12. Travelling in India
One of the ways we like to get a feel for a place is to travel through the country which is also a good way to chat with the local people. We wanted to mix up how we moved around and sample as many different modes of travel as possible.
There is a very good train system in India, with a very extensive and heavily used rail network. The on line booking system looked simple but proved to be far more complicated than it looked and we had to rely on guest-house managers or travel agents to help with arrangements or we visited the railway station a couple of days before our travel to book our tickets. We travelled in both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned trains … no guesses for which was our preference. While didn’t sample the cheapest of the classes we found the sleeper carriages with either two or three levels of bunk beds were reasonably good to sleep on, well sort of, and during the day they converted into seats so we could watch the country side through the grubby windows.
If trains didn’t run between our stops we could generally find a private bus company which offered coaches with reserved seats and usually some air-conditioning. The one time when this wasn’t possible we spent five very hot and crowded hours on a non air-conditioned government bus trip travelling between Mount Abu and Jodphur. We held our seats for the trip but as we moved from one small town to the next the numbers on the bus varied greatly from most passengers having seats to probably twice as many crammed in as there were seats available.
On a couple of occasions there were no convenient trains or buses and rather than make a huge detour or catch a train in the middle of the night we simply hired a car and driver. More expensive but far, far cheaper than it would be in Australia and far more convenient and comfortable.
Within cities we of course walked when distances were not too great but otherwise we would catch auto-rickshaws (much like a tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia) for shorter distances or taxis or Uber for trips to and from airports or further afield.
Our water-based trips included sunrise and sunset boat trips on the Ganges in Varanasi….
and on Dal Lake in Kashmir we travelled in ‘shikaras’, a gondola-like boat.
We avoided a few of the ‘touristy’ modes of travel including elephant rides, horse drawn carriages and camel rides.
India is a large country and on several occasions overland travel would have taken far too long so we took advantage of reasonably cheap internal flights. There are quite a few carriers so competition on most routes is strong and fares cheap. The only disadvantage was the need to arrive at the airport two to three hours ahead of the flight but at least we could get cheap food while we were waiting.
Without a doubt the best travel experiences we had was flying from Delhi to Leh, the capital of the state of Ladakh in the far north of India and then taking several road trips within the state. The road to Leh from Manali in the south is only open for three months of the year and we were too early to make that trip so the plane was the only option left to us and it was fantastic. The views as we crossed the snow-clad Himalayas were absolutely sublime and the views of the broad, brown Indus Valley as we approached the airport were magnificent.
Once in Leh we took a couple of days to adjust to the altitude. Leh is over 3,500 metres (more than 11,500 feet) above sea level so altitude sickness is a definite factor. Luckily, apart from some mild effects including headaches and dizziness shortly after we arrived, we did not suffer significantly but rest and lots of water are important for the first day or so. While we were waiting to adjust we had time to take in the scenery including the snow capped mountains all around and the well laid out town preparing for the upcoming tourist season.
As there are limited buses and we wanted to be able to leave the main roads, visit the numerous Buddhist monasteries and other sites as well as stop for photos along the way, we arranged for a car and driver to take us on a series of road trips with days of rest between the trips, our ‘Leh’ days. Our roads took us through magnificent valleys with towering mountains on either side and over incredibly high snow clad mountain passes to the neighbouring valleys.
On these rest days we explored the town, browsed in the shops, sampled the restaurants, and rested after the short walks. Lots of hills and steps and not as much oxygen as we are used to taxed the lungs and provided good workouts.