Dear Readers: The truth is I am totally terrified. With this sentence, so direct and simple, arising from the depths of my spirit shaken by the first impression of one of the largest and most crowded nations on the planet, I started my first post about India.
NO wonder: nothing prepares you for the world’s most unequal nation. And when I say nothing is nothing. Therefore, I consider India as an indispensable country for anyone who claims to be a traveler.
India is like playing all the piano keys at the same time. A shocking, monstrous chord, which exceeds your ears. Actually, India exceeds all your senses: if the human brain normally receives an enormous amount of stimuli, in India that multiplies itself to inhumanly baroque sensory degrees. There is too much to see, too much to hear, too much to smell, too much to taste and, certainly, too much to feel.
In addition, India lives in a fantastic anachronism. As if the past and the present had collided head right here and the whole force of that explosion came out by this huge piece of subcontinent. The same religious rituals that have been done for centuries are still practiced by bearded men wearing a turban, by women wearing saris, by wine-colored Buddhist monks, and by Muslims wearing robes, but with a smartphone in hand. Thus, you constantly see yourself pushed to travel through time.
Anyway, I don’t doubt that there are more complicated countries to travel. But for me India is one of the backpacking PhDs.
I know there are travel guides much more professional and objective than this one, but is not even my remote intention to describe one of the most complex countries worldwide. I just want to share some key information which helped me to become, from that girl with a panic attack in a shitty hostel in Delhi, asking for borrowed money to go back on the next flight, to the woman who survived India alone for nearly four months of backpacking.
I feel it is a moral duty, because India, of the 50 countries I have been to, it has been the most difficult of all to travel. During those backpacking learning weeks I really appreciated with all my heart all the help provided by many people, whether they were fellow backpackers in situ or online.
So, without further preface, let’s go to the info that I hope will serve to someone who doesn’t want to back home scared to death, as I was about to do. You are able to survive India, so please do not to fail to your future self, I guarantee that he or she will be infinitely grateful for not having missed one of the most fascinating countries on the face of the Earth.
India is one of the most complex countries to travel (to say the least). However, once you start, it becomes easier to move around.
First BE AWARE of travel agencies in India. They are those ones that are huddled around any tourist place, ranging from an air-conditioned office, to a guy sitting at a table in a market’s corner. Many charge a lot of money from commissions in order to make bookings for any transportation or may be a scam. It’s best to compare and compare. AND COMPARE.
The problem with India is that the vast majority of websites (if not all of them) doesn’t allow you to make reservations without an Indian debit/credit card, so if you don’t have an acquaintance in the country, you must go to a travel agency so they will make it for you.
So if you prefer this option or you don’t have any other choice, be prepared to walk around and compare and compare. AND COMPARE.
In case you want to make bookings on your own, here are some tips:
India is a country with huge distances, so sometimes there is no other choice to get on a plane. To me it seems very unfunny, but oh well…
You can find flights on any of the websites listed on this blog’s page about Flights. As a searching website, Yatra always offered me the best fares. Regarding to airlines, the best known are IndiGo (for me the best one), Jet Airways and the decadent Air India(with a very lousy customer service).
Booking trains for the uninitiated in India may seem a legitimate mess and an impossible mission, but it is doable. Traveling by train in India is one of the backpacker’s essential experiences and you get to know very much just by looking through the window.
This was my personal way to book trains in India. There are several methods, but this was the easiest I found without getting ripped off:
International tourist offices at train stations
1.You should remember that India is an overpopulated country, so often trains don’t get to cope with this human tide. The vast majority of time all the seats are booked with weeks in advance… for Indians.
Foreigners have access to a different quota. Let’s say for example, 100 people can travel on a train. Of those 100 seats, 80 are destined to Indian nationals and 20 are only for foreigners. Thus, if you ask for the tourist quota, is very likely to find a seat on a train even the day before your departure. With this on mind we go to the next step:
2.Check on the websites that appear in the Trains section if the train to the destination you are looking for is available, which number and name has, the schedule and the fare. DO NOT EVER waste time on the Indian Railways website because it is a mess, in India they are not very well known for making things easy. This website is only useful to check which stations have international tourist offices, which is point number 3:
3.With the information about the train’s schedule, fare and number, now you can go to the Indian Railways website and check if in the city you are located there is an international tourist office. These are offices or counters that are dedicated to make bookings for tourists only in major cities’ train stations. THEY ARE NOT PRIVATE TRAVEL AGENCIES or anything like that, it’s a service that is provided by the same railway company. I remember there are international tourist offices in New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Bangalore, Jodhpur and Mumbai within the same station. The Kolkata’s office is outside (and it was a pain in the ass to find it) on a street called Fairlie Place, near the central post office and the Reserve Bank of India. YOU MUST BRING YOUR PASSPORT, the necessary rupees and a pen, because they rarely have one.
When you go to the train station, DO NOT LET YOURSELF TO BE FOOLED by malicious people who will tell you that this office doesn’t exist, that has been burned down or that their cousin has a cheaper office. These offices DO EXIST. What happens, besides wanting to take you elsewhere, is that many Indians have no idea what they are and asking for its location often leads to a very detailed journey through the train station itself. As well, try to not get annoy by seniors or veterans who insist that you have no right to be there (sometimes these offices or counters are multiuse). Anyway, when you find it, you will see everything is super simple. Once there, show your passport and say to the person in charge which train do you need, pay and that’s it. It doesn’t even take 10 minutes if there is no line at all.
If there is no office near by, there are two options:
1.Look for an Indian person you trust (may be someone from the hotel, for example) who can make an online booking for you with his Indian debit/credit card and then give him the cash.
2.Go to a travel agency and compare and compare and COMPARE.
If for some reason you can’t access the tourist quota there are two options:
1.Put yourself on a waiting list and show up on the departure date hoping that someone canceled (it’s possible. Inexplicably I was on a waiting list and, despite having 100 and something people in front of me, I got a seat).
2.Use Tatkal. This is a system to help Indians and all those people who didn’t get a seat. The ticket can be booked one day in advance only paying an extra fee. Ask for it at the train station or at a travel agency (and do not forget to compare and compare and COMPARE).
Types of trains
Now let’s see the classes on trains:
1 AC (air-conditioned first class): overrated. Expensive and it doesn’t offer much more than 2AC and 3 AC.
2 AC (air-conditioned second class): Usually in 2AC compartments there are six bunk beds. Two are on one side of the aisle: one up (side upper berth) and one down (side lower berth). Four are on the other side, two upper berths and two lower berths. Each has a light to read at night and, after dark, you will get sheets, pillow cases and blankets.
For the solo traveler the side berths are the best ones because they offer more privacy.
Personally I prefer the side lower berth because it has a curtain that allows you to have a small private compartment, with a window to enjoy the scenery as you are comfortably lying there. In addition, there are no steps to climb.
However, many people prefer the side upper berth because it has more privacy, since during the day people have the right to sit on the lower. The disadvantage is that the upper has no window, so you don’t see the landscape, but hey, if you are looking to sleep better that’s your berth.
If you can’t book any of the side berths, then it is better to stick to the upper ones for more privacy.
3 AC (air conditioned third class): The only difference with 2AC is that this one has two more people per compartment, who are located on the aisle’s side where there are four bunk beds, so the distribution is as follows: two bunk beds on one side of the aisle; one up (side upper berth) and one down ( side lower berth); and six on the other side (two upper berths, two lower berths and two middle berths). These middle berths are the seat backs that can be unfolded and hold by chains, placed between the upper and lower berths. It’s kind of annoying if you have to sleep there or on the lower, but if you can get an upper berth or one of the side ones, travel in 3AC is very good, even without a reading light. You also receive linens.
Sleeper: it’s basically the same story as in 3AC but without air conditioning or curtains. Here you have to fight for an upper berth at all costs to be near the fan. As a woman traveling alone I DO NOT RECOMMEND Sleeper. In AC classes you usually travel with families, but in Sleeper there are many men traveling by themselves, as it once happened to me, in a wagon full of soldiers… Nothing comfortable.
Seated AC: for short journeys (in India a “short” journey is 7 hours, for example). They are carriages with seats and air conditioning.
Seated: the same, for short journeys, but the only air you get is the one that comes in by the open window.
In 1AC, 2 AC and 3 AC they usually put a list outside the carriages with the passenger’s names and their seat numbers, so many times, to be sure, you just need to see if you are on the list.
For buses you can check the Buses section of this guide. On both websites, Redbusand Make my trip, you can do online bookings if you have someone you trust who has an Indian card.
And if not, you will have to go to travel agencies and compare, compare and COMPARE.
Like trains, there is a lot to choose from: buses with air conditioning and beds, buses without air conditioning and beds, air-conditioned buses with seats, buses without air conditioning with seats and trash cans that only they know how the hell they work.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT BE FOOLED WHEN THEY SAY “DELUXE”. “Deluxe” is a word used in India for buses operating since 1980 or so. VOLVO is the word they use to refer to something that in many Western countries we understand as “luxury”.
Going to India and not using a rickshaw is not going to India at all. Haggling with rickshaw drivers is a PAIN. In big cities like Mumbai, you can ask the driver to use the meter. But elsewhere, it is best to ask your hotel or hostel to be picked up from the airport/train station/bus stop, so you know how much to pay.
There is also the possibility of going to the prepaid rickshaws booths located at train stations, airports or bus stations. You just need to give the address to the guy who works at the booth, pay and go. YOU DON’T NEED TO PAY MORE to the drivers, just give them the ticket.
The same thing for rickshaws applies to taxis.
Delhi has the most modern subway I’ve seen in my life. Spotless, well signposted, with air conditioning and close to many tourist attractions. It’s very safe, especially for women, since we have exclusive carriages for us.
Urban trains in Mumbai and Kolkata are tougher. In Kolkata I didn’t see carriages exclusively for women. They are trash cans, but they work and they are well signed.
SOME ADDITIONAL TIPS
1.Give India some time
India is like the ugly bug that you find in the kitchen: the first impulse is to kill it with the broom, but if you give it time, you’ll realize it is harmless. Give yourself some time to getting used to. India is one of the countries that can cause culture shock. I was close, VERY CLOSE to rush back home. In the end, I spent four months there and todayI’m grateful I didn’t go back in the middle of my panic attack because even when it is true that I have a love-hate relationship with India and that, in its bipolarity, this country will push you from heaven to hell back and forth, that heaven worth MUCH MORE than hell.
2. It’s NEVER your first time in India
When someone asks you if it’s your first time in India, say that, at least, it is the second. Although when I was newly arrived someone told me that being freshman in India is as obvious as if you have it written on your forehead (and it’s true), ALWAYS tell this is not your first time. If you say it, you can run into people who will try to rip you off based on your naivety.
3. More time … just in case
When planning your trip, leave some extra time in case something happens. Nothing is perfect in this world and in India you will feel that a little bit more: late trains, buses that don’t leave at all or roads blocked by the monsoon are examples of something that can get in the middle of a very tight schedule and ruin the trip.
4. Take everything shanti shanti…
Shanti means inner peace and it’s one of the favorite words in India. Beyond its spiritual significance, for pragmatic purposes it actually means you need to have PATIENCE. In fact, beyond hand sanitizer, insect repellent and water purification tablets, what you must take in your backpack is PATIENCE. In India everything is slower and more complicated, so if you are standing on the only ten square centimeters available in a crowded train, if you are shock with the sonic way they drive (which implies to honk as long as you move), or if you are abducted by a guy who won’t let you go until you buy a sari from him, breathe deeply, count until 10 and repeat that, after all, everything is temporary and you better take it shanti, shanti.