This 9-day India tour is the perfect introduction to this fascinating country, covering the iconic 'Golden Triangle' of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur with additional stops at Keoladeo National Park and the Rajasthan village of Tordi.
American writer Susan Sontag once said: "I haven't been everywhere, but its on my list", which is the perfect quote to encapsulate Rosemary Brown, who has travelled to a whopping eight countries with us.
Based in the United Kingdom, Rosemary has travelled to Egypt (twice), Sudan, Jordan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia with us. We got in touch with Rosemary to find out more about her journeys across the globe.
My first trip with Encounters Travel was to the oases of the Western Desert in Egypt with my husband Mike in 2011.
I had read an article about these remote oases – Siwa, Bahariya, the White Desert, Farafra, Dhakla and Kharga – in a travel magazine and I was immediately fascinated by the landscape and culture. I just knew I had to go. I did a lot of research and put together an itinerary which I sent off to a number of travel companies.
I was amazed when Anthony Horrobin from Encounters Travel telephoned me that same morning. Immediately we were on the same wavelength and soon discussing the itinerary and accommodation in depth.
Anthony came up with a very reasonable quotation and I looked no further - that was the start of a very fruitful collaboration which I hope to rekindle once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and we are able to travel again.
Riding over the dunes in Egypt's Western Desert.
This is a really hard question. Actually, they are all my favourites because I make a point of not trying to compare destinations - I try to immerse myself in their culture and enjoy all they have to offer.
I have never been disappointed because I always try to travel with an open mind, and I have wonderful memories of all the places we have visited.
Let me give you just one example. On our first trip with Encounters Travel to the Western Desert we arrived at dusk in the White Desert - a surreal landscape of fancifully named wind-eroded rock formations. It was bitterly cold, and I was pleased I had persuaded Anthony to book us into the newly opened Shahrazad tented camp (which I had found online), instead of agreeing to rough camping.
None of us had a clue how to find the Shahrazad so our guide, Mahmoud, phoned for directions. We were told to find the White Rabbit and wait there to be picked up - real Alice in Wonderland stuff!
Somewhat perplexed, we drove around a bit in the jeep and eventually came across a large rock formation which looked like an enormous rabbit. Sure enough, our hosts were soon along to pick us up and we were treated to an amazing dinner by candlelight and a heated tent to sleep in.
Our guide and driver were supposed to be rough camping, but they were so envious that they phoned their company in Cairo to ask if they too could stay at the camp at the company’s expense and report back their findings for future clients.
Needless to say, the company took pity on them and Anthony subsequently told me that he has since booked many other clients into the Shahrazad.
The White Rabbit in Egypt's Western Desert, where we were told to wait for our guide.
I haven’t ever felt out of my comfort zone in a country as a whole, but we’ve had a few hairy moments with unscrupulous or incompetent guides.
I remember when we were in Delhi, our guide took us to the famous Sufi shrine at Nizamuddin to hear the hypnotic qawwali music at dusk. Before we took our seats, the guide said that one of the officials would like to meet us.
We were ushered into a small room and invited to make a donation to some ongoing charitable project. We were shown a ledger listing previous donations, all of them for several thousand pounds, and we were uncomfortably aware of having been led into a scam where large amounts of money were extorted from tourists who found it difficult to lose face under such pressure.
We gave a very small donation and left the room immediately, with the guide and official hot on our heels demanding more money. We lost ourselves in the crowds waiting to hear the qawwali and afterwards we met up with our driver who took us back to the hotel.
We never saw that guide again.
India is incredibly cheap. The cost of food in local restaurants and cafes is negligible.
When we stopped on the road for a quick lunch with our driver, the three of us could eat for under £1, and in Udaipur, we went out of our way to visit the famous teashop where a glass of fresh lemon and ginger tea cost 10p.
We have already been back again! Once you have experienced incredible India, you just can’t keep away. I learned a lot from the first trip we took with Encounters Travel, and I decided to book the second trip myself.
On the first trip, I basically selected three iconic sites – the Taj Mahal, the great Hindu city of Varanasi and the Golden Temple at Amritsar – and linked them together with stops and visits to smaller sites. It was one of the best trips we have ever done, but exhausting too, and we had to cover some of the larger distances with unreliable internal flights.
A rear view of India's Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh Gardens.
On the second trip, we decided to restrict ourselves to a smaller area – just Rajasthan – and concentrate on the forts, palaces and temples of its great cities - Jaipur, Ajmer, Udaipur, Jodphur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner - which probably comprise India’s richest crop of architectural monuments.
We also included the small towns of the Shekhawati, once on the Silk Road, so we could visit the beautiful havelis which collectively comprise such an extraordinary artistic and architectural legacy.
I booked the hotels myself on the internet and hired a car and driver in advance from an Indian company operating out of Jaipur. You need a certain amount of confidence to do this – there’s a lot of scope for things to go wrong, for hotels to claim they never received your booking, even for the driver simply not to turn up. Fortunately, nothing went wrong and we had a wonderful time.
I was already planning a third trip to India before COVID-19 struck the world, and still hope to be able to go in a few years' time. I shall use Encounters Travel again next time to make the arrangements because I want to undertake a more complicated itinerary in Southern India crossing several states.
Yes, India – it’s difficult not to get hooked!
Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi - the site of hundreds of cremations every day.
Scholars from the Sanskrit School head backafter an early morning purification dip in India's River Ganges.
Everyone knows someone who has visited India and was either ill all the time they were there or came back with some chronic gastric condition. It’s true that India is dirty – there’s dung, filth, rubbish, and cows wandering around everywhere – but you just have to see beyond this if you are going to enjoy this amazing country.
We ate freshly ordered food in local restaurants (and also roadside cafes when we were transferring from one place to another) and we weren’t ill at all. Most people eat buffet meals in hotels, and those meals were probably prepared hours in advance and have been sitting around in high temperatures. It doesn’t matter how many stars the hotel has; the buffet meal problem remains the same. Observe standard hygiene measures but get out and support the local economy and you’ll be fine.
It’s true that the Middle East, North & East Africa are some of my favourite destinations. I love Islamic art and ancient archaeological sites.
I have visited Egypt, Sudan and Jordan with Encounters Travel, but Mike and I have also visited Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Last year I accompanied a couple of friends on a tailor-made trip to Algeria and I have also recently been to Iran.
To be honest, I’m not really interested in countries which do not fulfil the four C’s - civilization, culture, cuisine and climate – which probably explains why I haven’t been to North America or Australia!
Mike is quite keen to see the art galleries in New York, but Mr. Trump put a stop to that by refusing a visa waiver to travellers with an Iranian stamp in their passport!
Of course, the Pyramids of Giza are truly astonishing, but for me the effect now is rather diminished by the constant throng of tourists, not just from Cairo itself, but from all the cruise boats that moor at Port Said and disgorge thousands of sightseers every day.
A colleague of mine took a North African cruise with her husband a few years ago and said that there were over thirty coaches waiting on the quay at Port Said to transport all the passengers to Giza. I don’t find this kind of mass tourism appealing.
Also, because of massive development in Cairo, the Giza pyramids are no longer in the desert and urban development is fast encroaching on them. It’s not that much further to Dahshur, where you can see the spectacular Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid in their magnificent desert setting, and likely as not there will be no-one else around.
You can stand in awe and soak up these amazing structures in splendid isolation.
The itinerary of our last trip to Egypt was arranged specifically around a visit to the Red Monastery near Sohag in Middle Egypt. This area is really off the beaten track and rather risky for foreign tourists, so we had a motorcycle outrider and police cars in front and behind our jeep for extra protection.
We drove through a number of bustling small villages between Sohag and the Red Monastery and the journey would have been very slow were it not for the police cars whose drivers switched on their sirens and flashing blue lights to clear the road and scatter pedestrians and other traffic whenever we were held up.
It was like something out of a James Bond film, although I felt rather guilty about such blatant abuse of power. On the outskirts of one village, two children were playing by the roadside; as we passed by they stood up and saluted us, obviously thinking we were VIP's!
The Coptic Red Monastery of St. Bishnoi dates back to the sixth century and has been the subject of a massive conservation programme since the turn of the century to preserve the frescoes which were almost completely obscured by centuries of soot and darkened varnish.
The conservation team, funded by the American Research Centre in Egypt, has painstakingly restored the frescoes to their former magnificence. We had the great good fortune to see the Monastery on the day that Michael Jones and Dina Bakhoum, who headed the restoration team, were visiting from Cairo.
They were thrilled that we had made the tortuous journey to get to the Monastery and devoted a couple of hours to showing us around and explaining in detail the restoration work and the unusual nature of the frescoes.
There is one unique portrayal of Christ with a moustache, and a fresco of an unidentified donor whose hairstyle is Persian; his clothes are reminiscent of eastern dress with expensive dyes and his boots are also Persian in style.
The remote Red Monastery is a truly fascinating site, and amply rewards the considerable effort of getting there.
P.S: If you'd like to see what it's like inside the Red Monastery, Matjaz Kacicnik took this amazing 360-degree Panorama of this magnificent site.
Inside Egypt's Coptic Red Monastery of St. Bishnoi.
I noticed a few years ago that Northern Sudan was suddenly appearing in the brochures of several well-respected, mainstream travel companies and so I took the view that it must be fairly safe or else they would not be offering group tours.
Khartoum has always held a fascination for me – the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile – and once I started reading about the ancient sites in the North I just had to go.
I planned a tailor-made trip for Mike and myself and Anthony at Encounters Travel put together the arrangements for a price which was only a little more than a group tour, yet offered so much extra in terms of sightseeing and personal service.
Sudan is enigmatic and probably not a destination for first-time travellers to North Africa. You need a little experience of other African countries to appreciate it fully.
The children are a delight, and completely captivated by the few tourists they see, but the adult Sudanese people are quite reserved and wary of foreigners; you have to work that bit harder to gain their trust.
Our guide initially seemed quite introverted, but by the end of the trip he was sharing with Mike his first-hand knowledge of the aphrodisiac qualities of frankincense and on the way back to Khartoum they both stopped off at a particular roadside store and bought large tubs of the stuff! (Sadly, I can’t vouch for the frankincense as Mike’s tub was confiscated at the airport).
Tourism in Sudan is in its infancy and the standard of most accommodation outside Khartoum is dire.
Fortunately, there are two Italian run establishments on the Northern circuit which are of an extremely high standard – the Nubian Hotel at Karima and a tented camp at Meroe – and they serve as bases to see the wonderful historic sites in great comfort.
The sites are, of course, the main reason I wanted to visit Sudan, and I still remember as if it were yesterday - the frisson of excitement and anticipation I felt as we waited for the curator of Jebel Barkal to unlock the huge metal door and usher us inside the holy mountain.
The ancient Nubians and Kushites believed that the mountain was home to the god Amun, and inside is a sanctuary dedicated to Amun’s wife Mut. The walls are covered in astonishingly beautiful relief carvings and hieroglyphics, and the sense of being ensconced in a womb-like cave-temple inside the mountain is palpable.
It’s worth going to Sudan just for this amazing experience alone!
Outside a local market in Meroe, Sudan.
I was as surprised as anyone when I read before our trip that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt.
They are clearly inspired by the Egyptian pyramids but quite unlike those at Giza. The main difference is that they are much smaller, but the level of workmanship on the cutting of the corner slabs, particularly of the Napata pyramids, is extremely high.
The largest pyramid at Meroe is only 30 metres high. The smaller size allowed the pyramids to be constructed much faster and with less manpower using simple cranes. Tomb chambers were dug directly into the rock below and the pyramid then erected above – a significant difference from Egypt where the tomb is encased in the body of the pyramid.
Sudan's Meroe Pyramids at sunset.
There are three cemeteries at Meroe, of which the northern one is the best preserved and contains over thirty pyramids in various states of repair. These pyramids have funerary chapels where offerings could be made, and many are decorated with beautiful relief carvings.
The Meroe pyramids may lack the size and grandeur of the Giza pyramids, but the site is unbelievably atmospheric, especially at sunset. There are no touts trying to persuade you to take a camel ride, no souvenir sellers: it’s just you and the pyramids alone in the desert.
For the discerning traveller, the Meroe pyramids win hands down, but many tourists want simply to tick off the world’s greatest sites – been there, done that – and for that type of tourist the Giza pyramids will still prove to be the greater attraction.
The North Cemetery Pyramids in Meroe, Sudan.
In a word, Petra. I think Petra is the greatest site in the whole world.
I think you can probably guess my answer from my response to the previous question!
Petra is unique. Wadi Rum is, as you say, magical, and the T.E.Lawrence connection with the Seven Pillars of Wisdom makes it fascinating, but we have actually experienced lots of desert sites which are equally impressive.
The rose-red ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
On our trip to the Western Desert in Egypt, our driver took us for an exhilarating ride over huge sand dunes and I will never forget remote sand-swept built to control the Forty Days Road from Sudan to Egypt – which stood in splendid isolation miles from anywhere.
In our younger days, Mike and I also drove ourselves across the Moroccan Sahara in a battered Fiat Uno. This was an amazing experience: I vividly remember the thrill of leaving the main track and heading off over virgin sand in search of a mudbrick hotel for the night.
Following just a few stakes in the sand to mark the way, we eventually arrived at the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua - the delightful old French proprietor, Michel, accompanied by a parrot on his left shoulder, served us an exquisite dinner by candlelight in the courtyard. That really was magical.
Qasr el Labakha – a four-storey Roman fortress
But, back to Petra. As I said, Petra is unique. There is nowhere like it anywhere in the world. As you walk down the long winding Siq and catch your first glimpse of El Kazaneh (The Treasury), you know that you are privileged to be visiting a very special place.
The first couple of hundred yards may be a bit busy with tourists, but Petra is such a huge site that you can soon leave the crowds behind and feel the spell of the ancient city start to work on you. A climb up to El-Deir (The Monastery) is a must, but highly recommended also is the back route via Wadi Farasa to the High Point of Sacrifice.
I have been lucky enough to visit Petra twice and was amazed to find that further excavations between the two visits had revealed a Byzantine church with gorgeous pale blue columns and a stunning floor mosaic.
If you get the chance, stay in the Petra area overnight and make visits on consecutive days. There’s a lot of walking and so much to see – you need to pace yourself. If you opt for a short tour you will just come away feeling unsatisfied that you didn’t give one of the world’s greatest treasures the time it deserved.
View of Petra from El Deir - the Monastery.
It must be Jerash.
Jerash is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. It was founded during the 2nd century BC and after the Roman conquest in 63BC it was annexed to the Roman Province of Syria and later joined the Decapolis.
In the second century AD, Jerash achieved great prosperity and an extensive construction development programme ensued. Most of the monuments standing today date from this time: the oval forum, main colonnaded street, nymphaeum, south theatre and Temple of Artemis are all of staggering dimensions, but there are also smaller monuments like the delightful church of St. Cosmos and St. Damian with its stunning mosaic floor.
As you stand at the south tetrapylon crossroads and look around the city, you can truly imagine yourself transported back to Roman times.
The magnificent romain ruins of Jerash in Jordan.
I’d like to focus on my first and last experiences of Nepal. On arrival at Kathmandu airport, we were whisked up 2000 metres to the village of Nagarkot. From the balcony of our room at the Country Villa Hotel, we witnessed the most incredible sunset over an uninterrupted view of the Himalaya.
It was my first view of the Himalaya and I shall never forget it. Needless to say, we set our alarm clock early the next morning and saw an equally beautiful sunrise.
We combined our trip to Nepal with a week in Bhutan, flying between the two countries. I knew that we would fly right over Everest and was delighted that the weather was clear and sunny for our flight.
The pilot alerted all the passengers over the loudspeaker as we approached Everest and the plane literally spun over as we all raced to the windows on the left side with our cameras to capture the view.
The pilot was really tolerant and gave us all time to take pictures before requesting that we return to our seats.
The view of Mount Everest from the window of our plane.
A universal plug. There is nothing worse than arriving at your accommodation after a long and dusty day, finding out that there is a bath in the en-suite so you can have a long, relaxing soak, and then discovering that there is no plug.
I have been grateful for my plug on so many occasions: I would never travel outside Europe without it.
Ask yourself what you are scared of. Are you afraid the food will make you ill? Are you worried you will feel out of your comfort zone in a different culture? Do you have concerns about making yourself understood in an area where little English is spoken? Are you anxious about what to pack?
Be positive. You can get over all these things. The world is populated by people just like you: they have the same hopes, fears and aspirations as you; if you have a problem, they will try to help you sort it out.
Don’t attempt too much too soon: start with accessible destinations which are used to catering for tourists and join a group tour if you feel nervous about travelling just with a partner, or on your own.
As you gain confidence, you will be able to widen your horizons and start to visit more off-beat places. Just take the plunge – you won’t regret it.
Like most travellers, I have created over the years a list of places I would like to see. As the years have gone by, the list has got longer, not shorter!
I have travelled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, North and East Africa, and South and Central America. Now in my late sixties, I have just a few must-see destinations left on my list, and I hope that when the COVID-19 crisis eventually subsides, I shall still be in sufficiently good health to be able to travel to them and enjoy them.
First on my list is a trip which was scheduled to take place in October last year but sadly had to be cancelled because of COVID-19: Tibet and China.
I was always fascinated by Tibet as a small child: a remote, mysterious place on the roof of the world. Of course, today’s Tibet as a subjugated colony of China is very different, but I still yearn to see the incredible scenery, witness the astonishing religious devotion, and experience the legendary welcome of the Tibetan people.
Whilst Tibet would be the main focus of the trip, I should also like to see some of China’s illustrious history - notably the authentic Jinshaling section of the Great Wall outside Beijing and the ancient gardens at Suzhou – and to hike in the wonderful karst scenery along the River Li between Guilin and Yangshuo.