Darjeeling, India

I’ve had a sweet spot for Darjeeling ever since I saw Wes Anderson’s film “The Darjeeling Limited”. It follows the adventure of three brothers as they catch a fictional train, likely based on the Rajdhani express, to visit their mother somewhere in the North-East of India. While they never made it to the colonial hill station that gave the film its name, I was intent on visiting it all the same.

Darjeeling was discovered by a delegation of the British East India Company in 1828. They were so taken by it that they followed the English tradition of “we’ll have that” and set up shop. After the construction of a sanatorium for British troops, it became a popular holiday destination for ex-pats looking to escape the heat of the plains and a number of tea plantations began to flourish. Today the region continues to produce some of the highest quality tea in the world and, though there are tentacles of industrial pollution even in this remote place, its charm remains intact. A colonial hangover is in full swing: High tea is served daily at the Windamere hotel if you’re into that kind of pomp and a Victorian influence is visible in much of the local architecture.

During my stay I had the chance to go paragliding early one morning. It wasn’t until we arrived at the jump-off point that I realised the gravity of what I’d signed up for. Shackled unceremoniously to the wing, I was told to run for my life down towards a lofty drop off. Casting sanity aside, I followed their orders and as we reached the end of the runway my pilot screamed at me to push off. We began to tip forward, the grass rushing up to meet my face; “oh god, we’ve fucked this right up” I thought moments before the wind caught the glider and sent us soaring into the clouds. Adrenaline ran so high that I didn’t even notice the cold lashing at us as we circled over the town below. My pilot, a guy no older than 19, steered us up among the eagles from one updraft to another before spiralling down at high velocity. It felt like we were on the brink of flipping at each turn but he steadied us masterfully time and time again. I have no doubt there are gliders in the air on most days here but the school children in town still went ballistic waving and cheering up at us. It gave you the sense that you were some kind of touring dignitary.

Paragliding over Darjeeling
A group of local children pose for a photograph in a village of the Happy Valley tea estate Further down the road from the Happy Valley village lie a number of graves looking out over the jungle below
A passenger loiters by a jeep stand in Darjeeling's main bazaar. The roads are often in such radical disrepair that jeeps become a necessity for getting from town to town Thomas the tank-engine lives. The toy train running from Siliguri up to Darjeeling has a number of these beautiful steam engines still in use. Far from slow and lumbering, they move with impressive speed

On the right: Thomas the tank-engine lives. The toy train running from Siliguri up to Darjeeling has a number of these beautiful steam engines still in use.

Darjeeling from the air
Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres, viewed through the haze on the road up to Tiger hill near Darjeeling

Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres, viewed through the haze on the road up to Tiger hill.

The sun peeks through the trees on the road down from Tiger hill. A welcome respite from the bitter cold of the morning A colourful monastory draped in Tibetan flags. Found along the road to Tiger hill
A road-worker mixes tar at dawn. These crews work tirelessly against the army of potholes littered along the Tiger hill road just outside of Darjeeling St Andrew's Church

On the left: a road-worker mixes tar at dawn. These crews work tirelessly against the army of potholes littering the road to Tiger hill just ouside of Darjeeling.

A rather gloomy looking photograph of Darjeeling's town center


Varanasi, India

Karl Pilkington of “An Idiot Abroad” fame said that in India you’re never far from madness. He came to this conclusion as he surveyed a pile of bodies awaiting the funeral pyre in Agra. I made it as far as Varanasi before I witnessed the same thing and I must admit that, as a westerner, I had a morbid curiosity in the process.

A metropolis stretched along the river Ganges, Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India known for its many riverfront ghats. Ghats are stone steps leading down to the water, the most famous among them serving as platforms for the Hindu ritual of holy cremation. In holy cremation, bodies of the deceased are burned in the open air among stacks of wood. A belief is held that this breaks the cycle of reincarnation and thus ends the suffering of the individual. Proximity of the pyre to the river is an indication of status; Those of higher class are able to afford the spots nearest the water while the poor are left to burn further afield. In practical terms the difference is paltry, often only a matter of several metres. Nonetheless this is often a matter of great pride for the Hindu people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the cremations is how little emotion seems to be present. The whole setting is so incredibly matter-of-fact: Fires are lit and each body is burned while a small crowd looks on; Eventually, one of the staff “breaks up” the body and skull with a long stick of bamboo. The next fire is lit soon after. Onwards this process marches, two to three hundred times a day at each ghat.

As well as the pyres, Varanasi is home to a kite-flying mafia. As the sun begins to set, they make their daily pilgrimage to the rooftops to do battle, hoping to entangle and sever one-another’s lines. Ascending one of the restaurants along the river, we came across a man in his twenties engaged in a furious battle with a rival kite-flyer a few buildings away. Peering down, we spied his opponent: A boy not older than ten. It wasn’t long before our new acquaintance had succumbed to the superiority of his juvenile counterpart and lost his kite. He smiled, reeling his line in. It was then that we noticed the pile of fresh kites resting by his feet.

Looking along the ghats of Varanasi lining the river Ganges
One of several festivals of prayer that occur nightly along the river Ganges As good a place for rest as any in Varanasi
Candles await sale along the Ganges. Once purchased, buyers release them into the river making for quite an ethereal spectacle A packed performance takes place in one of the many ghats lining the Ganges
A throng of onlookers on both land and water attend a nightly festival of prayer A soldier of the skies smiles bashfully as I take his photograph. Moments later his line is cut by an opponent
The ghats are positively teeming with life; This guy is a prime example of the abundance of animals that graze along the riverfront day and night. I never did get a chance to enquire about the colouring of his horns Many of these bright, holy bins lined the waterfront in Varanasi. I wondered whether my spent water bottles were worthy as I made my deposit

Entering the labyrinth: From the street to the balcony of Sunview: A guest house we had the good fortune to discover.


Agra, India

Let’s be honest about it, Agra sucks. When you plan to visit the tourist epicentre of India, you know it’s going to suck, and it does — badly. But the Taj Mahal, oh the Taj Mahal. What a magnificent sight. I don’t need to tell you that, though, everyone knows it and for good reason. So fine is the experience that it makes the lobotomy of visiting Agra absolutely worth it. Pushy touts and drivers are sure to pepper any destination in India but only in Agra is your suffering truly insured by a guarantee of brilliance. A brilliance that only the grand mausoleum and towering minarets of the Taj can afford.

The Uttar Pradesh tourism board have chosen not to light the Taj at night and I thought this a good thing. A sight such as this deserves the full illumination of daylight and no amount of incandescence could do it justice. Even for those game enough to arrive at sunrise, trying to avoid the crowds at the Taj is a futile effort. We, the tourist horde, number so many here that it’s packed throughout visiting hours. Fortunately no concentration of people is capable of detracting from the supernatural beauty of the grounds, especially at dawn. A box ticked, I left happy.

The next morning, I was halfway through an uninspired bowl of muesli when I began to feel my stomach tighten. Groaning, I took immediate survey of the nearest lavatory. A storm was brewing and my suffering was assured. It is an exceptionally dark experience to be sick while travelling alone and, as intense stomach pain gave way to a volcanic fever, I sat in the lobby of a nondescript hotel being steadily reduced to a whimpering shell of a man. Rakesh, the owner of the hotel and a man I had just met, showed me what felt at the time to be an immense level of humanity. Perhaps concerned I’d scare off his guests with my leper-like demeanour, he offered me a room and some blankets to lie down with and even a lassi to settle my temperature free of charge. Later, he sent one of his employees along with me to load up on prescription drugs before my train to Varanasi. Pale and emaciated, I shook his hand as one might an old friend. Sometimes even the smallest act of charity can make the unbearable seem markedly less so.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise
A glimpse back at the entrance to the Taj Mahal's grounds. Visitors can be seen pouring in and jostling for position in the iconic photo spot
A closeup of the intricate marble carvings inside the grand mausoleum of the Taj Mahal A rare moment of solitude in a corner of the grounds of the Taj Mahal


Jaipur, India

In a state crowded with strongholds big and small, Amer fort of Jaipur is without a doubt the crown jewel. Its walls erupt from steep crags and march tirelessly through the surrounding hills, sparing none their presence. An elephant of questionable treatment carts patrons up the punishing climb to the forts internal complex. Though it is bursting with visitors from near and far, the vast grounds treat any guest with a little perseverance to short moments of solitude in which to take in the spectacular sunset over the city below.

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, home to over 6 million people and the renown pink city: a neighborhood constructed entirely of pink stone. It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as pink would look if it was brown. Muddled in with the marketplaces and city gates is Jantar Mantar, an eclectic collection of astronomical instruments constructed in the 1700s by Jai Singh II, a king of the time whom harbored a great love of the sciences. While impressive in size, they remained cryptic as to how one might use them to measure anything astronomical. Instead they provided me with a measurement of my own ignorance, which was considerable.

At Jaigarh fort, visitors peruse the once thriving cannon forge. It was here that Jaivana was built, at the time the worlds largest wheel-mounted cannon. Evidence of a medieval arms race, it rivals a bus in size and was fired just once with half of the designed gun-powder. The cannonball flew 35 kilometers afield, an impressive distance that confirmed how utterly useless it would be in an actual conflict.

The brilliant facade of the Hawa Mahal, built so women of the royal household could peer down at the streets below and remain unseen. A prime example of Jaipur's iconic 'pink'
Jal Mahal, a water palace in the middle of Man Sagar lake A thali (indian set meal) to conquer them all is served at Rainbow restaurant in the Old City of Jaipur
Internal courtyard of the Amer fort
Outer gardens at the base of Amer fort Visitors gaze out at the outer walls of Amer from atop Jaigarh fort
The colourful Rajasthani state flag blows in the wind above Jaigarh fort's watchtower
A Jeep employed to scale the heights of Jaigarh fort sits in the afternoon sun Sunlight floods through the exquisite carvings high in the Amer fort palace
Jaivana, at the time the worlds largest wheel-mounted cannon, sits at the topmost lookout of Jaigarh fort


Udaipur, India

In Udaipur, locals proudly tell you you’re in the Venice of the East. You might feel incredulous to such claims at first but its peaceful character grows on you. Honeymooners flock for the romance and it’s no small achievement that a city of half a million people feels positively tranquil.

Since the city featured in the 1983 Bond film “Octopussy”, all the guest houses in Udaipur screen it every night. Every night, it seems, except for the night I actually wanted to watch it. On that night, of course, it was nowhere to be found. A small matter when the evening spectacle from the waterfront is so dazzling. Gazing out upon its expansive surface, it’s hard to imagine the lake dries up entirely during the summer months.

Inside the wonderfully antiquated Lal Ghat guest house I met Rosie, a British expat and antiques dealer running her own guest house in town. She tells me over chai that tourist numbers are down this season. A confusing trend indeed when the setting is so sublime.

City Palace lights up at dusk. Built slowly over a 400 year period, the palace complex is still owned by the Mewar royal family
An inner courtyard of the City Palace View from the rooftop of the Lal Ghat guest house: Lake Pichola at dawn
Elephant sculptures welcome visitors to the Jag Mandir, a palace built on an island in Lake Pichola
Anything from doorways to mudguards can and will be decorative in India, this charming gate to a small, residential hindu temple is no exception Waterfront of the Lal Ghat guest house. Lal Ghat is one of the oldest guest houses still operating in Udaipur