india.rickbradley.com - our trip to India
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So, I thought I’d take a moment to write down some of what we’ve learned so far about traveling around India. Though the story recounted so far is only up to talking about Delhi (in our first week of the trip), in reality we’ve been here for almost 2 months and have travelled a bit more. The real traveling stint is yet to come, but we’ve learned a few things already that might be helpful.
India has an extensive rail system, covering both local trains and subways in major cities and long-distance trains running thousand of miles connecting all the points of interest. The definitive print compendium of train information is a book called Trains at a Glance, which can be found in some hotels, at various rail stations, etc. It is a bit overwhelming, at some 230 pages of girth, but the information is in there. Be sure, if you’re using Trains at a Glance that you have a very recent copy, as schedules change periodically.
Being addicted to the internets, however, I’m a big fan of trying to get train information online, and, preferably booking there. There is an Indian Railways website, which actually has a lot of information on the trains, routes, times, etc. It is, however, a complete 1995-era nightmare of disusability. Whenever you feel inclined to complain about how bad some website you have to use is, go over to the Indian Railways site and try to accomplish some fact-finding mission, something crazy like answering the question, “Are there any Thursday night trains from Mumbai to Goa?” or, “Is it possible to ride first class from Kolkata to New Delhi?” However, I will say that I thoroughly condone their use of multiple marquee tags per page for side-scrolling goodness.
So, to address some of the problems with the marketability and profitability of Indian Railways, a spin-off company was set up, called the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Company Limited which, of course has its own, improved, website for train information and bookings. If the original site was 1995 then the new site is partying like it’s 1999. You can actually search for trains and find availability, and there’s even a fast-track option where, if you know the various arcana of the reservation process (trust me, if you’re hearing about this for the first time, you don’t have the necessary information to ride the fast-track), you can fill them in all on one page and attempt to make your booking.
Unfortunately, I spent 2 hours one morning trying to book a train to Goa on that site and finally gave up: every other page load fails with a “500 Server Error” message (seriously), when you search for train information you spiral into this black hole of connected pages about that train and only that train, if you use the back arrow or reload a page your session is hosed (so if you go down a wrong path, you must start from the beginning again), and, to top it all off…
You know how you go to some sites (like, say, airline reservations sites) and, if you leave the browser sitting there for like 30 minutes the next time you do something on the site it tells you your “session has timed out”? Well, at the risk of boring you, let me tell you that the way that’s implemented is that when you come to the site a “cookie” is stored with your browser and that’s used by the site to remember who you are, where you are, what you’ve chosen on the site, etc. Since a lot of reservation information is time-sensitive they want to make sure they don’t offer you a flight (for instance), and then if you decide 6 hours later you want that flight to guarantee you the same flight at the same price (or to guarantee that was the cheapest, etc.). So, every time you click on the site they check “hey, when was the last time I saw this person?” and if that’s more than, say, half an hour ago, then they say “been too long, let’s try this again”, but if you’ve been at all active then the time is pretty recent, you get to continue, and the “last time I saw this person” time is updated to now. So, as long as you do something before a half hour is up the clock starts again…
Well, on the “better” Indian rail site, there is, evidently, a 10 minute session timer. Not only that, but it doesn’t reset every time you do something, it starts counting and then you have 10 minutes TO DO EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO DO ON THE SITE(!!!) Good luck! Oh, and this is the same site where 50% of the page loads fail, and if you go down a blind alley you have to start over (no back button! no reload!). So, after 2 hours I actually got to the payment screen a few times. This is so bad-ass:
If booking a train is a video game, that’s the boss at the end of the 3rd level, the payment selection screen. So, with some research (clock’s ticking!) I determined that there were basically two of those options that would possibly work for me. I tried both of them (note that means I had to start all the way at the beginning of the process for the 2nd one) and neither of them actually worked. My card was fine, I was able to use it to buy tickets later, it’s just that on that site, evidently, you can’t actually use the payment gateways that actually process regular credit cards to pay for anything.
So, while the original Indian Railways site is absolutely horrible, it at least doesn’t pretend to be useful for anything. The new site, however, has to qualify as the worst site I’ve ever had to use, mostly because it purports to be The Way to do the one thing I needed to do (book a train), but it’s actually impossible to do it there and mind-bogglingly time-consuming and frustrating to actually figure that out. Yay!
I did have a few go-arounds with their customer support trying to tell them that their payment gateways don’t actually work, but the best I could get was a change in form-letter response after a few queries. Oh well. Good luck to the next guy.
But, I’m just telling you this to save you the few hours you probably don’t have, as I’ve already done it for you. So, it turns out after digging for a bit I found a third website which is capable of booking Indian Railways trains. Not only that, but (a) it usually works, and (b) is from 2009 and feels like it. So, if you go to ClearTrip.com you can plan trips, look up train details (schedules, routes, availability, fares, etc.), book trains, get e-tickets, etc. It even SMS messages you your confirmations, any changes, reminders for when your trip starts, etc. Not only that but they also do airline reservations within India as well. It does all the slick auto-completion on station/airport names, knows which stations are in the same city (“Delhi — All Stations”) which you’d have to just know on the other sites, can search on flexible dates, shows wait-list status, etc. I’ve used it a number of times with great success.
And, as if that weren’t enough, sometimes ClearTrip is also screwed up, because, it is ultimately dependent on information from India Railways to be able to show current availability… which, it turns out, is key to being able to actually book a train. So, sometimes the India Railways servers are so screwed up that you can’t even get the booking done with ClearTrip. Since this recently happened to me I also learned that, since the last time I tried using the site, MakeMyTrip.com now also has the ability to book India Railways train tickets. Recently, when none of the other sites (including ClearTrip) was working, I was still able to get a booking done on MakeMyTrip. So that’s 4 possible sites for your train needs, at least two of which might actually work.
So this brings me to two important concepts about the trains in India: train classes, and quotas. For more info on train classes, there’s already a decent train class primer online. The quick rundown is…
Anyway, 2AC is a good introduction to the train system — decent space, good price, climate controlled, you don’t have to haul around bedding, and there’s food available. On some of the trains (e.g., the “Rajdhani” trains between major cities) you may get food with the journey, on other trains you can often buy food and/or chai. For what it’s worth, the only time I got sick so far on this trip was after eating the provided Rajdhani food on the way from Mumbai to Delhi. My advice is to get some food before the journey and pack it with you. It’ll be better quality, it will be cheaper, and you’ve got a much better selection to choose from.
Also, the guys who bring around food, chai, water, etc., for purchase, will also be looking for a tip at the end of the journey (or at least their shift), which is all well of good. But… a word of warning: some of these guys are absurdly aggressive. I’ve seen them waking up sleeping passengers to shake them down for tips (actually demand tips), and don’t expect to get change from them if you don’t have small amounts handy: they’ll snatch whatever you have in hand and not look back. Caveat ridor.
Obviously, every train obviously has a capacity, as there are only a fixed number of seats. The train system is highly used, and so most trains fill up quickly. Sometimes a month in advance there are no seats available. Indian Railways has a waitlist system (you’ll see this on ClearTrip.com if you book there) and you can play the waitlist game if you need to. If you do that, worst case, you show up to the train station and look on the wall for dot-matrix printouts of who actually got on board which specific trains, and maybe you got a seat and maybe you didn’t. Otherwise, there are some seats that are reserved in a number of “quota” categories that might be available to you. The two I’ve had experience with (and which are most likely to apply to you) are the Foreign Tourist quota and the Tatkal quota.
If you’re a foreign tourist, you can go to certain train stations (Churchgate Station in Mumbai, and the New Delhi train station are two that we’ve had success with) in person and book train tickets under the Foreign Tourist quota. Bring your passport, try to know what you’re booking, and bring sufficient cash to get it done. We’ve had success with this even on highly waitlisted trains. Note that you can’t book Foreign Tourist quota tickets online, and I’ve never found a way to book via phone, travel agent, etc. (though maybe there are travel agents somewhere who can get it done). It seems like travel agents here are armed primarily with an internet browser, and a knowledge of what values to put into which fields — i.e., you’re paying them to deal with the hassle, not because they have any special privileges.
The second quota of interest is the Tatkal quota. This is basically a “last-minute” quota of tickets. Sale of Tatkal tickets happens 2 days before the train departure and runs until the tickets under the quota are used up, which is, evidently, pretty quickly. I believe they go on sale at 8am India time, but you’ll want to check the details to be sure. ClearTrip.com seems to be capable of booking Tatkal quota tickets, if you can score them. The one time we used Tatkal we booked through a “travel agent” (a guy someone knew up in Almora who got on the internet at the right time and bought the tickets for us) and picked up the tickets later.
There are other quotas, but none of them seem to apply to us so far, so these are all we’ve had experience with.
Note that if you’re booking in person that the reservation facilities may be at the train station, they may be at another train station in the same city, or they may be in a different building altogether. Be sure to ask someone in a position to both know and not direct you to a for-pay travel agent, and be sure to get clear directions: often what sounds like an easy jaunt to the next corner becomes an hour-long exercise in futility (hi, Delhi!).
A few random notes about train travel to finish up with:
Sometimes a 41 hour train ride (wait-listed at that) is a bit too daunting and/or time-consuming. At that point, if you need to move a long distance, it’s worth considering whether you should fly. There are a bunch of airlines that offer Indian domestic flights. Some of them have a fleet of 10 planes, others have hundreds — even some of the “discount” carriers. So, in arranging a trip from Uttarakhand down to Goa & Trivandrum and points south, I ultimately booked a few flights. I tried ClearTrip again and was pleased with the process. I think you might be able to find a cheaper flight using another site, including MakeMyTrip.
My process of booking a flight was to do the searching on ClearTrip, then for each airline I was considering flying, pull that airline up in Wikipedia. I pretty much convinced myself that all of the airlines that were coming up (GoAir, SpiceJet, Kingfisher, IndiGo, etc.) weren’t overly likely to face-plant a Boeing into the jungle, so I just went with the cheapest flights with good times. You can print out your e-ticket, get to the airport, check in and get a boarding pass, go through security, board, etc. If you got to India you probably know the drill.
The only bits of interest so far (Delhi Airport, Trivandrum Airport, Goa Airport) were that they will gladly let you carry a big-ass bottle of water through security (in the U.S. they’ll try to keelhaul you for such a subversive terrorist plot), they wouldn’t even let people into the airport at all without a valid ticket, and rather than having boarding areas with seats by the gates the domestic terminals have big seating areas, shopping areas, and food courts (depending on the size of the airport, obviously), with small gate areas with just enough room to line up people to board the shuttles that drive out to the planes on the tarmac. A more efficient use of space, in my opinion.
Also, airport prices are still airport prices. Books in the bookstores were selling at American prices, though denominated in rupees. And, shitty import beers?
I wouldn’t pay that at a Cincinnati Reds game (it’s over $5), I sure as hell wouldn’t pay it in India.
I’ll be damned if I can find anything useful online about buses between cities in India. They exist, they are very useful, run very frequently, and are one of the cheapest ways to travel some of the long- and back-roads in India. I took a bus from Tripuradevi, Uttarakhand down to Almora at the start of the Goa trip. I spent 85 rupees (about $1.70) for a four-hour drive through the mountains. I don’t think it’s possible to beat that cost and still get there within a week. But, the way I caught the bus was asking the people we’ve been living with in Tripuradevi when the buses come, and when the bus came they made sure the bus was going to the right place. Maybe after a few more months I’ll divine the ways of the bus system, but for now I’m in “ask someone if there’s a good bus” mode.
For what it’s worth, the Almora bus was pretty bumpy, because the driver was screaming down the hills like a bat out of hell, but it was fun and I had no real complaints.
I was also able to catch buses from Trivandrum to and from Nagercoil and to and from Kanyakumari (the southernmost point on the Indian subcontinent). These were no-frills all-metal affairs being used for in-town and between-town transport. I think I spent about 40 rupees (~$0.80) for 3-4 hours of travel. The biggest problem with the buses down in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is that the signs (as well as all the writing on the buses) are a bit hard to read:
… and that was the readable sign.
My Malayalam (basically Tamil, but just different enough not to be Tamil) is basically non-existent. My Hindi’s awful but at least I can sound out the characters and figure out place names. With Malayalam I had nothing. So I resorted to pestering the nicest and/or most official-looking people asking which bus is headed to Kanyakumari, (or back) and when. Complicating matters was the fact that bus drivers (about as official a source for bus info as I could think of) and taxi/rickshaw drivers were wearing basically identical garb — and those latter guys have a definite interest in getting you to pay them rather than some bus company. On the plus side, if you do make it into a bus and are worried about missing your stop, you need not worry. While the extra $0.03 you’d be “stealing” by staying on longer than planned may not seem like much to you, the bus conductor is ready to throw your ass off over it. Good times.
At least some of your time is going to be spent in cities. Presuming you weren’t born in India and you’re not riding a donkey in from the Khyber Pass, you’re almost certainly flying into one of the metro areas. You’re going to have to get from your preferred inbound transit mode to either your metro destination, or to your next conveyance the hell out of the city. There are a lot of ways to go about this, each with its own pluses and minuses.
Taxis: They’re not yellow here, they’re typically green and black. You’ll see them at the airports, around the train stations, driving up and down busy streets, etc. In the bigger cities it is not hard to find a taxi, and, often there are way more taxis than the demand seems to warrant. First off, you will be approached by taxi drivers or purported taxi drivers whenever you emerge from airports, train stations, bus stations, metro stations, bazaars, shopping centers, hotels, etc. The more confused, tired, nervous, hurried, etc., that you feel, the more likely you are to hook up with someone who is going to charge you more than you should be paying, or worse (like taking your money and dropping you off somewhere you didn’t want to be). Taxis are a great way to get from one place to another, they are more expensive than other means, but a good taxi driver can save you time, get you to hard-to-reach places, enlighten you on the scenery around you, get your errands streamlined, etc. It’s just hard to get a good taxi driver sometimes… If you find one, ask them if they have a mobile number — it might come in handy later.
A few bits of advice:
So when I say “taxi” I’ve been meaning regular 4-wheeled car-style vehicles (or jeep/van-style vehicles), but the term applies to a much wider range of transportation options than we have in the States:
Delhi is the only city we’ve visited so far that has a subway system (creatively dubbed “The Metro”). It’s a very clean system, and very nice, where it goes. The downside is that many of the places one might want to go in New Delhi don’t yet have Metro lines. There is a fairly ambitious plan for expansion that covers much of New Delhi, but it’s still very much underway. This also includes an under-construction Airport Link that purportedly will be completed “maximum” (my taxi driver’s characterization) 2011. Also, note that the Metro doesn’t run overnight. We encountered a shut down station entrance at around 9pm(?) in Old Delhi (and it was very sketch, with wild dogs inside the entrance behind the gate and some “helpful” locals who gave us the creeps, and in hindsight were clearly up to way the hell no good). The station entrance at the Old Delhi railway station opens around 5:30 am, though the official metro opening is at 6am. You can check when the last trains run from your entry station, typically sometime between 11 and 11:20pm.
Metro pricing in Delhi is based on distance — you use a card or a token when you enter, and then also when you leave. Tokens are cheap, and there are 3 types of cards: smart cards, 1-day tourist cards, and 3-day tourist cards. For the tourist cards you pay a 50 rupee deposit (which you get back whenever you surrender or convert the card) and it’s 70 rupees for 24 hours, or 200 rupees for 3 days. Those are “all you can ride” rates. The smart card is just a similar card that you have a balance on, which is deducted against on every trip. To get cards you go to the (very visible) Customer Care booth at the station, and tokens are available at token windows.
After all is said and done, we prefer to walk as much as possible — the exercise is good and you definitely get a better sense of where things are. Just be clear on where it is safe to walk, where you’re going, and whether it will be safe after dark if you end up out that late.