Alec Younger, a sixth form student at Winchester College, visited India with the help of Scott Dunn to help build a hostel for young children seeking education in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here he shares his ideas for how to contribute as well as get the most out of a trip to this magical sub continent.
India is a country full of intense contradictions. On the one hand sumptuous palaces, vibrant colors and magical legends. And on the other congested cities, chaotic bureaucracy and extreme poverty. Wherever you go in this huge sub continent, you will undoubtedly come across elements of them all. But none of this matters when you meet the locals, who almost without exception appear incredibly warm, curious and engaging. I was lucky enough to spend time with local people in Delhi, Ladakh and The Punjab. Each had their idiosyncrasies but all shared one thing in common, an immense charm.
I first arrived in Delhi on a muggy summer’s morning. Our first stop was the Ashok Country Resort, a budget hotel close to Delhi’s International Airport. This was our base in Delhi, and from there we could easily explore the city center which was about twenty minutes away by bus. Delhi is a must on any itinerary. It is the center of government and if you get the chance, three places that you must visit are India Gate, the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk market.
India Gate itself stands 42 meters tall and sits in a park to the south east of the Connaught Place which is at the center of New Delhi. It is an imposing structure and a memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the India Army who died between 1914 and 1921, a period covering the First World War and the third Anglo-Afghan war. In the park around the gate you will see a celebration of India’s love of cricket; it is where Delhi residents young and old gather to play Cricket – a national obsession in India.
The Red Fort sits to the north east of Connaught place close to the banks of the Yamuna river which winds its way around Delhi’s eastern suburbs. This wonderful and imposing fort was the home to the Mughal Emperors for over two hundred years until the Indian mutiny of 1857, and was built by Shah Jehan, who was also responsible for the incredible Taj Mahal in Agra. Inside you will find museums and markets and can immerse yourself in India’s rich and varied history.
A short walk north west from the Red Fort sits the Chandni Chowk, one of the busiest and oldest markets in Delhi. Chandni Chowk is where you can browse and haggle, and experience the vibrancy of India’s passion for the bargain. Prepare to come out having bought several things you never knew you wanted!
The main destination of our trip was the barren, mountainous hillside of Ladakh in the foothills of the Himalayas. Winchester College, my school, has for many years supported the Lotus Flower Trust, which supports local projects all over the whole region of Ladakh. Ladakh is huge but it’s main centers of interest for travelers are its capital Leh and the many hiking trails that criss-cross the dramatic scenery in the hillside around it.
Our project was to help build a hostel for school children who otherwise would have to travel to up to three hours to get to school each day. Education is highly valued, and this is a project that I was so pleased to be involved with. Our project was based in Khaltse, which is a three hour drive from Leh. To be honest, there is not much to see in Khaltse but if you are interested in exploring how a local community lives and works on a daily basis, then this is a possible destination for you.
Leh, however, is a city worth visiting. What struck me immediately was that it felt like we were in Tibet rather than India. Buildings have a very distinctive Tibetan architectural style and the great Namgyal Tsemo monastery that was built in 1430 overlooks the whole city. And the people look and seem Tibetan whether they be wearing traditional Tibetan dress or military fatigues. Be aware that you will see soldiers everywhere you travel in Ladakh because of the perpetual border conflicts between Pakistan and India since partition, but don’t be put off by this, like everywhere else in India the people here have immense charm.
When in Leh, it is worth visiting the grand bazaar in the center of town, which boasts an incredible array of different products from luxurious pashmina to locally produced vegetables. Prayer flags flutter in the wind above the market adding a reminder of the strong Buddhist heritage of this region.
One of the main reasons why people come to Leh is to enjoy the world-renowned trekking that is on offer. A vast range of treks are available for all abilities and ages and can be as short as a few hours or as long as a few days. We drove to Matho village where there is a famous monastery, situated at 3,800m above sea level. Our trek took us up to 5,000m above sea level over three days, passing the Mathu Chu river, Gangpoche and Matho La before arriving at the village of Stok back at 3,600m. En route we had magnificent views of the incredible snow capped Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in Ladakh standing at 6,153m above sea level. We traveled with an expert guide, sherpas and their trek ponies, and a small team of cooks who produced the most mouth-watering international as well as local food, despite the most minimal equipment. I will never forget the aromatic masala tea, the creamy Dal and the sweet desserts. Delicious!
Our third and final destination was Amritsar, renowned internationally for its Golden Temple. Amritsar is the spiritual and physical home of Sikhism. And wow what a sight it is! Surrounded by a sacred lake, it’s reflection shimmers in the evening light creating magical golden rays that are truly captivating. The temple is the fourth most visited heritage site in the world and it even has a free kitchen to provide nourishment for up to 100,000 visitors every day! Once again, despite its simplicity the food was incredible, and don’t be intimidated by the crowds! Service is quicker than almost every restaurant in the UK and is delivered with enthusiasm and the trademark welcoming Indian smile.
Another place that is worth going to is Jallianwahla Bagh, the shameful site of what has become known as the Amritsar massacre. In the space of 10 minutes, Colonel Reginald Dyer’s British Indian troops fired into a crowd of civilians who were participating in the annual Punjabi Baisakhi festival. Official figures released after the massacre by the British Government put the death toll at 379 dead and 1200 injured. It is a haunting place full of uncomfortable memories but strangely the Indian population seem more intent on taking selfies with any westerner they can find; this makes for a bizarre experience but in my view no visit to Amritsar is complete without seeing this side of the British Empire’s rule in India.
And if you have the time, head to the Wagah border around 28kms from Amritsar where you can witness the border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan. It takes place every day just before dusk, and is a festival of peacock strutting soldiers facing off against each other!
I would recommend this three region trip for any curious and energetic traveler to this great country. We did this in two and a half weeks but if you take out the four days spent building the hostel in Khaltse then this could comfortably be done in 10 days to 2 weeks. And if you are willing and able to bring a group of like-minded friends, the Lotus Flower Trust could certainly make use of your talents.