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The random hazards of travel in Northern India

Last winter I worked in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, for just over six months. Aware that my time there was limited, I was determined to visit as much of vibrant, incredible India as possible. However, it soon became apparent that getting from A to B wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and often resulted in lengthy detours through Z. The following are some examples of how not to travel in India.

 This was my first trip outside of Delhi and I was bursting with excitement. We were off to visit the Dalai Lama in his Himalayan capital in exile, Dharamsala. Some friends had done the same trip just the weekend before and recommended a taxi driver who apparently not only knew the way but also didn’t try to grossly overcharge them. My first instinct was that this sounded too good to be true and as it turned out this instinct was spot on.

All of my travelling companions were already in the taxi when it drew up outside my office to pick me up, but had kindly left me the front seat.

Our driver was a friendly fellow who, over the next 18 horrible hours, I would get to know quite well (despite my linguistic capabilities being limited to English and his to Hindi) as we drove blindly and maplessly through the foothills of the Himalayas.

It was going relatively smoothly up until Chandigarh, apart from one tubby police officer pulling us over for some minor or imagined infraction which cost us fifty rupees. However, when we entered the hills before sunrise we should have twigged that this was not the quick route.

Hours later, having weaved our way around crumbling tracks clinging desperately to crumbling hillsides, locals were still furrowing brows, seemingly racking their brains for ancestral knowledge when we asked them for the road to Dharamsala.

We arrived late on Saturday afternoon, about 24 hours before we were due to make our reluctant return to the capital. To add insult to injury, upon reaching the Dalai Lama’s official residence we found out that he had actually popped down to Delhi to make an address there that weekend. I assumed that his driver probably knew the way.

Fortunately, on the way back we were only on the road an hour or two when one of the many, many kind people we stopped to ask directions of decided that, on reflection, he could do with a trip to Delhi himself and hopped in the cab. He knew the way and it was only 10 hours later that we dropped him at the side of a foggy highway somewhere to the north of the capital. The only hitch was another police “fine” just outside of Chandigarh – had I not been in such a sleep-deprived state I would have sworn that it was the same chubby arm of the law who had pulled us over on our outward leg.

This journey wouldn’t have been so memorable had it not been my first on an Indian train. Don’t get me wrong – I think travelling by train is by far the best way to get around India, if only because you have the comfort that the rails make it difficult for the driver to get lost, and traffic jams are rare. Even travelling in what is essentially fourth class (no air conditioning, pungent hole in the carriage serves as toilet) always has the decisive advantage of flat, if Indian-length, beds. Not only that, the considerable breaks (if of unpredictable length) at major stations to pick up platform snacks and relieve oneself make any journey not only bearable but a sort of holiday on its own.

I just made the train on time, despite having given myself a good three hours to crawl through the Delhi rush hour by taxi from Gurgaon. However, after pushing my way onto the crowded train, I was surprised to find at least 12 people crammed into the compartment where I had supposedly reserved a bunk. Count and recount as I might, I couldn’t help but reach the conclusion that there were at least two people to every bunk, which seemed a little cozy for comfort. Presumably on seeing my bemused expression, an English-speaking gentleman explained that for the first part of the journey this was actually a commuter train. Two hours later we pulled slowly up to Gurgaon railway station, where the majority of passengers disembarked, only five hours after I had left that very town.

One other great thing about travelling by train is that you sometimes meet some very interesting or helpful people in your little compartment. On the journey back I was fortunate enough to get chatting to a fellow Gurgaonite who woke me up when the train stopped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, although he insisted it was Gurgaon. He led me across the railway tracks to where a few autorickshaws were awaiting the early morning commuters and I clung onto the side of the auto for dear life as it swerved in and out of the highway traffic.

White water rafting in the Ganges is great fun and one of the most exciting things I did in India – I would highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance. However, I would advise a little caution when trying to reach the Ganges.

A few months into my stay in India the memory of the trip to Dharamsala had faded somewhat and I decided to take another trip by taxi with a different group of friends. This time I was off to Rishikesh, the hill station which inspired the Beatles, or at least the hill station where they grew something which inspired the Beatles. And this time I was going with two Indian friends, one of whom had gone to great lengths to reassure that our driver had a good sense of direction. 
Everything seemed to be going well until about half way there when a convoy of motorcycles and a 4×4 forced us to pull over. Two men brandishing rusty but nevertheless nasty-looking swords got out of the 4×4 and our driver decided not to argue as one of them leant in and removed the keys from the ignition. A heated conversation ensued, the upshot of which was that our driver hopped in the back with us and another nice gentleman drove us to his gated compound, escorted by the rest of his convoy.

Needless to say, this was a bit of a worry. As I tucked a few crisp 100 rupee notes down into the humid depths of my socks, one of my Indian companions started to panic. This is never a good sign, and it prompted another of my fellow travelers, a Brazilian guy who I shared a room with back at my flat, to insist that the driver ask our captors if they had any beer (in his experience, any conflict in life could be solved by the parties involved conversing over a beer or two). After some discussion it became apparent that our hosts were only interested in the taxi and not its occupants so one of them agreed to drive us to the nearby village and even hailed down a bus to pick us up.

When we did eventually reach the part of the Ganges where we were meant to be camping that night it was pitch black. After scrambling down the river bank guided only by the weak light of our mobile phones we managed to attract the attention of someone in the campsite on the other side of the river. We were soon dispatched a rubber dinghy which we paddled blindly across the Ganges’ murky depths to a well-deserved camp fire and aloo gobi.

Whatever the trials and tribulations of cross-country travel, for me the most frustrating thing was trying to move around within Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi to which IT and other offshore services companies flock for tax breaks. The city only began to be developed in the nineties as the liberalization of the Indian economy started to take hold. Unfortunately, the rapid development was totally unplanned. Despite being a sprawling city about the size of Nottingham, there is no public transport. To make things even more challenging, apart from the principle thoroughfares, there are no street names. As a result, even the rickshaw-wallahs have little idea where anything is.

One evening I decided to take a rickshaw to a friend’s house. I had never been there before but I did at least have what counted as a full address. We had just entered my friend’s sector of the city (the imaginatively named “Phase 3”) when there was a bump and a loud noise and I realized that we must have clipped someone or something. My rickshaw-wallah kept on riding but was soon caught up by an angry young man on a bicycle.

Given that absolutely no form of order has yet prevailed on Gurgaon’s roads, hitting something is not a rare occurrence and people are generally rude but hard to offend. Unfortunately, the angry cyclist had all the hallmarks of one of the young men whose poor farming families came into what was for them vast sums of money when developers started buying up land in Gurgaon. They are basically a law unto themselves, largely backed by the fact that with one phone call they can have twenty large friends converge on any given location within half an hour.

Recognising this, the rickshaw-wallah was understandably apologetic for having had the poor vision to hit a cyclist with no lights speeding down the wrong side of the road. Clearly unappeased, the young man got on his phone.

By this point it was clear to both me and my rickshaw-wallah that it was time for us to part ways. During a brief argument over how much I should pay him (after all, I was still nowhere near my destination) a man on a moped pulled over, presumably to adjudicate proceedings. Feeling that a few rupees was probably not worth all this hassle, I paid the full amount to the rickshaw-wallah, who was then berated by the mystery motorcyclist for ripping off a foreigner.

The motorcyclist then asked me where I was going. I insisted that it was close by and I could walk; he insisted that it was on his way. In the end I graciously acquiesced and soon found myself taking my first ever motorcycle ride, clinging tightly to the stranger as he weaved his way around the familiar mix of cars, cows, rickshaws, trucks and potholes before depositing me safely outside my friend’s house.

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