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).
Are you a girl? Here are some tips for women!
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.
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.
WHERE TO STAY?
I write down here the hotels, guest houses or hostels where I stayed and I found them good or average. I stayed in many more, but if they don’t appear here the reasons are: 1. They were not clean. WARNING: if you want something clean, look for “European standards”. The rest is… well, India. 2. They were not cheap. By cheap I mean from US$2 to US$15 maximum per night on a private room (yes, in India that’s possible). 3. They didn’t have any WIFI (except for the one in Kolkata). Indispensable for me.
Ajay Guest House: This place saved me from not going back home, terrified, on my second day. If you want to be in the center of the backpacker action in Pahar Ganj’s Main Bazaar this is a good alternative. Very close to the train station and New Delhi’s subway. It’s clean, it has a helpful staff, an organic bakery and a restaurant where they give free bread samples. Every evening they play a movie on the rooftop, which is great to meet other travelers. Air conditioning, TV and private bathroom. It’s kind of expensive (US$ 15 for a double room in 2013), but it totally worth for the uninitiated. Room 104 is the best one. WIFI available in rooms but only up to the second floor.
Kunga Guest House: I lived here three weeks. It’s very well located and the staff is the sweetest. It has a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the mountains and WIFI. It has several kinds of rooms. The one I had on the second floor with private bathroom was fine, nothing out of this world, but clean.
Asia Guest House: A little bit far from downtown, but beautiful. One with the best decorations. Satellite television. WIFI when there is WIFI in Leh (Kashmir is a troubled region). The only problem is there is hot water only in the mornings. There is an immortalized yak at the reception.
Hotel Rashmi: super well located. Far away from the chaos of Agra. You can walk to the Taj Mahal and see it from the terrace (although the Taj Plaza, next to it, has a better terrace). WIFI, restaurant.
Hotel Ganesha: away from the ghats chaos. Pristine, with WIFI, friendly staff and a bleak breakfast, but eatable… They organize tours by boat through the Ganges and they offer city tours as well, which are not bad.
Hotel Mama Luna: the restaurant is TERRIBLE, but the roof is a good place to chill out. It is ridiculously cheap, but the rooms are ok and it’s really well located in the center without realizing you are in the center. WIFI. Very nice staff.
Zostel: One of the ONLY 3 hostels with backpackers standards throughout my journey in India. These guys do their best to be professional: they are young men who are opening the first chain of hostels in India. They often travel to Europe to learn what can be implemented. It offers a great atmosphere to meet other travelers, it’s clean, it has air conditioned, it’s cheap with good rooms … It’s far away from downtown, but it worth 100% to stay there.
Mystic Jaisalmer: BEAUTIFUL. Super well decorated, with a rooftop restaurant (yummy) and friendly staff. Clean with WIFI. Good view of the city fort. They have the possibility of shared rooms, something not very common in India, but important for the backpacker budget.
Pol Haveli: a bit far away from downtown, but very good value for money. It is really well decorated, clean and the terrace is beautiful. Two negatives points: the restaurant food is INEDIBLE and the staff is friendly, but I got the feeling they were quite hypocritical. DON’T BOOK, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, the camel trek with them or anything else, because they offer very little for the price. Let’s say it is a beautiful place to sleep, but that’s it. WIFI available.
Jungle Hostel: THE BEST HOSTEL IN ALL MY TRIP. Here, in fact, I spent one of the happiest times of my life. Super good atmosphere to meet other travelers and party. Breakfast included, clean, super friendly staff, there is beer in the fridge, hammocks, WIFI… paradise! Motorcycle rental.
Prison Hostel: Jungle’s brother. It offers the same, but the building indeed looks like a prison. To compensate, they take it with humor and a take a prisoner photo when you arrive. Here is mine:
Youth Hostel Kolkata: The award to the cleanest hostel. And please note we’re not talking about the famous “European standards”, but surgical clean level. It’s close to the airport, but far from the center. However, it makes up because, besides its cleanliness, it’s quiet and the man who manages it is a sweetheart. They offer delicious homemade dinner in the evening at a cheap price. The cons: besides being located far away from downtown, they close the door at 10 pm AND THEY DO NOT OPEN IT AGAIN. Therefore, it is not suitable for party animals.
WHAT TO DO? (MY TOP 10)
OBVIOUSLY, THIS IS 100 % SUBJECTIVE AND PERSONAL, buuuuut, at least for me, going to India and not seeing these places is not going to India at all:
1. Manali- Leh Highway
The most spectacular natural landscape that my eyes have ever seen. In Delhi, sitting on a rooftop as a neophyte, I heard several guru backpackers talking about this place. A phrase led me to make the trip: “It’s like being on the moon.” Really: if something looks like being on the moon on this planet Earth is this place. Oh well, also to be on Mars. The landscape is constantly changing and it’s SURREAL. I always sleep on buses or trains, but here I made every effort to stay awake during the 20 hours of journey (split in two days) because every 10 minutes the landscape changes. I took many photos, but the truth is that none of them do justice to it. I guess there are not cameras designed by humans that can capture such beauty.
The cons: it is not only the second highest road in the world (5328m above sea level), but one of the most dangerous. There are parts that are not even a road anymore but muddy rivers that cross it. Many times there is only one lane and curves are so narrow, that suddenly you see in front of you an army truck. With cliffs on the other side, in such a case, good that heaven doesn’t seem to be far away from here…
Skeptical, considering that it would be one of those clichés tourist attractions, I arrived at the Taj Mahal a warm morning around 6:30 am and I have to admit I almost cried. It is AWESOME. As the sun rises (it’s recommended to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the tourists and see the phenomenon), it will shine more, like changing color in its whiteness. The details are simple and sober, but impressive: the flowers that adorn it are not simple drawn flowers, but semiprecious stones incrustations. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how cliché it may be, DON’T MISS IT.
A magical city. With a fort inside of which roughly half the population lives, Jaisalmer is something like the Arabian nights image I had on mind when I naively dreamed of going to India (later I realized that what I had on my mind was a lot of ignorance because there is nothing to do with it). The idea of sleeping in the nearby desert is perhaps its greatest attraction. It was the first time I’ve seen the Milky Way in my life: a rainbow in black and white, like a negative of a cosmic picture. Besides, the camel trek is an experience that many of us usually don’t have, but the movements of the camel may cut your family tree’s branch, especially if you are a guy.
Stage of one of the happiest periods of my life. The beaches are not great (perhaps with the exception of Palolem) but they have a wild on trance party atmosphere that you will enjoy, especially if you have been living several weeks practically the austere life of a sadhu. While it is true that sometimes Goa can get a little bit heavy (there are many, many drugs) and that is not what it was during the 90s, it worth to party, especially in a silent disco in Palolem (outdoors clubs where music is heard with headphones to avoid the noise). Goa, in short, is not India and for women is liberating to finally wear shorts and bikinis without being the center of attention.
When I got off the bus in Hampi, I thought I was still sleeping and dreaming… The landscape is SURREAL. Let’s say they should have filmed The Planet of the Apes here. There are huge rocks placed as if a giant had left them there, bored to build his empire. Also kind of lunar, Hampi has dozens of temples and pieces of ancient cities everywhere. Roam around by bike is a plus.
If the beaches of Goa are not the big deal, Kerala takes the lead for India’s sake: its beaches are clean and heavenly. In addition, the backwaters (network of canals that go through a good part of Kerala), even if you go to the shitty ones like the ones I went to, are beautiful to navigate. A reason to return to India (even when I swear it will never happen again).
Raw India. That’s Varanasi. Sitting in a cafe with an Israeli in the city of Amritsar, I noted the chaos outside the window (you know, cows, rickshaws, people, garbage, etc.) and he said, “This is London compare to Varanasi.” He was right.
The place where death and life come together on the banks of Ganges river is full of corpses. Considering that India is an overpopulated country, that over 80 % of the population is Hindu and for Hindus the best is to be cremated here, imagine how many bodies may be spending their last earthly moments around here.
However, to understand why India is India this is the place to open your mind, to see virtually all rituals synthesized on the ghats (a type of grandstand next to the river) and to take a boat ride around one of the most sacred and polluted rivers in the world, even with a dead cow floating next to you.
Nailed in the Himalayas, McLeod Ganj is great to know the real Tibet beyond what China hides. The town, architecturally, is not the great thing, but virtually EVERYONE who walks on its streets, Tibetan refugees in large numbers, has a story to tell. Headquarters of the official residence of the Dalai Lama, if you are lucky and if the planets get aligned so a group of Koreans ask him to give a free course and he accepts, you may run into him (as it happened to me).
The blue city from below is as chaotic as any other city that claims to be Indian, but from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort is hypnotic. If you are in India during October, try to go to RIFF Festival, one of the top 25 music festivals worldwide. Hopefully, plus enjoying excellent Indian music, you can go to a Manu Chao’s concert or run into Mick Jagger on one of the fort’s halls like it happened to me.
It appears in last place (although among the roads in India there are many backpackers devotees of this city). The reason is that, at least for me, the road to this surreal city, located in Kashmir, stole my heart. Anyway, it was one of those typical cases where the destination is not as important as the journey. However, Leh is still part of that lunar landscape that characterizes this area and its surroundings, it has monasteries, palaces and trekking routes that makes you travel in time and space.
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 today I’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.