It was a tweet from a stranger that started Ajay Reddy, 29, off on his Incredible India journey. “How many have you been to? Ticket to any World Heritage Site in India looks like this. #IncredibleIndia” @Pallavi-Savant, a marketing executive with a TV channel, tweeted in January 2012.
“I looked closely at the picture of the ticket, which featured thumbnails of all the Unesco world heritage sites across India, and realised that I didn’t recognise half the monuments,” he says. “I didn’t even know we had 28 of them in the country [there are now 29, with the recent addition of the Western Ghats].”
Reddy, based in Hyderabad, was then working with a smartphone applications company and is now on a break, decided to broaden his horizons by visiting some of the sites.
“I’ve always been interested in travelling and experiencing different cultures, so I asked some friends whether they’d be up for a challenge,” says Reddy.
He called it GoUNESCO — a mission to visit all 28 Indian sites in a calendar year, with each participant earning points for each location.
“This way, we had a definite incentive to travel,” he says.
Reddy decided to allot points to each location, depending on how difficult it was to get there. Thus the much-visited Taj Mahal would fetch 25 points, while Uttaranchal’s remote Valley of Flowers, which is also shut for part of the year, would be worth 60 points.
In all, there were 1,000 points up for grabs and the winner would be whoever scored all points first or had the highest score at the end of the year.
Initially, eight of Reddy’s friends took up the challenge. But as word spread, mainly via social media networks, a total of 50 people from across the country signed up by May. Aged 22 to 47, they included architects, marketing executives, advertising professionals and software engineers.
“I had only meant it to be a healthy contest where the travel was the prize,” he says. “But as more people neared the full score, I decided to approach sponsors and get some actual prizes.”
Accordingly, the winners of GoUNESCO 2012 received vouchers for lavish meals at luxury hotels, subscriptions to travel magazines, and watches.
“When I decided to participate, I never thought I would win,” says 2012 winner Jai Bharathi, a 30-year-old architect from Hyderabad. “When I look back on the year, even I’m amazed at how much I saw in those months, and how much I learned.”
Encouraged by the unexpected response, Reddy — who only visited nine sites in 2012 himself — has turned GoUNESCO into an annual challenge; 25 people have already signed up for the 2013 edition.
He is also in talks with travel companies and adventure sports companies for bigger prizes.
“It’s a tough challenge,” he admits, “but the good thing is that it’s equally tough no matter where you live in India.”
That this kind of travel requires significant investment is a common myth, say contestants. “It wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be,” says Sriram R Bhupathi-raju, 34, who visited 26 sites in 2012 and came in second. “In all, I spent about R40,000.”
Most of the travellers skimped on hotels, using the night to travel by bus or train. “I took only one flight, from the Sunderbans to Mumbai,” says Mumbai-based Shravya Kaparthi, 26, who works with an advertising agency and was one of the top-scorers in 2012.
Exhaustive planning helps cut costs and manage time effectively.
“With a demanding full-time job, it’s very easy to lose motivation and say it isn’t possible,” says Kaparthi. “But if you’re meticulous, you can chart public holidays that fall around weekends and turn them into trips and otherwise utilise as many weekends as possible to make shorter sojourns.”
Upping the ante, Reddy has also introduced a ‘global challenge’ this year, where contestants must visit all UNESCO sites around the world to win prizes. The challenge has found 10 takers so far. There is no time limit for this contest.