Howdy all! Today I’m rolling out a new feature called the ‘Nuts & Bolts Guides’. Trying to, in one post, deliver some basic but solid information on countries I’ve visited which might be useful for the first time traveller. Today we’re starting with India.
Population: 1.34 billion
Area: 3.287 million km2
Borders: Nepal, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh & Myanmar.
Currency: Indian Rupee. $1USD = 70 INR (as of 17/5/19)
Basically India is THE most incredible country to travel that I’ve ever visited. There is so much about it that challenges, amazes, impresses and astounds. A country of well over a billion people today, with so many cities, so many temples, mountains, beaches, rivers and plains, various climactic zones, a train network to rival any in the world, India leaves you blown away, shocked, depressed yet wanting more.
Most travellers need a visa for India. The good news is that a few years ago the Indian government decided to introduce evisas which makes things much easier, you can organise your visa online at home before you leave.
The most amazing way to get around India is by railway. You can now prebook tickets online for the upper classes and this is great news if you can make solid plans in advance, because booking close to the date can often leave you resorting to… buses! The network is as comprehensive as any in the world, but this does not mean it’s fast, efficient or punctual. Which is part of the fun of transport in India really.
The classes can be somewhat confusing. For any long journey, and many of the trains you will take will be either a long journey or a part of a long journey, there will be mostly sleepers. Any class with ‘AC’ in it means it is air conditioned. If, for example, it says 2AC this generally means two berths instead of three to one side of a compartment, and it’s airconditioned. In the very top classes you get bed linen, and that’s where the AC can be really effective to the point of freezing.
3rd Class can be packed, and then there are trains where people ride the roof. Which would definitely be an experience. And somewhat not very safe. Toilets… well there are both western and Asian toilets offered, depending on the class. Squatting on a moving train requires a bit of discipline and is not so easy, and frankly they are far from the best toilets on Earth, so you may count yourself lucky if you are a male who can stand and pee.
Stations are big hubs and busy all the time, and you can stock up on food and drinks, as a westerner if in fact you are one, be prepared that you will almost certainly be approached by touts and also beggars.
Buses & Planes
For the few places trains do not go, buses are readily available. VIP buses are more expensive (but still very very cheap compared to ‘the west’) and also more comfortable. Local buses can be really cheap, but also packed, no room for you backpack, have hard seats and stop very frequently.
Night buses are a possible option – some are very comfortable, but driving in India, and the roads, means that it won’t be an easy ride. The roads are so busy that even at night there will be sudden breaking, honking and sharp bends.
There are a lot of airlines in India 2019, from Air India, to Jetstar and others, from expensive to budget. I have never flown domestically in India, but it is the only way to cut down on very long travel times, although airports can be a hassle to get to and from. As the country grows economically though, places such as Delhi now have a metro train all the way to the airport.
Stares, Hassles, Touts and Beggars
So there are a few things to be ready for in India as a foreigner. Number one, you may well stick out, especially in less visited places and you will no doubt attract the stares of the locals. Having said that, they are just curious and surprised usually. For women travellers, it can be more intrusive and uncomfortable though. People will say ‘dress modestly’, but this is rarely helpful and probably won’t stop stares. Be sensible, don’t travel alone if you can help it and you don’t feel you can deal with this.
India is a country of hassles – don’t think for a second it’s only confined to tourists. Touts and beggars are not infrequent. Remember when it comes to touts, they are trying to earn a living. But at the same time, some are relentless. Buy this, buy that, take this tour, or even people who will offer to show you the way to somewhere and then ask for money – even if it’s just down the hall.
It’s a tricky one because in India you will also find people who will go out of their way to help you, expecting nothing in reward. So you have to judge each situation on its merits. One thing’s for sure – if you’re not confident following someone, if something doesn’t feel right, don’t go. Tell the person that you are ok. I followed someone once who helped me at the post office in Jaipur and ended up being asked to traffic gems to Europe!
People push, shove and grab in India. Be aware. It’s a densely populated place. But that doesn’t mean that an errant hand where it shouldn’t be is acceptable. Having said all this, please don’t let this stuff ruin a trip to an amazing country.
India is a poor place. Overall, sure, the economy is booming right now, but it is never going to filter down to the people at the bottom. So when you are approached and asked for money, and it is certainly confronting in India. I don’t think we can, as visitors, fully grasp what it’s like to live below the poverty line in India. Or indeed, slightly grasp! Nor can we understand the perplexities of Indian government, social structures and life. How you respond is up to you. Do you give money, or do you not? Personally, I have the rule that I don’t give money to children. It’s a tough one. But don’t think for a second that only tourists face these issues.
India’s climate varies. In the north, say Kashmir, well it’s cool in the summer and icey with loads of snow in the Winter. Don’t forget, the Himalayas are a feature of India’s north too – up in Darjeeling you will find it very different to much of the country.
The north is drier, especially Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab. Well into the 40s in the summer, cooler in the winter, mid-20s or maybe cooler as maximums in January. The south is humid and hot, and the for a number of months (which can start as early as late April) it’s monsoon season. That’s serious rain and storm. Generally, apart from the mountainous area, December to March is the best and most agreeable time to visit India.
Where to Go…
Well. India. You have so much to discover! My favourite region is Rajasthan, where you can see Moghul Architecture in every major city. Jodhpur, the Blur City is my favourite. Trekking on camels in the desert outside Jaisalmer is another highlight. Pushkar is a gentler town to escape to if you fancy a dose of the hippy life. Udaipur in the south with it’s Lake Palace is amazing of course, as is the town itself.
North of Rajasthan you head into Punjab, and the amazing Golden Temple in Amritsar. Delhi is the capital – and has the Red Fort and a few other highlights but not my favourite city, just over two hours away in Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Mumbai is one of my favourite Indian cities, on the ocean, amazing buildings, people, life. Goa is a night train south of Mumbai, and the premiere beach escape location in the country. Further south you have Kerala, where I am yet to visit, a quieter, less touristed beach region. It looks beautiful.
Varanasi is a holy city on the Ganges where watching the sun rise over said river is a must. Darjeeling is in the mountains, is much cooler than below, and has a fantastic steam train that runs from it. Kolkata is a surprisingly attractive city (personal opinion) in the east which merits a few days, and attracts those particularly who are interested in the works of Mother Teresa.
How can I sum up all of India’s highlights in a few paragraphs? I can’t. That lot, if you travel by land, is probably at least two months of travel because fast travel is neither easy nor desirable in India.
What you can be sure of, you won’t forget a trip to India. You WILL face challenges though. Which is part of the attraction of this amazing, crazy country. Travel is rewarding, and in India never more so. Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!