To sum up India in one word is hard, but if I had to do it the word would be “crazy”.
It was the first stop for me and my better half on our little Asian trip, and with our onward plane ticket already booked we realised before we got there that we hadn’t left ourselves much time. We still took a lot away from our all-too brief experience, but timing is a good place to start for this informative travel blog entry.
Length of Stay
Gauging the right amount of time to spend in India can be difficult. You could easily potter around the country for months, and there’s certainly plenty to see, but for some it could be a bit too much and you may find yourself wanting to get out of there after a week. Everything is pretty hectic there and if you’re not prepared for the hoards of touts, beggars and scammers, you’ll find yourself wanting to move on before your time is up. I wouldn’t choose India as the very first place to travel to if you’ve not done any before. Ease yourself in with a visit to Thailand or similar.
Be assured, however, that if you can smile past the touts, ignore–with sympathy–the beggars and be smart with the scammers, you’ll have an experience like no other and no regrets.
We flew into Mumbai (otherwise known as Bombay, officially renamed in 1995 by the government to reflect the indigenous people’s culture), but you can also fly into Delhi. The latter is the closest international airport to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which is in the north of the country, while Mumbai lies in the south.
Jet Airways is the official airline of India, but it’s always worth going through Expedia to get the cheapest deals, especially if it’s a multiple destination trip. Be warned though, it can be hell to change flights. We did so on a couple of occasions throughout our trip, and one of them didn’t even go through. Expedia didn’t inform us, so if it wasn’t for the fact that we wanted to change again we would’ve turned up to the airport with no seats on the plane.
Getting Around Nationally
For national travel between the major cities there really is no better way than to use the overnight trains. Fly, by all means, but you’ll be spending a lot more money and missing out on some great experiences.
India has a very comprehensive rail network which is surprisingly good quality. The trains that serve the major routes have many, many carriages and range in price and quality all the way from the cheapest seat (which may have you sitting on the floor) to first class sleeper cabins. The best value tickets are the air-conditioned 2-tier bunk carriages.
Tickets can be snapped up quickly, so book as far ahead as you can. There are several online options but to save repetition I won’t go into them here. Instead head over to Seat61 for a very comprehensive guide. Sufficed to say that the online sites only have access to non-tourist tickets and by the time we got round to booking our trains all these tickets were gone.
There’s hope, though. If you’re in the UK you should try SD Enterprises in London. They have access to the tourist quota and even though we left it until a week before we went, they were able to get us on the trains we needed to see the things we wanted to see. In the first instance just send them an email telling them what you want to do.
If you have all the time in the world by all means wait until you get there and buy the tickets as you go, but if you’re under any kind of restriction with time booking ahead is essential.
And a quick note if you’re planning to take the overnight from Agra to Mumbai, the train you’ll likely be getting leaves from a station outside of Agra. Your hostel will be able to call you a reliable taxi, but it will take an hour if not more to get there. Arrange everything the day before you leave so you know how much time you have. This is undoubtedly the case with other routes, too. As always, be prepared.
Getting Around Locally
In places like Delhi there is a very good metro system. It’s a bit surreal because you walk to a station through typical overcrowded streets and then get on a comparatively luxurious, air-conditioned metro train. And like everything in India it is cheap. Also, if you’re a Londoner, expect to disembark cursing how TfL charges; the Indian way is so much better.
If there’s no metro, or no metro station close to where you need to go, the next best thing is a tuk-tuk. Always be wary, though. If you can, ask at your hostel how much a ride should be if you know where you’re going. Then you need to haggle, but definitely agree the price before you get in. When you agree on the price and there’s more than one of you, ensure the price is for all, not individually. It will be for all, but if you don’t state it they might try and con you into paying individually once you arrive at your destination.
There is of course the local bus and train. We didn’t get to experience a local bus, but we did a train. It was one hell of an experience with me literally hanging off the side of the train at one point, backpack an’ all. If you take the train be aware of the different carriages. They have specific ones for women, and then others for disabled. These will have space and you’ll be tempted to get on, but unless you fall under the appropriate category you’re gonna have to squash yourself in with all the others.
Food and Drink
The Indians love their spices, so be prepared to eat spicy food throughout. Due to tourism there will be plenty of other options like Pizza in the bigger towns. If you’re taking the overnight trains then you get meal options and also tea and coffee. You have to pay for it unless you’re on the Rajdhani Express from and to Mumbai. It’s a quality train with everything included.
Needless to say bottled water is a must, and drink plenty.
Where to Stay
You should be okay to just get a bed without booking, but for those who want to play it safe use Hostelworld to book a bed or a room. Join up for a small fee and forget about paying the booking fee for a year. It really is simple and it’s the best hostel-finding site in my opinion. If a place is worth staying at, it’ll be on Hostelworld.
Just a quick tip for Mumbai, if you fly into this city the airport is way, way out of the city, like 20km from the city centre.
The most popular tourist attraction in India is arguably the Taj Mahal. This is a palace built by an emperor for no other reason than to mourn the passing of his beloved third wife. It stands now as a nation-wide symbol of love and it’s certainly good to know it is worth something to the people of India, so many of whom will undoubtedly have died building it.
It has four gates and the one you need to go to is the West gate. This is the entrance for everyone. Get up early, like mega-early, go to the West gate, buy your ticket from the booth (cheap for locals, expensive for foreigners) and line up in your designated line. There is a separate line for local men, local women, foreign men and foreign women. Leave anything bigger than a smartphone at home; try and get in with your laptop and you may be turned away.
And be prepared. It is magnificent, but the pictures you’ve seen of it will have been taken on a remarkably clear day. Especially early in the morning (to beat the rush) expect to have a bit of smog between you and the palace.
Tours and Scams
In order to enjoy India you have to be prepared for the insistent tours and scams. Take a tuk-tuk and your driver will likely try and rope you into taking a personal tour. We were strong for the most part and said no, but once we said yes. To be honest it wasn’t that bad. We got taken around to the next biggest things in Agra for a set price, which we worked out to be cheaper than individual tuk-tuk rides. However, once you’ve done the big sights he’ll start taking you around to his mates shops. Here you can see how carpet is made or how ornaments are created, but then you’ll be hounded to buy something.
If your strong and don’t give in, I think you can get something out of these tours. Just politely demand to go to the places you want to see and when that’s done and he starts taking you to shops, if you don’t want to do it just say no thanks. Be polite, always smile, but be firm.
As for other scams, you just need to have your wits about you. Some of the biggest ones happen outside train stations and popular attractions. We went back to the ATM in the train station because no others were working and at the entrance we got stopped by a man claiming to be an official employee. He demanded that we had to have to tickets to enter, while all around us everyone else was simply just walking in. He tried to point us in the direction of the “ticket booth”, which was his mate with a box OUTSIDE the station. When we tried to shake him off he was adamant that he was trying to help us and he even got angry that we thought ill of him.
This, however, is exactly the kind of thing you’ll have to learn to avoid. No matter how sincere they seem, if things just don’t add up (like a ticket booth outside of a station not inside), simply walk away. If they’re really persistent and won’t let you be, go find a policeman who should be happy to fine him, or at least threaten you’ll go to the police.
I would love to go back to India one day. We didn’t give it enough time and ended up doing a whistle-stop tour. The people on the whole are friendly, and with scams and stuff you just have to accept that they are a poor people and so they’re going to do everything they can to get money.
But in a way it’s this that actually adds to your experience of India. Like all places it’s not just the scenery or the attractions. It’s the atmosphere, the people, the culture, the attitudes… everything. That’s what makes an experience worthwhile and that’s what makes India a must-visit location.