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Biting the India bullet...well, maybe...

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As some of you may already know from my responses in this forum, I've been mulling the idea of a trip to India for some time, but have not had the courage to bite the bullet. Some of the anxiety comes from perceptions, real or not, that India is just so different from anywhere else I've been and expectations of an assault on all the senses. India has been a subject of several intensive family conversations, and we may be closer to taking the leap than ever before.

We've been reading up on India and combing through several of your reports on your own travels there. Based upon the information, here are some questions with which hopefully you can help me.

Geography - The focus of our trip would be North India. The places that are MUSTs include Bodhgaya (for the Mahabodhi Temple and other Buddhist sites in the surrounding area), Agra (for the Taj Mahal), Delhi, and Varanasi. We're also interested in Rajasthan, but would be okay to save it for another trip. Other places that may make sense and seem interesting are Khajuraho, Gwalior, and Orchha. Depending on whether we go over the Atlantic or Pacific to reach India and back, our entry and / or exit points could include Mumbai or Kolkata. We love history, culture, landscapes urban and natural, etc., and are generally quite active (hiking, walking, museums, performances). We will have about three weeks, discounting international transit time, and know we won't be able to do everything or even most things. What would you include for such a trip? What places / sites / experiences you find most memorable and / or unique to India?

Timing - Our options for a possible trip, given weather, would come either over the Christmas / New Year's holidays at the end of this year or late-February / early-March of the next. Other than potential higher prices over the holidays, are there things of which I need to be mindful during that time (e.g. sites being closed, higher volumes of tourists)? Would you favor one over the other?

Right now, the likelihood of the trip is about 50 / 50, depending in part on whether or not a trip to Iran during a similar timeframe comes together.

Thank you in advance for your suggestions and feedback.

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