We must confess a well-known secret: even the most seasoned hitchhikers, when reaching India, often jump on a train. Maybe because the general class wagon is a whole travelling universe, or because railways criss-cross the country, or maybe because transport is inexpensive and somehow efficient while hitchhiking, at times, can be painfully slow, tough and loud. Yes, loud! But what is not loud in this land of cacophony with its bustling streets, markets, temples and roads and festivals-weddings-homes-rooftops… you name it! Hitchhiking is just one more way to sink into the different layers of a country and its cultures and hitchhiking in India can open many little windows to everyday realities that would otherwise remain out of our travel frame.
During the 9 months that we spent in India we did take some trains, a few buses and more rickshaws. But for many miles we also hitchhiked the slow roads of the subcontinent. It was hot, and sweaty and loud, often crowded and a few times so totally deserted that we could only walk for days without anybody picking us up. It was also a gateway to unusual encounters, to friendly homes and interesting insights about a country that is as enigmatic as it is diverse. In any case hitchhiking India is definitely worth it if one has the energy that it takes.
Disclaimer: as you will easily see, this post is in no way a travel guide, neither proper advice for budget backpacking in India, although some of the tips may well serve any traveller. It is just a compilation of tips and experiences for the simple hitchhikers and those that will spend most of the time searching by the roadside a way to, and around, this mighty country. May it be helpful!
1. Staring at the map of India
India is huge! A whole universe contained under the limits of a territorial unity with some certain borders and a few disputed ones, marked in maps that hang from school walls and government offices. Attempting to cover the whole territory in a single trip is like trying to reach mars on a witch’s brum. Our advice is simple: start where you are, and advance at your own rhythm.
Get the best map you can find
When attempting to hitchhike India, we would advise anybody to look at several types of maps:
- A whole map of the country can help you plan your journey without loosing sight of the dimensions. To choose the areas, landscapes and destinations you really would like to visit, and put the journey in perspective and within your given time-frame (i.e. the duration of your visa). You can maybe start here.
- Road-maps. We usually carry a combination of road atlas and downloaded maps (printed or in pdf). In India we had a general road map of the country (the best we could get, and it was not good enough) plus regional maps of one or several states (when we could get hold of them). Many times the maps lied, the highways were under construction or the best marked roads turned out to be secondary ones, while tiny threads were the most trotted ways, and so we ended up kind of lost a few times… well, it’s just part of the magic. We’ve read somewhere that Indian Map Service makes good road maps, if you give them a try let us know.
- Online maps and apps. For travellers with smartphones, you know the apps better than us. During our journey across Asia we were silly enough to jump on the way without such a useful device, so we will only be able to update this point after the next journey. If you have any good suggestions, please drop a comment below.
India has many borders, but most of them are of no use to the overland hitchhiker, as they are closed for tourists or in restricted territories, so if you are really keen on reaching the country overland you have just a few chances, and even those seem to open and close at random times.
“How to cross Asia overland. Hitchhiking the longest way to India”. A whole post dealing with the different overland routes to India (and beyond), at least the ones possible to travel at the time of our journey.
Overland to/from Pakistan: The only road border crossing between Pakistan and India that is open to foreigners is Wagah, between Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan). Crossing this border is not necessarily a problem (unless temporarily closed for any reason); the challenge lies in getting a visa for Pakistan (in the post mentioned right above we dedicated a section to that).
Overland to/from Myanmar: The only border crossing open for travellers is Tamu – Moreh. Moreh is around 100 km away from Imphal (the capital of Manipur state in the North East of India). A special border permit is needed to cross through this border, and as far as we have recently heard the conditions to obtain it make it really hard for actual overlanders, but just in case we leave you this link to how we made it at the time.
Overland to/from Nepal: There are 12 border crossings between India and Nepal, of which the most popular are: Sunali border (in the South, towards Varanasi, probably the most common choice), Pakistani border (for those coming from Darjeeling), Birgunj border (if coming from Kolkatta). Crossing between these two countries is generally simple, but do get updates from forums or other travellers before hitchhiking your way to or from Nepal, as borders and regulations often change.
By ship to/from Sri Lanka: We also could not believe that a stretch of 23 km separating these two countries would not be served at least by one simple ferry. But that does seem to be the case. For political reasons there is currently no oversea service to cover this tiny stretch of water. A bridge-road would also be a good idea, but is merely that for the moment – an idea. So the only way to cross this border is actually to fly.
By ship to/from anywhere else. We have heard of many travellers looking for cargo ships to and from the ports of Mumbai, Chennai and others. And have only heard of one couple that reached India that way from Oman. There might be ways, but they are unknown to us.
By air to... Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and hundreds of airports around the country and from pretty much anywhere by direct flights or with a change or two. We did try and failed to hitch a plane on our way out of India, although at least we got Turkish Airlines to reply to our request (just with a couple of months delay). If you have been luckier than us, please drop us a line and a link to your story, we are eager to hear about plane-hitching successes!
Additional advice for overlanders: be picky with your sources.
Over an evening spliff by the shores of the Indian Ocean, Filip draws in the air his itinerary: “I’ve been travelling by bike (motorbike) for over two years… all the way from China…Tibet… Nepal, …” Our eyes and ears follow his index finger looking for the any overland routes we can get hold of. Filip tells beautiful stories of the way, of hospitality and incredible encounters with artists and musicians from all over the place that cross ways on the roads of Asia. And we all listen in delight, and imagine future journeys and roads from the past… “Filip – we can’t help but to poke our noses into some practical matters – and how did you cross from China to Nepal? Did you cross Tibet Autonomous Region with a guide? We heard from some other people that the border to Nepal was closed due to avalanche more or less at that time…” The bureaucratic side of the journey is not really romantic, but we are looking for an overland way back home and are really keen on asking. Just a year back a simple chat like this one with cyclists in Kyrgyzstan had pointed us the way to Myanmar. But today there is no magic key for the overland junkies: “Oh! I just flew from Beijing to Delhi and then went by road to Kathmandu!” – Filip replies.
The moral of the anecdote is: not all the ways lead to where you are going. Beware of the stories that sound too good to be true, and ask for the details, so that your itineraries can turn into journeys and not simple castles in the wind.
India by region
The 29 states (that’s the number to date, but they sometimes divide and grow) are distributed in 5 main regions (actually 6 and sometimes 7… yep, the madness starts here). We are not going to go through them just to do your head in, but rather to point out that unless you are in a quest to hitch across the country it might be wise to focus on just a few regions at a time. There are people who travel all over India in 3 months, but hitchhiking can be rather slow.
- North India (actually North-West). Anything above Delhi + Rajastan. From the desert to he Himalayas, it’s probably worth spending years just roaming around this chunk of India. It is one of the most visited groups of states and probably is also the most hitchhiked area of all, as travellers often hop on trucks on their way north to Kashmir.
- East India. All the way from Bihar to West Bengal. We did not hitch this area due to an emergency, but we know it would have been a tough one. Extremely populated areas, extensive agricultural land and stories of bandits… well, stories are just that, tales, until one really travels the place.
- North-East India. These are the states known as The Seven Sisters, although they are actually eight if one counts Sikkim within them, Slow rides, at times quieter than the rest of the country, tribal communities, hills, jungles, mountains. We loved the North East.
- West (or Central / West). The most industrialized region in the country and, still, one where we did enjoy the slowness of countryside roads. If in need of speed, good roads also connect Goa – Mumbai – Pune. Not a bad place to start, as hitchhiking started to feel more usual as we approached Goa.
- South India. The tip of the subcontinent, but a large and diverse chunk of land. We only hitched parts of Karnataka at a very slow pace and decided to head North as it was really hot for our cat So we can’t say much about it.
- The Islands. It’s our missing subject, we wonder how island-hitching will work in India.
Hitchhiking does not always require an itinerary. Some people just hit the road without any actual plan, while others prefer to set a destination and let fortune mark the way. In any case, while hitchhiking in India, it might be wise to consider the geography and your own expectations, whether it is to set an itinerary, or to be able to roam around without one:
Our itinerary across India was marked by the fact that we came overland from Myanmar (from the East) + we had already been travelling for 18 months and were willing to simply stay longer in quiet hilly places + the weather + a mix of unplanned events + visits to and from friends. We spent 9 months in the country, but travelled at a much slower pace than ever, often staying in one single place for weeks or months.
We started travelling around the North East, hitchhiking really slowly through Manipur and Mizoram until we reached Tripura walking trough Jampui Hills and then headed to the jungles of Meghalaya. Having failed our first attempt at settling down for a while in “the rainiest place on earth”, we joined some friends by thumb and train across Assam to Sikkim where we finally got to spent a couple of months nesting in a little wooden house with a view to Kanchenjunga. After a small emergency that brought us back to West Bengal, we crossed straight to Central India where we spent quite some time with Indian friends in Madhya Pradesh. Once kind of recovered, we continued hitchhiking southwards through M.P. to Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka with the intention of selling some handmade postcards and books by the seaside during the season and then continuing down to Kerala to look for a ship to Lakshwedeep Islands. But somewhere in between Pune and Hampi we realized that the heat was stronger than us, that our budget could not make wonders and that it would still take a while for the tourists to reach the seaside so we could build our roving stall. So, after careful financial and emotional consideration we ended up heading back to the Himalayas where we rented again a tiny place, sat down to write and work to save for our way back, and had the good fortune to randomly re-encounter some of the nicest friends we had made along the way. And that was it for us, the end of our journey was marked by the snow-line and from there, everything was simply our way back home (and back to real winter).
^^ This was more or less our journey around India. Slower than ever and with long stops. Where you see large gaps, fill in with some trains and a couple of buses that we took along the way.
2. Before starting to hitchhike in India
There are a few things one needs to gather and consider, just like anywhere else.
India is huge (did we already say that?), but the good news is that in proportion length of stay allowed with a tourist visa is also longer than in other countries, which makes travel across the country possible even hitchhiking. Since visa regulations and requirements change the whole time (and even vary from one consulate to another depending on the country where you apply), the best way to get information about obtaining a visa for India is asking at the nearest Embassy or Consulate. But to get an idea, you can see here an overview of visa types.
You will probably be able to get a Tourist visa that lasts for a few months (3, 6, 12) and if you wish to stay longer, will need to get out of the country and get a new visa. Travellers often visit Nepal or Sri Lanka for that purpose, and surely because they are great places to visit anyway! We were about to do that when Boris ended in up hospital and we were granted a medical visa without leaving the country (lucky? who knows! we never got to visit Nepal)
The weather in India
India is huge and the weather is like the million kinds of sweets that pile in the neighbourhood stores…. The seasons and weather conditions really do vary depending on the geographical area and time of the year, so much that many Indians claim they do not have four seasons but six! The fact is that the extension of the subcontinent makes the geography of India fall within six different climatic subtypes, from arid desert in the west, alpine tundra and glaciers in the north to humid tropical regions. And each of them juggle four (or six!) very varied seasons, so it is wise to look at the map with attention before setting off to hitch and camp around.
Travelling to rural areas one’s main concerns are heat and rains. And we mean extreme heat or proper down-pouring rains. Anything that is not extreme is mere nuisance. The heat of summer is next to unbearable in the desert areas, so it is wise to avoid hitchhiking Rajasthan in July; monsoon will turn your full backpack moldy before you have started to set your tent, and we did hitch under the rain but we tried not to camp; the northern-most parts of the country start to close down to tourists at the end of summer when temperatures drop. In general the best time to travel around the country is the cool-and-dry season (October – November to March), but one cannot always be in the right place at the right time. So our advice, for your own convenience, is to take into account basic meteorological data and avoid the extremes when threading destinations, slow roads and seasons.
Any guidebook will give you accurate advise on the best times to travel in each region, but we have just one more little piece of advice, if you do not mind. You will soon notice that each part of India has its own “mini-peak” season: travellers crowd the Himalayas over summer and then move down to Goa as soon as the first cold breeze hits the skirts of the mountain. In our humble opinion, it is wise trying to build an itinerary on the edges of the seasons, travelling just ahead or just behind the heat waves and in between the rains, to make the travel slightly more comfortable and often a bit cheaper, as things get pricier over the peak backpacking seasons. For us it was good to move in between just because we like meeting other travellers but not in huge crowds, and so we quite enjoyed the quiet charm of Goa under the last rains, before the whole party family had arrived and we could afford renting a room with a kitchen in Dharamkhot when most people had already started their migration south, just because locals were ready to offer them at hitchhiking-friendly-prices when the others were gone.
A thousand languages
There are more tongues in India than anyone can count. Really, God must have gotten his divine inspiration here for the story of Babel. There are over 100 major languages and more than a thousand other languages and dialects, so one can’t speak them all. But worry not, you shall find your way in the jungle of tongues! Hindi and English are official languages and people with some formal education (and many without it) usually speak one or both of them, as well as their own mother tongues. We carried our usual list of basic words and sentences for transport, food, hitchhiking, sleeping, etc, and tried to figure out the local versions along the way. A lot of English, a bit of Hindi, some words in Bengali, a couple of sentences in Manipuri and Mizo and “Jai Maharashtra” and some songs in Nepali, plus drawings and mimics, kind of helped us finding our way.
The language difficulties or lack of them totally depend on the regions you are crossing, how far away you go from urban areas and other such variables. Just like anywhere else in the world. But actually, when in big trouble, somebody would always call somebody else who spoke some (or really good) English and would end up translating or pointing us directions. The local police, the school teacher, the doctor and bank employees as well as anybody working in a guesthouse or hotel are usually useful in such cases, specially when in small towns or villages.
Communication is everything to the hitchhiker, as long as the basic needs are covered everything can roll on smoothly: the driver understands one is hitchhiking (asking for a free ride); the driver understands where to drop the hitchhiker; the hitchhiker is able to entertain the driver along the way (as long as the driver wants, of course, if they are silent people is always better to shut up for a while). In India, this is what helped us:
- The best way to stop a car is showing your down-facing palm. A thumb might be understood in urban areas by young people.
- The word for “free hitchhiking” is “LIFT”
- It is good to make sure the driver understands you are hitchhiking before getting on the car. We never had issues in India with drivers asking for payment at the end of a ride. Maybe because we tried to make it clear from the start that we travelled “by lift”, maybe because we rejected the kind offers of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, maybe because those that stop really wanted to give us a ride. Probably a combination of all of the above.
- “We travel by goods carrier”. When he authorities or locals concerned with our safety tried to get us on to buses or taxis, explaining that we have come all the way from Europe by truck (even if it was greatly exxaggerated statement) often convinced them we could keep on moving that way and they would let us hitchhike. And they almost always helped us stop “a safe one” (whatever that meant to them).
- A hitchhiking board did not feel really useful to us, but you can always give it a try.
- Carrying a note in Hindi, explaining what you are doing, might not be as useful as in other places, given the diversity of local languages. But you can try anyway.
- Sometimes Indians nod their head side-wise instead of saying “yes” or “no”. When in doubt about anything (drivers, roads, turns, directions) the best is to get off and ask more than one person, until reaching a convincing answer.
- When asking for directions is usually better to ask “where is…?” and wait for an answer rather than “Is this the way to…?”. When using the second formula you risk getting a “yes” for an answer, even when it does not correspond to reality.
Basic Hindi vocabulary for hitchhikers*
Hello –> Namaste (Hindi) / Salaam (Urdu)
Where? –> Kahan?
Where is….?–> ….kahan hai?
Where do you go? –> App kahaan jaarahe ho?
Here –> yahaan
Can you drop me off here? –> Kya aap mujhe yahaan chor sakte ho?
What is your name? –> aapaka naam kya hai?
My name is –> mera naam … hai
Thank you! –> dhanyavaad
Good / ok –> acha
Beautiful –> Sundar
India is very beautiful –> Bhaarat bohut sundar hai.
Water –> pani
Food –> khaana
The food is very tasty –> khaana bahut svaadisht hai
Sleep –> sone ke lie
Camping –> dera daalana
Can I sleep here? –> main yahaan so sakte hain
No money –> paisa nahin
How much? –> kitana?
How far? –> kitana door?
*If any of our Indian readers and friends (we know you are there! and you are many!) would like to elaborate on this list in the comments we would be most grateful. Our vocabulary little notebook is somewhere out of radar in between Bulgaria in Spain.
4. Getting out of town
And now that we have all the basics covered, the proper work starts. First of all, one needs to get out the city, and that can really be a sort of nightmare in the jammed urban areas and through the busy roads of the country. There are probably infinite ways to get out of anywhere but we used three main means of exit, depending on the size of the city and the accessibility of the road we wished to reach:
Getting out of big and huge cities
- Taking the train or a bus to the first “smaller” town. And then finding our way out of that place (see next two options). Cities often expand for miles, joining up one village after the next as in a conglomerate. Taking a bus till a place that looks less urban-crowded sometimes worked for us. Other times we could not really decide where to drop off at all.
Getting out of small towns and villages
- Walking out of town through the main road. We did this in the cases when the main road across town seemed to transform itself into the only road exiting the place. We would simply walk away from the center, asking for “the road to… the next town, the next state, somewhere famous”.
In any of the cases
- Taking a tuk-tuk to the beginning of the “highway”. This option often involved a lot of map-checking and of asking for directions to identify any landmark near the place where we wanted to be dropped (a temple, a govenrment office, a gas station, anything). In the end it probably worked the best. Negotiating a price that is fair for the driver and yourself is recommended (try not to pay triple than you would have paid for a bus to your destination, but also remember that they might be taking you somewhere where they cannot easily pick customers up on the way back, and don’t be too stingy, they are earning their bread).
When walking out of town…
We often attracted much more attention than we wished for. Whether it was the cat, the dreadlocks or the lady, we cannot know, probably a combination of the first and second. In any case this meant that we often found ourselves surrounded by some sort of crowd while trying to hitchhike (which made it kind of difficult for cars to stop) or even followed by young people in motorbikes on our way out of anywhere (but mostly of small towns and villages). Curiousity ended up being more of a problem than local taxi and auto drivers offering their services.
The only way out this situation that worked for us (somehow, sometimes) was to keep in movement and smile while waving hello or goodbye. No matter how tempted one is, stopping for a photo is almost never a good idea if one is in a rush. After the first photo, another one hundred shall follow. But in any case, in whichever way one chooses to interact, a smile and a dose of kindness is always advised. It’s nobody’s fault to wonder what the hell you are doing walking around with a heavy backpack if you are not on some sort of pilgrimage.
5. The roads in India
India has the second largest road network in the world, and in the most industrialized areas they are not bad at all. But away from there, things turn gradually slower and unless one gets extremely lucky it is hard to cover more than 400 km a day. We often covered around 200 km. max.
Types of roads
Expressways. These are proper highways, with four lanes and controlled access. Unfortunately they amount to little more than a thousand kilometers of the whole network, so you will be lucky if one of them is on your way.
National Highways. They form a larger network and join the main industrial cities and ports across the country. They are sub-classified in several groups according to the number and width of their lanes, and some are better than others. Used for long-distance transport, a usual place to get long rides on trucks crossing the country. Look for the lable NH followed by its number. Hitchhiking right after the pay-tolls is usually a good idea, there is often plenty of room to stop and drivers are slower.
State Highways. These connect large towns to the National Highways, and are the responsibility of each particular estate. Not to be always trusted, as sometimes what appears on the map as a highway is actually under construction or repair, and slower than a district road… but it will really depend on the state you are travelling. The best one can do is to ask the drivers for “good” or “fast” road to wherever.
Major District Roads. Another sort of “connector”. Just a road, of usually two lanes and small or no carriageway. Their quality depends on the region one travels.
Rural and Other Roads. The largest portion of the network, the slow roads that vary from paved-and-maintained to paved-not maintained to unpaved to…is there a road under my feet? Days of trotting in the cabins of trucks and pickups over road bumps. Enjoyable in their own way.
6. Types of transport
Beautifully painted “good carriers” that look like itinerant craft exhibits on the road puff and roar all over the country roads, honking to ask for a way to pass, honking to say they are coming, honking to say just “hi”. In many parts of the country it might be the only transport that gives free rides, and for us it turned into a way to explain hitchhiking. “No taxi – goods carrier”, and our interlocultor would give a hint of a smile with a bettle-nut red mouth.
Trucks are a slow but steady means of transport. They are only allowed a speed of 80mph, although often they drive slower due to their load, and sometimes they try faster. There are many truck accidents, and drunk driving is often heard of, although we did not have issues with that. The driver usually travels with one or two “assistants” that fill in as indicators, windscreen wipers, chai bringers, toll payers and anything else that might be needed for life in a truck. This means that the cabin is usually quite crowded, but we were anyway often welcome to jump in, even when we were three people and a cat. Truckdrivers often play loud music and enjoy chatting about anything with whichever words you have in common. Every now and there they stop for food and chai in any roadside dhaba, where you can also eat tasty (spicy) food at unbelievable rates and rest in rope beds.
We would advice avoiding night rides (when accidents are more common), although we met a Romanian hitchhiker who would cover his whole way in a single truck, as assistants sometimes take on the driver’s place while he sleeps at night. Security-wise we can say that we covered hundreds of kilometers by truck all over the country and had generally good experiences, but we probably should mention that one of the few creepy-truck experiences we’ve ever had was in India. So we advise usual hithhikers’ caution – as always, common sense is a hitchhiker’s best friend and safety is more important than miles covered in a day. If something does not feel right, do get out and ask for help.
Pickups, vans, jeeeps
Our down-facing-palm is a sign for any vehicle to stop, and many of the small vans and almost all the jeeps are actually taxis, that join villages with towns and are used by locals to visit the market, the doctor, their relatives, etc. Such types of transport will usually expect payment (that’s their job) and it is important to clarify the “hitchhiking” notion of the journey to avoid surprises and complications. When they transport stuff instead of people it is easier (and fairer) to get a free ride. In this case they are usually marked with the label “goods carrier” just like trucks, but often have a transport permit for one specific region or state. Rides in vehicles dedicated to local transport are usually shorter, but it is easy to connect one with the next.
We often found ourselves in three types of cars: urban families, farmers and landowners in rural areas and young people on a weekend away from home. There were cars with air-con and without; most of the time our cat preferred the ones with (cheeky cat!). In some parts of India (like the west) is a growing Indian hitchhiking community and this way of travelling is slowly getting known and increasingly simple.
We have met solo hitchhikers who covered large chunks of their journey by motorbike. They are a common sight in between cities and towns. They often cover shorter distances, and to cover long stretches one may need to hop on and off several bikes. The good thing is that usually they seem easy to stop.
Tractors, three-wheelers, carts, the mail van… anything and anyone may carry you. Even a bus of Rajasthani pilgrims brought us to the Khumb Mela festival in Nassik and some months earlier the paramilitaries had arranged us their own transport in the north east… anything with wheels will bring you further.
We hitchhiked in India between February and December 2015 in the states of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Sikkim, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh. We hitched as a trio made of a male hitchhiker, a female hitchhiker and a feline one, although often joined other travellers, and hitchhiked with one and even two more people in some occasions.