I spent two and a half weeks travelling from Delhi up to the Ladakh region, as far north as the remote Nubra Valley. India is a huge and diverse country so I only had a brief taster of a couple of regions, but here are some of the things that I learnt.
Young Indians (particularly those outside the main cities) are up there with Iranians and Pakistanis in terms of their interest in getting selfies with Westerners, at least based on my experience at the Friday Mosque in Delhi, where more a dozen of them wanted their photo taken with me in the space of ten minutes. The experience was repeated at the India Gate, as soon as one person gets their selfie its almost like a queue forms, can be quite hard to escape…
There was almost a queue getting onto the plane at Delhi with locals getting their photo taken or taking a selfie with the plane behind.
I saw some of the more extreme city traffic I’ve ever seen in Old Delhi, but despite the apparent chaos it does somehow work, with a huge number of people and vehicles moving with surprisingly few incidents. The horn noise may be overwhelming at times but it is generally used for its correct purpose, to alert others to your presence, rather than the typical Western use to express frustration. Having said that anyone of a nervous disposition will be challenged by the volume and use of horns when walking as a pedestrian.
Pedestrian crossing are just white paint on the road, they don’t actually mean anything unless a Policeman is standing by it, traffic will not stop for you. Like the old computer game Frogger you need to time your crossing well, keeping a close eye on incoming traffic. The best approach is to cross in sync with a local.
It is a different situation on the mountain roads where people appeared to have no concept that the road might not be wide enough. We pulled over at the request of someone from the Army to allow a convoy of trucks past. That message was ignored by half a dozen cars who rushed past and then jammed up the road, with most of them having to reverse back down.
It was even scarier when we started moving again to see this truck hanging precariously off the road. No idea how the army trucks got past this, and there was no sign of anyone doing anything about it.
As one of the busiest stations in the country, I was expecting chaos at New Delhi Train Station, but found it less stressful than travelling in London to be honest. Some of the platforms could do with maintenance though and second class didn’t look very comfortable.
People wandering along train tracks was pretty common, despite the train toilets draining directly onto them.
I have never seen so many street dogs around, usually lazing during the day but the nights were filled with near constant barking. In Leh it was hard to walk along the pavement without tripping over a dog. This made going for a run something I didn’t want to risk. Over 20,000 people in India alone die from rabies every year, a third of the world total. I’ve had the rabies vaccination but that just gives more time to get to a hospital, and the areas I was visiting were pretty remote…
For someone who isn’t a fan of animals India could be a little stressful. Dogs were the main concern but there were also plenty of monkeys around in Shimla and McLeod Ganj, and cows and donkeys in most places.
I saw far, far fewer smokers than expected. Many places, such as Shimla, have completely banned smoking outdoors, which seemed to be effective to the casual visitor.
India has fewer ATMs per person than most places in the world, and those that there are often don’t have money in them. Getting money out in Delhi at the start of my trip was far more challenging than expected…
RO (Reverse Osmosis) water (filtered and UV treated) is available in most decent hotels and restaurants. It’s safe, I drank it the whole trip, and far better than buying endless plastic bottles. One example of India working toward being single use plastic free by 2022, a probably unachievable but bold goal that all travellers to India should support as much as possible.
The challenge faced by this goal was illustrated to me by a young, educated couple who sat opposite me on the train from Kalka to Shimla. They threw literally all of their rubbish, including a large plastic tray which lunch came on, out of the train window. They tried to do it sneakily so appeared to know it wasn’t a good idea but didn’t stop them from doing it.
There are huge number of security checks, particularly in Delhi, which ranged from pretty cursory to incredibly thorough. At Delhi airport the list of prohibited items include the usual suspects of large knives, firearms and lighters, as well as less commonly seen but equally dangerous coconuts.
To get into airports (at least Delhi and Leh) you need a copy of your flight booking or eTicket, and passport.
Hotel room numbering isn’t always as you’d expect, with 100s and 300s on the same floor for example.
As an international visitor expect to pay around ten times what the locals pay for entry to places, which given relative wealth and salaries seems fair. Many places cost around 300 rupees (USD4), the most expensive I visited was the National Museum in Delhi at 650 rupees (USD9).
Heading north from Delhi to Leh gave me a much better appreciation of the geopolitics at play in the Himalaya with China and Pakistan, with endless army bases and trucks passed on the way.
Hitting people on the head appeared to be a common remedy if you’re suffering from the heat and humidity. I saw it happen twice, first by rickshaw drivers when one of my group had a heat stroke in Delhi outside the Friday Mosque and nearly collapsed. The second was an Indian couple opposite me on the Kalka to Shimla train with the overheating girlfriend treated to what appeared pretty firm repeated knocks to the head. I’m not convinced I’d want similar treatment…