India is a big country, and getting from one place to another can be complicated. It can also be really fun. Some of my most memorable experiences in India have happened on trains and buses.
Tourists and travelers here are constantly exchanging information about how to get from one place to another, where to book tickets and how much you should pay for a taxi ride. Recently, some friends who are thinking of coming to India have been asking about how we travel. So I figured it was time to write something about our travel style, and offer a few tips.
Just to set expectations: Our travel choices have everything to do with the fact that we are long-term travelers. We aren’t in India for a two- or three-week holiday, so we don’t have to worry about how long it takes to get from one place to another. And we like to travel by train or bus, rather than by air or private taxi.
Our travel style is only partly because we live on a careful budget; we actually prefer traveling the way most Indians travel. It’s part of the experience of being here. You meet people, you have interesting chats, and you are more immersed in the culture. After all, what is culture but the daily life of the people?
Arriving in Delhi
Delhi traffic is terrible, and even the best taxi service can’t overcome that. So it’s great that the city also has a really good metro system. You can take the metro to most parts of Delhi, including Pahar Ganj, where we always stay when we’re transiting through Delhi.
Pahar Ganj is a compact district full of hotels. It extends west from the New Delhi Railway Station, making it incredibly convenient for booking train tickets and for departing on many (not all) trains.
To get to Pahar Ganj from the airport, take the Airport Express metro line to the New Delhi metro station. When you leave the metro station, follow the signs for the railway station, and then enter the station itself. You and your luggage will need to go through security scanners. Then go upstairs to the footbridge that goes across all the railway lines. Once you have crossed all the lines and gone downstairs, you simply exit the station and make your way across the road to the entrance to Pahar Ganj. You’ll have to ignore all the rickshaw and taxi drivers, and cross a busy (though narrow) road, but once you get across, you’re facing into the main bazaar road of Pahar Ganj.
Booking railway tickets
There are lots of scams around booking railway tickets, so read this part carefully.
Upstairs at the New Delhi Railway Station, there’s an office where foreigners can book their journeys against a special quota of tickets reserved for tourists. You’ll pay more than usual for each class of travel, but you can buy your tickets a short time ahead of your journey. This is convenient if you’ve just arrived in Delhi and you don’t want to stay in the city for very long.
As you enter the parking and pickup area in front of New Delhi Railway Station, touts will spot you and try to divert you. They will tell you that the foreigners’ reservation office has closed down, or that you have the wrong place and you need to come with them. Or they’ll point you to one of the many private resellers of railway tickets that are all over Pahar Ganj and nearby Connaught Place (and where you’ll be charged a commission on top of the price). IGNORE THESE PEOPLE. They are simply doing their best to round up business.
Go into the station and find the staircase on the left. Go all the way up and you’ll find the tourist reservation office on the next floor (“first floor” if you’re European, “second floor” if you’re American). On your way up the stairs, you may notice a sign informing you that the tourist reservation office is right there in the station, and that you should pay no attention to anyone who tells you different. I’d have loved to photograph this sign, but taking pictures in the railway station is forbidden.
You will have to fill out some paperwork to get your tickets. Bring your passport, and make sure everyone who’s traveling with you accompanies you to the office; everyone has to present their passport if they want a railway ticket.
People working at the tourist reservation office are extremely helpful, and they all speak reasonable English. They can help you figure out which train you should take to your desired destination, and tell you where to change trains if that’s necessary.
Getting from Delhi to Almora: from Delhi to Kathgodam by rail
The first thing we did after I arrived in Delhi was walk to the New Delhi Railway Station to get tourist tickets to Kathgodam, the railhead that’s closest to Almora. As I mentioned above, several touts tried to misdirect us, but we just brushed past them politely and went upstairs to buy our ticket.
We couldn’t get two-tier AC, and unfortunately, our train, the Ranikhet Express, did not originate in Delhi; it originated in Jaiselmer, Rajasthan. This meant the train had not been freshly cleaned when we got on. So we had to scramble around to find bedding packets that hadn’t been opened yet.
We also had to claim our reserved seats from people who’d been occupying them since Jaiselmer, and also claim some space under the bench for our backpack and wheelie. The other passengers were reluctant to move themselves or their luggage, but showing the ticket with our reserved seat numbers did the trick. The interlopers moved into their assigned seats in a different compartment, taking their luggage with them, so we were able to store our cases.
The journey was an overnight one, and it left from the Old Delhi Railway Station, not the New Delhi railway station. So we had to get the metro to the Old Delhi station. There’s a section below with the details. (I have since learned that trains making the daytime journey from Delhi to Kathgodam leave from the New Delhi station. This is the kind of detailed info you’ll get from the tourist reservation office at the New Delhi railway station.)
Which railway class to travel?
We travel two-tier AC when possible. This means you are in a compartment that has four reserved seats. The compartment also has four sleeping bunks, two on each side of the compartment. Traveling in this class means you’ll probably have more space to yourself.
If you travel three-tier AC, you’ll have a sleeping bunk to yourself, but there will be six passengers per compartment instead of four, and it can get crowded. Many Indians travel in large family groups, and people often want to sit together in one compartment even if their actual reserved seats are spread across two compartments (as I described above). This can be fun or bothersome, depending on the people themselves and your mood.
If you are taking an overnight train, you’ll get a bundle of clean bedding, including a pillow, sheets and blanket, and often a towel, too. You can make yourself quite comfortable on your bunk. I never have trouble sleeping on the trains.
Make sure you keep your valuables on your body or in a small bag tucked firmly between your body and the wall of the compartment. I have never had anything stolen on a train, but you never know. Your suitcase or backpack can be stored under the bottom bunk and will remain unmolested. Same with your shoes.
More train travel tips
The meals that are sold on most trains are uneatable. If the meal was included with the price of your ticket, then you can pick and choose – maybe eat the rice and yogurt and leave aside the messy liquid dal they deliver in a knotted plastic bag. I would not advise buying a railway meal if you have to pay separately for it. Instead, buy some snacks and bottled water for the journey before you get on the train. We usually get roasted moong dal and roasted peanuts, both in sealed packets. Fruit can be nice too, but make sure you wash it ahead of time in your hotel room.
Tea and coffee will be served on the train, and it’s usually decent. Not delicious, but decent. It will be quite sweet, so if you dislike sugary drinks, be warned.
Toilets on the train are not easy to use. You can’t use them in the stations, only when the train is in motion. You just have to hold on tight to the handrails if you’re using the squat toilet. If you want to use the European style sit-down toilet, I advise carrying toilet tissue so you can wipe off the seat and then lay fresh paper on it.
I usually find there’s sufficient liquid soap in the tilting soap vessels, both in the toilets and at the handwash basins outside the toilets, and plenty of water for washing. It’s a good idea to bring your own cloth hand towel or paper towels, and having your own soap handy is good, too.
Buses in India
We really enjoy taking buses. They tend to run on very good schedules, and there are almost always buses to the smaller towns and villages we most enjoy visiting. Buses are also cheap.
Some of the most fun times I’ve had traveling in India have been on buses. You can see so much from the high-up windows, and buses stop at interesting small towns and villages.
When I traveled in India in the early 1980s, buses used to break down all the time. I mean it literally – all the time. I actually had some great experiences while hanging out and waiting for the bus to be repaired.
It’s quite different now. We traveled on buses all last autumn, and experienced just a single puncture. (And not one breakdown since!) We were traveling over the eastern ghats in Andhra Pradesh from Rajahmundry to Bhadrachalam, admiring the dappled light on the backs of beautiful goats streaming by us on the road, when suddenly there was a loud noise. We knew right away that it was a puncture. So did the driver: He pulled the bus immediately over to the side of the road.
We all piled out, and several of the passengers tried to help figure out what had happened. It was pretty obvious to the driver; he went to the back of the bus and grabbed the lug wrench and its extension. It was really difficult getting the lug loose; at one point the driver stepped up onto the extension and began jumping to get the lug started.
It was actually pretty quick getting the damaged tire off and the spare tire on, but the poor driver was really hot – his shirt was soaked through. As soon as we got to the next village, he stopped the bus, jumped out, took off his shirt and had a wash at the pump by the side of the road. I didn’t blame him.
An alternative to buses is shared taxis. These are often jeeps, especially in the mountains, but they can also be ordinary cars. Ask how much to get where you want to go before you get in, and don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you stay in one region over a period of time, you’ll learn how much it should cost to get from one place to another. Double the price of a bus ticket to the same destination is about right.
Using the Delhi metro to get to the Old Delhi railway station
To get to the Old Delhi railway station, we got onto the metro at the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg metro station. This is at the far end of Pahar Ganj, right by the Ramakrishna Math, and it’s a much easier station to depart from. That’s because there are security guards and scanning equipment at the entrance to all metro stations. So big busy stations like New Delhi can be a pain; getting yourself and your luggage through security can add 10 minutes to your journey. (Leaving the station is no problem.)
At the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station, you take the Blue Line to the Rajiv Chowk station. It’s just one stop away from the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg stop. At Rajiv Chowk you change to the yellow line and travel to the Chandni Chowk metro station, three stops along the line. The Chandni Chowk metro station is adjacent to the Old Delhi railway station, and it takes just a few minutes to walk from one to the other.
Kathgodam to Almora by shared taxi
Our train happened to be about three hours late departing, so we arrived at Kathgodam a bit later in the morning than we had expected. Actually, we ended up arriving at a more convenient time, when everyone was awake and ready to do business.
Kathgodam is a small station, and you have to go outside the station building to find a restaurant or café. We didn’t bother with that; we just exited the building and started asking about a shared taxi to Almora.
We found one eventually, and shared it with a young woman who was traveling with her child. We had to negotiate on price, and truthfully, we could have done better than we did. But we were tired and just wanted to be on the road, so we overpaid by the equivalent of about US $5.00. It’s hard to get too worked up about that.
The shared taxi made a stop in Kainchi, where the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram is located. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, this stop is a very good idea. The mountain road from Kathgodam to Almora is a series of switchbacks for the entire three-hour drive, and your driver really needs to take a break to ensure both his safety and yours.
The driver stopped by a nice tea shop, and we went in. We sat on a verandah looking across a green gully to the ashram itself. It felt peaceful and lovely to sit there for 20 minutes, and the hot tea was truly welcome.
Arriving in Almora
We stayed in a nice little hotel called the Bansal, in the heart of Lala Bazaar, the pedestrian shopping area. It’s not a quiet area, except late at night and before dawn, but we enjoy it – the bazaar is lively and fun, and you can get all kinds of fruit and other snacks easily.
Because no motor vehicles are allowed on the pedestrian mall, the Bansal is a quieter place to stay than you might expect – you just hear people calling back and forth in the market below, and the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque. The hotel is also located quite near the Nanda Devi Temple, a lovely place to visit when you want a break from the activity of the mall. It’s a rare open space in Almora’s commercial area.
The Bansal and the pedestrian mall are located above Mall Road, Almora’s main thoroughfare, always crowded with cars, trucks, buses, shared taxis, motorcycles and cows. It’s a pretty quick walk from the location near Mall Road where shared taxis drop passengers to the short steep road that takes you to the pedestrian mall. The Bansal is on your left just before you reach the pedestrian mall.
Getting to the Ayush Guest House
It took us a few days to find the Ayush Guest House. We were looking for a quiet place to stay for some weeks, so over a few days we took several walks from Almora up to the Kasar Devi temple, looking at all the signs advertising guest houses along the way.
We were returning to the Almora-Kasar Devi road after viewing a guest house we didn’t care for when we noticed the sign for the Ayush Guest House. We happened to meet its owner, Raju Bisht, as he was heading down the hill after a shopping trip to Almora. He toured us around his property and we agreed on the cottage we wanted, the monthly rate, and the date we could move in.
You don’t have to make your arrangements in as random a fashion as we did. Lots of the guesthouses here in the Almora area are listed on Airbnb and other booking services. Most of our fellow guests at the Ayush had found it on Airbnb, and booked their rooms or cottages through that platform. You can also book at the Ayush by contacting Raju through his Facebook page.
When the day came to move in, we walked with our luggage down to the shared taxi parking area off Mall Road, near the bus stand. We negotiated a price with a taxi driver, and he brought us up the steep dirt road to a ridge where there are several guesthouses. From the ridge, Ayush Guest House is a 10-minute walk down a steep concrete path. Raju had already told us he could send a porter for our luggage, but we decided we’d try to make it by ourselves, and call if we needed help. We managed just fine. Taking the luggage back uphill when it’s time to leave, however, may be another story.
Let me know what you want to know
This post was written in response to people’s questions about how we travel in India, and I decided to mix specific directions for Almora with general travel tips. Is there more India travel information you’d like me to cover? If so, let me know, and I’ll do my best. Tell me what you want to read about in the comments section below.