A journey to the subcontinent can be a daunting prospect, but help is available. reports

A friend travelled to India on his gap year. He'd developed a bit of a paunch with all that comfort eating at A-level time, and heard that India was the best place to lose weight with a quick spell of aggressive diarrhoea. To his dismay, the only condition from which he suffered on the subcontinent was constipation. Always expect the unexpected from India.

Modern India is the world's largest democracy and has its second-largest population and seventh-largest area, enveloping myriad landscapes, from the mountain lakes of Srinagar to the Himalayan peaks; from the beaches of Goa to the banks of the Ganges; from the sprawling slums of Mumbai to the deserts of Rajasthan. All these are within reach of the intrepid gap-year traveller willing to risk the odd bout of culture shock (and tummy trouble).

"I chose India because it was a challenge, and very different to the world I'm used to," says Lizzie Russell, 22, who has been working in a school for underprivileged children in Calcutta. "I love it: the colour, the culture, the sounds and smells, the sights."

At university, Russell campaigned for Make Poverty History and volunteered at Oxfam. She is one of many conscientious and ethically minded young backpackers who take the opportunity to experience unfamiliar cultures through volunteer work. "Working in Oxfam gave me an awareness of what was going on in the world and the thought of making a difference myself," she says.

Recently, Russell moved from Calcutta to Bangalore, where she's working in an after-school centre for six-to-16-year-olds. "They're children who may have illiterate parents, and at home they have no facilities or motivation to learn," she says. "At the centre there are computers, toys and games, and reading and educational tools. It means they can strive for higher educational ideals than their parents might expect."

Russell organised her trip through India gap specialists Gap Guru, who tailor programmes that combine volunteering and travel. By the end of her seven-month trip, Russell will have taken in Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, Goa, Rajasthan and Ladakh, as well as her volunteering placements.

Gap Guru has representatives in each city to meet gappers at the airport and keep in close touch, giving backpackers and their parents peace of mind. The company has established an essay competition for UK schoolchildren, with the prize of six months in India.

The variety of work placements available for British gappers in India is staggering, ranging from education to medical to journalism. Carly Ennis, on a year out between school and university, organised work experience through the gap company Changing Worlds with The Indian Express, an English language newspaper in Chennai. "Chennai's population is 7.5 million," she says. "It's quite a big readership! I worked for the features section, and they'd send me off across Chennai to do reports and interviews at a moment's notice. I would also have to come up with three story ideas of my own each week, and if they were good enough they would get published."

Ennis was the first British work experience trainee the paper had hosted. "I've travelled in Europe, but India really is totally different from anywhere else," she says. "It's a quasi-globalised mixture of the rising middle-class, with their mopeds and their mobile phones, and crushing poverty."

James Hibberd, 23, recently returned from a strenuous but spectacular trip to India and Nepal with VentureCo. His group undertook a 10-day trek in Sikkim in North-east India, which took them high above sea level. Next, they crossed the Nepalese border to go white-water rafting and brave the world's second-highest bungee jump, before making the three-week trek to Everest base camp. The team also spent three weeks in Rajasthan, painting walls, installing electricity and building a kitchen for a school.

After each VentureCo group returns to the UK, they have a feedback session, which allows the company to tweak the experience for subsequent groups. "It would be possible to do those things alone," Hibberd says, "but I don't think I'd have had the initiative. The base camp trek gave me a real sense of achievement, and I wanted to experience India, because it seemed so far away from British culture. It's quite a shock at first. But you get used to it."

See www.gapguru.com; www.changingworlds.co.uk; and www.ventureco-worldwide.com