India. It’s the ‘marmite’ of overlanders; you love it or hate it. With the exception of a huddle of vehicles in Goa, we saw very few overlanders and the common consensus was to transit fairly quickly between Iran, Pakistan or China and Southeast Asia.
For us, we love India, but at times we also loved to hate this colourful, crazy and chaotic country with cultural differences as wide as the Ganges. It’s a nation with the biggest extremes we’ve ever encountered, a rollercoaster of adventures, sights, smells and sounds. As an overview, we think these are some of the biggest factors, both positive and negative, when considering whether to overland in India.
Roads and Driving
It’s all about the horn. Remember the simple rule that every road user only looks forward, therefore you need to use the horn every time you pass a pedestrian, ‘2 wheeler’, car, truck, tractor, rickshaw, bus, ox cart or pilgrim procession. Apart from cows. Cows take no notice of anything and by default have priority owing to stubbornness and sacredness. The road-worthiness of most vehicles are a hazard; bald tyres, overloaded pickups, entire families wedged on underpowered scooters and trucks painted so elaborately they obscure the drivers peripheral vision. Take your time and assume every person, vehicle and animal may stop, swerve or pull-out without warning. Bus drivers with tight schedules, particularly in Kerala, are notoriously dangerous drivers and will overtake mercilessly, forcing oncoming traffic off the road- give them a wide berth.
Road surface conditions are generally OK, it’s the turmoil of traffic which can cause problems. Most roads are wide enough for 2 lanes of all vehicles but factor in street stalls, parked tuk-tuks, makeshift shelters, kids playing and dogs sleeping and often you’re left with just enough room to squeeze a slim camel through. The main highways crossing the country are excellent, they are monotonous toll roads but worth every rupee if you want to gain some ground quickly. Speed bumps are everywhere but unpainted and unsigned; expect many “Ooooooff’s” as you hit them without warning.
When you do have the luxury of dual carriageway, expect other drivers to use the wrong side of the road- it’s not uncommon to have a scooter or tractor coming towards you in the overtaking lane. It’s an unofficial global overlanding rule that night driving is avoided, but in India this really is essential as very few people use lights, hazards in the road are numerous 24 hours a day and there is hardly any street lighting.
One of the biggest attractions in overlanding is wild camping but unfortunately this is extremely difficult in India owing simply to a huge population, lack of accessible wild places and curiosity (sometimes suspicion) of locals. Other people we met had camped, only to be woken by the police and moved on to a ‘safe’ place (hotel or area near the station). India’s stunning National Parks are off-limits for camping, mostly vehicle access is strictly by park Jeep and when roads do cross these magnificent landscapes the authority-loving rangers are on your tail in minutes if you as much as stop for a sarnie. Park periphery’s are worth checking out- we managed a few stealthy sleeps on the quiet boundaries of reserves.
We did manage to find some wild camp spots, far easier in the less populated states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and in the North-eastern states, but it takes some hunting. Often we would find a spot, go for dinner, then come back and pop the tent when it was dark, leaving early in the morning. This keeps your budget down but is not the most relaxing camping style. Many times we asked guesthouses with gardens if we could camp there, with the benefit of both security and access to an outside toilet/washroom and always for a small or no cost. Truckstops were OK for the end of a long day if travelling on highways, with the bonus of a roadside restaurant and basic facilities. Not the quietest night’s sleep but we had no problems. Occasionally hotels are necessary, we were paying around £6-10 a night which is not super cheap but they had safe parking, Wi-Fi (sometimes working) and all-important showers.
Scamming and Cheating
It’s the tourist destination’s disease, if somewhere is frequented by foreigners in India, the hassle you will get multiplies dramatically. In towns and villages off the ‘trail’ you will pay the rest as everyone else but in areas of unofficial ‘tourist tax’ it can become arduous when faced with deliberate over-charging, made-up fees, service price increases and blatant asking for money.
We found that karma always brought a balance, for all the aggressive Tuk-tuk drivers, light-fingered shopkeepers, change-ignorers and price inventors were so many genuine, wonderful people who wanted nothing more than to chat to visitors to their country. We were invited for meals, cups of tea, people let us camp in their gardens and land, we were guests at weddings, given discounts and gifts for no reason other than people were fascinated by our travels. One petrol station owner in Manipur even filled the car with Diesel as a present and a hotel owner in Gujarat gave us unlimited free food and drink for our entire stay. Deep breaths, roll your eyes at yet another attempted scam and focus on the truly amazing generosity and welcome of the majority of Indian people- we rarely experience hospitality to strangers like that in the west.
Even after a long time on the road, the cultural differences coming to India can hit you like a soggy Paratha to the face so let’s deal briefly with the ones that us foreigners struggle most with.
Personal Space - Stop the car for more than a couple of minutes and people will be staring, hands cupped, through your window, opening doors and crowding around you and your vehicle. Although only simple curiosity, weeks and months of this can become suffocating and exhausting, especially when people are just staring constantly and not engaging. For those people that greet and chat to us, we are the happy ‘thumbs-up-posing-foreigners’ in literally thousands of photos and selfies (some holding reluctant Indian babies). Privacy is rare so al fresco cooking, relaxing, washing and ‘bathroom activities’ become extremely tricky.
Rubbish - There’s no escaping the fact that India is simply one of the dirtiest countries; poor waste collection and management services plus a vast population mean streets everywhere are littered, rivers are polluted, beaches are filthy and wherever you stop you seem to be stepping over debris and refuse of some sort. It’s an enormous problem for visitors and locals and one which is difficult to adjust to.
Bureaucracy - India loves archaic paperwork, reams of it, complete with a multitude of signatures and rubber stamps for everything. Give a man a uniform and a whistle and he will use it with vigour. The endless rules and regulations can become draining, whistles being blown for parking a metre too far to the left to pointing your camera too far to the right. Corruption is rife and dealing with any authority a painful test of patience of Dalai Llama-like levels. Console yourself with the fact you only have to endure with this infuriating bureaucracy temporarily, unlike poor Indian citizens who have to deal with this every day.
We Say Yes!
But the culture is exactly why you should adventure the highways and byways of India! Where else in the world would you be stuck in a traffic jam caused by pilgrims rolling themselves along the road, pass groups of wild Elephants, see cows with more decorations than a Christmas tree and visit multi-coloured, flashing fairy light-covered temples where thousands of rats are worshipped. Food is incredible, inexpensive and diverse (once your stomach has ‘adjusted’) and people and customs change enormously with each distinct state. Temples, palaces, forts, colonial architecture. Wildlife is fantastic and landscape varies from the mighty Himalaya Mountains, dense jungle, pine forest and rolling desert dunes to idyllic palm-fringed beaches, wide rivers, vivid green rice paddies and rolling tea plantation hills.
Despite the challenges, overlanding is a great way to see the real India, to get off the backpacker-beaten track and experience a country and culture like no other on earth. One thing’s for certain, there is never a dull moment and no other country has left us with such beautifully bizarre memories, even after over 4 months in the country we were still witnessing things on a daily basis which made our jaws drop.