Travelling in India

My first month-long visit to India was in Rajasthan, with a friend and colleague, and most of the traveling was done with private car and driver. It’s not the way I usually travel, but the distances between places were long, the weather was hot and humid, the roads were in terrible condition and we had business-related baggage which we didn’t want to lose.

My second month in India was spent on motorbike. I took a train from Mumbai to Goa where my son was waiting for me, we hung out on the beach a few days and then crossed India by bike – on his indomitable Enfield – via Mysore, Ooty, Mamalapuram and all the way to Pondicherry on the east coast. I saw India from up close, coasting through rice fields and stopping at dhaba shacks for chai. With no fixed schedule and no advance reservations, living out of a backpack, this was India free and easy. We took a train only once (the 12 hour overnight train to Chennai) when we packed the bike on the train with us. Otherwise, it was 8 hours a day on the bike, in leather jackets and helmets. Two spills, two almost-accidents (one with an elephant), and a trip of a lifetime.

My most recent month in India was spent between Leh and Ladakh in the very north, and Dharamsala in Himachal, with Amritsar in Punjab sandwiched in between. I flew with Jet Air between Delhi and Leh, then trained back to Delhi to catch the overnight Golden temple express to Amritsar. From there, I continued with private car and driver to Dharamsala, and at the end of the month, returned to Delhi by overnight sleeper bus, Jet Air back to Mumbai and home.

India by air is western, but India on the ground is a bazaar. Jet Air is a terrific airline –  on time, new fleet, efficient crew and great food. I wouldn’t fly in India with anyone else. Trains are a different story. The main stations are huge and disorganized, with several different lines to wait in before walking away with a ticket. They are also dirty and noisy, although they do boast porterwallahs who carry your bags on their head so you never have to deal with carrying them yourself. I have always traveled second class a/c, which is comfortable and you meet interesting people.  The only awful trip was a 12 hour overnight to Chennai, when all the tickets were sold except for Katkal (last minute) tickets in third class. Uncomfortable, unpleasant company, unsafe (for a woman), filthy toilet and not a wink of sleep. Note: As a precaution, bags must always be secured under the train seat with a metal chain.

Driving in India in the big cities is madness. Streets are unmarked, maps are rudimentary and for non-residents, taking taxis or motor rickshaws is the only way. Every airport has a counter for paid in advance taxis to your hotel, which makes life easier.

New sleeper buses now travel between Dharamsala and Delhi, and if you don’t mind stopping at pitstops for overpriced food, blaring Indian music and the driver’s free dinner, all is well. The buses leave you off 10 minutes from the Delhi train station, where taxi and rickshaw drivers fight over the privilege of driving you to your destination.

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