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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue
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Overland Travel in India

Tips for Independent Travelers

India is often referred to as a subcontinent, and with good reason. The country is culturally and geographically so diverse that it could easily be made up of dozens of independent nations, all with their unique ethnic groups, cultures, natural features, and languages. Still, India has succeeded in forming a fairly stable unity despite its diversity. But this great geographic, cultural, and economic diversity also means that travel conditions change drastically from state to state. Northern India has the countries best-developed highway and railway system, but as soon as you leave the more populated and developed regions road conditions can change drastically. Within a day’s bus ride from Delhi, travelers can travel on a modern four-lane highway and end up on a narrow dirt road leading up into the Himalayas.

To shed some light on the vastly different conditions of transportation in India I have compiled an overview of transportation options to help you make the best of your trip. Before planning your India trip, keep in mind that the country is vast and that distances are enormous. I have found that the best way to travel in India is to use all available means of transportation. If you only have a few weeks to spend in India and want to see several regions that are far apart, I suggest flying to save time. On the other hand, if you are not in a hurry, take the train on routes that offer many attractions along the way. Hiring a vehicle is great option when you travel with others in areas where there is little public transportation.

Railways in India

Thanks in part to the British colonial administration India has a vast network of railways which has been well-maintained by the Indian government since it gained independence in 1947. India has one of the largest networks of any country in the world, transporting over 12 million passengers every day. Traveling by train is the most comfortable and enjoyable means of ground transportation in India. As distances are vast, taking an overnight train ride in a sleeper car is a comfortable and pleasant way to travel. Traveling by train is also a great cultural experience and great opportunity to meet the Indian people and strike up a conversation over a cup of tea or a meal. If you want a meal while on the train, you should make a request well ahead of your departure to insure you receive the kind of food you like. You can book railway tickets conveniently online or you can go to a railway booking office, which may or may not be located at the railway station. Before planning a trip by train get the lowdown at the local tourist office.

The downside is that trains are notoriously late and seats sell out quickly. Be prepared to wait for several hours for the train. Have a book handy or buy a magazine. Since most trains are crowded, the best way to assure a seat or berth is to buy your ticket in advance. Seats on a train are sold according to a rather bureaucratic quota system allocating more seats from the city of origin than along the route, and giving preference to special groups of travelers such as ladies, government officials, and the handicapped. There is also a small quota for foreign tourists on select trains intended to make it easier for foreigners to make a reservation on short notice. These tickets need to be paid in cash in either U.S. dollars, British pounds, or Indian rupees. For last-minute reservations travelers can also use the Tatkal booking system, offering unsold seats up to five days before departure. These tickets are available at railway stations for an additional fee.

Foreign visitors arriving on international flights can also purchase an Indrail Pass, available for half day, two days, and four days for visiting only one or two connecting destinations. In India, Indrail passes are available for sale at International Tourist Bureaus at railway stations in major cities as well as at the Delhi International Airport (open 24 hours). These offices also sell regular train tickets to foreign travelers, offering you a great advantage in that you don’t have to wait in line at regular ticket offices.

If you choose to travel by sleeper car, you have several options. You can travel by first class (1A), or by two-tier (2A), and three-tier (3A) sleeper class, all of which have air conditioning. The two-tier sleeper car has two berths on each side, with a total of four per compartment, while the three-tier sleeper car has three berths on either side with a total of six berths. 2A and 3A sleeper compartments only have a curtain to separate them from the corridor, and if you are a light sleeper you might want to consider earplugs. Since railway travel is quite affordable, there is really no reason to travel in the crowded and uncomfortable second class sleeper car without air-conditioning, or the regular second class car, equipped only with wooden benches.

India’s railway system is divided into 16 different administrative zones, and if you change trains in a major city you may have to transfer to a different railway station for onward travel to continue with a different railroad. Tourist information and railway personnel will inform you about current taxi prices. If the ride is short, you might want to take a motorcycle rickshaw. Otherwise a real taxicab is your better option, since they are safer. If you need to change railway stations, allow for a long enough layover to make sure to catch your connecting train. Traffic is chaotic in all large Indian cities, and it may take a while to reach the railway terminal of your departure.

I have found railway travel to be very safe. There is security at each railway station, and all personnel speak English, making it easy to receive information and find the platform and car with your seat/berth reservation. There are also waiting rooms that are only accessible to ticketed passengers. Make sure that the car number corresponds to the number on your ticket and that you occupy your designated seat. Each train has its own name, making it easy to identify. There are usually lit-up panels or boards at railway stations that announce the next arriving train or train delays, and the information is displayed in English as well. Getting on a train can be somewhat of a hustle and bustle, depending on how many passengers are getting on. Remain calm, and ask railway officials for help. Trains stop long enough for all passengers to find their seats. For passenger comfort trained personnel hand out clean sheets, pillows, and blankets for all travelers. You are also served optional tea, refreshments, and meals.

Bus Travel in India

Long-distance buses travel on all major highways and connect all cities in India. Traveling by bus is not nearly as comfortable as traveling by train, but buses usually run on time, which is the only major advantage. For one thing, there are no onboard bathrooms, and passengers have to rely on rest stops for using the bathroom. In remote areas and in the mountains, roads are often winding and in bad repair, making long bus rides quite uncomfortable. Traveling in the Himalayas by bus is a hair-raising experience. Single-lane dirt roads lead up to high mountain valleys and passes, which are frequented by buses and trucks alike. It can take several minutes and careful and dangerous maneuvering for two large vehicles to pass each other on these roads. In these remote mountainous regions, the buses are very old and there is very little legroom. Seats are made of plastic and are very uncomfortable on long rides. Buses stop every couple hours for a break, usually at a village restaurant, where passengers can buy food and drink.

Getting to the right bus terminal can also be a challenge, especially in big cities, since each bus company has its own terminal. Since many bus routes are run by state governments, each State Road Transport Corporation also has its own terminal or bus stop, often located in central Delhi at or near the respective state government house, known as a “Bhawan.” Getting the right information about bus travel can be a challenge, since there are so many different companies and terminals, especially in large cities. Traveling back to Delhi by bus from Rajasthan, I was lucky to ask a very knowledgeable passenger, who not only told me the location from which buses to Himachal Pradesh were leaving, bus also told me the name of the state-run bus company. Without his help, I imagine I would have spent the better part of the day going from bus terminal to bus terminal all over Delhi to find the right one.

Hiring a Vehicle

Hiring a vehicle and driver is a common and popular way for Indian families to travel when on vacation. These large SUVs hold up to eight passengers, and it can be a very affordable way of traveling long distances, provided you have several travel companions to share the ride. Many of the vehicles have four-wheel drive, making them safer in the mountains and on bad roads. To hire a vehicle for a day or even a week, I have found it helpful to ask at the local tourist office about current prices and where to contact drivers. Each city or town usually has at least one dedicated spot where you may find vehicles for hire. Prices are definitely negotiable and good bartering skills will serve you well.

Getting Around Town

City buses and suburban trains can be found in all cities, but taxis are quite affordable and are often a safer and easier way to get around. For short distances, consider taking a bicycle rickshaw, which provides a shady canopy and gets you to your destination much quicker than walking. Motorcycle Rickshaws are another popular option to get around town. They are very affordable but be aware that drivers often pick up several passengers going in the same direction. Keep in mind that Rickshaw riders may not speak English. Before embarking on an aimless tour around town make sure that your driver understands where you need to go. I spent an hour riding on a bicycle rickshaw in the city of Allahabad only to find out that my driver spoke no English and had no idea where I wanted to go.

Others Forms of Local Transportation

Where there are no roads, mules and camels become the common form of transportation. If you plan to visit a remote village in the Himalayas or want to explore sand dunes in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, you are better off on the back of a mule, yak, or camel than trying to get there by vehicle. Riding a camel is a little daunting at first, because it is a rather wobbly ride, but once you get used to the animal’s gait, it is quite fun. Riding an elephant is another option to get around locally, and instead of walking uphill to an old castle, many visitors chose to ride an elephant.

Boat Travel

Although India has a large navigable river system, boat travel for foreign visitors on the mainland is mostly limited to short boat excursions at popular tourist sites. The large rivers such as the Ghanges and the Brahmaputra are mostly used to transport cargo, but there are a few destinations in India where boat travel assumes a more important role. In Goa for example, water taxis and ferries are common way of getting around. In the state of Kerala of Southern India, with its extensive backwaters, travel by boat and ferry is also quite common.

There are also several island groups that are connected to mainland India by ferry. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are located about 1,200 km off Southeast India in the Bay of Bengal. They are connected by regular flights as well as ferry service from Kolkata, Madras, and Vizag. Keep in mind that ferries take two days to reach the islands. There is also regular ferry service between the islands.

A Quick Word on Air Travel

India has many domestic airlines that serve all state capitals and major cities. Most airports are fairly small making it easy and quick to check in and get to your gate. Here is a list of India’s largest airlines:

Air Deccan
Jet Airways
Indigo Airlines
Spice Jet
MDLR Airlines
Paramount Airways
Go Air
Air India
Alliance Air
Jetlite/Air Sahara
Kingfisher Airlines
Jet Airways

For More Information

Resources

Maps of India, www.mapsofindia.com, provides a lot of useful information about travel and transportation in India, including railway, bus and boat travel, as well as maps.

About.com, in its India section, goindia.about.com, provides useful information about transportation in India, including travel by airplane, train, and bus.

Railway

www.indianrailways.gov.in is the official website of the Ministry of Railways, with lots of useful information

Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd. (IRCTC), www.irctc.co.in hosts the official online booking site for railroad travel in India. IRCTC also hosts the Rail Tourism India website, railtourismindia.com, catering to foreign visitors.

Indian Railways Fan Club (IRFCA), www.irfca.org, provides a lot of information about railways in India.

IndiaMike.com provides useful information about railway travel in india in www.indiamike.com/india-articles/india-railways-and-the-indian-train.

There are also several printed Indian railway guides available for purchase at bookstores and at kiosks at railway stations: "The Great Indian Railway Atlas," "‘A Guide to India Railways," and the "India-Railway-Atlas."

Bus

IndiaTransit.com, www.indiatransit.com, provides a lot of information about long-distance bus travel in India, including information about state-owned bus companies.

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