Karl’s spiritual backpack trip to India – You have to come prepared to India, a country full of contrasts and surprises. The South Asian country that is considered to be the 7th largest country in the world by area, is a melting pot of cultural heritage, religious influences of Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, as well as smaller percentages of Buddhism, various indigenous ethnically bound faiths, and developing modern society of over 1.2 billion people.
But still, India remains a newly industrialized country due to its past as a British colony from the mid 18th century until the nonviolent resistance and the independence of India in 1947. Super exciting for my 24 years self backpacking the subcontinent as an openly gay traveler. Trash, incense sticks, prayers… India is the perfect mix. Enjoy my Gay Travel India Photo Story Part 1 and get a glance at the spiritual and somewhat gay-friendly side of the country of contrasts through a gay single backpacker’s eyes.
Traveling India as an openly Gay Backpacker
Despite India’s difficulties with overpopulation, environmental problems, and not enough housing (India is the second-most populated country in the world), traveling to India opened up my mind. Every day was an adventure for me with countless positive and negative surprises and unexpected problems that needed to be solved. After arriving in India I spent some first days in New Delhi, before traveling by train south to Agra and further by bus to Jhansi to see the temples of Khajuraho.
From there, I flew to Varanasi, one of the dirtiest but most fascinating and spiritual places I have ever been in my life. Before I traveled to the south-central region of India and back to Mumbai, also known as Bombay, I crossed the Nepalese border for a two-week excursion to Kathmandu and Nepal, before the big earthquakes where I could fly around the highest mountain on our planet, Mount Everest. And now, enjoy it!
The annual updated ranking of Spartacus’ Gay Travel Index for 2020 informs travelers about the situation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in 197 countries and regions around the world. Which countries are gay-friendly? Where do LGBTQ + travelers have to be extra careful?
New Delhi, the Red Fort & Lotus Temple
My adventure started with some exciting days in Helsinki, the Finnish capital city. From there, I flew with Finnair to New Delhi in the northern part of India. My first impression of India: It was hot, humid, dirty, and totally overcrowded. Not even to mention the noise and air pollution. On top of my list for the first days in New Delhi was the famous Red Fort followed by the Lotus Temple, a Baháʼí House of Worship. I thought I was prepared for the Indian cultural shock due to my trip to Sri Lanka the year before. But the number of people, cars, dirt, and trash everywhere was just an overwhelming experience and seriously a shocking experience. At least at first.
It took me a moment to see the beauty in it. Especially the unorganized routines and lack of structure on the streets and public spaces is stunning and beautiful. And then there were the religious buildings full of history detailed artwork. I couldn’t get enough of it, although I had to always keep an eye on my bag, camera, and other stuff. Pickpockets are everywhere, and they know how to involve you in a conversation to get what they want. However, the Red Fort is a spectacular building and so was the Lotus Temple that was built in 1986 as a religious space open to all, regardless of religion or any other qualification.
From New Delhi to Agra by train
After a couple of days in India’s capital city, it was time for me to leave New Delhi. There are multiple ways to get around in India either by bus, train, plane, or even private car. For my next stop Agra, I decided to take the train, a decision that should open my eyes to how the locals live in the region around a big city. It all started at the ticket counter where I learned my first lesson: Don’t wait in line, just go to the front and fight with your elbows to get listened to. My tip is to pre-order the tickets online which gives you a choice to get a better seating class like the first or second class. I just got a third-class ticket with a window seat. Everything was old, moldy, and filthy without air-conditioning nor glass windows but a square metal frame with cage bars. What an experience. Lucky me, I got some first-class tickets for my next train ride!
In tears in Agra: Taj Mahal & Red Fort
Backpacking meant traveling on a budget. And that what I was doing back in 2008. At my second stop Agra I, therefore, choose a really low-budget hotel, the Hotel Taj Plaza. What is special about it? The accommodation is located just outside the East Gate of the Taj Mahal and I had an incredible view from the rooftop terrace. The hotel itself is typically Indian style and not high quality at all. But that is not why I was in Agra. While walking along the Taj East Gate Road along a dense and humid forest area, I couldn’t see the building that is considered to be one of the 7 new World Wonders.
Once I entered the Taj Mahal Eastern Gate and approached the Great Gate, there was just one thing I could do, start crying with goosebumps and soft knees. The atmosphere of the bright white building was so incredibly touching that I stood there speechless inhaling the magic. Of course, I entered the Taj Mahal main building enjoying the detailed artwork all over the white marble structures. And it was so unbelievably hot outside. Just one reason why the visitors take shelter in the shadows on the Taj Mahal Terrace overlooking the Yamuna River behind the building. One, if not the highlight of my India trip.
With a Ricksha around the best temples
But that was not all I’ve got to see in Agra. I jumped on a Riksha for a day to see the most beautiful temples in Agra including the Agra Fort with its famous Amar Singh Gate, the Tomb of Akbar the Great, and the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. With the setting sun, the light around the temples and religious places turned the sights into an almost magical light, especially while I was watching the last minutes of the huge sun bulb disappearing into the Yamuna River. Agra, in general, was packed as it is understandably one of the top places visited by tourists, like me. But it should be on everyone’s “once in a lifetime bucket list for sure”!
The next day started early in the morning as I planned an adventure trip via Jhansi all the way to Khajuraho. But before I boarded the train, this time in the first class, I had a sunrise breakfast on the rooftop of the hotel. Surrounded by birds and with the voices of praying men singing into the morning, I could watch the sunrise above the Taj Mahal. I was left speechless once again, proud and happy to be able to do such an adventure. Bye, bye, Taj Mahal. My next stop: Agra train station.
So far, we as gay couple travel bloggers visited Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam together. Around 10 years before that, Karl was backpacking around most parts of South-East Asia, including India and Nepal. Our reporter Sarah recently visited Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos and tells us more about the local LGBT community.
From Agra to Jhansi in First Class
My second train ride in India couldn’t have been more different from the third class experience. Like I mentioned before, I could catch a first-class ticket for my trip to Jhansi and the differences really were two classes. Free freshwater bottle, breakfast, window seat with actual glass windows, and air-conditioning. But even in first class, there was a flaw: I could spot little mouse shadows in the skyline of the first train car I was sitting in. The view was wonderful riding the train along green river valleys and wide ranges of land.
Arrived in Jhansi, I jumped on a private car with the aim of stopping in Orchha to take some stunning shots of the Orchha Fort complex, the Raja Mahal, and Lakshmi Temple all located along the Betwa River. No tourists whatsoever and a peaceful atmosphere. I would recommend stopping here if your schedule allows some hours off to take photos, buy some colorful powders as well as herbs, and get a banana for the last part of my trip to Khajuraho.
And further to Khajuraho’s (sex) temples of
Sex temples? Well, no, of course, those are real sex temples. But the temple complex in a well-maintained green garden area has some remarkable and unique statues and figures to offer. It was super hot during the day when I was wandering around the single temples and gardens. At night, the whole area literally turned on the lights for a spectacular light and sound show. Be early to get a good seat and don’t forget the mosquito repellent. Two nights are more than enough and so it was time to leave already for another highlight of the first part of my India as a gay backpacker, Varanasi.
Varanasi – India’s spiritual center
After doing some research on how I could best come to Varanasi from Jhansi, I decided to save time and bought a cheap ticket to fly to Varanasi. From the airport, it was just a short Riksha ride to the Ganges River, a most sacred river to Hindus living in India and around the world. The city with about one million inhabitants is the dirtiest city I have ever been to. Trash, feces, deceased bodies, and the usual business of Indian megacities create a mix of for me unknown smells, and sensual experiences. I remember that I could not stand all that for the first hours as it was simply overwhelming. The people you will meet in Varanasi are either pilgrims who are eager to take a bath and wash each other as a part of Hindu traditions or are living along the Ganges making their living from the millions of visitors who come to the Ganges River every year.
I stayed in a cute little guest house right at the banks of Varanasi. This part of the city is very popular for religious ceremonies on the waters and along the banks. I still can hear the bells, instruments, and singing of the Hindus and are happy to get some shots of the fire ceremonies taking place every evening. I do recommend not to wash, drink, or do anything else with the water of the Ganges as it is so over-polluted and dangerous for everyone getting in direct touch with it. The levels of fecal coliform bacteria and other so-called killer bacteria from human waste in the river near Varanasi are more than a hundred times the Indian government’s official limit. And still, while I took a sunrise boat tour through the mist floating over the river, I could see many people going for a swim or washing their clothes in the river right next to water buffaloes and cremation ceremonies.
On my way from Varanasi to Nepal
I also learned that babies and peoples who died a special “holy” dead would not be cremated but thrown into the river directly. The impact on the environment in India but also the neighboring country of Bangladesh is immense. So far, all plans to lower pollution have failed due to the lack of support from authorities and the practices of religious groups. Be especially careful with drinking water and food in Varanasi. Only shrink-wrapped water bottles are safe. Don’t eat anything uncooked or even a salad that was not washed with bottled water. I got badly sick on the last day in Varanasi and needed to go to a hospital in Kathmandu due to a severe bacterial infection. I survived but lost 10 kg within a week. You will see photos of my skinny self in the second article about India’s central south.
However, I left Varanasi late in the evening with a night train north to the Indian-Nepalese border. The nightmare of my infection started at the train station while waiting. Pain in my stomach, dizziness, headache, and Stomach cramps started before I could board the train. I took an anti-diarrhea medication to be able to board the train. Fever started and I needed to see the washrooms. Well, but the night train I had tickets for would have a toilet but just a black hole in the button. This train ride was just horrible with high fever, hallucinations, and stomach pain. But I managed to survive the night and arrive at my final destination in India before crossing the border to Nepal, the country in the fabled Himalayas…
Karl split up his India trip into two parts by adding a week in Nepal. He explored Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu with its unique temples, Bhaktapur as the smallest of the three royal cities of the Kathmandu valley, and could see the fabled Mount Everest out of a propeller-driven plane. All that before the devastating earthquake from April 2015.
Karl’s Backpacking Trip: Gay Travel India Part 2
Leaving the Himalayas behind, I arrived in Hyderabad for my second which marked the beginning of the second part of my Gay Travel India backpacking adventure. Not even a bit less adventurous, I traveled to Hampi with its stone temples and centuries of almost untouched culture.
And then it was time to go further west by night bus to Goa, where I got my first-ever dreadlocks inhaling the craziness of hippie ‘flower power’ Goa. Finally, I visited my dear friend Nitin in Mumbai before I made my way back to Europe. Gay Travel India
Karl & Daan.
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