India: On the Move

India by foot, rail and rickshaw

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 5 Sept 2013, 13:05 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:44 BST

By rail: Snap happy in Rajasthan

Gazing out the train window at the arid Rajasthani landscape on route from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, I'm pondering how the herds of white cows we're passing can survive on this dusty surface. We trundle past a woman, a few feet from the track, wearing a long red dress — traditaional regional garb — and a stack of multicoloured bangles. A gentle breeze causes her veil to flutter just as she looks up at our train. I reach for my camera, but at that moment we jolt forward, accelerating away.

Thankfully, Rajasthan is providing a wealth of such scenes, and I'm confident a further photo opportunity will arise. At Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort, I chat with men in large turbans, and tribal women wearing hand-carved, ivory-coloured bangles over their biceps, before embarking on an amiable photo session.

Travelling by train is an affordable, low-stress way of getting around northern India. It means I'm seeing the countryside while covering distances that, frankly, I'm not sure I could bear in the more cramped confines of a bus or hire car.

Each station stop provides a glimpse of the vibrancy and diversity of life here. Chai vendors wander along the busy platforms, proclaiming the price of their sweet, milky tea (just a few rupees a cup). Others offer fruit, biscuits, Indian sweets and snacks, ranging from samosas to puffed rice. Porters balance luggage on their heads while skilfully moving through the crowd; backpackers lumber along the platform, weighed down by their kit, trying to identify the carriage holding their seat reservations.

Such scenes make it easy to understand why Indian Railways is described as the 'lifeline to the nation'. From 2011-12, a remarkable 8.224 billion passenger journeys were made on the state-owned network, compared with just over a billion on the London Underground in 2012. Indian Railways employs just over 1.3 million people, although many more make their living indirectly from it, either working near a station or transporting people to and from their train.

"Some foreign visitors might experience a degree of culture shock on visiting India for the first time," Peter Toeppel, a German fellower traveller who's visited India several times, tells me. "But a tour on a luxury train can provide a sense of safety and insulation from encounters that might otherwise prove too intense. It's what I call the 'Raj factor' — travelling in luxury that evokes the romantic feelings of colonial times."

Perhaps that's how I'll travel next time. For now though, exploring in a standard express is just fine. Words: Stuart Forster

The details: WEXAS Travel offers tailor-made itineraries across India. Its 16-day Splendours of the North rail tour — including Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Ranthambore National Park, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur — costs from £2,881 per person for four-star accommodation, based on two sharing, including international flights. 

By rickshaw: Reach out & touch city life in Jaipur

To return from India without having scooted along a city's streets in the back of a rickshaw is to have missed out on one of the world's great transport experiences.

Newly arrived in Jaipur, with a rucksack on my back, I must look like fresh meat to the dozens of rickshaw drivers shouting dubious promises of cheap fares. I walk past their imploring faces and ignore the sweep of an arm that tries to shoo me into one of the open-sided three-wheelers. Then I catch sight of one with a shiny, pillar-box red back seat. I know instantly it's where I want to sit to tour the Pink City. The driver makes a good first-impression too: he speaks decent English and is more reserved than the other drivers. Manoj and I agree a price to take me to the Amber Fort and show me the city over two days.

A taxi may be more comfy — and safer — but rickshaws give me the feeling I can reach out and touch city life; that I'm right in among it. As we idle in traffic, I like the fact I can hear the lilting voices of women chatting outside open-fronted fabric shops; I'm less enamoured by the black fumes belching from a truck exhaust inches to my right. 'India is great' and 'horn please' read hand-painted signs on its rear. The honking of horns is incessant — nobody needs encouragement.

Manoj talks of his family, cricket, the growth of the city. When I express interest in Rajasthani block-printed fabrics, he asks if I'd like to visit a workshop. His knowledge means I get to see local artisans at work, then buy their produce directly.

On an open stretch of road, Manoj guns his three-wheeler; warm air rushes through the vehicle's open sides, its two-stroke buzzes like a hedge trimmer pushed to the max. This is the way to explore urban India. Words: Stuart Forster

By boat: Gliding through the backwaters of Kerala

Egrets and purple swamphens watch me from their floating mat of water hyacinths. They don't seem to mind much as we chug past slowly, sending gentle ripples their way. Birds here are used to the many thatched kettuvallum houseboats (like giant floating armadillos) carrying travellers through Kerala's sleepy backwaters.

There's the slightest hint of a traffic jam as we reach the southern tip of Vembanad Lake, a few hours' drive from the former spice-trade town of Fort Kochi. But it's the most stress-free jam I've ever sat in; there are around 600 miles of waterways across this verdant region — plenty of space for everyone. The boats slowly disperse into the Alleppey backwaters and for the rest of the day I barely see another tourist.

We motor through narrow canals lined with coconut trees; then wide channels, opening out onto rice fields. Local boys swim or throw sticks at tree branches to bring down mangoes. Kerala is known as 'God's own country' and the Lord, as the saying goes, provides — with copious fish, fruit, coconuts, rice and, in particular, spices. For centuries, the region's pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric was a magnet for traders. "In old times, these boats were used to transport rice and spices," our boat's captain, Jose, tells me.

Unsurprisingly, Kerala isn't a bad place to eat. I tuck into a lunch of pan-fried pearl spot fish with nutty Keralan rice, spinach and other veggies, and later, for dinner, prawns, fish in coconut milk, tomatoes and okra — all brought to life by various spices. "Everything here comes from Kerala," says chef Prakash. "It's good to be a chef here."

There's little to do but enjoy the scenery, read and snooze. At sunset, fishermen in canoes paddle home, and we moor at Coconut Lagoon for the night. Across the lake, the boom and flash of fireworks announces the start of Holi — the Hindu festival of colours.

In the morning, cormorants, storks and bee-eaters are out on the glass-still water, along with fishermen in disc-shaped boats. We sail past houses painted in bold pinks, oranges, greens and yellows — colours of the local fruits. People collect river water to wash and cook with. This is Ayemenem; Arundhati Roy lived here, writing about the village in her novel The God of Small Things. Although her tale is one of tragedy and unwanted changes coming to the village, from here on the boat, I feel like I'm in paradise. Words: Graeme Green

The details: A one-night trip on a one-bedroom houseboat with CGH Earth costs £135-365. 

Read more in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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