india, travel

A-Z’s of Traveling to India

Welcome to Magical India….

 I have had a love affair with India from the first time I visited this beautiful country so rich in tradition and  culture. I am very lucky in that Mike and his family still have a home in Punjab, India. Mikes parents are originally from here and still visit in India a few times a year. I have been able to experience the food, places, culture, people etc, in India, from the unique perspective of the people who actually come from and those who still live here. India has always reminded me of Durban in Kwazulu Natal (KZN), where I grew up in South Africa. Its steeped in culture and tradition and unwavering belief and faith. The lifestyle is simple yet, even those who have onlya fraction of what most of us in other parts of the world do, they still smile, they walk in gratitude and contentment. In a world, that is always wanting more and more, and bigger and better, a part of me does admire these people for their ability to be content, without that contentment being tied to any material or outside influences. 

Back to how this trip came about. Mikes mum (aka “mum”:)) needed to be in India for business and we decided to make it into a little bonding trip as well. His aunt (aka “massi”), would be there as well so I decided a week in India with mum and massi, while Mike was in London, would be fun and relaxing. 

I literally booked a ticket a few days before jumping on the plane, and shortly after the panic began about what to pack, how much to pack and obviously how many shoes can I possibly get away with packing before it became ridiculous. (that’s the norm for me though haha;). Now for the first step to a successful, easy trip…

Packing

How do I put into words how much I hate packing for trips??? The requirements and restrictions at airports, (with every airport in the world varying on these), is just annoying and can make the process very stressful, especially if you don’t travel a lot/often. Having said that, I have become really good at it. 2 words when it comes to packing with the airport in mind… LIQUIDS AND ELECTRONICS!

Liquids

Liquids can be a problem when going through security at airports. If you are carrying liquids in hand luggage (on international flights), each bottle/container that the liquid is in must be less than 100ml each and no more than 1 litre total for all liquids in your bag. In addition to that they need to all fit into a clear plastic bag. When you get to security, please remember you need to get all of your liquids out of your hand luggage and into tray at security. I keep  a plastic bag (a medium sized ziplock bag is perfect), that has all my creams, makeup etc in it and when I need to pack and leave for somewhere, its ready to pop into my bag and get on a plane. All pharmacies have those travel bottle packs. Get yourself one (or 2) of these packs (they are relatively inexpensive , about GBP3.50/ZAR75 per pack). They come with labels most of the time so its easy to fill these up with your shampoos, creams, makeup etc and pop each of these containers/bottles into the ziplock bag for easy packing into your hand luggage. When you get to the airport and they ask for liquids, you just need to grab that one ziplock bag from your hand luggage and place into security tray. Its so worth the bit of extra time that it takes to get the containers and add the liquids into them. Its saves you a ton of time and stress at airports. Its a nightmare if you have packed different liquids all over the place in different bags and different compartments of different bags and then trying to hurriedly remember them all and find them at the airport. An extra bit of info to keep in mind when visiting India, is that airport security in India are more concerned with metal and electronics in your bags as much as anything else. Keys, coins, chargers, laptops, iPads, hair straighteners, hair dryers etc, please do yourself a favour and remove them from your bag so that you are not slowed down at security with needing to have your bags rechecked and scanned, due to electronics and metals that you have not removed and placed into trays. (I wasn’t lying, it is a big drama *yawn*). 

Ok so we made it through the packing and airport security, we are on our way to explore magical India. 

I land at Delhi airport. By this time the, now infamous, Corona Virus had hit and was causing moderate panic around the world. They were testing for fever at the airport , this was a pretty quick process and the queues kept moving. I filled in health forms to advise that i had not experienced any symptoms and quickly made my way to immigration (Indian immigration is not as dramatic as some other parts of the world). After all the formalities were over with, I had about 4 hours before my flight so I had to have my obligatory Starbucks frappe (Vanilla for those interested;)), while I worked on this very post amongst other things. 

Finally 4 hours later, after people watching, working, instagramming and window shopping , I boarded my flight to Chandigarh and off I went. At about 3pm I landed at Chandigarh. Now you’d think that after having left home the previous day at 10:30am our time, a 2 hour layover in Doha, another 4 hours in Delhi before getting to Chandigarh, that this would be the end of traveling. Nope, my friends, I had one more, 3 hour car ride to the house in Punjab before that. The driver was waiting at the airport by the time I arrived along with an aunt of ours who lives in India. We started our journey to the house. It was a surprisingly relaxing ride, with us stopping for some “chai”(tea) on the way. It was raining at this point and they were kind enough to bring me the tea inside the car so I could enjoy it while staying dry and stationary haha.

At last I had arrived.  I was happy as much as I was relieved. Mum and Massi had, by now, finished their business meeting for the day, and it was great to see them and start our vacation.  

Shimla

I had never heard of Shimla before this trip. And admittedly, when I first heard about it, I thought it would be like any other place in India, colourful, full of tradition and culture, but what I discovered was a gorgeous ski village, with snow capped mountains, hidden temples and the best apple cake you could ever have (the hot chocolate is pretty amazing also).  Now I have to be honest and let you know that the drive from Punjab to Shimla is painful. And for someone who is not a fan of long car rides, I found the drive there quite dreadful. It took us about 6-7 hours to actually get there (I lost count after 4.5 hours haha). To add to the pain, the roads are narrow and winding which caused me to feel slightly dizzy and nauseous. We did have a quick stop to get a snack on the way to Shimla, however this was little consolation to me so I eventually dozed off until we got there. I would definitely suggest you leave home early to get there at a decent time. We didn’t realise the distance and only reached Shimla around 5pm. We decided almost immediately that we should stay the night and start exploring in the morning. 

A picture paints a thousand words, and this one will tell you everything you need to know about my moods after/during long trips hahaha (iv blurred drivers face out coz he doesn’t want to be famous im sure lol)

Finding a hotel, usually,  is probably quite easy, with loads of options. However at this time the Corona virus had already hit and wreaking havoc with travel plans. Many hotels were either not taking in guests/foreigners or demanded a list of your travel history to ensure that we hadn’t come from or travelled to and from any high risk countries. After much walking and asking around, we finally found the place where we would lay our weary heads for the night. The Legacy Shimla is a beautiful hotel situated in the heart of Shimla, right on the famously busy Mall Road. It is situated at 7000ft and has beautiful views of the town and the mountains, the service was fantastic, with the hotel staff going above and beyond to accommodate us and our needs. The rooms were all nicely furnished with king size beds, central heating (which is necessary out there), modern baths, room service, cable TV and free Wifi. This is such great value for money as well at 4000 Rupees per room (GBP40/R800), incl. breakfast. 

The next morning, we woke up early, got dressed and headed down for breakfast. Indian breakfasts, to me, are sometimes difficult to differentiate from other meals. Its usually still curries and rotis. A bit too heavy for me, but that’s just a personal thing, and that’s quite the typical type of breakfast in India. Anyway, all those calories would come in handy for the shopping and walking we were about to do:) Our first stop was the very highest point of Shimla. Here you will find the most glorious views, churches, a cafe higher up in the mountains and of course the Jakhu Temple, which attracts thousands of visitors. The temple is located in the Jakhu Hills. You can walk from Mall Road all the way up to the temple (about 5km), or take the taxis that operate all day. The taxi option is definitely a better option if you are travelling with older people, or the roads are too slippery to walk. Unfortunately the roads were quite bad at the time of our visit so we didn’t get to visit the temple this time but I would definitely recommend if you are going to Shimla/India, that this is on your list. 

We then played dress up and had a little photoshoot (trust me to go somewhere where I’m forced to take more pictures of myself right? hahaha). Right at the top, at the highest point in Shimla, you will find photographers who dress you up in traditional gear and take great pictures that you have the option to then choose your favourite shots and purchase them. Its something quite fun and light hearted and worth doing once. 

After all the sightseeing, walking and tons of posing and pictures, we finally made our way back down the mountain to the famous Mall Road…the shopping Mecca of Shimla. I must admit, when I first heard about Mall Road, I wasn’t all that bothered. I thought “just another shopping district”. But there is an energy about the place and the people here that just draws you in. I LOVED Mall Road. This is a place of great finds at even better prices. The quality and prices really did surprise me (in the best way) and the only and best tip that I can give you is …BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. Like most places in India, prices are up for negotiation and vendors are more often than not, willing to offer discounts. Mum and Massi are brilliant negotiators and get the best prices on everything we shop for. If there’s one thing that iv learned from them, and would pass on to you, is that negotiating is a part of the dance in India. Everybody does it and so everybody expects it as well. I am probably the worst bargain shopper you can find. Truth is I’d happily pay full price for something if it saves me time, energy and effort, however, what a feeling of achievement when you do manage to get a bit off the normal price:-p We walked around, from one end of Mall Road to the other, shopping for the best bargains and trust me..we found ALOT!

All that shopping does tend to work up an appetite. I, being me, naturally wanted something sweet (and warm/hot). On my search for the perfect little snack, I found out that Apple cake is something that Shimla is famous for. I don’t mind a bit of Apple cake but when I saw a “Shimla’s famous apple cake” sign, I had to try this to find out what made this cake so “famous” and if to was worth the hype. I ordered their “must try real hot chocolate” to go with the famous cake and believe me when I say Worth. Every. Calorie! The cake was genuinely the lightest, fluffiest sponge you could possibly have. The apple flavour came through beautifully and it had a hint of nuttiness to it as well, I think from almond flour and the coconut added a great taste and texture as well. The hot chocolate was divine. The steamy brew was beautifully thick, rich and sweet which, combined with the cake (which wasn’t all that sweet), made for the perfect snow day treat. Get my version of Shimla’s hot chocolate on my travel food diaries page.

And just like that, our little 2 day adventure to Shimla, was over. Time to head back home to Punjab. While we were putting Shimla behind us, I still had a lot of exploring still to do in India…

I come from a fairly religious family/background. My family is Hindu and have brought us all up to believe in Hinduism and all that goes with it. While I do believe in God, I am by no means religious. I do however love visiting temples, around the world. I don’t know if it makes me feel more connected to God, to my late parents (or maybe both?). So visiting the Maa Chintpurni and the Jwala Ji Temple in the Himachal Pradesh state was a must for me and they didn’t disappoint.

The 3 Temples to Visit… 

The drive is another long one (approx 6 hours), but this time I was armed and prepared  with snacks to sustain me through the journey:) 6 hours or so later, I was more than ready to get out that car (although the minute I got out into a downpour, I did have a moment where I thought I should just get back in the car where I’m safe, warm and dry). To get to the temple, you need to walk from the car park through the narrow streets. After about 10-15 minutes of walking, you get to a long, narrow, almost tunnel like entrance. As you enter, you see a winding staircase, to what seems like, a staircase to nowhere. It looks never-ending. Having said that, once you start walking up, you will quickly get distracted from the hike up, by the market vendors perched on either side of the staircase, selling their goods..everything from sweetmeats (Indian sweets/desserts) to toys, jewellery and kitchenware. The people and the prices really make it nearly impossible to walk away from these stalls, without buying something. No matter how disciplined a shopper you think you are. 

Tip: take a look only on your way up to the temple and do your shopping on your way back down. 

Finally about 8 minutes later, we reached the top of the tunnel staircase and told to remove our shoes. The stores there will keep your shoes safely for you. There’s no charge and I don’t think there are generally any issues of safety, theft etc with shoes. (Security is also present). Once you remove your shoes, you can go up the stairs (yes more stairs 🙂), to the temple. It was pouring down at this time so I ran crazily up the stairs and cannot remember most of that run haha. 

There it was, finally, the Jwala Ji temple. The temple is located in “Shaktinagar”, in Himachal Pradesh. Its is dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Jwala Ji.

There is a blue flame in the temple (there are no pictures allowed inside the temple), that burns flawlessly and is believed to be burning for the last 100 years, without being successfully extinguished. While nobody has the knowledge of the actual history, there are some that believe the flame is due to a reserve of natural gas but that too could not be validated. Its also believed that Akbar tried to extinguish the flame, but did not succeed. During the 70s the government of India appointed a foreign company under Nehru Ji Supervision, to try to explore the possibilities of natural gas, as a way to explain the constant flame, however, they too were unsuccessful in finding anything like that. Im not sure if I believe in the myth or not, but its almost irrelevant to me as there was no denying the special energy of/in the temple. There is a calm and a peace. A place where faith is unwavering and no matter what people have going on in their lives, this allows them to keep believing in a better tomorrow. Whatever your beliefs, if you are visiting India I would definitely recommend giving the Jawala temple a visit. 

“Mata Chintpurni Devi” is believed, by hindu’s, to be one of the manifestations of the Goddess Durga. Humans have endless desires, and desires steer us to anxiety and worry. The belief is that “the divine mother” relieves her devotees from worry (chinta), by fulfilling their desires. Thats why she’s, appropriately, called “Mata Chintpurni”. Devotees believe that all who come to her with wishes and desires, do not leave empty handed, and that she showers her blessings on each and every one. The Temple is her abode and sees believers/devotees from around the world visiting with the hope of getting into the temple and having their desires fulfilled. The temple, was full of buzz and life with tons of visitors there on the day I was there, trying to get their rituals done and look around the beautiful temple building. Jwala Ji Temple was probably my favourite from the 2, but if you can get to see both, its definitely worth the time and visit. 

And now for my favourite place that iv visited so far, in India – The Golden Temple! What a marvel this place is. The temple, also known as Harmandir Sahib, meaning “abode of God” is a Gurdwara (place of worship), located in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. It is the holiest gurdwara and most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism. The temple is built around a man made pool that was completed in 1577. The temple is an open house of worship and open to visitors from all walks of life and faith. It has 4 entrances and a circumambulation path around the pool. The temple is a collection of buildings, so there is a lot to see and do. Its like a city on its own, once you enter. This includes a clock tower, a museum and “langar” – a free Sikh community run kitchen that offers simple meals to all visitors without discrimination (the food is so good and authentically Indian). Its said that the temple sees over 100000 visitors daily.

I got there at night and the “magic” of this place was undeniable(again no pictures allowed around/in temple so we were lucky to have taken these). On entering all I saw was still water (the pool) and in the distance almost magically floating on the water was this breathtaking golden building. Everything seemed to stand still, as if it was just me in this once in a lifetime, magical place. The first thing we did before walking to/into temple, was cleanse our feet in the pool water. As we walk towards the temple, there’s the warm night breeze on my arms and face and the glow of all the lights surrounding the temple made this a surreal entrance. As we take off our shoes and prepare to go into the temple, we see the insanely long line, with all these people from around the world and India itself, patiently and hopefully waiting to go inside to perform their prayer, meditation or worship. For many just getting inside the temple is a dream come true and believed to be a blessing in itself. 

I was thinking and we subsequently decided that as we had had a long, exhausting day, we were not ready to brave the queues. They were at least a couple of hours long before we had a hope of getting inside. As we were just about ready to turn around and start walking away, a separate line seemed to form and these people were being allowed in quickly. We somehow managed to get into that line and within 10 minutes or so, stood at the entrance of the holy temple. I went in not knowing what to expect. It was beautiful and opulent and…well so GOLD:) There were priests inside, in the middle of the temple/room, handing out “Prasad” (sweets that have been offered for worship). Prasad is said and believed to be blessed once offered to the Gods and a blessing to receive them. There were so many people packed inside trying to desperately get a morsel of their “blessing” (Prasad), that I was just happy to have gotten inside and experienced this once in a lifetime moment, I was certainly not thinking of pushing my luck getting any more blessings than I felt I had already received that day haha. As I was about to walk out though, the priest looked at me and gestured that I come closer. I walked slowly over, confused, thinking what have I done now? lol. He wrapped the Prasad and handed it to me. I was pleasantly surprised and quite touched at having received the Prasad. I did save some of it to take with me to New York (that’s a trip to read about another time in upcoming post:)), to share with Mike. 

The Golden Temple is really one of those unforgettable, memorable places and experiences. Its one of my favourite places that iv been to in India and a MUST SEE if you are in India. 

We all had to sadly cut our trip short this time, as the Corona Epidemic was now bringing the world to a grinding halt and we needed to get out of India before they decided to close their borders. After frantically searching for flights, we managed to get the last flight allowed out of India (we didn’t realise this until we got to the airport and it got real:).

We made it out, just in time. While it was a bit sad to have cut this trip short, India, I will be back, I promise…I will always be back! Till we meet again….

ps. go to my must have feature on the home page to get the info on my currently featured product. Its my favourite accessory (handbag, pictured below, on my arm, in India). This bag will ensure you are looking chic all the time!

Love

Arita X

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