Asia Overland – Hitchhiking the longest way to India
It’s a common travellers dream to imagine a way to India overland, following the fading steps of ancient roads, of the Silk Route merchants, the hippy trail, or simply searching for the shortest route across Asia, willing to enjoy a plane-less journey, a slow movement through borders, and hoping that in one way or another all roads would lead to Varanasi. But although India appears on the map as a chunk of land surrounded by many other countries, it’s an illusion to the eyes of the overland traveller, a trick to our minds, because the nearer you get to it, the further it looks, the harder it gets to set your foot on it, to the point that it is easier to reach India by plane than by land.
The serene melodies of distant landscapes, the enticng smells and visions of faraway lands and the secret promises of the horizon have always captivated man’s mind in their enchanting webs. The notion of movement is so deeply embedded into our nature and it is hardly a surprise that since the dawn of humanity paths and roads aimed further and further. The peoples of Eurasia, a chunk of hard soil connected by vast mountain ranges, deserts, forests and rivers and divided by time, have entertained themselves for centuries with fanciful tales of the lands on both ends of the sun way. Scary and hilarious monsters and animals inhabited fantastic landspaes both in the East and in the West. The dream of exploring step by step the infinity, drew Asian and European travellers nearer and nearer since Antiquity. In the late Middle Ages, the abode of fairy creautures shrunk dramatically and the continent got connected by long and dangerous roads roamed by merchants, warriors, bandids and opportunists. With the pace of ox and horse and camel, goods unseen before traversed the earth. The songs of bards and clashing swords echoed in the open air or behind the walls of caravanserais. People infected with the bug of itchi feet gambled their lifes for the sake of profit or out of romantic curiosity. A thin caravan thread joined the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans.
Centuries later, when conquest and trade took different shapes it was another group of people that set on the dusty, forgotten and yet well trot pats of Eurasia. From the 50’s to the 70’s it was a long trail of hippy caravans that took on the road east – by thumb, local transpot or pretty VW vans, they crossed Asia in length, most often taking a route across Europe to Istanbul or through Sirya and Iraq on to Tehran, Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, crossing finally through Lahore into India’s illusory madness. Animated by the idea that the Earth is one and for all, they searched for the unknown and dived deep into the surreal nature of faraway travels. Sadly, in no time romanticism collided with pragmatism. The naked, barefoot, pot-smoking crowd of love and freedom seekers slowly turned or gave birth to something like the multi-faced Che Guevara or Bob Marley t-shirts that crowd hippy markets. Buses running from London to Bangkok carried crowds of enthusiastic teenagers experiencing all the legendary landmarks of the Silk route and the hippy trail, with customized coffee shops and hostels sproting all along the route, catering for the colourful travellers on their way east. An attaractive and idealized concept, their supposed lifestyle was hungrily swollen by all sort of money-making machines.
With the advent of Lonely Planet and the growth of flying routes, the hippy spirit got buried underneath the weight of all our backpacks and heavy guides. Adventure shily stepped back leaving room for holiday fun. And the road, wide enough for everyone’s tastes, celebrated its diverse nature allowing space for each and everyone willing to travel it, regardles of the shape or intention. But with the offspring of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the roads started to close. Further conflicts like the Iraq-Iran war and probably, combined with new and affordable airline routes lead to the decline of the overland. However, despite of the cheap flights, the US incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently the war in Sirya, despite the bureaucatic and safety difficulties there have always been travellers ready to take the road in their own hands, and convinced that since humans have feet but no wings, one should be able to reach any corner of the Eurasian continent by road – hitchhiking, by bike, by van or on foot, no matter the paper work, the seasons or the swirls. It’s at the forks of the road, the turning points in the map, where the overland road spins and points into one or another direction that may or may not take the traveller to the dreamed subcontinent, but will take him somewhere anyway.
In October 2013 we set on this very route east, with two passports but no visas and all roads open in our mind, What follows is a sort of map, resembling a constellation across Asia of the points where the road forked for us, where it turned in its overland journey into new directions, it’s a highlight of the decisions that you may also encounter and a reference to travellers who dared crossing borders we did not go through in this travel.
India is just a step away from Iran.
It‘s just one step, but a huge one, that cannot be crossed with a human leg. You may have been travelling for months all the way from home, reached the Bosphorus, crossed Anatolia, gone through the Zagros mountains and south to the Persian Gulf, dreaming of one or another way to reach India in the next couple of months. You are in Bandar Abbas, enjoying the humid heat and the sticky dates, drinking your cup of tea while pondering which way to go. Your options are on the table and your way to India will be effortless and fast or slower than you can think of, all depending on how you play your cards.
1) Crossing Baluchistan.
The route through Baluchistan got popular in the 70’s, after all other ways were closed or too dangerous, and although it does bear considerable risks nowadays, in theory it is possible to cross from Iran to Pakistan through Zahedan to Quetta (with military escort for the 600 km separating both cities) and then on to Lahore. But that is only doable provided that you have a Pakistani visa and there seems to be only one way to get hold of one: in your home country/country of residence (it was like that in March 2014 and as far as we know the regulations have not changed. We have heard that Bangladesh of Nepal might be options to get hold of one, but these are unconfirmed news, and in any case both countries are far from your route through Iran).
For this reason, you could: a) have applied for one before you left (but then you should enter Pakistan within 3 months of issue, so you should hurry across Turkey and Iran). b) send your passport home with all the visa documents (we have heard of people doing this, when they are lucky to have 2 passports – i.e. German citizens). c) fly home and come back. Once you have the Pakistani visa, you can head on to Zahedan and get ready for your thrilling adventure in Baluchistan – people ask us if it’s too dangerous, but we do not know, we have not been there. We have met a few people who took the road to Quetta and made it safely all the way, also read news about kidnappings and scary stuff. In any case, first hand impressions are the best you can get, and you can check this video from a German couple who did it in 2013 and documented their experience.
2) The route through Afghanistan
The route through Afghanistan may or may not take you very far. You can reach the country from Mashad and head to Herat. Nowadays, Afghanistan is extremely volatile and although getting visa is usually pretty straight forward, the country is like a swamp of moving sands and one never knows when certain area is safe enough to risk crossing it. Additionally, the ongoing withdrawal of Western troops revealing the painful failure of the 2001 war makes things slightly more complicated. On top of that, a travel to Afghanistan does not solve the Pakistani visa problem. Since Afghanistan shares no border with India, it was usually through the Cyber pass and on to Peshawar, the tribal north and Karakorum highway that many travellers went through. But it seems that the Cyber pass border is often closed, a travel trough Kandahar to Quetta is virtually suicidal and the Chinese-Afghan border is currently shut, so it might turn out that at the moment the only way out of Afganistan by land is either back to Iran or up north to Tajikistan. But if you are into thrilling travels, check your options anyway, in the most volatile regions routes open and close for travellers in a blink. And let us know if you have some good updates to share!
** If you can read Spanish check this brilliant guide to hitchhiking Afghanistan by Juan Villarino who was there in 2005.
3) The elusive boat to Mumbai. Oversea to India.
We all seem to dream of a ghost boat to Mumbai, one that would part from Bandar Abbas, or Dubai or even Oman. We romantically imagine ourselves crossing the sea and reaching Indian lands, but it turns out that finding the right boat is near delusive. We have heard that indeed there are cargo ships once in a while and you may get lucky if one is about to depart by the time you arrive, These two cyclists made it in 2011 and wrote that getting on them is possible but also pretty complicated and maybe too expensive for a hitchhiker, since a bunch of health and safety documents are required (we have no confirmed figures, but some other travellers mentioned a cost 1000$ for fare and documents).
There are also dhows – small wooden ships where workers travel home and back – and getting a place on them seems to be a matter of talking your way at the docks, although we’ve heard from people who tried getting on one, that the option might be easier for a man than a woman given that most passengers are male, and captains prefer to avoid problems so may not let women on board. Another issue to consider when getting on a ship of any kind is that the Indian border authorities may reject you entrance to the country as you are not arriving through a designated tourist entry point.
We do not know for certain if there are any ways around all of these issues, we did not get to try ourselves, but there is a couchsurfing group of people searching for a sailing route so you can check their latest news and help keeping it alive if you make it overseas. All the people we know (cyclists and hitchhikers) who tried to find a ship to India, ended up flying from Oman or Dubai, and thus saving themselves a great deal of money and trouble across Asia – it’s a reasonable option, specially if you have reached this point in winter, when the Central Asian roads could be more than tough for the winter hitchhiker (we only know of a few totally crazy and all-terrain Russians, and one more than crazy Costarican traveller, who would dare taking on such a freezing enterprise 🙂 )
The Overland meets the Silk Route in Central Asia.
If you reject the previous three options, and still have enough cash (remember, no ATM’s in Iran), you would probably head north to Tehran and proceed to arrange all your Central Asian visas: first getting one for Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, then the transit visa to Turkmenistan and maybe a Chinese visa too. You step into the Silk Route proper, enjoy the wonders of the steppe, Pamir or Tian Shan. It’s an enjoyable part of the journey, and now that we look back, we would not have changed the route at all, but Central Asia is still far from India, at least in what border crossings is concerned and decisions await the traveller.
4) Still hoping for Karakorum Highway
While crossing the steppe or chilling by the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, well before you step into China you may be considering a travel from Xinjiang through the infamous Karakorum Highway down through Pakistan and on to Lahore to reach India from the north. One of the “8th wonders of the world”, “the third best destination in Pakistan” attracting all the attention of adventure travellers and such. We certainly wished for that too, why to cross Taklamakan if one could reach straight for Himalayas. And just like us, you may then decide to give the authorities one more chance, but when you reach the Embassy in Almaty or Bishkek you will face the same issue as everywhere else: if you want to go to Pakistan, first you may need to go home.
But even if you make through Karakorum, check the news for border updates. A few days ago we heard somebody speaking of a cycling couple who had come to India by land through Pakistan, China and Myanmar. We were puzzled and wondered how that could be true. It turned out that this couple with their Pakistani visas and all had found the border Pakistan-India at Lahore closed (as it happens occasionally) and ended up going all the way around it, across China to South East Asia (see the options below)
5) Across Tibet. From China to Nepal.
If you give up on Pakistan and continue your travel to China across Xinjiang, you will probably meet once in a while a very special type of hitchhiker (or cyclist): the young chinese traveller on a tour around Tibet and Taklamakan with beautiful maps of the Tibetan plateau but little historical and political information about the area. Many of them may not really know how Tibet came to be part of China, why the Dalai Lama lives abroad, or that foreigners (and some Tibetan monks) are only allowed into Tibet Autonomous Region at a very high cost. Just remember this if you happen to share a ride with them heading to Lhasa, as you will probably be turned back.
At the moment, as far as we know, one can make it to TAR and head on to Nepal, only by hiring a tour, which seems to be around 1000$ for a week’s tour (all-inclusive, transport, hotels, permit and guide). There used to be ways around it, like cycling with a mask and crossing checkpoints rushing or at night – simply crossing illegally and paying a small fine – and we have heard a thousand stories of people who did it at least till 2008, but that does not seem to be possible anymore. Control is tight after the Olypmics unrest. You can of course try, and simply risk being deported, and the risk might be worth it if you are ready to cycle or walk, but please just try not bring any problems to locals trying to help you on the way. So, if you have some extra adventurous energy stored by the time you reach Tibet (or some extra cash for a tour) and really want to see Lhasa in this life, and finally make it across, we will healthily envy the landscapes in your photographs, hoping that the way across Tibet will open for independent travel once again.
The Banana Pancake Trail now takes you further
Otherwise, your next option, the one that most of us take, will lead you through the rest of wonderful Tibetan lands (Qinghai, Sichuan) across 5000 meters passes to the south of China, Yunnan, and on to Laos and Thailand, where you can simply relax.
For many travellers the overland has become a way to South East Asia were, disguised as backpackers in between the hoards of travellers in elephant trousersand, many stay roaming around there for months, enjoying the well deserved mango smothies and cocktails by the seaside, or head on to Malaysia, Indonesia and Philipines istead of India and Nepal. The world is large and its destinations boundless.
6) Myanmar, the new gate to India
But there is one more chance for the stubborn ones – the backdoor of India has opened a tiny gate through the Burmese mountains. Long time ago, when we had almost not even left home, somebody told us of a guy, we think he was Canadian, who had crossed the mountains from Myanmar to India on foot, and then headed back to the border to apologize for the mistake and get a passport stamp. We do not know this guy, neither how he made it across police, jungles and rivers, or even if the story is truth or myth, but we would have liked to contact him, and ask for a secret map to the mountains of Chin or Sagaing.
In any case, that was back in 2013, and by the time we got to Myanmar, a year and a half later, there was no need whatsoever of anything else than a road map and a simple permit to cross a little mountain border into the subcontinent (in this post you can read all about the visa and permit bureaucracy). The gates had open, a new way to India had been born, and not only we could cross on foot the bridge from Tamu (Myanmar) to Moreh (Manipur, India), but also we were totally free to get into Burma from Thailand overland through Mae Sot. The road had finally brought us all the way across the continent in what we jokingly call “the longest way to India”. It’s a way that will bring you to the Tribal North East for Sunday Mass instead of heading straight to trance and drugs by the beach in Goa. And it’s not the simplest way, but it seems to be the new one.
Welcome to India, or to wherever you get.
For 511 days we travelled east looking for a way to India, hitchhiking all sorts of roads and crossing every border overland, in a quest to reach the subcontinent without taking a plane, inspired by Medieval travellers, ninetheenth century explorers and probably more than we would like to admit, by the free spirited hippies of the 60’s. We did it on a budget, in a simple way, searching for more experiences and encounters than landmark photographs. The destination was our excuse to travel across Asia, to step on the map and fill it what lies underneath the foreign names.We walked loads, ate what we found, slept where we could and spent every day and many of the nights with eyes wide open, even in the dark. It was not a holiday. And only after crossing the last border we could say for certain that the whole way was worth it. So we can only encourage the eager travellers to pack their stuff, gather their maps, tie their shoes and step on the road with the certainty that whatever turn they take, it will lead them somewhere they have never been before. Happy travels.