An ordinary day in India
The border crossing with Pakistan is potentially one of the most unique ones in the world. The relationship between the two countries is ‘not good’ to express it lightly, resulting in a border crossing where tensions could take sudden leaps. Over time however, the highly militarized Wagah border has evolved to a spectacular ‘show’ where militaries of each country do their utmost best to impress their hundreds of daily visiting citizens and ofcourse the other side. In return, the visitors will scream their lungs out while cheering for their country aiming to make their nation the best, at least for that day. You get to choose from which side you observe this spectacle depending on when you cross the border. Or if you really love it, just watch in on both sides! Just buy some snacks and drinks and help the people win the cheering contest!
In addition to the cool ceremony, the border crossing is an experience as well. An asphalt road runs through the two stadiums, where the ceremony takes place, all the way from Pakistan to India. In the middle of the two stadiums there will be two gates, one for each country, back to back. When you’re done at the Pakistani side, both gates will open and allow you to cross to India. It’s an absolutely great experience!
The ceremony starts strictly at a certain time, which according to locals, depends on the season. Try to inform yourself on the starting time of the ceremony but it should be around 4 PM. This also implies that crossing the border is only possible long before the ceremony starts, so it’s best to arrive no later than noon to get everything done, and you can still watch the ceremony from the Indian side (with a bigger stadium and more people).
How to reach it: drive to the Wagah border and at the first checkpoint tell the officers that you want to see the ceremony. Your passports and vehicle get checked. Park your car close to the stadium on the right, military will guide you. You’ll walk towards the stadia, take place and just inhale the spectacle. After the ceremony we spent the night in Lahore (it’s a 40 min drive back) to cross the border the next morning. Although there are some places where you can spend the night in your car (according to iOverlander), we decided to sleep in a hotel since some army men told us that sleeping outside is not allowed.
Crossing the border
You pass the check points of the ceremony again but this time with a border crossing purpose. When you move on, there is a building on the left side where you have to park your car and do all the necessary paperwork. You need your CDP for taking you car out of Pakistan again and your passports and visas (also your Indian visa to prove you can enter India).
You can exchange Pakistani rupees or euros/dollars to Indian rupees there. You will need cash to pay for the toll roads quite soon after crossing the border so make sure you have some Indian currency after crossing the border! The rate was very good for us and everyone was helpful. Like every border it takes an unnecessary long amount of time to process everything.
After all is finished on Pakistani side, you can cross the magic gate to India. All steps will happen in reverse on Indian side. You need your passports, visas and CDP. Also, make sure you have an idea about where you’re going to spend the night (a hotel name for instance), since at every border crossing they will ask for this. Border officers are very friendly and everything happened really fast. After the carnet was fixed we could leave to discover India!
In India you drive on the left hand side, just as in Nepal and Pakistan for example. Roads are generally in good condition around cities and are continuously improving. Same goes for most of the bigger Indian highways. Latter have often four lanes and allow a speed limit of 80 km/h. However, due to traffic and sometimes poor local road condition, it’s safe to say that 60 km/h is more realistic. Even though most roads are made of asphalt and allow great numbers of passing traffic, recurring speed bumps, highways passing through busy city centers, dangerous potholes and sudden road works can create dangerous situations and require or result in slow speed and traffic.
The improving road quality comes with a price: most Indian highways require toll payment which can be done by cash or Fastag (see below).
Driving in India is absolute madness in most cases, however, in remote areas you may be lucky to find some good asphalt roads that go through some beautiful landscapes. Although you cannot avoid all the chaos, if you want to reduce the risk on traffic accidents, damage to your car or the urge to blow your brains out due to the around the clock mayhem, try sticking to more remote areas and in nature.
Traffic rules are hardly followed. Basic rules to drive in India are: you can’t be nice, if you don’t fight for you place in traffic you will be stuck in same place for days. Honking is essential and even vital for safe driving. Lot of drivers barely use or don’t even have any mirrors and rely on the honking for their manoeuvres. Overtaking generally happens from in all lanes but for some reason mostly in the middle lane. Trucks will drive on the right lane while scooters/bikes will choose the left lane leaving the only option for overtaking to be in right in the middle. Be prepared to have some damage happening to your car. To us, it seemed that respect for personal property was almost non-existent. Hundreds of scooters hit our car, our side mirrors, … and didn’t care at all. Our mirror one time broke off completely and the guy who did this just made an ‘apology hand gesture’ and left.
There are two important things you need in India: SIM-card and FASTAG.
FASTag is a system developed to automatically pay toll for highways in India where payment is required. Unfortunately, almost all ‘highways’ seem to require toll payment, even the roads that absolutely do not resemble anything even close to a highway and roads in such a terrible condition that you wouldn’t even use the term ‘road’ let alone highway.
FASTag is really essential if you plan to spend some time driving around in India for following reasons:
1) FASTag is super easy and quick. You just drive up to the toll booth, stop the car for a couple of seconds and voila, your tag gets scanned and the booth opens. You automatically receive a message on mobile number linked with your FASTag account describing the cost of the toll booth and the remaining balance on your account.
2) Not having a FASTag account forces you to pay double the amount at each toll booth. Indian highways can be really expensive, especially since there can be a toll booth every 10 km on some highways. With a FASTag you pay the normal rate all the time.
3) Toll booths can be frustrating without FASTag. Staff can scam you, sometimes it takes tremendous amounts of time, you need to have cash with you since credit cards do not work and (very important) if you are driving with a van, toll booth staff can see you as a LMV (light motor vehicle) and charge you accordingly (which is way more expensive). If you buy a FASTag, you have to mention to the person helping you that your vehicle is a car. After you tag is created, you will always be charged as a car.
In order to buy a FASTag you need the following things: a working Indian mobile number, your (international) driver license (any official license number will work apparently), cash money. Before/after most toll booths you find a person sitting at a small table with an umbrella. In most cases they sell/recharge FASTag accounts. Visit them and they will help you out. In our case, we paid 500 INR (of which 200 INR was added to our FASTag balance). On top of that, we asked to charge our balance with 2000 INR since in order to recharge your FASTag balance you need an UPI connected payment system (which I haven’t found for foreigners until today)! He charged us 100 INR for this ‘favor’. After the process is done, you put the FASTag sticker on the inside of your front screen and you’re done.
Spending the night
The places we visited in India, felt safe to us. But as mentioned before, it depends on which places of India you visit.
The same as in Nepal, you should be careful where you sleep. People are often interested and will look for interaction. It may be annoying some times but we never really felt threatened or in danger. We often got the opportunity to interact and become friends with locals quickly and they guided us in many things.
Wild animals however, are plenty and can be dangerous. Wild elephants in particular are dangerous and can be found in close proximity of national parks. They cover great distances but tend to follow the same paths, which locals often know of. We have been asked to move several times by locals due to a potential visit by elephants and in several occasions we heard or even saw the elephants at night!
Same as we did in Nepal, our location hunt existed of either using iOverlander or looking on google maps for a small road going through a green spot basically. We drove there and in some cases we could spend the night in quiet and beautiful areas. However, the biggest difference with Nepal is that in India there are way more people. So to be really alone, you have to go get from from the main roads and be lucky. Each time we wild camped in India, someone knocked on our window. Either to send us to a safer place due to wild animals, to have a chat or a picture or in rare cases just to be annoying. If you travel to India you will quickly learn that people are often interested and have less boundaries and understanding of personal space and privacy. You can’t really avoid being surrounded by people in our experience but in most cases clear and polite communication with the people will give you get you some peace. Just ask them to let you be if because you’re eating, sleeping, whatever and often they’ll listen.
In cities it’s very difficult to find a remote spot and we often tend to either sleep in hotels/hostels or have a meal at a restaurant and spend the night in front of their property (which was also quite hard).