In my experience India has the most difficult visa application problems of any country (I’m sure there are worse, I just haven’t experienced them). The whole process is handled by private contractors, not the consulates. An online application is filled out that asks all sorts of crazy questions besides the “normal” ones to be expected on any visa application: the names of your parents and where they were born, all the countries you have visited in the last ten years, if you have traveled in India before which cities you visited, and then it asks for references in India and in the country you are applying from (in my transit visa application, I made up an Indian name and got an address from a random hotel). These are all marked with a red star which means that they must be filled out. You then print it out, obtain an unusually sized passport photo, and mail with your passport and a check to the private contractor. Write down the application number so that you can track the progress of the application.
My application process took over a month as I made a few errors that resulted in it sitting on a desk for long periods. First I applied for a multiple entry visa, which makes things a lot more difficult depending on which country and consulate you are applying through. I saw many tourists with multiple entry visas that were given out as a matter of course, but not in Vancouver. Whenever you apply for more than a single entry visa, you must supply an itinerary and a flight out of the country. I simply made up a fictitious itinerary as I had absolutely no idea of my true travel plans. In retrospect, the best policy is to not leave the country once you are in it. Finish India off completely, then leave and travel to the other countries that surround it. If going to Nepal, start there, don’t go to India first. Usually once you leave India, you are not allowed to return for two months, another goofy bureaucratic rule. These are all things I learned in the application process as I did not supply an itinerary and this really delayed things. The visa became so delayed that I eventually had to change all of my flights. A problem here might be that the 6 month visa starts the day it is issued and I went to Nepal first, using up 6 weeks of the visa, which came to haunt me later.
This is required if you are traveling through India on the way to another country, even if you don’t plan on leaving the airport. My India tourist visa had expired, I was in the Maldives, and I wanted to go to Bhutan. The only reasonable way to get there is via India, as Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan and the only way to get there, flies from very few places other than India. My flight was Male, Maldives to Colombo, Sri Lanka to Chennai, India to Kolkata in one day, then the next morning to Paro, Bhutan. You must pass through immigration in Chennai and then again in Kolkata when you leave. For this you need a transit visa. After reading Thorn Tree, the online travel forum of Lonely Planet (the only source of information on the subject), I was led to believe that a transit visa was unnecessary and that you could simply stay in transit lounges and avoid immigration completely. People in the forums seemed through paying baksheesh or finding very nice airline and immigration people, to get their bags handled and sail through. Don’t believe a word of it. I wasn’t even allowed to board my flight in Male, so I never had to a chance to test the transit lounge theory, but, knowing the Indian penchant for bureaucracy, I would not want to go any other way than to obtain a proper transit visa. I cancelled all my flights and the Bhutan visa and trip. Once back in Male, I filled out the same long online visa application, got the photo and the photocopy of my passport which is all they said was necessary on the instruction form the consulate supplied me with. I was told the visa would be approved in 4-5 days which allowed me to reboot my entire Bhutan trip starting 5 days hence and just in time to make my final flight home from Bangkok the day after the Bhutan trip finished. Upon handing in the visa application, I had to return with a photocopy of my Maldives visa stamp on my passport, a long form requesting verification of my Maldive visa and my flight itinerary. I returned just before the consulate closed at noon with the necessary things, to be told, the approval process would now take 7 days as there was a weekend! This would preclude me from going to Bhutan at all and make my booked flight home. What a screw up simply to spend about 10 hours in two Indian airports. I also would have had to stay in Male, Maldives for 7 days. This is a city with absolutely nothing to do but read and watch TV. Beware the Indian visa process and its love of bureaucracy.
As shown by my byline – only where you have walked have you been – I try to walk as much as possible everywhere. Even in the largest cities, most sites are within relatively easy walking distance. One is able to get an intimate glimpse of Indian society – the people, shops, animals on the street, people washing in outdoor taps or getting a shave or haircut on a stool on the sidewalk. There is however little that is romantically atmospheric about typical Indian neighborhoods. The noise, huge numbers of people, traffic, demoralizing filth, cows, and blinding poverty is everywhere. Shops line every street and typical Indian goods can be bought anywhere.
Cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, and motorcycles compete with foot traffic in a chaotic mess. It is usually not practical to use sidewalks when available (broken pavements, piles of dirt, parked motorcycles, slum housing, street vendors, and products for sale), so most people walk on the road. Horns reign supreme and any potential interaction is given a blare. Crossing the street requires aggressive behavior. Simply step out and weave between the multiple lanes of vehicles. Motorcycles are the worst (they can only be described as assholes) and expect to be yielded to at all times.
Human powered transport.
Rickshaw wallahs (guys pulling rickshaws), as typified in the Kolkata of 30 years ago in ‘City of Joy’ are now only seen in certain limited parts of Kolkata today. Bicycle rickshaws are also uncommon and I can only remember seeing them in numbers in Amritsar in the Punjab. They are slow and just as costly as motorized rickshaws.
These small three-wheeled tuk tuks are the mainstay of getting around on short distances in cities (except the center of Mumbai where they are illegal). Three passengers can sit but will have luggage on their laps although you can see many more Indians than that. The drivers are the most common Indians that we bargain with and the perception is that they charge foreigners at least twice what they charge Indians. However, occasionally, one gets a reasonable quote on first try. One can only guess what the correct fare should be if you know the approximate distance and this is a matter of experience. Bargain hard and I often simply walk away when the fare seems out of line. The ideal situation exists when there are multiple rickshaws in one place and you can even get an ‘auction’ going playing them off against each other. They can get very competitive with each other to the point that profit must be minimal. The difference between what you just paid for a bus or train for a 6 hour trip and a ten minute rickshaw ride can be minimal and erroneously colors your perception of fare level. Finding others to share improves economics as the cost does not increase with an increased number. Occasionally one can get a large motorcycle rickshaw and in Gujarat, ten of us with all our luggage on the roof and our laps got a ride 15 km to a train station.
I rarely take taxis around towns except that is the only option as in Mumbai. Their fares seem to differ little from auto rickshaws. Taxis are often the main vehicle used in tours to outlying areas. The fare is predetermined and is per vehicle so finding others to share significantly reduces the cost. One often has to canvas around to find like-minded people. The drivers seem to never function as guides so expect no information on the sights you are seeing. Their knowledge of English is also often very limited. They often expect lunch and a tip. Clarify if tolls and other ancillary costs are included in the tour cost. 4WD taxis are the mainstay of transportation on trips in mountainous areas like Sikkim. They often wait until they get a full complement of passengers before leaving.
Metros. Only Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi have metros that I know of. Great very cheap way to get around and fairly easy to navigate. Can not take backpacks on the Kolkata Metro. Used it to get down to the Kali Temple which is a long way south. Used in Mumbai to get far north to the Global Vispassana Pagoda.
Every state has their own fleet of buses, always old, scruffy vehicles with no air conditioning. The seats are uncomfortable bench type but with individual, narrow, non contoured backs and no arm rests. Having to keep your luggage inside is a major inconvenience as my pack does fit into the small overhead racks or under the seats (this speaks for the value of having as small a pack as possible). My best strategy is to sit in the second last row of seats with an aisle seat. As these are the seats last to fill up, I keep my pack on the seat next to me, and move it into the aisle when the seat is required, and where it interrupts passenger movement the least. When it is not possible to keep it in the aisle, it actually fits well between my legs and having an aisle seat gives me room to stretch out. These buses are invariable full and stop frequently to let off or on passengers. They are thus slower than the private buses. The public bus stands can be difficult to navigate as all signs (on the platforms and on the buses themselves) are invariably in Hindi. Tickets are usually bought on the bus but in some states there are ticket booths and you get an assigned seat (ask for #42 which get you close to the above recommended seat). The ticket comes with a bus number which is the license plate number. Otherwise it can be a long hunt around the bus depot to find the correct bus. It seems that I invariably find some nice Indian with reasonable English who takes me by the arm and finds the bus. They are incredibly cheap. Most travel only in the day giving the best view of the landscape traveled through. But on long buses travel at night, do not expect to get much sleep. The non reclining, low backed seats are not comfortable and the roads often abysmal. Bring a pillow. Never wander very far from the door (going to a bathroom in a bus depot is not advised) as they leave without notice. All buses stop at least occasionally for bladder breaks and to eat. These buses are usually only used by Indians and I am invariably the only westerner on board. They have become my mainstay of travel as they do not require booking, go anywhere, and often have multiple buses going to my destination every day. I spend most of time reading and the time goes by remarkedly fast. Beware that Indian bus drivers have a reputation for driving drunk, and some of them can be incredibly aggressive drivers, passing indiscriminately.
Private Buses (also called Volvo buses)
These buses depart from different private bus depots and tickets are bought at travel agents. They are available with reclining seats, have armrests and are wider, or as sleeper buses which universally travel only at night. These latter allow complete lying down with double beds or single beds. Often short, it get be impossible to stretch out completely and seem to be made for shorter Indians. Air conditioned buses cost twice as much and I prefer non air-conditioned ones as the windows open and nights are usually cool enough most places in India. I bring a day pack with water, toothbrush, headlight, sleeping bag, sleep sheet, pillow (I have a small polyester case with a fold over end that I stuff with bulky items), warm top, and reading material. There is usually a curtain that allows complete privacy. They cost at least twice the government buses but are the only real alternative if traveling at night. Rough roads will stay prevent sleeping but I still often arrive relatively refreshed.
The shoulder check when driving to check ones blind spot is unknown and mirrors seem to be rarely used. Stop signs and yield signs don’t exist, and traffic lights are only in the largest cities. Traffic police still often are the only traffic control. Right of way is determined by who is farthest in front – no other rules exist. The slow pace of traffic accounts for the relative lack of accidents. Most highways are in atrocious shape and speed bumps control speed everywhere even on 4 lane divided roads. It is not uncommon to see vehicles going the wrong way even on the biggest roads. The narrow 2 lane roads become three lanes when passing and it all seems quite dangerous. Many vehicles have “Horn Please” emblazoned across the rear, emphasizing the need to warn them of your presence and desire to pass. This constant blaring of horns gets annoying as many drivers reflexly horn everything remotely seen. Without it though, traffic movement would be unbelievably dangerous.
20 million use the train every day and India has one of the largest and busiest in the world. Indian Railways is the largest utility employer on earth, with roughly 1.5 million workers and 6900 train stations. It is by far the best way to travel overnight as all trains have sleeping cars (roads are often so rough that sleep may be impossible).
Classes of trains and seats: 1. Air-conditioned 1st class (1AC) – two to four berth compartments with locking doors and meals included, the most expensive class. 2. Air-conditioned 2-tier (2AC) – The seats convert into 2 tiered berths in groups of 4 on the main section and 2 on the side. There are curtains for some privacy. 3. Air-conditioned 3-tiered (3(AC) – three-tiered berths arranged in groups of six in an open plan carriage with no curtains. 4. AC Executive Chair – comfortable reclining chairs and plenty of space. Only found on a few deluxe trains, the Shatabdi express trains. 5. AC Chair – Similar to the above but with less fancy seating. A great way to travel during the day. 6. Sleeper class – open plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC. The open windows afford good views and can be kept open all night. The windows are covered by rebar and there is only one emergency exit besides the normal doors. 7. Unreserved 2nd class and General Class – wooden or plastic seats and a lot of people, but cheap. There can be a daunting stampede at the train stations to get a seat (or you stand) and it can get very physical. This is a great way to meet Indians as one is up close and personal with a lot of people. All other tickets must be reserved.
Booking trains. Getting a train ticket can be one of the most frustrating experiences as tickets can be booked up to 3 months in advance and most trains are usually booked out with waiting lists especially on holidays. Thus book as early as possible. Visit the Indian Railways web site, irctc.co.in and register. This requires a mobile phone and an email address as codes are forwarded to both that must be entered onto your application to complete it. Because of high volume, this site can be very slow and will often time out. It is a useful place to check schedules and availability of trains. It can be frustrating as train stations especially in big cities have unfamiliar names and abbreviations that must be entered. Seniors over 60 get 30% off all fares in all classes on all trains. Children under 5 travel free and between 5 and 12 are charged half price.
Booking Trains can be done many ways.
Online booking: (this requires that there be openings or one is put on a waiting list) 1. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited www.irctc.co.in – requires registration. I have never had success here as my password seems to change every time I access the site and it only takes AMEX credit cards. 2. Cleartrip www.cleartrip.com – an excellent easy-to-use website that charges a small fee on top of the regular ticket price. I tried to register but it requires a scanned passport to be submitted and I never got around to this. 3. Travel agencies are everywhere and will book your train online for a small (usually 50 rupee) fee and I have found this the best way to book a train online but again requires open seats. One gets a photocopy of your ticket and they navigate the system much faster than we do.
At the Station: Make several copies of your passport and visa. Always bring your passport with you. Get a reservation slip from the information window (can be hard to find) and grab a bunch of them to use to fill out before you get to the train station next time. Fill in ALL the info: requires the train number and station, name of the departure station and destination station, class of train seat or berth, and your home address at the bottom (most of this info is only available from the web site, at the stations the only info is usually in Hindi). If there is a foreigners/tourist window, use it but these are only available in the largest cities. Otherwise join the usually long queue for the ticket window and the ticket will be printed if there are seats available. Tickets show your seat/berth and carriage number and a list of names and berths is posted on the side of each reserved carriage on large white sheets of computer paper. if the train you want to travel on is sold out, enquire about: 1. Taktal Tickets – a small number of tickets are held back on every train and released at 10 AM the day before. A charge is added to the price. First AC and Executive Chair tickets are excluded. You must have a photocopy of your passport and visa. If there is no tourist window and you queue with Indians, make sure to get there early and get into the line that can start forming at 8 AM. This has been the most reliable way to get a train ticket for me and always works but you need to be early in the line. 2. Tourist Quota – a special, but small, number of tickets are set aside for foreign tourists traveling between popular stations. These can only by booked at dedicated reservations offices in major cities and passport and visa are required. 3. Wait list – As many passengers cancel and there are regular no-shows and seats are likely even if there are a number of people ahead of you on the list. Check your booking status on the website by entering your ticket’s PNR number. A refund is available if you fail to get a seat. 4. Reservation against cancellation (RAC) – Even when a train is fully booked, a handful of seats are available. Check the reservation list at the station on the day of travel to see if a seat has been allocated. Even if no one cancels, a RAC ticket holder can still board the train, and even if you do not get a seat, you can still travel.
Motorcycle. This can be an amazing experience for long distance travel. A valid international license and domestic license are theoretically required and are necessary to be covered by insurance. Motorcycles can be rented (often Enfields which are not very reliable) or purchased. Check Lonely Planet for details. It would be a daunting experience negotiating the traffic and many road signs are not in English. One advantage is the large number of experiences with locals this method of travel offers.
Airplanes. Great way to move long distances. I flew to the Andaman Islands from Kolkata and from Bubashanwar to Hyderabad. I booked through expedia.ca where I am registered and found this better than expedia.co.in. Compared to everything else very expensive but obviously can save some long train rides.
Hostels with dorm rooms are virtually never seen in India. Hotels costing from less than $2 to $30 have formed my price range. Most have been less than $15 but the quality is not often relative to the price. Places with large concentrations of backpackers have the lowest prices because of competition and cities which only see Indian tourists have by far the highest hotel rates (Indian tourists tend to be relatively wealthy and spend much more than we do). Air conditioning almost doubles the cost of a room and has not really been necessary this trip. Reservations are not always necessary but I think wise most of the time. It is an easy phone call that rarely costs more than 5 cents and one saves a lot of wandering around to find a room. Cleanliness is not what we can expect from motels and hotels at home – it is unbelievable how dirty the light switches are for example. Rooms less than $15 rarely come with a top sheet and the bottom sheet and pillow often look like they have not been changed since the last customer slept in the bed. A synthetic blanket is all one gets for the price, but I never use these (how can they be clean?), and instead use a sleep sheet with my sleeping bag that zips out of make a perfect comforter. The bathrooms usually have a western sit down toilet and rarely a squat toilet. Showers are wet with no shower curtain and a drain often remote from the shower. Sometimes all that is available is a bucket shower. Hot water is variable but one never sees the shower head heater so common in Latin America. You usually have to ask for a towel and toilet paper and soap are not often provided. Indians are very plumbing challenged. In many other countries I have traveled in, I have relied on Hostelworld.com, but here it is worthless. I relied much more on my Lonely Planet for hotel advice.
I used only one bank, the State Bank of India. It always took my debit card and charged no transaction fees. It is everywhere. The maximum allowable withdrawal was 10,000 rupees or about US$190 depending on exchange rates. The Indian rupee appreciated in value considerably during my 4 months. HSBC banks also accepted my debit card but charged a transaction fee and were not common. No other bank seemed to work.
A simple cell phone is cheap, the SIM card cheaper, and the phone rates cheaper yet. I found a phone invaluable to book hotel rooms and the few minute call rarely cost more than a few cents. I made several calls back to North America to deal with credit and debit card issues (I never found out how to make collect calls) and to reorder the four Kindles I damaged. Charges for calls often up to 15 minutes never cost more than a dollar. This shows how incredibly expensive our phone system is (although admittedly with 1.2 billion people and everyone with a mobile, providing all the cell phone towers must be much more cost-effective).
Getting clean clothes is available everywhere and is often best arranged through your hotel. It is charged by the piece, not weight, so count out the small things (socks, underwear), tops and pants and supply a list.