How I Backpacked across North India and Kathmandu in under $70, and you can too
“If God wanted us to stay at one place, he would have given us roots instead of feet.”
Thousands of blog posts have been written about traveling in your 20's. And when they mention that traveling makes you grow in ways you’ve never imagined, they are absolutely right.
Though traveling is generally perceived to be expensive, the cost can be brought down heavily if we take care of certain things. Traveling solo is often romanticized as it is often linked to exploring the unknown and facing the odds alone.
Also traveling solo is much cheaper as compared to traveling in a group. I recently traveled to Kathmandu via Amritsar, Pathankot, Dharamshala, Dehradun and Mussoorie.
Read on to find out how I did it and how my experience can help with your backpacking trip.
The most important part of the trip is to keep everything flexible. The only planning I did before leaving for Delhi was to make a list of cities that I would like to visit; I used Google maps to chart out travel times between them. I got some great advice through forums on Facebook, which helped in arranging my stay at the various destinations.
But this doesn’t mean that the plans were concrete. I added some places to my itinerary while traveling, and I dropped some too. For example, I heard about the Kangra Valley toy train while traveling and I decided to go to Dharamshala via Pathankot, instead of going directly.
A lot of my plans to wander around the cities were made once I got there; I mainly used online guides(wiki travel) and spoke to the locals to find spots to visit and great places to eat.
I carried a backpack (slightly larger than a laptop bag, not the trekking one, weighing around 12.5 kgs) apart from a tripod bag. I mostly had gadgets with me. I carried two cameras, two lenses + filters, an extra set of batteries, five memory cards, a laptop,an extra 1 TB hard disk, two microphones, a voice recorder and five sets of clothing.
For footwear, sandals are always the first choice as it often works as shoes too and is easy to remove, thus saving a good amount of space in the bag. Since it was summer and Delhi hit over 48 degree Celsius, I packed some pills for stomach problems and dehydration just in case.
Traveling Experiences and Moving around
I booked a night bus from Delhi to Amritsar using redBus, which came up to around Rs.600. It was an overnight journey. As soon as I reached Amritsar, I got on a cycle rickshaw and headed to the Golden Temple. As I reached the Temple, I asked for the cheapest stay option available. Hotels were starting from above Rs.400 but there is also an option to stay in the hostels of the Gurdwara complex. The rooms there are around 300-400 and lockers are available for free. I opted for a locker and once I kept my stuff and freshened up, I took bath in the holy lake surrounding the Golden Temple. Post which I had lunch in the temple premises. After that I headed to Jallianwala Bagh, which is a five-minute walk from the temple.
Jallianwala Bagh is a great place, which has been converted into a garden of sorts. All that remains is a wall containing bullet marks and the martyrs’ well. However, the place is of historical significance and the adjoining museum provides first-hand accounts from witnesses during the massacre. The accounts are not for the faint hearted.
The beauty of the temple is not something that can be observed in an hour, so I went back for another round and to also photograph the temple. The resulting Photo Story can be seen here.
In the evening, I headed to Attari(Wagah) border to see the flag retreat ceremony, it takes around 30 minutes from Amritsar to the Attari border. Shared cabs cost Rs.100 and for air-conditioned cabs, the cost escalates to Rs.150. The atmosphere at Wagah border is extremely patriotic and warm too, the place gets crowded and there is hardly any space to move. Weekends are more crowded there, and don’t forget to carry a water bottle. The earlier you reach the place, the better are your chances of getting a good position from where you can see the entire ceremony.
After Wagah border I had dinner at the Temple ‘langar’ and then headed to sleep. The beauty of the Golden Temple is reinforced by the fact that hundreds of people sleep in the open courtyard under the stars. There is no velvet bed for wealthy people nor is there a lack of land for the poor. Chatting with strangers in the night under the dark sky is one of the most liberating things in the world.
The next morning I headed to Pathankot to catch the Kangra valley toy train from where I would take a bus to Dharamshala. The toy train takes anywhere between five to six hours to reach and the ticket costs only Rs 20. The toy train is a delight in itself. One can probably sit for hours and enjoy the beauty of nature, away from the chaos of urban life. The places were so inviting that I got down on a station midway and started walking towards Kangra.. After walking for quite some time on the road, we sat for a while and had some paani puris at a lonely bus stand. After sometime I took a bus to Kangra, from where we headed to Dharamshala.
As time was quickly passing I had to reach McLeodganj or the last bus back would leave. I reached McLeodganj and had food at a local dhaba from where I asked for directions to the Dal Lake.. The Dal Lake is a very beautiful place about 3 kilometers from the bus stop. It is completely surrounded by tall trees giving the entire place a very sacred ambience. It is mostly used by the locals as a picnic spot.
After spending about an hour there, I headed back to Dharamshala and moved on to my next destination, Dehradun.
It took me around 12-hours to reach Dehradun from Dharamshala. As I reached the Dehradun bus station, I stayed at the guesthouses available at the bus station itself, which were quite affordable. The guesthouses cost around Rs.200-300 for a day and the dormitories cost about Rs.100 for the same duration.
I spent two days in Dehradun, The places I visited were Mussoorie, Robber’s Cave and Shastradhara. It is a photographers delight, and was one of my primary reasons to visit Dehradun. The word cave is a misnomer as this place is more of a natural crevice with knee-deep water running throughout the cave and small waterfalls every few meters in the cave.
Sahastradhara means a thousand waves and it comes close to proving that it is true indeed, as there are numerous mini waterfalls that form small pools. This place is also famous for its sulphur springs, which are relatively cooler, and the water is said to have medicinal properties. There is a ropeway, which takes people up toward a temple on the hilltop. The view of the entire valley from the top is exhilarating.
Both these places were quite far from the main city. I used local transport and buses to move around instead of taxis, which would have turned out to be expensive. It would have ended up inflating the budget severely!
The next destination was Mussoorie, so I took a bus to Mussoorie and headed to see the beautiful town. Meeting Ruskin Bond was on my agenda too. The bus ticket costs around Rs.50 from Dehradun. Mussoorie is a very small town and is best explored on foot if you do not have much luggage. Though I had a 12 Kg Backpack with me, I walked toRuskin Bond’s house. When you are in the mountains, there cannot be a better way to explore and travel than on foot. As I approached his house, I realized that I needed to change into a better set of clothes. I went to a nearby shop where I changed and got some of my clothes ironed as they were crumpled in my bag.
As I reached his home, I was welcomed by Prem, those who have read stories of Ruskin Bond will recollect Prem, as he is very regular character in his stories. After chatting with Ruskin Bond for quite some time, I left for Dehradun as it was getting late. I had already checked out in the morning from the guesthouse and a friend of mine had booked another guesthouse close by in the Indian Military Academy.
Next on the destination list was Kathmandu. Now there are two ways to go to Kathmandu. Either you can enter from South Nepal (Gorakhpur side) or from West Nepal (via Banbasa/Tanakpur). I chose to go to Banbasa and cross from there to the Nepal side.
There are regular buses from Dehradun to Banbasa and Tanakpur, which is around 12-hours from Dehradun. The downside is that there are no air-conditioned buses running to that area and in the summer this may make your journey memorable.
I left Dehradun at 1:00 PM and reached Banbasa at around 01:30am. As I got off the bus, there was no one around as I was the only person to get down from bus. Nearby, there was a shabby looking shop with around 10-12 people sitting on a wooden cot. Some of them had red eyes and looked like they were drunk or high. One of them asked me, ‘’sona hai?” (Do you want to sleep). I said yes. One of them led me to a room, which was quite spooky; it had a bulb and three wooden cots. One of the cots had a lot of mattresses on it. He told me that I can use any of the cots and would have to pay Rs.100 for it. I was quite afraid as there were a large number of people outside who were awake in the middle of the night and anyone of them could loot/steal my baggage if they wanted to. I took out my knife and slept with it. Fortunately nothing eventful happened that night. The same person came to wake me up at 4:00 am so I could proceed further.
Tongas(horse driven carriages) run from Banbasa (India) to Mahendranagar (Nepal), which is about 15 kilometers apart, and help you cross the border. They take around INR 80-100 per passenger and some additional charge (around INR 50) to make sure you don’t run into problems with ITBP or the Nepali police(which you won’t until you carry something suspicious or behave in an unnatural manner). Unlike other borders you don’t find a big gate or a huge signboard saying “Nepal Welcomes You”. It is just that you start seeing the sign boards of Nepal Telecom and vehicles with Nepal registration number and soon the Nepal police which checks you at the entrance of the border.
I had booked a bus to Kathmandu (this time it was an air-conditioned bus) from Mahendranagar. As the prevailing currency exchange rate is INR 1 = NPR 1.6, most things are relatively cheap in Nepal. The cost of traveling from Mahendranagar to Kathmandu (17 hour bus ride in an air-conditioned bus) is around INR 1300 inclusive of food. A few things I observed while traveling was that they have a great sense of cleanliness. There were dustbins placed at the intersection of two rows and stools were kept (as there was no leg rest in the semi sleeper buses). Occasionally they distributed drinks and stopped at a very nice place for dinner, the cost of which was included in the bus ticket itself. It was a buffet with very exceptional service, which could be easily rated above 3 stars.
As I reached Kathmandu the next morning after traveling in the bus for almost 29 hours, I checked into a hotel at Thamel. Thamel is a suburb in Kathmandu which is a hub for tourists. After getting freshened up, one of my friends took me to Buddha stupa which is one of the largest Buddhist stupas in Nepal. After that we went to the Pashupatinath temple.. Also three hours from Kathmandu is the world’s third highest and apparently one of the most dangerous bungee jumping spots, but that was closed for the time I spent there.
Next, I went to a beautiful place known as the Garden of Dreams, and since it was getting dark, the evening light made it more beautiful to visit. Kathmandu was the last place on my itinerary before I headed back to Delhi.
While traveling, the place where one stays matters the least. If you want to book an air-conditioned room and lie around all day, you can do that in your home too. So the point is to go out and mingle with local people, get to know the culture. Take the local rickshaw, tonga, bus and stay away from the isolation of a cab (it will save you some money too).
If you want to have ‘matar paneer’ (your local cuisine), it doesn’t make much sense to travel. Taste local food and experience local culture. When you are out, do not behave like a tourist and be aware of local customs. The best thing to do when in doubt is to ask.
It is always better to ask the locals for transportation costs and double check that you are not being duped.
Delhi – Amritsar – INR 600
Stay – INR 20
Wagah Border – INR 100
Amritsar – Pathankot – INR 80
Pathankot – Kangra valley – Dharmshala – INR 20(toy train) + INR 25(bus) = INR 45
Dharmshala – McLeodganj (including return) – INR 20
Dharmshala – Dehradoon – INR 550
Dehradoon – Mussorie (Return ) - INR 100
Stay - INR 200
Dehradoon – Shashtradhara – Robbers Cave – INR 50
Dehradoon – Banbasa – INR 350
Banbasa – Mahendranagar – INR 80 + INR 50(for baggage check)
Mahendranagar- Kathmandu – INR 1300
Stay – INR 500
BoudhaStupa, Pashupatinath – INR 50
The total cost was around INR 4100, which would come to around USD 70. The cost for food has not been included as I cannot remember since most of it was roadside food. Also please note that the return cost has not been included from Kathmandu as I took a flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. A good alternative is to travel via Gorakhpur, which would cost around INR 1000 max.
Do’s and Don’t
1) Never travel in taxis: take a bus or share cabs. These are the biggest money savers.
2) Travel during the night, this has a lot of advantages.
- One is you save on hotel costs.
- By the time you arrive at the destination, you are still fresh and energetic to continue your day and go places. If you travel during the day, by the time you reach your destination, you are already tired and will feel like going to sleep. Hotels tend to charge more too if you arrive in the evening considering that you don’t have many options. You already have lost one day, which could have been used to explore.
- The days are hot; it is easier to travel during the night.
3) Always, always carry a water bottle with you and refill it, instead of buying every now and then.
4) For your stay, ask people for cheap options and be shameless while asking, you only need hotels to freshen up and securing your luggage.
Have you been longing to travel? Need some help in planning? Do let us know in comments.