Chaotic India hits you straight away with all the swirling noises and colours, all the traffic and handshakes and stares and smiles and hassle, all the queueing and shoving and eating and scamming you can handle, with foul stenches and divine scents hot on one another’s heels at every turn, squalor and poverty around this corner, jaw-dropping beauty around the next; it’s in your face and not the easiest of places to travel, but it’s certainly a stimulating and rewarding one. It blows you away and kicks your ass at the same time, and after overlanding around India you’ll feel you’ve earned some travel stripes and will no doubt have picked up a tale or two along the way.
Overland travel to and from India
India shares borders with six other countries, but the overland route options are quite limited for political reasons:
Pakistan – India overland
India and Pakistan share a long border, but due to their troubled history most of it is closed. The main rail crossing and only road crossing is at Wagah, roughly halfway between Lahore and Amritsar, which is famous for the border ceremony which happens every evening and draws large crowds on both sides.
There is a second rail crossing located further south in Rajasthan, with a weekly train (the Thar Express) in each direction between Jodhpur and Karachi.
China – India overland
India and China share three separate sections of border, and none of them are open. They have active territorial disputes over Aksai Chin (controlled by China but claimed by India as part of Kashmir) and Arunachal Pradesh (controlled by India but claimed by China as part of Tibet), so obviously these are very sensitive areas; you can’t go anywhere near Aksai Chin, while you can visit Arunachal Pradesh but definitely can’t cross the border there. The one settled border they have is the short Sikkim / Tibet border, but only locals can cross there.
In any case, the Chinese side of all three sections is Tibet, and China only allows three routes to Tibet for foreigners – the train from Xining (with connections to the rest of China), the road border with Nepal (closed following the 2015 earthquake in the region, but reopened again in September 2017), and by air. So, even if they had already settled their border disputes and established border crossings, you still wouldn’t be able to cross without major changes to the travel rules for Tibet.
Long story short, if you want to go between China and India overland, you must go through Nepal, requiring special permits for Tibet which is a whole other story.
Nepal – India overland
The Visit Nepal website lists a total of eight entry/exit points for Nepal, including Kathmandu airport and the northern border with China; the other six are road borders with India, all open to international travellers.
Bhutan – India overland
There are three land entry points for Bhutan, all on the border with India i.e. if you visit Bhutan overland you will start and finish in India. The Bhutan visa regulations require visitors to be on completely pre-booked guided tours (making it quite a pricey place to go), and overland visitors are apparently met off the bus at the border. If you do this, in all likelihood you’ll be taking a bus from Siliguri to the crossing point.
Bangladesh – India overland
Bangladesh is surrounded by India on three sides and there are multiple crossings between them; unless you’re on your own wheels, the ones you’re likely to use are the main road & rail crossing at Benapole for buses & trains between Kolkata and Dhaka, the road crossing south of Siliguri for buses from there to / from northern Bangladesh, and the eastern crossings with Assam (which you’d use if heading on to (or from) Thailand and points beyond).
Myanmar – India overland
Myanmar used to be the missing link in the overland route from India to SE Asia, so it was great news when this border was opened up to overland travellers; for a few years it was then possible to cross in both directions with a special permit from MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tourism), allowing overlanders to travel between India and Thailand through Myanmar.
Unfortunately in mid-2016 the Burmese government abruptly closed this border again, before re-opening it with a new restriction – the MTT permit still applied but was only being issued to those entering and leaving via Moreh, effectively blocking the overland route again.
The rules then changed several more times, at one point requiring travellers to book expensive fully escorted vehicle convoy trips to get the permit – the rules for this border are clearly subject to change at very short notice, don’t suggest reading it all but check out this epic Lonely Planet thread of backpackers trying to work out the puzzle; there are several years worth of posts there! That’s out of date now though – this thread is a more up-to-date source of information for this route.
Update (August 2018): great news for overlanders! Myanmar and India have just signed a new border agreement, and the border’s now open in both directions with no special restrictions and no additional paperwork required beyond the usual tourist visas. India to SE Asia overland is officially back on! (note: if you’re on your own wheels you still need a special permit for the vehicle)
Sri Lanka – India by ferry
The ferry service was discontinued in 2012; a new one is supposed to be entering service once upgrades have been completed to port facilities and rail connections, but don’t hold your breath.
Overland travel within India
India has a vast railway network which can get you to most parts of the country that don’t have enormous mountains in the way. It isn’t fast, but it’s very atmospheric and riding the trains is a great way to see the country and meet her people. You’ll meet army officers and government engineers travelling to their new postings, businessmen on business, families on visits, and plenty of people to talk to; if you’re a chess player, carry a set with you and you’ll find some willing opponents. I remember cursing the first time I was woken by the cries of “chai, chai” from the chai-wallah running up and down the carriage in the morning, a huge container of sweet, milky tea strapped to his back and armed with a stack of little paper cups; and the tea was disgusting at first (as in insanely sweet), but I soon became addicted and bought multiple cups every time a vendor came through. Crispy samosas from platform vendors, horrific toilets, sitting with your legs dangling out of the open doors as you trundle through the rice fields; a great travel experience, wherever you’re getting off.
Train tickets: buying tickets used to be an almighty pain in the ass, but thankfully these days you can do it online. The official Indian Railways site is here but notorious for being difficult for overseas users; 12go.asia is easy to use, fully international, and probably worth the small markup (only problem is they don’t sell tickets for every single station, so if you’re going somewhere obscure it might not be available there). They sell flights and (some) buses too.
When the trains don’t go where you need, it’s time to brave the roads. Expect baggage and passengers stacked in the aisles, someone’s backside against your cheek, brutal heat in the day, but the window stuck open and freezing desert air blasting through the night buses while the driver listens to bhangra on full blast all night; the buses were at the tougher end of the scale. And the jeep from Siliguri up to Darjeeling was basically terrifying…
Some India Highlights
Just go along with the intensity and enjoy the ride, the good and the bad… the constant staring, all the hassle & rip-offs, getting the shits, the lack of orderly queues & personal space, the abject & highly visible poverty, the awful smells assaulting your nostrils, getting stuck in random places, the terrible roads, the amazing food, the swirl of colours, the beautiful handicrafts, the wonderful smells, the chai wallah waking you up in the morning with his sales call and the cup of sweet milky tea you buy from him, all the chaos & noise, the eagles soaring in the sky over Jodhpur, your camel’s farts, Himalayan vistas, and just generally being in a constant state of learning and observation. It’s a wild ride and can be challenging at times, but it will stand out in your memory one way or another.
Head up to Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills for incredible views of Kanchenjunga (but try not to get stuck in Siliguri!)
The Taj Mahal – goes without saying. Located in Agra, to the south of Delhi (doable as a day trip by train); my friend Danny’s words when he first saw it (after he managed to pick his jaw up off the floor) were “fuck me, that’s just made my year.” It’s an amazing building.
Chill by the lake in the oasis town of Pushkar.
Visit the castle of Jodhpur, the Blue City.
Ride an angry camel in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer.
Get some beach and party time in Goa.
Take a boat tour on the Kerala backwaters.
Take the train somewhere, anywhere, and see a snapshot of life in India; see the landscapes rolling by, see (and chat with) all those people on the move, see (and wave to) the farmers in the fields, see (and use…) the god-awful toilets, see (and taste) the great curries they serve up on board; see all the bustle in the stations and the hustle of the chai wallahs and snack vendors; see India in all her chaotic glory… a friend once told me he’d go back to India just to ride the trains, and I know what he meant.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting India
Search for hotel deals in India
For train tickets the official Indian Railways site is here, but notorious for being difficult for overseas users; 12go.asia is easy to use, fully international, and probably worth the small markup (you can also use them for buses & flights). For the complete timetable for Indian Railways see Trains At A Glance
World Nomads* travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers. If you leave home without travel insurance or your policy runs out, you can buy or extend while on the road.
(This can be an important point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok)
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