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IMAGES TO BEHOLD; Delhi may be a seething mass of choked streets, cycle rickshaws and ox carts and it is often dismissed as no more than a staging post, but it offers a fascinating insight into a now bygone era Cate Wilson takes a 17-day tour of one of the world's most fascinating countries. And, although a visit to India left her longing for traditional home cooking, it also left her wanting to discover more.

Byline: Cate Wilson

Cate Wilson travelled to India and Nepal courtesy of Bales Worldwide, which offers a range of escorted tours and tailor-made options.

Prices for the 17-day Images Of India And Nepal tour vary according to season and are per person, including all accommodation, some meals, guided tour and entry into all attractions.

Tour departing October 6 and November 24 is pounds 1,998; December 22, pounds 2,195; January 20, 2002, pounds 2,025; and February 10, pounds 2,125. A 21-day tour departing October 24 is priced pounds 2,250.

It's not often that one needs to be cruising at 30,000 feet to get the best view of your holiday destination. And yet in Nepal no holiday can be complete without a bird's eye view of the Sagarmatha, the pyramid-shaped peak better known as Mount Everest.

At close to pounds 55 each, a 45-minute mountain flight with the wonderfully titled Buddha Air may seem a bit excessive for a traditional holiday excursion. The price, however, pales into insignificance as soon as the white peaks of the Himalayas come into view.

The trip was one of the highlights of a 17-day tour that took in the highlights of India and Nepal. Our adventure had begun with a flight from London to Delhi, the capital of India, which instantly presents the two faces of modern India.

Emerging from the terminal late at night, you are immediately struck by both the heat and the sprawling madness of one of the most populous countries on earth. Immediately accosted by willing porters wishing to help you with your cases for a few rupees, we took refuge on our tour bus that whisked us to the sanitised comfort of the Hyatt Hotel in New Delhi.

Delhi, often dismissed by many travellers as no more than a staging post, has much to offer. At its heart is the grand colonial centre of New Delhi, designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens, and for many years the administrative centre of the British Raj.

The majestic buildings, best viewed from India Gate in the East, are totally out of kilter with the seething mass of Old Delhi, complete with choked streets, cycle rickshaws and ox carts, but offer a fascinating insight into a now bygone age.

From Delhi, the next main stop on the tourist trail is Rajasthan, India's second largest state and the gateway to the desert lands to the west. We took an early morning train from Delhi to the chaotic state capital of Jaipur, known as the Pink City.

One of the highlights of our visit to this land of colourful bazaars and camel trains was a trip to the Amber Fort, the former stronghold of the ruling Rajputs.

Perched high above the city, visitors reach the fort by emulating the rulers of yesteryear by hitching a rather bumpy ride on an elephant, that wind their way up the narrow hill to the palace's main complex.

The fort is a myriad of fountains, mosaics and Mogul architecture, and provides a glimpse into the splendour of the royal families that once dominated the region.

Other attractions of Jaipur include the legendary Palace of the Winds, the city's most acclaimed landmark due to its shimmering pink glow. Built to allow women of the ancient court to gaze unobserved on the streets below, the palace is now, due to many years of neglect, little more than a facade for visitors to gaze upon.

Along with Delhi and Jaipur, the third leg of India's famous Golden Triangle is Agra, home to the inimitable Taj Mahal and the deserted forgotten city of Fatehpur Sikri, a poignant reminder of the once great Moghul Dynasty.

Today the city of Agra has little to commend it, with its appalling traffic pollution and overwhelming crowds, however, do not let this put you off.

The Taj alone is worth the effort and, no matter how familiar you feel you are with this great edifice, the sheer magnitude and beauty of this modern wonder of the world cannot fail but take your breath away.

The marble dome, undoubtedly the zenith of Moghul architecture, is above all a monument to romantic love, having been built by Shah Jahan to enshrine the body of his favourite wife. More than 20,000 men were involved in its construction, with marble and precious stones carried to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean.

Today, the Taj is a model of tranquillity amid the madness of modern Agra, with the Indian Government having created an exclusion zone, banning all petrol cars, in a bid to prevent further pollution damage to this World Heritage Centre.

We left Agra, after taking in the high red sandstone ramparts of the Agra Fort, and headed off the traditional tourist trail, to Orchha (literally the hidden place) languishing amid a tangle of scrub forest 18 kilometres south-east of Janshi, the former capital of Bundela dynasty.

Orchha is a true gem of undiscovered beauty with derelict palaces, wandering water buffalo and swooping vultures, providing a rare glimpse of serenity outside of India's big cities.

However, most tourist traffic to the region heads for Khajuraho, the resplendent Hindhu temples, famed for the eroticism of their intricately carved sculptures, constructed between the tenth and twelfth centuries, but laying hidden until their 'rediscovery' by the British in 1838.

It is claimed the temples were inspired by the Kama Sutra and certainly a few of these awe-inspiring creations will leave some visitors blushing.

The finale to our brief glimpse of India came with a visit to Varanasi, now called Benares, and one of the holiest places in the Hindhu religion.

One of the oldest living cities in the modern world, Varanasi is legendary for its ghats, the stone steps leading down to the banks of the Ganges. It is here that pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions and, in among the bathing ghats, daily cremations take place, as the deceased seek to attain instant enlightenment.

And so onwards to Nepal. Following a short flight from Varanasi, the last leg of our tour began in the mountain village of Dhulikhel, situated high in the Himalayas around 90 minutes from the capital of Kathmandu.

After the hustle and bustle of India, the fresh mountain air and stunning views over snow-capped peaks provide, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

This is trekking country with all routes from our lodge-style hotel leading along winding mountain paths, tiny Nepalese villages, and even the occasional encounter with local schoolchildren.

One such chance encounter provided an unexpected highlight of our trip, as our unpaid guides gave us a tour of the area and local town, complete with visit to a local temple and a bumpy bus ride back to the hotel.

We finished our trip back in Kathmandu, today a vibrant city swelled by a large Tibetan community and back-packing tourists. Excursions include tours of one of the country's largest Buddhist stupas (or holy places) and a trip to Bhaktapur, Nepal's most perfectly-preserved city and the setting for the 1995 screen hit Little Buddha.

After Everest, the Taj, Delhi and the cloying squalor of Agra, our Images of India and Nepal tour had certainly lived up to its billing. By the end of our 17-day visit, one could be forgiven for dreaming for some traditional home cooking, or even longing for a glimpse of day-time British television.

And yet, after barely scratching the surface of the vastness of India and the mystique of tiny Nepal, we left resolving to see more.
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 29, 2001
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