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About India
About India >> Indian Activities

Off the Beaten Track

Andaman & Nicobar Islands
These remote islands were devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami which hit on 26 December 2004. So far the confirmed death toll is 1,800 but this number is expected to rise sharply with some 5,500 people reported missing. On the worst affected island of Car Nicobar, the number of dead may never be known with some villages having lost almost two thirds of their population.

Darjeeling
Straddling a ridge at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft) in the far north of West Bengal, Darjeeling has been a favourite hill station of the British since they established it as an R 'n' R centre for their troops in the mid-1800s. The town remains as popular as ever and offers visits to Buddhist monasteries, tours to tea plantations, shopping in bustling bazaars and trekking in high-altitude spots to the north. Like many places in the Himalaya, half the fun is in getting there. Darjeeling has the unique attraction of the famous miniature train, which loops and switchbacks its way from the plains up to Darjeeling in a 10-hour grind of soot and smoke.

Jaisalmer
This desert fortress close to Rajasthan's border with Pakistan is straight out of an Arabian fairy tale. Founded in the 12th century as a staging post for camel trains travelling between India and Central Asia, Jaisalmer is a golden sandstone city with crenellated city walls, a magnificent fortress and a number of exquisitely carved stone and wooden havelis. Seen at sunset from afar, it glows with the luminescence of a mirage.

Jaisalmer's impressive fort crowns an 80m (260ft) high hill, and about a quarter of the city's 40,000 inhabitants reside within its walls. Little has changed here for centuries, and if ever a record-breaking effort were made to pack as many houses, temples and palaces into a confined space, this would be the result. The fort is honeycombed with winding lanes, and has formidable gateways, a maharaja's palace, a ceremonial courtyard and beautifully carved Jain temples. The most beautiful of the havelis built by Jaisalmer's wealthy merchants are Patwon-ki-Haveli, Salim Singh-ki-Haveli and Nathmal-ki-Haveli.

Kanha National Park
Kanha is one of India's largest and most remote national parks, covering a plethora of forest and lightly wooded grasslands supported by an extensive network of rivers and streams. The setting of Kipling's Jungle Book, it has an excellent variety of wildlife including leopards, chital, sambar and, most famously, the tiger. It's possible to make elephant-back excursions into the park in the early morning and evening, though opportunities to see tigers may be decreasing because of the work of poaching gangs. Although wildlife can be seen throughout the season, sightings increase during the hotter months of March and April, because the animals move out of the tree cover in search of water. The park is closed from 1 July to 31 October.

Kerala Backwaters
The complex network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals fringing the coast of Kerala forms the basis of a distinct regional lifestyle, and travelling by boat along these backwaters is one of the highlights of a visit to the state. The boats cross shallow, palm-fringed lakes studded with Chinese fishing nets, and along narrow, shady canals where coir (coconut fibre), copra and cashews are loaded onto boats. Stops are made at small settlements where people live on carefully cultivated narrow spits of land only a few metres wide, and there's the chance to see traditional boats with huge sails, and prows carved into the shape of dragons. The most popular backwater trip is the eight-hour voyage between Kollam and Alappuzha, but most of your fellow passengers on this route will be Western travellers. If you want a local experience, or you simply feel like a shorter trip, there are local boats from Alappuzha to Kottayam and Changanassery.

Khajuraho
This quiet, genial, dusty village in northern Madhya Pradesh is awash with temples. Temples for everything - sun gods, sacred bulls and, more memorably and most prominently, sex. The erotic possibilities suggested by the stone figures in the numerous temples have contributed to Khajuraho's international fame. Another prime feature of the temple craftmanship is that they are liberally embellished with some of the finest handiwork of the Chandela period, a dynasty which survived for five centuries before falling to the onslaught of Islam. Visitors are also drawn to a dance festival, celebrated in March, which attracts some of the best classical dancers in the country - the floodlit temples provide a spectacular backdrop during the event.

The largest and most important temples are in the attractively landscaped Western Group. Externally, the temples consist of curvilinear towers with clusters of lesser turrets clinging to them, suggestive of rising mountain peaks (ahem) converging round a great central peak. Round the exterior walls are two, sometimes three, superimposed rows of gods, goddesses, kings and heroes, courtesans, couples in carnal embrace and, in some cases, friezes depicting various forms of bestiality. The interiors are just as ornate, with an open portico leading into a main hall, then a vestibule beyond which is an inner sanctum containing the free-standing cult image. In fact, the sculpture and architecture blend so perfectly that each building appears to have been conceived by a single - and highly sexed - mastermind.

Leh
Leh, a one-time departure point for yak trains travelling into Central Asia, is located in a small valley just to the north of the Indus Valley. These days it is part strategic military centre and part tourist town. It's main claim to fame is the Leh Palace. It was built in the 16th century but is now deserted and badly damaged, a legacy of Ladakh's wars with Kashmir in the last century. The main reason for making the climb up to the palace is for the superb views from the roof. The Zanskar mountains, across the Indus River, look close enough to touch. The palace was sold to the Archaeological Survey of India by the Ladakhi royal family and an ambitious renovation project is under way. Try to get a monk to unlock the preserved, but now unused, central prayer room; it's dusty and spooky, with huge masks looming out of the dark. It's worth escaping from the handicraft shops and backpacker restaurants to stroll around the meandering laneways of the Old Quarter and catch a glimpse of what the town used to look like before it began to accommodate tourists.

Activities

The number of trekkers visiting the Indian Himalaya is small compared to those tramping the tracks in Nepal, so if you want to peacefully experience the world's greatest mountain range, try trekking in Himachal Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh. The trekking season runs roughly between April and November, but this varies widely and some routes are only open for a couple of months each year. India's main trekking centres are Lahaul, Spiti and the Kullu and Kangra valleys in Himachal Pradesh; north of Rishikesh in northern Uttar Pradesh; Darjeeling in West Bengal; Yuksam in Sikkim; and Leh in Ladakh.

The ski season runs from January to March, and there are resorts at Narkanda in Himachal Pradesh and Auli in Uttar Pradesh. Facilities are rudimentary but that makes it all the more fun. There's usually one lift in working order and a place to hire gear. Après-ski consists of chapatis and a nice cup of ginger tea.

India is not renowned for its beaches, but there are popular beach centres with acceptable swimming in Goa, just across the Karnataka border in Gokarna and at Kovalam in Kerala. There are also beaches at Diu, and at Puri in Orissa. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal have good beaches and boast India's only diving and snorkelling opportunities.

Camel treks can be arranged in the deserts around Jaisalmer and Pushkar in Rajasthan. Treks last anywhere between a few hours and a few days. The best season is between October and February. If camel trekking leaves you feeling scorched and sore, try white-water rafting on the Indus. Trips can be organised in Leh.


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