www.indiatraveltimes.com; you might also visit the U.S. State Department Web site (www.travel.state.gov).

    Nepal's increasingly violent six-year Maoist insurgency has cast a pall over the Mountain Kingdom. Reports of trekkers being shaken down for cash "donations" by armed Maoists outside the Kathmandu Valley—without injury so far—are on the rise. For news alerts and up-to-the-minute safety reports, go to www.trekinfo.com and www.south-asia.com/USA.


    Airfare to Hub Cities
    East/West Coast U.S. to Delhi: $1,000/$1,000
    East/West Coast to U.S. Kathmandu: $1,300/$1,300

    $30 (includes food, lodging, and local transportation)

    Rupees, Please
    Skip the bank-exchange window: American dollars buy up to 25 percent more Indian rupees when exchanged on the street.

    Good Baedekers
    The latest edition of Stan Armington's Lonely Planet: Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya has 22 new contour maps and altitude charts, plus an illustrated field guide.

    Related Web Sites

    Excerpt: Adventure on the Ganges
    It was an ad hoc journey of enlightenment: Sail, row, and drag a skiff 160 miles [257 kilometers] up India's holiest river, the Ganges.

    India Country Profile and Maps
    Get country information, history, and more from the National Geographic world atlas.

    National Geographic Travel Package: India by Rail
    Accompanied by National Geographic experts, see the Taj Mahal at dawn, ride open-air vehicles into national parks, and more.

    Photo Gallery: Indian Summer
    Images and bonus audio from writer Charles Graeber on an epic, eight-day voyage up India's Ganges River.

    Photo Gallery: On the Trail to Shangri-la
    In the unspoiled Himalayan paradise of Bhutan, adventure abounds and blue jeans are banned.

    Trekking Nepal
    Sights, sounds, photos, and stories from a 16-day Himalayan trek.

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