Indian odyssey

Gustasp & Jeroo irani retrace the steps taken by the Indian traveller in the year 2011 — a year of the gutsy and offbeat traveller, it would seem.

It’s a harsh landscape, an arid yet beautiful high-altitude desert that is as close as one can possibly get to a moonscape. It’s a challenge for even the fittest of travellers and they too are advised to spend their first day doing absolutely nothing or run the risk of falling prey to high altitude sickness and ruining the rest of their holiday. As much as it is alluring, Ladakh is a demanding destination; definitely not one for the fainthearted.

Yet, Ladakh is fast becoming the badge of the well travelled: those who have not been there, have not really been around. And for good reason too; for here visitors can trek across moon-plains or frozen rivers (in winter); go river rafting on the Indus as it slices through a surreal landscape; drive through the highest motorable pass in the world (Khardung La, 5.600m or 18,380ft)... Chang La, the third highest pass (5,425m, 17,800ft), is a gateway to Pangong Lake (of Three Idiots fame), a slash of startling blue across a canvas of brilliant hues and multiple textures. Ladakh is what many seasoned travellers sought out in 2011: a destination that goes beyond being different for the sake of being different, but one that is exotic, surreal and well off the trodden path. We discovered Ladakh while researching a story titled ‘Himalaya on Wheels’, a story about making the country’s most geographically isolated district accessible to those on wheel chairs. That journey underscored the point that travel is no longer the purview of the rich and able-bodied, but includes anyone fired with the spirit of adventure.

New experiences

Indeed the Indian tourist has come of age in 2011 and is no longer happy to be a passive traveller content with the popular and must-see attractions. He has become increasingly restless, seeking out new experiences even when travelling to
popular destinations. Like dune bashing, Dubai style, in Jaisalmer; checking into the Palace of Ayurveda at Kalari Kovilakom in Kerala; learning how to appreciate a good cuppa in Chikmagalur, the heart of coffee country; camping in luxury tents on the Char Dham yatra trail of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri; exploring the far reaches of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the north-east. Even when travelling abroad, there has been a marked shift in the attitude of the Indian traveller. They now want to strike out on their own rather than settle for the regimented itinerary of a coach tour. (It is still the popular choice for those exploring foreign shores, especially Europe, for the first time). New lands and experiences beckon people to places like Jordan, for instance. Here they have explored the lost city of Petra, taken a dip — as King Herod did — in natural hot springs, dropped down to the lowest point on earth (1,300 ft below sea level) at the Dead Sea and slathered themselves with black mud and floated in the inland sea’s buoyant waters.

Exotic allure

Turkey too offered visitors exotic interludes. Istanbul, the only city in the world that straddles two continents — Europe and Asia — lured Indians with endless possibilities.

Indeed, few cities in the world have as beguiling a silhouette as the capital of three ancient empires, whose opulence unravels along the banks of the silvery Bosphorous Strait, which separates the East from the West. Inland in Cappadocia, they have taken to the air in hot air balloons and drifted over a landscape that could have been
conceived by the fervid imagination of a science-fiction illustrator. The underground city of Derinkuyu which plunges eight levels under the surface of the ground, the mesmerising Whirling Dervishes, the Greek and Roman ruins of Ephesus. Yes, Turkey has wooed Indians as never before. Further away, the big buzz has been East Europe: Budapest in
Hungary, Prague in Czechoslovakia, the Black Sea resorts of Serbia, Bucharest in Romania. Some have even taken a detour to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, which is really more beautiful than eerie. Many have discovered this previously uncharted part of the world by sailing down the Danube on an Avalon Waterways river cruise ship, which flavoured the voyage with generous helpings of romance and indulgence.

Old favourites

Though Europe has always been on the radar of the world, India included, it still has a lot to offer those looking for something unique. Like the Normandy region of France, for instance, where one can explore the charming little town of Rouen (Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake here as a witch) on a cycle, or visit the spectacular Mont Saint-Michel Castle
marooned on a rocky cliff of the fabled coastline. A few have checked into Les Sources de Caudalie, a vineyard hotel in the famous wine producing region of Bordeaux, and enjoyed a luxuriating soak in a large wine barrel. Switzerland, one would imagine, is passé. Not so, as there are many little gems that have been discovered by the Indian tourist. Like a snow trek in the alpine town of Bettmeralp that sits pretty at the foot of Aletsch
Glacier and is only accessible by a cable car; or soaking in an outdoor thermal bath with snowflakes fluttering down from the surrounding snow-draped mountains in Leukerbad; maybe even attending an open-air rock concert in the snowy foothills of Jungfrau.

Favouring flora and fauna

Like Europe, in Australia too, new destinations have caught the Indian travellers’ fancy. Its vast Outback beckoned those craving to do something truly different, like learning about the aborigine dreamtime legends that surround Ayers Rock, the largest monolithic rock in the world; or checking into an underground hotel in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy and maybe even striking it rich, ‘noodling’ for precious gems in an
abandoned mine. Some have even stepped ashore wild and rugged Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, which teems with native wildlife — kangaroos, fur seals, sea lions.
Even well-trodden Malaysia served up the exotic, especially for those who
ventured into its Sarawak province on the north-western fringe of the island of
Borneo. Here, they have trekked through the rain forest; entered caves draped in stalactite and stalagmite formations; watched the waltz of the bats as millions of the winged mammals soared through the sky in ever-changing formations; said hello to the descendants of head-hunters without the fear of losing their scalps as they no longer go around flaunting their trophies in the hope of winning a bride: thrilled at the sight of orangutans and rare proboscis monkeys with their bulbous noses swinging through dense forests.

Western extreme

Further afield in the United States, the Alaska cruise, the theme parks in California and Orlando as well as cities like San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas, continue to be big hits with Indians. Canada has started attracting tourists in growing numbers since this year. In addition to the Niagara Falls, which is a perennial favourite, Alberta and British Columbia on the West Coast have captivated the imagination of visitors. The Icefields Parkway Drive between Jasper and Banff is probably one of the most
scenic drives in the world. The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury train that has whisked passengers through a lake-studded mountain wonderland where black bears, grizzlies, elks and mountain goats roam free.

Those seeking the truly exotic headed out to the South Pacific paradise called Fiji. The fabled archipelago of 330 islands in the backyard of nowhere has the perfect solution for an age-old dilemma that tourists face — activity or chilled-out relaxation — by offering both without compromising either. The Sigatoka River Safari captures the spirit of adventure, spurring today’s Indian traveller by bringing him face to face with natives who once considered it good form to eat defeated enemies.

The last reported case of cannibalism occurred in 1867 when missionary Reverend Thomas Baker removed a comb from a native chief’s hair and landed himself in the hot pot. Yes, he was the main course on that day’s menu! The chances of that happening in today’s world are nil and the hard-core Indian Marco Polo soaring over well-trodden and off-beat trails of the globe is being served a banquet of choices that are to his/her taste. For, when it comes to tourism, the world is a grand stage and the traveller is the main player.

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