Chaotic India hits you straight away with all the swirling noises and colours, all the traffic and handshakes and stares and smiles and hassle, all the queueing and shoving and eating and scamming you can handle, with foul stenches and divine scents hot on one another’s heels at every turn, squalor and poverty around this corner, jaw-dropping beauty around the next; it’s in your face and not the easiest of places to travel, but it’s certainly a stimulating and rewarding one. It blows you away and kicks your ass at the same time, and after overlanding around India you’ll feel you’ve earned some travel stripes and will no doubt have picked up a tale or two along the way.
Overland travel to and from India
India shares borders with six other countries, but the overland route options are quite limited for political reasons:
Pakistan – India overland
India and Pakistan share a long border, but due to their troubled history most of it is closed. The main rail crossing and only road crossing is at Wagah, roughly halfway between Lahore and Amritsar, which is famous for the border ceremony which happens every evening and draws large crowds on both sides.
There is a second rail crossing located further south in Rajasthan, with a weekly train (the Thar Express) in each direction between Jodhpur and Karachi.
China – India overland
India and China share three separate sections of border, and none of them are open. They have active territorial disputes over Aksai Chin (controlled by China but claimed by India as part of Kashmir) and Arunachal Pradesh (controlled by India but claimed by China as part of Tibet), so obviously these are very sensitive areas; you can’t go anywhere near Aksai Chin, while you can visit Arunachal Pradesh but definitely can’t cross the border there. The one settled border they have is the short Sikkim / Tibet border, but only locals can cross there.
In any case, the Chinese side of all three sections is Tibet, and China only allows three routes to Tibet for foreigners – the train from Xining (with connections to the rest of China), the road border with Nepal (presently closed following the 2015 earthquake in the region), and by air. So, even if they had already settled their border disputes and established border crossings, you still wouldn’t be able to cross without major changes to the travel rules for Tibet.
Long story short, if you want to go between China and India overland, you must go through Nepal (requiring special permits for Tibet, which is a whole other story), and even that isn’t possible until they get the Nepal / Tibet crossing open again.
Nepal – India overland
The Visit Nepal website lists a total of eight entry/exit points for Nepal, including Kathmandu airport and the northern border with China; the other six are road borders with India, all open to international travellers.
Bhutan – India overland
There are three land entry points for Bhutan, all on the border with India i.e. if you visit Bhutan overland you will start and finish in India. The Bhutan visa regulations require visitors to be on completely pre-booked guided tours (making it quite a pricey place to go), and overland visitors are apparently met off the bus at the border. If you do this, in all likelihood you’ll be taking a bus from Siliguri to the crossing point.
Bangladesh – India overland
Bangladesh is surrounded by India on three sides and there are multiple crossings between them; unless you’re on your own wheels, the ones you’re likely to use are the main road & rail crossing at Benapole for buses & trains between Kolkata and Dhaka, the road crossing south of Siliguri for buses from there to / from northern Bangladesh, and the eastern crossings with Assam. Unfortunately with the present situation at the India / Myanmar border (see below) you can’t officially travel overland from India to Thailand as things stand, though in practice it still seems to be possible (according to reports in early 2017); do your research and planning very carefully if considering traversing India – Bangladesh – Northeast India – Myanmar – Thailand (the reverse direction is definitely not possible).
Myanmar – India overland
There is only one crossing on the long border between India and Myanmar, located at Moreh, near Imphal. Myanmar used to be the missing link in the overland route from India to SE Asia, so it was great news in 2011 when Myanmar opened up to overland travellers; for the last few years it has been possible to cross this border in both directions with a permit from MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tourism), allowing overlanders to travel between India and Thailand through Myanmar. The MTT permits are arranged by Mandalay and Yangon-based travel agencies either by email from India or in person within Myanmar; certainly a fair bit of hassle and expense involved, but it was working.
Unfortunately in mid-2016 the Burmese government abruptly closed this border again, before re-opening it with a new restriction – the MTT permit still applies, but it can only be issued to those entering and leaving via Moreh. If you enter Myanmar from Thailand, they will not issue you an MTT for the Moreh border; if you enter from India, you have to backtrack and leave that way (you can’t even fly out). This is obviously a massive spanner in the works for us overlanders; I almost did this route in 2015, and I wish I had!
The rules for this border are clearly subject to change at very short notice though, so hopefully it will become possible again in the near future to cross it one-way. I will endeavour to update this page if and when things do change, and check out this epic Lonely Planet thread regarding this border; there are several years worth of posts there and if you’re hoping to go this way that thread is probably the best source of information. For now it doesn’t look good though, and you’ll have to think about alternative plans.
Update: despite the MTT permit requirements, many travellers are reporting (in early 2017) success in traversing Myanmar from India to Thailand, with the exit stipulation seemingly not being enforced by Burmese border guards at the Thai border; officially though, this route is not possible and if you try it you must be prepared for the possibility of failure. However, the opposite (Thailand to India) is definitely not possible both officially and in practice.
Sri Lanka – India by ferry
The ferry service was discontinued in 2012; a new one is supposed to be entering service once upgrades have been completed to port facilities and rail connections, but don’t hold your breath.
Overland travel within India
India has a vast railway network which can get you to most parts of the country that don’t have enormous mountains in the way. It isn’t fast, but it’s very atmospheric and riding the trains is a great way to see the country and meet her people. You’ll meet army officers and government engineers travelling to their new postings, businessmen on business, families on visits, and plenty of people to talk to; if you’re a chess player, carry a set with you and you’ll find some willing opponents. I remember cursing the first time I was woken by the cries of “chai, chai” from the chai-wallah running up and down the carriage in the morning, a huge container of sweet, milky tea strapped to his back and armed with a stack of little paper cups; and the tea was disgusting at first, but I soon became addicted and bought multiple cups every time a vendor came through. Crispy samosas from platform vendors, horrific toilets, sitting with your legs dangling out of the open doors as you trundle through the rice fields; a great travel experience, wherever you’re getting off!
When the trains don’t go where you need, it’s time to brave the roads. Expect baggage and passengers stacked in the aisles, someone’s backside against your cheek, brutal heat in the day, but the window stuck open and freezing desert air blasting through the night buses while the driver listens to bhangra on full blast all night; the buses were at the tougher end of the scale. And the jeep from Siliguri up to Darjeeling was basically terrifying!
Some India Highlights
Head up to Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills for incredible views of Kanchenjunga (but try not to get stuck in Siliguri!)
The Taj Mahal – goes without saying. Located in Agra, to the south of Delhi (doable as a day trip by train); my friend Danny’s words when he first saw it (after he managed to pick his jaw up off the floor) were “fuck me, that’s just made my year.” It’s an amazing building.
Chill by the lake in the oasis town of Pushkar.
Visit the castle of Jodhpur, the Blue City.
Ride an angry camel in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer.
Get some beach and party time in Goa.
Take a boat tour on the Kerala backwaters.
Take the train somewhere, anywhere, and see a snapshot of life in India; see the landscapes rolling by, see (and chat with) all those people on the move, see (and wave to) the farmers in the fields, see (and use…) the god-awful toilets, see (and taste) the great curries they serve up on board; see all the bustle in the stations and the hustle of the chai wallahs and snack vendors; see India in all her chaotic glory… a friend once told me he’d go back to India just to ride the trains, and I know what he meant.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting India
For Indian Railway questions, the outstanding Man In Seat 61 has an India page which just absolutely kills it; everything you need to know about booking tickets and using the Indian rail system.
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