Following a bone-shaking ten-hour bus journey from Nepal, my partner and arrived in the holy city of Varanasi. We jumped into a tuk-tuk, anticipating the delights of the air-conditioned guest house that we had booked next to the River Ganges. The pre-monsoon temperature was a sweltering 114 degrees.

The driver gleefully related a story about an Australian woman who had taken a shower at her hotel, swallowed the water, which was syphoned straight from the Ganges, and died the next day. The tuk-tuk made a sudden stop. We were told that we’d have to walk the rest of the way as the lanes were too narrow for the tuk-tuk to navigate. The driver waved his arm in a vague direction and disappeared. 

We soon found ourselves lost amongst a bewildering maze of passageways. Asking shopkeepers which way the river was, we were met with blank stares and shrugs. An hour later, we were still lost and also tired, hot, and dehydrated. We purchased some water and standing outside the shop in despair, we spotted a dead body being carried by a group of chanting men. Surely the body was en route to the Ganges to be cremated and if we followed it, we would be led to the river and therefore our guesthouse!

The holy city of Varanasi is the site of many significant rituals and temples.

The mourners moved swiftly, and we found ourselves running, our backpacks a burden, and sweat pouring from our bodies. We had glimpses into mysterious temples and passed cows, holy men, beggars, and pilgrims. Aromas wafted through the air – incense, spices and sewage. Finally, we arrived at the elusive Ganges as the sun was setting. Glowing candles floated on the water, offerings to the holy river. 

This was the first day of our trip backpacking in India and if it was anything to go by, India would be every bit as strange and surreal as we anticipated. After a few days in Varanasi, we took a train to Delhi. Opting to go third class, we survived the ten-hour journey despite being seated adjacent to the toilet, the stench that emanated from it almost unbearable.

After a couple of days in the capital, we headed to Ranthambore National Park. We were hoping to spot one of the royal Bengal tigers which the park is known for. As it transpired, our luck was in. Not only did we see two beautiful tigers at close range, but spent an hour observing one of them stalk a deer. The deer’s luck was in too – although it was initially oblivious to the stalking tiger, when it did catch on, it raced swiftly across a shallow lake, leaving the disappointed tiger hungry. 

Ranthambore National Park

From there, we took a crowded bus to Pushkar. Situated on the edge of the Thar Desert, Pushkar is a lakeside holy town. Our room had a view over the ghats, and at sunset every evening we watched the mesmerizing Aarti ceremony take place. The ethereal sound of drumming, chanting and the tingling of bells resounded around the lake.  

We treated ourselves to a taxi back to Delhi and spent a couple of days in the capital before making tracks to Chandigarh where we wanted to visit Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. Largely overlooked by foreign tourists, it’s a whimsical wonderland of sculptures made from junk. Nek Chand spent years building it in secret until it was discovered by the authorities. Although it was slated for demolition, thankfully it was saved, and it’s one of India’s lesser-known treasures.     

From Chandigarh, we took an overnight bus to Dharamsala, the Tibetan enclave in the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama took refuge in 1959. To this day, he lives in a modest house on the grounds of the Tsuk Lakhang Temple. We explored the streets lined with Buddhist bookshops where monks mingle with backpackers. Prayer flags flutter in the wind and the buildings cling to the steep mountainsides.

Pushkar, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs, is situated along the beautiful Lake Pushkar.

We continued further into the Himalayas, where we lingered in the chilled-out village of Old Manali, enjoying the cool cafes, fresh mountain air and hikes through the woods. From there, we embarked on our final leg of the trip – a 20-hour trip to far-flung Leh in the remote region of Ladakh.

After leaving at 1. a.m. our bus sped along on misty mountain roads and around hairpin bends at breakneck pace. Oncoming lorries thundered towards us in the darkness. Our pot-smoking driver was asked to slow down by one of the passengers. The passenger was told to ‘go to sleep’. Teresa, meanwhile, was throwing up out of the window. She told me she didn’t think she was going to make the journey. We had been on the bus for an hour.

After stopping at a checkpoint, I dozed off and awoke to sunrise. I took in the snowy mountaintops, waterfalls, glaciers and sculpted rock formations – it was spellbinding. The road wound its way through some of the world’s highest mountain passes. We stopped for breakfast a little later and thankfully, Teresa felt better. As I sat on a rock eating a yak-cheese sandwich, I surveyed the sublime beauty surrounding me, and reflected on how lucky I was to experience both the peaks and valleys of this extraordinary country.

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