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Published: November 24th 2010
India has these, many of them; ranging from simple red dust tracks to multi-lane highways: the former are far preferable to the latter, but they will not, unfortunately, be able to transport you any great distances. For this, you will need to use the highways. These can range in quality from the really quite abysmal, to the vaguely serviceable. Most journeys of any length will provide the interested traveller with ample opportunity for experiencing both of these extremes and all the fascinating gradations between. A fairly common but uniquely Indian road surface to look out for is the "sudden gravel transition". These can mostly be found on otherwise quite decent stretches of macadam, they appear suddenly, last for half a kilometre, then disappear as quickly as they arrived. An interesting point being that they seem to be a nocturnal phenomenon and are only very rarely witnessed during the day. Its close relative, the "randomly placed speed bump", differs slightly by being a diurnal surface anomaly. If, after a few coach journeys, you have still not come across one of these, I suggest taking more regular sips from your soft drink bottle, or eating your lunch in transit, as either
of these activities are sure to guarantee an encounter.
At first, a new traveller to India may find the diversity and sheer volume of transportation plying her dilapidated highways incredibly disorientating, but after a while it is possible to find some method in the madness and from this to take some succour. Much like the Indian caste system, there is a distinct hierarchical structure that determines a particular vehicles place and power on the roads in relation to others, and delineates the boundaries of what it is, and is not, allowed to do. It is an incredibly complex system that has an enormity of subtleties, sub-castes and exceptions that can baffle even the most seasoned of Indian travellers. Using the most simplistic terms it could be said "that might is right". That is: the larger the vehicle the more authority it commands on the roads, which, in India, means a juggernaut has the divine license to drive at speed down the centre of the road in the full knowledge and absolute certainty that all other vehicles will gladly make way for it, even if that means a short diversion onto the pavement or across a small paddy
The twelve-wheeler lorry is the Brahmin of the roads; the bicycle the poor Dalit. If a coach, itself being a fairly high caste vehicle, were to be happily driving along on the wrong side of the road, the better to avoid some nasty potholes on the left, and were to find itself approaching a small, low-caste rickshaw, then the coach would continue on its path, knowing full well that the rickshaw will move aside. When the caste distinctions are as clear and obvious as this the system works perfectly well, though can still be a little nerve wracking for the unseasoned traveller. Problems only manifest themselves when two vehicles of a similar status find themselves bearing down upon each other at speed. When this happens, a game of musical chicken will normally occur; this being the customary means in India of gauging another vehicle's authority, and will usually establish dominance without necessitating physical contact. It has yet to be fully established whether it is the volume, melody, or frequency of use of the vehicles horn that decides such matters, or the size of the vehicle and the ferocity and determination with which it is driven. In the event
that superiority cannot be established then a collision is the natural and expected outcome; the evidence of such unresolved hierarchical battles can be seen littering the sides of India's highways, left there as grim warnings to those revisionists who would like to see the road traffic caste system abolished and replaced with a more inclusive, democratic system that perhaps favours none and stymies all.
A notable exception to the above mentioned structure is to be found in the form of the non-mechanised users of India's roads; specifically cows. A traveller preparing for a trip to India may be surprised to learn that these beasts which, in the West, are most often seen standing placidly in fields chewing the cud are, in the subcontinent, to be found to almost exclusively inhabit its highways and byways. Cows, being in India something akin to a manifestation of the divine, are always and without exception given the right of way and definitively sit atop the hierarchy of Indian road users. To defer to a cow is mandatory, but a certain sport is had in achieving this deference as closely as possible. Again, the reasons for this staggeringly brave behaviour is as yet unknown;
for if a vehicle were, as sometimes regrettably happens, to mow a Nandi down, then the driver of said vehicle would almost certainly be beaten to death by any outraged witnesses, no matter from what vehicle they came. Other non-mechanised road users, such as dogs, goats, buffalo, cats and the occasional deer, are not protected by the presence of the divine. Their fate is dictated by their own actions alone, and a collision with one of these is seen only as regrettable, rather than devastating. Monkeys, being seen as representative of Hanuman the loyal, also get shown a degree of deference, but nowhere near that extended to cows.
These long and slow mass transit vehicles can frequently be spotted stopped in the middle of nowhere with their passengers milling about outside, like ants around the carcass of a millipede. A first time traveller to India, if witnessing this sight from the window of their bus, may consider the passengers on the train to be unfortunate, unlucky. This is a common misconception, often caused by relying too heavily on the facts, as opposed to experience. Buses are faster, cheaper, more punctual and regular, they supply more routes and
are easier to catch. They are, however, the inferior form of transport. Though it is difficult to explain why this should be so. Why are books superior to films? Why is a long walk in the country more satisfying than an hour on the treadmill? Why seek a girlfriend when a prostitute can so easily be had? In life there are many instances when the ostensibly wrong choice, the apparently more laborious and the seemingly harder, is instinctively chosen as the preferable option. The new arrival in India should know that in choosing to travel by train, he is making a positively incorrect decision.
When the new arrival to India, buoyed perhaps by the information contained in these venerable pages, attempts to purchase their ticket from one of the thousands of computerised booking counters that are now located in all but the most provincial stations in India, and finds this so ostensibly simple procedure to be beyond their capabilities, they may vociferously question the wisdom, espoused so forcefully here, that carried them so confidently past the bus station and into the melee of an Indian train station. It would be in our interests to now make a stout defence
of the Indian railway's ticketing system, thereby defending our own credibility in the process. Unfortunately, to do so would involve us obfuscating the truth to a much greater extent than usual. Buying a train ticket in India is much like learning to ride a bike; almost impossibly hard the first couple of times but getting exponentially easier with time. Unfortunately, unlike riding a bike, one can easily forget the necessary procedures if one does not practice sufficiently regularly enough.
Instead of here going into labyrinthine detail to instruct the Indian initiate as to the mysterious ways of the Indian rail ticketing system, we will say only that it is indeed possible to comprehend and achieve that which at first seemed beyond all reason and intellect and, more to the point, once understood, it can be made to work positively in ones favour. However, we believe it is in the new arrivals best interest to avoid any unnecessary interactions with the human face of Indian bureaucracy, so instead we recommend that the newby avails themself of a computer and logs onto and signs up with, the simple to use and easy to navigate website, "cleartrip.com". We advice against using the
Indian railway's own site, for it seems to very closely replicate its real-world equivalent and is therefore almost completely incomprehensible. Almost all of your rail bookings can be made with cleartrip.com and all for only a nominal additional fee, the only exception being, so far as we can tell, the inability to purchase Taktal tickets. This is, though, a matter of such minor significance that to expound upon it here would be to invest it with a far greater significance than it possess; so, enough.
Unlike some other, more venerated publications, we believe that you, our esteemed readers, have sufficient intellect to make decisions and learn for yourselves and, therefore, do not require or desire us to hold your no doubt expensively manicured hands to guide you through procedures and experiences that other guides expound upon in pedantic and patronising detail. We believe that knowledge is no substitute for experience, and though we have, of course, a great deal of the latter we sufficiently respect your wish to be guided rather than directed, and to this end we will not exhaustively detail our experiences of travelling by train in India. Instead, we will serve you with only a few
more additional morsels of knowledge, enough to get you onto the right track (intended) but not so much as to determine your eventual destination; sufficient to whet your appetite but leaving more than enough room for you to still shape the meal to your tastes.
Unless you have specific dietary requirements, or a strong to medium aversion to potentially unsanitary produce, then it is not necessary to take any food or drink onto the train with you, even for the longest of journeys. Again, in the interests of leaving a little of India for you to discover yourselves by showing you only what is sufficient to survive, a little like the lingerie section of the littlewoods catalogue is for a young boy, we will say only, that as opposed to rail travel in the west where you yourself have to go off in search of food, in India your food will come in search of you. The experienced user of India's trains will know, some time in advance, exactly when their food is about to find them and, not only that, but specifically what that food will be. This is achieved through an advanced aural technique, a little like
that of identifying a bird by its song, that we will leave the interested reader to learn for themselves.
If intending to spend a night on a train we recommend purchasing a medium weight blanket, or a cotton sheet sleeping bag. These are used principally as a means of achieving a modicum of privacy and to guard against any wandering hands, but also as a means of insulating oneself from both dirty beds and, in the winter, the cold. Take a length of chain and a combination lock, use these to secure your belongings underneath the bottom bunk using the wire hoops provided. A book is a necessity, some form of personal music player is equally as indispensable and, like for general travel in India, toilet paper is a must; cards, a diary, a camera, alcohol, baby wipes, pornography, ear plugs, eye shades and valium are all items to be considered when packing for a long train journey, the choice will be dictated by your individual tastes.
So as not to appear biased towards travel by rail, and in an attempt to maintain our strict objectivity, we will here describe the salient facts regarding coach travel
and attempt to itemise the benefits of travelling thus, no matter how few they are. Coaches go literally everywhere in India. Each and every village will have a service of sorts, so with a little perseverance, a lot of time and an almost impossibly huge tolerance to discomfort, you can visit any place on the subcontinent you desire; just stick a pin in the map and go. There is never any need to make a reservation, all that is necessary is to turn up at the bus station (each and every grouping of houses in India, from large villages upwards, has one of these), climb aboard the requisite vehicle and pay the conductor the fare. The ease of use and the freedom this engenders helps to an extent to mitigate for the almost unbearable discomfort of coach travel in India.
Other than where to go, the only real choice to be made by the potential coach traveller in India, is whether to go public or private. As with the argument between travel by rail and by bus, the seemingly obvious choice, given the available facts, will lead the unwary traveller inexorably to the wrong conclusion. Private buses can be
booked to most any destination in India, from pretty much every guest house you'll ever stay in; they are of a comparable price to the government option; they are advertised as being faster; they come in many more models; and often travel at more convenient times. So, why go public? Well, the answer can be found in that most Indian of obsessions; that of making money.
A private bus, though scheduled to depart at, say, nine, will in fact probably not leave the port of embarkation until nearer eleven. In fairness, it will often begin to move somewhere close to nine, but will then spend anything up to two hours driving in circles cruising for sufficient passengers to make the journey financially viable. If you are so unlucky as to be going to a particularly undesirable destination, then you could find yourself departing some many hours late, or potentially not at all. Conversely, if travelling on a popular route then you may find yourself departing somewhere close to the stated time. This is not, however, the benefit it at first seems. Your bus will only be leaving so punctually because it has been filled with as many people
as is possible and they quite literally cannot fit another person onboard, much as they'd love to. You may think a little discomfort, like having to share your reserved seat with anything up to four people and, often, assorted farmyard animals, is a small price to pay for an early departure and speedy journey, but, predictably, you'd be wrong. A private bus will, unless absolutely saturated with passengers, always stop to collect more. It will also, to its credit, be more than happy to drop you, and the other two hundred travellers, off anywhere you desire along the route; we think you can see what the downside to this otherwise seemingly attractive trait might be.
Each state in India has its own network of public buses. The buses used to ply these routes are always very basic, often appearing to be mere shells of the original vehicle, with only the skeleton of the seats, four wheels, an engine and most of the floor remaining. They can be incredibly uncomfortable, very noisy and they frequently break down; but they run to a schedule, leave on time and, crucially, as the driver and conductor have no vested financial interest in the
number of passengers they carry, they will often, though not always, stop accepting more travellers when the bus is full. It must be remembered however, that the concept of "full" is understood in vastly different terms in India than it is in the west. In India, it is not a case of the glass being half full or half empty, but rather how big the puddle on the table. It is interesting to note how this goes some way towards explaining why India is, especially when faced with the seemingly abject and intolerable, a nation of such happy, uncomplaining optimists.
Other than to enter or to exit the country, it has fortunately never befallen us to have had to travel by air in India. We have heard it said that this form of travel has improved markedly over the last few years and that the proliferation of new, low cost carriers, has made air travel the province of some, rather than just the very few. We, being somewhat egotistical and solipsistically minded, are writing this guide as though all our readers are as intelligent, good looking, adventurous and, crucially, as poor as us. (We also suffer
from a small fear of flying, but are not so self obsessed to imagine that may of our readers will be as anachronistically fearful as us.)
We can, through a vast experience, confidently say that it is quite possible to make an extended tour of India, visiting many of her most diverse regions, without having recourse to the plane. It will be cheaper; but quite clearly not faster, more convenient, exhilarating, comfortable and frustrating. We are still suspicious however, as whenever something in India is made cheaper so as to appeal to the burgeoning middle class, or when a popular foreign idea is copied for the India's interests, it almost always fails to work as well as it previously did. We sight the Tata trucks, nuclear weapons, heavy industry and democracy as examples. On this point, due to a deliberate paucity of knowledge, we more than ever leave you, our wise and intelligent readers, to form your own opinions, though we do feel that this could be at a significant risk to your health.
Non Mechanised Transport
These can be as numerous and as diverse as it is possible to imagine, to provide anything getting close to
an exhaustive list would be both impossible for me to achieve and extremely vexatious for you to read. On our travels we have witnessed but a tiny portion of the many alternative forms of transport available, but these still amount to a seriously substantial list. It will please the nervous newby to learn that wherever a destination exists, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, a mode of transport will be available to take you there: if there is not, one will be found or invented.
You see, for your average Indian, to walk any further than is absolutely necessary, ideally that being only as far as the nearest available mode of transport, seems to constitute something of a personal debasement. The hand pulled rickshaw, that is still used extensively in Kolkata, being a good example. This archaic and most basic form of transport, essentially a horse and cart with the horse being replaced by a skinny human in a lungi, has a top speed no faster than a brisk walk and is so wide as to be less manoeuvrable in Kolkata's incessant traffic than, say, a walking human, and can cover a much decreased distance. Yet,
any Indian with a spare rupee in their pockets will sooner hire one of these vehicles than walk; the visible rise in status from the lowly pedestrian being enough of an incentive to outweigh the vehicles drawbacks. Namely being slower and more expensive than walking.
This knowledge will help the new arrival in making sense of the quite bewildering choice of transportation that is available, as well as helping them understand why so many are so keen to have you avail yourself of their particular one. This is not so much an odious and grasping desire to milk you of your tourist dollar, but more a friendly and concerned desire to make sure that a visitor to their country does not have to suffer the embarrassment of having to walk. When approached by one of these helpful fellows, who will often be found driving a quaint, three wheeled vehicle called an auto rickshaw (more on these later), try to find a way of declining their kind offer that does not involve such responses as; "it's O.K. my friend, I'd actually rather walk, but thank you for your concern", as this will only confuse your average well meaning rickshaw-wallah and
potentially cause them to become upset. Remember, the only mode of transport lower than perambulation, is walking whilst carrying a heavy load. This is reserved for coolies only, the important difference being that they get paid for it.
With this knowledge firmly in the front of ones mind we will now, for the hungry travellers slavering mind, briefly describe the commonest forms of alternative transport available and itemise the benefits of each. We will start with the most widely available, the already mentioned auto rickshaw
. These gregarious, yellow and black three wheeled vehicles, can often be found congregated in buzzing swarms just outside the terminus' of India's mass transportation networks. As mentioned before, the drivers of these vehicles are exceptionally keen to relieve you of the ignominy of walking with your own bag and are, to this end, quite persistent in their approach. If you wish to assist a rickshaw-wallah in helping himself to help you, then there are a few salient facts of which you should be aware. Firstly; there is actually, no matter how vociferously they'll try to deny it, a standard rate for rickshaw travel. This being approximately, taking into account regional variations, 16 rupees as
the initial cost of hire, then 7 rupees for any additional kilometre travelled. As a new arrival in India it is highly unlikely that you will achieve anything like these figures. Do not be disheartened if you begin by paying double or triple these prices, this is to be expected at first and, with experience, you will begin to slowly reduce the cost.
With a rickshaw it is possible to transport up to eight people in relative comfort. This is an excellent way to reduce the costs of travelling as, even if the group cumulatively pays double the standard fare, then the cost to the individual is still significantly greater than if they were to be travelling alone. To this end, a special type of rickshaw is available. They are called tempos, and differ from the traditional rickshaw by being just a little wider and by only following predetermined routes, much like city buses. A tempo can happily carry anywhere upwards of ten people, the probable limit lying around the 30 mark. So as to reduce the potential for embarrassing your driver later, we recommend that before climbing aboard you have both agreed on a price and established that
the driver, to the best of your knowledge, knows where your desired destination is. We will cover haggling in a later instalment of this guide and, for the moment we refer you to the pricing guide outlined above. To establish whether your driver is likely to prove capable of finding your desired destination we suggest you try this small, but very successful piece of reverse psychology: approach your chosen rickshaw-wallah and say to him; "Buckingham Palace please." If he answers, "O.K., no problem, 100 rupees", we recommend you find another driver. Taxis
are very similar to rickshaws in the manner in which they operate, the only noticeable differences are an increase in both price and comfort. It can also be surmised that, as they are less tenacious in their attempts to help relieve tourists of the burden of their loads, that as a group they are more mean spirited and less philanthropically minded than their close brothers the rickshaw-wallahs. Taxis are able to travel greater distances than rickshaws and do do so in much greater speeds. For this reason we expect the traveller to India to only infrequently avail themselves of a taxi's services, and then only out of
necessity and for as small a distance as is possible. A time when a new arrival may find themself stuck with a taxi being the only available mode of transport is when arriving by air in the small hours of morning. This is unfortunately when the first time visitor to India is at their most vulnerable. To ease the fears of any soon to be arriving travellers to India, we would like to point out that all airports and, for that matter, many train and bus stations, have pre-paid taxi and rickshaw counters. These invaluable aids to the wary traveller are not entirely without their pitfalls, but can significantly reduce the potential for any financial misunderstanding on the part of your driver.
Travel by water
is alive in India in all its multifarious forms and, taken as a subject in its own right, could easily fill the pages of your averagely sized guidebook. Since we here have a love of brevity and an abhorrence of prolix, we will sum up water born transport in as few lines as we can. Although extremely diverse in the many forms that travel by water can take, they all follow essentially the same
pattern as travel by coach. Almost all craft, regardless of size, from the river ferryman to the Andaman ferry, will follow a set route and charge a set fare. There is, as with so many things in India, the potential to negotiate both of these factors but as a general rule the advice is sound. Like coaches, your boat will never be anything other than dangerously full and for this reason we advise the traveller to proceed with cautious abandon.
All forms of non-mechanised transport
will be dealt with here under the same banner as, without to significant a deviation, they all follow similar operational procedures. All forms of non-mechanised transport (NMT) will be privately owned and the same drawbacks can here be found as applies to coaches; namely that, no matter the size or condition of the NMT, the greatest number of passengers achievable will always be carried. NMT is usually hired to transport an individual, or more normally a large group of individuals, to take them to their desired location. To this end NMT can be a very cost effective, though often very slow, form of transport for the cash poor Indian traveller. We can highly recommend NMT to almost all travellers to India, with a possible exception being those in possession of a heart. Except for the bullock cart, it is common to find the animals that invariably power NMT to be mistreated and overly burdened by their loads. Horses, donkeys, buffalo, elephant, yak, camel, dogs and goats have all been witnessed by us suffering under the weight of their human cargo. We leave it up to the individual traveller to decide for themselves, on a case by case basis, whether to use NMT or not. Do not get too down on yourself if your ethical compass gets a little skewed by the hardship of travelling India on a meagre budget; you will not be the first to have your long held beliefs compromised by India. It is only the very strong, the seriously rich, or the proudly base, who are able to successfully travel in India for any length of time whilst actively upholding, and constantly defending, their own ethical beliefs. In this, as in all your travels, we wish you the very best of luck.
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