India has a very extensive and comprehensive bus system. Each state offers its own service—usually a combination of local, deluxe, super-deluxe and video buses—and tickets are usually purchased direct from the state bus-stands. Buses are often cheaper and more exciting than the trains, and go to several places, such as Leh, not linked by rail. They can also be a lot quicker. Most buses in India, whether local, state, or privately run, roar to their destinations with reckless verve and daring. Their drivers seem to have a particular grudge against ‘public carrier’ trucks, which often carry provocative logos like ‘Owner is God—God is Grate’. All bus drivers have a little box containing their personal gods above their seat. From time to time, often when stopped by the police for not paying a speeding fine, they will pray to these. At other times, they will pull up at a roadside Hindu shrine and pay a priest to ring a bell to summon the major deities; this is often to give thanks for avoiding a major collision.
Every bus journey is an experience in itself, especially the ones which wind round an escalating series of hairpin bends on their way up to remote hill stations. And when the interior is full your only option is to sit on the roof. But there are always entertaining road-signs to keep your mind off the perilous drive. These signs are the creation of Public Works Department (PWD) poets, who are notoriously sexist. ‘When you approach a corner, get horny’, is one of their classics. ‘Don’t gossip—let him drive’ is another. ‘Family Awaits—Please Oblige’, a direct appeal to the paternal instinct, is the only thing likely to make him slow down at tight corners.
Buses often stop at spots of great natural beauty, which makes a pleasant change from the hurly-burly of railway platforms. Another good thing about buses is that they leave so frequently, often every hour or half-hour, and they are much less trouble to book and board than trains. Buying a reservation slip often gets you onto buses where seats are likely to be at a premium, but you will need to turn up at the bus-station at least 40 minutes in advance to be sure of getting one.
Local buses are incredibly cheap and will often run you from one end of a state to
another for less than Rs35, but they are also crowded, occasionally smelly and usually uncomfortable. Air-conditioned ‘deluxe’ buses are slightly less so. Video bus jour- neys can be something of a nightmare: constant disco music and blaring video shows can grind you down, especially when sharing a two-seater built for one. It’s almost impossible to hear yourself think, let alone read, but Indian travellers adore the video bus, and the more distorted the sound, the more they like it.
Whenever leaving a bus to go to the toilet or to eat, leave a newspaper or something on your seat. This will reserve it. Take any other hand luggage off the bus with you. Backpacks and large cases are usually strapped under tarpaulin on the bus roof,or stored in the hold-all. If you’re looking after them under your seat, make sure they are securely zipped and locked (padlocking to a bolted seat is best) before vacating the bus.
Bus stops can be either very short or very long (driver wanders off to visit his family). Passengers have been known to be left holding full cups of tea or squatting in ditches while the bus roars off without them. The only way of tracking its movements is to keep one eye constantly on the driver. As soon as he’s back in his seat, you’ve got approximately 5 seconds to get back in yours.
Bus travel is best over short distances; for long journeys take the train. The roads are badly surfaced, full of yawning potholes, and always seem liable to collapse. So are the back axles of the overloaded buses. The hard, cramped seating, the draughty, rattling windows, the screaming children, the infrequent toilet stops, and the constant blare of the air-horn as the bus ploughs inexorably towards its destination, may leave you blinded, shell-shocked and with your nerves (and your backside) shot to pieces. But the network is extensive, and you can always reduce your discomfort by a) inserting earplugs; b) sitting on a soft pillow or sweater; c) jamming a sleeping bag into window gaps; d) wearing a hat and scarf (or crash helmet).
A seat on a deluxe bus is approximately 2 to 3 times the price of one on an ordinary bus—but some large Europeans literally cannot fit into the space offered in the latter. Prices vary, but it is almost always the case that they will be a fraction lower than the fare for a 2nd class rail ticket along the same route. The longer the journey, the lower the rate per kilometre.
To anticipate your fare on a deluxe bus, divide the distance you wish to travel, in
kilometres, by 3—and that’s your approximate fare in rupees.
Sample bus fares:
Delhi-Simla (9 hours, 354 km) Rs125
Delhi-Jaipur (4 1 /2 hours, 259 km) Rs100
Delhi-Agra (4 hours, 204 km) Rs45
As a quick, cheap and comfortable introduction to larger Indian centres, sightseeing coach tours operated by government and state tourist offices are unbeatable value. Costing around Rs45 for a half-day, Rs40 for a full-day, they work out far less expensive than sightseeing by taxi or rickshaw, and of course you see more in less time. Their main advantage is their rapid orientation of foreign visitors to large, sprawling cities. There are rather too many stops at obscure temples and holy shrines for most Western passengers, and the deluxe buses themselves are sometimes draughty and dilapidated, but you’ll cover an incredible amount of ground in just a day and other forms of in-town transport can be even less comfortable. Sightseeing buses can also be a great way of meeting people because you’ll often be the only foreign tourist on board and it’s common to be adopted for the day by friendly home tourists and fed large quantities of Indian picnic lunches. When booking your tour, ask for a seat at the front of the bus; it’s far less bumpy, quicker to get to the toilets, aand you’ll hear more of the guide’s talk.